Why philosophy?


Something in us calls us to turn homeward, to our true home, in a deeper world than this. The shifting sands of time treading the course of ordinary life wear away the vivid conviction we have all felt of a pervasive Infinite. We yearn to become part of that because we sense it is the way to finally be really real. Aurobindo writes dramatically about this:

To know, possess and be the divine being in an animal and egoistic consciousness, to convert our twilit or obscure physical mentality into the plenary supramental illumination, to build peace and a self-existent bliss where there is only a stress of transitory satisfactions besieged by physical pain and emotional suffering, to establish an infinite freedom in a world which presents itself as a group of mechanical necessities, to discover and realise the immortal life in a body subjected to death and constant mutation—-this is offered to us as the manifestation of God in Matter, and the goal of Nature.  Sri Aurobindo, Life Divine, p.4-5

My own attempts to find the way home landed me in a Zen temple in Brooklyn. Many years ago I sat face to face with an American Zen master. The temple, the incense, the collective concentration of the group was a shared Presence. At one point during a 12 hour zazenkai we each had the chance to meet with the Sensei in a private conference. As I sat before him, involuntary tears welled up from nowhere and I groaned my deepest fear that I didn’t want to die without having really lived. He looked at me with tender understanding, but offered no solution other than to keep at it. Hours later, after more grueling zazen, I walked out of the temple onto the Brooklyn street, and surrendered to the noble impulse to devour a hamburger, with pickles.

A few months later I left the temple for good. I discovered a little history about this particular brand of Japanese Zen. The Sensei’s Japanese teachers had enthusiastically encouraged their monks to join in the slaughter of Chinese and Korean civilians during the World War II era. I brought this up with the Sensei in an impromptu encounter on a NYC bus. He agreed that it was a problem. My “faith” in Zen was shattered. It is a teaching, a path, that is ultimately incomplete. Individual liberation with minimal emphasis about our responsibility to the surrounding society, without explicit reverence for one’s fellow man, is to embrace a more limited reality. I began to question the value of “enlightenment.”

The veil separating appearance from reality must surely be a heavy canvass that cannot be torn apart at once, but only in tiny pieces.  The Zen people are a taciturn bunch. They say language merely points to the moon but isn’t the moon itself. I disagree. I now believe that we wouldn’t even know if it is a moon except by the reality-constructing power of language. What kind of language?

Philosophy? Philosophers are a talkative bunch. In the last 100 years or so, however, their brand of talk has come to be scorned by scientists. And further, most of the population shrugs it off as a waste of time.  My uncle, an accomplished trial lawyer, was appalled when he looked at my college transcript, full of philosophy courses. What could philosophy possibly offer mankind in the 21st century?

To start, I think we must separate philosophy as it is now practiced in universities from real philosophy, as it was known in Plato’s time. Then, it was a way of life, and a different way of thinking. Different from both science and religion. As Karl Jaspers says, philosophizing “presses on reflectively to the point where thinking becomes the experience of reality itself.” I hope this blog will eventually elucidate what this means.

But can real philosophical thinking pierce the veil of appearance? Rebecca Goldstein, in her wonderful book, Plato at the Googleplex, writes on pages 41-42:

What is philosophy supposed to do? Nothing less than to render violence to our sense of ourselves and our world…the violence with which these peculiar questions whip through one’s presumptions and certitudes–undermining, overturning, destabilizing and disorienting—their mere internalization is supposed to erect an inner drama, both terrifying and exhilarating, the likes of which can only be compared to the transformation induced by erotic, religious, or artistic inspiration. Philosophical thinking that doesn’t do violence to one’s settled mind is no philosophical thinking at all.

This passage indicates that we are still a long way from approaching, let alone achieving, Aurobindo’s vision of a divine being in an animal and egoistic consciousness. A Jesus, a Socrates, a Buddha, seem to me to have been close. But for the rest of us, heroic measures would be necessary, and not really seem practical for working stiffs like ourselves. In the end, perhaps we should be content to poke little philosophical holes in the veil as we endeavor to live a simple life according to our current yet ever evolving conceptions of goodness, truth, and beauty. Maybe that is all we mortals can aspire to, in reality.




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