What is Philosophy?


It’s a question philosophers like to ask from time to time, never arriving at a universally satisfactory answer. If you start to read Hegel, you might arrive at the notion that philosophy is the science of Spirit coming to know itself as Spirit; and yet even once this strange thought has entered your brain, it will take a lot more patient study of the great philosopher’s work to unpack exactly what this means.

In the “Preface” to his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel tells us that what is essential to philosophy is “universality”. Philosophy seeks to discover not just what is true, but what is universally or absolutely so. For example: “Cardiff is the capital of Wales”, “It is the 30th of July 2020”, and “I am hungry” might all be true statements, but these are not the kinds of truth philosophy is seeking. On the other hand, the question of what it is about these statements that makes us say that they are all “true” might be a philosophical question, since it has to do with the essential nature of truth, or what is true in all cases of truth.

Hegel’s approach to the history of philosophy is coloured by this notion that philosophy has to do with universality: it is not enough to take individual philosophers and their systems merely as particular instances, each to be refuted or argued for in isolation; instead, each philosophical system must be seen as expressing the universal truth, however incompletely or imperfectly. For Hegel, truth is something that has unfolded gradually and progressively throughout the history of humankind, and philosophical systems must be seen as connected and part of a long tradition, with philosophers learning from their predecessors, improving on what they find, getting closer to the truth with each passing generation.

To put it paradoxically: the result of philosophical investigation should not just be a result – a set of simple truths that can be easily reported to non-specialists once the philosophical work is completed. Instead, we should see that the result is the result and the process by which the result is reached. We cannot just take up what is true in particular philosophies and discard what is false: what is false must be worked through so that we can understand how the truth was reached, and the false as much as the true must be retained as an essential part of the journey.

Philosophy is the science of Spirit coming to know itself as Spirit, because it is the journey of discovery that each generation must work through afresh, making the same mistakes, only advancing one or two steps further than their predecessors each time. Philosophy never arrives at the end, with a full set of data that can simply be set down for the next generation to read and move on. The students of each generation must do the philosophical work, reading the philosophers who came before, coming to know themselves by seeing themselves reflected in the insights – and mistakes – of the past.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Spirit is the Light of the Morning


“Its shape is in fact shapelessness, the all-embracing light of the morning.” – J.N. Findlay, Analysis of section 686 of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.

It’s impossible to see where light begins and ends. You can see it in the green leaves of the trees as much as in the clear blue of the sky. As much in the grey tarmac as in the glistening ocean. Light permeates all things that are visible and yet is none of them.

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is the story of the human spirit – or “Spirit” – as it struggles to find itself.

Spirit has discovered that it cannot be morally pure: you can do your duty, but you cannot be free from sin. Any moral stand taken results in hypocrisy – and yet a stand must be taken. Spirit goes around and around and has begun to despair again.

Spirit wants purity because it does not want to be limited. Recognising its own hypocrisy, Spirit seeks to be free from it.

Spirit sees a way out. It takes refuge in simplicity, escaping for now from the intricacies of moral debate. It finds this simplicity, this peace, in religion.

Spirit can stop retreating now that it has found God. A God that is lord and master and does not retreat from its object. God’s object is Spirit itself in its purity. Be one with God and know thyself. Self-contemplation: God is within me and spreads His light outward to all things that come within my vision. I have found a God that is akin to the sunrise, who spreads His light over all objects, making them visible while Himself being none of these particular things. God is the essence but not the being of these objects, making their appearance possible while leaving them to their own mundane existences.

Duty and morality fade into the background and the Truth is now found in that play of light over and above the things of the world. Truth is found in detachment from the things of the world.

This God, this Spirit, is now the “shape of shapelessness”, the simple relation of Spirit to itself. It is “the pure, all-embracing and all-pervading essential light of sunrise”. It is “formless substantiality”. The “simplicity” of this form of being means it moves about “aimlessly” and “without stability or intelligence”. It is vast and without limit, and therefore sublime rather than beautiful. It is something fearful and incomprehensible to moral consciousness, its beam vast and uncaring, and its heat potentially destructive of any particular thing that comes under it.

The human spirit will not linger long here. It cannot for long remain satisfied with the empty play of light on surfaces. It has been a relief from the contradictions and pressures of moral and ethical life, an escape. But Spirit will move on and search for new religious forms and find contradictions and pressures anew, and finally find a place for moral and ethical life again.

