“ON THE VALUE OF PHILOSOPHY” BY C.E.M. JOAD (1943) – Epilogue to “Teach Yourself Philosophy” (1944)
A word on the value of philosophy. It is, so far as I can see, non-existent.
Philosophy, that is to say, will not help you acquire fame or wealth, to win promotion at the office, to commend yourself to eminent persons, or to be a nicer or more agreeable person.
It will not endow you with a distinctive disposition, or equip you with that desirable attitude to life known popularly as the philosophic temperament by virtue of which you are enabled to bear the toothaches and pimples of experience with more equanimity than the non-philosopher.
The philosopher is just as likely to swear as anybody else when he breaks a shoe-lace or misses a train, and he is no better able to conceal his irritation when he steps on a nail, or his pain when he bites his tongue.
Philosophers are no more noticeably successful at managing their lives than other men.
Unlike astrology, Spiritualism, Christian Science, psycho-analysis, and other contemporary aspirins for the sick headache of mankind, philosophy provides its students with no esoteric information on how to control the self or predict the future.
No world-famous philosopher tells you how to make friends, acquire influence over others, or overcome your inferiority complex.
Philosophy, again, offers no protection from impending danger, does not cure loneliness, allay fear or provide a sanatorium wherein the spirit of man may find a refuge from the increasing chaos of the contemporary world.
Why, then, study philosophy?
It is difficult to read and hard to understand; its subject-matter is obscure and its professors write obscurely about it; to be read to advantage it demands the assistance of a tutor and opportunities for discussion, and it is apparently of no practical value whatsoever.
No honours reward the efforts of the philosopher, no employer is of need of his qualifications, nor does philosophy equip him to make his way in the world.
Why, then, study philosophy?
There is only one answer to the question. To satisfy the impulse of curiousity.
Some of us want to know the meaning of this surprising world in which we find ourselves, to understand the significance and, if possible, to discover the purpose of human life in general and of our own lives in particular.
What is the point of life and how ought it to be lived?
Philosophy concerns itself with these questions, not aspiring to answer them with finality, but considering and discussing them and studying the answers which have seemed convincing to greater men than ourselves.
Philosophy, then, is a record of the soul’s adventures in the cosmos.
Some find enjoyment in the pursuit of mental and spiritual adventure; these are philosophers, and only those who share their tastes are advised to set foot upon the trail which they have blazed.
I said at the beginning that philosophy had no effect upon life, that it did not apply to practical affairs and that it had neither message nor gospel for mankind. I said these things, exaggerating them into over-statements, to startle to attention, because I feared lest readers might form an exaggerated notion of what it could do for them. But now I can venture to retract.
Philosophy does, I think, teach us something, though it is hard to define precisely what it teaches. But though one cannot define, one can illustrate
It endeavours to show that the job of politics is so and so, and that the good State may be defined thus and thus.
It tells us, too, in what the highest levels of our personality consist, and adds that the good life is to be found in their development.
It indicates the activities which conduce to that development and, in doing so, purports to give us some information about the nature of the world which exists independently of ourselves; telling us, for example, that it contains immaterial values which manifest themselves in, and bestow some of their characteristics upon, the familiar things, persons, codes, institutions and communities of the everyday world.
And these things philosophy has told us, not as religion does, apocalyptically, as, that is to say, announcements of a truth divinely or supernaturally revealed, but without power over those who have not shared in the revelation, but as the result of a process of argument which, starting from certain principles which we all, or most of us, look upon as true, sought to elicit from them by a process of deduction the corollaries they implied, checking the results from time to time by reference to the opinions commonly held and the valuations commonly passed by ordinary men and women.
The principles may be unacceptable, the chains of deduction faulty, and the conclusions incorrect – it is perfectly true that many philosophers would refuse to accept them – but, while admitting this, the philosopher would add that the remedy for bad philosophy lies not in revelation, religion, science, or intuition, but in better philosophy; that is to say, in a more rigorous reasoning from principles at once more embracing and more self-evident to conclusions which are inescapably necessitated. In this sense, philosophy can teach us truths.
Now it is at this point that we are enabled to catch a glimpse of the practical effects of philosophy.
Let us suppose that our analysis, designed to reveal certain fundamental values as realities, underlying but manifesting themselves in the objects of the familiar world, the facts of the moral consciousness and the purposes of political action, is broadly correct. Granted this assumption, our philosophising may be said to have issued in the conclusion that in addition to the familiar world there is another order of reality which is related to and informs the familiar world.
Such, indeed, has been the traditional teaching of the great philosophers who, however they may have differed on other matters, have with few exceptions agreed that the familiar world does not provide the principles of its own explanation, which principles must, therefore, unless the whole world be wholly irrational, be sought for elsewhere.
This is the central teaching of philosophy, the so-called ‘philosophia perennis’, which, starting from Plato, runs like a continuing thread through the Scholastic philosophies of the early Middle Ages down to the present day. It is also a channel in which the streams which flow from the two sources of our civilisation, Greece and Christianity, blend.
There is much to say of the Greek presentation of this philosophy, but let me now try to put it in its Christian form.
