On Being A Philosopher

Being a philosopher

The 19th century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, distinguished academic philosophers from real ones. In his view, academic philosophers merely studied and argued about philosophical ideas conceived by other philosophers – perhaps with logic, brilliance, and erudition – and yet, real philosophers acquired their philosophy by reflection on their own existence and experience. What did Schopenhauer mean by experience? Certainly experience of life, has a tendency to make some of us wiser as we get older; but Schopenhauer’s real philosophers reflect on the content of their inner experience, arising in the form of insight or intuitive knowledge.


The study of academic philosophy requires the study of books about the history of philosophers and their ideas. But does this sort of study transform students of philosophy into philosophers? Not necessarily, as Schopenhauer would argue. In order to become a real philosopher you need to study the (unwritten) Book of Life. Study is essential, but not sufficient: you also have to grasp the meaning enshrined in the Book of Life, which can be experienced only through insight, or direct perception.


I believe in life-long learning. I had intended to take a degree in philosophy when I retired; but I dropped that ambition not long after joining the School. Why? Well, I soon realised that having the knowledge sufficient to obtain a degree would have given me a label – Degree in Philosophy; but unless I practiced that philosophy in daily life, I would soon forget the knowledge acquired – the label would eventually become empty of content. And anyway, I had discovered that the Book of Life was far more interesting than academic philosophy, even fascinating. I had discovered that my passion wasn’t for accumulating knowledge of philosophy and stuffing my memory with it – but it was a passion to understand. What does it all mean? Or in the form of Leibniz’s plea:  “Why is there something rather than nothing at all?” Merely studying philosophical ideas isn’t enough in itself: it requires a level of understanding that goes much deeper than mere philosophical concepts: we have to transcend concepts to reach meaning – but meaning cannot be derived from the concepts themselves; yet, concepts are the empty vessels for content, and so are necessary for capturing the meaning acquired through direct perception, or insight.


To express ourselves we have to use language. The basic elements of language are words; and words expand into concepts. But the meaning of words and their concepts cannot be fixed absolutely – they are fluid and subjective. A particular concept might mean something to you, but could mean something quite different to me. So how do we pin down philosophical truths when all we have is language? Well, language isn’t all we have: we have insight – or innate knowledge – knowledge that we cannot acquire syntactically, or even semantically. To reach absolute meaning we have to transcend language. And yet self-consciously, we only have language.


Years ago I gained a degree in mathematics. Following years of study, did I become a competent mathematician? Not at all! I liked mathematics because I saw the beauty in it; the beauty of employing the rules to transform a geometric mathematical object into its algebraic equivalent, and so on – a bit like watching an elegant bird transforming itself on the wing. Mathematics is very elegant too – but just learning the rules of mathematics and knowing how to manipulate its objects isn’t enough for one to become a mathematician – you need to know what it all means too.

Mathematical rules are a bit like the syntactical rules of grammar. Kurt Gödel, the 20th century mathematician, showed that some arithmetical truths are not provable. Consequently, a mathematical theorem can be derived from a set of axioms plus a set of rules – but without reference to meaning; the only thing one can hope for is that the theorem is effective. Similarly with language, you cannot prove philosophical truths using the rules of grammar. To understand how language limits our ability to enquire into philosophical truths, we need to delve into some aspects of what philosophers call mind.


The 18th-century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, reckoned there are three aspects of mind:


  1. Sense-Perception:                                                conscious name


  1. Understanding (conceptual intellect):                        conscious form


  1. Reason (transcendental intellect):                        unconscious content



Essentially, I had learned mathematics by employing the first two aspects of mind: consciously, the rules were learned and stored in memory for later recall. This was quite sufficient in order to cram for an exam – and to apply mathematics in business and engineering; but in order to really understand what mathematics means you have to ascend to a higher level of intellect – the transcendental intellect. The first two levels – name (word) and form (concept) – of Kant’s aspect of mind operate in self-consciousness; but content – represented by the third level doesn’t – it arises from an unconscious realm, called in philosophy the present moment.


For example, consider a Euclidian axiom. If you are setting out to derive a mathematical series, let’s say, you have to start somewhere – and that somewhere cannot be infinity (since it doesn’t exist). Axioms are true starting points and so, are self-evidently and indubitably true: neither capable of proof nor requiring any. One I remember is Euclid’s axiom that defines a straight line.


Axiom name:                        “The definition of a straight line”


Axiom form:                        “The shortest distance between two points.”


Axiom content:            “The meaning should be clear by reflecting on its form.”


Reflect on the form. Can you grasp its meaning directly from the form of the axiom? Does it make common sense to you? Can you refute the truth of this axiom? Can you prove it? Do you need to?

Becoming a philosopher requires the same approach as that of becoming a mathematician – you have to develop the ability to delve below the level of self-consciousness to be a philosopher. – In philosophy, this unconscious realm is called Being. So, what is Being?


Being a philosopherThe School frequently makes this statement: “You cannot be that which use observe.”


For years I didn’t know what this meant – until, that is, I eventually realised my being had changed, quite unobserved, quite unconsciously.


The only thing you can observe about yourself is the movements of your mind; but my personal experience demonstrates that what you observe cannot be you. While spending years enquiring into and studying philosophy, two aspects of my self were “changing” without my being aware of it: the nature of the knowledge I was looking for, and the nature of my moral being. Aldous Huxley said that “Knowledge is a function of being.” My experience seems to bear this out. Study started with the search for the form of knowledge that gets stored in memory as information – merely a collection of labels; then, quite unknowingly, I gradually moved to acquiring understanding; eventually I discovered what I was really looking for – insight or meaning. But I only realised this change of function with hindsight.

Similarly, it took a friend to point out that I had changed morally – she pointed out that I am now more tolerant, forgiving, patient; less judgemental; more empathic and compassionate, and so on. These two functions of my being changed without my asking, or volition; (although to say that my being changed is not strictly true, philosophically; in truth I was discovering my true Being.)


In order to discover Being you have to be in the present moment. The present moment accesses that unconscious realm; it isn’t a moment in time – it is Now. Knowledge as we generally understand it represents the past. You might learn a foreign language or the language of mathematics – but if you don’t practice it constantly, the knowledge you possess withers. But knowledge of the Truth doesn’t wither, because it doesn’t rely on memory; it comes through the present moment.


So, how does one discover one’s true Being? Well, it needs the study of practical philosophy – the philosophy of the unwritten Book of Life – and it requires that you practice that philosophy in your daily life; eventually you will discover the true meaning of life. But, first, we need to consider what it is that is preventing us from discovering one’s Being. Why do we need to embark on a sort of treasure hunt?


Do we need to possess high intellects before we can become philosophers? No, it isn’t essential; what is essential is passion and faith. If you have faith while studying the philosophy of the Book of Life – a philosophy, which in the beginning seems so counter-intuitive – you will become more than a philosopher, you will also develop a passion for life.


You might have noticed that sense-perception can be an unreliable source of knowledge; similarly, your understanding of a concept might change with time. Is, then, content arising in the present moment any more reliable? This question is considered in a future blog on Knowledge.


Meanwhile, who we think we are – our individual selves – hides Being. The next blog looks at how we “create” that self.



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