Shayne Wissler
“… to understand is, above all, to unify.” – Albert Camus

Philosophy’s Promise

July 23 2016

Everything in human culture originates in and flows from the human mind, whether it be good things (like music, agriculture, and computers) or evil things (like patents[1], dictatorships, and war). But the mind isn’t an unanalyzable, primitive and fixed element of the universe, it is an evolving set of processes, including modifiable thought processes – you can change what and how you think. Philosophy is about cultivating thought processes that lead to good results, and weeding out those that lead to bad results. Even more crucially, it is about identifying and vindicating the standards that allow us to distinguish productive thought processes from harmful ones. In a sense, philosophy is an engineering discipline, where we strive to engineer our own thought processes, in order to make them as productive as possible.

As with all legitimate disciplines, authentic philosophy is the same for everyone, and its ultimate appeal must be to our common faculties. In this respect we are all philosophers, for all philosophy must ultimately appeal to us on this basic level. We are all congenitally competent to understand and evaluate a philosophy in terms of how it relates to those inborn faculties that allow us to think and to experience, and no philosophy that does not so relate can be legitimate – ideologies that appeal beyond, above, or beneath these are really just pseudo-philosophy or religion.

You can observe these faculties in yourself when you ask “What do you mean by ‘faculties’”? Ask yourself what you mean by this question, and you have found the beginnings of the answer to your original question. Included in this answer is the fact that in order to be properly convinced, you require evidence. Also included is the fact that if I say something that contradicts something I said earlier, then you will rightly direct a line of questioning at me, demanding that I reconcile the contradiction. Philosophy doesn’t create this organic need for logical consistency, meaning, or evidence – it relies upon these needs, which were created in your own creation, and in the creation of every normal human being.

Whereas philosophy is actually rooted in the very substance of mind and human life, charlatans of all stripes try to make it appear that philosophy is a vestige of culture that should have died out with its ancient creators, claiming that it is today only a meaningless game played by fools who don’t understand what life is about. But note well that their epithets flung in the face of philosophy, to be justified and considered legitimate, must appeal to reasons and be based in logic – so they are attacking the very foundation they tacitly presume to stand upon. Their hypocrisy should be rejected as the nonsense of babbling idiots, and yet contemporary culture gives these idiots a stage and a microphone.

If philosophy seems distant and removed from what really matters to us as human beings, then that is only because charlatans have succeeded in tricking you into thinking that their cardboard imitation of philosophy is philosophy. In truth, philosophy is as real and important as you are, because it is no more and no less than that thing in you that justly decides what is and isn’t important; namely, your faculty of reason.

To understate things greatly, the goal of landing a man on the moon demands a lively and thoroughgoing fidelity to this very faculty of reason, for in the smallest errors of planning or execution lies catastrophic failure and death. And indeed when we humans work together while scrupulously employing our faculty of reason, what we are capable of is so astounding as to put any words I could use to express this to shame – only a poetic genius is qualified to speak here.

Our most brilliant achievements would astound our ancestors into a state of prostrated awe, but this is only because we, at least in the area of these achievements, have prostrated ourselves before the altar of reason. When we achieve, it is only because we follow the evidence where it leads, and because with the utmost discipline we adhere to the laws of thought that make the calculations possible that make the achievements possible. And where we have brought the light of reason we have made many great achievements – in spaceships, computers, and to a small extent even in medicine. But the bulk of our accomplishment is merely potential; it lies in the future and only if we choose to claim it, for we have not brought reason to bear in that ultimate philosophical frontier – the institutions that generate and sustain our culture. In these institutions, chaos and nonsense, not reason, is the reigning arbiter. And so the great bulk of the promise of reason remains unfulfilled.

How do we know that following reason in every sphere will yield the promise that reason has fulfilled in some spheres? The way we know anything – we follow reason. We observe that where reason is followed, its promise is fulfilled, and where it is not followed, we find chaos and waste. As disaster would befall any moon landing that did not devote itself to reason, we see the institutional detritus all around us, and if we closely inspect the detritus, we find the sundry causes and effects whose root is the failure to follow reason.

But what is worse is what we, through a collective vision obscured by chaos and incompetence, do not see. How does one prove the possibility of a moon landing to the barbarian who’s never experienced the promise of reason, as embodied in classical physics and mathematics? And where we stand today is with a populace who has experienced the power of reason to scientifically predict and engineer some things, but that has no experience whatsoever in the application of reason to moral philosophy, and of moral philosophy to our institutions. On the contrary, this populace is ruled by a pseudo-philosophy that preemptively tells him that this is impossible, and allegedly because moral beliefs are arbitrary. In other words, according to the status quo and in the realm of determining what ultimate ends are worthy of pursuing, nonsense is the only possible alternative. This is tantamount to nihilism – and when nihilism is society’s ultimate moral foundation, do not be surprised when it lurches from meaningless tragedy to meaningless tragedy.

Our culture is aware, if only semi-consciously, of the power that philosophy, through the discipline of empiricism and logic, has unleashed in the realms of science and technology; but the ends we pursue are more important than the means by which we pursue them, and so the unfulfilled promise of philosophy is greater than the promises yet fulfilled or even the promises on the horizon.

A picture is worth a thousand words; a successful moon landing is worth dozens of inspiring science fiction novels; but there is as yet no concrete embodiment of what it means to follow a rational philosophy on an institutional scale, and so no common understanding of the full promise of reason. Where obvious examples can’t be put in front of common folk, uncommon heroes must take up the slack, and move history themselves. Such motion begins through understanding what it means to bring the light of reason to each and every discipline, and especially to the humanities. In our era, institutional philosophy is a corrupted shadow of the true discipline and mere handmaiden of the status quo; it must become the trendsetter.

  1. Consider this and this.