The Necessity of Philosophy*  by John Dillon

Hermathena: A Trinity College Review No. 192 Summer 2012: 65–71

* A lecture given at Trinity College, Dublin, on the 28″ January 2015, on the occasion of the unveiling of a portrait by the artist Tom Coates of Professor John Dillon, Emeritus Professor of Greek, to mark his 75th birthday.

Aristotle, it seems, in his (now lost) Protrepticus, or Exhortation to Philosophy, presented the following argument in favour of the necessity of philosophy, much quoted in later times (Fr. 6 Rose): ‘If one argues that one should not practise philosophy, one must ‘thereby practise philosophy; and if one argues in favour of philosophy, one must also philosophise; so, in either case, one must philosophise.’ This well-turned conceit retains its validity, I think, even to the present day. I choose it to open what is intended as a rather general and informal defence of philosophy, and of the course of my life in recent years. There were those in Plato’s day, and in Aristotle’s day, who believed strongly that philosophy was rubbish, and that philosophers were generally up to no good, and such opinions are still held today — not least, I suspect, among politicians and university administrators! So defence, and explanation, continues to be necessary.

I have adapted my title from that of a book which gained a good deal of notoriety in the early 1960s, when I had just left college, published first in 1959, in German, as Von der Notwendigkeit der Kunst, and then in English, as The Necessity of Art, by a most interesting man called Ernst Fischer. Fischer was ‘a committed Marxist. Born in Austria, in 1899, into an old army family, he was radicalised after serving in the First World War, and joined the Communist Party in Vienna, where he was working as a journalist, in 1934. He had to flee the Hitler regime to Russia, where he spent the war as a broadcaster in Moscow, but after the war, in 1945, returned to Austria, where he served for a brief while in the provisional government that was set up, as Minister of Education, before returning to journalism and literary activities, until his death in 1972.

The book arises out of a concern, in intellectual Marxist circles, as to whether there would be a role for the arts in a post-capitalist proletarian paradise. It would seem that some comrades doubted that there would be. Certainly, literature and the arts would have to serve the state — they could not be autonomous — but would there be a place for them at all? Insofar as art and poetry, and even the novel, were playthings of an aristocratic, or even bourgeois, elite, there could be no place for them; but should art be seen rather as a basic function of the human spirit, inseparable from man’s original evolution from apedom? That is what Fischer wants to assert, and he does so very effectively. In fact, art and literature are invested with the qualities of magic, and traced to the earliest beginnings of human society. As such, they are to be reclaimed for the people as a whole. He ends his first chapter as follows:

In all the forms of its development, in dignity and fun, persuasion and exaggeration, sense and nonsense, fantasy and reality, art always has a little to do with magic.

Art is necessary in order that man should be able to recognise and change the world. But art is also necessary by the magic inherent in it.

Without denying this position to art, I would like on this occasion to advance the same claims for philosophy. Along with the impulse to create art – which Fischer sees as a feature that marks early Man out as human — we may, | feel, also reckon the impulse to employ language for more than immediately practical purposes (such as warning of danger, giving orders, or expressing desires). Both of these developments are very likely connected with the invention of fire. I actually have a memory, from way back in 1962 or 63 in Addis Ababa, of a lecture by the famous palaeo-anthropologist Louis Leakey, in which he advanced the thought that only when primitive man had invented fire could any great degree of conversation arise, since before that, at night, when the tribe would be together and resting, there would have been silence, everyone listening for hostile animals, Once one could sit round a campfire, on the other hand, one could feel reasonably safe, and chatting and story-telling could begin. I have always liked that idea, and I now see in it a theory of the origin of philosophy — in the broadest sense, which I would see as embracing mythology and religion.

What I am seeking to pinpoint is a development in the use of language from purely utilitarian purposes to more abstract ones, and that I would see as the important leap forward. It is only when people begin to wonder about the causes of things, and tell each other stories about that, envisaging different scenarios, that language, it seems to me, comes into its own as a vehicle for intellectual communication and development. Admittedly, one cannot help wondering, in the case of the individuals who first propounded myths, be they shamanistic priests or whatever, what they had been smoking, or chewing (and if we could please have some too!), but the inescapable fact is that, in telling their stories, they are for the first time employing language for what we may regard as philosophical purposes. It is, after all, a universal feature (so far as I know) of human societies to speculate about the origins of the world as it is, and various features of it, and to couch these speculations, initially, in ‘mythical’ (that is to say, personalized, anthropomorphic) terms; only much later and in a few select places, parts of China and India, perhaps, and, in the Mediterranean area, initially in sixth century B.C. Miletus, do some rather special figures venture on de-mythologized speculations that signal the birth of philosophy.

At any rate, I would single out this sort of non-utilitarian camp-fire talk as the counterpart of the paintings found in such venues as the Lascaux Caves, or Altamira in Cantabria, although unfortunately the tales told around the camp-fires of 17,000 years ago do not leave such contemporary traces as do the paintings created by the same people. They do, however, survive in the folk-memory of later ages, and they may, I think, be taken as the linguistic counterparts of those paintings.

So what I would regard as ‘philosophy’ in the broadest sense should be seen as a necessary component of being human. Now we must consider how such a basic activity could become marginalized in the contemporary stage of advanced capitalism to the extent that it has been.

