philosopher? I think not / by IKB

Warning: this piece is a mixture of history, linguistics and philosophy, with a pinch of theology. But then again, the generally educated man that Aristotle describes or the humanist, should be able to move between the plethora of humanist or liberal arts subjects with ease and facility.

I am curious as to what a philosopher is. When asked, “What are you studying?” a question that I find as equally vexatious as “And what do you plan to do with that?” I will either respond 1. I am studying maths and the Classics or 2. St. John’s does not have majors; it’s like high school but with cigarettes. “Oh how … quaint… ?” at least, I wish this would be the response, alas no. Yet, if ever I collect courage to say philosophy, it is with the hope that I will not be considered a philosopher. That I am not. I cringe at the thought of receiving this epithet. I am not a philosopher – I am a disciple of truth.

I suspect it is clear to anyone that knows me that foremost, I am a a lover of history – I can assiduously read history works, goaded by the lash of the innate desire to know. Though history does seem, at least to me, to possess a certain sterility, though by no fault of the historians – Theucydides and Herodotus’ writing styles enhance the vivacity of the histories they transmit or invent in their respective works. Then again, after several pages of cataloguing the decadent and monotonous decay of a political entity, the reader becomes aware of the essence of the work. It is not necessarily that history occurs in cycles, it just so happens that cycles produces a system that comes close to describing the developments of a history.

Yet I was a student at an institution, i.e., St. John’s, that has no idea of what place history holds in its curriculum. My tutors looked upon me with sadness as I pined, thirsting for history. At the College, students read one or two history works, though all the works that we read are historical – but a difference exists between these two, i.e., its subject matter. Many a time I had to break my silence, in the defence of history, correcting misconceptions. “No, Rome was not founded by Æneas and the Trojans!” I would say in sheer disgust, was this not common knowledge as 1+1=2? “The Æneid is not a history of the foundation of the the Eternal City. It is the result of the myths, of potencies, actualized by the politics of the time. It is an example of an institution obtaining legitimacy – political, historical, etc.” I drew my sword in the name of truth.

To digress, when I say “It is an example of an institution obtaining legitimacy,” what do I mean? Because such is the nature of earthly things, and especially of the things instituted by man, for as man is terrestrial and as such ephemeral, more so will be his creations (the further one moves from the First Principle, the more imperfect something becomes). Systems always come into existence and then with the passage of time, after a cycle of growth, climax and dénouement (a more tactful word for decay), these systems are extinguished and replaced by new ones; but the extinction of these past systems is not absolute nor complete. In the tumult of the vicissitudes of the ephemeral, man-made systems seek legitimacy; it must be noted that by system, I mean religious, political, etc. This legitimacy is established by connecting through various means, to a previous system. After all, tradition, this is to say those things that are veiled in the protection of time, gain authority in the minds of men.

If an idea has been in existence for some time, and man has been acquainted with it, then it is easier for man to accept it than to refute it, which is the opposite with new ideas; they are foreign, new, and therefore we are less able to accept them. For example, the notion of God has stupefied man since the inception of time, perhaps even further, thus it is easier to accept the validity of such a notion than to deny it. Then again, just because something is irrational (as is the existence of God), it does not mean that the irrationality precludes its existence, it only means it is a trait, a quality of it.

With respect to Rome, the mythology of Rome attaches this venerable matron to the human and the divine. She is found by a man who embodies both these qualities. On the one hand he is descended through his mother from Æneas, he being of the Trojans, a more ancient and therefore more legitimate system. It does not seem to matter that the Trojans are the losers! Nor does there seem to be any logic in why Rome would adopt the gods of a vanquished nation; after all, if they failed once, shall they not fail again? But this particular question is beyond the scope of this; suffise to say that the Romans were ecclectic, adopting foreign deities that had failed to protect their nations, and transporting them to Rome where they sould soon fail again, but this time to the detriment of the genius of man.

On the other hand, through his father, Romulus is descended from the gods! The Roman system is cute and simple. Yes, it’s quaint indeed, but not as quaint as the Christian one. After all, Christ Jesus is not only the Son of God, but through Mary, He is descended from King David. Yet I do not understand why this particular association, the descent from a line of earthly kings is even signaled out, after all, Mary serves no other role than that of host for the Lamb of God. The Son and Mary’s substances or essences are not mixed, otherwise the Son’s essence or substance would be defiled and the theological system of the Christians does not allow for this, after all Christ Jesus is the Son of God! Then, it must follow that we cannot call Mary the mother of Christ Jesus for she is simply a host. The term mother implies much more than this, it implies something more holy, more sacrosanct. A mother is not simply a carrying vessel for life, contrary to what Aristotle would have us believe and the learned doctors of the Church. No, a mother is not a receptacle. Take that Aristotle and the fishermen and men trapped in dark ages after the fall of the Roman Empire that failed in their understanding and interpretation of his ideas; the dark ages were dark for a reason!

But returning to the crux of the matter, I fought for truth (what truth is, I have yet to say). And herein lies the problem. To me philosophy is not necessarily about truth but about something altogether different. First, it must be said that the Greek word for truth is not ΣΟΦΙΑ (sophia). This word means skill as in a skill in a handicraft. Although it can mean knowledge, it seems to be associated more with the acquaintane with a thing. Of course, it also has the signification of wisdom, the signification par excellence. Now ΑΛΗΘΕΙΑ (alêtheia) is defined as truth as opposed to a lie, as reality as opposed to appearance. Wisdom and truth may be synonymous but being synonymous does not mean being the same, this is to say that they may possess the same substance but not the same essence! But these two terms apply to knowledge, but two different types of knowledge, one being knowledge proper and the other being something ostensibly different.

