The reason why the philosopher can be compared to the poet is that both are concerned with wonder…
St. Thomas Aquinas
When the physicist poses the question, “What does it mean to do physics?” or “What is research in physics?” his question is a preliminary question. Clearly, when you ask a question like that, and try to answer it, you are not “doing physics.” Or, rather, you are no longer doing physics. But when you ask yourself, “What does it mean to do philosophy?” then you actually are “doing philosophy” — this is not at all a “preliminary” question but a truly philosophical one: you are right at the heart of the business. To go further: I can say nothing about the existence of philosophy and philosophizing without also saying something about the human being, and to do that is to enter one of the most central regions of philosophy. Our question, “What is the philosophical act?” belongs, in fact, to the field of philosophical anthropology.
Now, because it is a philosophical question, that means it cannot be answered in a permanent or conclusive way. It pertains to the very nature of a philosophical question that its answer will not be a “perfectly rounded truth” (as Parmenides said it), grasped in the hand like an apple plucked from a tree. Later, we will have occasion to discuss the “hopefulness” built into philosophy and philosophizing, but for the moment we cannot promise a handy definition, a comprehensive answer to our question. Indeed, our four brief essays [Found in Leisure, The Basis of Culture] will barely be enough to clarify the problem as a whole.
But, for a first approach, we can venture the following: a philosophical act is an act in which the work-a-day world is transcended. We must first explain what we mean by “work-a-day world,” and second, what we mean by “transcending” it.
The work-a-day world is the world of the working day, the world of usefulness, of purposeful action, of accomplishment, of the exercising of functions; it is the world of supply and demand, the world of hunger and the satisfaction of hunger. It is a world dominated by one goal: the realization of the “common utility”; it is the world of work, to the extent that work is synonymous with “useful activity” (a characteristic both of activity and effort), The process of working is the process of realizing the “common utility”; this concept is not equivalent to that of the “common good” (bonum commune): the “common utility” is an essential component of the “common good,” but the concept of the bonum commune is much more comprehensive. For example, as Thomas puts it [Commentary on the Sentences lv, d. 26, 1.2], there are people who devote themselves to the “un-useful” life of contemplation; to philosophize belongs to the common good, whereas one could not say that contemplation, vision, or philosophizing serve the “common utility.”
Of course, in the present day bonum commune and the “common utility” seem to be growing more identical every day; of course (it comes to the same thing) the world of work begins to become — threatens to become — our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.
If it is correct to say that the philosophical act is one which transcends the working world, then our question, “What does it mean to philosophize?” — our so very theoretical, abstract question — becomes suddenly, and unexpectedly, a question of utmost relevance. We need only to take a single step, in our thoughts or in physical space, to find ourselves in a world in which the working process, the process of realizing the “common utility,” determines the whole realm of human existence. Inwardly and outwardly, there is a boundary, very near and easy to jump across, in order to win entry into the work-a-day world, in which there is no such thing as genuine philosophy and genuine philosophizing — all this presupposes, of course, that it is correct to say that “philosophy transcends the working world” and that it pertains to the very essence of the philosophical act not to belong this world of uses and efficiencies, of needs and satisfactions, this world of “useful good” (bonum utile), of the “common utility,” but is, rather, to be incommensurable to it in principle.
Indeed, the more acute the incommensurability, the more obvious the “not-belonging.” It could even be said, perhaps, that this very opposition, this threat from the world of total work, is what characterizes the situation of philosophy today more than its own particular content. Philosophy increasingly adopts — necessarily, it seems — the character of the alien, of mere intellectual luxury, of that which seems ever more intolerable and unjustifiable, the more exclusively the demands of the daily world of work take over the world of man.
And yet, we have something more to say, something very concrete, about the incommensurability of the philosophical act, of this transcending the world of work, that takes place in the philosophical act.
Let’s recall the things that dominate the contemporary working day; no special effort of the imagination is needed, for we all stand right in the middle of it. There is, first of all, the daily running back and forth to secure our bare physical existence, food, clothing, shelter, heat; then, the anxieties that affect, and absorb, each individual: the necessities of rebuilding our own country, Europe, and the world. Struggles for power for the exploitation of earth’s commodities, conflicts of interest in matters great and small. Everywhere, tensions and burdens — only superficially eased by hastily arranged pauses and diversions: newspapers, movies, cigarettes. I do not need to paint it in any fuller detail: we all know what this world looks like.
And we need not only direct our attention to the extreme instances of crisis that show themselves today: I mean simply the everyday working world, where we must go about our business, where very concrete goals are advanced and realized: goals that must be sighted with an eye fixed on the things nearest and closest at hand. Now it is not our purpose here to condemn this world, from the standpoint of some “holiday-world” of philosophy. No words need be wasted on saying that this work-a-day world is very much with us, that in it the foundations of our physical existence are secured, without which nobody can philosophize at all.
Nevertheless, let us also recall, that among the voices which fill the workplace and the markets (“How do you get this or that item of daily existence?” “Where do you get that?” etc.) — in the midst of all these voices suddenly one calls out above the rest: “Why is there anything at all, and not nothing?” — asking that age-old question, which Heidegger called the basic question of all metaphysics. [M. Heidegger, Was Ist Metaphysik? (Frankfurt, 1943), p. 22. The formulation, of course, is not new: it was used by Leibniz: “Pourquoy il y a plust et quelque chose que rien?” Leibniz, Philosophische Schriften (Darmstadt, 1965, ff.), vol. I, p.426.]
