In human civilization, and in the individual life of every human being, behind every problem to be solved, there is a question of philosophy to be asked—and not only asked as we usually ask, but to be pondered and lived with as a reminder of something we have forgotten, something essential. Our culture has generally tended to solve its problems without experiencing its questions. That is our genius as a civilization, but it is also our pathology. Now the pathology is overtaking the genius, and people are beginning to sense this everywhere. (1)
“The values thing”; “faith”; “standing for something”—these and other squibs adorn myriad articles (2) currently lamenting a reputed deficit in those who oppose the policy directions of the current US administration. Proffered advice to the excessively secular ranges from “getting religion” to “rediscovering our values” to simply being less snotty towards people who might “believe in God.” While at least some of this seems like good sense, such exhortations are necessarily limited both in the scope of what they address and those they can rightfully reach.
People who identify with a religious tradition and want to argue their politics on that basis, will likely know what they and their co-religionists want to say. For those who do not identify with religion or don’t want to employ personal conviction as the basis for political judgments, a response to what is imprecisely called “the religious right” remains problematic. Unless politics is going to be conducted and viewed as nothing more than a question of who can impose their will upon others, some underlying context needs to be employed as a way of bridging the seeming divide between secular and religious politics. This is the only way in which dialogue and resultant communication can occur.
There is a longstanding historical body of thinking that addresses questions of value, community, and other basic concerns, one that overlaps but exists as a separate frame of reference from religion. This is the province of philosophy. While the academic discipline called by that name has largely succeeded in making itself the realm of technicians and consequently removing “philosophy” from the world occupied by most people, there are some important exceptions. As will be argued here, the historic concerns of philosophy and the questions that form its heart, are in no sense academic. Precisely what is being rejected is the sadly predominant brand of “philosophy” taught in this country, as noted by Gabriel Marcel:
Much more recently, talking with students at Harvard, I found that many of their philosophy professors were discouraging them from looking for a relation between the almost exclusively analytic thought in which they were being trained and life—the problems that life poses to each one of us but which seemed in the professors' eyes to be merely matters for personal discretion. (3)
To the extent that philosophy matters at all, it is found in the world we all inhabit and share.
We in this country have had an election, have a war, and are experiencing the destruction of our standing of living. In the face of this, each one feels more or less secure, variably hopeful and determined to resist a seeming direction in the flow of events, and casts about for a firm foundation upon which to ground such resistance. It is not enough to huddle together like musk oxen waiting for the wolves to attack; we need to have things to say and a way of saying them, that offers the possibility of enlarging our circle of understanding.
People have been blandly lied to often enough by political figures—including during this election cycle just concluded—that many Americans have very good reasons to be skeptical, apathetic, or outright hostile. If philosophy has any value at all, it is its insistence upon questioning so as to identify unacknowledged assumptions. It is not self-evident that any party label automatically suffices to warrant a vote and support; it is not automatically the case that even participating in politics is a good and urgent thing to do. When such assumptions are “bracketed” and consciously set aside, the capacity to listen is enhanced. Listening is going to prove more important than having a ready reply…because it is understanding the concerns of others that makes meaningful replies possible.
Rollo May noted that:
[Th]e unity of man [sic] and the world are not dependent on “the one rational method” but on the unity of the prerational world, the one world of experience…This original integral source of all ways of existing in the world is the body, the origin of experience of the world. (4)
The unity of human beings is not something to be sought, as it already exists. What human beings have done is to foster divisions and fracturing along countless lines of color, class, gender, national identity and location. In fact, we all share a world, the same originary source of experience that allows us to communicate with and understand each other. It is our shared human nature, the familiar and universal demands of our bodies, that bind us to a mutual fate. Thus, all questions emanate from and return to the realm of embodiment, the carnal charter that every human being immediately recognizes as applying both to self and other.
