Philosophy and Contemporary Man
“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [Dare to be wise!] “Have courage to use your own understanding!” – that is the motto of enlightenment.
Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men, long after nature has released them from alien guidance (naturaliter maiorennes), nonetheless gladly remain in lifelong immaturity, and why it is so easy for others to establish themselves as their guardians. It is so easy to be immature. If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me. The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of men have carefully seen to it that the far greatest part of them (including the entire fair sex) regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous, not to mention difficult. Having first made their domestic livestock dumb, and having carefully made sure that these docile creatures will not take a single step without the go-cart to which they are harnessed, these guardians then show them the danger that threatens them, should they attempt to walk alone. Now this danger is not actually so great, for after falling a few times they would in the end certainly learn to walk; but an example of this kind makes men timid and usually frightens them out of all further attempts.
Thus, it is difficult for any individual man to work himself out of the immaturity that has all but become his nature. He has even become fond of this state and for the time being is actually incapable of using his own understanding, for no one has ever allowed him to attempt it. Rules and formulas, those mechanical aids to the rational use, or rather misuse, of his natural gifts, are the shackles of a permanent immaturity. Whoever threw them off would still make only an uncertain leap over the smallest ditch, since he is unaccustomed to this kind of free movement. Consequently, only a few have succeeded, by cultivating their own minds, in freeing themselves from immaturity and pursuing a secure course.”
– Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment?
Just as our bodies go through a process of maturation from infancy to adulthood, so do our minds; and as improper nutrition hinders the growth of our bodies, so does improper education hinders the growth of our minds.
Under harmful conditions both inner and outer, we become unhealthy and develop illnesses. To treat an illness you have to make a correct diagnosis. A wrong diagnosis will not cure the illness and may jeopardize a patient’s health, so its importance hardly needs additional emphasis. Health is traditionally held to be the absence of disease. But that is a negative definition. A plant that has a stunted growth may not be suffering from a disease, but that doesn’t mean it is healthy. Under the traditional definition, a person who is unhappy, anxious, bored, who feels that life has no meaning, who feels extremely lonely, who is unsure of his powers of judgment and understanding, just to mention a few of the symptoms, can nevertheless be perfectly healthy. But such a man is by no means fulfilled.
The symptoms of contemporary man have become so common that we have taken them to be normal. But were we to replace the negative definition of health with a positive, dynamic one, we would see contemporary man for what he really is – sick.
Contemporary man is in a worse situation than his hospitals lead him to believe. An underdeveloped seed is not just an ‘unhealthy’ tree – it is no tree at all. To live under conditions which do not facilitate the actualization of our potentialities is to condemn ourselves to be less than human.
The diagnosis is that contemporary man is living under conditions, both internal and external, which are hindering his overall optimal growth, even though isolated parts of himself are hypertrophied, like a man with a big brain but with poor sight and hearing, an atrophied body and an even smaller heart. All unhealthy conditions, whether of the mind or the body share one similarity: instead of producing a sense of overall well-being, they produce the opposite. The symptoms are universal: unhappiness, boredom, confusion, fear and anxiety; inability to relate to yourself, other people and the world you’re living; lack of productiveness; inability to love fully; and last but not least a sense of meaninglessness and aloneness.
I am not claiming the ‘decadence’ of today in contrast to some ‘golden’ past. Historical progression is complicated. It is not as if all developments have been beneficial or harmful; things are not as black and white. However, the extremely important benefit one derives from comparing different historical periods, is to recognize certain factors in previous societies which are conducive to the healthy growth of human beings, and certain factors which are not. We can learn from the harmonious coexistence between members of certain ‘primitive’ communities found throughout the world. The remarkable growth of the Arts and Sciences and the emergence of exceptional individuals in Ancient Greece, The Renaissance and the Enlightenment weren’t accidental but were due to conditions which can be reproduced and even enhanced. The remarkable individuals in history: Buddha, Socrates, Pericles, Jesus, Gandhi, Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe, Nietzsche, Einstein, Mandela, just to mention a few, have shown us the possibilities of man. It is up to us to learn from them and realize our true potential.
We finish high-school and know more about geography than we do of ourselves. Yet geography isn’t that necessary for maturation and happiness, while knowing ourselves is. Current education is not meant to create free, creative and mature individuals, but to create workers for the requirements of the market. Of course, since what you are taught is the result of a debate among people with conflicting views of what a man should know, some things that will be useful to you personally do sometimes manage to trickle through; but just as a house decorated by ten different interior decorators that disagree on what is beautiful will have no sense of harmony, so most educational systems are bound to leave you confused at the end of it all. Things improve at the University level, but not significantly. The majority of Universities also try to give you an education that will supply you with a career – not a good life. Careers1, as the etymology of the word betrays, are meant for carts not human beings. I am not denying exceptions. But exceptions only prove the dominance of the rule.
