9. What Is Philosophy?



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An Enlightenment apology. Let us look at what is arguably the most authentic source for an Enlightenment attempt to answer the apologetic question about philosophy: the Encyclopedia, its article on ‘philosophy’ and especially its more famous article entitled ‘philosopher’ (‘Philosophe’). Both articles appeared anonymously. The article ‘philosopher’ was an abbreviation (perhaps by Denis Diderot) of a well-known short essay entitled Apology for philosophy, which was first published in 1743. Voltaire attributed this essay to his friend, the grammarian César Chesnau Dumarsais (1676-1756), whose chief work was a treatise on tropes or rhetorical figures of speech.10 (The attribution to Dumarsais is doubtful; I do not dismiss these doubts, but here I will bracket them, since for my present purposes it really doesn’t matter who wrote the Apology.11)

The Apology for Philosophy was well known in the eighteenth century, but since it is not well known today, I will need to summarize it.12 Dumarsais begins by rejecting the common opinion that a philosopher is anyone who leads a withdrawn and unobtrusive life, as long as he has read a little and gives the appearance of wisdom (Philosophe, XII:509/284). In beginning this way, he is also acknowledging a familiar complaint against philosophers: that they are so proud of having freed themselves from the prejudices of their religious upbringing that they have become unsociable, arrogantly looking down on their fellow human beings, whom they regard as foolish, slavish and pusillanimous. Dumarsais undertakes to reply by describing the true philosopher, and correctly distinguishing between the philosopher and the ordinary person.

Ordinary or unphilosophical people, he says, act without knowing the causes of their actions, or even suspecting that such causes exist. The fundamental trait of philosophers is to seek such causes and then consciously to let themselves be moved by the causes that move them, so as to avoid being acted on by causes they choose not to move them (Philosophe, XII:509/284). This, he says, is the true meaning of reason, and of leading a rational life: “Reason is to a philosopher what grace is to a Christian” -- namely, the principle impelling them to act (Philosophe, XII:509/284). “Other men are carried away by their passions; their actions are not preceded by reflection: they are men who walk in darkness. A philosopher, on the other hand, even in moments of passion, acts only according to reflection: he walks through the night, but he is preceded by a torch” (Philosophe, XII:509/285).

Rational or free action involves no exemption from having one’s actions caused, and no absence of passion. It does not even involve any exemption from the universal human condition of walking in darkness. Through the darkness, however, philosophers walk with a torch of self-knowledge. By becoming aware of the causes that move them, they acquire the critical capacity of selecting which causes (which thoughts, conditions, sentiments, and passions) these will be. Philosophers, therefore, accept no principle at face value but seek the origins of their principles, so that they may take every maxim from its source, knowing thereby both its true worth and the limits of its applicability (Philosophe, XII: 509/285).13 The philosopher accepts not only the true as true and the false as false, but also the certain and the doubtful for what they are. In other words, to be free or rational, to select which causes will move me by knowing the origin, worth and scope of my maxims, I must always apportion belief precisely to the evidence. This contrasts with the practice of religious enthusiasts, whose love of truth has taken the corrupt form of a passionate will to believe. Since they cannot precisely confine the causes of their belief to the evidence for it, their belief must always remain in some way opaque and mysterious to them – a deficiency they disguise as an advantage when they ascribe their belief to divine inspiration. (Now we begin to understand Dumarsais’ cryptic epigram: “Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian”.)

The article ‘philosophy’ tells us that the two greatest obstacles to philosophy are (1) authority, and (2) the systematic spirit (Philosophie, XII:514). The latter spirit of system actually nurtures the search for truth insofar as it encourages us to find connections between truths, but undermines the philosophic spirit when it leads us to see only what confirms our opinions and to ignore the arguments against them (Philosophie, XII:515). Authority, however, is the unconditional enemy of philosophy because (as with Kant’s “self-incurred minority”) it leads us to abdicate responsibility for our own thoughts by putting someone else’s understanding in the place of our own. “A true philosopher does not see by the eyes of others and forms his own convictions only by the evidence” (Philosophie, XII:514).

It is not reliance on one’s own reason, Dumarsais goes on to point out, that constitutes the worst and most dangerous form of intellectual pride and arrogance. It is rather the compulsive need to judge, the thought that it is shameful not to arrive at a decision and terrible to find oneself in a state of doubt (Philosophe, XII:510/285). “A philosopher is not so attached to a system as to be unable to understand the strength of the objections that can be raised against it. The majority of men are so strongly committed to their opinions that they do not even take the trouble to inquire into the opinions of others. The philosopher understands the point of view he rejects as clearly and to the same extent as his own" (Philosophe, XII:510/286).

This leads into Dumarsais’ response to the common accusation that the philosopher is isolated and unsociable. “Man is not a monster who should live only in the depths of the sea or the furthest reaches of the forest… In whatever condition he finds himself, his needs and the desire for well-being oblige him to live in society. Reason demands that he know and study the qualities of sociability and endeavor to acquire them.” In social life, therefore, “our philosopher does not believe he lives in exile; he does not believe himself to be in enemy territory” (Philosophe, XII:510/286). On the contrary, “he loves society profoundly”. “He looks on civil society as a divinity on earth” (Philosophe, XII:510/287). Dumarsais thus urges that the true philosopher will necessarily be upright, a model of dutifulness and probity, the truest example of the honnête homme (Philosophe, XII:510/287). For the same reason, however, the true philosopher will be “far removed from the impassive sage of the Stoics”: “The philosopher is a man, while their sage was only a phantom” (Philosophe, XII:510/288-289). “This love of society which is so essential in the philosopher proves the truth of the remark made by the Emperor Antonius: ‘How happy will the peoples be when kings will be philosophers, or philosophers kings!’” (Philosophe, XII:510/288). Dumarsais concludes his portrait by remarking that the true philosopher, who takes pride in the humanity he shares with other human beings, is neither tormented by ambition nor satisfied, like an ascetic, with the bare necessities, but enjoys the comforts of life in that “modest superfluity which alone brings happiness” (Philosophe, XII:511/289).




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