Must we explicitly state how unfathomable this philosopher’s question is, in comparison with that everyday world of needs and purposefulness? If such a question as this were asked, without introduction or interpretation, in the company of those people of efficiency and success, wouldn’t the questioner be considered rather…mad? Through such extremely formulated contrasts, however, the real, underlying distinction comes to the fore: it becomes clear that even to ask that question constitutes taking a step toward transcending, toward leaving behind, the work-a-day world. The genuine philosophical question strikes disturbingly against the canopy that encloses the world of the citizen’s work-day.
But the philosophical act is not the only way to take this “step beyond.” No less incommensurable with the working-world than the philosophical question is the sound of true poetry:
In middle and ending ever stands the tree,
The birds are singing; on God’s breast
The round Creation takes its holy rest.
Konrad Weiss, In Exitu (first verses)
Such a voice sounds utterly strange in the realm of actively realized purpose. And no differently sounds the voice of one who prays: “We praise you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory…“ How can that ever be understood in the categories of rational usefulness and efficiency? The lover, too, stands outside the tight chain of efficiency of this working world, and whoever else approaches the margin of existence through some deep, existential disturbance (which always brings a “shattering” of one’s environment as well), or through, say, the proximity of death. In such a disturbance (for the philosophical act, genuine poetry, musical experience in general, and prayer as well — all these depend on some kind of disturbance) in such an experience, man senses the non-ultimate nature of this daily, worrisome world: he transcends it; he takes a step outside it.
And because of their common power to disturb and transcend, all these basic behavioral patterns of the human being have a natural connection among themselves: the philosophical act, the religious act, the artistic act, arid the special relationship with the world that comes into play with the existential disturbance of Love or Death. Plato, as most of us know, thought about philosophy and love in similar terms. And as for the close connection between philosophy and poetry, we can refer to a little-known statement by Thomas Aquinas in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics: the Philosopher is akin to the Poet in this, that both are concerned with the mirandum, the “wondrous,” the astonishing, or whatever calls for astonishment or wonder. [Commentary on the Metaphysics I, 3]
This statement is not that easy to fathom, since Thomas, like Aristotle, was a very sober thinker, completely opposed to any Romantic confusion of properly distinct realms. But on the basis of their common orientation toward the “wonderful” (the mirandum — something not to be found in the world of work) — on this basis, then, of this common transcending-power, the philosophical act is related to the “wonderful,” is in fact more closely related to it than to the exact, special sciences; to this point we shall return.
The closeness of this connection is so real that whenever one member of the system is denied, the others cannot thrive: the result is that in a world of total work, all the various forms and methods of transcendence must themselves become sterile (or, rather, would have to become sterile, if it were possible to destroy human nature completely); where religion is not allowed to grow, where the arts can find no place, where the disturbances of love and death lose their depth and become banal — there too, philosophy and philosophizing cannot survive.
But worse than the mere extinguishing or silencing is the distortion into false forms of the original; there are such pseudo-realizations of those basic experiences, which only appear to pierce the canopy. There is a way to pray, in which “this” world is not transcended, in which, instead, one attempts to incorporate the divine as a functioning component of the work-a-day machinery of purposes. Religion can be perverted into magic so that instead of self-dedication to God, it becomes the attempt to gain power over the divine and make it subservient to one’s own will; prayer can become a technique for continuing to live life “under the canopy.” And further: love can be narrowed so that the powers of self-giving become subservient to the goals of the confined ego, goals which arise from an anxious self-defense against the disturbances of the larger, deeper, world, which only the truly loving person can enter.
There are pseudo-forms of art, a false poetry, which, instead of breaking through the roof over the work-a-day world, resigns itself, so to speak, to painting decorations on the interior surface of the dome, and puts itself more or less obviously to the service of the working world as private or public “fashion poetry”; such “poetry” never seems to transcend, not even once (and it is clear, that genuine philosophizing has more in common with the exact, special sciences than with such pseudo-poetry).
Finally, there is a pseudo-philosophy, whose essential character is precisely that it does not transcend the working world. In a dialogue of Plato, Socrates asks the sophist Protagoras just what he teaches the youth who flock to see him? And the answer is, “I teach them good planning, both in their own affairs, such as how one should best manage his own household, and in public affairs, how one can best speak and act in the city-state.” [Protagoras 318 ff.] That is the classic program of “Philosophy as Professional Training” — a seeming philosophy only, with no transcendence.
But even worse still, of course, is that all these pseudo-forms work together, not only in failing to transcend the world, but in more and more surely succeeding in closing off the world “under the canopy”: they seal off humanity all the more within the world of work. All these deceptive forms, and especially such seeming-philosophy, are something much worse, something much more hopeless, than the naive self-closing of the worldly man against what is not of daily-life. Someone who is merely naively confined to the work-a-day may one day nevertheless be touched by the disturbing power that lies hidden in a true philosophical question, or in some poem; but a sophist, a pseudo-philosopher, will never be “disturbed.”
But let us now return to the path marked out by our initial question: when a question is asked in the truly philosophical manner, one asks about something that transcends the working world. This shows that such a question, and such a way of calling into question, possesses a special acuteness today, since the world of total work has emerged with demands more all-encompassing than ever before in history. And yet, this is not merely to make a criticism of a period of history. It is rather to speak of a misunderstanding that is fundamentally timeless in nature.
