Where to Begin? Nine Disorientations in Philosophy
Philosophy is, of course, obsessed with beginnings. Building foundations, flattening down, emptying out, razing to the ground, starting from scratch, eradicating presuppositions, questioning prejudices and wiping the slate clean, the discipline spends as much of its time gearing up to get going as it does analysing and constructing. Behind this impulse to begin and begin again lie larger questions of form and genre: is philosophy then to be identified with the discipline that is simply the desire to begin again, just once more? What type of thing is it, then, if one of its fundamental impulses is to void all content, to undermine itself from the off? Is philosophy best understood as a mode of thinking, a style of writing, or both? Seen in overview, doesn’t philosophy run the risk of never really getting anywhere, as in the final lines and direction of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot?
Well? Shall we go?
Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.
Seen another way, however, philosophy, despite its pretensions to purity, starts all over the place, sometimes deliberately so, sometimes not. This short piece will point to a relatively arbitrarily chosen nine ›disorientations‹ in the history of philosophy, those places where the discipline is forced to begin, where it spontaneously grows, where it ›naturally‹ occurs and where something outside itself forces it into existence. The question of where philosophy begins and where art starts is left for the reader to decide.
1 . M a t t e r . The ancient atomists were not interested in supernatural accounts, origin stories and theological explanations for stories regarding the beginning of and constituent nature of the universe. Although their description of atoms and the void as the sole components of the universe were too small to see and invisible, respectively, this was a serious attempt to begin, as it were, with what was in front of them, namely stuff. The way atoms circulated in the void, combined and recombined with one another was a way of accounting for the way in which things appeared to be very different from one perspective, and yet, from another, all made of the same thing. Paying attention to matter is the first step in avoiding fairy stories, however wonderful the stories might be.
2 . F a l l e n n e s s . Common to pre-Christian Platonic philosophy and Christianity and other religions alike, this starting point stresses the fallibility of human knowledge and the imperfect moral standing of mankind, often in tandem. Here another realm is posited – the realm of the forms for Plato, or heaven for Christianity – in which truth, justice, beauty or righteousness will be revealed. What gets shuffled off in order to get there is the human body, the distracting shell with its confused desires and imperfect vision. For Plato, all life is a process of remembering what it was that our souls once knew, whereas Christianity simply reverses this process of knowledge, claiming that it is only at the end of life, rather than at its beginning, that we’ll understand God’s will. Beginning with ignorance brings with it whole host of epistemological problems – rather than Kant’s question ›how do we know what we know?‹ we are presented with the question ›how do we not know what it is we don’t know?‹ The passage from Corinthians that runs ›for now we see through a glass, darkly‹ indicates either that the reflected image of the world (glass meaning mirror) we see is but a pale reflection of the truth, possibly even reversed or misshapen (think of the flickering shadow images on the wall of Plato’s cave), or that the way we see the world, our cognitive apparatus prevents us from seeing things ›as they really are‹ or as well as God might be expected to see, that is to say, without blind spots, without subjective interference or physiological limitation.
3 . P a s s i v i t y / A c t i v i t y . Do we receive impressions as if soaking information up, or do we actively shape and construct experience? The long-standing debate between empiricism (Locke’s tabula rasa, the ›black sheet‹ theory of mind, for example) and idealism (certain structures shape the way we see the world) created something of an impasse for philosophy’s attempt to begin in the right place. When Kant claimed in 1781 that ›[t]houghts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind‹ he went beyond the passivity/activity opposition towards something that would synthesise both dimensions of human experience – our experience is indeed shaped by the way we structure it (e.g. through space and time), but we cannot simply generate experience without there being something there to provide ›content‹.
