Hang Up Your Boots

One should not let a top-down conceptual process be the route, or guide along that route, to how we understand the world or any of its constituents. Or, at least, any more than we need to. The main trouble being, somewhat on the subject of dogma recently visited, is that it filters out what we may need to see in favour of what we are expecting to see. Or, in the case of philosophers, it may blind them to the reality of a process because that process is not the one they were looking for, or wanted to be the case.

I have in mind the objections to ostensible philosophers who mortally offend other philosophers by explaining various human phenomena as separate, if linked, to explicitly cognitive phenomena. More specifically I have in mind ideas around how a particular human’s ethics might be formed or influenced. As in nearly all cases, the analytical philosopher will state, or at least hope, that reason will dictate this, or that at the very least reason is what can form and alter an ethical stance. The top-down problem is very clear here, as this is simply not what happens. Where ethics are formed, it is primarily not within a reasoned framework, and what reason skitters around on the top is usually post hoc rationalisation for whatever disposition we otherwise acquired.

Most philosophers concerned with ethics would prefer not to acknowledge this, perhaps not because it renders their work largely irrelevant – as irrelevant as all thinkers blindly asserting their prejudices at others – but because to acknowledge what might genuinely act to inculcate a new ethic, or genuinely alter existing ones, would be to acknowledge something far fewer are capable of than stringing together a few logical statements. And that would be to acknowledge the manner of changing dispositions, ethical in this case, is to convince, and rational argument rarely achieves that. How does one convince? One convinces through engagement, through engaging more than the faculty of intellect. Intellect alone is simply one site of perspective, not the lens through with all other perspectives are ranked or judged.

And so one convinces not just through reason, though one sometimes can. And one can convince through conviction, though probably no one should. One can convince through elegance of formulation, though many would claim this is irrelevant to substance. One can convince through simple beauty of formulation, though I believe this is what the philosophers most abhor. They are all sites of perspective, inadequate alone, mired in thin subjectivity, but woven together approach objectivity far better than the single site of intellect which continues to be given bizarre primacy among thinkers.

A disturbing thought for the evangelical streak in philosophy. For how many would be able to achieve such plenary formulations? Far, far fewer than would wish to. And, through the single, attenuated lens of intellect alone, the conclusion is to reject the whole idea. Few have enough silent pride to simply acknowledge the reality, and cease believing they have borne anything of value.


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