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Why Philosophy?


Philosophy is often said to be about conceptual thinking. There are at least three different ways to take this:

1) Analysis of existing concepts. As you would expect, this philosophical stance is usually called conceptual analysis.

An example is Bertrand Russell's question: Is it true or false that the present king of France is bald? At first sight the statement appears meaningless, since there is no present king France, and so any meaning or truth value depends on the status of the concept 'the present king of France'. Another example is from Wittgenstein: it is 5am in Boston (say), and 10am in London - what time is it on the Sun? What at first might appear a puzzle is dissolved by analysis of the concepts 'time' and 'Sun' and how they are related.

Philosophy done as conceptual analysis claims to yield real insight into the world and ourselves by seeming to make it clear what exactly we mean, or perhaps should mean, by broad concepts that we often use, that are important to us, and that consequently drive much of our behavior - concepts like 'truth', 'God', 'life', 'I' or 'self' and so on.

2) Building a conceptual system. This is probably the popular view of philosophy, where a conceptual system is constructed that claims to explain the world or ourselves, or some part of either or both. Most of the historical -isms are in this category - for example, materialism, empiricism, idealism, rationalism.

Many of the branches of philosophy are in this category as well: metaphysics supposedly attempts to build a conceptual system of what is, epistemology of how we know what is, and ethics of what we should do about what is.

I said that the conceptual system is said to explain the world or ourselves, but of course in many cases the created conceptual system is taken to be more than an explanation, but is taken to be the truth. Materialism, for example, is not only the thesis that everything can be explained by matter and material interactions, but can be taken to be the thesis that everything (including mind, sense of self etc) actually is matter, or can be reduced to matter, and nothing else.

3) How concepts come. If you imagine concepts to be the building blocks or bricks of thinking, then #1 analyzes the bricks, #2 builds a particular structure with the bricks, while #3 is concerned with how the bricks are made. This last is the aspect of philosophy that interests me most. Thinkers often explain why their concepts or conceptual systems are better than others, but they rarely discuss how their concepts came. If they do, they say things like 'it came to me in the shower'.

In any situation, our thinking does not fully express (cover, encompass, represent, saturate) that whole situation - there is always what postmodernists call an 'excess'. We always feel and sense more than we can say or think, like we are spreading a net over a lawn of grass, and while some blades of grass will be touched and squashed by the mesh, many will not.

Philosophically, this has usually been considered a disaster. The standard approach is to make the meshes of the net closer and finer, so that more of the grass will be pressed or captured. In other words, to build better and more finely tuned concepts in order to explain or express more of our situation, and to then ignore or jettison this 'excess' of feeling and sensing that our thought does not capture. Pushed to its limit, this approach would make the net a solid sheet which would kill all the grass. Fortunately that cannot happen, our thoughts and concepts have no option but to be discrete or sparse.

'Discrete' and 'sparse' are also mathematical terms signifying occurring only at intervals - like the knots in our net. For example the rational numbers - numbers that can be expressed as a fraction - are sparse compared to the real numbers, which usually cannot be expressed as a fraction and need to be expressed in decimals, such as pi (3.1415...). Although for any rational number you can find another rational number as near to it as you like, which thus will seem to be 'touching' it, there will nevertheless always be an infinite number of real numbers between them. Here the 'net' is the rational numbers, and the 'grass' the real numbers, so that however finely we construct our net of rationals there is always grass between them (in fact, always an infinite amount of grass between each net intersection, however close we make them). In the same way, however finely we craft our concepts and think we have the situation covered, our concepts will be discrete and sparse, and there will always be this 'excess' of experience between them, like the grass growing through the net.

Another approach, popular with postmodernists, is to give up on trying to net every blade of grass on the lawn, to realize that it cannot be done, and so then to construct many different nets for different purposes. This can easily lead to relativism - 'my net works for me, if your net works for you then that is great'. The problem is that this stance leads to 'anything goes' thinking, when it is obvious that not anything goes - there are constraints on existence and life, and some concepts work and some don't. So how to move beyond this seeming impasse?

Gene Gendlin's Philosophy of the Implicit accepts that there is this 'excess', that the net of logical or conceptual thought will never cover the grass of experience. But rather than try to fine-tune the net to cover it all, or giving up in despair that it can never be covered, he makes a virtue of it and finds in it the source of much of our thinking. You can allow this excess of feeling (experiencing, sensing - he calls it the 'implicit') to form concepts, and then check the concept back in with the feeling, as it were, and move forward in a zig-zag fashion.

This is, in fact, how we think and speak normally, all day and every day. When we say something, we usually do not sort through some inner mental dictionary and grammar book to form our sentence - we feel what we want to say, and then we open our mouths and the right words come out, and in the right order. Sometimes we are prevented from speaking - perhaps we are waiting for someone else to finish, and for our turn to come - and then when it is our turn, we have lost it! We have forgotten what it is we were going to say. How do we recover? By feeling our point again. We search for the sense of our point - try to feel it - and once we sense it, then we open our mouths and out come our words again, making explicit our sense, and expressing our point .

It is the same with writing: if we are composing an email or a letter, we have a feeling for what we want to say, and then we do this zig-zagging to formulate that feeling into words. If we are writing a thank-you letter in a delicate situation, for instance, we might have an inner dialog like this, where the ellipses...represent our diving into the implicit sensation of what it is we want to say: 'thank you for'...no, that is too conventional...'I appreciate that'...no, that is too formal...'I am grateful for'...no, that does not quite hit it, too groveling, let me see...'I was pleased to get your'...ah yes, that is what I want to say.

