The nature of philosophizing
The nature of philosophizing
In any exercise, it is not always easy to distinguish the substantive requirements from the formal ones, to link the formal rules to the skills required to work. However, we will do our best to describe our exercises by distinguishing what falls into one or the other of these characteristics, so as to perceive what comes from the spirit and what comes from the letter. To do this, since operating rules are nothing but a more or less successful application of a theoretical project, it seems illuminating at this point to bring forward a thesis on the nature of the act of philosophizing. Although we can’t deny either the fact that, in turn, theory undergoes an inflection in the face of practical outcomes, from either the successes or failures of practice. If it was not so we would give substance to the idea that philosophy is the preserve of theorization and that any practice must be but a pale representation of that theory, a kind of makeshift, a philosophy for the ‘crippled’, if not to the idea that ‘philosophical practice’ is a pure contradiction in terms. In order to distinguish our approach, let’s quickly state that the common representation of philosophy is to perceive it primarily as a scholarly and speculative discourse on scholarly discourse itself, whereas our view is that philosophy is a reflection on the discourse and on the very ‘being’ of a subject, whomever that might be, a pupil in kindergarten or a university student. In this perspective, let’s summarize what constitutes, for us, the essence of philosophizing, or of philosophical practice. We request some patience from our reader for the following abstract and theoretical discussion, however short.
Practice and materiality
A practice can be defined as an activity that confronts a given theory to a materiality, that is to say, an otherness. Matter being what offers resistance to our will and actions, it is that which is other, that upon which we pretend to act. Or, what, for our mind, is other? First, the most obvious materiality of the philosophizing is the totality of the world, including human existence. A world that we know in the form of a myth (mythos), a narration of daily events, or under the form of scattered cultural, scientific and technical information shaping a discourse (logos). Second, for every one of us, materiality is the ‘other’, our own image, our fellow, with whom we can enter into dialogue and confrontation. Third, materiality is the consistency, the presupposed unity of our discourse, whose flaws and incompleteness force us to confront ourselves with higher and more comprehensive mental architectural orders.
With these principles in mind, in fact inspired by Plato, it becomes possible to conceive of a practice consisting in exercises stimulating individual thinking, in group situations or in singular ones, in school or outside of it. Through dialogue, the basic modus operandi consists in first identifying the presuppositions from which our own thinking operates, then in critically assessing these presuppositions so as to identify specific problems. One must then formulate clear concepts to express the global idea that has been enriched by the problematization, thus creating terms able to take contradictions into account and maybe even to solve them, by naming them. In this process, everyone aims at becoming aware of his own apprehension of the world and of himself, at deliberating on the possibilities of other schemes of thinking, and at engaging oneself on an anagogical path where one can outreach his own opinion, a transgression at the very heart of the act of philosophizing. Within this practice, knowledge of classical authors or of cultural elements is very useful, but is not an absolute prerequisite. Whatever the tools used, the main challenge remains the constitutive activity of the singular mind.
Practical philosophical activity involves confronting the theory with the otherness, a vision to another one, a vision to a reality that goes beyond it, a vision to itself. It therefore implies a dualizing mode of the thinking process, a dialogue mode, with oneself, with others, with the world, with truth. We have here defined this confrontation in three modes: 1. our representations of the world, in the narrative or conceptual form; 2. the ‘other’, like the one with whom I can engage in dialogue; 3. and the unity of thought, as the logic, dialectic or coherence of the discourse.
Operations of philosophizing
In other words, beyond the cultural and specific content which is its appearance, generous and sometimes misleading – if it is at all possible to do without this appearance – what is left for philosophy? In answer, in order to focus solely on the operability of philosophy as a producer of problems and concepts, rather than on the complexity and scope of its corpus, we will propose a formulation defined in a rather lapidary way, which may seem like a sad and impoverished paraphrase of Hegel. We will define the philosophical activity as a constitutive activity of the self, determined by three operations: identification, criticism and conceptualization. If we accept these three terms, at least temporarily, the time to test their solidity, let’s see what this philosophical process means, and how it involves and requires otherness to constitute a practice.
Identify or deepen
How can the ‘me’ that I am define and become aware of itself, unless being confronted with the other? Myself and other, mine and thine, mutually define each other. I must know the pear to know the apple, this pear that is defined as a non-apple, this pear that defines the apple. Hence the appropriateness of naming in order to distinguish. We have proper nouns to singularize, and common ones to universalize. To identify, one must postulate and know the difference, postulate and distinguish the community. To classify between the singular, the gender and the specie as recommended by Aristotle. One must establish propositions which can be distinguished from others while sharing common elements without which the comparison would be meaningless. Dialectic of the same and the different: all is the same and different. Nothing can be thought of and exist without a relation to something else. Thus the first moment of the philosophical practice consists in an attempt to identify the nature of the subject, both the subject of the discourse and the subject who holds the discourse. What is he saying? What is he saying about himself when he says something about something? What are the implications and consequences of the ideas he puts forward? What are the ideas that form the cornerstone of his thought? What should be clarified? What to elaborate? How is that thought to be distinguished from another one? Why is she saying what she is saying? What are her arguments and their justifications?
