Love for Wisdom (Philosophy) – Grande Dame or living Zombie?

Philosophy is going through rather hard times at present. Like an old lady of genteel birth, she is still talked about because of her stately demeanor and tremendous self-confidence – just as if she did not know that you’re mocking her as a zombie behind her back. Certainly, philosophy is still present at almost all universities, but you only need to translate her boisterous Greek name into plain English to provoke a condescending smile. What, after all, is left of that ‘Love for Wisdom’? If people are serious about their life, they turn to business, logistics or physics. If they just want to have fun, they don’t care about wisdom at all.

It seems to be but a matter of time that the lady with the Hippocratic face silently departs this life. Probably this is due to her uncomfortable position between two chairs, both of which are being held by very serious occupants: on one of them Religion has taken place promising its followers luck in the present and salvation in the future world. The other seat is occupied by Science, which uses evidence and facts against the dogmas of faith.

The philosopher as an outsider – hardly ever politically correct

Religion insists that its truths are not born of mortal brains, but have been given to man by supernatural powers. Philosophy, as we understand it today, has rebelled from the beginning against such an assertion. It was first conceived in the Axial period so designated by the German Karl Jaspers. For the first time, individual thinkers raised their voices against the collective and the truths it believed to be warranted by transcending powers. These the philosophic rebels daringly confronted with their own observations.

Seen in this way, philosophy marks a historical turn. What everyone considered right, because a god, the gods, or some tradition reaching back to the farthest past dogmatically proclaimed to be right, was made the object of criticism and even derision. The mature individual dared to oppose his ‘Ceterum censeo’. These were audacious acts of political incorrectness that not only Socrates had to pay for with his life. Philosophers emerged as lateral thinkers, as rousers, but also as destroyers of old certainties. The Balinese used to believe that the world rests on the back of a turtle, the Christians that it was created in seven days, the Aztecs that the sun would only rise if the ruler kept feeding them with prisoners of war. No matter how absurd a representation of reality was, humans were likely to accept it unquestionably as long as it was anchored in the collective mind and certified by the gods. One did not need to argue about what one believed. Faith produced unity and certainties; in an uncertain existence it offered to man a protective housing.

Philosophy was born in Greek times, above all, in or near big commercial cities, where different doctrines of faith were seen to clash diametrically and mutually relativize each other. The mere fact of such diversity easily aroused suspicion: could not the same central questions of life be judged quite differently? Such suspicion is the true breeding ground of the philosophic mind. It easily leads to the demise of seemingly self-evident beliefs.

True or false – the basic concepts of the scientific worldview

The call for thoughtfulness has, however, also produced that very specific curiosity, which we call ‘Science’. The explorations of science focus on one central question: what is true, what is wrong? The answer is thought to be valid if it relies on proofs that everybody may accept.

Obviously, it is true that bodies are accelerated in free fall; it would be wrong to assume a steady speed. It is true that the sun can only be seen on one half of the globe during the day; it would be wrong to maintain its permanent visibility. In the same sense, all valid laws science has been able to detect in nature are held to be true, while mere conjectures about still unconfirmed laws can be either true or false. Laws make statements about an infinite number of events that occur in the outer world. But they are scientifically valid only if their occurrence can actually be proved.

The difference with regard to the truths of religion is obvious. These are valid for believers regardless of whether they derive from or can be confirmed by observed reality. No one knows if there is ‘really’ a life after death, or if Allah received his divine message ‘really’ from a visiting angel.

Science – at least that of nature – does not allow any such unproven or unprovable statements. Its arguments are ‘objective’ in the strict sense that external nature (together with its laws) is the same for all people, regardless of their subjective will and desires. It is due to this fact that the textbooks of physics or chemistry show the same content throughout the world, in China as well as in Britain.

The uprising against ‘objectivity’

A truism? That is how it might seem at first glance, but against this objectivity, against this constraint imposed on man by ‘objective’ outward reality thinkers have repeatedly protested, some even rejected it as a mere illusion. And, indeed, it is, of course, perfectly true that even the strictest science, physics, rests on a fundament of subjectivity, because people have to agree on the concepts with which to describe the world of experience. Ceteris paribus, water always boils at 100 degrees and freezes at zero degrees Celsius, but these and all other natural constants can be described in alternative ways if you choose different scales (Fahrenheit, Reaumur, centimeters or inches, for example).

Nonetheless, the natural order remains the same, no matter what convention scientists use in its description. The supremacy of objectively given natural laws is by no means challenged by such differences. Here the theoretical enemies of objectivity are as wrong as the practical ones who by means of magic, incantations, and other attempts at deception believed to override the constraints imposed by nature. Time and again people thought they might defend themselves against bullets and cannons – by the magical use of intense human desire. History knows how such experiments invariably ended: with the death of the unhappy believers.

