Everything is water

by Jonasan

The ‘Tools of Philosophy’ which some thinkers like to eulogise and even formalise into long lists seem to be of only limited value. It is true that, upon being confronted with an unfamiliar philosophical problem, the philosopher equipped with these tools should be able to comprehend it and to defend a (perhaps original) solution. But philosophy is not a book of puzzles. Or if it is a book of puzzles, this is something which must be established separately and not merely assumed from the outset. We are not dealing with a collective body of knowledge which is steadily added to, otherwise our fundamental truth would still be ‘everything is water’. Philosophy is an act.

The implication of the attitude of those who are fond of their ‘Tools’ is that a young philosopher may join the collective endeavour by initiation into its methods – or rather, the older philosopher’s own methods – and perhaps develop an existing idea further; solve another puzzle from the book. The apparently magnanimous effort of helping the initiate speak the language and use the techniques of the existing elite may at first seem perfectly reasonable. However, it must be supplemented by a later stage of rebellion against this status quo, otherwise the initiate will indeed join the ranks of those he admires, and spend his days festering in a lecture theatre repeating these old ideas to the next generation of students (‘Everything is water, as Thales teaches us’). He may not even be the object of the same admiration he felt for those who came before him since he is merely the prophet of genius, not genius itself.

If, however, he throws off the absurd uniform of the acolyte he will be able to create something truly original and enduring. He must have the courage to leave his comfortable, servile position and denounce the mentors he once loved. Granted, not all those who do work in philosophy need to do this – there is plenty of room for them in footnotes of greater works by greater thinkers – but the only way to make the glorious, though probably doomed attempt to escape the pure contingency of your position in the history of thought is to question your surroundings and attempt something radically new. To disagree is not enough either; opposing your pineapple-ism to your former supervisor’s anti-pineapple-ism just means that you are still working within his co-ordinates and accepting his presuppositions. If philosophy worked like this we would still be debating whether or not everything is water.

Of course, this violent act of disavowal is precisely what a good philosopher expects and probably looks forward to in the next generation. The student who cannot bring himself to cut the cord is actually a disappointment to those whose approval he craves. I claim that this expectation is subtly included in the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next and the philosopher who deserves to be remembered is the one who can decode this message and act upon it.

It is not the case that everything is water.