What is Philosophical Inquiry For? A Reconsideration

I have been a philosophical guide for about five years. I believe that a philosophical guide inquires with another human being about his life.

The question soon and often emerges: what is philosophical inquiring for? Initially (around 2011-12), I provided an answer that was too stringent: the aim of philosophical inquiry is to lead a radiant life. (See A Guidebook for Philosophical Life (2012)). A radiant person is someone who has the demeanor, I argued then, that is gentle and welcoming, such a demeanor arising out of his embodiment of a salient set of virtues manifested in beautiful expression. The answer is too stringent both because I had, with Plato, identified the best human life with the philosophical life and because I had taken up the overdemanding task of guiding each conversation partner toward radiance. To be sure, it seems reasonable to object that the most excellent human life needn’t be a the philosophical life (point conceded), and it seems outlandish to believe that those who come to inquire with me seek goodness elevated to the point of beauty (second point conceded). Excellent human lives can be lived in a variety of forms, though not in an infinite variety.

This much I realized by the end of 2012. A response was then required, a new consideration of what philosophical inquiry is for. From 2012-13 (let’s say), I “thinned out” that for the sake of which we inquire so that it was one of these: clarity (“greater clarity than one could have possibly conceived of”), illumination, or self-knowledge. All three I took to mean the same thing. Of course, there is nothing wrong with believing that any philosophical inquiry would be such as to bring us to a greater sense of clarity than we could have ever conceived of or such as to disclose self-knowledge to us, yet this on its own doesn’t give us grounds for continuing to inquire together for one or two or three years (and so on) together. The theoretical justification doesn’t fit our actual experiences of inquiring together, and the final aim seems very vague and thin. One wants to ask: “Self-knowledge–meaning what exactly?”

I needed something thicker and more substantive without falling into the too stringent radiance account. I reckon this is why from 2013-4, I held a strong “practice-first, transformative” view. On this understanding, we continue to inquire in order to cultivate an everyday practice in a set of salient virtues. If someone were to ask, “Why do I continue to inquire of myself and with others? Why continue to examine myself?,” the answer might be that this is how one slowly,  incrementally changes one’s life. It is only through a most rigorous practice, one involving not the least self-examination, that one can achieve a certain mastery of one’s life.

I’m not opposed to this (indeed I still subscribe to the view that philosophy is practice in a way of life), yet it also fails to provide the specificity I’m after, the kind of specificity offered in the initial radiance account. Nor does it fold within itself all the experiences I have while I inquire each day with conversation partners and philosophical friends across Europe, North America, and the Middle East. Sure, we can continue to practice, sure continue to change our lives, but–well, for the sake of what, again?

I’m not sure that I have a final answer and I’m not sure that a final answer exists anyway, but I think I have a clearer answer. As I consider the philosophical conversations held from beginning but–to keep this chronological–from 2014 to the present, I can now see come into focus the following three final aims:

1.) Path-setting. Young persons, particularly those grappling with nihilism, have yet to set foot on a path while those living through transitions wonder whether what is the next path. They do not know what this means, and they do not know what the right path is for them. Hence, we inquire to find the path and for my conversation partner or philosophical friend to thereby set forth. (See The Good Life and Sustaining Life.)

2.) Making Explicit. People have vague notions, unclear ideas half-formed and “prior to” articulation that come forth and are made explicit in and through philosophical inquiry. A Sufi, someone returning from ayahuasca, a Christian, a social entrepreneur, a budding philosopher, an artist oriented toward the beautiful: all may be searching for the language with which to articulate and make sense of their experience. The question here is not–“Do I, as a philosophical guide, believe that this view is or must be true?”–but rather–“Is this a reasonable view for this kind of person to hold and live by”? The loving undertaking is to “give birth” to such ideas that another can embrace and live out. (This may be a way of articulating what clarity meant from 2012.)

3.) Confronting a Way of Thinking. All the way back in 2012 I began observing how vital it was to “confront one’s way of thinking in general” (The Art of Inquiry). Many of us have inherited mistaken and detrimental ways of thinking in general, holding what isn’t true, holding others to what is untrue, and living foolishly and viciously. Philosophical inquiring is the slow, ruthless, persistent, yet gentle investigation that meticulously “gets behind” our beliefs to arrive at our most basic metaphysical beliefs, those to which we are anchored. What is stunning is how we come to see for the first time the metaphysical beliefs that govern our lives. Absolutely stunning. These beliefs, bracing to behold, we must let go of. That is also part of the confrontation.

One implication of what I have argued is that these three final aims are enmeshed in sundry ways: e.g., confronting a way of thinking in general often leads to giving birth to ideas and then to finding a new path in life.

I will have to think further about whether these three final aims represent what I do every day. I am not entirely sure.

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