There are two points to make here. First, the feeling, the ..., that as the writer you dip into, understands language and thought, it is not pre-verbal. It knows (in my example) that 'thank you' and 'I appreciate that' are not quite right here, in this context, writing this email to this person in this situation. In the dictionary, 'thank you', 'I appreciate that' etc are all pretty much equivalent. In other words, the feeling is more finely ordered that my logical dictionary thinking; there are many ways of saying the dictionary phrase, but the feeling will only allow the one that is just right. So I can talk and think logically, as I hope I do, and I can also think more-than-logically: not illogically, still obeying logic, but letting this demanding feeling 'excess' be my friend that I can ask for advice, rather than think of it as an unwelcome hanger-on who will not go away and whom I find embarrassing. I can also of course speak and think less-than-logically, which I will do when I am neither careful with my thought nor paying attention to the feel of the situation I am in.

A second important point is that this feeling is physical. It may be what I call mental, as in 'I feel hopeful', but if I focus in my body I will feel (sense) a bodily correlate. This then expands the meaning of 'body' from the physiological lump of flesh that we chauffeur around from a point somewhere behind our eyes, into the body as lived-in. If you really get this point, then the phrase 'I think with my body' will no longer appear odd, but quite natural.

Thinking as mental activity, with the mind only one might say, is then logical or explicit thinking, using existing concepts, which of course we want to keep and be good at thinking logically with. But creative thinking comes from both body (creating concepts from the bodily feel, the 'excess', the grass growing between the net) in cooperation with the mind (the net itself, logically refining and assessing the created concepts, and then referring them back to the bodily feel, saying 'is that right? has my intellectualizing carried your feeling further, or has it spoiled it?'). Or you can think of the body of flesh versus the mind as a superficial distinction, itself only useful for further thinking, and not pointing to any distinction in reality; the lived-in and felt body embraces both the physiological body and the mind.

How does this philosophical stance fit into our scientific understanding? The answer is that it does not 'fit into' it, although it sits happily with it. There are things about my body that science tells me which I would never know otherwise; but there are also things about my body as lived-in that I feel but that science will never know. Science is a human activity - all the concepts of science came out of human bodies and minds. Once concepts float free, as it were, of the body and mind from which they came, and are in the public arena, then with observation and the 'scientific method' and logical thought we obtain all the power of science. We do not denigrate or dismiss that. But why not accept what science gives us, but also think with the bodily more-than-logical? Such thinking and concept-creation would also enrich science itself once scientists welcome it.

Although the philosophy I am proposing comes from human experience, does it presuppose a word-view, an ontology, a metaphysics? As far as I know, there are only two serious contenders for what really is - things and processes. If you think the world is fundamentally things or objects, then it is a machine where everything is constructed (by God or evolution) from objects, including the human body and the mind that it manifests. This is both the commonsense view and the scientific view of what the universe really is, and while it is a fruitful view, it has problems. One problem is that there is no place for us in such a universe! We either become just objects in this objective universe (admittedly the most complex objects we know, but still objects), or we are banished to being a disembodied and theoretical observer to maintain this objective view, the 'view from nowhere'. But there is no place for me as me.

There has however also been a strand of philosophy holding that there are no independent objects, only processes. What seems to be an object is a process, like a whirlpool or eddy in a stream that seems to be a stable object, but is really just a stable pattern of continuously moving water. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus may have thought this (it is hard to tell from his few remaining fragments), but certainly at the same time on the other side of the World in China and India the early Taoists and Buddhists considered the universe and all things in it as 'mutually arising', meaning no apparent object or thing can have a separate existence, it is dependent on everything else around it. In such a transactional view of the universe there can be no inside without an outside, and vice versa; no selling without buying; no me without you.

In the past, I found such a 'process philosophy' hard to grasp, probably because the idea of 'things first' is rooted in our Western commonsense, where a 'process' is merely already existing things afterwards interacting. However, when I make the mental leap to consider the idea that process could be primary, then many other things fall into place, including a place for me in such a universe! Gendlin begins his model of how we exist as we are, and feel that we are, with the concept of 'interaction first' - that is, the interaction is primary, and prior to any objects.

This short introduction to why I philosophize is not the place to pursue details. All I wish to do here is to show that thinking this way is intellectually respectable, and can be argued for cogently and compellingly.

So 'Why Philosophy?'

I often hear talk about two types of people: the 'thinkers' who need to operate by what is logical and conceptual, and the 'feelers' who put their faith in their feelings. If you limit yourself to one type or the other, I think you handicap yourself. Even if you are able to be in both categories, but think of them as separate, or even at war with each other ('I feel to do this, but my logic tells me to do that'), I think you still limit yourself.

The philosophy I outline here is the art of thinking with both body and mind where each collaborates with the other, and is basic to human living. Although we all do it all the time, I want to do it consciously and to be aware of what I am doing, and to try to do it better. I think and talk and feel whatever else I do, so of course I want to think and talk and feel better.

Our first masters of philosophy are our feet, our hands, our eyes.
[Jean-Jacques Rousseau 'Emile ou de l'education' II 1762]

In direct contrast to German philosophy [idealism] which descends from heaven to earth, here it is a matter of ascending from earth to heaven. That is to say, not of setting out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, or conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh; but setting out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process....
[Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology, trans. anon. Unabridged ed., Progress Publishers, 1976., p. 42; cf. 43, 46]

See also my Living First paper for a different angle on the same subject.



Copyright 2001 - 2016 Michael R Finch
All Rights ReservedLast revised July 08 2011