© Brendan Triffett 2018-2019
All rights reserved.
St Michael the Archangel, defend us.
All rights reserved.
St Michael the Archangel, defend us.
Before I continue, I should point out that these reflections are unplanned philosophical explorations and “improvisations”. While I do proceed with a certain goal in mind, I cannot predict exactly which terrain I will end up covering and how long it will take to reach a satisfactory end-point. I raise a question, which leads me to another question (and so on), and in order to answer each question I often have to explore new ground. This means that I will sometimes lead the reader on a convoluted path. I hope the reader will bear with me. I will eventually circle back to address the questions raised earlier. I am working out, in real time, how to get from A to B. I am in the position of a hiker who is convinced it is possible to reach and scale a mountain which he already sees in the distance. But there is no neatly defined path, and the hiker often has to cut his way through wild flora.
In this post I offer some comments about philosophy and method in the light of this predicament. I argue that philosophy is closer to art than science. I draw heavily on the work of Martin Heidegger (various works) and Hans-Georg Gadamer (Truth and Method). I should also acknowledge the influence of Dietrich von Hildebrand, David S. Schindler, Hans Urs von Balthasar and John Milbank.
I am not uploading section after section of an already-completed book. I am clearing new terrain as I reach it (it is new for me in any case—though in philosophy it never hurts to approach things as if for the first time), but always with a certain end-point in view, using a specific “style” of proceeding. While my philosophical style is defined by the set of philosophical tools which I favour, I am not (yet) in a position to define the “inner logic” of this style. It is only after the mountain has been scaled (if you will) that one can look back in order to “mentally organise” the path into a logically ordered series of stages. I do not yet have a schematic overview of the journey—that’s precisely what makes it a journey! Once the journey has been completed, I will be able to look back and deliver my overall argument in a more organised way—as a book, hopefully. (Life is too unpredictable at the moment to make promises though!).
It would be a mistake to think that exploring the contours of a philosophical problem is an arbitrary “play of thought” without rhyme or reason. Yes, following the inner logic of the matter-to-be-thought as it emerges into clarity is more of an art than a science. At least, that is the case when the matter-to-be-thought is embedded in the deeper things of life (one might argue that everything is so embedded—even the laws of formal logic—but I will not argue for that here). Science qua science investigates its objects using an explicitly defined method. Art does not proceed in that way, but that does make it undisciplined. Good art is still regulated by reality (I mean “reality” in the broadest sense, which includes the realm of the possible). Good art is poetic expression of (some aspect of) Being. A good artist acts as a creative “midwife” for reality as it rises into form and manifestation (claritas). By way of contrast, any artistic product or performance whose inner law is nothing more than subjective whim, individual emotion or arbitrary decision, is for that reason bad art. Just because art is not dominated by a strictly pre-defined method, that does not mean that it is never regulated by some inner law, some objective logos.
To be sure, the inner law or logic which some artistic act follows cannot be purified of the interiority of spirit. The “objectivity” of the regulating logos does not mean the pure externality of “physical matter” (a positivist reading of “objectivity”), but rather the anterior presence of the matter-to-be-thought, or what realists call “response-independent reality”. And that “objectivity” is thick with spirit. The logos or “notion” to which some work of art is obedient is brimming with discoverable meaning: it calls for loving attention, it awaits the faithful mediation of the artist in order to manifest its inner tendency in material form. Nor can that law or logic be captured and managed using some rational formula. If that were the case, then every work of art would be a completely redundant expression of some truth that could just as well have been represented in words or concepts (the view of Hegel, if I am not mistaken).
It is a mistake to think that “the objective truth” reduces to purely physical features of reality: a set (or system) of value-neutral facts which are empirically discoverable and manageable by mathesis (a scientific-mathematical “grid” imposed over reality; cf. Heidegger). Response-independent reality, both human and non-human, has a spiritual aspect, a “depth-dimension” which can only be articulated faithfully using non-scientific language: the language(s) of poetry and the various creative arts, the language of (non-positivist) philosophy, and more generally the language(s) of the humanities [for Dietrich von Hildebrand, “positivist philosophy” is a contradiction in terms; cf. What is Philosophy?]. Being discloses itself in various ways; it shows itself in these various modes of thinking and “moods” of speaking. If something cannot be reduced to what is rationally manageable, value-neutral, and purely external (that which has no spiritual depth or meaning), that does not mean that it lacks substance. Indeed, the exact opposite is the case. What is most real and substantial—in the words of the Scholastics, what is most noble—cannot be reduced to the rationally manageable, the value-natural, the purely external.