(I’ve been reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit translated by A.V. Miller, with an analysis of the text by J.N. Findlay)

(Image is from Pixabay)

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The Enjoyment in Writing


Past, present, and future are bound together when Henry Miller is writing. “The past is the springboard, the present the melting pot, and the future the delectation.”

The past is the springboard because it is from the memories of his own experiences that he writes.

The present is the melting pot because it is in the chaos of the moment that he must transform these memories into art.

The future is the delectation: Henry describes the enjoyment he gets from writing. “For instance, when I write something I like extra well I smack my lips and look over my own shoulder. I am already the man of 2500 A.D. or 5000 A.D., enjoying this great guy Henry Miller who lived in the 20th century.”

“Writing is its own reward,” Miller tells us. You receive this reward in the reflective moment of achievement that comes once the work is done. Even one good finished sentence and you can revel in the delicious future in which admiring eyes will be upon your work.

These admiring eyes don’t need to ever actually exist. What’s important is that you can imagine them. “The men of 2500 A.D. will enjoy reading this little passage, I am sure.” You’ve created work that you are pleased with, and so you can imagine others, even in some distant future or parallel universe, feeling the same. Others like you. This is why you write after all: to find others like you.

And along with the delectation of the future: the melting pot of the present, the seething chaos from which you can’t expect anything perfect to emerge. Life, after all, isn’t perfect. And life is the most important thing: you’re trying to bring into the world something that lives and breathes. And that will live on and speak to others, and say new things and even give rise to new ideas that you’d never thought of in the moment of writing.

For this reason, perfection is never the goal. What is perfect is finished with, and nothing new can arise from it. What the best readers want is the flawed, contradictory, and chaotic. Which when released into the world can mingle and find strange new uses in the hands of others.

Miller is saying: write for yourself, and not for any preconceived notion of beauty or truth. The whole purpose of life is to enjoy yourself, and writing should serve that same purpose. And in serving yourself in this way you will produce exactly the kind of lively and provocative writing that your future readers will need.

(I’ve been reading “Writing Is Its Own Reward” by Henry Miller, which can be found in his Henry Miller on Writing.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Orpheus is playing his lyre with tears in his eyes, begging the rulers of the underworld to return Eurydice to him.

All Pluto and Persephone want is to be rid of those dewy eyes, tearing at their heart strings. They tell him he can have her back on one condition: that he doesn’t look back the whole way out of the underworld.

By the time Orpheus has broken this condition, as he surely will, and he’s crying again, he’ll be long gone and the king and queen won’t have to worry about it.

He’s almost out of the underworld and, worried that Eurydice might not be behind him, he looks back.

As she’s pulled away from him forever there is no look of complaint in her eyes: she was loved and that is enough for her. She whispers a farewell and is gone.

Orpheus finds the denizens of the underworld hardened against him as he tries to re-enter: he’s pushed away from the boat and his song is cut short. They know his tricks now. Distraught, he returns to the daylight to mourn.

All eyes are on him during his time on earth, the famous poet. He is loved by everyone and everything. If he sits in the sun he soon finds himself in shade: the trees have crept toward him to hear his songs.

(I’ve been reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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The Stone House

I’m a fan of RPGs, and tomorrow I’ll be running a game of Call of Cthulhu over the internet for some friends. Below is the introduction for the scenario I’ve just made. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft might recognise the reference to “strange days.” And what do you think the stone house might be?


In recent months you’ve been hearing a lot of stories about the “strange days.” Eyes have been fixed on the countryside outside the old city, and experts have been trying to work out what happened all those decades ago, back in the ‘80s. And those experts have talked to reporters, and those reporters have written stories, and now the public seems obsessed with the tales of what happened in rural Massachusetts all those years ago.

Perhaps it’s because of the unnatural mystery in the air that you’ve all been having strange recurring dreams: each night a horrible picture in your mind becomes clearer and clearer, even as the vision becomes darker and darker. You see the thing in a strange subterranean light: the dream has given you inhuman eyes. You see the ancient stones of a house that could never have been built by human hands: massive stones of bizarre texture, strangely coloured, and of impossible dimensions. And much of the building is missing: you see its vast open jagged doorway like a mouth, threatening in its weird contortion and dark emptiness.

Weeks and weeks of the same dream, slightly altered, and you get a glimpse beyond the mad stone house to a building beyond that: this house itself stands in a bigger house. You realise now what you have seen in your vision: an ancient house standing as an exhibit in the University Museum.

