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

Philosophy’s Substance

August 05 2016

Philosophy at its best is critical, heretical, novel, and utterly rational. It aims to create new and better understandings, and ofttimes that means sweeping away established dogmas. It is the arch-enemy and antithesis of arbitrary authority – instead of “believe this or do that because I say so”, philosophy creates rational explanations for why a belief is true or an action is right – and by “rational” we mean that anyone can, if he is mentally normal and honest, understand them. In other words, it appeals exclusively to logic, evidence, and legitimate axioms.

Because philosophy is arbitrary authority’s arch-enemy, wherever you see philosophy attacked – whether openly or insidiously – you can be confident that arbitrary authority is sought. Arbitrary authority springs from the primitive: a lion kills and eats what it can because it can, not because he has a legitimate reason; on the contrary, “legitimate reason” is beyond him. Human beings also can exist in this primitive state, arbitrarily believing or doing things and without rational restraint – they are barbarians. But, unlike a lion, a barbarian can learn to believe or do the right thing for the right reason, and from that capacity springs philosophy, and the potential for a kind of civilization the world has only seen a glimmer of.

Modern human society emerged out of and is still largely governed by the barbaric mind: whether the domain is moral, judicial, or political, arbitrary authority is for the most part its basis. In Ancient Greece, when a man like Socrates questions arbitrary authority, the barbarians put him to death. In our day, we have a university system that preemptively gags and neuters authentic philosophy – it wallows in barbarism, and yet it is clever enough not to make much of a scene.

“Philosophy was vital in Plato’s day; so vital that some philosophers were exiled and others put to death. No one would think of putting a philosopher to death today. Not because men are more delicate about killing; but because there is no need to kill that which is already dead.”

— Will Durant

We know university philosophy is dead, because it is inactive in its chief function: to identify the proper foundation of the disciplines (which are the foundation of civilization), and to protect and preserve their integrity. Instead of this proper foundation we find, especially in the humanities, a cacophonous contradictory hash. For example, take the very crucial discipline of law. Here is a domain that ought to exemplify the pursuit of justice and the protection of individual rights, but instead exemplifies the law as a handmaiden of authoritarian injustice (legal positivism). If philosophy were in a healthy state, this abject servitude of arbitrary authority would be impossible, for the philosophers would have awoken the best and brightest students and thereby the whole populace to the evil of this and to the proper alternative; instead, law as the institution of injustice reigns with impunity.

My goal here is not to explore the impunity, but to lay out in a little detail what philosophy ought to be doing for civilization. Since philosophy in its proper form is almost completely absent from society, it is important to know what it would be like, were it to be there. This tiny overview of what philosophy might do cannot substitute for the living roots of a healthy discipline, of course. Here a single phrase, such as “methods of proof”, might stand for many careers worth of work.

To find the substance of philosophy, we bring the core value of philosophy – namely rational independence of mind – to each and every human discipline, asking questions about what they believe and do, and why, thereby holding them to account. That understanding which is necessary and common to the disciplines, that which withstands rational scrutiny, is philosophy, for philosophy does not come prior to thought and action but arises out of these. So precisely in this method of systematically examining, in principle, all domains of thought and action and finding what is common, we find philosophy.

But, in finding what is common, we also find that as disciplines multiply, what they share does not change – we do not actually have to literally study them all to learn what is common. Themes recur: the need for logic, evidence, an open perspective honestly pursuing the complete perspective, methods of proof, well-defined concepts, identification of cause and effect, a rational purpose, a rational pedagogical ordering, intelligent simplicity, a method to adjudicate disputes between practitioners (peer review being a poor shadow of something that would actually be competent), and so on – these things run through every discipline, and so belong to philosophy. It is philosophy’s job to assess whether disciplines are doing these things right or not, and, like a doctor diagnosing and treating a disease, to specify a remedy. Philosophy is no handmaiden, it is the guide, or even the ruler, for philosophy is no more and no less than the formalization of human reason, and all disciplines are subservient to that. This of course presupposes that the particular philosophy being expressed is actually legitimate, for philosophy must be just as much a servant of reason as any other discipline, indeed, it should strive to be the best exemplar, both humble before reason and yet unyielding to nonsense. (Given this lofty role, it seems prudent that philosophers should prove themselves competent at some discipline other than philosophy, before attempting to speak on matters concerning all disciplines, just as a CEO should be competent in at least some of the parts of the business he manages, before presuming to manage them.)

Those disciplines that have no answers to our questions, or only have answers rooted in arbitrary authority, are either corrupted or illegitimate. But in making such an assessment, we recognize that alchemy may have learned some bits to inform chemistry, as astrology may have learned some bits to inform astronomy, and as contemporary psychology may have learned some bits to inform a future and actually sensible discipline of psychology, even while the basic methods of all of these are wholly misguided.

Those questions and answers that are specific to a discipline belong of course solely to that discipline, and the intellectual bridge between philosophy and the discipline we call the philosophy of that discipline. So for example, we have the “philosophy of physics”, or the “philosophy of science”, or the “philosophy of medicine”. In these we link the specific activities of a discipline to the wider project of human knowledge, values, and flourishing, and we explain for the layman what the purpose and value of the activity is, which not only justifies the social investment in that field, but may also inspire him to become a practitioner within it himself. In the philosophies of these various disciplines we feel most acutely the absence of rational philosophy, and therefore perceive one of the urgent activities of a nascent philosophy of reason. In such an ascent, one might remember Francis Bacon and his Novum Organum, and realize that such reformations take time. As we recapitulate the paths our ancestors took to lift us to this point (empirical science), we honor them with our own patience while forging the paths they had neglected (rational morality).

Throughout this process of questioning, we are seeking a systematic, unified, and non-contradictory whole across all disciplines – universal truths about the universe as such and including the universe of Man, fit to be taught at a university, and thus lifting mankind in a constant forward progression: away from our natural barbarism and toward our ultimate destiny as a species.