Friday, May 2, 2014

The Art of Philosophy: How to Hope, How to Despair

My practice of war may be summarized in four propositions. First: I attack only causes which are victorious . . . Second: I attack only causes against which I cannot expect to find allies . . . Third: I never attack persons; I only avail myself of the person as of a strong magnifying glass to render a general but creeping calamity . . . Fourth: I attack only causes in which any personal difference is out of the question . . . To attack is with me a proof of good will . . .

Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

Reason, like the raw strength of a mountain climber's grip, is necessary to get a philosopher to the peak, but is not the whole of the art.

Each stage of a climb is different. First you practice, explore, and plan. Then you climb. Last -- and this is the most important thing if there is to be an art of mountain climbing -- you climb back down teach the next generation what you've learned.

There was once an art of philosophy in the West, and it was taught in the old books of Aristotle. But he was Greek, and America does not understand the Greeks anymore.

Behold our great philosophy forum in the New York Times: "The Stone features the writing of contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless."

I read the Stone frequently. I do not mean to indict it when I say that its philosophical content is virtually zero. It is usually well-written, and often worth reading -- but it is not philosophy. It's more like a display case where makers of mountain-climbing equipment like to show off their latest creations.

It's a shame because we need philosophy: only movies written for shock value win Oscars, only obscure literature is dubbed "literary," and only frivolous scientific studies make the front page.

Deep thinking -- real philosophy -- has three steps:

(1) Doubt. (Explore, play, learn.)
(2) Reason. (Search, think, feel.)
(3) Express. (Return, change, teach.)

This is my rubric. Any philosophy that does not explore cannot be new and does not inspire people to change. Any philosophy that does not search cannot go deeper and, like a bad art film, does not penetrate appearances. Any philosophy that does not return from its abstractions, like an academic journal full of jargon, does not move or teach.

Let's take a look at a recent article in the Stone by its moderator and see how it measures up:

Critchley argues that hope is almost always a form of cowardice in the face of reality that leads to disappointment and disaster. He gives an example from Greek history where Athens gives Melos an ultimatum: "Submit to us or be destroyed," and Melos, hoping that Sparta comes to their rescue, refuses to submit. Athens then proceeds to kill or enslave the entire population of Melos. Critchley believes that our involvement in the Middle East is also based on false hopes -- abstract ones of justice and freedom. He says we would do best to take Nietzsche's advice, abandon our hopeful ideals -- including goodness and virtue -- and stick to realistic goals.

Set aside the idea that Melos might present a shining example of courage in the face of the tyranny of Athens. Set aside the fact that Critchley says he "loves Nietzsche," and that Nietzsche's favorite Greek was Alcibiades, a might-makes-right schemer who supported the decree to destroy Melos. Set aside Critchley's disdain for the abstract ideals of truth, justice, and virtue that guide any free society. Rather, let's take take a look at his philosophical method.


In the first place, philosophy must explore, must break new ground, must doubt conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom among intellectuals today is that science has it right, and we must abandon metaphysics and religion. And this is precisely Critchley's conclusion. But why I should I read a piece of writing that concludes what I already know? Perhaps Critchley is hoping that a Christian or Platonist somewhere is reading his article and has a change of heart.

If he's trying to convince Christians to listen to him he needs to cite his Christian opponents, engage with them, and explain where they went wrong. He mainly cites Nietzsche and Thucydides, who seem to agree with him.

I can't say that I love everything about Nietzsche's philosophy, but I do think it could teach Critchley something more about doubt, if Critchley would stop using Nietzsche as a crutch and use him more like a sparring partner. Nietzsche would never a take a flat position like, "Hope is self-deception: stop doing it." Quite to the contrary, the need for self-deception is a favorite theme of Nietzsche's writing. Just now I opened up my Viking Portable Nietzsche at random and got this passage from Zarathustra:

"Suitor of truth?" they mocked me; "you?
No! Only poet!
An animal, cunning, preying, prowling,
That must lie,
That must knowingly, willingly lie . . .
. . .
Prey for itself--"

Zarathustra, Nietzsche's prophet persona, is being mocked by the sun in his suffering over the truth. You do not suffer for the truth, the sun is saying, you suffer for self-deception. This monologue is Nietzsche's indictment of himself, a symbol of his pitiless, scorching self-doubt that does not flag. Nietzsche's doubt was superhuman; it drove him to madness. To patronize him as an ally in a superficial battle against "false hopes" disrespects his suffering and his sacrifice.

Not that Nietzsche sought any sort of pity. He compared his own thinking to a dance, a playful leap from doubt to self-deception, and back again. It is, in fact, an incredibly fruitful method for doubt. The basic rule is to pretend. This is necessary because you cannot truly doubt what you do not first pretend to understand, yet you cannot understand what you do not first pretend to doubt. Which is why, in the exploration phase of thinking, you must leap from one to the other, the way a child plays or a scientist hypothesizes. This is how we learn. Critchley's not being jaunty enough. Rather than sparring with Nietzsche, he simply takes him for granted, which is both the cause and the effect of his shallow interpretation.

