What Embodied Philosophy Isn’t & Is [101/3]

Embodied Philosophy 101 (Class 3)

 "Offering" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

"Offering" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

What Philosophy Isn’t

Before we can begin to answer the question “what is embodied philosophy?”, we need to first unpack and define the two words that make up this compound, for what “philosophy” is and what the “body” is are by no means self-evident. Indeed, they might be two of the most loaded and misunderstood words in the English language. With regards to the former, this might not strike you as surprising. But when it comes to the “body”, how could this be misunderstood, you might think. Isn’t the body one of the most obvious facts – profound, even, in its obviousness?

Let’s come back to the body in the next article of our introductory series and first take on this beast of a concept: philosophy.

We can describe at least two forms of philosophy that are often referred to explicitly or implicitly:

  1. “Personal” philosophy
  2. Academic philosophy

Embodied Philosophy will carve out a space somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. But let’s unpack the above two “forms” of philosophy to get at what we mean here.

We’ve all heard someone, at one time or another, refer to his or her “personal philosophy”: “I’d have the ingrate tarred and feathered, but that’s just my personal philosophy”; or “Everybody has their own philosophy. Mine happens to be that I will not kiss on the first date”.  Philosophy, as it is referred to in these silly examples, means something like personal “values” or “principles”, standards by which one chooses to live.  We might say this is how the word “philosophy” has become used in its most popular, colloquial form – as a kind of feature of one’s individual personality or style.

This sort of “personal philosophy” is fine, but it is not exactly the kind of philosophy we’re talking about with “Embodied Philosophy”, although it is true that the latter involve values and principles. But we’ll discuss that more shortly…

 "Surprise" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

"Surprise" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

On the other side of the spectrum, we are familiar with what we might call “high-brow” philosophy, the serious kind, mostly to be found in the halls of academia, echoing in ivory towers and read by few outside the academy. This philosophy, in general, is highly abstract and specialized. It concentrates on interpreting, reinterpreting and defending the interpretations of mostly Western philosophers from the European continent: people like Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and so on. We call these the “continental” philosophers.

Besides these “continental” philosophers, there are the “analytic” philosophers, who are even more academic and specialized in their philosophical writing - to the point where the layman would mostly find it impossible to grasp anything that Professor so-and-so is saying.  These analytic philosophers are often hung up on mathematics and the logical analysis of words.

Generally speaking, these continental and analytic academics have monopolized the word “philosophy” in the public imagination, hence the reason why so many of us, when we hear the word “philosophy”, tend to think of an old white man with a beard sitting in an armchair, staring off into space pensively, lost in a kind of a thinking that drifts far above the world and its problems. Indeed, philosophy has become characteristically associated with a practice of the mind, a game of headiness and obtuse theorizing, which is part of the reason why we attach “embodied” to our version of philosophy: to smack against the culturally habituated manner of understanding what philosophy is.

It is no surprise that so many people have come to view philosophy as something out of touch with the world and therefore irrelevant to solving its problems. After all, how could armchair theorizing help the people suffering in the aftermath of Nepal’s earthquake? How can abstract concepts make people less hungry or assist Syrian refugees? Will LGBT people be able to live their lives without fear of violence because some white dude split a concept in half and made a really subtle observation about the phenomenology of color?

Of course, this is a little bit unfair, because the philosophers working on these tasks mostly never claim to make a direct contribution to the bettering of lives on the social level -- at least not directly. They investigate these realities often out of pure enjoyment or for the sake of a contribution not to social issues but to the conversation on these ideas being had in the conference rooms of the academy. The institutionalized culture of the academy perpetuates its own values of discourse, and the rubber-stamped topics of conversation at any given moment largely dictate the coordinates of the academic philosopher’s world.

The issue is not so much what these philosophers are working on, but that the word “philosophy” should be attributed to what they’re doing in the first place. According to the definition of philosophy that we ascribe to, this is not philosophy; perhaps these discourses should parade themselves under another name altogether. But this is not the time or the place for such a campaign. Needless to say, for our project of “embodied philosophy”, this kind of ivory tower philosophy will not do for us. This kind of philosophy is too inaccessible, too wrapped up in a conversation that excludes too many people.

(I should point out, however, that some of the philosophers I mentioned above – Spinoza, Nietzsche, etc. – can be found in the pages of Embodied Philosophy, but their work will be considered from a place of embodiment and not superfluous abstraction.)