The mistake of metaphysical empiricism is to assume that there is no objective reality beyond the realm of the empirical. For the metaphysical empiricist, if X is such that it cannot be discovered and explained (at least in principle) using the methods of the natural sciences alone, then X is merely: a figment of the imagination, a projection of subjective emotion onto reality, or a useful fiction or convention. The only thing in reality which has “spirit” (“interiority” or “depth”) is the human being—everything else is spiritless. There are two versions of this disenchanted view of the world. Either (1) materialism is true, and the human being only has “spirit” in the sense that he thinks and speaks and acts in the language or “register” of spirit—there is no immaterial “soul” in the metaphysical constitution of the human being. Or (2) metaphysical dualism is true, and the human being has “spirit” in that he thinks and speaks and acts in the language of spirit on account of having an immaterial soul. Materialism—option (1)—is clearly unable to accommodate the claim that art and the disciplines which are closer to art are uniquely able to disclose reality—that they mediate the self-manifestation of Being in a special way. If the world is spiritless, then the responses of the human spirit are never attuned to the world; they are merely the expressions of individual subjectivity. To the extent that a human word or action is pregnant with interior conviction, it is either false or irrelevant to how things are in the world. Because reality is completely unspiritual, the intentionally spiritual aspect of art is not reality-disclosing. Art is nothing more than the expression of “merely personal” ideas and feelings; it does not open up the world (Heidegger), give us new insight into life as a whole (Gadamer), or afford new access to Being (again Heidegger). Art is merely a reflection of some subjective experience of the artist (or the community with which she identifies), where this experience is not a participation in Being—it is not “true” in any substantial sense. In short, the expression of interiority is not an event of truth. What about metaphysical dualism—option (2)? Can dualism accommodate the claim that the work of art is (normatively speaking) an event of truth? The dualist denies that the physical is able to manifest outwardly some “inner” spiritual reality or truth. But if the external and the internal are divided as they are for the dualist, it is hard to see how the act of performing/producing something in a material medium, could possibly be guided and regulated by some spiritual reality or truth.
The natural sciences do not have exclusive rights over truth (though many natural scientists and naturalistic philosophers claim that they have—which is ironic because that very claim cannot be proven using empirical methods). The arts and the humanities, just as much as science, are able to afford us some reliable (though perspectival) access to being. Actually, that is to understate the case. Heidegger would agree with that last statement but put things the other way around—science too is able to give us access to reality, though in a very constricted way. Being is disclosed to us most originally, and therefore most profoundly, not in science but in the act of dwelling in the world. The natural sciences methodically strip away the colours and depths and ambiguities of this original disclosure in order to gain mathematical control (mathesis) over beings. The world disclosed to the scientist is a world artificially stripped of all Being except (in the most extreme case, physics) the meagre forms of quantity and extension. The “world” of the scientist is poor in that depth which calls for thought. Insofar as natural science abstracts from that depth, its approach to the world is not the “most true” but simply the most manageable. We should not say that art (or poetry, or philosophy, or the humanities in general) also give us access to the world or Being—as if to say that the scientific method is the ideal which all other approaches must approximate in order to afford us reliable access to reality. Rather, the “ideal” or “most true” approach to Being is one which is attuned and responsive to Being in all of its originary depth and mystery and holiness. The dimensions of quantity and extension—and indeed, the phenomenon of “the natural process” as such—these are all artificial abstractions from the original phenomenon of the world-as-a-whole.
To sum up: good art, far from being whimsical or “merely subjective”, is regulated by, and expressive of, something deep in Reality. Good art exhibits a disciplined focus upon something truly interesting. It bears into the light something which calls for thought. The fact that the expressible content of some artistic work or performance is non-empirical (neither purely external nor rationally manageable nor value-free) does not mean that it is conjured up arbitrarily out of nowhere. Nor does it mean that the artistic process has nothing serious about it—as if any gesture or movement or decision would be just as good as any other, since in any case nothing in the work of art is ever “true” (in any substantial sense) anyway. But philosophy is closer to art than science. It tends away from its essence as philosophy (despite still being called “philosophy”) to the extent that it emulates the strict method of the natural science. For the deep thing of life escape the grasp of empiricism yet remain the central concerns of philosophy as such. For philosophy to emulate science is for it to forget its primary calling. A philosophy which lacks the ability to disclose the deeper realities for which philosophy exists in the first place, is a philosophy which rejects its own nature as philosophy.
A philosophical exploration worthy of the name is not a disconnected set of random movements. It is not haphazard but disciplined. Yes, philosophy deals with something which cannot be managed or captured in a rational formula or through mathesis. But that does not mean that it is not regulated by anything beyond the philosopher herself. Philosophy attends to Being, and attempts to bring to light that which calls for thought. Philosophy brings something to light with a word which harmonises with the essence of that something. Thus the material (die Sache) or objective content reaches its “fruition” and “satisfaction” (as it were) in the miracle of language.
In a word: while my explorations may be convoluted at times, and while they may move forward unpredictably in the absence of any “map” or schema of the journey, that does not prevent them from being regulated by Being. Philosophy is in essence an erotic search (Plato) for some feature or principle of reality which always-already calls one from somewhere beyond oneself (see also Jean-Luc Marion, Being Given).
Dr Brendan Triffett