Philosophy as Bildung

In a recent post, I claimed that we ought to defend a form of philosophical humanism. By this, I meant that we should confront a certain embarrassment concerning the human. One variety of such embarrassment is expressed in strident naturalism about philosophical explanation. Naturalisms of this sort seek to shift the locus of philosophical explanation, whether ontological or justificatory, to something more fundamental than the considerations given in everyday practices of explanation. For example, here I have in mind efforts to bring cognitive science to bear on moral psychology. Within many such debates, the ‘folk psychology’ possessed by normal agents is contrasted with the results of the modern psychological sciences, laden with the outcome of brain scans and other neurological research. The suggestion is that philosophy of mind ought to take off from these cutting edge results, which present us with the most accurate accounts of the mind available, rather than the messy self-understanding of ordinary agents which, although useful in practical situations, is often shot with delusions, simplification and convenient fictions. My reservations are not primarily directed at the cognitive sciences per se (and certainly not all forms of naturalism), only the thought that philosophical explanation must start from this point instead of the more familiar understanding of ourselves expressed in ordinary discourse. This is the conviction that, when it comes to philosophy, what we say when we chat with our friends, say, or the way that Sophocles characterises shame, leaves nothing out. In part, this conviction is founded upon a different way of approaching the tasks of philosophy.

If philosophy is to provide us with a maximally coherent account of how the world is, being a handmaiden to the sciences which works upon the more abstract and conceptual difficulties which they throw up, then the idea that it ought to accept the same reductive and naturalistic approach to explanation is much more palatable. That sort of activity may very well be a precondition of achieving the invaluable insights provided by science. Yet, I don’t think that attempts to reframe in this context traditional philosophical problems, concerning knowledge or practical deliberation, for example, are at all illuminating. This is because these problems are, predominantly, troubling in a different way to scientific problems. Once again, Wittgenstein expresses this idea well. In a heading of the ‘Big Typescript’, he writes: “DIFFICULTY OF PHILOSOPHY NOT THE INTELLECTUAL DIFFICULTY OF THE SCIENCES, BUT THE DIFFICULTY OF A CHANGE OF ATTITUDE. RESISTANCES OF THE WILL MUST BE OVERCOME.” He then goes to say, “Work on philosophy is – as work in architecture frequently is – actually more of a //a kind of// work on oneself. On one’s own conception. On the way one sees things. (And what one demands of them.)” (PO: 162-3) Without wanting to overgeneralise from these remarks, I think we can see within them a kind of schematic for philosophy. I shall now go on to say a little about how I propose we should think about philosophy, or at least one its central currents, and which connects this Wittgensteinian view with some which may seem like natural adversaries to it.

What might it mean to say that work on philosophy is work on oneself? Helpful here is a German term, important for understanding post-Kantian idealism, namely, Bildung. It can be translated variously as education, nurture, development, formation or culture. Such elasticity of meanings might serve to shroud rather than reveal the idea it seeks to capture though. In the Hegelian usage which I prefer, it can be taken to name a process of self-cultivation through which, in a struggle to understand who they are, someone achieves a more liberated mode of relating to themselves and therewith the world as a whole. This need not imply anything spooky is going on, nor that some imposing idealist apparatus is called upon. Instead, we might consider the sort of thing that happens in a Bildungsroman; the independence of maturity is achieved through the resolution of conflicts over the protagonist’s self-identity. Thought of in this way, we can contrast Bildung, qua self-directed process, with other ways of being developed or formed. As Allen Wood puts it, “the entire process of Bildung is fundamentally an inner or self-directed activity, never merely a process of conditioning through environmental stimuli, or the accumulation of information presented by experience.” (‘Hegel on Education’, p.4)