 "Valentine Lightfulness" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

"Valentine Lightfulness" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

What Philosophy Is

The Ancient Greek word for philosophy is philosophia and literally translates as “love of wisdom” or “friend of wisdom”. It is this original meaning of the word that inspires what philosophy is for us. But what is wisdom? And what is love and friendship? These concepts themselves are not self-evident.  

This practice of questioning the meaning of words that we so often take for granted (since we’ve grown up using them) has been a practice of philosophizing since its inception. So to be a lover of wisdom must be somehow related to this practice of questioning anything that is seemingly “normal” or taken for granted as true or real. In our search for wisdom, we question and investigate the often overlooked assumptions that undergird and support the way that we, individually and as a culture, view the world around us. But this process of questioning is an unending process. We don’t, as philosophers, intend to arrive at some kind of static objective truth, a philosophical heaven on earth. We seek truth for the sake of seeking.

Karl Jaspers puts it this way: “The essence of philosophy is not the possession of the truth but the search for truth. [...] Philosophy means to be on the way. Its questions are more essential than its answers, and every answer becomes a new question.” [Way to Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy (1951), as translated by Ralph Mannheim, Ch. 1, What is Philosophy?, p. 12]

So wisdom, then, is not something we possess, just as we never possess our partners. We are in a relationship with a partner, with a being that breathes, shifts and changes like everything else in the universe. To be in a relationship is to be forever in a process, an unfolding, dynamic experience. To be a lover of wisdom (philosophos) is to be in an analogous process and relationship.

Interestingly, the Greek word for wisdom, Sophia, is referred to in the Gnostic tradition as a goddess. Wisdom, in this way of seeing, is not an object to be acquired but is a sentient being that inspires love and devotion. After all, how could “love of wisdom” make any sense if wisdom was denied a life of its own? Isn’t love more like love when it is for something alive, dynamic and luminous, rather than for something stiff and encyclopedic?

Naturally, I understand that this might inspire some raised eyebrows -- “Wisdom is a goddess? Come on, now.” However, I am speaking less about something “literal” in the common sense understanding of that word, and more about the images that we use to understand certain matters of experience. Pictures and images that are invoked through our use of language are incredibly powerful and unconsciously motivate so much of the way that we see and comprehend the world. By picturing and imagining wisdom as a goddess, we invoke the will to see wisdom as a conscious thing, and furthermore to see consciousness as a pervading energy in everything, even things we don’t traditionally consider conscious (mostly due to cultural bias, something we love to explore at Embodied Philosophy).  

 "Timeless Bliss" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

"Timeless Bliss" / Hartwig HKD / Flickr

We’ll come back to the matter of consciousness when we discuss the body in the next article, but suffice it to say for now that the choice to see wisdom as a goddess hinges on the experience of seeking wisdom either as a process of subject acquiring and accumulating objects or as a relational process of subject to subject. The latter structure is a more fruitful one, because, just as you would hopefully never expect your partner to remain exactly the same as when you met him or her on first meeting, you would similarly not expect wisdom to be a static object that, once found, will remain stagnant and unchanging in its expression.

This distinction between living wisdom and static knowledge echoes our discussion of the two kinds of knowledge (object-knowledge vs. jnana) from the first article of this series, “Know Thyself”.  Like so many descriptions of the process of love as being a fusion of two beings into one, the process of jnana is analogously a process of fusing one’s being to the goddess wisdom such that previous boundaries of self and other dissolve into fullness.

To return, then, to how this process of being in relationship to wisdom is connected to our principles and our values, every tradition we explore at Embodied Philosophy offers tenets of behavior, principles and prescriptions for how to act in the world, that align most deeply with this dance with fullness that is philosophy. The prescriptions and values that we will explore here are not meant to be seen as arbitrary “commandments” from a transcendent deity; instead, these are the principles that realized beings, practitioners of these philosophies have found to be most amiable to the process of waking up and of shirking the scales from the eyes of deep awareness.

Naturally, an investigation of this word “philosophy” could take up an entire website or be the focus of one’s life’s work, so this short article should not be taken as comprehensive or authoritative on the topic. Indeed, there may even be disagreements with the above found in the pages you explore here at Embodied Philosophy, but disagreement is of course a part of the process of philosophy. After all, who can claim to never have had a disagreement with a lover?

In Article Four of the Embodied Philosophy 101 Series, we discuss the body and specifically the issue of mind/body dualism that breeds so much confusion and suffering in the world.

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