Ernst Fischer — as one would expect — portrays art and literature under capitalism as inevitably becoming the preserve of an élite; the toiling masses just do not have time for that sort of thing. Painters, sculptors, writers and musicians are of course patronised, and then, under advanced capitalism, given government support of various kinds, but the intimate connection between art and society as a whole is gone for ever. E’ven in Classical Athens, one might remark, the whole of (free, male) society still went to the theatre, to hear dramas of considerable complexity, and still enjoyed recitals of the epics of Homer, while all or most art and sculpture was of a public nature, and admired by the whole of society, but Athens, despite some degree of social differentiation, was a pre-capitalist society; we have not really seen its like again, I think.

A similar, though differently manifested fate, befell philosophy. We have no idea, really, of the social situation of the earliest Greek philosophers, though anecdotal evidence indicates that they were popular — or, as in the case of Heraclitus, unpopular — figures, in the sense of being known to the whole community; and in fifth century Athens both Socrates and the great visiting sophists were familiar figures to all, even if enrolling for courses with the latter was beyond the reach of most. A comic poet like Aristophanes can rely on allusions to them, and portrayals of Socrates, being easily recognised by an audience of ordinary citizens — as indeed Ashley Clements has recently shown in his fine monograph on The Women at the Thesmophoria!

What happened even in later antiquity, and certainly since, is that, except in rare moments of popular uprising — such as perhaps the earliest days of the French Revolution — the practice of ordinary citizens discussing important affairs of state, or even the meaning of life in general, in the market place, in taverns, or in coffee bars, largely disappears, mainly because ordinary citizens no longer have any significant role in running the state, and becomes the preserve of a ruling class, both secular and clerical, while philosophy becomes a specialised calling, patronised by the great and good, and largely at their service. It also in consequence becomes increasingly technical and arcane, especially after the founding of universities in the late Middle Ages — and then, ultimately, the establishment of university departments in philosophy, in more modern times.

As such, philosophy is given support, though often rather grudgingly, by the ruling elites — it is still, fortunately, the general view that a respectable university should have a philosophy department (though that ceased to be the case in Thatcherite Britain!) — but one very rarely hears of a philosopher, as opposed to an economist, sociologist, or political scientist, being consulted by government on any question, or being interviewed on the airwaves in connection with the salient problems of our times.

But there is, I regret to say, pretty good reason for this. Mainly, I should say, the problem is that modern academic philosophy, particularly of the Anglo-American linguistic-analyst persuasion, has really nothing of much consequence to say on the major questions facing contemporary humanity, and anything that it does have to say is couched in jargon so arcane as to be impenetrable to ordinary mortals. I must specify that that is merely how it appears to me, and I would happy to be presented with evidence to the contrary, but I have been consorting with philosophers for many years now, and I think that I would have noticed. The whole area of speculation about the origins and nature of the universe, or of the basis for ethical behaviour, has been abandoned in favour of simply analysing the meaning of terms that might be used in either of these endeavours. It becomes that much easier, I fear, for hard-pressed politicians, or hard-nosed university administrators, to move to close down departments of philosophy as an unnecessary luxury in a scientific age, especially when money is tight.

Part of the argument, I suppose, in favour of this view of the role of philosophy is that organised religion (much as the philosophers concerned might despise it) has the job of telling people how to live, and that a combination of the various sciences, from cosmic physics, to chemistry, to biology and genetics, has taken on that of explaining the world, but I would reject both of these self-denying positions as cop-outs. It has always been, and should always remain, the role of philosophy to seek to explain the world and our place in it, to devise principles for how we should behave, both towards each other and to the world of nature in general, and to define the laws of thought, the laws of proof, and the conditions of knowledge. That is the view of the role of philosophy that animates the Plato Centre, and we would make no apology for that.

By way of conclusion, I would like briefly to sketch out a number of major issues confronting the contemporary world, which I have already dealt with in a number of popular pamphlets, but which I think have taken on even greater urgency since I first addressed them some ten years ago now:

  1. The problem of the ideal of open-ended economic growth, and its implications for the future of the planet.
  2. The problem of the inexorable, and ever-faster, accumulation of wealth, and the power that that confers, into ever fewer hands — 1% in control of over 50% of the world’s wealth.
  3. The problem of religious intolerance — a feature mainly, though not exclusively, of two of three great Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam — and the solution to this through the application of Platonist allegory and symbolic interpretation.
  4. The problem of the legitimation of authority, moral and political: are there duties, as well as rights, implicit in citizenship? Who may prescribe codes of behaviour to whom, and on what basis?
  5. And lastly, a positive note to end on: is it reasonable to postulate, as was the view of the late Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, chat humanity, despite various setbacks, is actually progressing towards ever-higher levels of rationality, to what he termed the Noosphere?

These, in my view, are the sort of subjects to which philosophy should be addressing itself, if it is ever to reclaim its former position, and reassume its status as a necessary feature of the human condition. That is why, it seems to me, the introduction of philosophy into the school curriculum, such as has just been proposed, indeed, by the Minister of Education, is of such importance, and I very much hope that it will be followed up. It will not be easy, of course — though there are various useful models from around Europe. Special skills, in Socratic-style dialectic and guided group discussions, will have to be developed, and the format and curriculum (which I hope would include at least the issues that I have just raised) will have to be worked out, but it is not rocket science, as they say, and there are good models that can be followed. It is a cause that the universities could well take up, as the advent of a generation of young people who have been taught to think before they have reached us should be very much to our advantage.