Of philosophy

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Jacob Needleman

To the memory of my mother,

Ida Seltzer Needleman

Preface to the Tarcher/Penguin Edition


PART I : Philosophy, Where Are You?
1. Introduction 3

2. Socrates and the Myth of Responsibility 19

3. Pythagoras 44
PART II : Wendy, Sim, and Other Philosophers
4. Nondepartmental Offering 63

5. Questions in the Margin 73

6. A Strange Warmth 86

7. Parents 116

PART III : Remembering Philosophy
8. Eros and Ego : Toward a Redefinition of the History of Philosophy 145

9. Reality : The Problem and the Question 152

10. One Self : Two Worlds 163

11. The Indestructible Question 192

Conclusion 223

Preface to the Tarcher /

Penguin Edition

It is something that appears in the eyes, in the face, in the whole set of the body. It is unmistakable : an awakening idea has been received ; a question of the heart has been opened. And when this happens in even one student, I remember the meaning of my work as a teacher of philosophy.

Great ideas about the purpose of human life, about good and evil, about truth, the mind and the cosmos, have the power to bring us to an inner stop, to a space within ourselves in which our obsessive habit of “answering” falls away. In that empty space, an entirely new experience of oneself appears. Something, someone, has for a moment awakened in us and is looking out through our eyes and speaking with our voice, while our poor, tense body begins to soften into a relaxed dignity.

And at the same time, a new kind of relationship between people becomes possible. We begin to think together, to explore our experience together, to step back from our culturally conditioned opinions which we have until now clung to as though they defined us. These opinions, these thoughts and concepts about everything and anything that have been fed to us by who knows what hand, are not myself, they are not even mine. Suddenly, for a precious moment, I see that. I see that I am not this agitated, self-satisfied or anxiety-ridden mind that rides me through my life. And I am not this needful little self, always liking or disliking, never able really to let another man or woman into my being, never able to listen, hardly able to love in any honorable sense of the word, hardly able to act without the hidden agenda of personal gain, blindly following ethical rules I can honor only in words, not in deeds.

But now, under the light of great ideas that bring me to a state of deep questioning that I share with another, an entirely new sense not only of I, but of we appears. You and I together have a new kind of governing aim, a new kind of purpose in relation to each other, and a new and noble need for each other. Perhaps it is only for a moment, but for that precious moment we are companions in the search for truth. We do not need to “win” ; we do not need to get anything from each other except the sharing of a process of deep inquiry. Our passion is quiet ; our silence is on fire. A new meaning of love begins to show itself, along with—in fact, in actual fact—a new and real basis of morality and ethics. We begin—in fact, in actual fact—to experience each other waking up—just a little, perhaps, but a very precious little. We understand, just a little, that we are not what we have always been told we are by our sleepy, agitated world. We are human beings, beings whose fundamental food is the experience of truth.

In the years that have passed since the first publication of this book, it has become more and more clear that philosophy, real philosophy, is an imperative need in our lives and in the life of our world. The word philosophy was coined in ancient Greece, and throughout the ancient world it was understood as a way of living and not merely as a mental, academic exercise. It was a way of conducting one’s life in which the contemplation of great ideas and the questions they evoke again and again reminded one that we men and women have within ourselves a divine quality of consciousness and love, and that human life on earth is in chaos because this truth about ourselves has been forgotten and because access to this reality in ourselves is blocked. What is clear now, as it was to the ancient philosophers, is that there can be no peace in our world, no real community, no genuine ethical action, and not even any real knowledge of nature or the universe, until we remember—through experience and not merely in theory—who and what we really are. We are not animals, we are human beings. But because we have forgotten what a human being is, we have become spoiled animals. We are not machines, we are human beings. But because we have forgotten what a human being is, we have become mad machines.

