Philosophy is the means by which we create meaning from the spaces between facts.
The importance of philosophy today is the same as its importance from its start more than 2500 years ago: the attempt to understand the world and create meaning from its madness using one’s mind and the language of logic. The scope of its analysis has certainly changed since Thales, but clear thinking and creative conceptual development remain fundamental to any and all attempts at understanding the operations of the world and our place within it.
The 20th century was a time of crisis within philosophy as the successes of the empirical sciences called the very discipline into question. Physics, chemistry and biology rightly claimed superiority in the understanding of physical phenomena; psychology laid claim to studying the operations of the mind and these claims became ever more valid with the formalization of neuroscience and cognitive psychology, while economics staked its claim on understanding the operations of society as a whole. In response to these developments, different philosophers put forth a number of competing frameworks designed to preserve the integrity and importance of philosophy. AJ Ayer defined philosophy as a strictly critical endeavor, a linguistic enterprise whose principal function was the analysis of propositions in terms of sense and verifiability. The later Wittgenstein presented philosophy as a battle against the bewitchment of language and an activity of consciousness, while Deleuze and Guattari defined philosophy as the creation of concepts in the face of chaos.
We can create a meaningful existence, we can create a kind and caring and expressive life, we can live as fully and as freely as any human before us has ever lived and any human after us will ever live.
My own views of philosophy are very much influenced by these ideas, but I also see these systems as both too limiting and too abstract, too focused on methodological purity to properly interrogate the Escher-like nature of our everydayness. In my view, philosophy is the means by which we create and extract meaning from the spaces between facts, from within the intellectual troughs and boroughs in which our ideas and beliefs emerge from. It is surely a critical enterprise, but it is also a constructive one. Physics may tell us about the fabric of the universe and chemistry about the structure of things, but neither can tell us how to proceed in a world of competing value systems. Psychology can certainly tell us much about how we think and the way in which the mind emerges from lower level brain functions, but it can’t tell us how to interpret the conflicting claims that characterize our everyday lives, how to choose between necessarily incompatible ends, nor how to make sense of horror, be it the genocide of six million people or the murders of three thousand strangers whose only similarity was the address in which they worked. Rilke defined beauty as the ‘beginning of terror’ and in my view philosophy is how we navigate the world once this beauty has dissipated and we find ourselves trapped within its detritus.
Philosophy has a two-fold function: it critically analyzes the structural integrity of the concepts forced upon us by our language and our culture, by the arbitrary frameworks of our politics and our times; and, it helps us to negotiate meaningful pathways through a world where our knowledge is necessarily incomplete. Philosophy is the manner in which we interrogate the structures of the society in which are living, how we question the continuance of merely traditional mores and how we analyze the validity of the truth claims that underlie the relations of power in any given epoch. Philosophy is how we apply logic to the facts of the world—and even more importantly—to the spaces between those facts; it is how we locate the weak points in an argument, how we attack whatever frameworks claim to be complete and necessary when they are neither.
The second aspect of philosophy emerges from the first and is, truly, its fundamental function: from our position of necessarily uncertain knowledge, philosophy underlies how we construct meaning and order from the world that surrounds us, it is how we create and evaluate our project (s) in an honest manner and how we decide to organize our conceptual frameworks about the world at large. Philosophy requires us to be humble in our conclusions because it demands that we remain truthful about the nature of our premises as necessarily incomplete, even as we recognize their existence as completely necessary for our active engagement with the world at large.
Philosophy can help us construct rational rules governing our interactions with the world, but it can not tell us how to act or feel or react in every possible situation. That is our responsibility. Philosophy is not religion, it is not a closed value system that claims its Truth as a premise for the construction of rigid social and cultural systems; it is the system by which we learn to create our own values, values guided by logic and, hopefully, by love. Just as one of its primary functions is to interrogate the meaning of the spaces between facts, it also requires us to create our own paths from within and between the spaces of the very ideas it helped us to create. All of our knowledge is positional, all of our conclusions necessarily incomplete, but the beauty and the wonder of our lives, the genius of our everydayness that is constantly put in question and is active for always too short a time is that we can create a meaningful existence, we can create a kind and caring and expressive life, we can live as fully and as freely as any human before us has ever lived and any human after us will ever live. But to succeed at each of these endeavors requires us to ascend to a position of honest appraisal of the limitations of our concepts and the uncertainties of our conclusions, to create meaning where none has been provided to us and, in this sense, philosophy is not simply one method among others in the creation of a beautiful life, but is—and must be—the primary method by which we take charge and take care of the most precious and unique structure in the known universe: ourselves.