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Sinking into life: the tragedy of our lost philosophy

Reading | Editorial

The editors | 2021-09-26

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In an age when abstraction and conceptual games have come to dominate our philosophy, we must wonder whether we’ve lost something important, even crucial, in our way to relate to the world, one another and even ourselves.

If an adventurous but regular person peruses today’s most scholarly academic literature on foundational philosophical topics, such as metaphysics, they are bound to be taken aback but the utter failure of such literature to relate to life in even the most menial ways. Analytic metaphysics has, by and large, turned into an abstract game utterly disconnected from the vividness and pungency of life; a puzzle wherein each piece is an invented concept and there is no pre-determined picture that should emerge when they’re put together. Consequently, each player assembles the pieces in whatever way pleases their intuitions, prejudices or agendas best, and proclaims the emerging picture to be correct. Out of this curious gameplay, intricate, entirely abstract conceptual edifices emerge, cladded in inaccessible jargon; games so abstruse and jargon so inaccessible, in fact, that even the specialists responsible for judging their quality often have difficulty determining whether they contain important insights or are just linguistic smoke and mirrors. We know it, for we often find ourselves in just such a position.

Often enough, professional philosophers are fond of weaving endless strings of concepts and qualifiers as if the linguistic sophistication of such intellectual edifices could somehow compensate for their lack of real-life substance, meaning, proximity, vividness and significance. Neologisms are liberally sprinkled on top of such edifices, so to disguise their otherwise conspicuous lack of originality. Papers are then published and tenures achieved. But these are empty victories that change precisely nothing; they fail to shed any light on the mightily strange condition in which we all find ourselves merely by being alive. For abstract conceptual games are just that: abstract products of ethereal thought that fail to sink into life. And herein lies the problem: for it to be anything, philosophy must sink into life. Short of it, it’s just a game, as lightly experienced and ultimately meaningless as any game.

When philosophy is merely ‘done,’ as a factory worker does work, it becomes counterproductive, a distraction (as all games are), an illusion of progress that encumbers real progress. The signs that this is precisely what’s happening are omnipresent: every few years, philosophers come up with new ideas that unashamedly contradict their previous ones, publishing new papers and new books in the process, and ultimately holding no position with any serious conviction. “But how could they be criticized for their bravery in acknowledging that they had been wrong? How could we censure their courage to change their minds in the presence of new evidence or new ratiocinations?” you might ask.

The problem is the naiveté of the notion that such changes are steps forward in a road that ultimately leads to truth. If anything, abstract conceptual games are circular: they go round and round, only to return to the point of departure, for they deliberately ignore the natural cognitive faculties that give us a steady sense of direction. Philosophical positions are swapped like changes of clothes because they are held lightly; they lack the gravitas, the weight of ideas capable of sinking into life; ideas that resonate with the body, calibrate and modulate our lived experience at every moment of our lives, inform our feelings and guide our most important choices.

Analytic philosophy attempts to separate itself from our intrinsic subjectivity in the hope of rendering itself purely objective. This extraordinarily ingenuous and vain hope aside, the main effect of the attempt has been to disconnect philosophy from its very source: the felt complexity, nuance, vividness and pungency of lived experience, without which philosophy is literally dead. Consider Nietzsche’s words, from his The Joyful Wisdom (1882):

We philosophers … are no thinking frogs, no objectifying and registering devices with frozen innards—we must constantly give birth to our thoughts out of our pain and maternally endow them with all that we have of blood, heart, fire, pleasure, passion, agony, conscience, fate, and disaster. Life—to us, that means constantly transforming all that we are into light and flame, and also all that wounds us … Only great pain is the liberator of the spirit.

Professional philosophers in the 21st century are proud to be “thinking frogs,” for only then—they presume—can their output be objective and reliable. Ironically, it’s precisely this attitude that makes their output unreliable, for it disconnects them from the very cognitive faculties that could otherwise give them a steady sense of direction.

“But just what are these faculties?” we hear you ask. Are we calling for a reliance on vague intuitions, as opposed to rigorous logical reasoning and empirical evidence? Are we defending a return to the lack of conceptual clarity that plagued continental philosophy before the rise of the analytic school, in the early 20th century? Surely not. As the editors responsible for pursuing the stated goals of Essentia Foundation, we demand conceptual clarity, rigorous reasoning and empirical grounding from the work we publish and otherwise support. So what is missing?

The best way to state what we are calling for, while avoiding the trap of yet more abstract conceptual games, is to put it so: we are calling for analytic philosophy to be taken truly seriously by its own practitioners. Philosophical ideas should be put forward with the same earnestness and weight with which one makes a life-changing choice, or even a life-risking choice. “Would you stake your life, or that of a loved one, on the ideas you are putting forward?” That’s the question every analytic philosopher should ask themselves before publishing anything. Yes, this is a high demand indeed, but not at all unreasonable: doctors, airline pilots, traffic controllers and engineers, among many others, make these life-and-death choices every day. They don’t hold their positions lightly, even though they know there are inevitable risks involved. Their professions intrinsically carry the weight of the continuation—or not—of life. And so does philosophy, for as serious a matter as the continuation of life is life’s very meaning. It is the lived acknowledgment of the responsibility carried by philosophical work that invests it with the gravitas of life itself, and mobilizes all of the practitioner’s cognitive faculties. If one realizes this, it becomes unimportant to explicitly name those faculties; we all know them by direct acquaintance when our lives—or their meaning—are at stake.

True philosophy is the art and science of finding out how to live life meaningfully. What are we? What are we supposed to do and how to go about it? What is it all for? What is the foundation of out relationship with nature? These are the questions that give birth to philosophy as the most uniquely human activity, our distinctive contribution to the dance of nature. Professional philosophers who regard their work with any less earnestness do not deserve to be called ‘professionals’—or ‘philosophers,’ for that matter. They’re just players.

Essentia Foundation regards metaphysics with the greatest earnestness. For us, metaphysics is the blood of human life. We seek to be a supportive channel for work that sinks into the lives of our readers, enriching them in the process. This is our key value and our raison d’être. We are not here to play games.

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