And therefore our science and technology, as well as our social and economic systems, are powerless to help us to rightfully inhabit our earth and serve the purposes that human beings are made for. Our science and technology, along with our social and economic systems—being at the mercy of our diminished or exaggerated concept of ourselves—are powerless to bring us anything but confirmation of our fundamental illusions about ourselves and reality. In the same way, over the centuries, our religious practices have sometimes so broken away from the truth about what it means to be human that, through this orphaned religious life, humanity has fantasized that it was either automatically godlike or hopelessly evil.

Real philosophy was born as the effort of the truly independent mind—independent of physical and psychological desires and cultural conditioning—to open to the great Independent Intelligence of the Universe and direct us toward the path of awakening self-knowledge. Neither love, nor community, nor knowledge of nature in the full sense of the word, is possible for humanity without awakening from our illusions about ourselves—nor, on the individual level, can any real meaning be found in our personal lives as we stumble, rich or poor, “mighty” or weak, between the twin mysteries of birth and death. Without awakening to the truth about ourselves, both great and terrible as this truth is, there is no good and bad ; there is only chaos.

At its heart, real philosophy is one of the influences that orient men and women toward the path that leads to becoming fully man. It does this by seeding awakening ideas into the world further the process of inner questioning, a process that ultimately opens the heart and mind to a new experience of one’s Self. It is a role that has obviously also been played by inspired art, by visionary science, by specific forms of music, architecture, dance, and all that is properly the realm of culture and civilization—real culture and real civilization that sometimes can be perceived even in the midst of the ravaged culture and civilization within which we now must find our way.

Of course, the fundamental reminder for humanity has always been religion—but not the religion of empty ritual, angry belief, blind faith, or sentimental fantasy, nor the religion of sterile theological explanations ; but secretly behind all these, set down upon earth by the great “messengers” from Somewhere : the religion of the path, the conduct of life that leads us, together, with love and loving rigor, to the ocean of truth and being and joyous effort. The ideas and the work of the mind that point us toward that path comprise what is called in this book the “heart of philosophy.

It remains to be said that the effort to think together, to work with each other in the search for truth, is the most urgent need of our common life today. Where previous eras may have been dominated by the vision and moral power of great individuals, our own time seems to require something different. Today, perhaps, the immense complexities and imbalances of both our world and our personal lives are beyond the grasp of any one of us alone. From where will come the energy and the intelligence we need, if not in the community of people who know how to come together to listen to each other and confront their deepest questions together? That, too, is the heart of philosophy.

A word about the work with teenagers that is portrayed in part II of the book. In the last several years, our society has been profoundly shaken by the despair of our young people and its manifestation in suicide, self-inflicted illness, widespread clinical depression and even mass murder. Being the most sensitive and vulnerable members of our culture, moving in the unmapped realm between childhood and adulthood, with the torrents of new sexual energy pouring through them, and trapped without a guide in the labyrinthine alleys of moral guilt and incomprehensible permissiveness—alone and lonely whether in their empty rooms or roaming the streets in the nightmarish camaraderie of the gang, taking their ideals and hopes and dreams from violence and pornography, whether flickering from the surface of television or pumped into their blood by orgasmic music of rage, resentment, and self-pity, they—our children— are, more clearly than even we ourselves are or can imagine, starving to death from the loss of meaning that is at the root of our culture’s political, material, and spiritual crises. Much—very much—is needed from us in order to help them. But what, exactly, can we do? Looking back on my experiment of teaching philosophy to high school students, I am more than ever convinced that we can and must bring back the ideals of the search for understanding to our children—through a new and regenerated vision of the purpose of art, music, scientific exploration, mathematics, and real philosophy. This is not the kind of search that aims only for a conclusion in new policies, opinions, doctrines, or even concepts, but the kind that initiates one into a life of questioning and seeking, not as a means to an end but as the very means of life itself.

