"Philosophy is not a discipline, it's an attitude. I can't teach you that."
When I taught philosophy, that was the first thing I would say to my students.
In a sense it was my refinement in turn of what a professor had once said to me; "There are students of philosophy, and philosophers. You are already the latter." At first this was a point of pride for me, as any naive student would take a compliment from their betters. Now though, reflecting with the chagrin earned by a life lived without much mental comfort, I still do believe that I could not be any other way. But the full weight of what the title holds has more that caught up with me. Diagnosis and Prognosis have never found so comfortable a coexistence than in the title of "Philosopher".
Allow me to explain by way of analogy. Imagine a person trapped in a maze. While an enjoyable challenge to some, or simply a state of tolerable diversion from the ordinary to others, the person 's first and ultimate desire relative to the maze is it's defeat. This is not only a matter of inevitability, but actually one of necessity. One cannot exist within a maze indefinitely. Beyond obvious physical concerns, there is simply not enough stimulation. A maze offers ultimately limited avenues for exploration, and a single goal to motivate progress. Thus deleterious effects begin to set in if overexposed to the repetition of the unsolved maze; the same walls, the same floor, repeated with such an unfailing sense of infinity one might begin to actually believe that there is no end! That there is no solution aside from wandering the same corners, forks, and bends forever and ever.
So would fall victim the explorer, the theologian, the mathematician, scientist, the layperson, and yes even the majority of vocationally defined philosophers, to the maddening effects of overexposure to the maze. New paths must be opened for the mind to remain healthy, this is a universally recognized fact. And these new vistas and experiences rest on the foundation of the existence of prior vistas and experiences, but the prior must end in order for the next to begin. The tower that builds upward must complete each proceeding floor to ascend! after all. The maze thus frustrates us as the delay of completion frustrates the builder; nothing can be progressed until the floor is raised, and the maze solved. Then we are getting somewhere!
Here now some will assume I shall claim the "true" philosopher is one who instead relishes the maze, and seeks to learn all they can of its paths and turns and bends. Or else they elevate themselves beyond its material confines and see the beautiful metaphor for journey or learning or life that it represents. Or perhaps that the real purpose of the maze is to share it with others. Or keep them from its clutches. Or to achieve enlightenment through experience of it. Or to gain understanding through thorough criticism of it. Or...What exactly?
But herein lies the nature of philosophy, and the "true" philosopher if such a term should ever be applied, sees all of these things and understands their universal futility. The tragic difference then between the philosopher and all those described above, is that the philosopher never leaves the maze because they understand that the maze is all that there is. The others find exits and believe they have conquered the maze, only to find themselves within a new branch. This one may be more open or closed, quiet or loud, pretty or ugly; but they are all mazes, and all with equally enticing illusions of escape. Some reach the end of a branch of the maze, resolutely plant themselves there, and declare victory. Others wend their way through enough branches with enough success to believe they reach an escape, and only believe they have re entered a maze when they find themselves in a particularly overt segment of its depths. And still others invoke other explanations to find some faith in the End, to stave off the crushing consequence of the Philosopher's Revelation.
This Revelation is deeper than a simple statement of "There is no End" however. Even many of those who have not embraced the attitude of philosophy still accept and understand such statements and ideas. But they fail to grasp the breath of it's consequences. This is not a generational quest we will answer with enough time and minds. Nor is it a defeatist call to surrender knowledge that must be fought at all costs to avoid relativism. It is an appeal to understand that answers do not exist as end points, but new starting points. If the developmental path of our knowledge were to be represented with true grammatical accuracy, it would contain not one period. Instead an endless series of commas, question marks, and "buts" and "ands" would stretch on into infinity. The Philosopher then is one who sees oppourtunity in every question to see the new and unknown. They know that as the new becomes familiar, we are not left idle, but now propelled from the platform it has now become to the next adventure. Rather than novel experience being a reward for escaping the maze, it becomes part of our progress through it, and in turn our perspective takes on a new elasticity. We begin to see everything through lenses modified by every new experience, until familiarity is lost to all but the immediate. Thus do we become philosophers.
Though such diagnosis invites prognosis.
For this is not a privileged place to reside, nor a particularly enviable one. And I must emphasize the unpretentious of this illustration. Rather than the comfortable abdication afforded the relativist, or the self assured delusions afforded the conclusionist, the philosopher takes up an intellectual lineage of paramount, yet ultimately thankless, importance. To be such a person is to be consumed completely by this lens, and this is a prison one can never escape from. Once one finds themselves thus stripped of their naivety there is no returning it. The world cannot go back to how it was when questions could be vanquished by answers, and debates had timers than called the matters to close. Many more than realize have already had a brush with such a state of being, and almost all either drift towards relativism on the one hand, or swiftly reject the idea and return to conclusionism on the other. The Philosopher then is not a creator of work others call "philosophy", nor a holder of privileged knowledge, but instead an exemplar of a state of mental existence that rejects dogmatic paradigm, without becoming lost to detachment from the relevant. A rare breed indeed.
So what then, is the need for such people?
Simply put, in my view such a state of being is psychologically necessary for all humans; and the Philosopher is one who dedicates themselves wholly to its supply for those around them. The Philosopher and others have inverted, but thusly complimentary problems. The Philosopher risks madness by existing beyond answer, and must remain disciplined in their commitment to their relations to the world around them if they are to maintain mental stability. Those who are not Philosophers, or else simply disinclined to general critical thinking, instead find themselves tempted to mental sloth and stagnation; over contentment with their mental existence breeds indolence and emptiness that we can ill afford to tolerate anymore in these dire times. Thus the Philosopher challenges others, questions and demands of them, pokes and prods them to the point of screaming frustration. But they do so to their compatriot's ultimate benefit, for the comfort of answers is a far more corrosive influence if left untreated by the agitating salve of doubt. Only the itch provided by "What if I'm wrong?" can save all of us from mundanity, irrelevance, and ultimate self and social stagnation. In this there is no greater force than the terminally philosophical.
So I invite you to indulge yourself in the itch, be you a fellow philosopher or simply one keen to experience discomfort for a change of pace. I hope that I can provide you with such, and look forward to our time together in the maze.
Until next, think clearly, think strangely, think often.
Declan P. Burke
The Vocal Philosopher