For Plato, the laughter of the Thracian maiden, who saw Thales of Miletus fall into a well while he was staring at the skies, is the typical response of feet-on-the-ground, work-a-day reasoning to philosophy. And this anecdote of the Thracian maid stands at the very beginning of Western Philosophy. “And always,” as Plato says in the Theaetetus, the philosopher is the butt of humor, “not only for Thracian maidens, but for most people, because one who is a stranger to the world falls into wells, and into many other embarrassments too.”[Theaetetus 174]
Plato does not only express himself explicitly, in formal statements: he prefers to use images. There is a certain Apollodoros, a character of secondary importance (as it seems at first) in the dialogues Phaedo and Symposium. Apollodoros is one of those uncritical, enthusiastic youths in Socrates’ circle, who may represent someone like Plato himself once was. We hear of Apollodoros in the Phaedo that he alone among the assembled burst into groaning and tears when Socrates put the cup of hemlock to his lips: “You know this man and his manner.”[ Phaedo59a-b]
In the Symposium [Symposium 172 f] Apollodoros says of himself that for years he was eager to know what Socrates said and did every day. “I ran around, and thought I was doing something, but was just as miserable as anyone.” But now, in a wonderful way, he has given himself over completely to Socrates and philosophy.
In the city now they call him “crazy Apollodoros”; he rails against everyone (even himself) but only spares Socrates. In complete naiveté, he lets it be known everywhere, “how happy he is, beyond all measure,” when he talks about philosophy or hears someone else do so; and then again, how wretched he is, that he has not yet attained to the real thing, to be like Socrates.
One day, this Apollodoros encounters some friends of his from earlier days — the very ones, in fact, who now call him “crazy,” the “madman.” As Plato expressly points out, they are business people, people of money, who know precisely how someone can succeed, and who “intend to do something big in the world.” These friends inquire of Apollodoros, to tell them something about the speeches about Love that were delivered at a certain banquet at the house of the poet Agathon. It is clear that these successful businessmen really feel no desire to be instructed about the meaning of life and existence, and certainly not from Apollodoros!
What interests them is only the witty remarks, the well-spoken repartee, the formal elegance of the debate. And on his part, Apollodoros cherishes no illusions about the “philosophical” interests of his old friends. Rather, he says directly to their face, how much he pities them, “…because you believe you are accomplishing something, when you really are not. And maybe now you are thinking, I am not very well off, and you may be right, but I do not merely ‘think’ the same about you, I know it for sure!” All the same, he does not refuse to tell them about the Love-speeches; indeed, he cannot be silent — “If you really want me to tell you, I will have to do it” — even though they may take him for a madman.
And then Apollodoros narrates…the Symposium! For the Platonic “banquet” has the form of indirect speech: a report from the mouth of Apollodoros. Too little attention, in my view, has been paid to the fact that Plato allows his deepest thoughts to be expressed through this over- enthusiastic, uncritical youth, this over-eager disciple Apollodoros. And the audience of the report is a group of moneyed, successful Athenians, who are not really prepared to listen to such thoughts or even take them seriously. There is something hopeless in this situation, a temptation to despair, against which (this is probably what Plato means) only the youthful, undistracted thirst for wisdom, the true philosophia, can take a stand. In any case, Plato could not have brought out any more clearly the incommensurability between philosophizing and the self-sufficient world of daily work.
And yet the incommensurability of this situation is not merely negative, for there is another side as well, known as.. . freedom. For philosophy is “useless” in the sense of immediate profit and application — that is one thing. Another thing is, that philosophy cannot allow itself to be used, it is not at the disposal of purposes beyond itself, for it is itself a goal. Philosophy is not functional-knowing, but rather, as John Henry Newman put it, [The Idea of a University, V, 5.] is gentleman’s knowledge, not “useful,” but “free” knowing.
But this freedom means that philosophical knowing does not acquire its legitimacy from its utilitarian applications, not from its social function, not from its relationship with the “common utility.” Freedom in exactly this sense is the freedom of the “liberal arts,” as opposed to the “servile arts,” which, according to Thomas, “are ordered to a use, to be attained through activity.”[Commentary on the Metaphysics I, 3.] And philosophy has long been understood as the most free among the free arts (the medieval “Arts Faculty” is the forerunner of the “Philosophical Faculty” of today’s university).
Therefore, it is all the same whether I say that the philosophical act transcends the working world, or whether I say, philosophical knowing is useless or whether I say, philosophy is a “liberal art.” This freedom belongs to the particular sciences only to the extent that they are pursued in a philosophical manner. Here likewise is to be found –both historically and actually — the real meaning of “academic freedom” (since “academic” means “philosophical” if it means anything); strictly speaking, a claim for academic freedom can only exist when the “academic” itself is realized in a “philosophical” way. And this is historically the reason: academic freedom has been lost, exactly to the extent that the philosophic character of academic study has been lost, or, to put it another way, to the extent that the totalitarian demands of the working world have conquered the realm of the university. Here is where the metaphysical roots of the problem lie: the “politicization” is only a symptom and consequence. And indeed, it must be admitted here that this is nothing other than the fruit…of philosophy itself, of modern philosophy. Of which theme, more will soon have to be said.
