Sunday, December 2, 2018

Better living through philosophy, in broad outline

In which Ultimate Philosopher addresses the question, "Is there definitive evidence, man, that better living and philosophy go together?" and then such related questions as "What if we encounter one miserable philosopher, doesn't that falsify a better-living-through-philosophy hypothesis" and then "Isn't part of wisdom learning not to be miserable (as distinct from, say, 'in physical pain'), like, ever, and isn't philosophy after all the pursuit or search for wisdom which is distinct from the having of wisdom or sagacity itself" and then such related questions about the meaning of life, etc.

So, let's begin.  What is better living?  In short, whatever it is that the ancients (Aristotle first and foremost, of course . . .) were getting at with the concept of eudaimonia.  Happiness, flourishing, comprehensive well-being, . . . a modern rendition of the concept is found in self-actualization psychology associated with Maslow and others.

Next question: are there real-world examples of self-actualized or eudaimonic philosophers, not merely philosophers who seek these things but also attain these things?  It is helpful to have real-world examples to go by.  How do we go about identifying who a philosopher is, anyway?  And surely we need to be able to distinguish between a mere philosopher and a sage, so getting the definition of 'philosopher' correct is important (for purposes of this discussion, etc.).  To best answer that question is to get into the topic of 'metaphilosophy' or philosophy (asking questions about, thinking through thoroughly, more to follow below) about philosophy.  Just what are the necessary and sufficient conditions, etc., for someone to be engaging in what we correctly identify as philosophic activity?

Philosophy is something something love or pursuit or seeking after wisdom, with the goal or telos of such activity being an actual sage.  A sage is one who has attained wisdom, and so what is wisdom you might ask?  Ah, what is wisdom.  How do we know when we have found it if we do not yet possess it?  We could say numerous things about wisdom and hopefully identify fundamental features in common to those things to form a working definition of wisdom.  Okay, so I'll cheat and see what google says.  "the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise.
synonyms: sagacity, intelligence, sense, common sense, shrewdness, astuteness, smartness, judiciousness, judgment, prudence, circumspection

So, like I hear about these wiseguys, you know, goodfellas?  Michael Corleone, did he possess these features?  He had to be pretty good at what he was doing to run an empire like that.  Keep your friends close and enemies closer, etc.  Or, how about when the "Meth Milf" Lydia Rodarte-Quayle from Breaking Bad discusses whether it would be, you know, wise to have Mike's good men bumped off.  That's not the wisdom the likes of Socrates, Plato and of course (duh) Aristotle spoke about, but it's something called wisdom by some, and we need to have strict guidelines for distinguishing fool's gold from the real.  And what if Corleone or the Meth Milf do possess some of the characteristics provided by the google algorithm?  Are those good characteristics to have no matter the context?  What about smartness, anyway?  Is that ever bad?  Can one be more clever than smart, more smart than wise?

Wisdom has a synonym in the ancient Greek, scientia or some form of systematized or organized knowing.  In this context it is unavoidable for me to recall a portion of historian-of-philosophy Will Durant's summary statement of Kant: "Science is organized knowledge; wisdom is organized life."  Wisdom is organized life, philosophy is the love of wisdom, therefore by ironclad deduction philosophy is love of organized life, QED, shows over, philosophy 1, non-philosophy zero.  (Plato proved this over 2,000 years ago and yet humanity has not taken to Plato in all this time.  Is it a communication problem?  Shit.)

Humans are distinguished from the animals by the faculty of intellect or reason, which enables thought and the ability to express them via language.  Intellect or reason itself is present enough in the activities of nearly all human beings (not in the category of the developmentally disabled, say) that it serves to organize experiences into a systematic-enough whole to get by to varying degrees of success in daily and often routine affairs.  But the light of independent thought and initiative and creativity is still in there, enough for legal (including criminal) responsibilities.  Some element of free will that accounts for about 30% of our life circumstances (the other 70% roughly evenly divided between genetics and environment/upbringing).

Moving on.  It is systematic approaches to reasoning in specialized areas of knowledge we tend to put under the heading of 'the sciences.'  But philosophy is something about organizing our thought processes at a higher level of sorts, of bringing together all our reasoning processes under a higher-order level of systematicity, enough so that it takes on the task of "organized living".  The pursuit of wisdom seems to be, in addition to anything else, the pursuit of better or organized living.  And this seems to happen via a process known as philosophy.

Time out for a moment.  The first google result for 'philosophy' is:

philosophy | skin care | fragrance | bath & body | gifts philosophy.

Skin care

explore advanced skin care products from philosophy. as ...



So philosophy as something to do with, like, beauty?  Are there objective teleological standards for beauty?  Is there an organized field of knowledge that deals with this subject?

