The Practice of Philosophy

November 2013

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A friend told me that every morning upon waking she meditates for an hour. My first reaction to this news was not positive. First thing in the morning nothing has yet happened, I thought to myself, and yet already this person, my friend, wants to distance herself from the nothingness or prepare herself to remain at arm’s length from the anything or nothing that might happen later in the day.

I take my reaction to be both to lengthy morning meditation and to the many morning hours I myself have spent on this essay and on many another text. For me, meditating upon waking, which I have tried, is annoying. First thing in the morning there is nothing I want more than to get out of my apartment, breathe the fresher air outside in the park-like area in which I live. I want to get to a restaurant to get my coffee and get down to work: to reading and writing (for example, about the possibility of meditating instead).

Astrid, let’s call her—my friend—is not only a devoted practitioner of meditation and yoga and related disciplines, she proselytizes for them. She thinks, for example, that my life would be better—happier and more elevated, perhaps not so ready to remind her of pleasures of the flesh—were I to take up meditation. (I.e. this would be re-taking-up the Transcendental Meditation I tried during college and occasionally after that, or expanding on the few minutes of meditating I do in between my treadmill runs and my naps.) For Astrid, meditation and yoga have served as a solution—provisional most likely—to the problems of life and of her life in particular.

But, I asked myself, what kind of solution is this if it takes up all of your time? An hour each morning, then doing and teaching yoga (or editing other people’s writing) in the afternoons and evenings, and weekend workshops and so forth. The solution to the problem of mortality turns out to be spending all the time one is allotted trying to solve the problem of mortality? To quote, quite out of context, two lines from a poem read recently:

I am wondering how we live at all
Or if we do.


It is often the case with me that an initial negative reaction is a sign that there is something I might learn from reconsidering, in a more positive light, the rejected words or experience. And this little comment by my friend about her meditating has proved an excellent example of how resistance (be it mine or another’s) can often be a bass-akward call to not push away but explore. (I can’t help feeling that philia and eros—attraction, love, sex—lurk in the shadows of this piece, as does thanatos, death. Therein lie the anxiety-provoking nothings and somethings that drive us to meditate, write, get drunk, so many things.)

I have been working on another essay about both philia and writing, an essay exploring Plato’s Lysis, but also bringing me back to the Phaedo, Plato’s version of Socrates’s last hours, before he drank the hemlock. This work mixing with my friend’s news led me to realize that long ago Socrates had hit upon a solution not unlike that of my friend’s. Socrates’s solution was more social, more verbal—talking to other people, getting caught up in words and what they might mean, rather than focusing inwardly on muscles and organs, and on breathing, trying to let go of words, thoughts, meanings. But Plato’s Socrates’s practice also needed or merited frequent repeating and took up the best hours of his days. And it might be said to have taken his life.


Prior to this little light bulb going on in my head I had for years been thinking and writing about Americans’ and other human beings’ relentless quest for a solution to the human predicament—our mortality, our interdependence, the weight of consciousness, the confusions of language, the resulting desperation to preserve an illusory sense of order to avoid the ambient madness. Astrid’s meditating helped me see that my idea of a solution had been too narrow. I had been thinking of it as an answer to a question; the right answer. This narrowness was hardly unique to me. One of the fundamental questions of philosophy, of ethics, is how to live, what should “I” do in some larger sense or right now—which keyboard key to tap, when to stop writing and go to the Y, get on the treadmill? Thousands upon thousands of pages have been written proposing and criticizing answers to these questions—How to live? What to do? And in a sense this is also what my friend was urging upon me, a particular answer. How to live? Meditate an hour every morning. Yoga in the afternoons and evenings.

But, you might say, what I was finally able to hear in all this was not the “meditate” part, but the “every morning.” The answer—or the non-answer, if you prefer—is a practice. You might “get it,” realize the true path, but this is only the beginning. Now, in order for the solution to work, you have to walk this path daily.[*]


A contrast may illustrate my point here. In Paul’s road-to-Damascus vision of Christianity and of salvation (of “the solution”), one suddenly sees the Light, realizes the truth, and thus one is saved. The struggle is over (backsliding excepted). But for Plato’s Socrates the Light may indeed be shining in another realm, but it cannot be seen by us. What the example of Socrates’s practice shows, however, is that engaging in conversation related to this Light, to our desire to see it, to our faint ideas about it and shadows that it casts, and—here is what I want to italicize—by engaging repeatedly in this conversation, human beings, or some human beings, can find relief. (Cf., Sextus Empiricus’s description of skepticism as involving setting out “oppositions among things,” and thereby coming “first to suspension of judgment and afterwards to tranquility.”)