Now (how peripatetic of me, next I’ll be saying ‘now I say’), it must be said that knowledge is not a single faculty or thing. Rather, there exist two types of knowledge, though only one can be truly be called as such, while the other is of a different nature, therefore we must call it by another name. The two types of knowledge. One is knowledge (theory) gained by intellect (theory). The other is gained through experience (practice). But these two words are deficient so I must substitute theory with ΕΠΙΣΤΗΜΗ (epistêmê) and practice with ΤΕΧΝΗ (technê). The former is defined as acquaintance with a matter, skill, experience, i.e., archery. But generally, it is defined as knowledge, scientific knowledge. So for our use, we will define this term as pertaining to sciences, i.e., facts. Now, à propos the latter, it is defined as art, skill, craft, trade. So we will define this term as pertaining to a craft.

Because of the scientific connotations of epistêmê, and science being associated with facts, which we are to say possess the essence or likeness of the Platonic ‘forms’ – these being eternal and therefore true – then epistêmê is likewise associated with truths. We must therefore call this true knowledge.

Then technê is a type of knowledge but it is not true knowledge; it is of a different sort of knowledge, it is acquaintance. For it must be accepted that knowlege of facts differs from knowledge (acquaintance) of a skill. In effect, while epistêmê is concerned with truths, technê is concerned with something else.

Now, this attempt to establish a distinction between two types of knowledge (one being real knowledge and the other being altogether something else, i.e., acquaintance) may seem superfluous, for supposing that such a distinction may in reality exist, language and reality seem to indicate otherwise. The fact that epistêmê and technê may ultimately be used interchangeably, and ultimately are by Greek philosophers, only serves to increase the difficulty of this subject! Then again, language is absurd and ambiguous and the interchangeability of these two terms results from these intrinsic qualities in language. Then again this absurdity may say something else about knowledge. As I said earlier, there are ostensibly two types of knowledge, one being knowledge proper and the other being of a different sort, and the keyword being ‘ostensibly’. The ambiguous nature of epistêmê and technê seem to allude to the idea that although there may be two types of knowledge (knowledge proper and the other type of knowledge, that for lack of a better word, I have termed acquaintance), they are amalgamated. No human being is possessed of either one, but rather, of both. There are things we derive through the processes of the intellect, while there are things we derive from practice; but are the things derived through intellect not predicated on things derived from things gained from the senses – this in itself is an interesting question, but not withint the scope of this.

So, if there are two types of knowledge, in a human being, or that is, in reality (what’s the difference), they are mixed.

Now, returning to the issue of a philosopher after this indagation into knowledge, which seems to first predicate the existence of two types (true knowledge and acquaintance), only to proceed to suggest that in actuality, they are mixed, this is to say, to predicate a centre point where both types come into play, why is the philosopher called the lover of skill or wisdom, i.e., the lover of technê? Ought he not be called the lover of truth, i.e., the lover of epistêmê?

In effect, though philosophers of the caliber of Plato establish the existence of eternal truths, throughout his writings, one is either disturbed or satiated by the idea that we as human beings cannot truly known these eternal truths, his famous forms. No, they are not within our reach until we separate the soul from the body, when the soul is freed from its carnal prison. Yet, this seems to give us some hope, for though we cannot known truth now, once we die we can. But then, what does it matter? for we will have metamorphed into something else, something different. Either we are dead and that is it, so truth is never within our reach, or we metamorphe into something else, which means still truth is not within our reach for we will be something different.

But what are truths to us? It must be said that truths or truth are beyond our grasp! Stretch our hands as we may, they will forever be unreachable. Even if we accept that truths exist, we shall NEVER savor them! Why not? Because we can only be acquainted (hah! this is a masterful verb transition!) with copies, with imitations.

So, then, must we accept that a philosopher is a lover of wisdom, i.e., of images, because the truths, the originals from which these images are reflected, are beyond our reach. It would seem so, after all, Ptolemy says at the beginning of his Almagest that he is interested in beautiful theories. And we must interpret beautiful to mean, most probable, for the most probable theories are the best, the most beautiful; the only ones within our reach. Truths are not within our reach. If they are, they are only obtainable after death, and then, we are not what we are now, so in effect, they are forever unattainable!

Some may be disenheartened by this revelation or interpretation; oh wonderful discovery vs. invention! Alack, I am not. It is edifying. It does not sadden me, for this is truth; I cannot do anything but succumb to it. Then again, I am not saying, it is all pointless! If we cannot know truth, we must continue to attempt to know it, for the process is as sweet and rewarding as the goal!

Having said this, I must add, briefly and without further explanation, that reality is also like the nature of truth I have described above. This is to say, though there may be a reality, because of our nature a human beings, man being an island, we experience imitations of reality. My reality is not your reality. This indagation is a reality in itself, it is the Word become Flesh, that is, the Word become Reality, Truth. Mine, not yours necessarily.

In conclusion, I am not a philosopher, for a philosopher is concerned with beautiful theories, i.e., probable theories. Then again, this is the best we can do. I am a disciple of truth. “But I thought truth is not within our grasp?” Yes, this is true, but nevertheless, I am a disciple of truth, i.e., a wandering fool that marches up along the path to nothing. I am a nothing. But still, I continue though I know I shall never savor my goal. I am Sisyphes, hauling a rock, hauling absurdity. But humanity is absurd. Such is our nature. The paradox our sign.