Part 2: Athens to Glasgow
Stephen Watt continue his series on why we should take more of an interest in philosophy and how it provides a roadmap for our 'buffered selves' go through the modern world within the gaze of faith.
In my last article I began an exploration of why Scottish Catholics should take an interest in philosophy. In that article, I argued that critical thought ought to play a role in our lives in part because, in modernity, we have replaced porous selves with buffered selves, and buffered selves need to reflect on beliefs and commitments before allowing them through that buffer. That left two further questions to answer in this second article. First, given that need for reflective thought, why should philosophy as an academic subject play an important role in such an undertaking rather than, say, theology itself or even literary or artistic studies? Second, given a satisfactory answer to that question, why should there be a special focus of philosophy on Scotland? Why can’t we just import philosophical thinking from other, more populous and better equipped areas of the Church or indeed world?
Since ‘philosophy’ could cover many different things, I’ll make clear that I’m not primarily interested in justifying the work of professional philosophers in either the secular academy or the Church. Their tasks are not unrelated to what I am focusing on, but their justifications and indeed the problems associated with their work are not what I’m concentrating on here. My concern is rather why ordinary Catholics, ordinary readers of St Moluag’s Coracle, should develop an interest in philosophy at least sufficient to go on reading this article and others that follow.
Let’s go back to those concepts of the buffered self and the related one of the religious seeker. One of the aspects of modernity is that, even once ‘inside’ the Church, whether as a cradle Catholic who has found a way to make the truths she has been brought up with her own, or as a convert who has found her way into the Church, we do not entirely lose the detachment from commitments and beliefs of the buffered self, or the restless pursuit of the seeker for the next or fuller truth. Without denying the ultimate truth of Augustine’s, ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You,’ late modernity in particular is corrosive of that settledness in the Church that at least seems to have been the case for Catholics in earlier times. Given our restlessness, what can philosophy offer that other disciplines cannot? I’ll suggest three possibilities here: first, a transformation of truths held simply on the authority of others into truths held by ourselves; second, an unveiling of different aspects of reality that we may not have noticed before; and third, a personal quest and transformation of the self.
Starting with making truths taken on authority our own, note that this does not aim at the alteration of those truths. As I touched on in the first article, humility and obedience to authority is part of Catholicism. Now while there is certainly a crisis of public authority in the Church, with a confusion of voices seeming to construct orthodox belief and practice in different ways, that issue is not my primary focus here. Even where authority and the judgments of authority are certain, it is one thing to possess those truths as given to us as true opinions passed on by someone else, but another to possess them for ourselves as knowledge: the latter involves a process of understanding and embracing the reasoning behind them. This is perhaps where philosophy is at its strongest, being the discipline which is always prepared to question and reason about claims to conclusiveness, even if those claims are made by philosophy itself. And in that questioning and its resolution, we move closer to making those truths our own rather than someone or something else’s.
Turning to the unveiling of different aspects of reality, everyday thinking presents us with a picture of normality. We pass through most of our days without really thinking about much that passes before us and about much that we do. Here, the relentless probing and testing of philosophy can take away the veil of the normal and reveal what lies beneath. As I noted above, the Church seems to have a very public crisis of authority, but the authorities of the secular world seem occluded, hidden behind the veil of normality and common sense. Over my lifetime, the normal life of marriage, children and a lifetime’s career has been transformed into a normality of, well, who quite knows? A pursuit of success, perhaps, but a success that always eludes us, a self-creation that never succeeds. To go back to the language of buffered and porous selves, we remain in fact far more porous than we believe to be the case, far less the secure, buffered self. But the porousness is unseen until it is named and our attention directed towards it. And now we see it and those who make use of it, and the world looks different.
Finally, there is the place of philosophy in personal quest and transformation of the self. Here it is perhaps above all the models of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy which have a role to play. Instead of modern philosophy that remains on the level of questioning the truth of beliefs, ancient philosophy is far more about a transformation of self than it is just about transformation of beliefs. In recent years, Stoicism in particular has become packaged as a version of self-administered cognitive behavioural therapy, emphasising the development of techniques that focus on the development of character and detachment from external goods. There are of course stronger and weaker versions of these modernisations of ancient philosophy as practice, but many seem to miss out the part that free intellectual inquiry should play, a relentless quest for truth that assumes no secure starting point except that of being lost:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
(Dante’s Inferno, trans. Longfellow.)
Nevertheless, when the modern tendency to package, brand and sell is set aside, an encounter with varieties of ancient philosophy which couple a restlessness of inquiry to a seriousness about development of the intellect and character can provide a partial model for our own personal quest, albeit a quest which remains faithful to the institutional Church, just as most ancient philosophers remained faithful to a given School or tradition of philosophy.
This leads us to the final question: given the importance of philosophy in reflective thought, why should there be a special focus of philosophy on Scotland? Much of modern academia is international in focus, personnel and institutions: the philosophy departments of major universities see themselves rather more as part of international networks of expertise rather than situated in and responsible to a particular national culture. But let’s focus on ordinary Catholics again: why should we philosophise scottice? The public presence of Catholicism in Scotland particularly in its media is usually institutional: we have bishops and priests doing their best to talk to lay Catholics and to others about the basic positions of Catholicism. There is only a limited Scottish Catholic press, and our online presence is also limited. As a result, most of the intellectual spadework which educated Scottish Catholics rely on is done by Catholic commentators based elsewhere, particularly in England or the US, or by secular authorities. That’s to an extent inevitable: Scotland has a fairly small Catholic community and we are an international Church (and indeed world). But there is a loss. Just as an individual who does not reflect philosophically does not make truths her own, does not start to see the world stripped of illusion, does not engage on that project of self-exploration, a community that does not philosophise also loses those goods. Scotland has its own peculiarities –(eg) the Independence debate; a history of Calvinism; an official progressivism unchecked by anything like Catholic social teaching; a large drug problem- that would undoubtedly make such a reflective community look very different from that in London or Washington. Just as individuals embark on a quest of self-exploration, not knowing quite what that quest will be like or where it will end, the Scottish Catholic community’s philosophical exploration of itself will be unpredictable, save only that it will be conducted with the goal of Heaven, and under the protection of Our Lady. Let’s see where it takes us.
To see Part 1 click here.