To further deepen and identify we mainly use the following tools:
- Analyzing: to break down a term or a proposition, to determine its content, whether it is originally explicit or implicit, in order to clarify its scope.
- Synthetizing: to reduce a discourse or a proposition to more concise or common terms that make more explicit the content and the intention of what was said, or simply to summarize what one wants to say.
- Arguing: to prove or to justify a thesis with further proposals to support the initial assertion, or with a series of proposal in guise of a demonstration. A philosophical argumentation has a different purpose than the rhetorical one. Rather than proving it, it deepens a thesis.
- Explaining: to make a proposition more explicit by using terns different from the original one, so as to clarify its meaning or purpose.
- Exemplifying: to give examples and to analyse them: to produce one – or many- specific case to illustrate a proposal, to give it more meaning or depth by justifying it. The next step is to clarify the content of this example and to articulate its relation with the initial proposition.
- Looking for presuppositions: to identify the underlying propositions or non-expressed postulates that an initial proposal assumes, which are not explicitly mentioned.
To criticize or problematize
Any object of thought, necessarily entrapped in choices and biases, is rightfully subjected to a critical activity. In the form of suspicion, of negation, of interrogation or of comparison, as many forms of opposition susceptible of fostering a certain problematic. But to submit my idea to such an activity, and even to simply accept, in good faith, that the other might play that role, I must momentarily become other than myself. This alienation or contortion of the thinking subject, sometimes arduous and painful, express the initial difficulty of criticism which, in a second step, through practice, can become a second nature. In order to identify, I must thin the ‘other’. In order to distinguish myself, to criticize, I must think through the other, I must think like other, at least temporarily. This ‘other’ might be the neighbour, the world or the unity of my own discourse. It is not only the object that changes anymore, but the subject. The duality becomes more radical, it becomes reflexive. This does not imply to ‘fall’ in the other. It is necessary to maintain the tension of this duality, precisely through the formulation of a problematic. Plato tells us that to think is to engage in dialogue with oneself. For this, it becomes necessary to oppose oneself.
And while trying to think the unthinkable, this foreign thought that I can’t think by myself, I must keep in mind my fundamental incapacity to truly escape from myself. This remains the fundamental problematic: the hypothesis that any particular hypothesis is limited and fallible, and that it is only from an externality, not always identifiable, that it can discover its own limits and truth. This is a fundamental assumption that Plato calls ‘anhypothetical’: a hypothesis which I absolutely need but that I can’t formulate on my own since, by definition, externality escapes us. One sees here the interest of the ‘other’, the interlocutor who very naturally embodies this externality, the very possibility of a work by negativity.
In this perspective, the notions of criticism or of problematization are valorised, as constitutive of the thinking process itself, like a beneficial and necessary valorization of the idea. In brief, philosophically, all propositions can a priori be problematized.
The problematizing work can be undertaken by producing the different interpretations of the same proposition or concept, or the various responses that can be imagined to the same question. These two main tools are the question and the objection.
If identifying means thinking the other from myself, if criticizing means to think of me from another, conceptualizing means to think in the simultaneity of myself and the other, since it allows for the unification or the resolution of the dilemma, to unify a plurality. Nevertheless, this eminently dialectical perspective must be wary of itself since, as all powerful as it pretends to be, it is also necessarily confined to specific premises and special definitions. All concept implies some presuppositions. Thus, a concept must at least contain in itself the enunciation of a problematic, a problematic that it embodies both as the instrument and the manifestation. It addresses a given problem from a new angle that makes its identification easier. In this way, it is what allows interrogation, a basis from which to criticize and distinguish, that enlightens and builds the thinking process. And while the concept appears as if it was the final stage of the problematization process, let’s note that it thus initiates discourse just as much as it ends it. Thus the concept of ‘consciousness’ answers the question “can a knowledge know itself?”. And from this ‘naming’ it becomes the very possibility of the emergence of a new discourse. A concept is ultimately just a keyword, a key or a cornerstone of a thought process, which should become visible to itself in order to truly play its role as a concept.
To conceptualize is to identify the keyword of a proposition or of a thesis, or to produce this ubiquitous term even if it is not pronounced. The term can be a simple word or an expression. It is mainly used to illuminate a problem or to solve it.
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