Is academic philosophy Exsanguinated?

Is academic philosophy Exsanguinated?In one of the university texts I have been reading recently, the author often writes that a certain philosopher is being ‘over-sanguine’ in his approach. I thought this was a strange word to use as I found out it means ‘passionate’.

Can a philosopher be accused of being too  passionate? I don’t think this can be the case. Philosophy often deals with very important questions—the meaning of life, what ought we to do and other such life changing questions. How can one not be passionate?

Academic philosophy seems a bit exsanguinated at times. The main reason for this, I believe, is that too many academic pursuits are judged by the same standards as exact science—philosophy is an art form, not a science. Most academic philosophy could do with a blood transfusion!

The distinction between passion and reason is a very old one. In moral philosophy it has often been contended that passion conflicts with reason and that the latter should always have preference. Plato’s myth of the charioteer in the Phaedrus illustrates this idea. The charioteer is the soul of man, while the two horses represent reason and passion. Plato’s preference for reason has dominated Western culture for a long, long time.

If philosophy is an art form, we should listen to Nietzche, who teaches in Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik that there is no Apollo (reason), without a Dionysus (passion).

Venom Crystals and the Meaning of Life

Venom Crystals and the Meaning of LifeI am currently writing an essay on futility and its relation to the meaning of life, based on a paper by William Joske.1. Joske argues that philosophy is a dangerous activity because almost all flavours of thinking lead to the conclusion that life is futile. No rational philosophical or scientific theory has been able to work out the purpose of Life. Joske writes about life in general, not our individual lives.

Many years ago in one of my first encounters with the Internet I downloaded a philosophical gen created by Kevin Solway, called Venom Crystals, a collection of quotes from Eastern and European philosophy. Reading Joske’s paper, I realised that philosophy is indeed a Venom Crystal. We are hypnotised by its beauty, but the content is poisonous. The more deeply we think about life, the universe and everything, the more we come to realise that life is futile. We do not seem to have any rational justification to think that life has meaning.

This does, however, not imply that we are forced to accept a non-rational system – such as religion – in order to provide meaning to life. Plato writes in his famous myth of the cave that a philosopher is somebody who is able to crawl out of the cave and stare into the bright sun. A philosopher is somebody who is able to accept the meaningless of life. Douglas Adams describes the problem thus:2

“You know,” said Arthur thoughtfully, “all this explains a lot of things. All through my life I’ve had this strange unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister, and no one would tell me what it was.” “No,” said the old man, “that’s just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the Universe has that.”

“Everyone?” said Arthur. “Well, if everyone has that perhaps it means something! Perhaps somewhere outside the Universe we know …”

“Maybe. Who cares?” said Slartibartfast before Arthur got too excited. “Perhaps I’m old and tired,” he continued, “but I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say hang the sense of it and just keep yourself occupied.”

What Slartibartfast is saying here is very profound indeed. He has an existentialist attitude in that he believes that the likelihood of determining the meaning of life are ‘absurdly remote’. His conclusion is that he should focus on the coastlines; in other words actually lead our lives in a constructive way, instead of wasting it by trying to find its meaning.

By the way, if the chances of finding out the meaning of life are absurdly remote, then the Infinite improbability Drive would be a good way to find that answer, but that is another story …

  1. W.D. Joske, ‘Philosophy and the Meaning of Life’ Australasian Journal of Philosophy (1974), 52:93-104 

  2. Douglas Admas (1979) Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy