Lesson 3.     Philosophy as the Art of Thinking.

    In Physics, Biology or History, we have well defined methods and contents at our disposal. In each of these fields one can acquire specialised techniques and knowledge. Can we say this much of Philosophy? We have seen that Philosophy cannot be placed alongside other forms of knowledge. Does this mean that Philosophy would have no method and not be something one can learn?

    As Kant explains, strictly speaking you do not “learn” Philosophy as you would History or Geography. You can only learn to think philosophically, which is very different. Philosophy demands a personal commitment such that you cannot be indifferent to its teaching. One cannot recite Philosophy without ceasing thereby to do Philosophy; one can only think for oneself time and again. We are ourselves involved in each philosophical question. Thus the method of Philosophy can be summed up as followed: to learn to think for oneself. In this light one can view Philosophy as an art of thinking. But what does this consist in?


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A.   The philosophical method.

    The word art implies a skilful, easy manner in which to perform a specific action. The art of thinking means the art of correctly conducting one’s reasoning, in other words, the art of thinking properly using one’s own latent potential and adequate techniques. The method can be learnt and skilfulness is gradually gained with practice. Hence we should say a word or two about methods of philosophical thinking and give some advice as to how to proceed. What follows may seem a little abstract for the time being, but will get clearer as we move on. Here we are giving a first few indications. We shall be coming back to everything we say here, and it will be given ample justification later on. Practice makes perfect and it is by doing it that one learns to think philosophically.

    Philosophy, as a reflection on all the forms of human experience must first of all teach us to see what this experience consists in, to recognize what is real in this experience in order to be able to describe it. We must think of philosophical exercise as an investigation of reality, an enquiry which, because it takes place from the point of view of the thing it is examining, yields a more complete understanding of this thing. As such, the first effort in trying to understand must always take us to the thing itself, we must get in touch with what we are trying to comprehend. If I want to understand hatred, I must see what hatred is, I must learn to see. We must constantly return to the things themselves through our immediate experience of them as they present themselves to us. Usually we allow our mind to wander along useless thoughts, carried by our imagination. Theories are also often approached in this way: one doesn’t give much attention to the thing they describe. Philosophy begins with waking up to that which is, to Being. This attention to Being is our own or not at all since no one can pay attention in our stead, no one can understand for us. Philosophy means rising to the level of an impartial witness, to the position of a lucid spectator of reality. Husserl speaks in the language of a phenomenological spectator. We shall be using the terms impartial witness and also lucid observer. It is necessary to know how to observe if one is to be able to discriminate real from unreal, truth from falsehood. It is when thinking plunges its roots in the very fundaments of experience that the fruit of true philosophy can grow ripe.

    Philosophical activity, we saw this in the case of Socrates, comes about with questioning. The philosopher is not content with admiring the world with artistic eyes, he questions its meaning. Philosophical method is very much about how to ask questions correctly. A well-asked question contains already the seed of its answer. Hence Philosophy is not just about cornering one’s interlocutors with insoluble questions. Relentless contradicting is not philosophizing! Correct questioning constitutes the true movement of philosophical investigation, a question that unfolds the Meaning of what is. Through questioning the mind attains the inherent connections of things, those that account for a process, a development, the intelligibility of a phenomenon or a state. It is a little as if reality presented itself to us as a carpet, an intricate texture of various shapes and colours which would be its face value. To understand means to have access to the underlying pattern of ideas that make up the manifest phenomenon of reality. It is via a journey through appearances that one discovers Sense.

    In philosophy one investigates by analysing. This word may sound a little frightening to the beginner and is often misunderstood. Philosophical analysis is not the same as chemical analysis, a break-down of molecules. We do not seek to break reality into little bits and pieces; nevertheless analysis is a tool which splits, since it is the instrument used to discriminate. Since the immediate awareness absorbing us is rather muddled, the path to understanding will have to pass through learning how to make distinctions. There is nothing enigmatic about philosophical analysis, we might just as well call it description. Analysing means describing the fundamental structures of everything. Philosophy offers two methods of doing this:

    1) Either your analysis relies on words. This is what we ourselves did earlier on with the word “philosophy”. If we pay attention, language can show us the way to essential distinctions we need to recover in order to understand. The understanding one gains of a notion is all the greater the more one distinguishes it from related but non-identical notions. Its authentic meaning usually emerges when one eliminates similar, yet corrupt, uses of this term. This is the negative task of analysis.

    2) Or your analysis approaches the things themselves, as they are given to us in experience. This method of describing what one experiences is called the phenomenological approach. It is particularly appropriate when analysing whatever is of a strongly subjective nature. Anguish, hatred, love, beauty, honesty for instance lend themselves to a phenomenological approach. When using this method, any question must be approached from the point of view of the experience of the mind.

    Whatever method you choose, analysis takes us from the level of our first instant thinking to one of elaborate reflection. All these thoughts that are simply “there in our head” have to be subjected to scrutiny. We have to examine if we are right in holding this or that opinion, and on what grounds an assertion is justified. What is called common sense is just a stage of instant, non-clarified thinking. Philosophy does not come up with any new ideas, it clarifies the confuse ones already there. From the point of view of method it is a conscious return to what is given in our spontaneous awareness of things. Hence philosophical method is sometimes referred to as reflexive analysis.

    It is once we have understood this that we can approach the works of the major authors. It will never be said of philosophers that they have “opinions”. A philosopher does not talk idly, he takes care to demonstrate his assertions, and give arguments. A philosopher defends theses. There are no theses in opinion. A thesis is the result of analysis. What philosophers bring us are investigations that give us a fuller picture of reality, as well as such forceful ideas that any History of man must take them into account.

