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Philosophy

Stare hard enough at any one thing, and it becomes transparent; pull long enough, and any one thread unravels the world. This is the promise of philosophy.

Emerson said that "a false consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." But a false consistency is one one with bad foundations, or confused in execution, to be demolished and replaced; and consistency itself is so far from the concern of little minds, that it is the only law which holds even for God. Aristotle said that "philosophy begins in wonder," which is true in history and sentiment; but practically, philosophy comprises only the pursuit of consistency—the mind building up, building out, and drawing together; the mind seeking in the system of the world that necessary Parminedean perfection which perishing matter cannot show, which perishing flesh cannot see.

Philosophy alone demands all the mind's resources, all its power, all its patience and devotion. It is the only work which concentrates and unites all the disparate abilities of the mind, which justifies the problematic endowment of human beings with more intellectual power than has any practical applicability—what we burn off in the mental pilot flame of entertainment. Even the coffee-fueled mathematician, who also seeks consistency, does so only within a model world where definition always precedes realization; but the philosopher, even choosing to deny or reform language, still must account for it.

The likeness of a philosopher, in relation to the arts and sciences, is a pathfinder, or the surveyor of a road. It is the philosopher's part only to find a way and to report on it; perhaps to guide the equally intrepid along it; but not to clear the way, nor to build the road, nor to conduct passengers. In this way, the contributing work of a philosopher, unless commemorated by a plaque or namesake (Plato's Highway, for instance, where most of the traffic of mathematics flows; or Aquinas's, the artery of Catholicism), goes unnoticed.

Mathematics has displaced philosophy in cultural and academic prestige. Mathematics is more approachable: both mystify the spectator, but mathematics's applications are obviously mathematical in character, while philosophy's are at second hand. Having been adopted as part of the mental equipment, ideas become invisible, hidden by (I would name it) the Idol of the Schoolroom: Obviousness in Retrospect. We like to believe that our stock of ideas is inevitable, natural, characteristic of all thinking beings or of our degree of progress; curiously, we even find it far more comfortable to regard an idea as the precipitation of an economic climate than the work of a specific person. Where we allow individuals a place in the history of ideas, it is not as discoverers, but as menus; so that hungry and talkative intellectuals may as well ask each other: do we eat French or Chinese? Be Aristotelian or Cartesian?

If not everywhere cultivated or respected, philosophy is everywhere present, though implicit and naïve—the nakedness under all intellectual or creative attire. We are in a fallow period—we may be near its end—as in the West, the Dark Ages stored up the fuel for the incandescent syntheses of Aquinas and Lull—one of the most rational periods in history, for Reason is not reasonable. Reason requires you to be able to entertain the thought that everything you know is wrong; what passes for reason in reasonable is merely the averaging of first impressions. For serious thinking, the Age of Reason seems continuous with the Middle Ages when viewed from our night of fatuous prosperity and academic needlepoint.

What are called good reasons are not enough; everything ever believed has been believed for good reasons, most of which prove to be irrelevant. Without the telescope or Foucault's pendulum, every good reason is for the Earth as center of the universe; without the effort of studying history, every good reason is for the inborn superiority of the enslaving race over the enslaved. Nor are institutions enough. Abdicating reason may be reasonable, but is not rational. Every crime and cruelty within human power has been institutionalized at some point—mostly in the XXth century and within living memory. An accumulations of answers is nothing; reason requires the accumulation of questions: the discipline of uncertainty. Reasonable though you may be, you have not become rational until you have learned to fear Descartes's demon.

It may be that philosophy is not neglected only because it is difficult, unrespected, even disreputable; but because the stocks of ideas of the several civilizations now otherwise closely connected have hardly begun to meet. The world of ideas is at present like an avalanche of rocks, which moves in fits: ideas collide, repercuss, shape or are shaped, sunder or shatter as they roll from one coign to the next, where they settle until some new idea being added, it sends them all rolling again. In this state, a philosopher must be an adventurer, and willing to climb—a rare disposition, as philosophers have ever been walkers.

We hear much of Eastern thought; but we have hardly been introduced to Eastern thinkers, and to the diversity of Eastern schools; and for the East the same is true of the West—Eastern thinkers no more think of Western philosophers apart from Western scientists, than Western thinkers think of Middle Eastern philosophers after Averroës. There is no door into philosophy by way of culture. The substance of philosophy is as much above culture as is the phenomenon of language.

Only a fool throws over East for West—or West for East, or any other recombination of regions and heritages. Only a fool lets his birth, the accidents of blood or language or geography, dictate a taste prevailing over thought. The West has but lately learned that it is not the only spring; nor, it must learn, is it only a drain for all the waters of the world. It is a spring among springs, and as the basin world fills all waters must mix. This is the only real meaning of the word humanism, the only one an Erasmus would recognize. It may be called cultural imperialism; if so, it is an unprecedented mutual conquest—all conquered and none conquerers.

Biologists protest that the idea of race is useless to them, because individuals within races can always be adduced who are as more diverse than typical individuals of different races (though one wonders, if individuals within æras are as or more diverse than across them, is time therefore unreal?). Philosophy will not be ready for a renascence until it has banished unphilosophical categorization by region; until it is generally appreciated that Berkeley is closer to the Madhyamika than Aristotle, that Mo Tzu (the Legalist) is closer to Plato (of the Republic) than to Confucius, that Spinoza is closer to Mullah Sadra than to Kant.