What Is Philosophy?Collin Cleary
1. Knowledge of the Right Use of All Things
To explain what philosophy is, we always have to go back to the beginning. Pythagoras (ca. 570-495 BC) is said to have been confronted by Leon, the tyrant of Philius, who demanded to know if he was wise. He responded that he was not a wise man, but merely a φιλόσοφος (philosophos), a “lover of wisdom”; a practitioner of φιλοσοφία (philosophia). Φίλος (philos) means “love,” and σοφῐ́ᾱ (sophia) means “wisdom.” Strangely, Pythagoras is usually assumed to have been sincere in this answer, though he may have been engaging in a prudent false modesty. He went on to compare philosophers to the spectators at the Olympic games. This is a point I will come back to a bit later. The comparison is puzzling at first, but it is of great significance.
Philosophers have always been taken to be “loving” wisdom in the sense of pursuing it. Thus, philosophers are people who are deliberately trying to become wise. Needless to say, this is only helpful if we have some general idea of what wisdom is, or might be. And we do not have to be wise in order to have such an idea. So, what can we say about the nature of wisdom? Many years ago at a campus book sale I picked up, for a song, a psychology textbook titled Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development. The back cover promises us that the topic is cutting edge: “Wisdom is such an elusive psychological construct that few people have considered it a viable field until recently.”
The contributors, all of them psychologists, try to delineate the characteristics of a wise human being. In doing so, predictably, some of them manage to smuggle in the characteristics of a liberal human being: “tolerance,” “openness,” “relativism,” etc. Thus, in approaching the question of wisdom, we must be on our guard not to do something similar: to merely describe ourselves, or to describe according to modern cultural presuppositions. We should maintain our historical perspective, at least for the moment, and begin by dealing with how Pythagoras and the Greeks understood sophia.
The adjective σοφός (sophos) means “wise.” It was used by the Greeks to mean “clever,” “able,” or “skillful,” especially in the arts or crafts, so that a carpenter might be called sophos. It could also mean “cunning,” so that a man like Odysseus was also sophos. It could likewise mean “prudent,” which often involves cleverness or cunning, at least when one is being prudent around other human beings. The man who is sophos thus could be a bit of a tricky character. Indeed, we might think of the so-called sophist (σοφῐστής). The sophists were itinerate teachers in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. For a fee, they would teach you or your children about such things as music, athletics, and mathematics. They also taught rhetoric, the art of effective speaking — or what Aristophanes called the art of “making the weaker speech the stronger”; i.e., the art of convincing anybody of anything, no matter how implausible or base.
This activity earned the sophists their bad reputation as con artists and swindlers who undermined social order by corrupting the youth. However, the name σοφῐστής just means “wise one.” The prevailing view today is that theirs was a false wisdom, and they are contrasted with figures like Socrates. Nevertheless, it must be said that it is often hard to see much of a difference between the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues and the sophists, aside from the fact that Socrates didn’t charge a fee. Aristophanes certainly didn’t see much of a difference. See his highly entertaining play The Clouds, in which Socrates is depicted as a composite sophist and Pre-Socratic natural philosopher. Most of Athens’ male population didn’t see much of a difference, either, and they put Socrates to death essentially for all the things the sophists were accused of. A nuanced reading of Plato also reveals that his own view of the sophists was more than a bit ambivalent.
Speaking of Socrates, we should also consider the term σωφροσύνη (sophrosunē), an important concept in Plato’s dialogues. The word is formed from σώφρων (sophron, “wise”) + –σῠ́νη (-sunē), a suffix which creates abstract nouns out of adjectives. Thus, sophrosunē is effectively just another word for wisdom. In its usage, however, it often had a narrower sense. Sophrosunē is a major topic within Plato’s Republic, where Socrates treats it as having to do with the control of desires (hence it is often translated as “temperance” or “moderation”). The entire dialogue Charmides is devoted to sophrosunē. However, what is said differs markedly from The Republic.
In Charmides, Socrates and his interlocutors formulate several definitions of sophrosunē without coming to any definite conclusion. At least some of the definitions are probably popular conceptions of sophrosunē, or ones put forward by sophists or philosophers. Six definitions are offered in all. Sophrosunē is described as doing things in a tranquil way, having a sense of shame, minding one’s own business (which Socrates will playfully identify with justice in The Republic), making good works, and knowing oneself (as in the Delphic exhortation). The sixth and final definition, which Socrates also rejects, is puzzling: “[sophrosunē is] the only science that is both a science of itself and of the other sciences.” The word that is translated as “science” here is ἐπιστήμη (epistēmē), which can also mean “knowledge.” Thus, we can also read the definition as saying that sophrosunē is “the only knowledge that is both a knowledge of itself and of the other types of knowledge.”