It was less dangerous, but no less outlandish, when highly idealistic philosophers, such as Gottlieb Fichte, transformed nature into a mere product of human imagination (a ‘non-ego’ jumping out of the head of the ‘ego’). Paul Feyerabend’s attempt to spirit away true and false, by making these criteria dependent on the world view taken by each particular culture was – to say the least – curious. This misled pupil of Popper seemed to believe that the effects of gravity in China or India differed from those they had in Europe according to the religious orientation of its peoples. It was even more absurd that Paul Watzlawick explained reality as a mere construct of human thought. He seemed unaware that construction merely concerns the differences of convention.

If these thinkers were right, then people would not have invented and manufactured all those numerous devices starting from bows and arrows up to modern computers that testify to the same laws of nature everywhere on the globe. These inventions are, however, an indisputable fact of ancient as well as of modern history. ‘True’ and ‘false’ therefore remain the basic concepts of a science that describes the objectively existing order of nature and the constraints imposed by it. But it is true that different cultures treated many things of the mind as true and indisputable facts though they do not belong to the objectively given. Only in this sense did human beings indeed construe their own reality.

Authority and observation

Human thinking moves between two widely separate poles: between Religion on the one hand and Science on the other. The first is based on a truth that it believes to be guaranteed by a transcendent power and which is usually anchored in the collective mind. This truth may and does as a rule widely surpass the limits of the observable. The second tolerates only truths that are as close as possible to empirical observation (or at least should not be refuted by it). Religion refers to a personal authority – generally speaking, that of a founder of a religion or of a prophet, who in their turn designate a supernatural power as the true fountainhead of their teachings. The other, science, does not accept any claims to authority, no matter where it comes from. Its only point of reference is reality itself as it may be observed by all human beings.

Rebellion – the origin of philosophy

These are the two long-occupied chairs between which the Love for Wisdom places itself. In the pre-Socratic era, when philosophy first made its voice heard in the West, it decided right from the start to defy religious certainties. The origin of philosophy signaled a definite departure from most truths commonly held; just think of the words of Xenophanes: “But if the horses had hands and could paint with these hands, they would portray their gods in the shape of horses … ” Even more thought-provoking was the materialistic reduction of everything real by Democritus and Leucippus. The whole world order was trimmed down to the different relations of a certain number of very small particles, the atoms. Gods and even man were replaced by mechanics.

The militant demarcation from all dogmas dictated by authority also dominated philosophers’ thinking during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It culminated in Voltaire’s notorious saying: Ecrasez l’infâme! (Crush the clerical camp!). As in the time of the ancient Greeks, more than two thousand years earlier, this uprising of individual thinking against established authority took place in the name of a science that was completely fixed on what could be demonstrated by empirical observation. Some of the philosophers of the time were themselves authentic scientists – Leibniz, d’Alembert or Kant, for example – but, like Voltaire, most of them acted only as the popular advocates of the sciences. At any rate, the message proclaimed in the name of Enlightenment was perfectly clear. Philosophy was called to decide between truth and fiction. And it was commonly agreed upon, where truth was to be found: in the sciences only. All statements of philosophy were to be measured according to their scientific content.

Analytic Philosophy

Anglo-Saxon philosophy (with a few exceptional outsiders among them the glorious William James) was to find its most convincing representative in Bertrand Russell, who not only continued this very trend into the twentieth century, but gave it its most stringent expression. Philosophy became a maid of science, its sole usefulness was seen in its endeavor to elucidate the latter’s foundation by conducting basic logical research. Analytic philosophy, founded by the great Englishman, soon came to occupy most University chairs all over the world. The only serious competitor tolerated at its side was the factual description of the evolution of human thought, that is the history of philosophy.

This transformation of philosophy into the serving maid of science had serious consequences. Philosophy that, at its best, had been able to stir up public opinion, sometimes even dominating it, shrunk to an unheeded and even disregarded discipline of professionals whose opinions are mostly ignored. In other words, the Grande Dame named ‘Love for Wisdom’ became a zombie with little chance of survival.

How can it be that a type of thinking so rigorously devoted to the search for truth and nothing but truth, could lapse into insignificance?

Will and desire – the core of ​​human existence

The reason for this spectacular decline has, certainly, nothing to do with the fact that modern philosophy wholeheartedly accepted the scientific way of explaining reality. Any contemporary philosopher would be ridiculed if he fell back into the worldview of the Aztecs or the Middle Ages. There is no turning away from today’s universal methodology and knowledge as achieved by science. The problem of philosophy is not that it accepted scientific enlightenment and its criteria of true versus wrong. The problem is of an altogether different kind – it is based on the narrowness and one-sidedness of scientific truth – the latter only represents one half of human knowledge; it overlooks its second part, which is no less essential, namely subjective desire and choice.

