What is the starting point of philosophy? Where do we begin? This is a badly posed question, because we have already begun. Thought structures surround us on all sides, and the ones that haven’t been constructed yet can easily be summoned in the mind as hypotheticals. There’s no practical problem in beginning thought. The problem is that of finding a suitable criterion discerning the useful from the useless or harmful — the things we would do well to invest with belief and the things we should resist having belief in. And there is no good reason such criteria should be focused exclusively on the roots of thought — we’ve realized a long time ago that philosophy cannot be a deductive system similar to mathematics (even though this would indeed be prettier). The fruits of thought structures might instead be the decisive point of justification in philosophy, like it is in empirical science.
Finding themselves in this forest of actual and possible thought structures, the ancient dogmatists came up with a very special kind of criterion: Thought should strive to conform with truth – implying that a thought structure can be true, specifically in the sense of corresponding to reality. This claim is nothing less than postulating an ontological domain beyond that of mind, where there is no “forest of mistakes”, only a single structure of reality, to which the (actual or possible) true structure of thought by some miracle corresponds, as illustrated here:
Untrue thoughts and beliefs should, in the view of dogmatic realists such as these, be combated. The entire forest of mistakes should be cut down and burnt, or at least ignored. A thinking mind convinced of this consequently makes a desert of its surroundings. And as it grows brighter, no light is shed on the whereabouts of the sought-for “oasis of truth” — instead, the desert expands! It becomes painfully obvious that the only way to get the thirst for it quenched is to give in to unthinking belief, i.e. superstition.
Something is fundamentally wrong with this “realism”. The end result is unbearable enough, but already the criterion of reality-correspondence is deeply flawed, as it depends on prior belief in a particular one of the thought structures it is supposed to judge between. Put as a general statement, what this means is that at this level of thought, the most fundamental level, the ontological domain of reality cannot legitimately be postulated, much less the actual accord of a particular one thought structure with the structure of reality. We can’t presuppose mind-external reality, plain and simple. The only kind of reality we have access to is the idea of reality. Everything beyond that is speculative (although plausible) postulation – which, of course, is perfectly useful at other, more lenient levels of thought.
All fundamental criteria must work entirely within the domain of mentality. One may very well entertain the idea of mind-transcendent reality, but the criteria for separating good or useful thought structures from bad or useless ones cannot take the search beyond the limits of mind. All we have to work with is this:
Neither empirical science on the one hand nor mathematics on the other depend on realism in the sense used above. Philosophy would do well to free itself as well, and make realism a merely speculative topic, disallowing it to interfere with the fundamentals. In fact, philosophy should open the gates to even the most so-called “anti-realistic” corners of the forest. There are great treasures to be found, and much needed resources that have been condemned or ignored for too long, in particular on the mythical front. Philosophy can and should find its future role in the re-exploration and re-colonization of these lands, which Aristotle first abandoned, and which we’ve neglected ever since.
The dream of finding the true mental structure, the one that corresponds perfectly to the structure of reality, has, in light of the last hundred years of scientific progress, come to look almost as ridiculous as the more fantastical among superstitious beliefs out there. There is an urgent need to find new ways (or rediscover old ones) for us to manage in our ever more confusing human situation. And that centrally includes coming to terms with what empirical science and mathematics really is. Or better and more general: what thought, belief, immersion and reality really is. These, then, are the complex and elusive issues I’ll try to deal with in this series of posts.
To be continued…
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