Doctrine Is Not the Only Alternative to Scepticism

“But still you must understand that knowledge is neither a tower nor a well, but a human habitation.” These inspiring words belong to French philosopher and spiritual writer, Antonin Sertillanges. He means we must not regard knowledge as something external to ourselves, something to which we refer or draw upon from time to time. Knowledge must be more personal than that, more intimate and immediate. We must embody what we know and literally live our day to day lives according to our own set of authentically preferred truths.

Anton Chekhov

A biographer has suggested that Chekhov had no world view and was thus free of illusions. But what is the cost? (Image: public domain)

For Sertillanges, having a philosophical frame of reference is essential. “It is undeniably useful to possess, as early as possible, even if at starting [one’s intellectual life] if it may be, a body of directive ideas forming a whole, and capable, like the magnet, of attracting and subordinating to itself all our knowledge. The man without some such equipment is, in the intellectual universe, like the traveller who easily falls into scepticism through getting to know many dissimilar civilizations and contradictory doctrines.

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Bertrand Russell’s Philosophical Loneliness

Bertand Russell

Bertrand Russell craved someone who could see into his soul and relieve his sense of loneliness and separation. (Image: public domain)

While not the most sympathetic, Ray Monk is perhaps the most thorough biographer of the English philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell. According to Monk, Russell felt lonely and separated. He felt trapped inside the prison walls of his self, and believed only another person could alleviate the agony of imprisonment by seeing into his soul. (For clarity, I should mention that Russell was one of those who used the word “self” to describe the conscious “I.”) This is the desire, so commonly met with, to find a profoundly understanding soul mate.

In reality, Russell was agonizingly self-alienated. As someone who stressed conscious reasoning above all else, he was partially cut off from his unconscious mind. The resulting isolation of his ego, or “self” as Russell would have it, was the source of his painful loneliness. A sound connection with the unconscious adds richness to life. A more plentiful supply of allusive symbols and subjective images would have balanced the dry logic of mathematics and the cold sterility of abstract reasoning that were the centrepieces of Russell’s world. He would have had a greater sense of meaning. In all likelihood, an improved connection with the unconscious would have enhanced his emotional life as well.

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Literature Is Philosophy for Its Time

German literary scholar, Rudolf Unger, argued that literature does not merely translate philosophical knowledge into imagery and verse. He claimed that literature expresses the general attitude towards life prevalent in a particular period and place. Therefore, poets (and by extension, writers) tackle important questions which are also within the sphere of philosophy. However, where philosophy is organized and structured, the poetic or prosaic approach is unsystematic. Where philosophy is scholarly and academic, literature is vivid and dramatic.

Ophelia by John William Waterhouse

Literature is philosophy in that it expresses the general attitude towards life prevalent in a particular period and place. (Image: public domain)

Literature typically deals with a narrowed set of philosophical problems that engage even the most ordinary person.

The Problem of Fate

The critical issue with fate is the relation between freedom and necessity. The key question is how much control we have over our own lives. Are we completely free to do as we please? Conversely, do the harsh dictates of necessity determine what we can and must do? Is there middle ground? Do we at least have free will with the ability to choose among a limited number of viable alternatives?

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