Philosophy was featured on the cover of this past Sunday's NYT Book Review: two pieces on new philosophy books. I was particularly taken with one, Sarah Bakewell's review of Jame Miller's new book: Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche. Bakewell notes:
If the proof of a pudding is in the eating, and the proof of a rule is in the exceptions, where should we look for the proof of a philosophy?
For Friedrich Nietzsche, the answer was obvious: to test a philosophy, find out if you can live by it. This is “the only critique of a philosophy that is possible and that proves something,” he wrote in 1874. It’s also the form of critique that is generally overlooked in the philosophy faculties of universities. Nietzsche therefore dismissed the professional discipline as irrelevant, a “critique of words by means of other words,” and devoted himself to pursuing an idiosyncratic philosophical quest outside the academy. As for texts, he wrote, “I for one prefer reading Diogenes Laertius” — the popular third-century Epicurean author of a biographical compilation called “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers.” If the proof of philosophy lies in life, then what could be more useful than reading about how the great philosophers have lived?
The notion that philosophy is something that should be lived, or that the value of any particular philosophy will be demonstrated to the extent that it leads one to a good or better life, is a profoundly Chinese idea. Whether we are talking about Confucius or Mozi or Zhuangzi, it is all about living well or living better. But, alas, neither Bakewell or Miller make this rather obvious point because so much of philosophical discourse in the US, and I suspect the West generally, is simply ignorant of Chinese texts. How much more might be made of Miller's topic if some reference to some Chinese thinkers came into the conversation?...
Bakewell goes on:
As Miller notes, Descartes opened up two divergent paths in philosophy. One was the old tradition, in which one seeks a better life and recounts the search in a personal narrative. The other led to the impersonal discipline now prevalent in universities, which in theory can be practiced by anyone. Yet Descartes himself would barely have understood this separation. For him, a philosophical life required both the quest for precision and the intense personal experience that drove one to it.
Again, a contrast with China here is instructive. When we contemplate the differences between Chinese and Western philosophy the break that Descartes symbolizes is important. It would seem that there was less of a distinction between the two worlds before Descartes: Westerners were still generally in agreement with Chinese that philosophy should be practiced and inform how life is lived. The rationalization of philosophy after Descartes, and its detachment from practical concerns, is a significant divergence. We could say, the "West" doesn't start becoming "Westernized," in a philosophical sense, until after Descartes. Nietzsche, then, could be seen as making a move not only back toward the West's past, but also toward a Chinese sensibility.
We could push a bit further: Marxism in China could be seen as an extreme expression of the idea of philosophy for practical living. In the Maoist years, it ultimately failed the test of whether a better life could be lived through it. That particular philosophy, practiced in that particular Maoist manner simply made life worse. The revival of Confucianism, and other philosophies and religions, in China now is an effort to recalibrate philosophy and life in a modern context. And that modernity matters: it creates material conditions and incentives and behavior that press against the notions of a good life that might be derived from the old books.
However interesting these questions are, Miller's book will not land on the top of my reading list just now. Instead, I have before another volume (thanks Tracy) that goes to the same sorts of questions: Pierre Hadot's, Philosophy as a Way of Life. It focuses on Greeks and Romans, not Chinese, but digs a bit deeper and more systematically into the point Miller is making. Clearly, blog fodder for the future....