Discussing jobs with my landlady’s boyfriend, he told me one of his friends is a keen and gifted philosophy graduate, who now works as a taxi driver. An old story; i was amused last summer to find that nearly half of the would-be TEFLers on my CELTA course were Philosophy graduates and the only TEFLer i’ve stayed in touch with from my first, hellish TEFL job is likewise another Philosophy graduate, Jim. Each time we meet we talk about Philosophy – usually about the three Bosche: Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. Jim is a cheerful, young chap – far from the agonised and beret-clad type i mentally & fallaciously associate with Philosophy students. When last we met i said that i read and think about philosophy because i need it, because most of the time my life simply makes no sense to me, nor does the world, and whereas most people don’t seem to need this kind of sense, i very much do. i find it discouragingly hard to make tea and do laundry and indeed get up in the morning, without that “sense”. The only times it does make sense are when i’m writing or thinking or reading, or (when i can find a victim) talking; or doing rune work or Tai Chi; or annihilated by pleasure. The rest of the time i feel like i’m swimming against the tide – whether a tide of the world or my fractured psyche, i can’t say (my psyche being produced by the world, even as it is that by which i perceive the world).

i’ve been reading what intelligent and lucid criticism i can find about Wittgenstein on-line; mostly, i’m uninterested in academic philosophers banging on about his legacy and his influences and whether he sucked cock in the Prater, but i have found some good words here and there. Occasionally, oafish people, while admitting his influence, will say something like “I don’t think he was a great philosopher”. i see their point – if anything he was more of an anti-philosopher, a tweed-clad zen assassin who infiltrated philosophy in order to end it by its own methods and so bring about mushin no shin – but nonetheless it seems absurd to say he wasn’t a great philosopher; one must rather expand the concept of “philosophy” to embrace this vehement anti-philosopher, who assassinated philosophy in the late 40s in the Philosophical Investigations, then continued to think and write philosophy all the same (my favourite Wittgenstein is On Certainty, a collection of aphorisms he wrote in his last year or two).

Philosophy is flexible enough to accommodate Wittgenstein, even though one could see the spirit of both the Tractatus and the PI as a tormented desire to end philosophy – to tear through the fabric of thought and come to certainty, to the basement where things have their being, and begin. Did he think, if he dealt with philosophy, he could simply live? A mistake. He had no business living apart from philosophy.

Of late i’ve come to wonder about philosophy. The concept accommodates much – just to take three Greeks, Heraclitus, Plato, and Aristotle have very little in common, and yet the word “philosophy” seems to fit all three. The concept can be stretched further, to include Plotinus, Saint Augustine, Boethius, Abelard, Descartes, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Camus – sticking here to those i’ve read and remember (i gave up on Kant on the first page). That is, there is a concept “philosophy” in my mind, and when someone says “Wittgenstein wasn’t a great philosopher” i as it were hold my mental impression of Wittgenstein’s work up against the concept “philosophy” and see if they fit. i somehow don’t feel that Dr Johnson is a philosopher, though he is certainly philosophical – that is, when i hold up my image of Johnson’s work, and place it against my concept of “philosophy”, they seem to slide past each other; whereas “Wittgenstein” and “philosophy” click, there is a congruence. Likewise with Montaigne – he seems more of a philosophical essayist, than a philosopher.

But if i’d only heard of, and read, the fragments of Heraclitus, would my concept “philosophy” match Spinoza’s elaborate, systematic work? – or would i feel that Spinoza’s Tractatus certainly wasn’t philosophy, since it is so different to a pre-Socratic fragment? But then, had i only heard of and read Heraclitus’ fragments, and a complete copy of On Nature turned up in a monastery somewhere, would i think “this is not philosophy”?

Why do i not feel Dr Johnson to be a philosopher? Is it that i primarily think of him as a lexicographer and literary critic? But then Wittgenstein wrote a dictionary, and Johnson’s best literary criticism is an excuse to draw more general, philosophical conclusions.

There is no objective concept of “philosophy”, to which everyone can refer. For myself, a philosopher is one who determinedly presses through appearance to the substratum of things – even if, as with Wittgenstein, he says nothing is hidden, that appearance is all (or, rather, all we can get to grips with). A philosopher is a diver who goes to the depths, in whatever fashion – for example, some of George Steiner’s literary criticism goes very deep, though as with Dr Johnson i would think of him more as philosophical than as a philosopher. The difference here is in the depth and the duration of immersion: in The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus has gone deep and stayed there, till he hears the mermaids – but Steiner and Johnson are more like swimmers who regularly dive, but come up again quite quickly, with an aphorism, a sentence, a possibility.

