Philosophy as Personal Liberation and Social Transformation

Authentic philosophy has wisdom as its goal, and an essential component of wisdom is liberation. At some point in the life of a genuine philosopher, the dominant beliefs and values underlying their society are no longer accepted instinctively and uncritically. The social framework announces itself as a contingent, arbitrary, and often unjust arrangement of power and control. The contingency and injustice are initially concealed, of course, and the system is presented through various means (e.g. the educational system, religious institutions, etc.) as the exact opposite of what it actually is: a manifestation of eternal Truth and Justice.

Seen in this light, genuine philosophers do in fact represent a legitimate threat to the established order. By questioning the underlying, taken-for-granted assumptions holding sway within a specific historical community, the entire socio-political edifice is called into question. These guiding assumptions were precisely what Socrates challenged in ancient Athens, and also why the charges levelled against him – of corrupting the youth and impiety – were not completely off base. He sought truth was put to death accordingly, as the emotional attachment the many feel for their

Related to this radical understanding of philosophy is a corresponding transformation in one’s way of being. It is not merely the acquisition of specific knowledge related to arcane topics like epistemology, ontology, and metaphysics that characterizes philosophy, but a radically new way of thinking and existing in the world. And it’s one which typically results in more questions than answers, in an acute sense of self-awareness against the complacency of one’s contemporaries, and a reinterpretation of our sense of “self” as set against the internalized values and beliefs we’d been subjected to since early childhood.

The movement of the philosophical life can be extremely distressing, even traumatic. The things around us, including our relationships with our fellow citizens, start to lose their hold on us. The subsequent feelings of anxiety and alienation can be overwhelming. The result need not end in despair, however, but can be positive and life-affirming. The general trajectory of the philosophical life moves from (roughly speaking): thoughtless absorption in values and beliefs of our shared world, to a condition of confusion and disorientation, and ultimately back to the world where we started journey, albeit with the proviso that this world reveals itself as transfigured.

Plato’s Cave Allegory is a perfect example of this transformative motif, as is the well-known Zen story which describes this process and resonates so deeply with those who’ve undergone the shift in being and perspective:

“Before I sought enlightenment, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers. While I sought enlightenment, mountains were no longer mountains and rivers were no longer rivers. After I attained enlightenment, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers.”

The ordinary is thereby transformed into the extraordinary, and the mundane and seemingly trivial likewise take on a new dimension of meaning and significance. We no longer take anything for granted but learn to appreciate even the so-called “little things” that may have previously escaped our attention. We no longer think how others think and we no longer desire what others desire, caught as they are in the snares of popular opinion – and that means heavily conditioned by economic, social, and historical forces. In other words, we will have achieved a relative state of freedom which will be reflected in our different way of being.

Furthermore, we will look upon those of our fellow human beings who are still trapped within the prevailing system of values and beliefs – which means a vast majority of them – with a sense of of sorrow and longing. This is borne out once again by Plato in his Cave Allegory, for instance, the philosopher returns back to the cave in order to free those still trapped inside, as well as by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra as he descends back down to man from his mountaintop. The philosopher endeavors to lead those still asleep into this condition of amazement and blessedness. The sleepwalkers, however, are emotionally attached to their illusions and therefore mistake the generosity of the philosopher for malice.

The old assumption that the philosopher necessarily leads a life of sorrow, since he or she knows too much, is mistaken. We “know” less but appreciate more. We feel gratitude for our existence, for our being, and we want to give thanks to its mysterious source (Being, God, Nature, etc.). We relate to beings in ways transcending their one-dimensional use within our network of projects, and in that sense we are related in spirit to the poets.

Where is philosophy understood in this liberating way today? Almost nowhere, unfortunately. Academic philosophy now subordinates itself to the demands of the modern world. This once lofty enterprise in whose pantheon some of the most exemplary human beings to ever walk this planet can be found – e.g., Heraclitus, Parmenides, Socrates, Spinoza, and Nietzsche – has largely been reduced to a concern of “specialists.”

Most of these academics may be extremely knowledgeable about certain “philosophical” matters, but they have not been gripped by the philosophy in the proper sense, as the love of wisdom in which we’re drawn into a passionate pursuit of truth and Being. In fact, it’s safe to assume that a vast majority of academics – i.e. “professional” philosophers – would scoff at this elevated understanding of philosophy. This is just one more symptom of the extreme spiritual poverty of our times.

There are exceptions to this trend, however, who’ve lived in recent times. I’m referring primarily to Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. All three of them are widely regarded as among the all-time greats within the field, and share some significant commonalities such as a shared feeling of contempt for the materialism, the vulgarity, and the overall corruption of the modern world. Each sought to transform the way we perceive and relate to our world by, once again, challenging the guiding presuppositions currently reigning supreme. In that they hearken back to the ancient sense of philosophy as a transformative and liberating activity.

This world is far too beautiful, too mysterious, and too amazing to be reduced to what it is today: a mere collection of resources to be optimized within a system dominated by the demands of a techno-scientific civilization. In order to overcome our current nihilistic predicament, we must come to understand ourselves as privileged participants within Being’s historical unfolding. We’re the open site of what is, the “clearing” in which things come to presence and reveal themselves.

This relatedness to Being is both out blessing and our burden. To be fully human is to this relationship into our care and cultivate it; to allow things to become more than they previously were. They are the same things – in the aforementioned sense – but yet so much more than we take them as today. A first step in this direction of reshaping the world involves overcoming the current paradigm, and this polemos has always been the sine qua non of genuine philosophy.

Our age is one of rapid disintegration and dislocation, and it’s therefore ripe for a rebirth of philosophy, albeit now understood in its ancient sense – and that means pre-Socratic – as the questioning of Being. With this shift will hopefully come a renewed sense of the holy and divine, which will in turn enable us to continue pursuing our technological projects while also balancing this out with alternative ways of revealing things. Ideally, these contrary modes of disclosure – the calculative/economic and the meditative/poetic – will be harmonized within each of us in a way somewhat akin to Nietzsche’s description of his overman as a Caesar with the soul of Christ.

This is speculative, obviously, but one thing that is certain is that in order to challenge the status quo – which is organized around a rigid understanding of beings as exploitable resources – we must call on philosophy. The next step, once this techno-scientific system is seen as only one possible way things can be revealed to us, will be to bring forth newer and richer ways of relating to ourselves, each other, and our world. In this there’s a strong family resemblance between the philosophical and the religious life as transformative of ourselves, and by extension our world.

This noble and life-affirming enterprise must be done with caution and humility, however, with the realization that we are challenging the most basic values and ideals of our age and are thereby placing ourselves and others in a dangerous predicament. Nonetheless, it’s worth the risk since the alternative is to continue going down the same path of social and environmental degradation and destruction that we’ve been on for some time now. The basic disposition to be pursued, both individually and collectively, is one of humility and wonder. Heidegger describes it thus:

“Celebration is self restraint, is attentiveness, is questioning, is meditating, is awaiting, is the step over into the more wakeful glimpse of the wonder- the wonder that a world is worlding around us at all, that there are beings rather than nothing, that things are and we ourselves are in their midst, that we ourselves are and yet barely know who we are, and barely know that we do not know all this.”

Heidegger admittedly came to distinguish philosophy (associated with metaphysics) from thinking, and felt we could do with less philosophy and more thinking. I believe this was a mistake, though, and by reclaiming the proper understanding of philosophy from its current academic incarnation, we can restore its dignity and world historical significance. Whether philosophy can elicit the sort of fundamental social change we need is another matter altogether. As mentioned, we must at least try.

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