As a matter of fact, subjective will and desire constantly control the thoughts and actions of individuals as well as of states and nations. Just think of your personal experience. The coming day you may want to give a present to a friend, climb a nearby mountain, paint a picture, write a poem, or initiate a revolution. None of these will-impulses belongs to the realm of objective events that may be classified as true or false analogously to the existing order of nature. The verse you may want to write, or the picture presenting itself to your imagination, appear to your judgment as ‘beautiful’. They owe their origin to an aesthetic motive. The conquest of a mountain or a political protest may seem ‘good’ or ‘desirable’ to your mind. This time you are driven by an ethical motive.

In this way, you inevitably hit upon a truth that science too had to accept (Max Weber expressly did so): neither my aesthetic nor my ethical will and desire can be deduced from objective reality. That fact explains why science has nothing to say about them. The above mentioned thoughts and choices are dependent on your will and desire, but science only deals with ‘objective’ events that exist independently of our subjective urges.

In other words, science must be silent the very moment it deals with what is most important in the life of every man and any society. She always draws her knowledge looking back on past events – she is retrospective: summarizing experience she reveals the order of things. In this way she has achieved the most astounding triumphs, because the natural order and its laws also pertain to the future, thereby posing insurmountable limits to our desires. But the laws of the past only partially determine the future, they leave a wide field of freedom to our personal endeavors. The established order of things – its laws – does not prevent you from creating the radically new at every moment of your ongoing life. If you don’t make a sensational invention, write a great novel or trigger a revolution, you may still climb a nearby mountain – these are events rooted exclusively in your subjective wishes and desires. At every moment, new reality not derivable from any given laws is created by every human being on earth (and all its presently seven billion people together). The effect is spectacular: Seen from outward space, the planet currently looks completely different than it did two hundred years ago.

Creative reason

What human minds constantly create – the separate minds of individuals as well as the collective mind of entire societies – are acts of willful desires for an ethically better world, for the equality of the sexes, for military disarmament, for more intergenerational fairness, for greener cities, for a more beautiful architecture, for more education or even for the exact opposite of such ideals. These endeavors completely differ from what laboratories of big corporations or university research centers try to discover. There the focus lies on facts that exist independently from such desires, but can be used as technical means for their realization. Retrospective or instrumental reason describes the objective part of reality beyond human volition; creative reason is rooted in nothing else than our volition.

Taking a bird’s eye view, the field of scientific cognition with its criteria of true versus false forms but a very small part of reason in relation to that many-voiced concert of subjective acts of the will that are based on the criteria of good versus bad, useful versus useless, beautiful versus ugly. Everything that really touches us, thrills us, or repels, disgusts and incites us to violent protests or even uproar, falls into the ethical realm of good or bad and the aesthetic of beautiful or ugly, in other words in the realm I have called creative reason.

A philosophy that does justice to man

A philosophy worthy of its name as a doctrine of wisdom would have to consider man as he really is, namely, man as a willing and wishing being, trying at every moment of his conscious life to influence surrounding nature and his fellow beings. At a small scale that exertion of will and desire happens in your own house or garden and in your family, on a big scale it occurs when people’s actions transform surrounding nature and reshape world politics. The means we all use for such purposes must needs be based on scientific knowledge, but our goals and purposes themselves can not be deduced from science or the ‘ objective’ laws. Goals and purposes owe their origin to the subjective freedom of man.

Analytic philosophy, ranging from Democritus to Bertrand Russell, has immensely enriched our knowledge as to things true or false. Like the exact sciences themselves, this philosophy has become a universal language that permeates the world of facts to an increasing depth and then provides the rules for its technical exploitation.

But one should never forget that science and technology are only the means destined to serve human purposes that belong to an altogether different dimension. With their help man transcends and, so to speak, overcomes the existing ‘objective’ reality in order to replace it with a better one of his own imagination. While science deals only with facts, the purposes conceived by man’s creative reason prepare the ground for possible worlds and realities. A philosophy that only stakes out and explores the realm of the actual is bound to die of emotional freezing.

Any philosophy that bisects man, allowing only retrospective or instrumental reason to be acknowledged, distorts the very face of man. The poverty and insignificance of analytic philosophy does not derive from its resolute embracing of the scientific standard of true versus false; it derives from the fact that it knows nothing else but instrumental reason. Its counterpart, creative reason, is pushed aside as not being susceptible of scientific treatment. In the name of science, man with his desires and longings has been reduced to a miserable residue beyond ‘objective’ facts.

