Saturday, May 30, 2015

Living Philosophically

I recently read A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry, and I would recommend that anyone interested in philosophy, or indeed Western culture more broadly, take a look.  The book is subtitled A philosophical guide to living - and that is what it aims to be.  By taking us on a walk-through of the history of philosophy, Prof Ferry tries to show how philosophy ought to have an impact on our daily lives.

You can cut this book two ways - diachronic and synchronic, if you like.  Structurally, it is a history, and takes us from ancient philosophy (especially the Stoics) through Christendom to the Enlightenment, then beyond into post-modernism and then the contemporary philosophical scene.  The book is driven forward by the repeated question of why people abandoned the thought of one epoch in favour of the next.  But then within each chapter the period in question is dealt with in terms of three areas of thought: theory (what is the universe like?), ethics (what ought we to do?), and soteriology (what is it all about and how we will cope with our own role and finitude?)  It is this last question which places Ferry firmly within the Continental tradition, and which makes him interesting.  He is not content that philosophy analyse the human condition; he wants it to provide hope and meaning.  For that reason, he quite sensibly places philosophy on the same plane as religion.  They are meant to do the same thing.

As a Christian reader, I'm fascinated and frustrated by Ferry's interaction with Christian thought.  He understands aspects of the gospel very clearly, but misses other things.  I suspect that the problem comes from treating the gospel as if it were a philosophy rather than a history.  What he does understand is that in contrast to philosophy Christianity is about humility: the humility of God who becomes incarnate, and the humility of the believer who finds truth, ethics, and salvation in accepting the word of another rather than thinking himself out of the problem.  In the end, Ferry thinks Christianity is too good to be true, offering as it does real life after death; for him, there is no such salvation, and philosophy should occupy itself with questions of how to face the inevitability and finality of death.

In other words, philosophy seeks to find salvation from the fear of death; Christianity offers salvation from death itself.  Ferry would of course prefer the latter - but the former is all he thinks we can realistically expect, and in the end the prescription to overcome the fear of death is disappointing: just a radical emphasis on the present, with the prospect of death spurring us on to do now what we will not be able to do later.

By emphasising the element of philosophy which contemporary thought (at least in the Anglo-Saxon world) most neglects - soteriology and the question of human meaning - Ferry inadvertently highlights that philosophy is unable to answer the ultimate questions.  By taking us through the history of philosophy, he shows that fashions of thought have changed over time - philosophy is a ship at sea, blown this way and that by various winds of doctrine.  The story is fascinating, but the conclusion is strangely hollow.

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