It is with this sort of understanding of Bildung in mind that I suggest we take up Wittgenstein’s idea that work on philosophy is work on oneself. Philosophy, practiced aright, does not seek to give us theories built upon our experience of the world (though it by no means operates independently of such experience), but nor does it counsel simply following the inclinations which we form just as inhabitants of the natural world. Instead, at least for the most part, it is about achieving a certain practical orientation towards ourselves, our fellows and the rest of the world. This practical orientation consists in both intellectual and affective sensitivity, and so it might be said to concern a way (or our ways) of seeing. Again, we might say that philosophy, so conceived, is irreducibly aesthetic, insofar as we adopt a broad understanding of the aesthetic. So characterised, the conception of philosophy I have outlined may seem either hopelessly broad and vague or intolerably strange and idiosyncratic. To make it more determinate, I shall point to two examples of what I take to be philosophy practiced in this vein. I’ve chosen to pick out Hegel and Nussbaum, though it may equally have been Aristotle, Adorno, Wittgenstein, McDowell, Anscombe or Marx.

Take Hegel to begin with. What we find in the Phenomenology is an analysis of a procession of forms of consciousness and forms of the world which are outgrowths of ordinary ways of looking at the world. The use (or embodiment) of the fundamental logical categories of particularity, universality and individuality within these forms shows them to be unstable, since none of them can overcome the difficulties of reconciling subject and object. Hegel’s aim is to lead us along a ‘pathway of despair’ (and therefore an intellectually and emotionally transformative narrative) which shows us how to recognise and begin to avoid these instabilities. The result is absolute knowing; not a megalomaniacal claim to comprehensive or divine knowledge, but a standpoint — a place from where to see the world — from where we can overcome the gulf between subject and object, as previously expressed as problems bridging mind and world, intention and action, inner and outer, and so on. Thus, the groundwork is laid for the task of re-cognising the phenomena previously encountered in our ordinary ways of seeing the world, critically reappraising and adjusting these ways of seeing such that we can come to an unalienated or homely (heimlich) relation to our world. Ultimately, for Hegel, philosophy is concerned with examining the concept, understanding the rational basis of things, and this redounds upon the rational being doing the examining, setting them free from the mere positivity of phenomena — being brutely confronted with them in their contingency, rather than grasping how they do and indeed must relate to oneself. But first one must learn how to look at the world rationally, where this is a long and difficult process fraught with as many practical and affective problems as cognitive ones, and which does not issue in a theory of everything but a mode of facing the world: not simply a set of propositions, but a practical way to confront it.

Nussbaum’s work is altogether more modest and it is undertaken in a rather different spirit. Nevertheless, there are important similarities which I would like to try and draw out. Again, there is a kind of aesthetic thread to be picked up — one that consists in cultivating a variety of perception, not in any empiricist or intuitionist sense but rather as a sensitivity to the world which takes the form of a kind of practical knowledge or phronesis. We see this method deployed brilliantly in The Fragility of Goodness. In it, Nussbaum undertakes a forensic analysis of the details of Greek philosophy and tragedy which she brings to bear upon questions of moral luck, tragic conflict and practical deliberation. What makes the book so great as philosophy, rather than simply historical scholarship, is how it manages to draw so much sustenance from the literature it considers whilst putting its ideas to work in providing vivid ‘reminders’ and ‘objects of comparison’ (to resort to Wittgesteinian terminology) with which to illuminate our ethical lives. Its approach to literature is deeply philosophical; and conversely too, with its philosophical proclivities being similarly literary. This is another example of what I have been calling philosophical humanism: a confidence in the narratives we tell about ourselves and what matters to us. Of course, we need (and ought) not take all these stories at face value, but an underlying trust in our ability to capture the fundamentals of life in the mainstays of human activity is on display here. Art, whether individually or collectively, can be contextualised and historicised, subjected to evolutionary adaptionist explanation, Ideologiekritik, and so on, but none of these things can explain it away as a whole such that it loses its respectability as a philosophical resource. Artistic activity retains its legitimacy as a tool for providing genuine, first-rate knowledge of truths about value, the mind, action, emotion — about human life in general — and insofar as it does, we must again question the rush to those reductionist accounts predicated upon an uneasiness with the merely human.