The need to act in service to one’s neighbor and the need to understand life and reality are the most essential elements in the makeup of a human being. Everything else—biology, material needs, sexual desire, social acceptance—all of that is secondary, and is meant to serve the fundamental transcendent impulses of love and understanding that comprise the true definition of the word human. That is what our children are telling us. Can we hear them?


In my experience as a reader and writer of books, all prefaces, forewords, and introductions divide naturally and invariably into two categories. One kind expresses the author’s sense of strength, hope, and vision ; the other more or less honestly manifests the realization of his limitations. The former, written before all the other chapters of the book, are generally lengthy. The latter are written after the book is finished and are usually quite brief. In this they call to mind the story that is told of a certain Scottish minister, a man of great renown and position, who graciously condescended to deliver a sermon in a small rural church run by a struggling young minister who was an admirer of his. The great man proudly ascends the high, spiral staircase leading up to the pulpit and proceeds to speak for an hour or more only to see that, by the time he is finished, half the congregation has walked out and the other half is fast asleep. Crestfallen, he slowly descends the long spiral staircase and meekly asks his younger colleague what he did wrong. The young minister answers him quite simply : “Had you ascended, Sir,” he says, “in the way that you descended, then you might have descended in the way that you ascended.

Briefly stated, then, the aim of this book is to show the place that great philosophical ideas can occupy in the everyday life of contemporary men and women. It is my view that the weakening of authentic philosophy in our century has resulted in a form of collective and individual pathology that has far deadlier consequences than is generally imagined. We live in a time of metaphysical repression and this repression must be lifted. The various forms of psychological and sexual repression that modern psychiatry has successfully fought against are as nothing when compared to the stifling of the love of meaning, which phrase actually is the definition of philosophy. The love of meaning, the search for meaning, is the only real, objective force for good in the life of modern man. Everything else we hope for and wish for ourselves and our children depends upon it.

Such is the argument of this book. In Part I, I attempt to show where great ideas come from—why they have so little power in shaping our lives and what is needed to change this situation. In Part II, I try to demonstrate that the love of meaning is the central, organic fact about the structure of human nature, a fact that has been either ignored or misunderstood in our culture. To show this, I turn to children. It is through working with young people that I have become convinced of this fact about human nature, and in this part of the book I attempt to reproduce the essence of my experiences teaching philosophy to adolescents and their parents. In Part III, I try for nothing less than a redefinition of the history of philosophy in the West, inviting, as it were, Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Wittgenstein, among others, into our noblest dreams and deepest yearnings.

Needless to say, with aims such as these, only the briefest of prefaces is permitted.


I am deeply grateful to the officers, students, and parents at San Fran cisco University High School—especially Headmaster Dennis Collins, Louis Knight, and Paul Chapman — for their sensitive support and encouragement of my work at their school. Although the students and parents depicted in this book are fictitious, I have tried to portray the essence of what transpired between us as faithfully as possible. I only hope that what they received from the study of philosophy corresponds in some small measure to the richness of my own experience in knowing and working with them.

I am also grateful to the Threshold Foundation Bureau of London for a grant that enabled me to undertake the experiment of teaching philosophy to high-school students.

I wish to thank my colleague and friend, Professor John Glanville of the San Francisco State University Department of Philosophy, for his meticulous reading of portions of this manuscript and for his wise and forthright suggestions. My thanks also to Professor Peter Radcliffe for a conversation that helped me to think my own thoughts about Wittgenstein.

To Olivia Byrne and Regina Eisenberg, who generously and endlessly assist my work in ways too numerous to mention, my heart­felt and continuing thanks. And I am also grateful to Marilyn Felber who not only typed the manuscript with extraordinary care, but who also provided an insightful reading of the contents.

Finally, I wish to express gratitude to and for my editor, Toinette Lippe, for understanding both the book and its author and for doing her remarkable best to improve the former while preserving the latter. And, of course, to Marlene Gabriel, who has transformed the function of literary agent into something warm and wondrous.


Philosophy, Where Are You?


