In Search of the Good Life: Chapter 3, Part 2

By: Patrick


A lot of people think of philosophers as quite odd fish, and rightly so. Often this has to do with the fact that they often try and convince you that tables are not really there, for example. Philosophy and madness have much in common – indeed Wittgenstein referred to philosophy as a kind of sickness. While we may not wish to take him too literally, the philosopher’s predilection for abstraction and alienation, for detachment from the body, from the world, and so on, for equivocating endlessly on the existence or non-existence of tables, for finding problems and paradoxes in what the rest of us take for granted, offers some support to Wittgenstein’s diagnosis. Jackie is prepared to concede that a table is there, but that we cannot know this ‘objectively’. I have often pointed at the table, made claims to its wooden structure as an indicator of its objective status as a table, while Jackie would shake his head and laugh at me. Needless to say I find such debates very trying on the old patience. Despite my love of philosophy, I have never been troubled by Matrix-style questions of brains in vats or the non-objective status of tables.

What has always fascinated me is that in all the time I’ve known him, he has never really veered from his position at all. I have often thought this must be quite boring, but maybe this is youth talking. Jackie is the sort of person who could see a talk on anything and then ask pretty much the same question, in which he tries to ascertain whether the speaker is claiming that what he is speaking about is in fact ‘an objective truth’. I once asked him about why he does this and questioned whether it doesn’t get a bit dull after a while. Don’t humans, like snakes, need to shed their skins from time to time in order to avoid perishing, I asked him? At this point, Jackie launched into a tirade about all the damage that had been done in the name of truth, and so on. It reminded me, as I often need reminding, that people get hurt and they carry their hurts, often in very raw forms, for the rest of their lives. Over half a century later, Jackie was still nursing the wounds of his Catholic upbringing, just like his contemporary Michel Foucault, who also spent much of his life railing against his Catholic upbringing by pointing to the social construction of our truths and their links to oppressive power structures.

For Jackie the important point was that all truth and reality is filtered through human eyes, and therefore can never be objective. So for me to claim that the table exists objectively seems patently absurd to Jackie – hence the laughing at me. Often, however, when philosophers take a strong stance like Jackie’s, it can have unfortunate consequences. For example, one day Dario asked Jackie if the world therefore did not exist before the first human who could perceive it. If it in fact did exist, this would be an objective truth and his whole system would collapse. Jackie felt that this was not a question that he could address, especially as to stick to his position would have made him sound dangerously like someone who believed that the world emerged at the same time as man, presumably as the result of some divine power and creator of humans. That said, as far as I know, he is still yet to modify his position; he still asks the same questions and denies the objective status of tables. Human, all too human…

Jackie is just one example, but I guess I have found myself so often surprised by the rather irrational foundations for the core beliefs people hold all their lives. Maybe I was naive to expect more from a society of philosophers, but in the end philosophers may not be the truth seekers they present themselves as, so much as people smart enough to use subtle logical arguments to defend their generally rather irrationally held beliefs. Most other people just punch you if you challenge their deep beliefs, so I guess the philosophical approach is the preferable one (although perhaps the less honest one). Perhaps it’s a bit strong to call philosophers irrational in their beliefs, but they are certainly emotional. William James saw this when he wrote that articulate reasons are only cogent for us when our inarticulate feelings of reality have been impressed in favour of the same conclusion. For James, the whole person is in play when we form our philosophical opinions, not just the disengaged, lucid, logical part. In this sense, the philosophical ideal of determining a position’s plausibility or absurdity rarely has its source in a process of rational deliberation.

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