    To sum up, in Philosophy one must first become a careful observer of the world, and be able to ask questions in order to understand. Analysis allows us to see the inherent intelligibility of everything and to bring a first answer to fundamental questions. Practising this art allows the mind’s understanding of reality to mature. To understand is to comprehend, from the Latin cumpredere, to take-with-oneself. Intelligence is this faculty which allows us to connect things, to link them together, inter-ligare. It is this faculty which wakes up in understanding. When we understand something we lift a curtain of alienness between this thing and ourselves. Our interaction with the World comes to life once we begin to understand it. Philosophical method aims at the comprehension of reality. To achieve this we must rid ourselves of mistaking one thing for another, of prejudice, of confusion, of illusion. It is the intellect which gives us the capacity to decide and discriminate real from unreal. It is also what enables us to fit each thing in the right place and to chase confusion from our mind.

B. Some advice

    And now for some advice on the practice of Philosophy. If, with Husserl, one can say that “Philosophy is to an extent the philosopher’s own business” this certainly does not mean that one can treat the Philosophy of the past as irrelevant. When our thinking has no other nourishment than its own reflections, chances are that it gets rather circular. We need to widen our horizons in order to enrich our mind. For this reason it is a must to be in touch with the great philosophers of the past and to gain a solid culture.

    In what sense does Philosophy remain a personal journey? The difference is this: our contact with Philosophy and the culture we gain from it must be lively and personal. The Baccalauréat exam, even when it comes to the commentary , is not on the history of Philosophy, but rather an exercise in the ability to think philosophically. What we want to learn is to think for ourselves. With this in view we read the great philosophers of the past as food for our own thinking. Reading major texts is not so easy for the beginner, but this series of lessons is here to help him. It is recommended to read simpler texts first and the n proceed to more technical ones. It is also good to familiarize oneself with an author by reading more than one of his books.

    Suggested readings:

    To begin with you may have a go at the following books:

    Plato: Apology of Socrates, Critias, Phedo, Gorgias, Protagoras, Meno, Phaedrus, The Symposium, The Republic.

    Descartes Discourse on The Method, Rules for the Direction of the Mind, The Meditations on The First Philosophy

    Epictetus A Manual for Living

    Marcus Aurelius Meditations

    Pascal Pensées

    Leibniz The Monadology

    Kant A Short Treatise on History
    Treatise on Pedagogy
    Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view

    Bergson L’Energie Spirituelle

    A first reading should be done confidently and with an open mind. Each time we read a philosophical text there will be something to gain from it. One must beware of hasty judgements. It is only once one has assimilated an author’s point of view that one can take a distance from his writing and evaluate to what extent he does not resolve the problem at stake. One does not overthrow a major thinker with a handful of rapid arguments. It is good to remain a little humble. Critique, from the original Greek term kritikein, means above all discrimination. Today one has interpreted its meaning erroneously as polemical and, worse, as a polemic against the person one criticises. This is an unfortunate distortion. In Philosophy critique will be essentially directed against ideas, not persons. We must not compromise with error, but we must respect the person. To transform Philosophy into a dispute between people would be to denature it.

    The work of a philosopher gives a point of view on the world. He lends us his point of view and it is up to us to see what he is showing us. Leibniz said that Philosophy is right in everything it asserts, wrong in everything it denies. Because of its connection with Being, which is Truth, there is an inherent strength in all Thinking. Consequently it is always erroneous to consider a particular system as alone in detaining the Truth. The very complexity of Reality offers ample scope for many diverse points of view, which each has its pertinence within its own frame. What matters is that our vision of reality be enriched and that we go beyond the boundaries of our personal opinions. In this way, reading philosophical texts opens and enriches our thinking. Another common mistake we must beware is to think of an idea as belonging to its author. Truth has no label. Hitting on truth is an encounter with the universal and a departure from the particular. Descartes remarks to one of his correspondents that “one can be many to know the same thing without anyone having learnt it from anybody else; it is ridiculous to speak of property in matters of science, as one would of a field or a sum of money, and to take such care, as you seem to be doing, to distinguish your good from that of the other. If you know something, it belongs to you just as much if you have learnt it from somebody else.” Let’s beware the easy temptation to put ideas in labelled pots. This would make Philosophy slip towards becoming a commentary, from the evidence of experience into the corner of the argument from authority.

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    One learns to think for oneself by feeding and awakening one’s own thinking. This is done in contact with the philosophers. But also in living contact with culture. To philosophical culture we must of course add general culture. Literature is of course admitted in Philosophy. It gives us endless illustrations at the imaginary level of everything Philosophy approaches at the conceptual one. The happiness of the libertine is well portrayed by Stendhal. Passion is very well explored by Madame de La Fayette and by Racine. We must also pay attention to scientific literature. In Philosophy we collect the harvest of scientific knowledge. Thus everything is of interest to the philosopher because everything can nourish his desire to know and his struggle for an ever broader perspective.


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Some useful books:

A dictionary of philosophical terms, to look up the definitions you don’t get in your reading.

A history of Philosophy to give you a historical perspective on philosophical authors and their work, something you will not find in this course.

In addition to the present introduction read Karl Jaspers Introduction to Philosophy.

  Home         © Philosophy and spirituality, 2003, Serge Carfantan. Translated by Catarina Lamm