April 8, 2019    Philosophy

What Is Philosophy?

What philosophy is is a question dear to my heart because I’ve always been fascinated with philosophy as far back as I can remember. Let’s start with what philosophy is not.

In my view, teaching, studying, and applying philosophy are different from doing philosophy. Most people teaching in the philosophy departments of academia are not doing philosophy, in the same way, most people teaching business in college are not doing business.

Think, for instance, of Hollywood composers like John Williams. They are highly trained and skilled in the musical frameworks developed by other composers in history. If they are asked to write an orchestral piece that sounds like Wagner, they can. In contrast, if you asked someone like John Cage to do the same, he couldn’t. There is a fundamental difference between what John Williams does and John Cage did even though they were both labeled “composers.”

By the same token, making Cubist and Impressionist paintings today, no matter how skilled you are, is fundamentally different from what Picasso and Monet were doing in their times. Applying your skills and techniques isn’t the same as doing art.

So, what is philosophy? For me, it involves the creation of your own framework. This doesn’t mean that you need to create everything from scratch, but the perspective you bring is singular to you.

When I observe great thinkers like Jacques Lacan and Ludwig Wittgenstein, a striking thing I notice is that their models of the world seem to come out of nowhere. Their unique perspectives precede their work. They didn’t develop them from reading books. If I were to use the elephant analogy, they are standing in a place where nobody else is and describing what they see. In contrast, most academic philosophers are standing in a crowded space where many other philosophers are standing, and they continue to finesse the framework developed from that perspective.

Great artists too bring their unique perspectives. For instance, both Andy Warhol and John Cage had unique perspectives which predate whatever education they received about art and music. These unique ways of seeing the world modified the existing frameworks to such an extent that they appear to come out of nowhere, like they were invented from scratch, even though they were not. After all, even if you change where you are standing, you will still see a lot of the same parts of the elephant others are seeing.

Wittgenstein is an interesting case study. The Wittgenstein of Tractatus is almost completely different from the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations. Something happened at one point in his life that suddenly shifted where he was standing. It’s not because he read some influential book; in fact, he hardly read other people’s work. Once this shift happened, he started building a new framework, even denouncing his own earlier work. It’s very much as if he walked over to a position where nobody else was standing, and he was suddenly able to see the same elephant from an angle that nobody had access to. He even baffled his own mentor, Bertrand Russell.

Some would probably argue that Lacan’s work was simply built on Freud’s. What is ironic is that Lacan himself claimed this; he insisted that he is a Freudian, not a Lacanian. But this modesty comes from knowing that the framework he created was, to put it mildly, bizarre.

Another interesting case study is U. G. Krishnamurti (not to be confused with J. Krishnamurti, the more famous one). His perspective was highly unorthodox. His words too seem to come out of nowhere but he never developed any framework from his perspective. He just sounds like ranting about what he sees from where he is standing. That’s not philosophy. And, I believe he would have agreed with me because I don’t think he thought he was doing philosophy. In fact, he ranted (yes, he did a lot of ranting) about the ultimate uselessness of such frameworks.

Because the world is constantly evolving, all philosophical frameworks (and psychoanalytic frameworks too) sooner or later expire. So, someone has to create new frameworks to grasp what is happening to us that cannot be modeled sufficiently with the existing frameworks. This to me is what “philosophy” is.

So, to do philosophy, your first challenge is to find where to stand and how to get there. No amount of reading will allow you to achieve it. That is why, I believe, Wittgenstein encouraged his students to get jobs in the real world, not in academia, as the latter environment tends to be too artificial as if you are standing on air unable to walk to anywhere else.