Man cannot live without philosophy. This is not a figure of speech, but a literal fact that will be demonstrated in this book. There is a yearning in the human heart that is nourished only by real philosophy and without this nourishment man dies as surely as if he were deprived of food or air. But this part of the human psyche is not known or honored in our culture. When it does break through to our awareness, it is either ignored or treated as though it were something else. It is given wrong names ; it is not cared for ; it is crushed. And eventually, it may withdraw altogether, never again to appear. When this happens, man becomes a thing. No matter what he accomplishes or experiences, no matter what happiness he knows or what service he performs, he has in fact lost his real possibility. He is dead.

The fear of this inner death has begun to surface in the modern world. In quiet moments, an individual senses this fear of dying inwardly and sees that all the other fears of his life—his physical and psychological fears—are in no way related to it. At the same time, he senses—along with this fear—a yearning or love unknown to him in his ordinary life. He sees that none of the other loves of his life—his family, his work, perhaps not even his God—are related to that yearning for something he cannot name. And he wonders that he can do to heal this profound division in him self between the wish for being and his psycho-social needs. Neither ordinary religion, nor therapy, nor social action, nor ad­ venture, nor work, nor art can bridge these two fundamental motivations within him. But no sooner docs a man move into the activities of his life than the awareness of this division within himself is forgotten.

What will help him remember? For it is absolutely essential that he remember this truth about himself. If he does not, he will be absorbed by the external forces of nature and society. He will be “lived” by the emotions, opinions, obligations, terrors, promises, programs, and conflicts that comprise the day-to-day life of every human being. He will forget that there are actually two separate lives within him and that these disparate lives need to be related to each other. He will strive for happiness, creativity, love, service to the higher ; for vitality, commitment, honor ; for understanding, health, integrity ; for safety, exhilaration, passionate involvement—but nothing of this will be possible for him in the state of metaphysical forgetfulness. As long as he does not remember the real twofold structure of his being, he and the life around him will form themselves into a tissue of illusion.

The function of philosophy in human life is to help man remember. It hat no other task. And anything that calls itself philosophy which does not serve this function is simply not philosophy.

But modem man has strayed so far from philosophy that he no longer even knows what this sort of remembering is. We think of memory only as mental recall because the experience of deep memory has vanished from our lives. Therefore, I ask you not to turn to the dictionary or to modem psychological texts for clarification about remembering. It is not something that can be defined right at the outset ; its meaning will emerge as we proceed—this I promise.

There is something else I must state here at the outset—as a sort of disclaimer, even as a warning. Philosophy is not an answer to anything. Nor, on the other hand, is it merely the technique of asking questions and criticizing assumptions. Philosophy is not clever. It is not cold. It is not angry. Yet it is disturbing, troubling. Moreover, the trouble it brings will never disappear, will never have an end. Why? Because no sooner does a man remember than he immediately forgets. Therefore, over and over again, be must be reminded—and such reminders are not always pleasant.

I began teaching philosophy some twenty years ago. In those days even academic colleagues looked at you a little queerly when you told them your field. To scientists, you were generally regarded as a “metaphysician”—a particularly dirty word to them : someone who worried about matters beyond the realm of any sane, rational verification. To colleagues in the fields of literature or art, on the other hand, you were merely a logic-chopper. At the very best you were feared as an insensitive thinking machine that could confute any point of view, even the most hallowed, just for the sadistic fun of it. As for people outside the academic profession, there matters were even worse. Anyone foolish enough to admit he was a philosopher invited either outright ridicule or else victimization by a cracker-barrel Aristotle who would, free of charge, present you with an endless string of bloated opinions about everything that had appeared in the newspapers, including the Sunday edition and all the supplements, for the past week. Or else, you were simply met with uncomprehending silence. And then there were the occasions when you were mistaken for something else and found yourself listening to someone’s marital problems, medical complaints, or even to an improvised religious confession

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