Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

A Meta-Philosophy of Life

Posted by Ronak M Soni on May 5, 2010

I was surprised when I learnt that philosophy was Greek for love of knowledge; I’d always thought that love came as -philia and philo- was language. But that was subsidiary, I don’t know Latin and I’ve been under no illusions whatsoever about the fact as far back as I can remember, what really surprised me was that it made so much more sense the other way: ‘language of knowledge’.

Isn’t in fact ‘language of knowledge’ a better definition of philosophy as a field than ‘love of knowledge’? The latter is how I’d describe the major attribute of professional quizzers rather than the people who go about trying to understand why we live our lives the way we do, and how we should change that.

‘People who go about trying to understand why we live our lives the way we do’ might sound like a very restrictive definition of what philosophers do, but I’d disagree: I say that the objector’s definition of the word ‘life’ is too restrictive.

As can be read in the right column of this blog, I am at present reading the London University’s undergraduate text book of philosophy (which describes philosophy as the set of all pursuits of knowledge not deep enough to be their own fields). According to it, philosophy, the field, has four major branches, and virtually anything can be said to belong to one or more of these branches. The branches, in order of discussion in the book, are epistemology, metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics.

Epistemology is how we argue, metaphysics is how we look at the world, ethics is how we relate to other beings, and aesthetics is how we achieve beauty; philosophy, in other words, is the study of how a well-rounded person lives his life.

But the reason I’m writing this essay is not a desire to brief my readers about what philosophy is. They all understand that; they just wouldn’t put it into the same words that I just did, and in some cases their descriptions will actually be significantly clearer and more definitive than mine.

What I want them to see, however, is not ‘so this is what philosophy is’ but that we are talking about the same thing but describing it differently. In fact, why go for something as complex as philosophy? Describe the shape of your elbow when your arm is bent. “Tapering convexly.” Of course, someone who can write half-decent prose will think up a much better description, but what you’ll realise is that us describing the things around us – assuming that we are seeing the same things for the same words, which itself is an assumption worth examining – is reminiscent of the story of the blind men and the elephant.

Three blind men are told to describe an elephant that they will get to feel about. One touches the trunk and says that the elephant is like a pillar, one touches the tail and says it’s like a floating broom, and one touches the stomach and says it’s like a rock (or something of the sort, I remember six blind men and more plausible comparisons). What I was describing last paragraph is, in fact, even more extreme; it’s as if all three are feeling the stomach and describing it as a rock, a deserted island and a whale.

But, you’ll be thinking, this is so obvious! Therein, dear sirs, lies the catch. When I was in my eleventh, I read an essay by Aldous Huxley in which he claimed that the best essays said things that you already knew. As you can understand, I was completely baffled, and more or less dismissed it, until I realised this, what I’m trying to say here.

Now, I will stop. It is time to step outside the flow for a moment and state clearly what I’m trying to say here. The problem is, it can’t be said, not really, it can only be really led to, because what I’m trying to say here is exactly that what you say is not what you mean, that you can wander around trying to say meaningful things, but even people who agree with you will disagree with you; what I’m trying to say is that the only meaningful way to make a point is to lead the reader to it.

I realise I’m not making all that much sense here, so let me help you by telling you that this is what art is all about. Recently, I was very strongly mesmerised by the movie Chinatown, but every time I tried to write about it I made its morality sound so simplistic that I began to doubt that I liked it for anything more than how well it was made. Jim Emerson, a critic I respect more than almost every other I’ve read, lists Chinatown as his favourite movie of all time, but has never written about it.

Chinatown: Frames & Lenses, Doors & Windows from Jim Emerson on Vimeo.

Also, take Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, one of the best books I’ve read in a while. I wrote a little piece on it, and followed it up with this:

This little runt of an essay is, I believe, the centrepiece of my method of understanding this book (revealing the understanding itself, in my opinion, would be spoiling the goods).I began planning to portray this beautiful and poignant novella, how it went from an extended whine to parody during its course, how I love Eliot (quoted at title) because he sounds good but Dostoevsky because he goes so deep into what life is, but soon found that my writing skills weren’t up to the job (it’s certainly a pity that writing has become, for me, the major channel for catharsis). To be honest, even Dostoevsky’s weren’t; didn’t this book, after all, begin as a negative review, a negative review supposedly of a book but actually of a genre, a genre that was basically a mindset? If Dostoevsky needs a hundred pages, how can I be expected to do it in a few hundred words?

That’s not the only time I’ve done it. My essay about the movie Lola Rennt, for example, is full of me dodging having to do any real description.

Why? Because, as J. M. Coetzee (one of my favourite writers) says:

If there were a better, clearer, shorter way of saying what the fiction says, then why not scrap the fiction?

I hope that, amid all the above obscurantism, something emerges for every reader, something at least slightly akin to what I was trying to convey, something akin to what even Huxley was trying to convey.

My title for this piece refers to a “meta-philosophy” of life. The word ‘meta-philosophy’ means nothing but a philosophy (the countable noun as opposed to the uncountable one which refers to the field) of how to deal with our philosophies.

My meta-philosophy, as you’ve probably guessed, takes into account what I’ve tried to lead you to. What my meta-philosophy basically does is warn against taking what you say you believe too seriously. My meta-philosophy is: Do not live by your philosophies; let your philosophies live by you.

PS: Going by my own meta-philosophy, I’m leaving this article unedited, except for basic grammar and phrasing.

PPS: Alternate definitions of philosophy, as well as dissections of mine, are welcome and encouraged.


6 Responses to “A Meta-Philosophy of Life”

  1. Buzz said

    Have you seen Will Durant’s “Story of Philosophy”? A “must” book! A dear friend of mine is fond of quoting his own father to the effect those unaware of this gorgeous book should be penalised.

    I think the fundamental philosophical question is “What is the right way of living?”

  2. S M Rana said

    • I don’t have time to finish reading this, but I skimmed, and it seems to be very nice.

      I’ve heard of Will Durant, by the way, but it was a negative recommendation. I don’t quite remember what the person’s problem was, though.

  3. Stephen said

    Very interesting, Ronak.

    I agree about being led towards something. I too have many problems with my approach to writing. I feel I have to write about certain films I like, but in doing so I simplify and bastardise them and my experience of them.

    By the way, the word Philosophy comes from Greek, not Latin.

  4. S M Rana said

    Durant is widely acclaimed as a timeless, beautifully written, concise and wide ranging book. I encountered it early on, and I could not have acquired the nodding familiarity with the landscapes of Western philosophy, that it gave me. Such books are invaluable in providing a bird,s eye-view of a subject. Such are Bell’s History of Mathematics, H G Well’s Short History of the World and Infeld & Einstein’s Evolution of Physics, not to mention Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare.

    I would certainly differ with and am bewildered by the guy who gave you the negative feedback.

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