This is madness, but you have an impulse you cannot escape: to visit the museum and see the exhibit for yourself. Perhaps by discovering something about it, seeing how closely it matches the object in your dream, you can put your mind at rest and be able to find a night of dreamless sleep once again.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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“We have no need for genius – genius is dead. We have need for strong hands …”

How to start writing? Take a building block and set it down. It is Paris, 1930 perhaps, and a day in the life of Henry Miller is moving along.

A place to work is all that is required. It’s more important than a place to sleep: “One can sleep almost anywhere,” says Miller. But it’s impossible to work at writing without a place to do it. He doesn’t mention “routine” but I think this is part of it: you need a place to return to day by day, where you know it can happen. Where even if it doesn’t happen, you know tomorrow might be better.

There are always things to complain about: the noise around and about, the smells of cooking (from food that you are not permitted to eat) and the growling of your belly … The point is to transfigure these annoyances into art, to make what is small and miserable into something joyful.

“Do anything, but let it produce joy!” is the artists’ mantra. When you’re writing in poor conditions, it can seem far from a joyful activity. Transfiguration can be a painful process. And yet the largest part of Miller’s soul is singing its joy as he works at the typewriter.

(I’ve been reading Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Tree Spirits in The Golden Bough


In spring, early summer, or midsummer the villagers would go out into the woods to cut down a tree. They’d bring it back to the village and set it up there (“amid general rejoicings”); or, in other villages, they would cut up the tree and distribute the branches among the households. James Frazer tells us that the purpose of these rituals was to bring the spirit that dwelt in the tree into the village so that its blessing could be shared among the villagers.

Over time, the purpose of customs is forgotten: the tree is left up in the village square through autumn and winter so that it can be danced around again next year and the year after that. The spirit of the living tree is long departed by the time the tree is used again, and no new spirit is brought in that spring or summertime. No magic is being performed here: only the bare custom remains. A general sense that the change of season is something to be celebrated, and so there should be drink and dancing.

Or in some places, rather than being forgotten altogether, the custom is found to have been only altered over time. In places where the same tree is used year after year, or where the tree is replaced only every few years, an effort is made at least to decorate the tree with the vegetation that has appeared in the woods since spring. No new tree spirit has been brought in, but the general spirit of spring and summer is evoked, and the people know the purpose of the ritual: to bring in the blessings of spring and summertime.

What’s lost over time is the immanent quality of the belief that underlies the custom: even where the meaning is not forgotten altogether, the spirit of the season is no longer an individual spirit that dwells in a particular tree, but is instead a universal spirit of spring or summertime, transcendent to any particular instance of growth and blossoming, representing a general conception of the spring and summer seasons.

In this example we can see how, as people become less literal in their beliefs, less convinced that spirits are individual beings that inhabit individual tangible things, they abandon the immanent contact with spirits, and come to settle for an acquaintance with only a general conception of things.

(I’ve been reading “Relics of Tree-Worship in Modern Europe” in James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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See What I’m Saying


First sentence of William Burroughs’ The Wild Boys: “The camera is the eye of a cruising vulture flying over an area of scrub, rubble and unfinished buildings on the outskirts of Mexico City.”

Burroughs thinks in pictures and his books contain a lot of references to film and its techniques.

Starting with “The camera …” Burroughs is diving right in and telling the story as it’s natural for him to tell it, immediately telling what’s in his mind as he visualises it. It’s unconventional. It was written in the late 1960s and even today it is unconventional to cut straight to the visuals in this way.

There’s a lot of “…” in Burroughs’s work. These ellipses tell us how Burroughs’s mind works. A lot of us – I won’t say all of us – think in fragments, the thoughts not really running together but appearing in stops and starts. The continuity of thought is something constructed later, a way of rationalising past experience. We apply logic after the fact. If you want to capture what is happening in the moment, sometimes it’s better to just put down the series of unconnected images as you experienced them, before you tried to make sense of them.

In other words: the camera doesn’t lie. Show what the eye, the camera, sees. Let the reader do the work of processing what they’ve been shown, just like they do in real life with their own experiences.

The camera in the story is not metaphorical: at the end of this first section it’s hit by a bullet and cracks, and falls over so we see the rest of the action at an angle. Burroughs shows the story for what it is: unreal, a fiction. But we knew that anyway. What difference does it make to the story, this revelation at the end?