Let’s consider this peculiar definition in connection with what Socrates says about happiness and wisdom in Euthydemus. There, he argues that we all wish to be happy, and that we become happy by using things rightly. All things can be used either rightly or wrongly. Right use typically leads to success and happiness; wrong use to failure and unhappiness (or some other unfavorable outcome). For example, you could use your inheritance to support your cocaine habit and blow it all in a few years and be poor again. Or, you could invest it wisely, increase it, and enjoy it for many years to come. Wisdom, Socrates says, is the right use of all things. It follows that everyone should want to become wise, since wisdom would seem to guarantee happiness (282e1-5). Thus, everyone should pursue wisdom, or be a philosopher.
This argument has the interesting implication that wisdom is something qualitatively different from everything else in the world. All things have the potential of being misused — money, influence, power, weapons, tools, eloquence, beauty, strength, charm, science, you name it. It follows that all things are only conditionally good — conditional on being used well or used rightly. But since wisdom is the knowledge of the right use of all things, it cannot be misused. The wise person would know how to use all things rightly, which includes the use of their wisdom (the wise person, if they are genuinely wise, could not misuse wisdom). It follows from this that wisdom is the one unconditionally good thing in the world, precisely because it cannot be misused.
This characterization of wisdom in Euthydemus has important parallels to the sixth definition of sophrosunē in Charmides. Like sophrosunē, wisdom is a “science” of all things — of the right use of all things. But it is also a “science” of itself, since wisdom would also enable us to use wisdom rightly. (Technically, this is “trivially true” since genuine wisdom cannot be misused.) Now, what we have learned in examining Charmides and Euthydemus dovetails nicely with our examination of the usages of sophos. The knowledge of the right use of all things is what the clever man has; the man who knows how to get things done.
Others follow their drives, desires, and inclinations. But the wise man has a distance from these things that others lack — there is a kind of “space” between him and his biological nature. He is not immediately taken by his desires, but decides according to prudent judgment how, or whether, to act upon them. Thus, he not only uses all worldly goods correctly, he also uses his own nature correctly. He is “moderate” or “temperate.” Is he also cunning, as we suggested earlier? Isn’t cunning the mark of a villain? Not necessarily. It depends on the ends to which one puts one’s cunning. Socrates was certainly cunning in the way that he deceived his interlocutors (often with flattery), but his end was their improvement. It was for the same end that Socrates in The Republic advocated telling “noble lies” to the common folk.
So, it would seem that philosophy, as the pursuit of wisdom, would be the pursuit of the knowledge of the right use of all things, and that philosophers seek this wisdom in order to maximize their chances of success and happiness in life. This was exactly what I told my students when I used to teach philosophy. But in fact I was “noble lying” to them; I was trying to sell them on philosophy by arguing that it would have some practical benefit in their lives. The truth, however, is that no one who calls himself a philosopher is drawn to philosophy because he thinks it’s going to make him successful and happy. He is not even drawn to philosophy because he thinks it will make him a better person in a moral sense. The love of wisdom might actually have this result — but that is not why the lovers love it.
In the Phaedrus, Socrates characterizes philosophy as a type of “divine madness.” But the desire to know the “right use of all things,” with the highly practical end of maximizing the chances of happiness, can hardly be characterized as a divine madness. No, philosophers are seized by a burning desire to know. It’s a desire for knowledge quite different from that which is conferred by the other disciplines. But if it is not the knowledge of the right use of all things, then what is it? And if it is not, then why does Socrates waste our time with this apparent red herring?
2. Knowledge of the Whole
Let’s look a bit more closely at Socrates’ definition of wisdom in Euthydemus. If wisdom is knowledge of the right use of all things, then it is obvious that wisdom cannot be concerned with any one thing, or set of things, specifically. For example, wisdom would give us the ability to use money rightly, but it does not follow from this that wisdom is the art of using money, let alone making money. Wisdom therefore seems to have no definite object. This makes it the most peculiar sort of knowledge there is.
Wisdom is, in a sense, “detached” from everything specific, and the wise man is likewise “detached.” We saw this above when we noted that the wise man, in contrast to the many, is not immediately taken by his desires; there is a distance between him and his desires, which allows him to control them. Nor does the wise man immediately accept the opinions of others. There is a distance there as well: The wise man weighs the different opinions and decides, on the basis of his independent judgment, whether to accept or to reject them. Thus, before the gaze of the wise man all things are, at least initially, “suspended” — awaiting his judgment.
Philosophy, as the path to wisdom, involves a similar detachment from anything specific. The quest for wisdom is the attempt to replace opinions with knowledge — knowledge of the most important things. Philosophy therefore must call all things into question. No other science, or area of knowledge does this. Philosophy may not presuppose that anything is true. Hegel expressed this idea by defining philosophy as a “presuppositionless science,” and thus his Logic begins literally with nothing (or with a “being” that turns out, in fact, to be “nothing”).
Philosophy may not even presuppose what philosophy is; even this must be continually called into question. This is the real significance of the definition of sophrosunē in Charmides: “[sophrosunē is] the only science that is both a science of itself and of the other sciences.” In fact, what Socrates really seems to be describing here is philosophy, the path to sophrosunē or sophia. Philosophy questions all claims — whether claimed outright or merely presupposed — made by everyone and every discipline, and even its own claims. Thus, it is difficult even to define philosophy, because definitions can smuggle in all kinds of unquestioned presuppositions.
