Philosophy

Philosophy

In my local cafe, their wont is to play a certain series of songs regularly. I’ve noticed one of these songs, in particular, because the singer (Emma Bunton, backed by Tin Tin Out) sings in an affected teenage angst-ing tone, and presents these propositions: “Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box.” and “Philosophy is a walk on the slippery rocks.” She follows with, “Choke me in the shallow water, before I get too deep.

The first two lyrics are everyday philosophical statements. They make existential propositions. The third lyric is a proposal for action which leads naturally from the philosophy. It’s not a very well thought-through philosophy, to be sure; but it can be said to be philosophic in the narrow sense of the word given in the Oxford English Dictionary – that is, it’s “a set of opinions, ideas, or principles; a basic theory; a view or outlook.” And, in this sense, every human forges a philosophy from childhood onwards.

Perhaps a more penetrating way to think about philosophy (than that portrayed by Emma) is given by Dave Ward, in his contribution to the book, Philosophy for Everyone. Philosophy, he says, “is the activity of working out the right way to think about things.” Not bad; as long as we notice that finding the ‘how’ of the ‘right way’ will be a major commitment in a life. At least, though, we have a chance, with this concept, to feel out what might be an ennobling or healthy philosophy.

Importantly, this raises the ‘how’ of thinking. We usually imagine this means ‘what we think.’ That was how I went through high school. Then, I remember in my early days of studying English Literature at university, my tutor Fred Langman said that his job was to help us learn how to think. It hadn’t really hit home to me before that, that there was a ‘how’ to thinking – that is, a method. Getting the ‘what-to-think’ was the usual approach in school –  but, How? Thinking as a line of development? You can learn how to do it? I was over the moon.

It was one of those defining moments; like when I first discovered Socrates a few years before. But, now I could see that it wasn’t the definitions of Justice and Love, and so on, that Socrates was concerned with; it was the quality and process of the forming of ideas – concept formation. No wonder he was not understood.

Aristophanes in fifth-century Athens saw philosophers as immoral, it would seem, and Socrates was one of his targets. (See Clouds) Yet, it amazed me, when studying Ancient History in school, that Socrates was engaged in conversations aimed at understanding how to approach life; and I certainly was looking for guidance in that. It had hardly occurred to me, before reading about Socrates at seventeen, that life was something to be approached with anything but ‘hunger for’… (knowledge, recognition, love, food, friends, sex, a steady date). It was about getting something into me, from the outside.

Until I went deeper into Socrates (after Fred’s comment), I had barely begun to step out of the tug-o’-war between conventional morality and my habitual stance of rebellion (with which I was strongly identified); such that I could ask, “What is the way to think about life, such that the welfare of all is taken into account?”

Do, the interesting thing about Socrates is not the content – this or that idea of what this or that is – but, the method: the inquiry. It’s the process which is freeing, and the openness which is the nature of living. And, the best place to ground philosophy is this open body, because it participates directly in the big open thing called life. I am forever saddened to hear very intelligent people trying to think without reference to where their words are coming from: from the felt middle of their bodies. What did poet William Stafford say?

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk…

The Buddhists have a term – yoniso manasikara – which I take to mean ‘mind-ing in accordance with the matrix,’ or womb, or mother. The challenge is to ‘mind’ – that is, feel, sense, know and think – from our bodies.

We knew this intuitively as children. That’s how we learned to talk, and to think, in the first place. And, that’s why, after all, English-speaking culture has the the expression: “He’s in his head.” We know that’s not healthy. How did we get to think in our heads?

To think in a more embodied way is not an easy path in a society which prizes conformity to social rules. Socrates was condemned to death for questioning conventional thinking, and this still happens in some places in the world, in the twenty-first century. It’s ironic, but our education system cultivates the ‘head-mind-ing.’ It was no less so in Ancient Athens. But Socrates’ concern was for the whole of living, not just the little bit allowed to the conventional perception of life.

The Greeks had a word, which their philosophers used: eudaimonia. Superficially speaking, it means a state of being contented, of being healthy, happy and flourishing. However, the ‘daimon’ part of the word is important. My OED says that this is a direct transliteration of the Gr. δαίµων, divinity, one’s genius. And so the OED defines it as “belonging or pertaining to the spirit world.” By ‘genius,’ then, I mean something that inheres in all life, that is with  nature.

A bit of searching gives us more clues. I read that the word ‘daimon’ comes from an Indo-European root which means to ‘divide, or cut.’ (Wiktionary) I find this very fruitful, because much of our suffering comes from not being able to integrate our natural functions of discernment into a workable relation with the whole – which is where the body has its life. If we lose our sense of the whole, then our dividing is cut loose to feed only on itself, without connection to the implicit richness of experiencing. Logic without bodies is dangerous.

Focusing (felt-sensing) returns us to the wholeness, where we can ground the daily necessary ‘dividing’ with wisdom. (It’s interesting to note, that for the Buddhists, Vipassanā, i.e. Insight, ideally, works this way, in that what they call ‘discriminating wisdom’ needs to be joined with ‘intuitive wisdom’. )

In Plato’s Socratic dialogues, the kind of happiness that Socrates was concerned with is that kind which is in accord with, and sensed by, one’s bodily-felt inner genius. It’s a capacity which is functioning at birth, and capable of development. It’s not identical with thinking, but if you think without it, woe follows.

The next development of humankind may be how to get the right relationship of thought to experience. Hence, as I see it, the task of process philosophy is to articulate the ‘how’ of thinking. The ‘how we are’ has been taken over, in the West, with preoccupations – not only in science, but in science’s mother, philosophy; and in society’s general thought – with ‘what we are.’

Philosophy is actively loving knowledge or knowing.  The Greek word for philosophy (φιλοσοφία) brings us the phrase “loving knowledge”, from phílos, “love” + sophía, “wisdom”. It also has a connection to “wise/intelligent.” From this point of view: Philosophy is the living, breathing activity of feeling into life, so that we can be informed by the much bigger going-on that ‘This’ (wave the hand in every direction) is – the matrix – and find the words to say it.

Then the cereal box is an invitation, to dive into deeper waters. And, slippery rocks can be explored intimately for what they are, what they offer up to our loving knowing. Slippery rocks are inevitable; yet, whatever comes in our body – pleasant or unpleasant, and even neutral – is a way forward, and we can turn toward it as a guest – because it IS. Even there, ing-ing can show itself.

In these pages, I study something called ‘process philosophy,’ and the particular approach to process philosophy which I study is that of Eugene T. Gendlin, as presented in his numerous papers, but also in five main books: Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning: A Philosophical and Psychological Approach to the Subjective (ECM); Thinking Beyond Patterns: Body, Language and Situations (TBP);  A Process Model (PM); and Saying What We Mean (SWM). David Michael Levin has also edited Language Beyond Postmodernism: Saying and Thinking in Gendlin’s Philosophy. If your new to philosophy, probably TBP, ECM and then SWM are the easiest to start with, of these books.