Tags: philosophy, thinking, questioning, wonder, spirituality, freedom, transcendence, moral reckoning, phenomenology, intentionality, Aristotle, Martin Heidegger, Sarah Bakewell, Pierre Hadot.
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) wrote* that philosophy is grounded in a specific question (What is Being?), and guided by a related question (What are beings?). For Heidegger, then, philosophy is a matter of those particular questions, a matter of specific questioning. However, Heidegger’s grounding and guiding questions express the “thing” or object bias of phenomenology (“To the things!”), which was based on a claim known as the principle of intentionality: consciousness is always “of something”. As a gateway into philosophy, phenomenology has an exceptionally good thing about it: it is a program of personal thinking, rather than theory that you have to remember. In doing phenomenology, you don’t have to remember anything but that you are re-evaluating your experience by practicing a novel mindfulness (initially non-verbal), eventually writing about the process. It begins with an effort to clear out of perception all the clutter of previously learned assumptions, conceptions, and theories. Phenomenology does not claim to pass on knowledge of eternal reality. The question of objective reality is suspended, bracketed off. What seems to happen is itself the object of interest. However, a problem with phenomenology is the conception of human spirituality or intelligence as “consciousness”. Consciousness, by definition, is passive and nothing but receptive. To assert the classic claim of intentionality – consciousness is always “of something” – just asserts the definition of consciousness. However, consciousness is not a stand-alone autonomous event, but rather is an aspect of a more complex spiritual flight and engagement. The more fundamental questions that ground and guide philosophy concern spirituality rather than phenomenological “things”.
To paraphrase Aristotle, philosophy is spirituality thinking about spirituality, dissatisfied with the imperfection of its self-possession, doing what it can to re-conceptualize the transcendence of its existence as spirituality, its freedom and non-actuality. Seen this way, philosophy is a specific spiritual quest, an embodied spirituality questing to overcome the self-alienation that is peculiarly typical of spirituality (of Existenz), with intent to arrive at a new but still primordial self-acquaintance. So, maybe Heidegger got the philosophical questions wrong. A strong candidate for the grounding and guiding question of philosophy might be: What is thinking?
The Blind-Spot is Spirituality
In an age of science, spirituality is the blind-spot. The philosophical identification of spirituality is different, but not entirely different, from the religious. Moral reckoning is not as central to spirituality as conceived philosophically: mechanisms of moral ledgering and payout as retribution or reward can be absent completely. The philosophical sense of spirituality is the engagement with brute actuality of non-actualities such as anticipation, evaluation, aspiration, and deliberation over pre-actual alternative possible interventions in actuality. The philosophical response to recognizing the transcendent freedom of spirituality (accomplished by its power of creating those non-actualities) is not gratitude or any other kind of answerability, as if to a top-down super-provider, but instead is creative curiosity, questioning, a wondering that is an active bearing into actuality. When that curiosity expresses itself, or could be fairly represented, as the question “What is thinking?”, then this spirituality bears toward self-acquaintance. In aid of self-acquaintance it can abandon common and familiar categories and boundaries designating itself and go on without them, before trial-applying some novel fixations of a new orientation to this spiritual force-point of non-actuality, and of this spiritual self to its surroundings things.
So, thinking is an exercise of elemental spirituality. It is a readiness, inside the bearing of an actively enlarging orientation, to evade familiar concepts, categories and boundaries, to dissolve them with questioning, and to form a novel, more inclusive, synthesis of experience from within and outside those boundaries and categories. Questioning is always some degree of a dissolving force against previously fixed categories and boundaries. To conceptualize is to place and posture yourself within an opening with some particularity of shape, arrangement of contents, and inclusion of remote presences. Thinking includes creating novel conceptualizations and re-orienting within novel conceptualizations. Thinking is vigilance inside a question, inside the innocent unknowing of curiosity, listening with the ear of curiosity, so to speak, but with not just an ear but a radar which projects a stream of novel possible orientations, to find what might work as a newly shaped opening.
Anyone encountering philosophy confronts the question: do I have to learn the theories of every philosopher in history to get it? The quick answer is: certainly not! Philosophy is a way of being spiritual, of thinking (as in phenomenology), rather than some collection of words-of-wisdom or nuggets-of-knowledge. It is not the secrets of eternity passed personally from teacher to student like a mantra, preserved by being hidden from the common crowd in obscure terminology. Philosophy is the exact opposite of anything cultish because it insists on personal autonomy of thinking. However, university programs do a poor job of coaching thinking. In the academic context, thinking is limited to (misrepresented as) formal logic, learning to evaluate the validity of arguments. In the Anglo-empiricist tradition thinking is inseparable from language and so the only way to think about thinking is to study the formalities and rules of language, and especially the rules of logic embedded within language. You study the current debate on certain issues, or the history of debate on traditional issues: the ideas, claims, and arguments of noteworthy and influential philosophers from the past, things you have to remember so that your memory can be tested and declared worthy or unworthy in yet another moral reckoning. However, it soon becomes apparent that the core of philosophy is not the conceptual system of any particular tradition, or of all taken together, but is instead some mental process accessible to anyone more or less spontaneously, and not well represented by formal logic. There is no indispensable philosopher, or any other reliable introduction, when it comes to the mental process peculiar to philosophy.
*Nietzsche, Volumes One and Two, written by Martin Heidegger (Volume One: The Will to Power as Art, Volume Two: The Eternal Recurrence of the Same), Translated from German by David Farrell Krell, Published by Harper One, An imprint of Harper Collins Publishers (1991), (Reprint. Originally published: San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979-87) ISBN 978-0-06-063841-2. (See the question on p. 68, Volume One).
At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, written by Sarah Bakewell, published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada (2016), ISBN 978-0-345-81095-3.
This is an up-to-date and absorbing introduction to the ideas and historical milieu of existentialism and phenomenology.
What Is Ancient Philosophy?, written by Pierre Hadot, translated by Michael Chase, published by Belknap Press; (2002), ISBN: 0674007336.
This is an especially approachable gateway into philosophy, moving emphasis to how thinking was cultivated as a spiritual way of life.
Copyright © 2016 Sandy MacDonald.