When thinking about philosophy many people make a fundamental category mistake: They think a philosophy is a system of claims, and that acquiring knowledge of the claims is understanding the philosophy. In doing so, they mistake the philosophy for its content.
But learning a philosophy is learning how to do that philosophy, or even better, how to participate in that philosophy. The claims, the arguments, the language — the content — is best seen as a delivery vehicle for the philosophy. If engaged as intended, philosophical content induces a way of thinking that makes clear, coherent sense of the content.
(For example: If your goal when reading Nietzsche is to answer the question “What did Nietzsche really think?”, you are making this category mistake. Pursuing the question “How did Nietzsche think?”, and using the question of what he thought as a means to this goal, puts us on the right track.)
Philosophical engagement is making the clearest, most coherent, most immediate sense of some philosophical content. This means reading or listening carefully, paying close attention to where clarity and coherence is lacking, trying out alternate senses of each word, alternate interpretations of each sentence, each passage, each work, the whole corpus — patiently reading and rereading, or hearing and rehearing, or trying and retrying, until an understanding clicks into place as a gestalt, resolving the meaning and dispelling all occluding unclarity and contradiction.
After the Click, the content flows in spontaneously, second-naturally — as easy and obvious as a sitcom storyline. This is our best indication that we understand the philosophy. Sadly, it might also mean that we have misunderstood it. Only the most acute alertness to what has not been understood, what remains contradictory, what is still cloudy can help us discern misunderstanding from understanding. This requires a willingness bordering on eagerness to be mistaken — to have misunderstood all along.
(Those who prize intellectual competence above all else — who love the feeling of being right and of having been right all along, who find evidence of their own extreme prescience and omniscience in every experience — are incompetent readers of philosophy. So are those who skim and cherrypick, rummaging for useful components to bolt onto their own sprawling conceptual assemblages. Prophets, collagists and ambitious system builders understand perfectly well all the relevant bits of what they read, and therefore miss the entire point of philosophy, which is to discover subtle misunderstandings and gaps that open the way to more deeper and more expansive re-understandings. Many are attracted to philosophical texts, in order to dominate or plunder them, but few engage philosophical texts philosophically. One must have a perverse taste for discovering one’s own inadequacy and for immersion in the most anxious perplexities to develop philosophically. In philosophy, hedonism, pain aversion and pride are stunting vices.)
What makes philosophical content philosophical is that it implicitly promises the Click, provided one is willing to put forth philosophy’s distinct kind of effort. The Click is possible because a clear, coherent philosophy was used to generate and form the content, and the author ensured the content expresses the philosophy exactly enough to induce a sharp click of understanding and to prevent false clicks of misunderstanding.
What makes philosophy so exciting and important is that, once its Click happens, it sets in motion a way of thinking that can activate whenever it is needed. It sets up a new species of recognition and ready response to whatever is conducive to its treatment — to its form of understanding.
I’ve called a form of understanding a concept. A concept is a spontaneous taking-together of a given of some particular form. I’ve called the capacity to recognize and respond to a particular concept a conception.
The purpose of philosophy is to induce new conceptions that enable recognition and response to new concepts in both philosophical content and in every kind of experience. Conceptions are what enable the understanding of concepts in philosophical content as well as the recognition and response to those same concepts in any kind of experience, even when the philosophical content that originally induced the conception is not recalled within that experience.
Real philosophical engagement necessarily changes who we are. It changes us beneath the layer of language, at the depths of self where language is understood and used, and where tools are wordlessly understood and used, where we read facial expressions and gestures, sense danger, experience beauty, and feel reality as real. It is where we do all our practical believing. It is the layer that overrules logic and theories and the content of our brains when life is at stake.
Few of us are in touch with this layer of self. We think we are what the words in our head tell us we are, when we ask ourselves with words “Who am I?” Who we are speaks with silent gestures, and the words that fill our heads and ears talk over it and drown it out. If we listen only for words and even see with word, words are all we hear or see.
This layer beneath language and beneath perception is what I call faith. We can also call it the subject.
There are many ways besides philosophy to change faith, or recall it, or maintain it, or strengthen it, or further develop it — (or, exceptionally, to let it go, or even to kill our faith and suffer in the shadows without it for awhile). Religious practice is a common way to shape faith. So is participation in culture and in various subcultures within our culture. Education also works on faiths, and this is why we call the various educational disciplines subjects. Art can change our faith, at least for a few moments, and a diet of one genre of art can have enduring effects.
But philosophy is my favorite faith-shaping discipline.
It is not the underpinning of everything everyone else is going. That is faith. There is no implicit philosophy, any more than there is an implicit art or implicit academic subject.
But philosophy is one potentially effective means of taking responsibility for faith.
I have so much more to say.
I want to say how our faith conditions our entire experience of reality, and that if we experience reality as meaningless, persecutory, punishing, dark or doomed, this is only the testimony of our faith.
I want to advise us to stop fixating on the content of our faiths and instead observe how things seem when given to us via our faiths. Yes, the world is real, but the world we experience and know is the world our faith enworlds around us.
I want to point out that our faiths can be intentionally changed for the better.
I’ve said it all before innumerable times, but I need to carefully craft it all into a Click-inducing whole. Maybe the above is the inception of this work.