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The New Philosophy

March 9, 2013

philosopher thinking under clear skySo I have talked a bit about the fact that I think philosophy should be an empowering force in our lives. From the philosophers I have studied over the years, particularly in an intense period over a few years of searching for answers, I have always attempted to see some common strands of a new philosophy emerging to support my view of philosophy as empowering. In fact, it is probably some of these thinkers who inspired me to perceive philosophy in this way in the first place. The work of Kant and Schopenhaer was the starting point for my appreciation of continental philosophy. It continued on with Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. At the time I did not connect the trends here with that of certain British and American thinkers, but more recently I have seen connections leading me to an understanding of the new philosophy.

This new philosophy is not just some esoteric personal wisdom. It is not just another spiritual exercise of freedom. Although these are also equally good things. This new philosophy is informed by trends I have perceived over time in some of the influential and some of the main academic philosophers of their day, and of our day.

It is not all easy reading, so I will summarise the main points here: The liberal era in the 1800’s developed a view of the mind, our seat of awareness, as an indivisible point. This view, still taken for granted as true by many in philosophy, came to be questioned by some thinkers. Culminating in the embodied physical subject that Merleau-Ponty describes in his work in phenomenology. From this point awareness becomes linked not just with the indivisible mind, as in the liberal era, but with our sense of self-hood. Some things, it is seen, our essential to our sense of having a self. But without a self we would have no awareness, so these things cannot be stripped from us, as they were falsely done with the notion of the indivisible mind, and still retain the awareness central to our existence. So the self has certain essential features. It is not indivisible in certain ways. It has certain qualities that we come to learn through a philosophical exploration. This approach is continued on by Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self; Bernard Williams, Problems of the Self. And its growing influence can be seen in many other areas. This then, is the new philosophy.

The more detailed version and arguments I developed are given below. It is something I have been dimly aware of for some time, but have only now begun to explicate it in the correct manner. (I’d also just like to point out this philosophy is not my own creation, but something I have come to adopt based on historical trends I have picked up on in philosophers over the last couple of centuries.)

The New Philosophy

The self is not an indivisible point of conscious awareness. Our identity is not reducible to a point in space and time, like the monad of Leibniz. Much modern philosophy followed Decartes and Leibniz in making this assumption. The Kantian philosophy provides an epistemology within which we can move past this, though he himself was still within it, as his dependence on the concept of freedom of will illustrates. When we move on to Schopenhauer the demarcation between the indivisible point of will and the divisible world of representation remains in place. In Husserl we begin to see an attempt to move past this philosophy. But Husserl focused too much on experience as an object of our awareness, and not enough on the subject of awareness. When we get to Merleau-Ponty, the new philosophy finds its first clear beginnings. For we are shown how the boundary between mind and matter is not as simple as we had thought, given that our identity and subjectivity is tied up with our concept of the mind. In a liberal era, the mind as an indivisible point was the politically convenient way to view it. But when it is not just about a political theory, but also a psychological and introspective theory we come up against the unique self, or as Merleau-Ponty states it, the emodied physical subject.

The class of arguments and reasoning he uses require deep study in themselves. But the conclusion is a new approach to philosophy that tries to come to terms with our understanding of the self and of identity in the modern world. In the downfall of the pure liberal era, this is an absolutely crucial and central field of enquiry. It links with morality and with philosophy as an empowering force in society. The main continuer of this new philosophy is Charles Taylor, though it is also explored by Bernard Williams and some others. The starting point is this: If existence doesn’t precede essence. If the despair of the existentialists was a false one based on a faulty conception of the self as being the same as the indivisible mind or monad, then our quest is to determine in what ways there is something essential to our existence. Merleau-Ponty’s first claim here is that being embodied, physical subjects is essential to our existence. From here we have a whole field of study to determine the boundaries of what cannot be stripped away from the self without taking away its identity. For, the argument goes, if you take away its identity you take away its awareness, but we know we have the awareness for we feel that awareness and we are that awareness, so there must accordingly be something essential to our identity. It is as much a culturally and historically located study as anything else. For we cannot determine, of necessity, timeless and objective truths about embodied selves, we can only continue the debate within the boundaries set by our own embodied existence.

Charles Taylors approach is to search for certain values essential to our sense of identity, beyond just the fact of being embodied, the values which come with that embodiment. Of course it changes over time so alot of what Charles Taylor does is to explore the historical development of our conception of the self, and what values we have come to adopt as central to our identity.

Bernard Williams argues for the importance of internal reasons for action in moral philosophy. Once again this is picking up on the notion that certain features are essential to our moral selfhood and cannot be stripped from it to leave a bare existent thing. “Philosophers have tried to argue that moral agents can have “external reasons” for performing a moral act; that is, they are able to act for reasons that are independent of their inner mental states. Williams argued that this is meaningless. For something to be a “reason to act,” it must be “magnetic”; that is, it must move people to action. Williams argued that something entirely external to us – for example, the proposition that X is good – cannot do this, because cognition (belief) is not magnetic; a person must feel something before they are moved to act. He argued that reasons for action are always internal – that is, they always boil down to desire.” This, of course, is the foundation of how ought is crucial to moral precepts. But it doesn’t require the merely negative free will from external actions as Kant saw it, it just requires an internal reason for action, rather than an external reason for action.

To add my own view to this: I think the foundation of morality for us as embodied beings is compassion. Without this, our awareness and even our identity fade away, as we see when people act without compassion in a mob. Their personal identity has become lost and subsumed amongst the collective identity of the mob. This then, Compassion, I say, is not just the beginnings of how to act morally good, it is also the foundation for empowering our selves in this world and in our lives.

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