In Plato’s dialogues it is often philia, most specifically physical attraction to beautiful young men, that inspires Socrates to enter into conversations, and with these young men first and foremost. Another might find his or her relief in trying to have sex with other people. But Socrates’s practice—which has been called Socratic intellectualism, and which I am also here calling the practice of philosophy—involves a turning away from the physical, a repressing or sublimating of instincts and feelings. There is a sense in which Socrates is trying to seduce others, to draw them into his light or shadows, into one of his repetitive conversations. But at another level it is not feelings of love or power that he is after. Instead he wants to talk about, for example, what love or power might be and what knowledge (e.g. of love or power) might be. Instead of the pleasures of physical rubbing of one kind or another, he engages in verbal rubbing, in elenchus (refutation via cross-examination) and dialectic.

From this perspective I take my own practice and Plato’s and other writers’ as being more disembodied, distant and bloodless. “O fearful meditation!” Shakespeare, in sonnet 65, writes, while reflecting on “sad mortality” and Time’s “wreckful siege.” He notes that the writer’s solution—the writer’s escape from such meditations if not from meditation more generally—involves placing faith in the possibility “that in black ink my love may still shine bright.” This is not the same as loving, or as engaging in love, nor is it the same as talking with others about love. We writers are, at least while writing, largely lost to either social or physical practices. And, returning to Astrid’s meditation, we might now say that it is a more physical practice than either writing or talking, but it shares writing’s isolation and self-centeredness, and also takes Socratic repression or sublimation a few steps further—to letting go. I am sure Astrid would not say this, but we might wonder if love, power and knowledge are among the things being let go of. Being said good-bye to?


Approaching the end of this particular journey, I would call attention to some tensions that exist currently in the practice of philosophy—in the study, teaching and writing of it, particularly by professors and their students. A century ago, Anglo-Saxon philosophy began to be quite taken or overwhelmed by the stunning discoveries of modern science. Dominant voices in Anglo-Saxon philosophy have expressed both a sense of belittlement, as if philosophy could now only be a handmaiden to science, and also an enthusiasm for reforming philosophy’s ways, adopting scientific practices, to include building philosophical knowledge through linguistic or logical investigations, discovery building on discovery. It may well be that we, our scientists included, will never achieve The Truth (and/or what the present essay has been calling “the solution”), but if we keep working diligently and sensibly, we will keep climbing the mountain. This is the belief in any case.

Which ignores, for example, Montaigne’s insight: « Nous ne sommes non plus près du ciel sur le Mont-Cenis qu’au fond de la mer. » Nor are we closer to heaven on the top of Mount Cenis than at the bottom of the sea. Ignored, too, is the rather large obstacle that the philosopher of physics Michael Redhead, among others, has called attention to: “To understand anything requires us to understand everything.” Seemingly fundamental concepts—gravity, e=mc2—as simple, elegant and useful in making technical predictions as they are—are also meaningless until we know how they fit into some all-comprehending whole, assuming such a concept itself has any meaning.

“L’universo e’ scritto in linguaggio matematico,” Galileo famously wrote. It may not be all that long before we come to see this as “but the objectification of the mood of an age, perhaps fitful and temporary, rather than the reasoned expression of the intellectual insight of all ages” (E.A. Burtt).[†] Mathematics, like its cousin music, certainly inspires hearts and minds, but in some future it may seem to not well describe either the realms in which we live or the universe of which these realms would seem to form but a part. Certainly the visions of many religions—e.g. of Buddhist texts—make such suggestions. A day may come when we realize (rightly or wrongly) that our mountains of modern knowledge, or information, are sand. And this will not eliminate the fact that we and our ancestors had been doing a lot of climbing, exhausted ourselves with all our climbing. Indeed it may become clearer that this is one of our practices, one of the most time-consuming “solutions” we have yet found: climbing in the sands of knowledge and information—investigating, making discoveries, devising formulas, competing for Nobel Prizes, . . .

Another tension is between, on the one hand, the road-to-Damascus idea of a solution or discovery (e.g. a cure for cancer or for mortality) that in a flash resolves all problems (death loses its “sting”) and, on the other hand, the idea of a regular practice that brings some relief. As regards the first of these possibilities, see Augustine’s wish to find “pacem sine vespera” (the peace that has no evening), and these lines from Wittgenstein’s Augustine-inspired Philosophical Investigations, §133:

The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to.—The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question.

The structure, the compulsiveness, the restless internal dialogue of the Investigations proposes, however, that any such “real discovery” is an illusion. It is what Kant called a focus imaginarius—“not only for clarifying the confused play of things human, . . . but for giving a consoling view of the future”. In pursuing the illusion we engage—in black ink or pixels, in study and conversation, in science, philosophy and religion—in practices that do indeed give us some peace, temporarily.

In the world of academic philosophy, people take classes and go to talks and conferences, they write and read, exploring many “solutions,” many answers. Thereby, inter alia, they help keep us from forgetting that the basic questions remain—thank God!—unanswerable. No “real solution” can be found. Others (and philosophers too) take drugs, have sex, play cards, make art. What is found, again and again, is relief, temporary relief. The sleep after making love with another human being and before one feels the desire, then the strong desire, then the need to rejoin in love—or to again gamble, take a pill, sculpt, turn on the computer, find someone to talk philosophy with.