We can now understand the meaning of Pythagoras’ claim that philosophers are like the spectators at the Olympic games. Fundamentally, they are not participants in the game of life. They are onlookers — committed to nothing, attached to nothing, questioning everything. Philosophy is therefore impious. It challenges all: men, tradition, itself, and even the gods. It recognizes absolutely no authorities; not even other philosophers are accepted as authorities. In other words, no issue in philosophy can be settled by merely appealing to the words of some philosopher. No genuine philosopher would accept an answer like “it’s true because Aristotle said it is.”
Of course, the picture I have painted thus far is not entirely flattering. It would seem that philosophy is just a negative, nihilating phenomenon and that Aristophanes and the men of Athens were right to condemn it as a danger to social order and to virtue. In fact, this charge is largely true. This is why the relation of philosophy to the polis (the city) was such a major concern of Plato’s. How was it possible for philosophers to pursue wisdom without destroying the city that gave birth to them and nurtured them, like a mother? (Socrates makes this very comparison in Crito.) Plato’s answer was for philosophers to engage in esoteric writing; to hide their meaning from the many in texts that only the few could properly interpret. While philosophers can live with the uncertainty created by the act of “suspending belief” in all truth claims, it is not a life suited to the many. They need authorities and absolute, unquestionable truths. And societies are founded on myths, not on rational principles. These myths, and the peaceful slumber of the many, have to be protected from philosophy — and it is the philosophers who are best suited to do this, by agreeing to talk only to themselves.
However, while philosophy itself is unquestionably dangerous, it is not nihilistic. Though it is potentially destructive, destruction is not its purpose. To see this, we have to revisit the issue of whether philosophy, as a “science” (epistēmē), has an object. Earlier I noted that because philosophy is “a science of itself and of the other sciences” that ranges over “all things,” it can have no definite object. Thus, we could say that it is concerned with nothing in particular. Let us try the experiment of taking this way of formulating things very literally, and very seriously. Philosophy is concerned with nothing in particular — or, we could say, it is particularly concerned with nothing.
The object of philosophy is nothing. Now, if we reason in a literal-minded way we would have to say that this means philosophy does indeed have no object. But is nothing really no object? Is nothing really, indeed, nothing at all? Or can nothing be a peculiar kind of something that is, or could be, an object of study? I am going to suggest that there two ways in which this might be true — two ways in which we can say that philosophy has nothing as its object, and not be talking nonsense. The first approach is the classical one, and essentially it is the foundation upon which the entire structure of Western metaphysics is built. The second approach is, by contrast, something new. It is, in fact, a new beginning. I will discuss it in the next section.
The classical approach construes nothing as “the whole,” and “the whole” as “all things.” One classic definition of philosophy is that it is pursuit of “knowledge of the whole,” and that such knowledge would be wisdom. But why is “the whole” nothing? For the simple reason that the whole is no thing. It is not any particular thing. Nor can “all things” be considered a “thing” unto itself. Even if we declare, with Heraclitus, Hegel, and many others, that everything is “one,” it still doesn’t make sense to think of this as a “thing.” Thus, we can truthfully say that philosophy is concerned with no thing (in particular), but rather with the whole, or all things. Leo Strauss explains this conception of philosophy with admirable clarity:
Philosophy, as quest for wisdom, is quest for universal knowledge, for knowledge of the whole. The quest would not be necessary if such knowledge were immediately available. The absence of knowledge of the whole does not mean, however, that men do not have thoughts about the whole: philosophy is necessarily preceded by opinions about the whole. It is, therefore, the attempt to replace opinions about the whole by knowledge of the whole. Instead of “the whole” philosophers also say “all things”; the whole is not a pure ether or an unrelieved darkness in which one cannot distinguish one part from the other, or in which one cannot discern anything. A quest for knowledge of “all things” means quest for knowledge of God, the world, and man — or rather quest for knowledge of the natures of all things: the natures in their totality are “the whole.”
Strauss’ definition of philosophy is classically Platonic — right down to insisting that philosophy seeks to know the “natures” of all things, and the natures in their totality. Plato sets the agenda for the entire history of Western philosophy — so that every subsequent philosopher of any significance, even Nietzsche, can be understood to be seeking “knowledge of the whole.” Note that Strauss says something peculiar in the midst of his explanation: “the whole is not a pure ether or an unrelieved darkness in which one cannot distinguish one part from the other, or in which one cannot discern anything.”
But why was it necessary to say this? Who would think that the whole is a “pure ether” or an “unrelieved darkness”? Apparently, Strauss is trying to ward off “mystical” interpretations of the whole that would assert that “beyond the appearances” everything is really some gooey sort of oneness. In other words, he is trying to ward off interpretations that might assert that the multiplicity of things is somehow merely apparent. This is what Vedanta is often understood as claiming, and it is what Hegel accused Schelling of when he branded Schelling’s Absolute as “the night in which all cows are black.”
