Sunday, January 8, 2023

To Exist is to Think

Writing prompt: 

What ought to come first in a robust philosophical project? Is there any point in seeking out knowledge of being if we do not even understand how the mind works, what constitutes knowledge, and so forth? Conversely, is there any point in seeking to understand knowledge if we lack any robust conception of reality, and the things that are there to be known? Defend your position.


Reading the assignment this week, I came across this passage which struck me profoundly. "The only alternative to Parmenides’ insight that 'the same is for thinking and for being,' the insight which is metaphysics, is the postmodern and nihilistic notion that reality itself is a construct, a myth, an illusion, that there is no such thing as reality" (Perl, 15).  To not-be is also to not-think; to be nihilistic.  The consideration and study of being ought to be very tightly coupled with thinking.  If forced to say which ought to come first, I would say ontology.

On this topic, I think Camus brutally succinct, when he wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards."

Stated differently, there is a point to studying ontology if you decide life (being) is worth keeping and enduring.  If not, and suicide (i.e. choosing to not-be) is the answer, then seeking to learn and comprehend knowledge would be irrelevant.

But if one decides to continue his or hers existence, then the project of studying ontology, even if we do not, nor cannot, fully comprehend it, is worth the effort.  Perhaps after some time pursuing the study, you may come to decide why it is better to not exist than to exist. To use an analogy: you are to begin a new job (assume it is relatively basic). It would be rational to understand why the job exists at all, so that you understand the objective of your job. And while you begin your job and learn your job (epistemology), you may come to either agree or disagree as to the purpose of the job you are fulfilling. From there, you may decide to alter the objective of the job you've been given or give it up altogether.

In sum, while the priority may seem that being comes first, learning and gaining knowledge is tightly coupled with the studying of existence. Perl makes this observation in his introduction when he notes several "classical tradition" examples of analogies which compare being and thinking to an "erotic" union (10). 

Work cited

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Vintage Books, 2018.

Perl, Eric. Thinking Being: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition. BRILL, 6 Feb. 2014.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Stoic Optimism on Fate

I'm a mentor for students taking the Stoic Essentials Studies course at the College of Stoic Philosophers.  Because this question keeps coming up with nearly all my students, I decided to capture my thoughts on this topic.

At some point, whether at the beginning of the course or some time during it, a student will express some version of this concern regarding the Stoic view on fate: it's hard to believe that everything happens for a reason.

Every time a student shares this concern, I share what A. A. Long wrote on the subject along with my perspective.

Long, who has perhaps studied Stoicism longer than anyone alive today, makes this observation:

"If Nature's providence is all-embracing then any event which causes injury or suffering has to be interpreted as something which, if all the facts were known, would be recognized as beneficial by rational men. As Pope, following Shaftesbury, wrote: 'All discord, harmony not understood, all partial evil, universal good.' But all the facts cannot be known and therefore the supposed value of much that happens must be taken on trust. This optimistic attitude towards natural events, no matter how terrible they may seem, is one of the least palatable features of Stoicism. It is one thing to say that human vision is limited, unable to grasp the full cosmic perspective. But even at its noblest, in the writings of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, there is something chilling and insensitive about the Stoic's faith that all will turn out well in the end. They were the only Greek philosophers who tried to find a rationale for everything within their concept of a perfect, all-embracing Nature" (170, emphasis added).

I don't have an answer for people who express this concern, as this aspect of Stoicism weighs on my mind too.  The way I choose to look at fate is this: it is what it is and the sooner I can accept events as they are, the sooner I can pivot to focus on how I choose to react and move forward.  Perhaps the Stoics belief in 'all will turn out well' is just a short cut to get to acceptance.

Work cited

Long, A. A. Hellenistic Philosophy : Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics. University Of California Press, 1986.