In my educational path, after switching from Marketing to Sociology and eventually to the discipline that claims to study the good life, Philosophy, I encountered the same thing. I finished my BA and MA in philosophy and still had a gnawing feeling that I hadn’t learned what I needed to know about myself and the world I’m living. I stopped enjoying philosophy. It had become an activity that had no relation to myself or everyday life. Philosophy as done in the universities is philosophy divorced from life, hence from the only reality that matters. Sure, I could discuss philosophical issues like most people couldn’t but that wasn’t the point. I had correct thoughts, but they weren’t embodied in my life. I studied philosophy so I could solve my own issues and live a better life, but instead they had me study the issues of others. They had me read only snippets from the great philosophers2 while they insisted I read endless books by mediocre contemporary philosophers who ‘explained’ the older ones or talked about things that in lack of a larger context didn’t really matter.
After I finished my MA, I was considering going for a PhD. I was still hesitant about it, but ‘practical’ considerations (nowadays, if you don’t have a PhD it is very difficult to get a post at a University) were pushing me towards it. For those of you who don’t know, a PhD in philosophy usually means exhausting yourself over a relatively novel yet usually insignificant esoteric detail in the philosophical corpus. It requires you to read a ludicrous amount of pedantically written text by philosophers who usually don’t know how to write or what they’re ultimately writing about, and name this your ‘bibliography’. General subjects like ‘the good life’ are politely discouraged, proposals that do not coincide with the interests of your professors tend to be ignored and highly original thought is tacitly scorned or viewed with suspicion. The famous relatively recent example being Wittgenstein’s Notes on Logic, which was rejected because it didn’t have an introduction and a bibliography, even though it was clearly a groundbreaking treatise on Logic. The environment in the philosophical departments is usually dry and lifeless mirroring most contemporary philosophers3. However, to be fair to our academic brothers, there are valuable lessons to be learned within the musty atmosphere of the academy. Intellectual discipline, the rules of proper scholarship, debate among peers, are all necessary to avoid sloppy thinking and orderly expression of one’s ideas. But too long a stay there, and the mould wins out.
It is no surprise that most of the greatest works in philosophy, with the notable exception of Kant, were written by philosophers who were outside the modern4 academic environment: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Marx. This is because the vast majority of Universities are conservative institutions. The current situation is as Thoreau expressed it in his book Walden: “Nowadays we only have professors of philosophy and not philosophers. Because once it was admirable to live, while now it is admirable to profess.” The reason why I didn’t go for a PhD was because the vast majority of Universities prepare you for becoming a professor of philosophy, not a philosopher. The former teaches philosophy, the latter lives it. The former argues about who said what, the latter searches for the truth beyond authorities and bibliographies. The former criticises the great philosophers, the latter tries to become one. Of course, those pairs are not mutually exclusive, but one can do the one without doing the other. Most great philosophers did both: Socrates, Aristotle and the Buddha are just a few examples.
Philosophy is vast; it is the mother of all sciences and more. Because it expresses a way of being rather than some method. It is a way of open-mindedness, willingness to experiment and discover; to find not just what is good, but why it is so; to try to transform theory to practice; to understand who we are and what we can become; it is nothing less than the active engagement with the most important issues of our lives. It is not just the analysis of concepts, as some modern philosophers would have you believe. It is mainly the search for the good life. Philosophy is important not just for a privileged group of specialists, but for everyone. Because not everyone wants to merely analyse concepts. But everyone wants to live a good life.
Etymologically, a “career” originally meant: a road for carts.
Given the fact that commercialization has taken hold of Universities and that a degree should finish in about 4 years, the excuse is that there simply isn’t enough time for a thorough examination of the great works of philosophy. So you just do the ‘essentials’ – essentials for what? That question is hardly ever asked let alone debated seriously between undergraduates and teachers, even though it is important. To give a concrete example, what would be more pertinent to living a good life: Hume’s epistemology or his theory of the passions (the moral emotions of envy, jealousy, among other things etc.)? Though I’d rather be thoroughly acquainted with the whole of his philosophy since it is inter-connected in interesting ways, if I had to make a choice, I’d go for the latter. Yet the emphasis in undergraduate philosophy programs at most universities is clearly placed on the former. It is the same with Locke. One is hardly ever given the page numbers in Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding that deal with his thoughts on happiness and his idea of “uneasiness”. I could easily go on, the examples are numerous.
Have you noticed how contemporary philosophers lack the erudition and social graces of older ones? I am not trying to glorify the past here, I’m just noting that the contemporary emphasis on specialization is in a way anti-philosophical because philosophy is more about the big picture rather than the details of the parts of which it is composed.
In philosophy the ‘modern’ era starts with Descartes.