It’s significant that Strauss thinks he has to mention this at all; to safeguard us from a mistaken conception of what the whole is. No, he seems to be claiming, the whole must be understood as all things; as a multiplicity. But Strauss has inadvertently pointed us in another direction, so far as an understanding of the whole is concerned, and he has also inadvertently drawn our attention to a flaw in his description of philosophy. He tells us that philosophy is a quest for the knowledge of the natures of all things. But how does this distinguish philosophy from what we call science? Science, after all, is concerned to know the natures of all things as well.
A defender of Strauss might respond that he has specified that “all things” means “God, the world, and man,” and that science cannot, for one thing, deliver knowledge of God. But this doesn’t really address the problem. Is philosophy concerned with just serially investigating the natures of anything and everything, shooting for complete coverage? This doesn’t capture the nature of philosophy at all. Oddly enough, the analytic philosopher Wilfrid Sellars can supply what is missing here. Someplace or other, he wrote that, “The aim of philosophy . . . is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”
In other words, philosophy doesn’t just strive to know the natures of all things; it strives to know how all things “fit together.” It strives to know the rhyme and reason of all things; what the common thread is; what the “meaning” of it all might be. This is why, if I make the mistake of telling people I am a philosopher, they usually quip, “Oh, so what’s the meaning of life?” Replace “life” with “the whole” and you’ve got the central question of philosophy. Strauss is probably aiming for this when he adds: “the natures in their totality are ‘the whole.’” Philosophy, he may be suggesting, investigates this “totality.” But the totality we seek is not just a collective knowledge of all the natures, but a knowledge of how they are one; how they form a unity.
3. Knowledge of Being (Ontology)
Suppose, however, that such knowledge is not approached through some cumulative investigation of the natures of each and every thing, or even type of thing. Suppose that such knowledge is approached, in fact, through asking what makes a thing a thing at all. To ask about this is to ask the question of Being. I am spelling Being with a capital “b” to distinguish between beings, which are “things,” and the Being that beings have. Things are called “beings” because they have “Being”; they are said “to be”; they “are.”
Suppose that what philosophy really asks about, or should ask about, is Being. Recall that earlier I said that there were two ways to understand what it means to say that philosophy has nothing as its object. The first way, the classical Platonic way, is to say that philosophy inquires about all things or the whole, which is no thing. I am now introducing the second way, which I characterized as “new” — though it is both new and old (very old). The second way says that the central question of philosophy is the question “What is Being?” Being is most certainly nothing. Why? Because it is also no thing; it is no being. Being — capital “b” — is not a being; it is that in virtue of which beings are. To draw an analogy, the characteristic of tallness is not some tall thing, like a skyscraper or a mountain; it’s the characteristic all the tall things have. In the same way, Being is not some being, like a screwdriver or a cantaloupe; it’s the Being that all beings have; the reason they are called “beings” at all (though we should be wary of thinking that Being is a “characteristic” like tallness or brownness).
What can we say about Being, other than that it is no thing? It seems an extraordinarily difficult concept to define. Indeed, some might dismiss a Being that is nothing as a “pure ether” or an “unrelieved darkness” — though it is neither. If Being is no thing, it nevertheless seems to have a relation to things. It is, as I have already said, that in virtue of which things are. It “gives” beings their Being. I have placed “gives” in quotes because we want to avoid falling into the fallacy of thinking that Being might be some very special sort of being that “creates” or otherwise gives rise to all the other beings — something like God. The problem with this idea is that God is said to be: i.e., it is claimed that God has Being. But if God has Being, then he is, at least in one way, just like all the other things that have Being. He is, in short, a being. But recall that Being is not a being; it is that in virtue of which beings are said to be beings. Thus, the identification of God with Being simply pushes the problem further back: If God is, then what is this Being that God, and everything else, has?
In short, the relation of Being to beings cannot be some kind of creation or causation. So, what is it? I want to suggest that a helpful way of approaching this problem is through an analogy with the “figure-ground” phenomenon. The ability to distinguish objects from a background is essential to visual perception. You have probably already encountered clever drawings that illustrate this phenomenon, such as the famous duck-rabbit, or the “Is it a vase or two faces?” drawing. When we look at the duck-rabbit, or the other one, we find that we cannot see both images simultaneously; the mind switches back and forth between the two. In just the same way, we cannot simultaneously orient our minds towards both beings and Being. Since Being is not a being, to think about Being requires a “Gestalt switch.”
If this is the case, then perhaps we can take the analogy further and liken beings to figure, and Being to ground. If Being is that in virtue of which beings are, then it is like the ground against which beings present themselves in their “beingness.” But “ground” in what sense? Let’s consider Plato’s image of the Good in The Republic, which is simultaneously an image of Being (Platonic philosophy equates Being, the Good, and Truth). The image Plato chooses is the Sun. Now, the Sun is most assuredly a being (a thing), and so here the analogy fails, like all analogies. But let us focus on what issues from the Sun, and what the Sun does: it illuminates all things; things show up for us within its light. The light of the Sun is, in a sense, the ground of the possibility of things being known — as well as the ground of the possibility of life existing at all; of things on Earth being.
