Some Cursory Notes On The Practice Of A Modern Philosophy

Philosophy is critically synoptic, but this feature of philosophy also means that its remit is often necessarily hazy. Philosophy’s goal is to push thought and reason to (and, provisionally, beyond) its limits while retaining some modicum of sensical content. It is in this way that it most obviously cuts across, or into, the realms of religion and spiritual practice, not to mention simpler pharmacological travails. But how do we further flesh out this picture of philosophy, already handicapped by the expansiveness of its subject matter, in a way useful to modern thinking? One way to imagine and encapsulate what philosophy entails is to divide up its activities into three cases or categories: the analytical, the meditative, and the expressive (or transformative). All these terms are however misleading without some elucidation.

The “analytical” does not refer explicitly to analytic philosophy as such, but to all of philosophy in its capacity as a systematic analysis of certain kinds of data pertaining to logic, mind, culture, history, theology, the psyche and so forth. What this reveals is that in practice the analytical register, as I am referring to it here, encapsulates the vast majority of what philosophy actually is taken to be, as a discipline, its content, semantic and material. When we talk about philosophy we talk about ideas, books, concepts, authors, problems, and all of these are fundamentally analytical, though some moreso than others depending on style and context (e.g. the contrast between, say, analytic philosophy itself and Nietzsche, or between historiography and pure mathematics).

This is an important point to make because I want to posit this image of philosophy such that we might intuitively (dangerous word I know) reimagine its character and function. This is somewhat strategic on my part: consigning the corpus of academic and historical philosophy in its material, semantic, and conceptual enormity to just a subdivision of what I want to conceive philosophy as signals a move toward a (potentially indulgent) conception that finds its particular nuance in the emphasis of these other two poles–the meditative and expressive.

The “meditative”–as a sort of revisionary neologism–needs even more semantic qualification. While the actual practice of meditation as usually understood, primordial and highly developed as it is, might be very much applicable to what the label applies to in this case, I can hardly speak to its real correlation with the conception of philosophy propounded here, as my own meditation practice is sparse and excessively amateurish.

The meditative facet of philosophy understands philosophy to work beyond the edge of problems that we can assume to be resolvable. As a matter of literal and historical fact, much of the most important work done in philosophy is precisely the exploration of the limits of knowledge, reason, and experience. Of course, we know this now to be radically tricky territory to work in–the searcher is always threatened by the collapse of the conditions, objectives, context and so forth of their search. There is a constructive epistemological project, and a transcendental problem that hinders it. In both of these manifest features of philosophy we can draw forth numerous examples, the most obvious of the former (epistemological) one being Kant. The latter (transcendental) theme is perhaps most viscerally apparent, especially as it relates to modern systematic thought–that is, us–in the resolute Wittgenstein.

These two themes are interrelated and the point is that they both gesture towards the “meditative” feature of philosophy. However, as mentioned, I do not posit this feature as pertaining primarily to the practice of meditation that involves an activity intended to achieve, for example, stillness, quietude, and emptiness. The understanding of philosophy contained here is highly antipathic to mysticism, for reasons I will probably not fully have the bandwidth to unpack at length in this brief essay. Suffice it to say that mysticism understood as the invocation of justification beyond the remit of reason reveals a threat to philosophy that must be confronted and withstood. Meditation as a practice is not inherently “mystical” but its conceptual territory is primarily practical. Mysticism refers here to the expression of the aforementioned transcendental problem, wielded semantically as a means of solving epistemological dead-ends by invoking an ineffable authority and laying claim to the territory therein.

The “meditative” aspect of philosophy can perhaps best be understood as the relation between self-conception, experience, self, and life and the analytical content that comprises the first pillar of philosophy previously defined. While both psychedelic experiences and well-executed meditative practice seem well positioned to accomplish what philosophically meditative thought aspires to achieve–the transformation of nominally subconscious perspectives, feelings, and personal beliefs–the difference is that this transformative dimension is in this case accessible to sustained systematic reflection. But despite the systematicity, this is where philosophy acquires a psychological and ultimately emotional dimension (these will be relevant to the instantion of the third pillar). I can try to give a practical example here: engagement with the concepts of realism and nihilism contrast in that the former is a logical dimension and the latter fuses it with the emotional and psychological. The reflex of modern philosophy tends to be to recoil at the introduction of one’s own mental states in this fashion. Neuroscientifically-inclined analytic philosophy of mind for example simply does not tend to trade in the same register as Thacker or Cioran or Battaille, or indeed any continental existentialist. Where the former invokes intellectual quietude, the latter presupposes confrontation. The logical issues with existentialism (and the limitations of the poetic, polemical mode endemic to the canon of nihilistically-oriented authors) taken together with the affective issues of the approach and style of much highly detached, scientific analytic philosophy, reveals the necessity of bridging this gulf. Philosophy is a practice not of emptiness or quietude, as meditative practice as such is usually understood to be, but of passionate reasoning that involves a sustained engagement with potentially unresolvable problems through the lens of the material corpus of the history of philosophy–and the materiality of our lives.

Such vague and semantically overweight concepts trotted out previously–self-conception, experience, self, life–gesture towards the third segment of this attempt to section off philosophy’s territory, which is the dimension of expression. Just as the analytical tier threatens to devolve into pure science, and the meditative tier threatens to fall off the transcendental ledge, the expressive tier is in danger of confusing itself with the realm of aesthetics. In fact there is of course a sense in which it does so, because the aesthetic is itself a subject of philosophy proper, however aesthetics in the sense traditionally understood by philosophy are not sufficient to the actual role of aesthetics in the context of this interpretation of philosophical practice, because this philosophical practice demands a co-extensive artistic practice. This in turn demands an active engagement with a personal aesthetic that ultimately extends beyond the systematic demands of philosophy (just as the actual practice of meditation as it is usually understood extends beyond philosophy’s capacities).

These three registers of philosophy comprise an organon of self-consciousness and self-conception, wherein these two are themselves a constructive dyad. As mentioned before, philosophy is at its core synoptic, the apprehension of how things “hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term” as Sellars famously put it. This involves perilous expeditions into semantic and conceptual territory where the rigor afforded by both semantics and conceptuality is vulnerable, prone to malfunction. Much of the philosophy of the last century was concerned with the acquisition of the full capacities of scientific thought, and that effort must be carried through. But to meet its aspirations philosophy must expand itself and its interrelations with all other registers of thinking and practice–and this is why it demands a specifically artistic practice, why I use the term meditative to describe part of its operation and subject matter. Perhaps Hegel’s most brilliant move was underscoring and capitalizing on the uncompromisingly expansive conception of science described by the word wissenschaft, thus accomplishing a fusion of scientific aspiration and everyday life that can be reconfigured endlessly to account for the evolution of whatever it is we take metaphysics to refer to. This is what we should seek to do with a philosophical conception of “artistic” practice that expands beyond the specifics of making, practicing, even admiring disciplinary art such as it is usually understood. As Lautréamont pointed out, what modernity demands is a poetry made by all. Philosophy is the work of self-conception that unfolds from the crisscrossing interrelations between reason and expression, thought and practice, science and art, reality and ideality. Living is an art, or else it seems to have become futile on logical grounds.

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