This is significant, for it provides a reality-based frame that is not an opinion, an assumption, or an article of faith. It is also not trivial: matters such as adequate food, clean drinking water, environmental toxins and inaccessible or inadequate medical care, safe transportation, and a host of other issues directly emanate from the flesh as “an element of Being,” in the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. (5) This is truth, the objective reality that is also subjective reality; no human beings exist other than as embodied, and embodiment is never a blank tablet, but carries with it structures and demands familiar to every person. It is on this basis that philosophy can construct and speak to the imperative for universal justice and speak to the urgency of making sure all people have the basic necessities of life.
When the bare necessities are present, human beings naturally turn towards creating additive dimensions and structures of their own imagining. Culture arises on the foundation of met needs, allowing the emergence of art, the world not bound by the vicissitudes of work and trade. It is in this dimension that imagination and play emerge. As Levin notes,
[T]he human being, a body-self, has—is—many other kinds of needs and demands; there are emotional needs, spiritual needs, and many needs whose realization, recognition, or satisfaction directly bear on social and political policy. (6)
In the same passage, he invites us to
[C]onsider... what kind of future society our bodies needs—and what kind of society would fulfill that need and dream.
It is the need of “our bodies”—not that of one or another person—that should and can be invoked. This is the Great Divide in politics and indeed throughout human society, between those who see that each is best served by ensuring all have the necessities of life, versus those who prefer to allow even a majority of people to suffer and die, so that a few may have far more than they need. This difference cannot be finessed, and implies further problems that require resolution. History has repeatedly offered us examples of collectivisms that destroyed really existing individuals and masses of individuals, in the name of “the greater good.” Always, it is the realm of embodiment that grounds and returns us to sanity; it is the abstraction of human beings and their treatment as such, that allows for the horrors of Stalin and Hitler, Hiroshima and the killing fields.
Called to Service and to Truth
Something that people who are committed to social progress and justice have in common with the activist of the “religious right” is a sense of being drawn to act in the world. Marcel notes this in regard to philosophy:
[P]hilosophy, like art or poetry, rests on a foundation of personal involvement, or to use a more profoundly meaningful expression, it has its source in a vocation, where the word “vocation” is taken with all its etymological significance. I think that philosophy, regarded in its essential finality, has to be considered as a personal response to a call. (7)
This is an area of commonality that allows for the employment of a mutual language of calling, commitment, and care that is salutary in talking with others, including political opponents. There is nothing coy or artificial in this; those who have spent the greater part of their lives exerting themselves against the impulses of greed that lead to war and misery, can attest to a sense of being called to this effort. Marcel also suggests that philosophers are called to show more than prove, and that this is the province of “…what can very generally be called the spiritual domain, where to show is to make ripen and thus to promote and transform.” (8)
Those of the reality-based community should not shudder at the employment of ‘spiritual,’ for it is indeed the human spirit and the world, that we serve. Leave it to the theologians to dispute how and whether this is a restatement of their own understanding of their various gods; for us, this is the most sublime and profound aspect of being politically committed. Our whole lives have turned towards showing that a different and better way of living is possible, one that recovers and creates the Beloved Community that some among the politically religious may understand in their own terms. Our entire effort has been to promote and transform, to bring into being through our lives the urgent changes that we hope are not too late to salvage our world from technological greed and corporate insanity.
The vision we have for the future, the one that anticipates the lifting of madness from the earth, is one we must pursue through questioning, self-reflection, and persistence. Marcel gifts us with an appropriate closing:
“Though I shall certainly cause some dismay and scandal among philosophers and theologians, I would say that in this age of absolute insecurity we live in, true wisdom lies in setting out, with prudence to be sure, but also with a kind of joyful anticipation, on the paths leading not necessarily beyond time but beyond our time, to where the technocrats and the statistic worshippers on the one hand, and the tyrants and the torturers on the other, not only lose their footing but vanish like mists at the dawn of a beautiful day.” (9)
(1) The Heart of Philosophy, by Jacob
Needleman (Toronto: Bantam, 1984), page 7. I cannot praise this book too
highly. Hopefully, future editions will correct its atavistic use of the
male pronoun when indicating individual and collective humanity.
Other Articles by Dan Raphael
Sleep, Awakened by Thunder