Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Understanding the Journey I

Scott Bradley

"We must not make a pretense of doing philosophy, but really do it; for what we need is not the semblance of health, but real health." (Epicurea; Usener 220)

This Epicurean commitment to doing philosophy reveals two basic assumptions about its goals and scope. It was believed that one could understand the most fundamental principles of the cosmos and that this understanding would enable one to know how best to live in it. Until recent times, most every act of philosophizing, both Eastern and Western, made these assumptions.

Daoism often likewise participates in these beliefs. Statements regarding Dao, that It 'does' nothing, is amoral and impartial, and cannot be intellectually grasped, for instance, all tell us how we should live. Sagacity is the pinnacle of human fulfillment, and to be sagacious is to be Dao-like.

Are these Daoist assumptions about Dao justified? Indeed, is the assumption that there 'is' Dao justified? Strictly speaking, I don't think so. Scientifically, these assertions are improvable. And within the context of Daoism itself they represent a glaring contradiction. 'Dao' represents what is beyond all knowing; how then could we assign it attributes?

In this case, "a pretense of doing philosophy" would be to uncritically accept that philosophy can in fact uncover ‘truth’. 'Real' philosophy would thus have to radically shift its focus and scope, though not necessarily its goal. We would no longer be in pursuit of 'facts' and 'answers', but rather of a means of best living without them. This cuts the cord to a prescribed path; nothing tells us how to live, because nothing speaks definitively. We are left to make sense of our lives based on our unique experience.

It might be helpful to clarify what "doing philosophy" means in this case. Perhaps the simplest place to begin is to say that we all do it. It is not a specialized science pondering esoteric imponderables, but the daily effort to understand how best to live.

Philosophy, because it cannot discover truth, thus becomes an end in itself. We philosophize because we are human. And our fulfillment is in the exercise of this humanity. This is the rationale for the Socratic dictum: "The unexamined life is not worth living." The more one's life is informed by self-awareness, the understanding of what makes one tick, the more authentically human it is. Similarly, this is what Kierkegaard meant, in part, when he said "the more awareness of self, the more self”, for self is this self-awareness.

Even Daoism, which eschews all reliance on “the understanding consciousness” (and thus philosophy that ‘knows’), understands itself as informed by an understanding of the world, even if that understanding is that it does not understand.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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