Critchley fails to doubt the conventional wisdom that Nietzsche was opposed to all hope. I will admit that Critchley's outright condemnation of hope is a little jaunty. It would be more bold if there were more Nietzschean self-doubt here: what would really happen if we abandoned all our ideals? What ideals guide me? How do I know that an ideal is unrealistic?


Let's move on to the next item on our rubric: reason. To reason philosophically is not merely calculation; it is to search for an answer to a specific question. It is goal-directed, logical, and must engage every relevant faculty of the mind, both emotional and rational. It does not finish until you have a logically-consistent position that satisfies your original doubt.

The crux of Critchley's position is his claim that it was unreasonable for Melos to resist the ultimatum of Athens. This calculation is too cold. Would it have been better for Melos to submit, and thus strengthen the brutal Athenian Empire? Might their sacrifice not have stirred up more courage throughout Greece, and in the end helped defeat Athens? Melos' answer to the Athenian ultimatum (submit or perish) was their own ultimatum: if you do not leave us be, we'll prove your savagery. As Thucydides quotes them,
You should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right . . . Your fall would be a signal for the heaviest vengeance
and an example for the world to meditate upon.
In modern politics, it is considered good policy to ignore the demands of terrorists. This isn't blind hope -- it's a rational, far-sighted policy designed to discourage terrorists from making unjust demands in the first place.

True to modern reductionist thinking, Critchley fails to take the context into account. He reduces everything to a single cause and a single effect: Melos resists and Athens destroys Melos. True reason seeks every important connection, and to see what is important there must be a goal or question that you seek to answer. But Critchley failed to doubt, and thus failed to have a coherent question, and this keeps his analysis on the surface of things.

He applauds Thucydides' account of this event because this Greek historian "offers no moral commentary." Of course he doesn't. He's giving an objective history. He's not a philosopher. Does Nietzsche, on the other hand, ever give an objective account of anything? Critchley writes:

What we need in the face of what Nietzsche calls “a strict, hard factuality,” is not hope, but “courage in the face of reality.”

What's the difference? Is courage not an ideal? Was Melos not courageous? Critchley calls Plato's ideals of justice, virtue, and the good "fictional." What earns courage its "reality?" My money is on its manly, warlike sound -- calling us back to a romantic age where physical and emotional strength meant something. I'll admit it: Plato is an excessively civilized philosopher, and his favorite ideals lacked the free-roaming spice of passion, daring, or ruthlessness.

Critchley fails to reason deeply. His goal was to scrub us clean of all abstract ideals, but doesn't do so in his own case with any thorough logical rigor.


The other essential component of good philosophy is rhetoric. As Aristotle puts it, rhetoric is the study of "modes of persuasion." He says the point is not to move your audience to "anger or envy or pity," but to show that something "is so or is not so."

Of what does Critchley wish to persuade us? His thesis is that the we need to do away with all hopes except the reasonable ones. But who actually believes that this is not so? Who is he trying to persuade? It's unclear. A con man doesn't care if his hopes are "unreasonable," and his victim doesn't know. You're never going to hear a Christian say, "I believe in God, though I know it's unrealistic." As one of Critchley's commenters responds, "Who decides which hopes are reasonable and which are not?"

Apparently, we know from the outset that the hopes of Christians, Platonists, and "moralists" are unrealistic; Critchley wastes no breath explaining why this might be so. Justice, goodness, and liberty, in Critchley's view, are obviously unreasonable. Does he think so because they cannot be seen, touched, or analyzed with a spectrometer? Or maybe because the laws of evolution guarantee the continuation of human cruelty? We don't know, because he does not say.

To be fair, we're talking about a column, not a book or a paper. Surely, Critchley has a more complete view described elsewhere, perhaps in papers full of big words in academic journals, or in his notebooks. Whatever this view is, his column fails to express its essential difference from conventional wisdom. Most people believe that truth, justice, and goodness are worth fighting for, are reasonable hopes. Critchley assumes, without explanation, that these are unreasonable hopes.

It is not sound rhetoric to prove a contentious point based on a another contentious point. Philosophy 101: start with premises that everyone agrees upon.

I'm sure Critchley's ideas moved him when he first had them. Perhaps after reading some Thucydides and Nietzsche, he took a long walk in that drearily cold spring weather he mentions, and was struck by some very deep, original thoughts. If so, Critchley has failed to return from his abstractions, to express the essence of his thoughts, to teach us anything new. He's excised their most colorful specimens, what he believed readers would find the most sensational. Unfortunately, the resulting passages are like clipped flowers, wilting and incapable of producing seed.


To all appearances, nobody in America is teaching the art of thinking. In a nation with more spare time than almost any other civilization in history, it's disappointing. We're like a country in the Alps where you've got specialists in making hiking boots, specialists in training the muscles in your upper body, specialists in driving stakes into a rocky cliff, but no real mountain climbers.

