The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it (Karl Marx, 11th Thesis on Feuerbach)
This thesis of Dr Marx is accurate so far as it goes I would however propose to alter its ending, thus-
“The point, however, is to change oneself and then the world for the better.”
The idea of philosophy as a discipline which changes the philosopher as a prelude to her philosophising has been largely lost over the past several centuries. The prevailing philosophical method is to cast oneself as an objective observer of an objective world or cosmos. This involves creating a degree of intellectual detachment from oneself as a subject; and from a universe populated by subjects.
While this certainly constitutes a form of self-discipline it has two fundamental flaws from the perspective of what we might call the classical philosophical method. Firstly it is erroneous to think of humans as objects. Each individual human adult is a unique subject. Arguably human collectives could be regarded as objects but this would be at best an hypothesis and acting upon it as if it were an incontrovertible fact is a profoundly unphilosophic thing to do.
More to the point for the purposes of this blog such detachment is a purely mental exercise. No philosopher can make themselves so dessicated that they become purely thinking machines. The whole person is involved to a greater or lesser extent in everything which we do. Therefore I would suggest that dispassion is a better stance to adopt than intellectual detachment. This is not a distinction without a difference but a radically different approach.
To become dispassionate is to struggle against oneself and therefore to know oneself in a more profound way than if no such struggle had taken place. Giving over the initial part of philosophical training to the exercise of becoming dispassionate is to move the subject out of the realm of pure academic theorising into the realm of practical transformation. One becomes aware of the surges and tides of the emotions, that is, one recognises both the power they possess and their transient nature. The student discovers also the limitations of the passions, they are beatable, and their persistence, they do not ever fully depart from us. Equipped with such knowledge as well as the skill of dispassion one is in a better position to start to enquire into the fundamental questions of philosophy.
If the conceit of contemporary thinkers is that, by virtue of their detachment, they view the world from a position outside of it then the corresponding conceit of a dispassionate observer would be that their perspective is outside of time. The passions of envy, avarice, anger, gluttony, lust and so on are all products of the phenomenal universe, they come into existence, endure for a time and then pass away. Conquering them necessarily involves a heartfelt (as opposed to merely intellectual) comprehension of the impermanence of everything which we can know and experience by normal means. The dispassionate philosopher, then, reflects on everything not with a view to its existence as an object of study but with a view to its frailty as a subject which will cease to be.
The mini-revival of Stoic thought and the apparently growing appeal of Buddhist and Vedantist practices among some Western intellectuals, university graduates and students is, I think, an indication that there is an unmet need among those exposed to current academic approaches. People might be willing to detach themselves from themselves if they have faith that the process will lead, ultimately, to greater understanding. It becomes, however, harder and harder to acquire this faith the more that academic philosophy loses itself in labyrinthine speculations about words and meanings.
And here we come to the for the better part of my proposed addition to Marx. While classical or oriental approaches may lead one to be a transformed observer of the world and the struggle to become dispassionate helps one to be compassionate also towards those still caught in the toils of the samsaric world these things do not naturally promote social activism. What is needed is a philosophic approach which both encourages the acquisition of dispassion and a transformative involvement in the world aimed at improving most the lives of those who suffer the most. Or, to put it another way, we need a philosophy which incarnates itself in the sufferings of the world and works to redeem them. The question is, where could we find such a philosophy?
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The painting is Christ of St John of the Cross by Salvador Dali