Something similar is at work in the relation of Being to beings. Being is the ground of the possibility of things being meaningful. Suppose, for instance, that I own a scarf that used to belong to a friend of mine, now deceased. When I look at this object, it displays its Being to me: without thinking in words, my mind registers “this is a scarf”; I register what it is, its Being. But this identity, this “scarfness,” does not exhaust its Being. When I look at it, I think of my friend, and perhaps of times when he wore it, and things associated with those times. The visual cue of the scarf sends my mind into reveries by association — reveries about the Being or meaning of this object. I may even reflect on mortality.
We are the only creatures for whom things have meaning. Other animals seem to respond to objects in the world in terms of a limited repertoire of stimulus and response. If I present the scarf to my dead friend’s dog, he may well display a reaction. But it is not a response to meaning; it does not occasion reflection. Instead, it is the scent of my friend that causes a reaction in him, and probably plunges him into confusion. Human beings are the only beings to whom Being displays itself. This is rather mysterious, isn’t it? Also mysterious is the fact that we and we alone have the capacity to be struck with wonder at the sheer fact that things display themselves to us in their Being. Further, while we may be the only beings who register Being, it does not seem to be in any sense “subjective,” or dependent upon us. We live in a world of meaning that is not of our conscious creation. And over the course of history, the meaning things have for us changes, in ways that also do not seem to have been the result of human beings’ conscious design.
Now, I have suggested that this second approach to the nature of philosophy understands the central question of the discipline to be “What is Being?” — so that, fundamentally, philosophy is ontology: the study of Being. From the perspective of this way of understanding philosophy, the “classical” approach I have attributed to Plato (ably explained by Leo Strauss) seems to miss something fundamental. It concerns itself merely with beings, and not with Being. Even “the Idea of the Good,” represented by the Sun, is merely a being, though an exalted one. The Platonic approach studies the “natures” or “essences” of beings, but sidesteps the question of essence itself — the question “What is Being?” Aristotle raises this question explicitly — but then commits the fallacy discussed earlier of confusing Being with God, who is merely the most exalted of all the beings (of the things that have Being).
Philosophy, according to the classical account, aims at “the whole,” which will somehow be knowledge of how all the different essences form a systematic totality. (Plato seems to aim for this in his “architectonic” of forms in the later dialogues.) But there is an argument to be made that Being is the true whole. As meaning itself, it is that in virtue of which all things and their “natures” form a world for us. In other words, it is that in virtue of which all things are able to have significance; to mean something. Being is the ground of this possibility; the ground against which the many figures, the multiplicity of beings, show up in their meaningful relationships to us and to each other. Being is thus a kind of a “one.” Ultimately, the “meaning of life” that philosophers are supposed to be looking for may simply be the fact that there is meaning; that human beings are the beings that live with meanings.
4. Phenomenology, or Letting Beings Be
While the classical approach to philosophy, which dominates the discipline’s entire history, seems to originate with Plato, is there an exemplar for this second approach, the one that concerns itself with Being? Heidegger felt that there was evidence of it in Greek literature, and in some of the fragments of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. My own suggestion would be to look to Parmenides (fl. 475 BC). The fragments of his writings tell of a meeting with a goddess who teaches him of a “road” called “it is” (ἔστιν; estin). This way stands opposed to a road called “it is not” (οὐκ ἔστιν; ouk estin), which cannot be followed. His goddess teaches us that “it is” is ungenerated and deathless; undivided, without multiplicity, and perfect; without past or future, but instead now.
The goddess is speaking about Being, which possesses these characteristics in contrast to the beings that appear in its light. To follow the road of “it is” is to be struck with wonder that “it is”; to be struck with wonder in the face of Being. Heidegger writes, “The basic disposition of the first beginning [i.e., of the early Greeks] is wonder [Er-staunen]: wonder that beings are and that humans themselves are and are in the midst of that which they are not.” (Though my own reading of Parmenides owes less to Heidegger than it does to Peter Kingsley’s recent research.)
Heidegger says that with Platonism the attempt to give voice to Being is abandoned and Being is “forgotten.” The focus of philosophy becomes what he calls “metaphysics,” which concerns itself with beings exclusively. The reasons why this shift away from Being takes place are mysterious, but it is bound up with the dark human desire to remove all resistance in beings by negating or denying the intrinsic characters they present to us, as well as the depths they contain and that we may never fathom. It is a desire to render them fully manipulable (I have written extensively about this desire elsewhere). When philosophy becomes metaphysics, it issues ultimately in the spirit of modernity, which Heidegger characterizes as machination (Machenschaft). This is the attitude that all beings, including human beings, are malleable and manipulable through planning and calculation. The end result of this planning is the “making over” of beings into some new “product” devised by man. Through machination, nature is progressively erased and humans are confronted entirely with products of their own design.
