Pieper: In Defense of Philosophy

February 24, 2009

In Defense of Philosophy (1966)
Josef Pieper (Ignatius Press, 1992)
127 p.  First reading.

Over the past five or six years I have, slowly and fitfully, been reading my way through philosophical history.  It has been a good education for me — though not as good as it would have been were I a more attentive and intelligent student.  As I have progressed along my middling way, I have noted something that troubles me.  Plato and Aristotle and Augustine and Aquinas interest and absorb me, but with the advent of early modern philosophy — with Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, and Hume, for instance — I begin to lose interest.  I am attracted by the passion and literary genius of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, but for the most part modern philosophy seems a desert.  This is not to claim that Locke and Fichte and Mill and Ayer and Quine are doing something unimportant, but it is to say that, in important ways, they don’t seem to be doing the same thing as the great classical and medieval philosophers were doing.

And what was that?  I can do no better than to recall the etymology of “philosophy”: the love of wisdom.  Philosophy, in the old key, was to be an act of love, and a way of life.  It was a quest for wisdom, for a kind of understanding that surpasses mere knowledge of facts, an understanding that addresses and involves the whole person, in all of his capacities, that earnestly concerns itself with goodness and strives after the highest.  Philosophy was to be an intrinsically humanistic enterprise, with deep connections to art and to religion.  It should concern itself with specific questions, of course, often of a technical nature and requiring rigour, but ultimately it should have large ambitions, referring itself to the great questions of life.  There is a reason why philosophy was once the handmaid of theology — a role that denoted her dignity rather than her servility.  This, at least, is ultimately what attracts me to philosophy, and I find that in modern philosophy that ambition, that central concern with the human person and his relation to the whole of reality, is gone, or has at least lost the main tune.  I am aware that it is often stated the other way around — that modern philosophy began with a renewed focus on the human person — but to me, in my own experience, this does not ring true.  Descartes focused on the I, but in such an artificial, and even perverse, way that I cannot relate his project to my own life without ignoring a good deal of what constitutes my life.  Why should I wish to do that?

These reflections provide something of an opening to the main themes of Josef Pieper’s little book In Defense of Philosophy.  His purpose is to defend his understanding of the philosophy and the philosophical impulse against common objections and deformations.  His view of philosophy has a strong affinity with my own:

. . .to engage in philosophy means to reflect on the totality of things we encounter, in view of their ultimate reasons; and philosophy, thus understood, is a meaningful, even necessary endeavor, with which man, the spiritual being, cannot dispense.

Against this expansive view of philosophy are arrayed a number of objections, and Pieper considers four main ones.  First, there is the common charge that philosophy consists in the study of questions that cannot be answered, and is therefore pointless.  Second, that philosophy has no real object of study, for “the totality of things” is not a thing.  Third, that philosophy must yield its place to the sciences, which are the only sure means to knowledge.  And, finally, that philosophy simply serves no purpose in modern life.

We have all heard the first of these objections, and perhaps even felt it ourselves when we survey the history of philosophy.  For all their brilliance and intricacy, have philosophical arguments really settled any of the major questions with which philosophers have concerned themselves over the centuries?  Do we not still wonder what constitutes the good, or how we know, or whether God’s existence can be demonstrated?  We do.  This is so in part because philosophers have proven themselves marvelously adept at fashioning fresh objections to alleged demonstrations, but also in part because the questions persist in asserting themselves.  Reality itself seems to burst out of neat categories, disrespecting the distinctions we draw.

All this may be true, but it does not follow, says Pieper, that philosophy is therefore useless.  Philosophy does address itself to important questions, and it offers provoking and sometimes convincing answers, but its answers are not such as to eliminate the questions. One generation does not take up philosophy where the previous generation left off; each generation begins again at the beginning.  This is so because the philosophical enterprise is, as I have said, intrinsically personal; each person must encounter the questions, and relive the grappling with them, in his own life.  It is here that philosophy reveals itself as a deeply humanistic discipline, for it grapples with matters that arise naturally in any thoughtful life.  That the questions so often exceed our capacity to subdue them speaks more of the richness of the reality we encounter than of the futility of the effort to understand it.

That philosophy is love of wisdom reminds us that the proper attitude for a philosopher is loving attention to the world in all of its aspects, and this is possible only if reality itself is seen as something good and worthy of love. Pieper says that the philosophical stance is one of “receptive silence”, a kind of contemplation of the world, always with the determination to leave nothing out, to do justice to the whole.  As such, philosophy must acknowledge that it often works with unclear or partial knowledge — philosophy, indeed, is only possible from a position of incomplete understanding — and it cannot permit a preoccupation with precision to limit its scope. It should seek clarity, of course, but this is not the same as precision.  Everything, as Einstein said, should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.  This is the answer Pieper gives to those who assert that philosophy should yield to the sciences.  The sciences interrogate the world, and they do so brilliantly, and their findings are always of interest to a philosopher, but they cannot address the great philosophical question, “What is it all about?”  Attempts to subject the world to an exclusively scientific description inevitably leave certain things out, but this is just what the philosopher cannot do.  Instead, he attends to the richness of this multi-faceted reality, and, argues Pieper, should occupy a middle ground between agnosticism and rationalism: the world may be known, but not fully.  Philosophy has the structure of hope.