Truth , goodness, beauty and happiness are not just accidental features of reality, lying about as it were in the universe, as furniture may lie about in a forgotten room, waiting to be discovered and enjoyed; they are the ways in which an underlying unity which is almost certainly the unity of a personality has revealed Himself to man. In knowing and pursuing these values we make contact, then, with an ultimate reality which is the reality of a person.
But though a process of reasoning such as we have been engaged upon may have convinced us that values exist, it cannot assist us to know them. The road to the knowledge of the values lies through experience, and to enjoy it we must embark upon a process of self-training and discipline. In morals this discipline bids us restrict ourselves to a moderate indulgence in the more obvious forms of pleasure and spurn the more superficially alluring objects of desire, that we may the more uninterruptedly pursue such things as are good, harnessing all our energies to the pursuit of a dominating purpose and resisting the thousand and one solicitations that would lead us to turn aside from it, as a man ascending a mountain may resist the temptation to turn aside from his climb to look at the view, in the conviction that fully to enjoy its grandeur he must see it first from the top.
In art it means gradually refining and enlarging our vision of beauty by a more or less continuous intercourse with the highest products of man’s creative genius and a willingness to put up with a certain amount of boredom in the process of refining and cultivating our taste; for, as Sir Joshua Reynolds was careful to warn us, “it is the lowest style only of arts, whether in painting, poetry or music, that may be said in the vulgar sense to be naturally pleasing.”
Thus, the cultivation of a refined aesthetic as of a refined moral sense demands humility and faith. We must be humble in respect of our willingness not to condemn work which is beyond our own immediate appreciation; we must have faith in our ability to appreciate in the future what bores us in the present.
Those who would pursue the value of truth are again committed to a particular attitude to life; even if they need not spurn all delights to live laborious days, they must in some degree withdraw themselves from the mass-produced pleasures of a commercial civilisation.
If these things are true of a life devoted to a pursuit of the values, they are true a fortiori of the lives of those who would know God. Nevertheless, the general teaching of the great tradition of philosophy is that, if we live as we ought, we shall know things as they are, and that if we see things as they are, our vision will help us to live as we ought.
This is not merely a creed for the learned. It is a faith which many simple folk have embraced and by the light of which they have been willing to live. It is the faith that whoever pays the price – and it is a high one – will find the pearl. For if this, the Christian version of the traditional teaching of the philosophy of Plato, is right, if there is, indeed, a real world of values, then the faith that begins as an experiment will end as an experience.
Now whether we shall be prepared to make the initial experiment which the living of such a life requires depends, in part, on whether we think that the existence of another order of reality is, to put it at its lowest, a plausible hypothesis. It is here that the process of philosophising, that is to say, of close, connected logical reasoning, becomes relevant, because, if the conclusions of our argument seem on balance to be convincing, then the faith to make the experiment upon which the living of the good life depends will seem reasonable.
Here, then, is one way in which the teaching of philosophy may have practical consequences; may, in short, affect our lives.
There is a further effect, the effect upon temperament.
There exists a popular mythology in regard to what is called the philosophic temperament. According to this mythology, the philosopher is represented as absent-minded and inefficient in practical affair, liable to miss trains, forget appointments and mislay his spectacles; an easy prey to the sharks and salesmen of this wicked world.
In compensation, however, he is depicted as a man calm and serene, with a mind remote from the ups and downs of everyday life, able to bear life’s misadventures with fortitude and to endure its tragedies with resignation.
So far as my observation of contemporary philosophers goes, there is little or no evidence, at any rate among modern philosophers, to support this philosophy. Philosophers, indeed, seem to be just like other men, chafed and irritable creatures with red faces, even as we are.
Although, however, in any straightforward sense the myth is false, there may, nevertheless, as in the case of most myths, be substance at its root. There could not have been so much smoke blowing so continuously down the ages without a little fire.
And the secret fire of the philosopher is, I suggest, precisely this belief of his that there is another world, real in a sense in which this one is ephemeral, changeless where this is changing, perfect where this is faulty.
If he further believes that the real world informs and is immanent in the natural world, and that by following a certain mode of life, by holding certain things to be valuable and cleaving to them so far as in him lies, he will increase in the knowledge and love of reality, then his belief cannot but affect the practical conduct of his life.
For if values are real they are also ideal. I do not mean by this that they are in some sense in the mind; I do mean that they are not merely objects which we can know, but goals or ends after which we should strive. For if the values are real and can be known by the human mind, then precisely because they are valuable, they exert a pulling power over the mind that knows them.
You cannot enjoy beauty without wishing to enjoy it more fully; be good without resolving to be better; know that truth is just round the corner without wishing to track it down.
Ideals, in fact, draw us forward and pull us upward, giving us a strength to rise above our selves which without them we could not have had.
Nothing can rise by virtue of its own inherent gravity and it is only in so far as the values are dynamic and – if the metaphor may be permitted – take the initiative in establishing relations with us, bidding us know them more clearly and embody them more fully in our lives, that, responding to their challenge, we shall be enabled to rise above ourselves.