But first, something needs to be said on the theme of philosophy’s “freedom,” in distinction from the special sciences: and this means a freedom understood as not-being-subordinated-to-purposes. In this sense, the special sciences are “free” only insofar as they are pursued in a philosophical way, insofar, that is to say, as they share in the freedom of philosophy. As Newman put it, “Knowledge, I say, is then especially liberal, or sufficient for itself, apart from every external and ulterior object, when and so far as it is philosophical.”[Idea of a University, V, 5] Considered in themselves, however, the various particular sciences are essentially “to-be-subo4inated-to-purposes”; they are essentially relatable to a “use that is reached through activity” (as Thomas says of the servile arts)[Commentary on the Metaphysics I, 3]
But we can speak still more concretely. The government of a state can say, “In order to complete our five-year plan, we need physicists who can catch up with the progress of foreign nations in this or that special area,” or “We need medical doctors, who can develop a more effective flu vaccine.” In these cases, nothing is being said or done that is contrary to the nature of these sciences. But, if someone were to say, “We need some philosophers, who. . .“ Will do what? There could only be one possibility: “. . . will justify, develop, defend, such and such an ideology. . .“ To say this and act upon it would be a destruction of philosophy. And it would come to the same, if someone said, “We need some poets, who will. . .“ Who will do what? Again, it could only be one thing: “who. . . will [as the expression goes] use the pen as a sword, on behalf of certain ideals determined by reasons of state. .“ And if this was being said, we would likewise see the destruction of poetry. In the same moment, poetry would cease to be poetry, and philosophy would cease to be philosophy.
But this is not to say that no relationship whatsoever can be found between the realization of the common good of a nation and any teaching of philosophy that takes place in it! Rather, the point is that such a relationship cannot be instituted and regulated by the administrators of the common good; that which has its meaning and purpose in itself, that which is itself purpose, cannot be made the means for some other purpose, just as someone cannot love a person “for such and such” or “in order to do such and such”!
Now, this freedom of philosophy, this quality of not-being-subservient-to some purpose is intimately connected with something else (a connection which seems extremely important to point out): the theoretical character of philosophy. Philosophy is the purest form of theorem, or speculari (to observe, behold, contemplate), consisting in a purely receptive gaze on reality, whereby things alone are determinative, and the soul is completely receptive of determination. Whenever some existent is taken up into view in a philosophical way, the questions are asked in a “purely theoretical” manner, and that means a manner untouched by anything practical, by any intention to change things, and thereby be raised above all serving of further purposes.
The realization of theoria in this sense is, however, connected with a presupposition. For what is presumed is a definite relationship with the world, a relationship that appears to precede all conscious positing or setting-forth of some intention. For to be “theoretical” in this full sense (in the sense of a purely receptive contemplation, without the slightest trace of an intention to change things; rather, it is precisely the opposite, a willingness to make the “yes” or “no” of the will dependent on the actuality of being, which is to be brought to expression in the knowledge of being) — the vision of man will only be “theoretical” in this undiluted sense, when being, the world, is something other than him and is more than the mere field, the mere raw material, of human activity.
Only that person can view the world “theoretically” in upon habitually seeing the world as the raw material of human activity. When the world is no longer looked upon as creation, there can no longer be theoria in the full sense. And with the fall of theoria, the freedom of philosophy falls as well, and what comes in its place is the functionalizing, the making it into something “practical,” oriented toward a legitimation by its social function; what comes to the fore is the working character of philosophy, or of philosophy so-called. Meanwhile, our thesis (which can now be more clearly formulated), maintains that it is of the nature of the philosophical act, to transcend the world of work.
This thesis, which comprehends both the freedom and theoretical character of philosophy, does not deny the world of work (in fact, it expressly presumes it as something necessary), but it maintains that true philosophy rests upon the belief that the real wealth of man lies not in the satisfaction of his necessities, nor, again, in “becoming lords and masters of nature,” but rather in being able to understand what is — the whole of what is. Ancient philosophy says that this is the utmost fulfillment to which we can attain: that the whole order of real things be registered in our soul [Cf. Thomas, Quaestiones disputatne de veritate II, 2] – a conception which in the Christian tradition was taken up into the concept of the beatific vision: “What do they not see, who look upon Him, Who sees all?”[Gregory the Great, as quoted by Thomas in the passage just cited]
A continuation of yesterday’s essay on the nature of the philosophical act. Written over 60 years ago, but still relevant to asking the big questions in a world where the capacity to see the laws of material being seems to make us incapable of seeing the ethical message contained in that being. Let’s remind ourselves what the philosophical act is all about…
So, then: whoever philosophizes, takes a step beyond the work-a-day world and its daily routine.
The meaning of taking such a step is determined less by where it starts from as by where it leads to. We must ask a further question: just where is the philosopher going when he transcends the world of work? Clearly, he steps over a boundary: what kind of region lies on the other side of this boundary? And what is the relationship of the place where the philosophical act happens, to the world that is transcended and left behind by this same philosophical act? Is that the “authentic” world, and the world of work the “inauthentic”? Is it the “whole” as opposed to the “part”? Is it the “true reality” as opposed to a mere shadow world of appearances?
No matter how such questions could be answered in detail, in any case, both regions, the world of work and the “other realm,” where the philosophical act takes place in its transcending of the working world — both regions belong to the world of man, which clearly has a complex structure.
Therefore, our next question is, “What is the nature of the world of man?” — a question that cannot be answered if the human being is ignored. In order to give a clear answer at this point, we must begin again, and start as it were from the very bottom.