We can see that we are on the road to this with the definition of wisdom in Euthydemus as “knowledge of the right use of all things.” Here, wisdom is explicitly linked with utility. It conveys knowledge of how to correctly exploit all things for their use-value. And because this leads to happiness, wisdom itself is good precisely because it has utility. The diametrical opposite of this approach is the one I have characterized as concerned principally with the question “What is Being?” Wisdom, for this approach, is knowledge of Being. But this knowledge has no “practical” value at all; it is not “good for” anything. One cannot justify pursuit of this knowledge in terms of its utility, since it has none.
Somewhere or other, Heidegger quotes a well-known couplet by the mystical poet Angelus Silesius:
Die Ros ist ohn warum; sie blühet weil sie blühet,
Sie acht nicht ihrer selbst, fragt nicht, ob man sie siehet.
The rose is without why; it blooms because it blooms,
It pays no attention to itself, asks not if anyone sees it.
To confront the rose without demanding “Why?” — and certainly without asking “How can I make use of this?” — is to confront the rose in its Being. And to confront ourselves — to inquire about the being that confronts the rose in its Being — is to recognize that we are like the rose. “Why seek knowledge of Being?” “Why do philosophy?” are questions that have no answer. Human being is without why; it asks about Being because it asks about Being. This is its uniquely human role. Somewhere else, Heidegger quotes Rainer Maria Rilke: “We are the bees of the invisible. We ceaselessly gather the honey of the visible, to store it up in the great golden beehive of the Invisible.”
The opposite of machination is what Heidegger calls Gelassenheit, a term he borrows from Meister Eckhart. Gelassenheit literally means something like “leavingness” or “letting be-ness.” Heidegger scholars often translate it as “letting beings be.” This can mean letting them alone, rather than constantly approaching them with the attitude of manipulation. But related to this is “letting beings be” in the sense of letting them display what they are. It suggests openness to Being, rather than the “closedness” of machination, which insists on stamping some other meaning upon beings, one that serves our own narrow interests of the moment.
I suggested earlier that wisdom, for this new philosophical beginning, would be knowledge of Being. But such knowledge is only possible through letting beings be. This is more an attitude or an approach than a theory. And it is almost impossible not to associate it with the Taoist attitude of wu wei. Heidegger himself recognized this, and in 1946 collaborated with a Chinese scholar on a never-completed translation of the Tao Te Ching. Does this mean, then, that in the end this new approach to philosophy issues in a way, a path, or an “awakening” — rather than in the endless scribbling that characterizes the history of Western metaphysics?
Heidegger would certainly have rejected this, and I reject it also. Even if we may recognize that Western metaphysics rests on fundamental errors and has issued in modern nihilism, it still reflects the burning desire to know (the “divine madness”) that characterizes the Western spirit. In a future essay, I will discuss the fundamental “Westernness” of philosophy. Suffice it to say here that it is something of an equivocation to refer to the thought of the East as “philosophy.” There are very important differences between East and West in the matter of what constitutes “thought.” When staying at his hut, Heidegger may have chopped wood and fetched water from the well, but those were brief respites from hours spent at his desk writing essays and lectures, engaged in what he called das Denken (thinking). I cannot reconcile myself to any “philosophy” that enjoins me to give up das Denken in favor of more wood-chopping and trips to the well, even if it is done with “mindfulness” (as people say today).
So, philosophy — to be Western philosophy — cannot simply be the adoption of an attitude of Gelassenheit, and nothing more. But then in what will the activity of philosophy consist? I have already indicated that if the question of Being is understood to be the central question of philosophy, then ontology would be its primary task. But what does this mean, exactly? It would be easy here to simply offer some Heideggerean-sounding formula like “philosophy is the saying of Being.” But this is too vague, and it casts too wide a net. Poetry is also the saying of Being — indeed, for Heidegger it is the primary form of human saying, and it comes before philosophy. Heidegger tells us that “Poetry is the saying of the unconcealedness of what is.” The “unconcealedness of what is” is just Heideggerean code for “Being.”
The medium of poetry is language, and Heidegger tells us that “Where there is no language, as in the being of stone, plant, and animal, there is also no openness of what is, and consequently no openness either of that which is not and of the empty.” Language is also the medium of philosophy, but philosophy is not poetry. Hence, if philosophy is also to be a saying of Being, it must be a saying of a completely different sort. Here one gropes for a way to describe the language of philosophy: “abstract,” “discursive,” “conceptual,” or even “non-poetic.” None of these seems ideal — but we know exactly what they are getting at, because we have seen philosophical prose (indeed, you are reading it now), and for the most part it is devoid of images and metaphors.
It’s also hard to argue with Hegel’s claim that what makes philosophy different from poetry is that the language of philosophy can give an account of itself, whereas poetry cannot. A poetic account of the poetic is impossible (see Plato’s Ion). To give an account of what a poem “means,” why those particular words or phrases were chosen by the poet, and what the poet’s “intentions” were would require setting aside poetic language and speaking in a language more like that of philosophy. Indeed, philosophy claims to be able to provide such an account of poetry. It also claims to be able to give an account of itself — its method, presuppositions, choices of language, etc. — that does not require setting aside the language of philosophy and adopting some other approach.