Is there just arbitrariness left?

Some critical scientists could possibly accept such a charge. But they will immediately raise a very intriguing question. What is creative reason based upon if its subjective utterances can not be judged by the standard of true versus false? If any man is free to open a book, take a trip or paint a picture at any moment, is not such freedom the expression of mere arbitrariness and coincidence? And are not creative reason and freedom truly embarrassing if they are based on nothing but arbitrariness and chance? The realm of ends, with its ethical and aesthetic values, seems radically bereft of any value if subjectivity turns out to be nothing but randomness. Since the 17th century scientists have sought their kind of salvation in ‘eternal’ and ‘iron’ laws. Are they not justified in turning away in horror from such ephemeral arbitrariness?

The subject as the source of things new

The problem of freedom has caused a lot of confusion. Is it really true that the creative process that, at every moment of human existence, shapes our personal and collective future is identical in its working with a roulette disc producing nothing but random events? One can not answer this question in a satisfactory way by merely pointing to the fact that instrumental reason mostly serves as a kind of assistant to its creative partner as it provides the latter with the necessary means for realizing its purposes. The construction of a bridge from Reggio Calabria to Sicily requires the highest technical skill – otherwise the purpose itself would be as unrealistic as a ropeway to the moon. But this objection does not modify the auxiliary role of instrumental reason – the purpose itself remains situated at a different plane. It arises from subjective ethical desires, which some consider ‘good’, others not.

For a correct answer to our question, this fact turns out to be of crucial importance. Subjective acts of human will may be criticized by other humans. A bridge from Calabria to Sicily is neither true nor false, you may only judge the idea as either good or bad, depending on whether or not you see in its realization the best possible use of scarce public money. Undoubtedly, our judgment may have a solid foundation but this is different from that of science. It is based on what trustworthy people beside ourselves have to say on the subject. We look for opinion leaders and authorities in order to make up our minds. When some writer decides to write a book on social justice, it is not because a roulette wheel is spinning in his head randomly producing this particular flash in his brain, but because contemporary currents of thought make him take this specific direction. Thoughts that he considers exemplary exert their influence on his own reasoning thus contributing to his orientation.

Creative reason does not hang in the air just because the criteria of true versus false do not apply. The alternative to true versus false, that is to what instrumental reason derives from the existing order of facts, is not randomness, which would mean that the new brought into the world by creative reason would arise out of nothing. The reference point is embodied in opinion leaders and exemplary models with their influence and charisma; in short creative reason takes its hints and suggestions from authority.

Synthetic philosophy

Religions used to replace with dogmas what was inexplicable in their time. In this way they suppressed the scientific questions as to true or false. Therein lies the historical reason why they were so fiercely criticized first by philosophy and later on by science. Religions tended to repress that half of the truth that man could only find once he freed himself from all dogmas and false authority. On the other hand, religions never lost sight of the elementary fact that man is, first of all, a willing and wishing creature, pursuing purposes whose final reference point are exemplary models and credible authorities. With their emphasis on purpose, religions transcended the one-sided fixation of science on instrumental reason. They complemented it with its creative counterpart.

Religions see the ultimate and highest authority outside and above the individual and human collectives. Regardless of whether this be true or not, it remains a fact that individual people or communities are the actual creators of all ethical and aesthetic values created through history. The philosopher is therefore well advised not to take religious statements too literally. But he has a valid reason to conscientiously take his position midway between the two stately chairs that of Religion and that of Science. Religion supplements science just as creative reason supplements its instrumental part.

Exemplary models and credible authority – those of living fellow humans as well as those of past generations – provide the fundament of creative reason. This fundament is no less significant than true or false – the basis of instrumental analysis. When dealing with ‘objective’ nature, man radically abstracts from himself and any human beings, that is from subjective will and desires. But as soon as he is attracted by the latter, as is the continuous rule in all daily life, he behaves in an exactly opposite manner: he devotes all his attention to other human beings being guided by models and authorities.

In this perspective, the position of the philosopher between the two chairs is no longer felt to be uncomfortable, but rather amounts to a special privilege. With its limitation to only one half of human reason, analytic philosophy has failed miserably. It has placed ‘objective’ nature at the center, whereas it pushed creative man at the edge of the universe. Would it not be reasonable to conceive of a synthesis that reassembles the severed halves by giving creative reason at least equal importance? The Philosophy of Freedom, which I want to oppose to analytic philosophy, would probably deserve the name of a more advanced ‘Love for Wisdom’.

Who knows, perhaps such a synthetic philosophy could even give a new breath of life to the Grande Dame now reduced to a living zombie?