Now, I have in mind something more like what appears on the right sidebar:

Academic discipline


Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras. Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation. Wikipedia
So somehow there's a connection - I'm not entirely clear on it myself at this point - between "the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language" and self-improvement! which is what Better Living Through Philosophy might very well best be marketed as?  Have you seen philosophy journal articles where "fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language" are discussed?  A bunch of it almost goes right over my head especially if I'm not reading carefully.  Some of these things just don't interest me that much: I'm more interested in that field known as 'ethics' (link above) than I am in getting it exactly just right whether our conception of substance (this would be in the branch of metaphysics, mysteriously not linked above) is best understood in Aristotelian or Thomistic terms much less Leibnizian or Spinozist terms.  (Is there a difference between Aristotelian and Thomistic conceptions, and even if there is one, are these the best two candidates to choose from, vis a vis the likes of Leibniz and Spinoza?  Yeah, I think they may be pretty good candidates.  But like I said, given only so much available time my own personal focus has been more squarely on the topic of ethics.  This is not at all to say that getting a fully systematized understanding of our ethical concepts won't rely on metaphysical ones.  But then they might also have to rely on aesthetic ones as well, and that seems like a rather under-served area in philosophy; only a few of the most canonized philosophers - little overlap with specialists who've made their name in aesthetics (Danto, say?) - delved into that subject matter.  What is there to say about whatever it is that aesthetics studies, anyway, and what relation does it have to better living / self-help?

So there's something about the activity of philosophy - which encompasses not just (science-like) knowing or wisdom accumulation but also the activity of putting whatever wisdom obtained so far to use in organizing or systematizing the art of living better, but also an activity distinctive to philosophy per se: thought.  It is, ultimately, the activity of thought that itself aspires toward a systematic unity or completeness or wholeness, and so atop the hierarchy of the human sciences is philosophy, basically a science of what it is to live functionally or well as a human being.

This is basically the essential idea of what I think "better living through philosophy" is aiming toward, the rest being application, examples, a treatise-length fleshing-out.

Now, let's say that there are better modes of doing philosophy itself than others.  There are plenty of great philosophers in history but what crucial features account for some philosophers being more influential than others?  (Why isn't a pessimist like Schopenhauer a lot more influential than someone who's more optimistic like Aristotle who believes humans - well, Athenian citizens at least - are in principle equipped for eudaimonia?  If pessimism is true, shouldn't it sell?  And why hasn't the full range of wisdom of Plato and Aristotle, at minimum, rubbed off on all school children all of 2,000 years later?  Communication barriers?  Really?  Surely I could get polemical about the "progressive"-run schools but I'll keep it clean here.  I'll just say that a truly progressive mindset gets you to Aristotelian wisdom-pursuit and I wish I were seeing a lot more of that explicitly and systematically instilled in schools.)

So there are better and worse ways of doing philosophy, let's assume.  We should then have some way of ordering the different approaches and styles and methods (METHODS!!!) according to their value (teleological ranking).  Through to their (methods') fruits ye shall know them.  Aristotle knew a ton of shit - founded biology as a science that was authoritative for 2,000 years until Darwin in the 1800s; systematized the science of logic to such an extent that (quoting historian of philosophy Anthony Kenny in Essays on the Aristotelian Tradition) "his work was subsumed, rather than superseded, by the developments of mathematical logic at the end of the nineteenth century by Frege and his contemporaries; developed a physical science that stood authoritative until the Renaissance, systematized philosophy itself with treatises on metaphysics, ethics, politics, psychology, aesthetics, philosophical procedures and methods.  Aristotle's work (not like this stuff shouldn't be known to everyone by now) exists now only in not-always-accessible, quasi-lecture-note format; he is reputed to have written dialogues that outshone (as gold to silver) those of his master Plato.  He was hailed almost unanimously among the medieval scholars who preserved and studied his work as the ultimate in human intelligence, the philosopher "par excellance," or simply The Philosopher according to the greatest of the medieval minds, Aquinas.  (This despite having numerous erroneous views and often in areas of less specifically philosophical consequence - he didn't think his principles of the good life or eudaimonia applied to slaves or women; numerous of his scientific theories have been superseded or overturned.)

