383. Gathering together (XII)
There are three senses in which people speak about philosophy as a subject. The first, most associated with ordinary speech, covers a very broad area that includes almost everything from old proverbs to vaguely wise observations to libertarian YouTuber Stefan Molyneux’s videos—essentially, this covers anything that seems somewhat deeper than an average conversation. “Speak ta Bill; a real philosopher—‘as ‘is own notions ‘bout ‘ow ta breed pigeons and all,” someone might say in the pub. In this sense, anyone who can create a metaphor or draw parallels between things is “a philosopher”; perhaps they just lack the social nuance not to take conversations beyond the superficial—perhaps they are seen as a bit pretentious. The expression is somewhat similar to the way someone who is seen to read a book—any book—comes to be called “a professor”. “Oooh, he’s a right professor now, with his Radio 4 and all.”
The second and technical sense in which people speak about philosophy is as it is discussed in the academy—i.e. by licensed or “real”, as they see it, philosophers. In this technical sense, philosophy is thinking about thinking; it is an attempt to tie together those meta-laws that govern all thought—mainly logical laws, though not exclusively—and so present an account that unites science, art, ethics, and politics. This usually takes a tripartite form: ontology (what “is”), epistemology (how we know what “is”), and justice (by extension, ethics and politics). Formal philosophy is related to the term’s common usage in the sense that a man who has his own “philosophy” as regards bricklaying has probably hit on a generalisable form of meta-knowledge that could be applied to other activities; i.e. he has thought one step above the activity as an activity.
Philosophy in this technical sense is now largely thought to be redundant because, as Heidegger observed, the next step after philosophy is cybernetics. Computer science—in its attempt to replicate thought in an artificial way—carries out philosophy in a scientific way, formalising meta-rules through computation with a precision not possible for a man who sits in an armchair and thinks about what he thinks and then thinks about that.
This leaves philosophy as a formal discipline rather threadbare, being left with the elements in human existence that are irrational or artistic—hence certain academic philosophical schools, such as Continental “theory”, amount to literary or artistic projects; perhaps even artistic responses to computer science. Ethics and political theory have degenerated into more or less police functions for the state; with an “ethicist” being a busybody whose job it is to complain when algorithms deliver “racist” outcomes—or to write editorials that express “concern” about eugenic implications from genetic research. This is a long way from a comprehensive and wise meta-account of man’s place in the universe that is carried out—per Socrates—with indifference to social mores.
Finally, the term “philosopher” is used in esoteric circles to describe everyone from the sometime novelist and occultist Colin Wilson to the soupy Rudolf Steiner to the maniac for megaliths John Michell. When this group speaks about “philosophy” they do not mean it as a rational investigation into thought as thought. Rather, they specifically refer to geometric and Pythagorean aspects to reality alluded to by Plato and Socrates; the idea that adherence to these patterns and rhythms brings about an ethical life and health.
This group tends to be a bit on the cringe side, mostly because quite a few people go in for esoteric ideas to feel important; and so you are likely to hear people in this field say, “Oh, yes he is a great philosopher, especially about angels.”—or, worse, “I am a philosopher.” But the term “philosopher”—a bit like “artist” or “statesman”—cannot be self-bestowed, or bestowed by your cronies; and quite a few people in esoteric circles, pretentiously, do just that—abrogate what is history’s judgement. The genuine philosophers number no more than five hundred—probably fewer than that.