It is in the nature of a living thing to have a world: to exist and live in the world, in “its” world. To live means to be “in” a world. But is not a stone also “in” a world? Is not everything that exists “in” a world? If we keep to the lifeless stone, is it not with and beside other things in the world? Now, “with,” “beside,” and “in” are prepositions, words of relationship; but the stone does not really have a relationship with the world “in” which it is, nor to the other things “beside” which and “with” which it lives. Relationship, in the true sense, joins the inside with the outside; relationship can only exist where there is an “inside,” a dynamic center, from which all operation has its source and to which all that is received, all that is experienced, is brought.
The “internal” (only in this qualitative sense: the “inside” of a rock would refer only to the spatial location of parts) — the “internal” is the ability to have a real relationship, a relation to the external; to have an “inside,” means ability to be related, and to enter into relationship. And “world”? A world means the same thing, but considered as a whole field of relationships. Only a being that has an ability to enter into relationships, only being with an “inside,” has a “world”; only such a being can exist in the midst of a field of relations.
There is a distinctly different kind of proximity that obtains in the relationships of pebbles, which lie together in a heap somewhere beside the roadway and are “related” in that way, and, on the other hand, in the relationship of a plant to the nutrients which it finds in the vicinity of its roots. Here we see not merely physical proximity as an objective fact, but genuine relationship (in the original, active meaning of relationship): the nutrients are integrated into the orbit of the plant’s life — by way of the real internality of the plant, through its power to be related, and to enter into relationship. And all this — all that can be taken in by the relating-power of that plant — all this makes up the field of relationships, or the world, of that plant. The plant has a world, but not the pebble.
This, then, is the first point: “world” is a field of relations. To have a world means to be in the midst of, and to be the bearer of, a field of relations. The second point is, the higher the level of the inwardness or, that is to say, the more comprehensive and penetrative the ability to enter into relations, so the wider and deeper are the dimensions of the field of relations that belongs to that being; to put it differently: the higher a being stands in the hierarchy of reality, the wider and more profound is the standing of its world.
The lowest world is that of the plant, which does not reach beyond what it touches in its own vicinity. The higher-ranking, spatially wider realm of the animal corresponds to its greater ability to enter into relationships. The relation-ability of the animal is greater, insofar as the animal has sense-perception. To perceive something is quite extraordinary, compared with what the plant can do: it is a completely new mode of entering into relationship with one’s environment.
But not everything that an animal, as such, can perceive (because it has ears to hear and eyes to see) really belongs to the world of such an animal: it is not true that all the visible things in the environment of an animal with vision are in fact seen, or even can be seen. For “environment” as such, the perceivable environment, is still not a “world.” That was the typical belief, until the environmental researches of the biologist Jakob von Uexküll; until that time, as Uexküll puts it, “it was generally held, that all eye-equipped animals could see the same things.” But Uexküll discovery was that, on the contrary, “the environments of animals are not at all the whole expanse of nature, but resemble a narrow, furnished apartment.” For example, one could well imagine that a crow could see a grasshopper (a very desirable object for a crow) whenever the grasshopper came across its path, or to be more precise, whenever in came into view of its eyes. But that is not the case! Instead, to cite Uexkull, “the crow is completely incapable of seeing a grasshopper sitting still… we would first assume that the form of a resting grasshopper would be very well known to a crow, but because of the blade of grass in the way cannot be made out as a unit, just as we have difficulty seeing an image hidden in a picture-puzzle. Only when it jumps does its form ‘release’ itself from the neighboring shapes — or so we would think. But after further investigation, it can be shown that the crow does not even recognize the form of a resting grasshopper, but is only prepared to sense moving things. This would explain the ‘playing dead’ behavior of many insects. Since their resting-form does not at all appear in the sense-world of their predators, they escape that world completely and securely simply by lying still, and cannot be found, even if they are actively sought.”
This selective milieu, then, to which the animal is completely suited, but in which the animal is also enclosed (so much so that the boundary cannot be crossed — since “not even if it looks for something” — even if equipped with an excellent searching-organ, could it find something that does not correspond to the selective principle of this partial world); this selective reality, determined and bounded by the biological life-purpose of the individual or the species, is called an “environment” [Umwelt] by Uexküll (in distinction from a “surrounding” [Umgebung], and in distinction also, as we will later see, from a “world” [Welt]). The field of relations of the animal is not its “surroundings,” nor the “world,” but is its “environment,” in this special sense: a world from which something has been left out, a selected milieu, to which its dweller is at once perfectly suited — and confined.
Someone will perhaps ask at this point, what has this to do with our theme, “What is it to philosophize?” Now the connection is not as distant or indirect as it may seem. We last inquired about the world of the human being, and this was the immediate interest in Uexküll concept of environment — namely, that our human world “can in no way claim to be more real than the sense-world of the animal” (so he says); that, consequently, the human being is in principle confined to his world in the same way as the animal; that is, to a biologically selected partial environment, and that man cannot perceive anything that lies outside this environment, “not even if it was actively sought” (no more, then, than the crow could find the resting grasshopper). One might well ask how a being so enclosed in its own environment, so closed in on itself, could be able to perform scientific research on the nature of environments.
But we don’t want to engage in controversy on this point; rather, we can leave the point aside and ask another question instead, since our attention is directed to man and the human world to which he belongs: what is the relating-power of the human being? What is its nature? What power does it have? We said that the perceptive-ability of the animal, when compared with what is in plants, is a more far-reaching way of relating to things. Would not, then, the peculiarly human manner of knowing — for ages past, termed a spiritual or intellective knowing — in fact be another, further mode of putting-oneself-into-relation, a mode which transcends in principle anything which can be realized in the plant and animal worlds?
