I have been struggling hellishly with the very simple, basic question: “What is a philosophy?” This is terribly important, because if I want to persuade people that philosophies (or worldviews, lifeworlds, enworldments or faiths) are designable things, and that they ought to be designed — and that is exactly my intention — I’d better be able to explain what it is we are designing.
But I have been unable to do it, which is perplexing, upsetting and exciting. This combo has a pavlovian effect on me, and I can’t leave it alone.
Yesterday I had my weekly conversation with Nick Gall, and we had a fun argument over the significance of Golden Rule. The conversation started off rockily. It was clear that he and I were thinking about it very differently (“at cross-purposes”), in a way that went deeper than definitions or even values, into the how of the thinking. We eventually realized that he was thinking about the formula “Treat others as you would like to be treated” pragmatically but statically (maybe as a trained lawyer), as a proposition with bounded implications. I was thinking of it dynamically as a lived principle, with so that the proposition’s meaning deepens and self-transcends over time with successive recursions.
It was really tricky getting aligned on what we we talking about, and how we could approach the conversation in order to break the impasse. Three thing happened that made it work.
- We recognized that we were disagreeing not only on the object of the disagreement, but how the subject should be thought. (I’m using subject and object very deliberately.)
- The new way of thinking (the subject) needed to be followed to be understood. It was not a process at arriving at a conclusion, but more picking up a style or acquiring a sense of genre.
- The following of the thought required a kind of momentum and holistic grasping of the thinking as a single event. (This is different from following an argument, which consists of a series of discrete, linked accomplishments.) This explains why, if a passage is thorny, I have to work out the difficulties part by part, then reread the passage rapidly and smoothly before I understand the material.
There is a kind of temporal holism in understanding. We see it in all performing arts — music, dance, cinema. Each moment of a performance must be experienced in flowing reference to what preceded it or the meaning gets lost.
I believe this is how philosophy works as well. Perhaps philosophy is more of a performing art than a plastic art.
Maybe this is where the appeal “stay with me” or “follow this line of thought” comes in. It means “grok this temporal whole.”
We can no more understand an interrupted, interrogated line of thought than we can hear interrupted phrases of a song as music. This is a thought I’ve had before, but the connection with this problem is new.