Thinking without end

After the interview with Dawkins on BBC Radio 4 covered in the last post, the argument about evidence and political decision-making took further bizarre turns. The next day John Humphreys interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who was asked to comment on Dawkins’ views. Latterly, two researchers were asked to comment further on the discussion. One worked at a religious research institute and the other for an organisation promoting the dissemination of science. As listeners to the BBC we were  led inexorably to think that the only alternative to a scientific perspective on Brexit and evidence, and this a reductive view of science, was to take a faith position. We believe in God or we believe in science. Both are metaphysical positions in the sense that you have to declare your faith in one or the other before engaging with a way forward.

In the last post I began to sketch out a method which depends not on one or other type of belief, in science or in God, but systematic inquiry which draws on a variety of methods to reach temporary conclusions to enable ‘us’ to take the next step. I termed this a pragmatic perspective in the sense of drawing on pragmatic philosophy. Pragmatism assumes that we are already and always caught up in the problem at hand, and if it’s a social problem then there is nowhere to stand which is somehow outside of the set of circumstances we need to act into. It assumes that there is no obvious way to find our way through the thicket except through systematic reflection on trial and error, past experience, the opinions of a trusted community putting forward convincing and perhaps contradictory arguments. This is partial, messy and unsatisfactory, but to rely on one approach alone is even more inadequate.

A variety of thinkers have pointed out the limitations of philosophical thinking for dealing with lived reality, but not in the way that Dawkins does in the introduction to his new book. In his book Dawkins assumes that philosophy is a bit like religion, an outdated means of thinking which science has now replaced. Science has one approach to finding out about the world the way it really is: it finds out the truth. Philosophy has its own critics, and from within its own ranks. I deal with one of them in this post: Hannah Arendt. Arendt’s critique is not concerned that philosophy is an inadequate discipline to discover the truth, but that it is too preoccupied with it.  For her there are limitless ways to discover our humanity and a preoccupation with the truth tends towards  authoritarianism and isolationism. By being over-concerned with truth philosophy loses touch with the world, and at times with common sense. it is this kind of thinking that I detect in Dawkins.

Arendt, like the pragmatists, noted the way that acting has always come second to thinking since the philosophy of Plato. And for her this was because Plato experienced very directly how thinking, and encouraging thinking in others, led to the death of Socrates. Socrates moved among citizens of the polis inviting them to express their opinions and reflect upon them in a time when politics and philosophy were much more closely connected. Thinking led to action, and action to more thinking.  However, this exploratory philosophising conducted in public led to his downfall. The Platonic utopia, then, is made safe for the philosopher king who can withdraw into solitude and think about truth beyond the reach of politics. And it is this withdrawal into solitude post-Plato which most distinguishes philosophy from politics and most concerns Arendt, because it has a tendency towards authoritarianism. This is evident in Plato’s Republic and also in Dawkins’ views on how to make political decisions. They both have a tyrannical purity which fights shy of the messy reality of staying in relation with other human beings. Remember that for Dawkins no feelings are relevant to politics.

In an essay on Arendt’s political philosophy, Margaret Canovan[1] argues that Arendt continued to work at the distinctions between politics and philosophy for most of her life. For Arendt, politics is a public activity and is concerned with entertaining many points of view. It involves taking into account a plural view of human activity to achieve an ‘enlarged mentality’ for all those participating. Meanwhile, philosophy, traditionally conceived, and like science, has been concerned with truth, which involves the philosopher withdrawing to think by herself. It will often lead to the creation of a system of thought. For Arendt these systems of thought can be obfuscating and totalising.  They may  lead, as in the case of her ex-lover and teacher Martin Heidegger, to a withdrawal from the world and from common sense. The tendency to systematise arose, she argued, because:

‘Philosophers have always been tempted to accept the criterion of truth—so valid for science and everyday life—as applicable to their own rather extraordinary business as well.’[2]

Arendt was concerned how the single-minded search for truth can blind us to the reality with which we are trying to contend. Listening to Dawkins talking about the need to find an evidential base for politics evoked the same feeling in me: it was a search for truth which defies common sense.

An alternative way of undertaking philosophy for Arendt, exemplified by her friend and mentor Karl Jaspers, is that it is a method which is not aimed at finding truth, but in facilitating an endless conversation and a contemplation of the many ways in which human life manifests itself. Expressed simply, Arendt put it thus in the preface to her tribute to Heidegger[3]:

‘Thinking does not bring knowledge as do the sciences.

Thinking does not produce usable practical wisdom.

Thinking does not solve the riddles of the universe.

Thinking does not endow us directly with the power to act.’3

Thinking can be done on one’s own, but the process benefits from exchange with others: by communicating we can become aware of different perspectives on our shared social reality. In this sense philosophy is a process without end: thinking leads to talking and acting, which leads to more thinking. It facilitates continuous meaning-making.

According to Arendt, the quest for truth, whether it be expressed as scientific method, or a systemic form of philosophy, can obscure the plurality of what we need to contend with in any complex social reality. Paradoxically, the quest for truth when pursued reductively  gets in the way of finding a more truthful account of the difficulties we may find ourselves in, when what we might need to do instead is to keep thinking and talking.


[1] Canovan, B.Y.M., (1990) Socrates or Heidegger? Hannah Arendt’s Reflections on Philosophy, Social Research, Vol. 57, No. 1.

2 Arendt H., (1978)The Life of the Mind, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,  vol. I, Thinking: 62.

[3] Arendt, Life of the Mind 1: 1. In “Martin Heidegger at Eighty,” p. 296.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s