If it be objected that I am here verging on mysticism, I hasten to bring the apprehensive reader back to earth with the trite reflection that on any showing the greatness of the questions with which philosophy deals cannot but have a widening effect upon the mind that is brought into contact with them.
Those who give time to the study of such impersonal questions are bound to preserve something of the same impartiality and freedom in the world of action and emotion.
Since a consideration of fundamental questions shows us how little is certainly known, the philosopher is ready to grant that contrary views may have as much or as little truth as his own.
Thus philosophy generates an attitude of tolerance which refuses to make the distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood, identical with that between the things done and the views held by the self and the contrary actions and thoughts of others..
The fact that no agreed answer has yet been discovered to the most fundamental questions cannot but suggest to the honest thinker that all systems hitherto constructed are in some degree false.
Those who have no tincture of philosophy are inclined on all questions not susceptible of proof to supply the place of knowledge by converting other people’s conjectures into dogmas.
The philosopher, on the other hand, will admit that even his so-called knowledge is conjectural, and regard fanaticism, bigotry, and dogmatism not only as an offence against manners, but as a betrayal of the truth.
It is for the sake of the questions which philosophy studies, and of the methods with which it pursues them, rather than for any set of answers that it propounds, that philosophy is to be valued.
Through the greatness of the universe which it contemplates the mind itself achieves greatness.
It escapes from the circle of petty aims and desires which for most of us constitute the prison of everyday life, and forgetting the nervous little clod of wants and ailments which is the self, is elevated into communion with that which is greater than the self.
On the practical side this greatness of mind generates qualities of tolerance, justice and understanding, in the growth of which lies the chief hope for the world today.
This attitude is particularly valuable in a time like the present, when men’s mnds are prey both of insecurity and of dogma.
In an insecure age it is good to be reminded of the fact that this world is not the only one, that its prizes are not the only goods and that if our civilisation finally collapses in war, somethIng of value will yet remain.
Indeed, the whole world of value will remain, while if we are right in thinking that the values both inform and inspire the familiar world, we may rest assured that civilisation will again arise as a result of the effort of human minds to know, to pursue and to embody them.
Moreover, a belief in the existence of the eternality of values carries with it the corollary that it is always worth while to try; hence it can never be right to abandon hope. Such a conviction brings comfort to men, as Christianity brought them comfort at the time of the break up of the Roman Empire.
In a dogmatic age, when men are given to the intolerant assertion of moral, economic and political doctrines, it is a welcome relief, to put it no higher, to pass into a realm of intellectual discussion in which men’s reasons are not the slaves of their passions, and in which they can address themselves to the business of discovering what is the case without being distracted by the fear that their view may be pronounced wicked or degrading or pessimistic or liable to spread cosmic alarm and despondency.
Thus, philosophy provides men less by a faith by which to live than with a scale of values to regulate their living.
These values can, as I have tried to show, serve not only as ideals to guide the individual’s life, but as ends to direct the actions of communities, thus providing the citizen with a goal for political effort and a test by which to measure the worth of political programmes and policies.
I have long felt that philosophy has a contribution to make, however modest, to the alleviation of the distresses of our times, and have on occasion ventured to indicate what this contribution should be.
In Plato’s ‘Republic’, Socrates says that it is only when philosophers become kings that mankind will achieve salvation.
But “Look at the philosophers,” says his critics, “what a sorry figure they cut in society! With what effrontery can you ask us to suppose that such men should exercise rule in the State?”
Socrates replies by the metaphor of a man taking shelter from a hail-storm under a wall. When the community is swept by gusts of partisan passion, when the hail of violent controversy is rattling about one’s ears, the wise man knows that “he is not strong enough to hold out alone where all are savages. He would lose his life before he could do any benefit to the city or his friends, and so be equally useless to himself and to the world.
Weighing all these considerations he holds his peace and does his own work, like a man in a storm sheltering under a wall from the driving wind of dust and hail.”
Socrate’s answer is, one suspects, an apology rather than a justification, for both he and Plato believed so strongly in the practical value of philosophy that they devoted a large part of their lives to the endeavour to implant its principles in the daily life of men and cities.
Socrates brought philosophy down from the clouds into the market-place, and went hither and thither among the people teaching and discoursing with young men on the right life for man and the right governance of cities.
Plato devoted two of his Dialogues, the ‘Republic’ and the ‘Laws’, to the principles of government, and acted as tutor to the son of a ruler destined himself to hold absolute rule.
Indeed, Plato’s insistence upon the philosopher’s duty of taking part in practical affairs led him on two occasions into serious danger of his life.
In a time not very different from that of Plato philosophers ought, in my view, to accept a similar obligation.
Philosophy in the modern world has become a specialised study, divorced from life and devoted to the discussion of purely technical problems. I do not wish to suggest that this is not the business of philosophers; I say merely that it is not their whole business and that to proceed as if it were is to betray a trust.
If modern philosophers have no wisdom of their own to offer to a distracted generation, they can at least seek to interpret for it, in language that it can understand, the wisdom of the great philosophies of the past.
For they, after all, are the modern repositories and interpreters of that wisdom, and if they do not make it plain, nobody else will.
C.E.M. Joad – 1943