And further, would this fundamentally different kind of relating power go together with a different field of relations, i.e., a world of fundamentally different dimensions? The answer to such questions can be found in the Western philosophical tradition, which has understood and even defined spiritual knowing as the power to place oneself into relation with the sum-total of existing things. And this is not meant as only one characteristic among others, but as the very essence and definition of the power. By its nature, spirit (or intellection) is not so much distinguished by its immateriality, as by something more primary: its ability to be in relation to the totality of being.
“Spirit” means a relating power that is so far-reaching and comprehensive, that the field of relations to which it corresponds, transcends in principle the very boundaries of its surroundings. It is the nature of spirit to have as its field of relations not just “surroundings” [Umwelt] but a “world” [Welt]. It is of the nature of the spiritual being to go past the immediate surroundings and to go beyond both its “confinement” and its “close fit” to those surroundings (and of course herein is revealed both the freedom and danger to which the spiritual being is naturally heir).
In Aristotle’s treatise on the soul, the De Anima,[De Anima III, 8 (431b)] we can read the following: “Now, in order to sum up everything said up until this point about the soul, we can say again that, the soul, basically, is all that exists.” This sentence became a constant point of reference for the anthropology of the High Middle Ages: anima est quodammodo omnia [“The soul, in a certain way, is all things”. “In a certain way”: that is to say, the soul is “all” insofar as it sets itself in relation to the whole of existence through knowing (and “to know” means to become identical with the known reality — although we cannot go into any further detail about this as yet).
As Thomas says in the treatise De Veritate (“On Truth”), the spiritual soul is essentially structured “to encounter all being” (convenire cum omni ente[Quaestiones disputatae de veritate I, 1]), to put itself into relation with everything that has being. “Every other being possesses only a partial participation in being,” whereas the being endowed with spirit “can grasp being as a whole.” [Summa contra gentiles III, 112] As long as there is spirit, “it is possible for the completeness of all being to be present in a single nature.”[Quaestiones disputatue de veritate III, 2] And this is also the position of the Western tradition: to have spirit [Geist], to be a spirit, to be spiritual — all this means to be in the middle of the sum total of reality, to be in relation with the totality of being, to be vis-à-vis de l’univers. The spirit does not live in “a” world, or in “its” world, but in the world: world in the sense of “everything seen and unseen” (omnia visibilia et invisibilia).
Spirit, or intellection, and the sum-total of reality: these are interchangeable terms, that correspond to one another. You cannot “have” the one without the other. An attempt to do just this (we mention only it in passing) — to grant the human being superiority to his surroundings, to say that man has “world” (Weld) (and not merely “environment” [Umwelt]), without speaking of man’s spiritual nature, or rather (what is more extreme), to maintain that this fact (that man has “world” and not only “environment”) has nothing whatever to do with this “other” fact, that the human being is equipped with intellection or spirit — this attempt has been made by Arnold Gehlen in a very comprehensive book which has received a great deal of attention: Man: His Nature and Place in the World.
In opposition to Uexküll, Gehlen rightly says that the human being is not closed within an environment but is free of his surroundings and open to the world; and yet, Gehlen goes on to say, this difference between the animal as environmentally limited and the human being as open to the world-as-a-whole does not depend “on the characteristic of. . . spirit.” Instead, this very power to “have the world” is spirit. Spirit by definition is ability to comprehend the world.
For the older philosophy — that is, for Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas — the connection of the two terms “spirit” (or “intellection” [Geist) and “world” (in the sense of total-relatedness) is so intimately and profoundly anchored in both directions that not only is it true to say that “spirit is relatedness to the sum total of existing beings”; for the earlier philosophers, the other truth, asserting that all things are essentially in relation to spirit, is just as valid, and in a very precise sense, which we do not dare to formulate in words as yet. For not only is it the property of the spirit that its field of relations includes the sum total of existing things; rather, it is also the property of existing things that they lie within the field of relations of the spirit. And to go further: for the older philosophy, it is all the same to say that “things have being” as to say that “things lie in the field of relations of the spirit, are related to spirit,” whereby is meant, of course, no mere “free-floating” spirituality in some abstract sense but rather personal spirit, a relating power that is well grounded, but then again, not only God, but the created, finite, human spirit as well. For the old ontology, it belonged to the nature of existing things to be within the field, within the reach of the spiritual soul; “to have being” means the same as “to lie within the field of relations of the spiritual soul”; both statements refer to one and the same situation. This and nothing else is the meaning of the old doctrine which has become so removed from us:
“All being is true” (omne ens est verum), and the other doctrine with the same meaning: “being” and “true” are convertible expressions. For what does “true” mean, in the sense of “the truth of things”? To say that something is true is to say that it is understood and intelligible, both for the absolute spirit as well as for the non-absolute spirit. I need to ask for your patience in simply accepting this for the moment, since it is not possible to justify these things in any detail at this point.