It is my view that an 'Aristotelian' approach to doing philosophy is the best one, or at the very least a suitably strong candidate for one.  I place the likes of Aquinas, Ayn Rand, and Mortimer Adler within that tradition broadly speaking.  When it comes to the "fruits" of whatever his method was, it includes a crucial piece of insight: that the human good, to be most fully or perfectly actualized, requires philosophical contemplation, and a perfecting of one's intellectual activity itself (whether as an aesthetic principle - living to kalon or for the sake of the noble, fine or beautiful - or for the sake of better living overall qua the kind of life-form one is).  I characterize this as an intellectual perfectionism; Aristotle has been variously dubbed an "intellectualist" in his conception of (the fullest realization) of eudaimonia.  The philosophic or contemplative life, and generally the progressive development or perfection of one's intellectual faculty, are in this sense a central and fundamental feature of the good life, the feature that more than any others would best explain all the other facets of a good human life (physical, emotional, social, spiritual, aesthetic,...).  For the Aristotelian, eudaimonia is best or maximally achieved through the perfection of that 'best aspect within' our nature, our nous or intelligence, that a good human life is one led thoughtfully and intelligently, that this perfection of our rational natures is in some sense the same thing as living eudaimonically, as an activity of the rational soul.  (Are living wisely and eudaimonically the same thing?  Must one be a sage to be truly or fully eudaimonic?)

Now this distinctively Aristotelian (or more broadly, Greek) conception of the good life gives us a picture of the human good in terms of both the end and the means by which it is exercised (which are in some sense united and instantiated in rational activity, or: the human good is rational activity), which places it in interesting contrast to other ethical traditions which aren't so homed in on the rational element of our soul as the central defining potentiality to be actualized in a good human life.  (This subsumes even the 'Kantian' rational-willing characteristic of distinctively moral cognition.)  The Aristotelian ethical tradition is big on the concept of virtue (or excellence, arete in Greek): what makes for an excellent human being/life?  Something something the utmost excellence of the rational or intellectual faculty.  Now, the task of figuring out general principles for the best exercise of our rational faculty?  That's for epistemology, the science of knowing as such.  And if we exercise the proper epistemic discipline, the science of knowing becomes a unity with the science of living, with practical concerns.  To live best is (inter alia) to know best, i.e., the latter is a precondition for the former.  So what do the wiseguys, the made men, know exactly, anyway?

So something like philosophic activity itself is central to the Aristotelian conception of the good life.  How much is that notion seared in the consciousness front and center when we consider alternative philosophical schools, whatever extant candidates we might look into for philosophic guidance?

As to such profoundly significant identifications being the fruit of a method, in Aristotle's case it has to do with something called dialectic, or the art of playing opinions against one another to hopefully yield a truth agreeable to all despite their remaining well-scrutinized differences.  And even though Plato is noted for having made The Grand Original Contribution to the philosophical dialogue style via The Republic and other published works, it is dialectic as picked up and applied by Aristotle that may well yield the greatest fruit.  Among other fruits of dialectical method would be what, in the final comparison, differentiated Plato from Aristotle: Aristotle adopted both Plato's 'rationalist' framework for thinking about philosophic questions (homing in on eternal, unchanging Forms or Ideas supposedly grasped by the intellect with the sense experience only providing at best a hint in Their direction), and a thoroughly empirical or experience-based one.  Ideally the Aristotelian approach should be able to provide the very definitional or formal criteria for both living well and specifically philosophical activity, along with empirical examples of such in the real world.  (Shouldn't philosophy be practical and not a lot of idle word-play?)

Dialectic has something to do with taking into account all the essential factors that come to bear on forming an opinion on anything, and ideally applies not just to analyzing and resolving differences of opinion but also in mapping our opinions onto the world itself.  (It is a common sense or classical realist assumption that there is a real world out there independent of our knowing it and that our opinions can at least sometimes match up with or more systematically map onto what our senses provide us.)  And in his inquiries into the nature of existence and our place in it, Aristotle covered a bunch of ground, really thoroughly/completely/wholly/perfectionist-like.  I take him as an example to be emulated, each in our own way (we providing for the individuating features or manifestations of this formal principle of intellectual perfectionism), and perhaps not to be superseded or surpassed.  If we propose to have a superior or more perfect alternative model of thinking/knowing/living on offer, then aren't we just re-affirming a principle of intellectual perfectionism, to the effect that we should adopt the most superior model on offer?  So this becomes like an endpoint of the conversation about the norms of an ideal human society (also known as 'end of history' or perhaps 'utopia').

So as we progress through the stages of development we see that there is the potential for, if not actuality of, better living through philosophy, but then we see that there may be better ways of doing philosophy than others, in which case we should think in terms (eventually) of the best living through the best philosophy.  And getting 'em as young as possible probably wouldn't hurt to speed up the 'end of history' collaborative project, as long as they learn all about things like the Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis and are not pumped full of philosophically-less-perfect material instead.

So this should give a taste of the gist of the 'better living through philosophy' Project that I've been consciously mulling these past 15 or so months, atop the previous context of thought already accumulated, and aided by some possibly-performance-enhancing substances.  (Substance. ^_^ )