What Even Is Philosophy?
Philosophy has conventionally been framed in terms of the ‘pursuit of Knowledge’ (or just knowledge, depending on one’s epistemology). Plato — the ancient Greek dude — had a story about a cave that captures this view of things. You might’ve even heard of it. Something about how ignorance is akin to living chained in the darkness of the underground, taking shadows for ultimate Reality, whereas Knowledge is the light of the world above — Reality for real. It’s, like, an allegory, right. And the moral of it is that the philosopher — should they have their business straight — ought to dispel as much darkness as possible, to get out of the cave, to live and help and others live in the light. To enlighten, as it were.
While it’s a cute story — and certainly cuts at the essence of philosophy— it also fails, at least to my mind, to adequately capture the utter essentialness of philosophy — its civilisational, and indeed cosmic, importance. For unless one has a particular conception of knowledge in mind, the allegory of the cave is almost bound to fall flat. “Yeah cool story bro but I’m not living in a cave!” one might think, or “I know a god damn shadow when I see one! I’m not FkN tHiCk M8”. Et cetera.
To fully appreciate the primacy of philosophy, let’s take a moment to consider the situation we find ourselves in. Start by closing your eyes for a few moments. Now look around. What do you see? The world… wherever you are, you almost surely see the world. What is the world? Now that’s some question, huh? Well philosophy is, first and foremost, the pursuit of this question, the pursuit of understanding what this all is. It is the Knowledge Project, the intellectual program that subsumes all others.
The conception of philosophy as a particular strand of the Knowledge Project, separate from, say, science, is a modern aberration. For philosophy is the entire epistemic program, the whole kit and caboodle. All other epistemic endeavours are merely a subset of philosophy, threads of this larger, unitary fabric.
Philosophy is, in the broadest sense, the application of Reason — and other epistemic technologies, should they exist — to the world. It is the ultimate program of Self-understanding, the universe getting to know itself.
Philosophy is more than a purely intellectual enterprise, however, a mere act of Self-discovery. Indeed it’s an active process of Self-transformation — of embedding, in the world, that Knowledge which it acquires. It’s not just about studying the nature of light and its relation to darkness — to return to what might actually, in fairness, be a pretty decent metaphor — it’s about taking that light, procuring as much of it as possible, and shining it such that it permeates the world; every crack, cave and crevasse. It’s part science, part engineering — theory and its application. What is, what ought, and how.
Though the metaphor breaks down, at points, we can think of our lives — and civilisation in the aggregate — as computational systems of a kind. First, there is the hardware, the physical stuff things are made of. And then there is the software, the machine code — the set of instructions — instantiated in the hardware. The quality of our lives — and the quality of civilisation — reflects, above all, the quality of our software — our ideas, values and beliefs. But just the same, it also reflects the quality of our hardware, for the hardware enables — or precludes — the operation of certain kinds of software. More advanced hardware allows for more advanced software, so to speak.
Philosophy is, on this construal of things, about understanding and then improving the kinds of computational systems we are, as well as the broader computational system (culture) within which we’re embedded. It’s a fundamentally creative process of learning the language in which our world is written, and an effort to take that understanding and apply it to the improvement of our operating system, at the individual and societal levels. It’s thus analogous to software engineering, only programming at a much higher level of abstraction – programming, as it were, in the ultimate language of Reality. Given the relationship between software and hardware, however, the philosophical project also requires our understanding the nature of the physical stuff in which the software is instantiated. We must, in order to alter/improve the nature of our software, develop the capacity to modulate/enhance our hardware, too.
Where the software/hardware analogy breaks down, however, is that — with respect to the kinds of systems we are and the ultimate system within which we’re embedded — there is no such clear dichotomy. There is no hard dividing line between the software and the hardware, the mental and the material. Instead they’re separate, yet inexorably bound, strands of a singular — apparently geometric — fabric that is Reality. Thus in some sense, there’s neither software nor hardware. It’s all much messier than that. It’s all, as it were, wetware.
The kinds of computational systems we are are biological. We are our physiology, and our culture is an extension of it — a reflection, as it were; so within, so without — as it goes. We are cells and tissues and blood and brain and bone, and everything there is to know about us is, ultimately, contained somewhere therein. The human world is written in the language of biology — the good, the bad, the ugly. Now this isn’t to say that DNA and thus genetics— or even biology in the large, as we know it — provides the final window onto Reality. It is simply to say that, whatever is going on here — everything that seems — it’s all instantiated in our meat. Love and loss, art and aliens, it’s all there — in our cells.
Let me emphasise just how bizarre this is. At some level of analysis, we — as human organisms — are purely physical objects/processes. At another level, we are conscious systems, replete with rich — intuitively non-material — inner lives, vast landscapes of experience. At another level again, we are — mostly unconscious — worlds of utter alienness; spirits, archetypes, entities, symbols, fluid fractal geometric landscapes. We are most weird things, let it be said. Most weird of all, though, is the fact that all this weirdness is instantiated in physiology —indeed is physiology. All this physiology then makes our world; it becomes our culture, our environment. Our physiology is made everywhere manifest.
Now this line of thinking has real implications. It’s more, I swear, than a bunch of trippy banalities. Indeed it implies that, in order to be truly successful in our quest towards utopia — which is the quest, make no mistake (whatever apprehension or allergy you might have towards the term ) — we must gain something approaching mastery over our physiology. It’s not enough to speak of ideas and values and beliefs, purely in the abstract. More than that, it requires understanding the ways in which such ideas and values and beliefs become instantiated in our meat and bone, our flesh and blood, our ‘Reality suits’. Further still, it requires developing the capacity to precisely engineer our Reality suits — to alter our carbon, as it were.
