The need for philosophy | Random thoughts | Who I am | Yaniv Hamo

The need for philosophy

The good news is that most people do not need philosophy. This is because philosophy attempts to solve a problem which most people are fortunate enough not to have. Philosophy is a possible medicine to an uncommon illness.

All people are born into a certain set of social conventions, beliefs, rules, values, cultural rituals, which I bind together into the term “system”. The purpose of any system is to sustain an illusion, to cover the unbearable aspects of life, to provide a (necessarily false) interpretation of reality, without which people have no motivation to carry on. All people receive a system at birth, tailored to their environment, which is good enough to last for life. But sometimes, something goes wrong.

In a letter from July 1882, Nietzsche writes to his friend Rohde: “I find it too hard to live if I cannot do so in the grand style — this in confidence to you, my old friend! Without a goal that I could regard as inexpressibly important I should not have been able to hold myself aloft in the light above the black floods.” Nietzsche describes here the need for a system, which is required to help him to stay “aloft above the black floods”.

“But wait just one moment”, you might be asking now, “if all people are born with a perfectly good system, which is designed to sustain an illusion and cover life’s unbearable sides, how come Nietzsche is seeing black floods below which he tries to stay aloft above? Why doesn’t his system shield him?” The answer is that systems work, but systems can also fall apart.

Systems are akin to blankets which keep people warm and healthy. The “blanket” received at birth is very sturdy and quite spacious. In most cases, it is enough to keep people warm throughout their entire life time. In fact, the vast majority of people is born into, and dies in, the same blanket. What helps keeping the blanket in good functioning order is if the person is not moving much underneath, so as not to wear it out or otherwise pull it, exposing part of the “body” to the coldness outside. However, some people, they move - a lot. They constantly seek new knowledge and wisdom from other environments, other worlds, other times. By that they are stretching their blanket to its limits, sometimes beyond its capacity.

At this point tears start to appear, holes form, the blanket becomes less effective, and coldness crawls in. Essentially, the individual has learned, or realized, or experienced something which he cannot reconcile within the confines of his existing system. He is becoming aware of the boundaries of his system, and of the “black floods” beyond them. He loses the ability to deceive himself, loses the illusion, and with it, his creativity. From here, it is quite easy to sink into a state of depression, suffering, and being directionless. The individual is getting sick, and in need for a medicine.

The most common medicine to mild colds is psychology. Psychology is there to help the individual fit back under the blanket, patch the holes, amend the tears, help him to restore his belief in the system, and by that, helping him to continue, to keep up, with his time-proven system. Psychology is achieving it, as its name suggests (psyche=soul, spirit; logia=research, study), by studying individuals and groups in order to try and understand how they behave and why, to distill the essence of their system, and then using the accrued knowledge to help individuals belonging to the group studied to fit back into that very same system.

Philosophy comes into use when the person has found too many holes in his "blanket". It can no longer keep him warm, no longer enables him to deceive himself. Small patches here and there are not able to help; he needs a new blanket, one that better fits him. Philosophy is offering alternative, synthetic systems, allowing the person to choose one which fits his current self better than the torn one, and by that healing him, rekindling in him the love for life.

During his search, before a person finds a new blanket, he might have developed antagonism and resentment towards the new knowledge, the new wisdom which he acquired through life, and even regret having ever set sail and going on explorations. He is fully aware that this new knowledge, this growth, is precisely the irreversible process which shrunk and torn his original blanket, putting him on the brink of despair. Philosophy, by providing him with a new warm blanket, by putting him in a creative state where he can enjoy the fruits of his growth, helps to defuse these negative feelings towards knowledge and turn them into appreciation, turn them into love, love for knowledge, as its name suggests (philo=love; sophia=knowledge,wisdom).

Nietzsche faced the same loss of a system, same abyss, and he invented an entire philosophy as a mean to heal himself. He first studied and tried the existing "medicines" known at his time - Schopenhauer, Kant, and many others. But he could spot holes in their systems, and after its holes are discovered, the "medicine" loses its effect. And so, when all else failed, Nietzsche needed to develop his own philosophy, to sew his own blanket, as the only way forward. It has to be clear though, that someone else could be perfectly fine with the blankets by Schopenhauer or Kant; these "holes" which ruin the medicine are subjective, as well as the ability to spot them.

Psychology helps one fit into his existing system, while philosophy offers new systems. Psychology could be useful also for these alternative systems. People who live by the philosophy of Nietzsche, for example, might also come to a point where they encounter a hole in it. Psychology could help them to patch this hole, allowing them to keep on staying within this system (Nietzsche's system). But such psychology, while it could exist in theory, will have hard time materializing. The reason is simply population size. Psychology is a research, and so it needs many examples to learn from and generalize. There are many examples of people living by the default systems of their environments, enabling psychology to thrive on them. However, it would be difficult to find a group of meaningful size which lives under Nietzsche's philosophy, to continue our example. Had such a group existed in large enough size, I believe we would see psychologists operating within that group, helping people with small patches, so that they can keep their blanket.