Tuesday, August 6, 2013

In the Beginning Was the Life

In the beginning was the life.

This cannot be emphasized enough. Philosophical types - perhaps scientific types too, for that matter - should have this written on their walls. Tattoo it on the backs of their wrists. Write in on chalkboards one hundred times daily. Scream it out at the moment of sexual climax.

The reason being that once one spends a length of time thinking philosophically about human behavior - that is, thinking deliberately about human behavior - one tends to forget that life was being lived prior to any theorizing or philosophizing. And if mass illiteracy were to suddenly sweep over humanity and if all language was reduced to grunting "food, fuck, bed" with varying tones of urgency, life would continue being lived although any heights of philosophy would have slipped out of reach.

Consider ethical philosophy. Consider Kant's categorical imperative and the system of morals that can be derived from that primary starting point. Now consider the utilitarian calculus used to determine the best possible action. Think to Aristotle's works on ethics and virtue. Now remember that people still found a way to make society work and found a way to behave decently toward one another prior to all of these philosophical projects. In the course of living their lives people had to work out ethical ways of living.

Which came first? A theory of ethics or ethical behaviors? Like most things I imagine that they exist in a kind of loop. One does a little theorizing which leads to a little more behavior which provides more data to be theorized about which leads to more refined behavior and so on. It seems to me that determining which one came first is a bit like finding the starting point in a circle. I mention this only so that there is no confusion that I am offering a theory about which came first - I do not care whether ethical behavior or ethical theory has chronological primacy. What I am saying is that deliberate philosophical systematic theorizing comes about after a way of life already exists.

In this way, I think we can see philosophy as a kind of refinement of natural human living. Perhaps we could say that it is life with art applied to it: an artistic rendering of what we were already doing. So ethics, for example, could be seen as taking the morality and concepts already guiding human behavior and chiseling away what had become useless and providing metaphysical groundings for what remained valuable so as to lend it power in debate and legitimacy in the face of disagreement, most importantly it allowed for the reaching of ethical heights which we never would have touched just living the way that came naturally. Epistemology too is just a matter of creating methods of thought that refine our natural more instinctual behavior pertaining to sorting reliable information, bullshit, error, and irrelevance.

Philosophy, then, is a kind of height, a luxury. We also see a way in which it can be evaluated. If the philosophy provides a method that allows us to live better than our instincts do, then we have encountered a philosophy that we help ourselves by living by. On the other hand if a philosophy provides a method that makes our lives more difficult, then we have found something that does not rise to the level of our instincts and cannot supplant or supplement them. Like someone trying to improve on a cupped hand by baking clay in a rounded shape with several holes in the bottom: we're better off with a cupped hand until you seal the holes.

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