Notes from fall of 1987 – Some Reflections on Philosophy II

By | December 11, 2011

By Juan Bernal

What can the “philosophical spirit” mean to the non-philosophical world, a world that cares little about clarification, analysis and the pursuit of truth?  Should the “philosophical person” take the role of a missionary and work to win converts among the un-philosophical?

To go out and attempt to convert the world is silly and Quixotic. The world in general is not disposed toward philosophical work.  But some individuals within the large non-philosophical set are naturally disposed to ask philosophical questions or ask questions that require philosophical treatment. Such individuals are susceptible to the philosophical, Socratic sting. We might approach them.

What does one attempt to teach?  ….philosophy as a method for dealing with certain questions and problems?  ….a reflective, logical approach to life?


It seems that most people do not perceive a need in their lives for philosophy.  But there are others (a minority) who regard philosophy as critically important.


Probably most people who complain that philosophy is a useless and boring subject do not know what philosophy is, but base their view on a misconception (e.g. philosophy as armchair speculation and groundless metaphysics dealing with the supernatural). Such people commit the “strawman” fallacy.  They have an erroneous idea of philosophy, and on this “basis”, reject all philosophy as useless.  For some, experience has given them a caricature of philosophy; hence, they see nothing to recommend it and hence is easily reject it as a frivolous activity.


But if people attempt to think for themselves on significant, vital issues, they will see a need for philosophy.  If people have some curiosity about the way things are; if they still retain a sense of wonder about existence; if they haven’t conceded all spiritual, moral and intellectual work to the “experts”; they have a need for philosophy.



The human psyche is vast and has incredible depth. Individuals occasionally get lost within it. We are shocked by its distances and depths, and frequently are led to think that somehow we have stepped beyond it.  Thus we have belief in such things as: out-of-body-experiences, soul transmigrations, reincarnations, etc..

The psyche presents us with astonishing visions, and speaks to us with many voices —some awesome and terrible.

(It is not clear that the preceding remarks have much to do with philosophy.  Do they touch on religion?)


When I sit down (or stand up) and try to sort things out for myself…..Is this philosophy?

Most likely this by itself is not philosophy. Genuine philosophy requires a special kind of reflection and intellectual work.


Philosophy is difficult to define.  Sometimes analogies and similes can help:

An intellectual exercise:

Philosophy can be seen ….

“      as a game ……(hobby).

“      as a way of life.

“      as a style of problem solving.

“      as a form of intellectual work.

“      as a form of spirituality ……(religion (?)).

“      as a type of illness ……(a nervous disorder).

“      as a life-long commitment to searching for truth.


The psyche seeks to express its depth; this expression may take the form of philosophy, art, poetry, religion …etc..

Philosophy as an art form.

“      as imaginative literature.

The poet and the writer of literary works (e.g., novels) attempt to express their experience of human existence. They each work at giving expression to their vision of reality; and if they succeed, they enable us, their readers, also a share in that vision and offer us a “living”  of their experience. This is how great works of literature function.

Can we say correctly that philosophy also functions this way? The activity by which an individual attempts to express his/her vision of some aspect of reality?  (…attempts to express some significant experience in his/her existence?)

Our immediate inclination is to say that philosophical work must be distinguished from poetry and literary art.  The philosopher attempts to resolve (at least clarify) problems in a rational, discursive way. This is very different from the poetic, literary expression of a significant, moving experience.

However, we may hesitate when reminded that some of the great philosophers combined their philosophical work with expression of poetic and literary vision (e.g., Plato, Nietzsche, Santayana).

[Generally when someone expresses his vision of things, he is not engaged in the work of grappling with philosophical problems; however, someone's poetic view of reality or experience could lend insight to the philosophical worker, enabling him a to see things in a new light, or even lending a clearer view of something he could only see obscurely before.]

Great music or a beautiful song may be great art, even a poetic expression of something the composer saw or felt; but it would not appear to be a form of philosophy.  By appreciating it I may feel (experience, “see”) some of what the composer felt; and it may lead me to look at things (the world, existence, other people, suffering, joy) in a different way.  But only if we were  to speak metaphorically or figuratively would we refer to music as philosophy. (Yet there  could be a philosophy behind it.)

Religion, more so than philosophy, seems close to literary art and poetry.  Some forms of religion, at least, can be seen as human attempts to express certain visions, experiences, aspirations, hopes, fears, etc..

A song, a cry, a prayer may be the means by which I express what I feel or try to express what I see (experience).  If I am truly inspired and have sufficient talent, I might create some form of art (poem, musical piece, novel) by which I express my experience.  But my attempt to express my experience of the world does not imply that that I have created a philosophical work.

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