This conception of things, though it might, at first, strike one as impenetrably vague, in fact implies a very particular — and indeed highly pragmatic — model of effective philosophy. Effective philosophy, on this view, is that philosophy which recognises we are as much our ideas and intentions— our conceptual schemas — as we are our nervous systems; philosophy that explicitly embraces the physiological eye view. An obvious historical example of such a philosophical system is the east’s philosophy of Yoga. Where the majority of western systems are predicated on something of a Cartesian conception of the human condition, the Yogic system appreciates — and accounts for — the true peculiarity of our position; the utter inseparability of mind and body. Accordingly, at the centre of Yoga— which has everything from metaphysics to morals — are a set of physical practices; most notably, pranayama (breathwork), asana (physical postures), and dhyana (meditation). With the exception of meditation — which is a little more nuanced — these practices are, principally, about modulating the nervous system — servicing our physical organism. To the Yogi, these physical practices aren’t merely good for one’s physical organism, however. Nor is touching one’s toes quite the point. Rather the point is, because the body and mind are one — two sides of the same coin — they’re regarded as inherently normative exercises. Touching one’s toes, when framed in a particular way, becomes a moral act — an act of “self-realisation”.
There is another model of philosophy that this, well, philosophy, implicitly endorses — and I’d like to make it explicit. That is, psychedelics. As in taking them. I’m not even kidding. Now how in the world did I get from Yoga to psychedelics? And how could I possibly say all this with a straight face? Well, before you laugh me out the room, let me explain. See, in the same way that the variety of yogic practices positively affects our inner worlds — primarily through modulating our nervous systems — so too do psychedelics. Psychedelics induce — with almost perfect reliability — an experience that alters our conceptual schemas. They also affect them in reliably predictable directions. That’s because they contain Knowledge, in the same way any good book does. However, where psychedelics are far more compelling than almost any good book, as philosophical objects, is that they exert their influence in a deeply visceral way. They speak, not in the language of concepts and ideas — that is, the language of “natural language”— but in the language of physiology, the language of felt-experience. The only bona fide “universal language”.
Philosophy as we know it — that is, natural language structures (typically bound in books) — and psychedelics are, on close inspection, fundamentally equivalent in their status as philosophical objects. They are both physical instantiations of Knowledge — abstract catalysts of physical transformation. In the end, it’s only our intellectual provincialism/epistemic anthropocentrism/linguistic chauvinism, rather than any kind of fundamental difference between the two forms of object, that inclines us to take the former seriously, while treating the latter as child’s play (or worse). Indeed the only substantial difference between the two classes of object, to the degree that such a difference exists, is that the latter actually tends to work — it imparts its intended message; it’s not full of shit, so to speak.
But aren’t psychedelics a little risky? Can’t they, like, mess you up? Are they not, at least in this sense, fundamentally different to the “good books”? Well, sure. Psychedelics can absolutely mess you up. But then so, too, can reading Nietzsche. In both cases, one ought to be careful — one ought to pay mind to one’s “set and setting”, so to speak. Though in both cases, above all, one ought to do — to see for oneself what lies behind the curtain. And *spoiler alert*: in the case of psychedelics, there really is a Wizard of Oz — and oh sweet Lord does he do magic.
Of course, there a many far less provocative examples I could use to make the same point. I could talk about the physiological merits of exercise, say, or the visceral virtues of being in nature, the existential value of an ice bath, perhaps. But tell me, where’s the fun in that?
The constrained vision of philosophy I’m arguing against here is, to go full circle, a largely epistemological one. Our default epistemology — our sense that Knowledge is a kind of stuff inside human heads, like facts and figures and even “know-how”— is the result, on some level, of Plato’s view of Knowledge as some kind of ethereal substance from another dimension. Precisely the kind of ethereal stuff that could fit inside our heads (or anywhere else, for that matter). But Knowledge isn’t, as Marletto and Deutsch have argued, an immaterial — nor purely human — phenomenon. It is, instead, a deep, fundamental physical property of the universe; information instantiated in physical objects/processes, capable of affecting physical transformations. In other words, stuff that reliably changes other stuff. Thus the Knowledge Project — that is, the philosophical project — isn’t just about imbuing in the minds of humans as many facts and figures as we can, about rendering us all learned gentlemen and women. Rather, it’s about reconfiguring the very fabric of Reality, affecting physical change through the instantiation of Knowledge. It’s alchemy on a civilisational — and indeed cosmic — scale.
Though it’s become synonymous with navel-gazing speculation, utter pomposity, dusty leather-bound books and pretentious old — predominantly white — pipe-smoking, beard stroking dudes in oxford style tweed jackets, philosophy is, as I hope to have convinced you, much more. Indeed it’s what we’re ultimately doing here, with our lives, with our world. We are philosophising, whether we like it or not. We are playing with Knowledge. We are changing things. We are doing stuff. These are all fundamentally philosophical acts. For we are fundamentally philosophical creatures. And we’re also made of meat, and if one day (as in now) we should happen to be made of something else —silicon, say — that, too, will have been a philosophical development, a product of Knowledge.
Philosophy is, to beat a dead horse here, at the very pinnacle of the ‘civilisational development stack’ — it is the project of civilisation. It is, in effect, the science and engineering of the human condition. Indeed the science and engineering of Reality writ large. And it’s about time we recognised. Or, like, whatever. It’s all good. Do you.