Burroughs tells the story in the way that suits him best. We might call this his “voice”: immediate, fragmentary, and so on. The reference to the camera might seem puzzling, intruding on the story and even a bit silly. But this device was what gave the story’s author the freedom to tell the story as he chose. He writes as he thinks, putting down as simply as he can the movie running through his head.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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How to Begin (Notes on the Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology)


It’s no use starting with the assumption that thought and being are identical. For one thing, no one will know what you’re talking about.

Hegel started by looking at the philosophical thinking of his day and showing how it was wrong. This was the task of the Phenomenology of Spirit: to reveal the assumptions of modern philosophy and show how they are mistaken.

We’re only going to get to the identity of thought and being at the end, once we’ve exhausted all other possibilities. By the time we’ve done all that, it’ll be clear what “identity of thought and being” means.

Hegel thinks it is impossible to state some truths simply and positively. You need to take the long, negative route: showing step by step what the reality is not, so that what it is can finally appear in sharp focus, fully understood.

Some of us who’ve read the Science of Logic can make the mistake of thinking that beginning is a simple thing. We’ve forgotten the circuitous routes we took to get here. “Just begin!” But you need to know exactly how to begin. And you need to know what exactly you’re doing when you begin in this way, and why it is important. This is only possible once you have tried and tested the other ways, and seen why they fail.

If you simply do something without knowing why you do it, then it might seem just as well to do something else, should the opportunity arise. There is a persistent temptation to deviate from the path. The Phenomenology is about showing us what lies at the end of all those other paths, so that the simple thought of being finally becomes the obvious and correct way to begin philosophy.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Hegel’s Democratic Spirit


The Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit is a good place to begin with Hegel. The key question he’s asking in these pages is: What is philosophy? And his answer tells us a lot about what kind of philosopher he was.

He begins in a typically Hegelian way: by making a seemingly absurd and contradictory claim. He opens his Preface by telling us that prefaces to philosophical works are a waste of time, because philosophy is a subject that can’t be explained in an overview, and philosophical truth can only be “expounded” by closely setting out the method so that, through it, a definite result is reached and the necessity of the result is understood. He contrasts philosophy with anatomy, to explain what a special sort of “science” philosophy is: anatomy, understood as “the knowledge of the parts of the body regarded as inanimate,” is a mere “aggregate of information” that can be learned by rote, whereas philosophy requires the reader to follow the text closely, following and approving for themselves the steps of the method, in order to discover the conclusions for themselves.

Later in the Preface he explains what happens when you mistakenly believe philosophy to be like anatomy, a collection of facts to be memorised, a means to a definite end: you end up with “dogmatism.” When there is a clear fact of the matter, it is an easy thing to give a straightforward answer – the examples he gives are “When was Caesar born?” and “How many feet were there in a stadium?” A dogmatic philosopher is one who thinks that the answers to philosophical questions are as straightforward as matters of general knowledge, and who will give responses to philosophical questions that are immediate and simplistic, and will be unwilling and unable to show any kind of working. Truth is a simple matter, for a dogmatist: the important things can be immediately seen to be true or false.

For Hegel, philosophy is not about facts, but about the process of knowing itself. This is why philosophy must be a journey, begun by reader and writer together. By working through the subject matter yourself, you gain an insight into your own thought processes. By comparing your own thoughts to those set out by the writer, you get a sense of what is universal in your thinking, and what is not. You learn to think for yourself, but more deeply than you could ever have done without the guidance of the philosophical tradition, which you find condensed here in the book you’re reading.

I suggested at the start that What is philosophy? is the question of Hegel’s Preface. The answer Hegel gives is, on the negative side: that philosophy is not a mere collection of facts; it is not merely a method; and it is not merely a result that can be read and memorised without doing any of the difficult work. On the positive side: that it is the science of knowledge, understood as something that a human individual must partake in themselves in order to take anything of value away from it.

And we can see, from Hegel’s answer to the question, what kind of philosopher he was: an egalitarian and democratic thinker who believed that real philosophical truth can only be discovered for the individual by the individual, and must never be unquestioningly accepted from any authority that would dogmatically assert their own system of philosophical truths.

(I’ve been reading A.V. Miller’s translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The “Preface” makes up the first 72 sections of the book.)

(Image is from Wikimedia Commons.)

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