So, philosophy will be a “discursive, “non-poetic” account of Being. But actually it will be much more than this. Heidegger believed that he knew what Being was (see my account of Heidegger’s understanding of Being here), so it is a bit of a misconception to characterize his career as a long search for the “meaning of Being.” Asking the question of Being is only the first step into philosophy. What philosophy will largely be preoccupied with is the implications of the fact that we are the beings that ask the question of Being. If we are indeed the only beings to whom Being is given, then this would seem to provide us with the key to “philosophical anthropology,” to the discipline that asks “What is man?”
And if we are what we are in being related to Being, how do we live this relation? Are there proper and improper ways to relate ourselves to Being? To register Being would seem to require a certain type of openness. Is it possible to be “closed” to Being, and what would be the result of this? Here we seem to be approaching ontology’s implications for ethics. Further, could cultures or historical periods be defined by their relation to Being? If Being/meaning changes over time, then are there different, if you will, “ages of Being”? Here we seem to approach questions relating to the philosophy of culture. Other examples are possible.
All of these questions will be approached through a fundamental openness to what is, to what we are, to how we orient ourselves to what is, to how Being presents itself in different times and places, etc. This openness is achieved through the setting aside of all theories about the objects of philosophy, and all determinate presuppositions (recall Hegel’s definition of philosophy as “presuppositionless science”). Instead, the orientation of philosophy shall be primarily descriptive; it shall describe these phenomena honestly, just as we encounter them. In the past, philosophers often failed to do this. They smuggled in various presuppositions, often adopted from earlier philosophers or authority figures, about which they failed to be sufficiently critical. But, one might ask, is it ever possible to be entirely rid of theories and presuppositions? Perhaps not. But if getting rid of them is possible, only philosophy can do it, for recall that philosophy is a science of itself, as well as a science of “all things.” Philosophy can critique itself; it can give an accounting of itself. If it smuggles in theories and presuppositions, only more philosophical thought can detect this.
To say that the orientation of philosophy shall be (or should be) descriptive is to say that philosophy is phenomenology. Phenomenology (literally, the study or science of phenomena) is a philosophical movement founded by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), Heidegger’s teacher. It attempts to describe the fundamental ways in which things (in the broadest possible sense of the term) appear to awareness (in the broadest possible sense of the term). The motto of Husserl’s phenomenology was “back to the things themselves!” This means: Get back to how things actually appear to us, instead of seeing them through the lens of theories and presuppositions about what we are “really” experiencing.
If this is the aim of phenomenology, then it appears to be much the same thing as Gelassenheit. “Back to the things themselves” — back to how they really do present themselves to us — is the same thing as “letting beings be.” Thus, what we have in philosophy conceived as Heideggerean das Denken is an intersection of philosophical method, grounding the possibility of the noble activity of philosophical scribbling with what I will call, for lack of a better term, “spiritual practice.” In other words, what has occurred in Heideggerean das Denken is, effectively, the re-sacralization of philosophy. Gelassenheit looks a great deal like a religious stance, for it is essentially piety towards Being, a rejection of the flat-souled nihilism of modern humanistic machination.
For Pythagoras, Parmenides, Socrates, and other ancient philosophers, philosophy was a divine mission. Yes, a divine mission that challenges even the divine — as Socrates did when he tried to disprove the oracle’s claim that he was the wisest man in Athens. And Heidegger very clearly saw himself as the prophet of a coming “dispensation of Being,” for which the “destruction” of the entire history of metaphysics was to pave the way. But Gelassenheit is simultaneously the basis of philosophical inquiry in its “new inception” (neuer Anfang). It is the basis of the “phenomenological reduction,” the pathway back to the things themselves — and to their description, which is philosophy’s infinite task. In this descriptive stance, philosophers are indeed like the spectators at the Olympic games: observers, onlookers. But what I did not mention earlier was that Pythagoras attached an ethical and “spiritual” significance to this. I will end with Iamblichus’ words from his Life of Pythagoras:
He likened the entrance of men into the present life to the progression of a crowd to some public spectacle. There assemble men of all descriptions and views. One hastens to sell his wares for money and gain; another exhibits his bodily strength for renown; but the most liberal [i.e., the freest] assemble to observe the landscape, the beautiful works of art, the specimens of valor, and the customary literary productions. So also in the present life men of manifold pursuits are assembled. Some are incensed by the desire of riches and luxury; others by the love of power and dominion, or by insane ambition for glory. But the purest and most genuine character is that of the man who devotes himself to the contemplation of the most beautiful things; and he may properly be called a philosopher.