In college we get our knowledge piecemeal: here's how to write a paper that argues from a premise to a conclusion; here's how to prove a logical inconsistency; here's how to grab your reader's attention. The rare professor who teaches true doubt does not teach how to reason, at least not in the same seminar. So you never get the big picture. We train our future thinkers to argue, but not how to ask interesting questions. We train them to do research, but not how to think for themselves.

Philosophy is an art. Any color can be mixed from red, blue, yellow, and white, but you can't teach painting by having a seminar on red, another one on blue, etc. Nor could you just go to 256 seminars, each on a different color. Nor even could you learn painting by learning painting alone. Every great painter in history has also been a philosopher. Every great painter paints ideas, thoughts, profound emotions.

Good thinking is teachable. If it weren't, it would have to be innate, but it clearly is not. It takes well-roundedness. You need the doubt of a psychologist, you need the rigor of logic, you need the audience-awareness of art. Each must flow into the next. Reading the dictionary cover-to-cover is not fruitful exploration, and doubting the definitions you find is not fruitful doubt. To find good questions you must play well. And good questions are questions that lead to insights that will do people some good, and that you will be able to express clearly.


It's easier to criticize than to do better yourself. Let's not simply denounce Critchley's philosophizing, let's philosophize better.

Everything turns on the question of what a reasonable hope is. When there is no reasonable hope, you've got reasonable despair. When it's not reasonable to despair, you've got some reasonable hope. Each is the exact logical negation of the other.

What does it mean to be reasonable? In practice, the term is empty. Once you've admitted your hope is unreasonable, you've lost hope. But there is a reason we use the term reasonable, and that's to encourage people to reason. When we tell someone, "That's unreasonable!" it's short for, "Hold on second, you need to think about that instead of jumping to conclusions." When Critchley tells us to have "reasonable hopes," it's short for "Think about those hopes before you accept them."

The point of Critchley's article and the point of this blog post are the same: think.

What we disagree on is the best way to learn how to think. Critchley wants you to read Nietzsche and Thucydides, but not Plato or St. Paul. That is because Critchley believes that the latter two will tell you to adopt unreasonable hopes. I want you to read Nietzsche and Thucydides and Plato and St. Paul. This is because I believe that Plato and St. Paul will show you how to dispel unreasonable despair.

Nietzsche will teach you how to root out unreasonable hopes. He will teach you how to be hard on yourself and doubt what you've taken for granted. But that is only part of what philosophers do. If all we did was demolish hopes, there would be nothing left of our culture. Some say that Nietzsche went mad because of migraines. I think it's likely that these migraines were the result of too much doubt. That fact is, it was so difficult for him to stop his thoughts from running on and on, that he was prescribed opiates to help him sleep. After ten years of productive philosophical writing, he became catatonic.

Neural health aside, I would argue that Nietzsche's despair was unreasonable. Let's flip open his final, most "mature" book Ecce Homo:

The whole of history is the refutation by experiment of the principle of the so-called "moral world order."

I doubt that the United Nations will last forever, let alone bring about world peace. But I do think this "moral world order" is a good thing, and that it owes nothing to Nietzsche, and almost everything to Plato. Nietzsche was a fantastic doubter, and if we follow his line of thinking we can see clearly how dependence on institutions can dampen the vitality of a culture. But when it comes to constructing new, useful ideas, you need an idealistic thinker like Plato who's mustered enough hope to write an extended, positive treatise -- like Laws or the Republic -- outlining in detail what an ideal society might look like. Nietzsche never would have had the patience for this, and that's why, on the whole, Plato's philosophy has done far more to help Western societies achieve political liberty -- based on the very ideals Nietzsche wants to reject, of liberty, justice, and the common good. By outlining how an ideal society might work in practice, Plato helped dispel the unreasonable despair of ever forming a just government.

So here's my augmentation of Critchley's thesis. It is neither hope nor despair that needs to be dispelled, it is unreasonable hope and unreasonable despair. In short, it is unreasonableness, unthinkingness that we must resist. To do this, we need to follow the example of constructive philosophers like Plato or Aristotle, whose methods of philosophizing were careful, well-trained, well-informed, and thorough.

Philosophies like Critchley's "abandon (almost) all hope" seek to make our culture rational by destroying whatever we can't easily rationalize. Such philosophies do not promote a healthy ecology of ideas. No thriving species or ecology is composed of only a few varieties. For any ecosystem to thrive, biological or cultural, motley seeds must be spread liberally.


Despair that a single brilliant mind, let alone idea, can remake American philosophy. Hope that a diverse society of well-rounded minds will.

Grow your own diverse, playful ecosystem of ideas. Read Plato, Thucydides, St. Paul, Nietzsche, Darwin, St. Augustine, the Koran, whatever it is you most disagree with. Learn from it, let your thoughts dance, let them cohere. Share your insights well, whether through art, music, science, or philosophy.

Cultivate both despair and hope.


For more on the pros and cons of idealistic hope in the face of oppression, I recommend this documentary on the Zapatista movement for indigenous independence, started by a philosophy professor from Mexico City. The brief interview with him at the end is both sobering and illuminating:

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