You Get One Question

In response to my common in-class refrain about the goals of ancient philosophy, which tried often to define “the good life” and tell us how to get there, one of my students recently asked me what the core question of modern philosophy is. My first hunch was that it’s something like “How can we say that something is true?” Let me unpack that a bit.

There are two parts to my proposed question: one about making statements and the other about truth.

The truth part is a reference in large part to the modern ascendance of the True over the Good and the Beautiful, if you want to describe this in some classic transcendental terminology. The obvious and rapid advances in technology made possible by the development of the scientific method have kind of overwhelmed ethical and aesthetic considerations in a manner roughly analogous to “I win; I have the most toys.” I don’t want to say that the spirit of the modern era is driven purely by objective discovery, though—I actually think the roots of it are more the other way around, where early modern Europeans got kind of paranoid about and fixated on what kinds of things they could know for sure when their maps suddenly expanded, their ability to print books and posters suddenly bloomed, and the institutional church didn’t really have a coherent message around any of these changes. There was not a consensus cultural story that made any of this big picture upheaval make a satisfying amount of sense.

What I can tell you for sure is that medieval Europeans were not at all fundamentalists in the strict sense; for example, you can read their thoughts on biblical interpretation, and they will go on at some length about the origins of some word or other, and they’re totally factually incorrect and they know it, but that’s not the point. They are playfully exploring the associations of words as a way of contemplating various clusters of meaning around biblical stories and other honored texts, in a way that did not in the least subtract from their devotion and piety in their own minds. That kind of “this word just means this one literal thing only” scriptural interpretation is a relatively new thing. From antiquity, theologians and philosophers debated the merits of various kinds of interpretation (which is maybe what happens when your sacred text is in an original language that most people cannot read or speak) but whatever they thought, they didn’t exactly respect people who insisted on only the most literal meanings of things. You were supposed to start out that way, but then you were supposed to grow up and be able to work within complex traditions of symbolism and metaphor and story.

Philosophy and theology were a single intellectual discipline through the Middle Ages and into the beginning of Early Modern Europe; theologians were concerned primarily with how to live, and for some people, but not all, part of living involved significant contemplation of things beyond the everyday. This line of thought has been explored by Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor at far greater length than I can possibly duplicate here, and it concerns a certain inevitable tension between the experience of everyday goods (relationships, food, kids, satisfying work) and the idea of some greater good “beyond” which is intangible in daily life and generally involves at least some small sacrifice of those more mundane goods (no sleeping in on Sundays, for example). When the True became so predominant and detached from the Good and the Beautiful, philosophy likewise detached itself from a more general body of asking critically introspective theological and philosophical questions about what it means to be human. There is no “secular” without some kind of “sacred” to give it a shape—even when that shape comes from a deliberate absence of whatever is considered most sacred. But I digress.

The part of my formula that is about making statements is also rooted in ideas about certainty, of course. Especially in the first half of the 20th century, Anglo-American philosophers got very, very hung up in investigating how we can actually know or say anything unambiguously. They were working in the footsteps of David Hume, who made a very convincing argument that we can never really know what causes anything, because we can’t observe causality directly, only sort of surmise it from its effects. While mainland European philosophers kept more of their obvious focus on issues of daily living (some of this exploration of what it means to be human was driven by the legacy of the aggressively secular French Revolution, of course), the English academics (“analytic philosophy”) really worked on this very abstract house of cards around language (while their rural clergy developed modern environmental science, in a bit of irony).

Eventually their intellectual ramble more or less collapsed in the work of Wittgenstein. He basically asserted that it really is not possible to make an unambiguous statement in a language without referring to things outside of the language itself. Think of it this way—nearly everything we say day to day can be taken non-literally, and it’s actually really hard to think of anything that can’t be. If I say, “Watch your head,” I might mean really literally that there’s a low beam putting you at risk, but I might also mean that you are getting too proud of yourself. Nothing in the sentence itself tells you which meaning is correct. Ironically, the scientific method, taken in its clearest sense, also prohibits us from making affirmative statements about causality (this stuffy phrasing means that I shouldn’t really say things like “the moon causes the tides” because all I can legitimately say is that I’ve tried very hard to rule out a connection between the moon and the tides and that I haven’t succeeded) although in daily life (as David Hume also noted) scientists make those sloppy statements just like everyone else. Analytic philosophy, of course, is also largely responsible for the popular image of philosophy as something incomprehensible and incredibly snooty and abstract, but that, as I said, is a recent and now receding aberration afflicting primarily English speakers.

So here we are now in the twilight of modernism, and none of us will live long enough to know how things will be told in future history books. Since Wittgenstein (and Nietzsche, who is a useful figure to mark the reappearance of the irrational in the core of the human being after so much emphasis on reason and truth) both philosophers and theologians have updated many elements of “pre-modernity” such as elaborate and sometimes whimsical interpretations, plays on words, and some acknowledgment of every “universal” system of knowledge as inescapably partial. We have much more sensitivity to the idea of shifting points of view in telling a story (including a history) and also to the genre/modality of the telling. This loss of certainty is very frustrating to some people, of course, and equally freeing to others, but it was always a bit of an illusion in the first place that we really know what we’re doing as mortals. How can we express that honestly? We don’t have some other truth to replace the “lost” one with, and so we see a lot of philosophical and artistic interpretations of, as it were, a truth-shaped hole.

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