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Book 10
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 But when we pass from the style to an examination of the subject, we trace a connection with the later rather than with the earlier dialogues. In the first place there is the connexion, indicated by Plato himself at the end of the dialogue, with the Sophist, to which in many respects the Theaetetus is so little akin. (1) The same persons reappear, including the younger Socrates, whose name is just mentioned in the Theaetetus; (2) the theory of rest, which Socrates has declined to consider, is resumed by the Eleatic Stranger; (3) there is a similar allusion in both dialogues to the meeting of Parmenides and Socrates (Theaet., Soph.); and (4) the inquiry into not-being in the Sophist supplements the question of false opinion which is raised in the Theaetetus. (Compare also Theaet. and Soph. for parallel turns of thought.) Secondly, the later date of the dialogue is confirmed by the absence of the doctrine of recollection and of any doctrine of ideas except that which derives them from generalization and from reflection of the mind upon itself. The general character of the Theaetetus is dialectical, and there are traces of the same Megarian influences which appear in the Parmenides, and which later writers, in their matter of fact way, have explained by the residence of Plato at Megara. Socrates disclaims the character of a professional eristic, and also, with a sort of ironical admiration, expresses his inability to attain the Megarian precision in the use of terms. Yet he too employs a similar sophistical skill in overturning every conceivable theory of knowledge....
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Oct 31, 2015
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Philosophy / Essays
Philosophy / General
Philosophy / Mind & Body
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Is Philosophy a Merely Academic Interest?

§ 1. Philosophy suffers the distinction of being regarded as essentially an academic pursuit. The term philosophy, to be sure, is used in common speech to denote a stoical manner of accepting the vicissitudes of life; but this conception sheds little or no light upon the meaning of philosophy as a branch of scholarship. The men who write the books on "Epistemology" or "Ontology," are regarded by the average man of affairs, even though he may have enjoyed a "higher education," with little sympathy and less intelligence. Not even philology seems less concerned with the real business of life. The pursuit of philosophy appears to be a phenomenon of extreme and somewhat effete culture, with its own peculiar traditions, problems, and aims, and with little or nothing to contribute to the real enterprises of society. It is easy to prove to the satisfaction of the philosopher that such a view is radically mistaken. But it is another and more serious matter to bridge over the very real gap that separates philosophy and common-sense. Such an aim is realized only when philosophy is seen to issue from some special interest that is humanly important; or when, after starting in thought at a point where one deals with ideas and interests common to all, one is led by the inevitableness of consistent thinking into the sphere of philosophy.

Life as a Starting-point for Thought.

§ 2. There is but one starting-point for reflection when all men are invited to share in it. Though there be a great many special platforms where special groups of men may take their stand together, there is only one platform broad enough for all. This universal stand-point, or common platform, is life. It is our more definite thesis, then, that philosophy, even to its most abstruse technicality, is rooted in life; and that it is inseparably bound up with the satisfaction of practical needs, and the solution of practical problems.

Every man knows what it is to live, and his immediate experience will verify those features of the adventure that stand out conspicuously. To begin with, life is our birthright. We did not ask for it, but when we grew old enough to be self-conscious we found ourselves in possession of it. Nor is it a gift to be neglected, even if we had the will. As is true of no other gift of nature, we must use it, or cease to be. There is a unique urgency about life. But we have already implied more, in so far as we have said that it must be used, and have thereby referred to some form of movement or activity as its inseparable attribute. To live is to find one's self compelled to do something. To do something—there is another implication of life: some outer expression, some medium in which to register the degree and form of its activity. Such we recognize as the environment of life, the real objects among which it is placed; which it may change, or from which it may suffer change. Not only do we find our lives as unsolicited active powers, but find, as well, an arena prescribed for their exercise. That we shall act, and in a certain time and place, and with reference to certain other realities, this is the general condition of things that is encountered when each one of us discovers life. In short, to live means to be compelled to do something under certain circumstances.

There is another very common aspect of life that would not at first glance seem worthy of mention. Not only does life, as we have just described it, mean opportunity, but it means self-conscious opportunity. The facts are such as we have found them to be, and as each one of us has previously found them for himself. But when we discover life for ourselves, we who make the discovery, and we who live, are identical. From that moment we both live, and know that we live. Moreover, such is the essential unity of our natures that our living must now express our knowing, and our knowing guide and illuminate our living. Consider the allegory of the centipede. From the beginning of time he had manipulated his countless legs with exquisite precision. Men had regarded him with wonder and amazement. But he was innocent of his own art, being a contrivance of nature, perfectly constructed to do her bidding. One day the centipede discovered life. He discovered himself as one who walks, and the newly awakened intelligence, first observing, then foreseeing, at length began to direct the process. And from that moment the centipede, because he could not remember the proper order of his going, lost all his former skill, and became the poor clumsy victim of his own self-consciousness. This same self-consciousness is the inconvenience and the great glory of human life. We must stumble along as best we can, guided by the feeble light of our own little intelligence. If nature starts us on our way, she soon hands over the torch, and bids us find the trail for ourselves. Most men are brave enough to regard this as the best thing of all; some despair on account of it. In either case it is admittedly the true story of human life. We must live as separate selves, observing, foreseeing, and planning. There are two things that we can do about it. We can repudiate our natures, decline the responsibility, and degenerate to the level of those animals that never had our chance; or we can leap joyously to the helm, and with all the strength and wisdom in us guide our lives to their destination. But if we do the former, we shall be unable to forget what might have been, and shall be haunted by a sense of ignominy; and if we do the second, we shall experience the unique happiness of fulfilment and self-realization.

Life, then, is a situation that appeals to intelligent activity. Humanly speaking, there is no such thing as a situation that is not at the same time a theory. As we live we are all theorists. Whoever has any misgivings as to the practical value of theory, let him remember that, speaking generally of human life, it is true to say that there is no practice that does not issue at length from reflection. That which is the commonest experience of mankind is the conjunction of these two, the thought and the deed. And as surely as we are all practical theorists, so surely is philosophy the outcome of the broadening and deepening of practical theory. But to understand how the practical man becomes the philosopher, we must inquire somewhat more carefully into the manner of his thought about life.

The Practical Knowledge of Means.

§ 3. Let anyone inspect the last moment in his life, and in all probability he will find that his mind was employed to discover the means to some end. He was already bent upon some definite achievement, and was thoughtful for the sake of selecting the economical and effectual way. His theory made his practice skilful. So through life his knowledge shows him how to work his will. Example, experience, and books have taught him the uses of nature and society, and in his thoughtful living he is enabled to reach the goal he has set for the next hour, day, or year of his activity. The long periods of human life are spent in elaborating the means to some unquestioned end. Here one meets the curious truth that we wake up in the middle of life, already making headway, and under the guidance of some invisible steersman. When first we take the business of life seriously, there is a considerable stock in trade in the shape of habits, and inclinations to all sorts of things that we never consciously elected to pursue. Since we do not begin at the beginning, our first problem is to accommodate ourselves to ourselves, and our first deliberate acts are in fulfilment of plans outlined by some predecessor that has already spoken for us. The same thing is true of the race of men. At a certain stage in their development men found themselves engaged in all manner of ritual and custom, and burdened with concerns that were not of their own choosing. They were burning incense, keeping festivals, and naming names, all of which they must now proceed to justify with myth and legend, in order to render intelligible to themselves the deliberate and self-conscious repetition of them. Even so much justification was left to the few, and the great majority continued to seek that good which social usage countenanced and individual predisposition confirmed. So every man of us acts from day to day for love's sake, or wealth's sake, or power's sake, or for the sake of some near and tangible object; reflecting only for the greater efficiency of his endeavor.

The Practical Knowledge of the End or Purpose.

§ 4. But if this be the common manner of thinking about life, it does not represent the whole of such thought. Nor does it follow that because it occupies us so much, it is therefore correspondingly fundamental. Like the myth makers of old, we all want more or less to know the reason of our ends. Here, then, we meet with a somewhat different type of reflection upon life, the reflection that underlies the adoption of a life purpose. It is obvious that most ends are selected for the sake of other ends, and so are virtually means. Thus one may struggle for years to secure a college education. This definite end has been adopted for the sake of a somewhat more indefinite end of self-advancement, and from it there issues a whole series of minor ends, which form a hierarchy of steps ascending to the highest goal of aspiration. Now upon the face of things we live very unsystematic lives, and yet were we to examine ourselves in this fashion, we should all find our lives to be marvels of organization. Their growth, as we have seen, began before we were conscious of it; and we are commonly so absorbed in some particular flower or fruit that we forget the roots, and the design of the whole. But a little reflection reveals a remarkable unitary adjustment of parts. The unity is due to the dominance of a group of central purposes. Judged from the stand-point of experience, it seems bitter irony to say that everyone gets from life just what he wishes. But a candid searching of our own hearts will incline us to admit that, after all, the way we go and the length we go is determined pretty much by the kind and the intensity of our secret longing. That for which in the time of choice we are willing to sacrifice all else, is the formula that defines the law of each individual life. All this is not intended to mean that we have each named a clear and definite ideal which is our chosen goal. On the contrary, such a conception may be almost meaningless to some of us. In general the higher the ideal the vaguer and less vivid is its presentation to our consciousness. But, named or unnamed, sharp or blurred, vivid or half-forgotten, there may be found in the heart of every man that which of all things he wants to be, that which of all deeds he wants to do. If he has had the normal youth of dreaming, he has seen it, and warmed to the picture of his imagination; if he has been somewhat more thoughtful than the ordinary, his reason has defined it, and adopted it for his vocation; if neither, it has been present as an undertone throughout the rendering of his more inevitable life. He will recognize it when it is named as the desire to do the will of God, or to have as good a time as possible, or to make other people as happy as possible, or to be equal to his responsibilities, or to fulfil the expectation of his mother, or to be distinguished, wealthy, or influential. This list of ideals is miscellaneous, and ethically reducible to more fundamental concepts, but these are the terms in which men are ordinarily conscious of their most intimate purposes. We must now inquire respecting the nature of the thought that determines the selection of such a purpose, or justifies it when it has been unconsciously accepted.

The Philosophy of the Devotee, the Man of Affairs, and the Voluptuary.

§ 5. What is most worth while? So far as human action is concerned this obviously depends upon what is possible, upon what is expected of us by our own natures, and upon what interests and concerns are conserved by the trend of events in our environment. What I had best do, presupposes what I have the strength and the skill to do, what I feel called upon to do, and what are the great causes that are entitled to promotion at my hands. It seems that practically we cannot separate the ideal from the real. We may feel that the highest ideal is an immediate utterance of conscience, as mysterious in origin as it is authoritative in expression. We may be willing to defy the universe, and expatriate ourselves from our natural and social environment, for the sake of the holy law of duty. Such men as Count Tolstoi have little to say of the possible, or the expedient, or the actual, and are satisfied to stand almost alone against the brutal facts of usage and economy. We all have a secret sense of chivalry, that prompts, however ineffectually, to a like devotion. But that which in such moral purposes appears to indicate a severance of the ideal and the real, is, if we will but stop to consider, only a severance of the ideal and the apparent. The martyr is more sure of reality than the adventurer. He is convinced that though his contemporaries and his environment be against him; the fundamental or eventual order of things is for him. He believes in a spiritual world more abiding, albeit less obvious, than the material world. Though every temporal event contradict him, he lives in the certainty that eternity is his. Such an one may have found his ideal in the voice of God and His prophets, or he may have been led to God as the justification of his irresistible ideal; but in either case the selection of his ideal is reasonable to him in so far as it is harmonious with the ultimate nature of things, or stands for the promise of reality. In this wise, thought about life expands into some conception of the deeper forces of the world, and life itself, in respect of its fundamental attachment to an ideal, implies some belief concerning the fundamental nature of its environment.

But lest in this account life be credited with too much gravity and import, or it seem to be assumed that life is all knight-errantry, let us turn to our less quixotic, and perhaps more effectual, man of affairs. He works for his daily bread, and for success in his vocation. He has selected his vocation for its promise of return in the form of wealth, comfort, fame, or influence. He likewise performs such additional service to his family and his community as is demanded of him by public opinion and his own sense of responsibility. He may have a certain contempt for the man who sees visions. This may be his manner of testifying to his own preference for the ideal of usefulness and immediate efficiency. But even so he would never for an instant admit that he was pursuing a merely conventional good. He may be largely imitative in his standards of value, recognizing such aims as are common to some time or race; nevertheless none would be more sure than he of the truth of his ideal. Question him, and he will maintain that his is the reasonable life under the conditions of human existence. He may maintain that if there be a God, he can best serve Him by promoting the tangible welfare of himself and those dependent upon him. He may maintain that, since there is no God, he must win such rewards as the world can give. If he have something of the heroic in him, he may tell you that, since there is no God, he will labor to the uttermost for his fellow-men. Where he has not solved the problem of life for himself, he may believe himself to be obeying the insight of some one wiser than himself, or of society as expressed in its customs and institutions. But no man ever admitted that his life was purely a matter of expediency, or that in his dominant ideal he was the victim of chance. In the background of the busiest and most preoccupied life of affairs, there dwells the conviction that such living is appropriate to the universe; that it is called for by the circumstances of its origin, opportunities, and destiny.

Finally, the man who makes light of life has of all men the most transparent inner consciousness. In him may be clearly observed the relation between the ideal and the reflection that is assumed to justify it.

"A Moment's Halt—a momentary taste Of Being from the Well amid the Waste— And Lo!—the phantom Caravan has reach'd The Nothing it set out from— . . ."

"We are no other than a moving row Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go Round with the Sun-illumin'd Lantern held In Midnight by the Master of the Show."

Where the setting of life is construed in these terms, there is but one natural and appropriate manner of life. Once believing in the isolation and insignificance of life, one is sceptical of all worth save such as may be tasted in the moment of its purchase. If one's ideas and experiences are no concern of the world's, but incidents of a purely local and transient interest, they will realize most when they realize an immediate gratification. Where one does not believe that he is a member of the universe, and a contributor to its ends, he does well to minimize the friction that arises from its accidental propinquity, and to kindle some little fire of enjoyment in his own lonely heart. This is the life of abandonment to pleasure, accompanied by the conviction that the conditions of life warrant no more strenuous or heroic plan.

The Adoption of Purposes and the Philosophy of Life.

§ 6. In such wise do we adopt the life purpose, or justify it when unconsciously adopted. The pursuit of an ideal implies a belief in its effectuality. Such a belief will invariably appear when the groundwork of the daily living is laid bare by a little reflection. And if our analysis has not been in error, there is something more definite to be obtained from it. We all believe in the practical wisdom of our fundamental ideals; but we believe, besides, that such wisdom involves the sanction of the universe as a whole. The momentousness of an individual's life will be satisfied with nothing less final than an absolutely wise disposition of it. For every individual, his life is all his power and riches, and is not to be spent save for the greatest good that he can reasonably pursue. But the solution of such a problem is not to be obtained short of a searching of entire reality. Every life will represent more or less of such wisdom and enlightenment; and in the end the best selection of ideal will denote the greatest wealth of experience. It is not always true that he who has seen more will live more wisely, for in an individual case instinct or authority may be better sources of aspiration than experience. But we trust instinct and authority because we believe them to represent a comprehensive experience on the part of the race as a whole, or on the part of God. He whose knowledge is broadest and truest would know best what is finally worth living for. On this account, most men can see no more reasonable plan of life than obedience to God's will, for God in the abundance of his wisdom, and since all eternity is plain before him, must see with certainty that which is supremely worthy....

Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it? This question, which at first sight might not seem difficult, is really one of the most difficult that can be asked. When we have realized the obstacles in the way of a straightforward and confident answer, we shall be well launched on the study of philosophy—for philosophy is merely the attempt to answer such ultimate questions, not carelessly and dogmatically, as we do in ordinary life and even in the sciences, but critically, after exploring all that makes such questions puzzling, and after realizing all the vagueness and confusion that underlie our ordinary ideas.

In daily life, we assume as certain many things which, on a closer scrutiny, are found to be so full of apparent contradictions that only a great amount of thought enables us to know what it is that we really may believe. In the search for certainty, it is natural to begin with our present experiences, and in some sense, no doubt, knowledge is to be derived from them. But any statement as to what it is that our immediate experiences make us know is very likely to be wrong. It seems to me that I am now sitting in a chair, at a table of a certain shape, on which I see sheets of paper with writing or print. By turning my head I see out of the window buildings and clouds and the sun. I believe that the sun is about ninety-three million miles from the earth; that it is a hot globe many times bigger than the earth; that, owing to the earth's rotation, it rises every morning, and will continue to do so for an indefinite time in the future. I believe that, if any other normal person comes into my room, he will see the same chairs and tables and books and papers as I see, and that the table which I see is the same as the table which I feel pressing against my arm. All this seems to be so evident as to be hardly worth stating, except in answer to a man who doubts whether I know anything. Yet all this may be reasonably doubted, and all of it requires much careful discussion before we can be sure that we have stated it in a form that is wholly true....


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