N.B.: Were a most brilliant philosopher, scientist, mystic, or some series of them to indeed come up with the solution, they’d wreck the whole game. Which is also to say that they would show themselves quite lacking in brilliance, quite unable to appreciate what philosophy, science and religion are most fundamentally concerned with, the purposes they serve and how.


One of the analogies that has come to mind as I have worked on this piece is of children at the seashore working in the sand, building and rebuilding forts, channels and dams. The waves keep coming to overwhelm and wash away their constructions. And they yell joyfully, “Work harder!” “We’ve got to keep digging!” And the afternoon passes warm and wet.

*     *     *

Credits & More

  • Photograph is from a blog called Thoughts from a Stay-at-Home Mother, 31 August 2012.
  • “I am wondering . . . ” is from the Canadian poet Erin Mouré’s “Thirteen Years,” as reproduced in J. Paul Hunter, The Norton Introduction to Poetry, Sixth Edition (W.W. Norton, 1973).
  • For more on odd calls to not push away but explore, see my “Not Me Desires,”, 27 November 2012 (originally published 2004).
  • Sextus Empiricus from Outlines of Scepticism, translated by Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes (Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  • Montaigne’s sentence appears in the essay “Apologie de Raimond Sebond.”
  • Michael Redhead, From Physics to Metaphysics, The Tarner Lectures Delivered at Cambridge under the Auspices of Trinity College in February 1993 (Cambridge University Press: 1995).
  • Augustine, Confessions, Book XIII (the conclusion of the book): “domine deus, pacem da nobis (omnia enim praestitisti nobis), pacem quietis, pacem sabbati, pacem sine vespera”: Lord God, who has given us all things, give us peace, the peace of rest, the peace of the Sabbath, the peace that has no evening.
  • Galileo’s proposal, “l’universo e’ scritto in linguaggio matematico,” appears in Il Saggiatore (The Assayer). From Stillman Drake’s translation in Galileo, et al., The Controversy on the Comets of 1618 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1960):

Philosophy is written in a grand book—I mean the universe—which stands continuously open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth.

Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed. . . . For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

  • The sentences regarding Kant’s focus imaginarius are an amalgam. The second part is from Kant’s essay Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht (Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View), as translated by Lewis White Beck; see Kant: On History (Pearson, 1963). The phrase focus imaginarius appears in the following segment on pages A644/B672-A645/B673 of the Critique of Pure Reason, here as translated by Norman Kemp Smith (Modern Library, 1958):

I accordingly maintain that transcendental ideas never allow of any constitutive employment. When regarded in that mistaken manner, and therefore as supplying concepts of certain objects, they are but pseudo-rational, merely dialectical concepts. On the other hand, they have an excellent, and indeed indispensably necessary, regulative employment, namely, that of directing the understanding towards a certain goal upon which routes marked out by all its rules converge, as upon their point of intersection. This point is indeed a mere idea, a focus imaginarius, from which, since it lies quite outside the bounds of possible experience, the concepts of the understanding do not in reality proceed; none the less it serves to give these concepts the greatest [possible] unity combined with the greatest [possible] extension. Hence arises the illusion that the lines have their source in a real object lying outside the field of empirically possible knowledge—just as objects reflected in a mirror are seen as behind it.



[*] Coming at this matter from another angle, in an essay “Exploring our hopes for a cure, with help from The King’s Speech,” I wrote about a psychotherapist who

had a simple realism. My ‘problems,’ he explained and helped me appreciate in various ways, stemmed from some combination of the terms of life, the terms of modern life and my personality and tastes. In this context I had made certain choices. Perhaps they were ‘only choices,’ which I could make only one way. . . . Given the opportunity, and now with better knowledge of the consequences, probably I would do similar thinking and make the same choices again, and again.

For all I greatly appreciated this therapy, and the kind of confidence it gave me, I did not appreciate that it made further therapeutic conversation seem pointless. I had to find another therapist who was less conclusive, . . .

So that the practice—here of reflection with the help of a devoted (paid) listener—did not come to an end. So that I could keep getting my weekly dose of therapy.

  • There are interpreters of Wittgenstein who like to use the word “therapy,” but often they seem to think that this involves a cure, a way of showing “the fly the way out of the fly bottle” (a line from the Philosophical Investigations). My point here is that this is wrong. We’re struck in the bottle; in our general and individual predicaments. Therapy, be it philosophical or psychological, relieves confusion and anxiety but temporarily, and thus lasting benefits are enjoyed only by regular practitioners.

[†] Cf. the French writer Isabelle Sorente’s Addiction générale, the following being a translation of cover copy for the book:

We are in the grip of calculations. From the square footage of our homes, through our iron levels, the resolution of our TV screens, the memory of our computers, right up to the financial cost of global warming—everything that concerns us gets turned into numbers. We turn the body into a weight, intelligence into a test result, the past into a genetic code and our anxieties into insurance policies and risk assessments. Here is what we mistakenly call realism: this obsessive resorting to numbers, without which our perceptions as well as our thoughts have come to seem invalid.

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