* * *
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 Robert J. Sternberg, ed., Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
 166e5-6: λέγω τοίνυν, ἦ δ᾽ ὅς, ὅτι μόνη τῶν ἄλλων ἐπιστημῶν αὐτή τε αὑτῆς ἐστιν καὶ τῶν ἄλλων ἐπιστημῶν ἐπιστήμη.
 Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 9.
 Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event), trans. Richard Rojcewicz & Daniela Vallega-Neu (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2012), 37. Heidegger is speaking of the early Greeks in general, not of Parmenides in particular.
 See Peter Kingsley, Reality, second edition (Catafalque Press, 2020).
 It may plausibly be argued that Plato offers this definition knowing that it is problematic (and I discussed problems with it earlier). In other words, it may not have been, at any time, a definition of wisdom he wholly embraced. Discerning Plato’s actual positions is difficult, as he never speaks in his own voice in the dialogues (and Socrates’ voice is thick with irony and sophistical reasoning). Nevertheless, what is decisive for the history of philosophy is what “Platonism” was understood to be — whether or not Plato was himself a “Platonist.”
 Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 130. Italics in original. In Rilke’s original text, the first sentence in the quote is in his native German. The second sentence is in French.
 Poetry, Language, Thought, 74.
 Poetry, Language, Thought, 73.
I am not a philosopher, and I certainly don’t understand all the concepts presented here to the depth that someone who’s thought about for a while would, nor do I have the pulse of modern philosophy. Nevertheless, here’s my layman’s reaction to the article:
General intelligence is the ability to effectively create and apply abstraction. Smart people are good at this, and eventually apply this technique to knowledge itself, resulting in philosophy. When the limits of man’s ability to perceive and reason are reached, philosophy becomes untethered and of low value.
Practically, wisdom is the ability to make decisions that result in good outcomes, where “good” is what a person would call good when evaluating the entirety of their life. I guess this is more in the “right use” style of thinking, and I think it is useful. There are ways to reason about this in order to create tangible improvement in its application. For example, we can observe that there is no universal “wisdom” across all people, because people are not identical and don’t value the same things. We can also observe that it isn’t fully individual, because there is similarity between people, and groups of people, and interactions between people are important (i.e. the effects of one person’s decisions affect others). Finally, wisdom can not be fully reliable, because many decisions are statistical and have random (or at least unknowable to a man) outcomes.
The question of Being appears unimportant to me. It’s obvious that man believes he exists, and is wired in a certain fashion such as to cause him to perceive things as he does. We don’t have to know why people exist or why they take satisfaction in certain things in order to promote actions that result in more satisfaction. If there are deeper truths, there is no evidence that this is relevant to the experience of man, or can ever be.
There is nothing wrong with pursuing those thoughts; they are interesting to a thinking person’s mind. But I am not aware of any practical benefit that has derived from such musings. If something is interesting but of no additional practical use, it should be regarded appropriately. Neither more nor less.
If there are tangible benefits (beyond being interesting) to modern philosophy, I am interesting in hearing about them. A quick glance at wikipedia’s list of modern philosophies does not immediately convince me of any practical value, besides those things that are naturally part of more concrete studies (e.g. logic).
I would argue that it is wisdom to accept the limitations of man’s thought and ability to perceive, and thus to make philosophy more practical. A good axiom would be to state that human nature exists roughly as we perceive it, and that our goal is to maximize outcomes desired by humans. Then, we would take honest inventories of human nature — its values, motivations, and variation. Finally, we would design systems of organization that are best suited to each cluster of human nature.
This is not a novel idea, and I’m sure that some lines of philosophy have begun with exactly that question, but straying, possibly because it’s unsatisfying to accept observable human nature as a starting point.
I loved your article and I haven’t even finished it yet. It truly shocked me that you brought up Wilfrid Sellars. I saw him speak at the U of Iowa in 1975 or 76 when I was just 19 or 20. I didn’t understand any of it but I think it was on meta-Ethics. It reminded me that one of my older graduate students when I was in grad school at UC Santa Barbara around 1981 said that somebody (I wish I can remember who) said that WF was one of the 5 greatest philosophers of all time.
Sorry, I meant WS, not WF. Typo.
Thank you for this piece, especially the section on Phenomenology, which I read closely and with great interest. In the sequel, would it be helpful to those of us who are not experts to ascend more gently to Heidegger via Kant and Husserl? One other point: I believe that cats, dogs and many other forms of beings do wonder at, and seek to make sense of, the world. Might then we humans glean something from the non-human friends and companion creatures with whom we share our lives and homes?
To ascend to Heidegger via Kant and Husserl is not that gentle, since both are very difficult to read also. I recommend that you read the essays in the volume “Heidegger: Basic Writings,” translated by David Farrell Krell. Perhaps you are a German speaker — but many Germans who know English find Heidegger easier to read in English! You should also read Heidegger’s lecture course “Introduction to Metaphysics,” which is very accessible. See also my essays on Heidegger here at C-C, as well as Greg Johnson’s book “Graduate School with Heidegger.” Another book worth reading is Michael Zimmerman’s “Heidegger’s Confrontation with Modernity.”
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