Default Philosophers

A default philosophy is a system of philosophy that claim to do no more than describe things as they are rather than offer a system that offers an alteration of our perception of the world by eliminating concepts which are ordinary in human discourse or add concepts noone before had thought necessary. Such philosophies can serve as defaults in the sense that they are the ones that can be gone back to as reliable and basic when philosophies with an ax to grind, a point of view to expound so as to create a new vision of the metaphysical universe, one not previously crafted. Aristotle and, I think, David Hume, and perhaps Kant, are of that first kind in that they offer a bottom line of accurate description without the intrusion of their own special views, while Spinoza is a philosopher of the second kind in that he finds no need, in his very comprehensive philosophy, ever to invoke the concept of justice, and therefore shows how you can account for the world without it, which is as much as to say that there is no such thing as justice. Freud, if he is to be considered among the ranks of philosophers, does his work by including a new concept, that of the unconscious, as necessary for the understanding of human life, and the bulk of his work is to show that this uncharted territory is not only there but how it works. Twentieth Century eliminators, as they might be called, include Gilbert Ryle, who says, contrary to all sense, that there is no such thing as subjectivity, and Wittgenstein, who gets rid of thinking that much of speech is about propositions, however much that may impoverish or, depending on your viewpoint, liberate language.

Aristotle is able to be a default philosopher because he presents himself as a scientist, like the pre-Socratics, even though he is dealing with social, psychological, aesthetic, and metaphysical categories as well as with problems in natural science. He is scientific because he works in propositions, which are statements that if said claim to be always and everywhere true even if they are describing an historical fact. It has always and ever been true, if it is true, that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree. A scientific statement does not have an audience in mind or even an author, only a propounder. That is very different from Plato, whose truths arose out of dialogue, in opposition to what others stated, and so could be taken to be conditioned by the terms of the dialogue, words and sentences meaning whatever they might mean in that context. Also, Plato was certainly a philosopher with an ax to grind and so nowhere near being a default philosopher. He wanted to convince people that the world of convention which they inhabited was merely an illusion.

Just how difficult it is to be a default philosopher is shown by the case of Kant, who declares himself to be a default philosopher by stating that he is engaged in critical thinking, which means explaining how things are the way they are, taking what is in the metaphysical universe as what it has to be and proceeding to supply us with the concepts we need so that the universe will look that way. And so he accounts for everything, for ethics, for justice, for concepts of beauty, by looking at the presuppositions needed to make them be. We would face a kaleidoscope of experience unless thee were the categories of time and space to organize experience, to make life what it seems to be. Similarly, a world full of lies and liars would betray our ability to construct a world where people of good conscience could mix with one another. A criticism of Kant is that he favors the ideas of obligation and free will in his critical vocabulary, though that may be to say that he has so ingested the Protestant version of Christianity that he cannot think its superstructure other than an essential ingredient of everything that has always been. Kant is simply out to provide a Christian metaphysic that will work in a secular world, and if that results in a world that seems constrained because of an idea of obligation, so be it. The world cannot be otherwise, and Kant does not think that burden too heavy.

Spinoza, a hundred and fifty years before Kant, did think that burden too heavy, and so he was not a default philosopher but one with a clear agenda, which was to strip philosophical language of unnecessary words so that it was a proper vehicle whereby people could be free in ways they had not thought to be so before: in speech, in political institutions, in their relation to their selves. He was not a stoic asking people to bear their burdens but someone who wanted to relieve them of mind forged burdens. And so he did away with justice and obligation because a person could do without them. You can lie if you want to so long as you are willing to put up with the consequences of lying, which is that people will not trust you or will think less well of you. You can do without God except as the name for the everything of everything, all the ideas as well as all the things rolled up into one great entity. People answered to no one or nothing except in the sense that they could be said to answer to their own conception of themselves, it being natural for people to want to have the most complex and convoluted selves of which they were capable.

Freud is, of course, not considered a philosopher. He is seen as someone who considered himself to be a scientist, and is by some seen as a mythologist or the creator of a new religion, and by others as merely a charlatan.But he qualifies as a philosopher because he introduces a new concept as absolutely necessary for understanding the human condition, a concept that had always operated but no one else had ever noticed with such specificity and detail. That is the concept of the unconscious, which one might say had always been implicit in anyone who discussed or wrote about the human mind, but had avoided explicit notice perhaps because of its paradoxical quality as something which infused and indeed dominated everyone but was still invisible except for the traces of it that somehow reached the surface of life. Freud gave distinctive definition to the concept. He meant by it the dynamics of ideas and feelings as they modified one another, these processes not available to self-awareness even if any one of us has a sense of this going on from which we may recoil because it fills us with thoughts and feelings that are contrary to those which are conventionally acceptable.

Freud’s view is very different from playwrights and philosophers who have known for millennia that people had motives of which they were not fully aware, much less self-aware and that might run contrary to what were their rational self-interests. This is a whole other sphere of life that operates logically if not always pleasantly. Children know their fathers to be their enemies whether in some other sense they know it or not. Freud is very painstaking in his attempt to document the existence of the unconscious. He points to dreams, to slips of the tongue, and to all varieties of unusual and bizarre behavior to show it to be just there, however one can play the trick of saying that by definition something that is not conscious cannot be part of consciousness which is therefore only what we know we think about. That Freud drives us to accept that paradox about consciousness, the unusual nature of its being, is his great accomplishment even if he made additional discoveries which are more controversial as they become ever more specific, about certain psyches rather than the essence of psyche. The logical order of that specification moves from the unconscious to infantile sexuality to the Oedipus complex to the traumatic etiology of mental illness, to the therapeutic uses of transference. His discoveries about the dynamics of the unconscious, such as repression and suppression, projection and the like, are perhaps better understood as a spelling out of the meaning of the unconscious rather than as additional discoveries.

The point of this little conspectus is to suggest that philosophers are more engaged than they claim to be even when they write treatises, a form that suggests covering all the important topics within a field of inquiry in a systematic and objective manner. Rather, they take a relatively small package of fresh insights and apply them in every which way that they can so that, in Hegel’s view, everything is an unfolding of the internal logic of history, even logic itself, as that is itself just a way to understand the unfolding of the Holy Ghost through history. The thing about the modern world is that so much of this unravelling is accomplished in the name of science, whether of neurobiology or computer simulation in understanding the nature of consciousness (and unconsciousness), or through genetics and evolutionary biology for understanding how people relate to one another, and so thereby undercutting what Aristotle recognized to be the necessary division of the disciplines, each one taking on its subject matter with the kind of rigor that is possible in that field. Aristotle would have wanted all the fields of intellectual endeavor to be default descriptions for their subject matters, even as even the most ambitious of non-default philosophers, such as Spinoza, thought that everything could be brought together in one massive and internally consistent system. We are more modest when we set out to be scientists than we set out to intrude our own consciousness into the shaping of our findings, however limited may be our power to shift the course of thought with an essay or a multi-volumed tome that has our signature upon it, although it can be another kind of modesty is taking hold when an essayist says that he is merely offering a judgment or an opinion about how some aspect of the world works.