Apologia Pro Vita Sua
Back in college a philosophy professor quoted me a famous bit from Lessing: “If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand and in his left only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand, and say: Father, I will take this one—the pure Truth is for You alone.” I think I was supposed to be edified, but instead I wondered out loud if you can really claim to seek the truth if you won’t take it when you can get it. Dr. Erickson was momentarily taken aback by this humorless rejoinder, but I’m sure he got over it. On the other hand, if he came up with a cogent response, I don’t remember it.
Here’s the thing: I understand why the guy who owns the track doesn’t want the greyhound to catch the rabbit, but it seems to me that it’s a pretty sorry hound that doesn’t try. In his parable, Lessing sounds like he’s being meritoriously humble, but he’s really looking at things from the point of view of the master of the dog races. A self-respecting philosopher who knows his place in this world may be perfectly well aware that his chances of success are not brilliant, but he always strives to finish the game even if that eventuality might turn out to be rather depressing.* What looks like and perhaps is hubris is actually one of the duties of his station in life.
There are various meaningful ways to look at what philosophy is. For example, academic philosophy is a discipline with a professional tradition and has gradually accumulated technical expertise in a cumulative way. One can be a philosopher in this sense and remain a regular Joe who punches the clock and goes home at 6. What I mean by philosophy is quite different. It’s the crazy project of understanding the world in and for yourself as if the universe could come to consciousness in an individual. The natural sciences, as becomes more and more obvious in the age of hundred-author papers, mass databases, and accelerators 17-miles around, are communal enterprises. The knower in the sciences has long been an us and may soon enough become an it as inquiry gets outsourced to the inorganic. Meanwhile, in philosophy, the knower is definitely an I. The motto of the operation is Wo wir waren will ich werden.
The idea of philosophy is quite absurd granted the disproportion between the littleness of the mind and the vastness of things and even more in view of the intrinsically social nature of thought. On the other hand, even in acceding to the fallibility of my own judgment, I’ve got to do the acceding. Even the Scholastics, who crowned Theology as the Queen of the sciences and therefore claimed to give the final word to the Magisterium of the church, couldn’t quite do so, not only because the submission of my mind to the consensus of a select group of elderly Italian pederasts is my decision, but because eventually I have to decide what the dogmas mean. The same dilemma faces those who think that science, that modern Magisterium, is going to make it unnecessary or jejune to philosophize; but aside from the fact that the sciences only deal with certain select aspects of reality, they don’t interpret their own results. I still have to figure out what to think about the status of physical laws or even of mathematical theorems. Of course scientists often do ask questions about such things. They don’t do so as scientists, however.The inevitability of philosophy is hardly a triumphant assertion. The normal scorn cast on philosophers is all well deserved. Thing is, though, in laughing at philosophers, you make fun of humanity itself. There really is something deeply funny about our condition, and people who think of themselves as philosophers aren’t in a fundamentally different fix than anybody else. They’re just willing to wear the clown suit in public.
* In practice, of course, philosophical careers do end; and there is something melancholy about that too, especially when a person mistakes tenure, professional recognition, or even becoming a bust in the Hall of Fame as what it had been all about. In writing about this, at least, Lessing was perceptive. He wrote to Moses Mendelssohn “It is infinitely difficult to know when and where one should stop, and for all but one in thousands the goal of their thinking is the point at which they have become tired of thinking.”