“Intelligibility” is nothing other than being related to a spirit that has understanding. So when the old philosophy states that it belongs to the nature of existing things, that they are intelligible and are understood, there could not be any being which is not known and knowable (since all being is true); when it is the said that the concepts “being” on the one hand, and “intelligibility” on the other, are convertible, so that the one could stand in the other’s place, so that it is the same for me to say that “things have existence” as to say that “things are known and intelligible”; in saying this the old philosophy also taught that it lies in the nature of things to be related to the mind (and this — the concept of the “truth of things” — is what matters in the context of our present inquiry). To summarize, then, what we have been saying: the world that is related to the spiritual being is the sum-total of existing things; this is so much the case that this set of relations belongs as well to the nature of spirit; the spirit is the power of comprehending the totality of being, as it belongs to the nature of existing beings themselves: “to be” means “to be related to spirit.”
What stands revealed to us, then, is a series of “worlds”: at the lowest, the world of plants, already locally limited to the surroundings they touch. Beyond this is the realm of the animals; and finally, transcending all these partial worlds, is the world related to spirit, the world as the totality of being. And to this ranking of worlds and fields-of-relations correspond, as we have seen, the ranking of the powers that relate: the more comprehensive the power, the more highly dimensioned is the corresponding field of relations, or “world.”
Now a third structural element is to be added to this twofold structure. For the stronger power of relating corresponds to a higher degree of inwardness; the power to relate is greater to the same degree as the bearer of that relation has “inwardness”; the lowest power of relating not only corresponds to the lowest form of being in the world but also to the lowest grade of “inwardness,” whereas the spirit, which directs its relating-power to the sum total of being, must likewise have a corresponding inwardness. The more comprehensive the power of relating oneself to the world of objective being, so the more deeply anchored must be the “ballast” in the inwardness of the subject. And when a distinctively different level of “world” is reached, namely, the orientation toward the whole, there too can be found the highest stage of being-established in one’s inwardness, which is proper to the spirit.
Thus both of these comprise the nature of spirit: not only the relation to the “whole” of the world and “reality,” but also the highest power of living-with-oneself, of being in oneself, of independence, of autonomy — which is exactly what has always been the “person,” or “personality” in the Western tradition: to have a world, to be related to the totality of existing things — that can occur only in a being that is “established in itself”: not a “what,” but a “who” — an “I,” a person.
But now it is time to look back over the path we have taken and return to the questions from which we began. There were two questions, one more immediate, the other more remote. The first was, “What kind of world is the world of man?” and the second was, “What does it mean to philosophize?”
Before we begin again with our formal discussion, a brief remark is in order about the structure of the world that is related to the spirit. It is not, of course, by a greater spatial compass that the world that is spirit-related differs from the world that is related to the non-spiritual (a point that was not addressed when I distinguished “environment” from “world”). It is not only the sum-total of things; but it is also the “nature of the things,” with which the world related to the spirit is constituted. The reason why the animal lives in a partial world is because the nature of things is hidden from it. And it is only because the spirit is able to attain to the essence of things that it has the ability to understand the totality of things.
This connection was made by the old doctrine of being, whereby “the universe,” as well as the nature of things, is “universal.” Thomas says, “Because the intellectual [or spiritual] soul is able to grasp universals, it has a capacity for the infinite.”[Summa Theologiae L Q, 76, a. 5, ad 4um] Whoever attains to an understanding of the universal whole essence of things is thereby able to win a perspective from which the totality of being, of all existing things, are present and ascertainable; in intellectual understanding, an “outpost” is reached, or can be reached, whence the whole landscape of the universe can be taken in. We have reached a context into which we can take only a brief glimpse but which will also lead us into the very center of a philosophical understanding of being, knowing, and spirit.
But now, let us return to the questions which we set out to answer. The first step to take is to the more immediate question, “What kind of world is the world of man?” Is the world of man the world that is related to the spirit? The answer would have to be that man’s world is the whole reality, in the midst of which the human being lives, face-to-face with the entirety of existing things — vis-à-vis de 1’univers — but only insofar as man is spirit. But man is not pure spirit; he is a finite spirit so that both the nature of things and the totality of things are not given in the perfection of a total understanding, but only in “expectation” or “hope.”
But first, let us consider the fact that man is not pure spirit. This statement, of course, could be spoken in a variety of tones. Not seldom, it is said with a feeling of regret, an accentuation that is usually understood as something specifically Christian, by both Christians and non- Christians alike. The sentence can also be said in such a way as to imply that “certainly, man is not pure spirit,” but that the “true human being” is nevertheless the intellectual soul.
Now these. doctrines have no basis in the classical tradition of the West. Thomas Aquinas used a very pointed formula on this matter which is not as well known as it should be. The objection he raises is the following: “The goal of the human being is to attain complete likeness to God. But the soul when separated from the body which is immaterial would be more like God than the soul with the body. And therefore the souls will be separated from their bodies in their final state.” This is the objection, that the real human being is the soul, dressed out in all the tempting glamour of theological argumentation.
And how does Thomas reply to the objection? “The soul that is united to the body is more like God than the soul that has been separated from its body because the former more perfectly possesses its own nature.” [Quaestiones disputatae de potentia Dei 5, 10, ad 5] This is no easily digested statement, considering how it implies not only that the human being is bodily, but that the soul itself is also bodily.
