Prior to university, I was like many students ignorant of philosophy and I was not expecting the trashing of my long held ideas and beliefs, that a study of philosophy entailed. After this numbing experience, I began to realise that there a something that I could take from philosophy, a more well founded and subtle understanding of the nature of truth.
When I started the study of philosophy, I and my fellow students were warned that it was not about the big questions of life. It was something much more modest in its ambitions. Our study of ethics was not about how to achieve the good life, but a study of what philosophers had to say about the nature of good. A course that contained a strong element of scepticism about it. One of the first texts we were introduced to was a G.E.Moore’s essay on the non existence of good. Locke’s statement on the purpose of philosophy perhaps best explains our course in ethics. He compared the role of the philosopher to that of the under labourer. The under labourer cleared the ground prior to the builder constructing a building on that site. A philosopher cleared the ground of the intellectual rubbish cluttering up the site, and in that act of clearance left or identified the key questions that had to be answered. In our study of ethics were learnt why all previous ethical philosophies of the good life were flawed. They had been looking for the answers to the wrong questions. They had muddled the study of ethics. Study after study had failed to demonstrate the nature of good, so the obvious conclusion was that what was called good, was in fact something else, an emotion or sentiment, not a thing as concluded by GE.Moore.
Probably in trying for brevity, I have done a disservice to my tutors by over simplifying their teaching.
As a student Ernest Gellner was the philosopher who impressed me most and who gave me a life long love of philosophy. His lectures were enlivened by his use of metaphors, which suggested a clarity of thought, not always apparent in others. One metaphor he used that has since remained lodged in my mind is this one. Imagine he said that you get of a train in a town with which you are unfamiliar. You immediately look for familiar buildings such as a church, you use these familiar seeming buildings on which to construct a mental map of the area. Without this internal map from which you can judge your location at a particular moment you would get lost. What he was stating was that without a prior orientation or commitment to a philosophical perspective, any intellectual investigation was doomed to failure, as it would lack a coherence of purpose becoming instead little more than a collection of interesting facts.
However he was not prescriptive, he never said what those philosophical reference points might be. It was up to the student to discover them for himself. Philosophy was an open ended pursuit, the last thing he intended was to recruit the student to a particular philosophical perspective. I studied philosophy in the 1960s, in what was the heyday for academic freedom. Since then there has been a closing down of the academic mind. Now an intellectual checklist has to met by students wishing to get a degree. Algis Uźdavinsys is justified in summing up so much contemporary philosophy as ‘The modern scholarly pursuit that also too often resembles a sort of self-confident obsession enacted by a host of hypocritical and angry ‘grammarians’. The emancipated philosophical discourse – their object of torture – is treated in accordance with certain language games and imagined history, which paradoxically, ends, by rejecting as ‘irrational’ the love of wisdom itself.’ *
What I think leads to a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of philosophy is the failure to recognise the paradox that lies at the heart of it. Philosophy is simultaneously both a nothing and an everything. The nothing is the irony of Socrates who demonstrated in market place of Athens that its citizen’s of new nothing. He observed the truth of the Delphi oracle, by demonstrating that although he knew that he knew nothing, others did not, until he informed them of the fact. Using his dialectal method he could show they thought was truth or justice was wrong. This philosophic nihilism can threaten to reduce everything to a condition of meaninglessness. Perhaps the exemplar of philosophy as nothing is Heidegger. All that existed is, what is, beyond what is, there is nothing. Underlying conscious thought is a nothing, the abyss, and human culture was a something constructed on this nothing. In consequence there is no must have belief system, the individual is free to choose. Unfortunately Heidegger choose Nazism, a choice he would come to regret as it that meant he was barred from teaching in post war German universities.
This philosophical nihilism is continued in post modernism. For post modernists truth, is the truth of or for a historical period. Socialism and Fordist capitalism etc. were the competing foundational truths of the modern age. They were not both timeless universal values. An age that is generally reckoned as ending in the 1960s.
However there is a contradiction inherent in post modernism. They use truth in two different but contrary ways. Truths are both something of a particular time period and that is a statement this is a truth. These two meanings of truth are in conflict. In making this statement they are using truth as a judgement of correctness or rightness,; truth that is the timeless and universal statement of rightness. If they assert that truth is time relative, they must admit that this is not a true statement, but a something else.
What I find true is Wittgenstein’s statement that if you have untruth, you must have truth, as without its opposite untruth is meaningless. We are trapped within our language and to communicate we must use the conventions of that language. Communication is only possible because we obey the grammar of our language. If we try to say things contrary to that grammar, they become nothing more than a jumble of words. Those who deny the foundational grammars of our language, that is the binaries of truth/untruth, good/bad are denying reality.
Truth may be one of the foundational grammars that I cannot know completely, as words cannot adequately express that fundamental something that gives them there meaning. Not knowing truth etc. in its entirety does not prevent me and others from using it. Accepting this truth does not mean we are trapped within this grammar of language. These grammars give an infinitely flexible structure and fluidity to language. Once these grammars are accepted, an infinite variety of beliefs, ideologies and understandings can be constructed using language. Yet with the proviso these constructions must remain within the limits imposed by the foundational grammar or they become meaningless. Rather than language trapping the individual within a particular reality, it provides the means for transcending the immediacy of the lived experience. Philosophers will hopefully continue to offer imaginative solutions to the problems humanity faces, particularly those of the lived experience of humanity.
Going back to my earlier paragraph, that critical study of philosophers of the past that we as students found to be wrong; revisiting that now I would claim that what those philosophers offered was an incomplete statement of the truth. There writings although flawed contained elements of rightness, that have added to man’s understanding of himself and nature. Reading them gives the individual not an incorrect or wrong understanding, but read correctly they add insight and depth to current understandings.
*Algis Uzdavinys Philosophy and Theurgy in Late Antiquity