The philosopher is one who goes deeper than others, and maintains that depth for inhumanly long periods – in submarine terms, he must have profound crush depth and submergence time; in this sense, one could liken a philosopher to a Alfa class submarine. A philosopher gets to the unchanging depths; in Wittgenstein’s own words:

Beim Philosophieren muß man in’s alte Chaos hinabsteigen, und sich dort wohlfühlen.

When you are doing philosophy you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there.

i was discussing Wittgenstein’s life with a friend recently; he commented, of Wittgenstein’s desire to dominate everyone around him, “i wonder if one can be said to be a great philosopher if one understands nothing about human love”. And i agreed that while he was a great philosopher, something is missing.

What we call philosophy, very much from an academic standpoint, is only one half of the picture; as Peter Kingsley argues, pre-Socratic philosophy was originally a kind of initiation – hence he deliberately refers to Empedocles as a “sorcerer”. There are vestiges of the tradition still in Plato – in the Phaedrus and Symposium, for example, thought leads not to tenure but to something akin to a state of mystical completeness – the kind of thing which academics might write articles about, but would never themselves experience or want to experience (or, actually, think possible). What we call philosophy is the intellectual attempt to penetrate to the substratum of being, but for the sake of intellectual satisfaction alone; philosophers are notoriously petty. So what exactly is the point of philosophy, if it doesn’t make you a better human being?

A hint of the loss in Phaedrus and Symposium, two of Plato’s most enigmatic and powerful dialogues. Here, wisdom is the product not of disembodied intellection but of sexual desire – and when Plato tries to tidy it up into a discarnate appreciation of beauty, this is the first betrayal of philosophy, this is where philosophy took the wrong path, away from lust and the body and into the kind of disembodied pleasure afforded by mathematics and logic. Perhaps Plato thought that since anyone can feel sexual desire, it can’t be the right path.

“Philosophy” – Greek for “the love of wisdom”. As Peter Kingsley has noted, philosophy went from being the love of wisdom to being the love of talking about the love of wisdom. We like to blame Descartes for the division of body and mind but i think it goes back to Plato – when Plato says that if it is to lead to wisdom, desire must be somehow disembodied, asexual (and so, not really desire at all), more like the pleasure Russell used to say he took in mathematics.

Wisdom is the right view of life; it is beyond intellection. This is the end of initiation – but not something you can hold in your hand, as it were, but rather an inexpressible state; it is the field within which one expresses lesser matters, just as English is the field within which i now write (but i cannot express English).

Wisdom is a practical matter; it is to do with everything we are – rather than just our understanding of logic or causality or time or language. Because we are animals with a mind and spirit, the mind is often a convenient entry point for the initiator – but it could just as well be sexual, as in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, or the mysteries of Ishtar. The mind cannot be dispensed with; nor can the body.

i regard myself as a half-fool but i think i have come a little closer to wisdom recently, as a result of the misery and anxiety and despair of the last six months. Death has a place in me now; i feel i could die today, violently and painfully, without unnecessary fuss. Since we all die, and many will die in great pain, we must make room for this within life, or our account is flawed.

i had planned to die sometime in March, as the logical solution to my vexed and pointless existence as a useless human being. i was puzzled to note that, after being saved by the offer of a job in Ultima Thule, i felt no elevation of mood, no hope – i think because i had by then come to regard death as finally irrelevant, as so omnipresent and inescapable that it no longer daunts; under the repeated uncertainty and dread of my existence, i have become like the monk who stands under the waterfall till he ceases to resist, till he lets go of who he is.

i haven’t passed into any wonderful enlightened state of being beyond mortality. i just feel a saving coldness towards my own life, for i have one foot beyond this world, in death. i think this is why i have started to feel differently when i do Tai Chi and chi kung – i am closer to my own edge. i feel like a man in a falling lift – though he is falling, relative to the lift he is weightless, he floats, he has escaped mortal gravity.

Without my steady contemplation of philosophy, and philosophical writers, i think i would have just crumbled and died in despair, cutting my wrists or hanging myself – and that would have been a terrible death, in fear and weakness. Philosophy gave me the coldness i needed, to be able to face death without fear. And i hold to this, i will not forget this resolve – so that when death comes i can make a good end.

In this sense, philosophy is a dress rehearsal for death.

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