As to the charge that philosophy has no purpose, Pieper responds in the affirmative:

Indeed, it is true: philosophy does not serve any purpose — not only as a matter of fact, but because it cannot and must not serve any purpose!

“Purpose” here means a social, economic, or otherwise impersonal purpose external to philosophy itself.  It does, of course, have its own purposes, but they stand outside the world of practical ends and means. Philosophy is an end in itself, and that because it is concerned entirely with truth, which is the proper object of the mind. In philosophy, the nature of the mind is most fully manifest: it is a truth-seeking and truth-knowing thing.  It is enough.  Human beings are by nature oriented toward everything that exists — this is almost the definition of what it means to be a spiritual being. Philosophy, rightly understood, does not “contribute to” man’s good, but itself constitutes part of that good.

But only part.  In the closing pages of the book, Pieper addresses the question of the relationship between faith and philosophy.  May a philosopher admit faith into his philosophizing?  Is there, for instance, such a thing as a “Christian philosophy”?  Yes, says Pieper, there is, for a philosopher must omit nothing if he is to be true to his vocation.  Faith and philosophy each have their own integrity, and it would be imprudent to mix them cavalierly, but neither may they be kept entirely separate.  It will not do for him to seal a set of “religious” ideas off from the rest, not if he genuinely believes them.  He must consider the whole, in humble honesty.  John Paul II, in his great encyclical Fides et Ratio used the image of faith and reason as two wings, in the cooperation of which the mind may ascend to greater heights of understanding than is possible with reason alone.  Pieper contributes another image: that of polyphony.  Each melody has its own beauty and integrity, but when combined with another, the whole is greater than either part alone.

This was a thought provoking and enjoyable book; I have never read anything by Pieper that was not.  It does not rise to the level of his greatest books, and the argument he develops is occasionally repetitive, but on the whole it was well worth reading.  His discussion of the reasons for a lack of progress in philosophy is deficient in some respects.  I am not convinced that philosophical questions have no good, enduring answers.  The reason for a lack of cumulative progress may lie in something other than the subject matter.

[Society and philosophy]
We may from the first and without any prior knowledge presume that in any society where the genuine philosophical quest is considered “socially irrelevant”, which of course can happen in many different ways and also outside political dictatorships — we may presume, I would say, that in such a society there will not flourish the fine arts, and religion either.  And it is very likely, incidentally, that there will also exist a tendency as well toward trivializing death and Eros, thus depriving them of their true cathartic power.  And this, after all, is very true: catharsis as such does not produce efficiency.

[Scientists and philosophy]
There may even be a particular form of mental constraint that afflicts only those who reason scientifically, precisely when they venture into philosophy -– or to put it more cautiously –- when they try, in their own ways, to determine what the world as such is all about.  Whoever then claims to use the approach undoubtedly appropriate for science by saying, for instance: I disregard, now as philosopher, anything that cannot be demonstrated cogently and proved critically, I am interested only in things ‘clear and distinct’ -– such a one would already have distorted the genesis of the philosophical quest.  He already would have excluded the mental openness that is the mark of the philosopher per definitionem, the openness for the unabridged object of human cognition, that is: for reality as such, to be contemplated under any conceivable aspect.  What makes him so sure that there are no possible insights into reality, which are in fact true and yet can neither be verified nor defined ‘clearly and distinctly’? (Incidentally, nobody could stay alive even one day unless he accepted as true numerous insights of precisely such a kind.)  How do we know that it may not be in fact those realities ‘most obvious in themselves’ to which our mind relates like the eyes of nocturnal birds to the light of day — as Aristotle asserts?  A ‘critical attitude’, for the philosopher, does not primarily mean accepting only what is absolutely certain, but being careful not to suppress anything.


Related reading:
Josef Pieper – Scholasticism
Josef Pieper – On Prudence
Josef Pieper – In Tune with the World
Josef Pieper – Happiness and Contemplation

2 Responses to “Pieper: In Defense of Philosophy”

  1. Janet Says:

    That’s a great post, Craig. I’ve only read parts of three books by Pieper, but every time I read him it’s like falling into a well of clear, magical water. I don’t stop reading because I tire of him, but because after I read a short passage, my mind is so full of things that I want to think about that I put the book down and think, think, think before my brain explodes. And then it’s time to do something else and I don’t get back to the book.


    • cburrell Says:

      Thanks, Janet. “Clear, magical water” is exactly right. His books are short, but they punch above their weight. I’ve read ten or so of them, and of those I consider Leisure, the Basis of Culture and Enthusiasm and Divine Madness (a study of Plato’s Phaedrus) to be the best. I’ve written a few other Book Notes on his work over the past few years, and have appended links to them to the post above.

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