4 . I n D i a l o g u e / I n L o v e . The atomised, pondering mind can achieve little on its own, often getting stuck in tired ruts and repetitive loops. At least since Plato onwards, the role of the dialectic, the discussion, the dialogue, the argument, the conversation has proved to be an important starting point for philosophy, whether it be the simple fact of explaining something to someone else (and learning more about that thing as you do so) or revelling in the knowledge that love itself affords (as Badiou puts it, love transforms the way the world is received), the position of the non-solitary mode has been central to philosophy, despite its repeated attempts to characterise itself as something weird old men do on their own in dusty studies.
5 . I n M e d i a R e s / I n t h e M i d d l e o f T h i n g s . Philosophy has already begun, life has already started, connections already exist: why must philosophy always start from the beginning? It may be that there is no way of usefully getting hold of any starting point, any secure foundation – why not accept the networks and relations that already exist and begin from there, looking outwards? Spinoza’s Ethics provides the clearest possible argument for this idea, understanding the world in terms of relations and affects, positive or negative. It is only when one understands what one’s power of activity is – what can a body do? As Deleuze and Guattari put it – that we understand what our capacity is, and understand both what limits our thinking and what improves our ability to act.
6 . W i t h N o n - P h i l o s o p h y . Philosophy has always prided itself on being the best, or perhaps only, place to begin because it is the most universal discipline, the most generic, the one with the least presuppositions or objects, the one that can think the hardest and the longest. But there is no guarantee that it will generate the most vital forms of knowledge. When Kierkegaard points to specific moods – anxiety, boredom – as providing the key to understanding subjectivity, he does so precisely because these are the specific things that philosophy has to exclude in order to get to the universal. Similarly, when Feuerbach claims we must begin not with philosophy but with ›sensuousness‹, with concrete existence, it is because philosophy, despite all its efforts, cannot break through the layers of idealism to ever get to the material, to the real heart of things. To begin with non-philosophy is to understand philosophy is or can often be one more layer of distraction or ideology preventing us getting to the crux of the matter, where philosophy is understood as something more akin to religion and dogmatism rather than a free enquiry into what is.
7 . W i t h W o n d e r . How does one become interested in the world? Perhaps with an experience of the world, a kind of revelation. For Heidegger, the Ancient Greeks approached the world with a kind of wonder (thaumazein). Far deeper than mere curiosity, this entrancement in the world provided the key to investigating the nature of being. Since then, of course, many have wondered what there is to wonder about, and have talked instead, like Weber, about disenchantment with the world. Some may start with wonder but others start with depression. It is unclear which provides the clearer picture.
8 . W i t h C r i t i q u e / S u s p i c i o n . It is not at all clear that we should trust the way the world appears to us, what other people tell us is the case or even our own deeply-held convictions. We can easily doubt our senses and our thoughts, or regard our perceptions as illusory. It may be that our language shapes and distorts our thoughts in such as way that we cannot think in any way about the world ›as it is‹. At the same time, the idea that we can ever truly solve or prove certain big questions – is there a God? Does free will exist? Is my soul immortal? To quote Kant – may be little more than hubris, even as we are compelled to ponder these questions through some inner compulsion. If we can’t trust our own faculties, thoughts and language, we sure as hell can’t trust those who claim to know what’s going on better than we do – the royal road of suspicion leads directly to a cautious enlightenment.
9 . W i t h P h i l o s o p h y ’ s O w n E m p t i n e s s . It may be that philosophy has no truths of its own, and its only role is to protect and preserve the truths generated by other ›conditions‹ – science, art, love, politics. This is the position that Badiou takes, noting that whenever philosophy tries to take these truths on as its own, disaster ensues – philosophy becomes didactic, romantic, and unjust to novelty that is generated outside of itself. Philosophy should take a step back and admit it has no content of its own. Where, then, to begin? Can we ever justify our starting point, even after careful consideration of the alternatives? Should philosophy relegate itself to responding to that which surrounds it – art, labour, arbitrary events, or should it seek to dominate and try to explain everything which is? If philosophy itself cannot decide where to begin, perhaps we should be thankful – being certain about where to start would be perhaps the least philosophical, and most frightening, thing of all.