If this is the case, if man essentially is “not only spirit,” if man is not in virtue of a denial, or on the basis of a departure from his authentic being, but really and in a positive sense a being in whom the various realms of plant-, animal-, and spiritual beings are bound into a unity — then man lives essentially, not exclusively, in the face of the totality of things, the whole universe of beings. Rather, his field of relations is an overlapping of “world” and “environment,” and necessarily so, in correspondence to human nature. Because man is not purely spirit, he cannot only live “under the stars,” not only vis-à-vis de l’univers; instead, he needs a roof over his head, he needs the trusted neighborhood of daily reality, the sensuously concrete world, he needs to “fit in” with his customary surroundings — in a word: a truly human life also needs to have an “environment” (Umwelt), as distinct from a “world.”
But at the same time, it pertains to the nature of body/soul being that man is, that the spirit shapes and penetrates the vegetative and sense-perceived regions in which he exists. So much so, that the act of eating by a human being is something different from that of the animal (even apart from the fact that the human realm includes the “meal,” something thoroughly spiritual!). The spiritual soul so profoundly influences all the other regions that even when the human being “vegetates,” this is only possible because of the spirit (neither the plant nor the animal “vegetates”). Consequently, this very non-human phenomenon, this self-inclusion of man in the environment (and that means, in that selective world determined solely by life’s immediate needs), even this confinement is possible only on the basis of a spiritual confinement. On the contrary, to be human is: to know things beyond the “roof” of the stars, to go beyond the trusted enclosures of the normal, customary day-to-day reality of the whole of existing things, to go beyond the “environment” to the “world” in which that environment is enclosed.
But now, we have unwittingly taken a step closer to answering our original question: What is it to philosophize? Philosophy means just this: to experience that the nearby world, determined by the immediate demands of life, can be shaken, or indeed, must be shaken, over and over again, by the unsettling call of the “world,” or by the total reality that mirrors back the eternal natures of things. To philosophize (we have already asked, What empowers the philosophical act to transcend the working-world?) — to philosophize means to take a step outside of the work-a-day world into the vis-à-vis de l’univers. It is a step which leads to a kind of “homeless”-ness: the stars are no roof over the head. It is a step, however, that constantly keeps open its own retreat, for the human being cannot live long in this way.
He who seriously intends to wander finally and definitively outside the world of the Thracian maiden is wandering outside the realm of human reality. What Thomas said about the vita contemplativa applies here also: it is really something more than human (non proprie humana, sect superhumana). [Quaestio disputata de virtutibus cardinalibus I] Of course, man himself is something more than human: man transcends man himself for the sake of the eternal, Pascal said; an easy definition does not go far enough to reach the human being.
But instead of developing these considerations, which may lead us too near to babbling nonsense, let us return to the question, “What does it mean to philosophize?” and attempt another approach to it, in more concrete fashion, and on the basis established by the foregoing. How does the philosophical question different from the non-philosophical question? To philosophize means, we said, to direct one’s view toward the totality of the world. So is that a philosophical question (and that alone) which has for its explicit and formal theme this sum-total of all existing things? No! What is peculiar and distinctive about a philosophical question is that it cannot be posed, considered, or answered (so far at least as an answer is possible), without “God and the World” also coming into consideration, that is, the whole of what exists.
Once again, let us speak quite concretely. The question, “What are we doing, here and now?” can clearly be intended in various ways. It can be meant philosophically. Let us attempt it, then. The question can be asked in such a way as to anticipate a technical-organizational answer. “What is happening now?” “Well, a lecture is being delivered during the Bonn Week of Higher Education.”
That is a straightforward, informative sentence, standing there in a clearly lit world — or rather, “environment.” It is an answer spoken with one’s attention directed to what is immediately at hand. But the question could also be meant in another sense so that the questioner would not be content with the answer just now given. “What are we doing right now?” One person is speaking; others are listening to what he is saying, and the listeners “understand” what is being said; approximately the same process is taking place within the minds of the many listeners: the statements are grasped, thought about, weighed, accepted, denied, or accepted with some hesitation, and then integrated with each person’s own fabric of thought. This question expects an answer coming from the special sciences; it can be meant so as to call on the psychology of sense perception, cognition, learning, mental states, and so on, and these sciences would provide the adequate answer.
An answer of this kind, then, would exist in a world of higher and deeper dimensions than the first answer, with its merely organizational interest. But the answers of the special sciences have still not reached the horizon of total reality; this answer could be given without having to speak at the same time of “God and the World.” But if the question, “What are we doing right now?” were meant as a philosophical question, such an exclusion would not be possible; for if the question is meant philosophically, then the question is about the nature of knowing, of truth, or even of the nature of teaching itself.
What, in the last analysis, is it “to teach”? Now someone will come along and say, “A man cannot really teach; just as when someone is healed from illness, it is not the doctor who has healed him, but nature, whose healing powers the doctor has, perhaps, allowed to operate.” Someone else will come up and say, “It is God who really teaches, within, on the occasion of human teaching.” Then Socrates will stand up and say that the teacher only makes it possible for the one who learns “to acquire knowledge from himself” through reminiscence; “there is no learning, only recollection.”[ Plato, Meno 85; 81] And still another one will say, “All human beings are confronted by the same reality; the teacher points it out, and the learner, or the listener, sees for himself.”
What are we doing here? What kind of phenomenon is taking place? Is it something of a socially organized nature, a part of a lecture series? Is it something that can be analyzed and researched in terms of psychological science? Is it something taking place between God and the World?
This, then, is what is peculiar and distinctive about a philosophical question, that something comes to the fore in it, touching the very nature of the soul: to “come together with every being” (convenire cum omni ente) — with everything that exists. You cannot ask and think philosophically without allowing the totality of existing things to come into play: God and the World.