The way out of philosophy runs through philosophy

There’s a phrase I’ve been thinking about for years, ever since I read it somewhere or other in Freud: “the moderate misery required for productive work.”  It struck me as plausible; someone who isn’t miserable at all is unlikely to settle willingly into the tedious, repetitive tasks that productive work often involves, while someone who is deeply miserable is unlikely to tolerate such tasks long enough to complete them.  If blogging counts as productive work, I myself may recently have represented a case in point.  Throughout the summer and into the autumn, I wasn’t miserable at all, and I barely posted a thing.  Then I caught a cold, and I posted daily for a week or so.  If I’m typical of bloggers in this respect, maybe I could also claim to have something in common with a philosopher.  Samuel Johnson once quipped that he had intended to become a philosopher, but couldn’t manage it.  The cause of his failure?  “Cheerfulness kept breaking in.”

One item I kept meaning to post notes on when cheerfulness was distracting me from the blog was a magazine article about Johnson’s contemporary, David Hume.  Hume, of course, was a philosopher; indeed, many would argue that he was “the most important philosopher ever to write in English.”  Contrary to what Johnson’s remark suggests, however, Hume was suspected of cheerfulness on many occasions.  The article I’ve kept meaning to note is by Hume scholar and anti-nationalist Donald W. Livingston; despite the radicalism of Livingston’s politics (his avowed goal is to dissolve the United States of America in order to replace it with communities built on a “human scale”) in this article he praises Hume as “The First Conservative.”  Hume’s conservatism, in Livingston’s view, comes not only from his recognition of the fact that oversized political units such as nation-states and continental empires are inherently degrading to individuals and destructive of life-giving traditions, but also from his wariness towards the philosophical enterprise.  Hume saw philosophy as a necessary endeavor, not because it was the road to any particular truths, but because philosophical practice alone could cure the social and psychological maladies that the influence of philosophy had engendered in the West.

This is the sort of view that we sometimes associate with Ludwig Wittgenstein; so, it’s easy to find books and articles with titles like “The End of Philosophy” and “Is Philosophy Dead?” that focus on Wittgenstein.  But Livingston demonstrates that Hume, writing more than a century and a half before Wittgenstein, had made just such an argument.  Livingston’s discussion of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (first published in 1739-1740) is worth quoting at length:

Hume forged a distinction in his first work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), between “true” and “false” philosophy.  The philosophical act of thought has three constituents. First, it is inquiry that seeks an unconditioned grasp of the nature of reality. The philosophical question takes the form: “What ultimately is X?” Second, in answering such questions the philosopher is only guided by his autonomous reason. He cannot begin by assuming the truth of what the poets, priests, or founders of states have said. To do so would be to make philosophy the handmaiden of religion, politics, or tradition. Third, philosophical inquiry, aiming to grasp the ultimate nature of things and guided by autonomous reason, has a title to dominion. As Plato famously said, philosophers should be kings.

Yet Hume discovered that the principles of ultimacy, autonomy, and dominion, though essential to the philosophical act, are incoherent with human nature and cannot constitute an inquiry of any kind.  If consistently pursued, they entail total skepticism and nihilism. Philosophers do not end in total skepticism, but only because they unknowingly smuggle in their favorite beliefs from the prejudices of custom, passing them off as the work of a pure, neutral reason. Hume calls this “false philosophy” because the end of philosophy is self-knowledge, not self-deception.

The “true philosopher” is one who consistently follows the traditional conception of philosophy to the bitter end and experiences the dark night of utter nihilism. In this condition all argument and theory is reduced to silence. Through this existential silence and despair the philosopher can notice for the first time that radiant world of pre-reflectively received common life which he had known all along through participation, but which was willfully ignored by the hubris of philosophical reflection.

It is to this formerly disowned part of experience that he now seeks to return. Yet he also recognizes that it was the philosophic act that brought him to this awareness, so he cannot abandon inquiry into ultimate reality, as the ancient Pyrrhonian skeptics and their postmodern progeny try to do. Rather he reforms it in the light of this painfully acquired new knowledge.

What must be given up is the autonomy principle. Whereas the false philosopher had considered the totality of pre-reflectively received common life to be false unless certified by the philosopher’s autonomous reason, the true philosopher now presumes the totality of common life to be true. Inquiry thus takes on a different task. Any belief within the inherited order of common life can be criticized in the light of other more deeply established beliefs. These in turn can be criticized in the same way. And so Hume defines “true philosophy” as “reflections on common life methodized and corrected.”

By common life Hume does not mean what Thomas Paine or Thomas Reid meant by “common sense,” namely a privileged access to knowledge independent of critical reflection; this would be just another form of “false philosophy.” “Common life” refers to the totality of beliefs and practices acquired not by self-conscious reflection, propositions, argument, or theories but through pre-reflective  participation in custom and tradition. We learn to speak English by simply speaking it under the guidance of social authorities. After acquiring sufficient skill, we can abstract and reflect on the rules of syntax, semantics, and grammar that are internal to it and form judgments as to excellence in spoken and written English.  But we do not first learn these rules and then apply them as a condition of speaking the language. Knowledge by participation, custom, tradition, habit, and prejudice is primordial and is presupposed by knowledge gained from reflection.

The error of philosophy, as traditionally conceived—and especially modern philosophy—is to think that abstract rules or ideals gained from reflection are by themselves sufficient to guide conduct and belief. This is not to say abstract rules and ideals are not needed in critical thinking—they are—but only that they cannot stand on their own. They are abstractions or stylizations from common life; and, as abstractions, are indeterminate unless interpreted by the background prejudices of custom and tradition. Hume follows Cicero in saying that “custom is the great guide of life.” But custom understood as “methodized and corrected” by loyal and skillful participants.

The distinction between true and false philosophy is like the distinction between valid and invalid inferences in logic or between scientific and unscientific thinking. A piece of thinking can be “scientific”—i.e., arrived at in the right way—but contain a false conclusion. Likewise, an argument can be valid, in that the conclusion logically follows from the premises on pain of contradiction, even if all propositions in the argument are false. Neither logically valid nor scientific thinking can guarantee truth; nor can “true philosophy.” It cannot tell us whether God exists, or whether morals are objective or what time is. These must be settled, if at all, by arguments within common life.

True philosophy is merely the right way for the philosophical impulse to operate when exploring these questions. The alternative is either utter nihilism (and the end of philosophical inquiry) or the corruptions of false philosophy. True philosophy merely guarantees that we will be free from those corruptions.

This is rather like one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s parables, from Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885).  Nietzsche’s Zarathustra preaches that the superman must become a camel, so as to bear the heaviest of all weights, which is the humiliation that comes when one discovers the extent of one’s ignorance, and the commitment to enlighten that ignorance; that he must then put the camel aside and become a lion, so that he may slay the dragon of “Thou-Shalt” and undertake to discover his own morality; and that at the last he must become a child, so that he may put that struggle behind him and be ready to meet new challenges, not as reenactments of his past triumphs, but on their own terms.  According to Livingston, Hume, like Nietzsche, sees the uneducated European as a half-formed philosopher, and believes that with a complete philosophical education s/he can become something entirely different from a philosopher: