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Detail from Rembrandt's Philosopher Meditating

Effective philosophical works need a suitable scale, a unique personal perspective, and a definite focus. (Image: Wikimedia)

Regular visitors to this blog know that the French philosopher and spiritual writer Antonin Sertillanges is a favourite of mine and has been a huge influence on my thinking when it comes to living a thinker’s life; his thoughts on the lifestyle, attitudes, and work habits of the serious intellectual are always worthy of careful consideration. In this post, I am going to look at some key considerations that underpin a philosophical work and link them to my own subjective approach.

The Scale and Origins of the Work

Sertillanges: “A few well-chosen facts, a few big ideas, big rather by their coherence and their inter-connection than by their tenor, are matter enough for an inspired work.”

This is the quality before quantity argument, and it raises the obvious question of where you get those quality ideas in the first place. Good choices are easier to make once you have revealed or recognized your personal worldview, for then you can select objective facts from the world around you and choose more general philosophical ideas using the criterion that they must extend or develop what you already have. That is to say, if you know who you genuinely are, you can exploit the personal philosophy that is already driving your life. Your work then becomes part of the lifelong process of self-realization, of making the best of who you are, of developing what you already have at your disposal. Look for a select few ideas that possess internal consistency and have links among them that you can see and explain from your own unique perspective.

Working from Your Insides Out

Work that arises from within has the added benefit or receiving the backing of authentic will. Without the motivation of your genuine will, it is unlikely you will finish what you have started. With your own authentic will backing the project, your path may not be smooth, but in all likelihood, you will reach your destination in the end. Remember to keep your final destination reasonably flexible in case things do not go the way you have anticipated. If things do take a turn, rethink your goals to bring them in line with the project’s new direction. Do not get hung up on trying to reach goals that are no longer viable.

The Focus of the Work

Sertillanges: “There is a great revelation in discovering the hidden links that exist between ideas and systems most dissimilar. To address oneself to this work of reconstituting the integral truth out of its misinterpretations is far more fruitful than to be perpetually criticising.”

This hidden links idea is especially valid where “spiritual” or philosophical matters are concerned. All serious seekers seem to be talking about the same thing or things, but each one from a different perspective. I believe the ultimate source of all spiritual yearning is the unconscious mind, and all systems of spiritual thought, in the end, map the human psyche or some aspect of it. Philosophy arises from a similar inner imperative but has a more external objective focus and tries to explain the physical world “out there” rather than the spiritual world “in here.”

Sertillanges’ reference to misinterpretations is a call to correct the erroneous ideas of others. If this frightens you, or you believe everything is entirely subjective and therefore there is nothing to correct, here are a few things to consider. First, subjectivity extends only so far. Not everything is open to personal interpretation and knowing where the boundaries lie is a large part of being wise. Second, spirituality and philosophy are subtle and complex topics that require a good deal of intelligence, erudition, and care in their elaboration. Blunders are rife. There is always plenty of cleaning up to do. Third, as time passes and more people apply themselves to a particular spiritual or philosophical problem it becomes possible to go over the growing body of newer work and gain fresh perspectives not seen by earlier thinkers. In other words, from our advantageous position in the present we can correct or elaborate the philosophers of the past.