Philosophy Needs a New Definition

WHEN THE NEW SUFI MASTER came to Baghdad from his native Nishapur, in Khorasan, his fame had long preceded him. He had, the story goes, quite a reputation for his high spirituality and unique approach to ihsan (“perfection”), but also a reputation for his unorthodox ways. Some had heard fantastic rumors about him, outrageous things, but when pressed for details they professed ignorance. Be it as it may, on that February morning, not only a small group of aspiring disciples — all well dressed and well behaved, their manner appropriately pious, if perhaps a trifle too theatrically so — had gathered at the inn to welcome him, but city folk of all stripes: shopkeepers and passing peddlers, jewelers and perfume-makers from across the street, even teachers and students from the nearby university. As time passed, the crowd was growing impatient. The sheik certainly took his time.

As always on such occasions, among the expectant crowd there were also beggars and bums and other good-for-nothings. One of them turned out to be particularly annoying. All in rags, unkempt beyond description, and smelling badly of wine (he must have strayed from the Jewish or Christian quarters, some whispered), the bum was drawing closer and closer to the pious-looking, anxiety-ridden disciples. Taking his time, between hiccups, he examined them intently, one by one, which made the boys even more nervous: the last thing they wanted was to be found out by the great master in such unholy proximity.

Thank goodness, it now appeared that the bum was drifting away. As he was doing so, however, he addressed himself to the embarrassed youth, in such sober, educated Persian that their prayer beads suddenly froze in the palms of their hands: I’ve come for nothing, methinks. What am I to teach you? By the looks of you, you’ve all reached a state of purity compared to which I am nothing. My ways are messy, my teachings tentative, and my quest, far from pure, always gets entangled with my flesh, with my earthiness and my complicated commerce with the world. I am a failure, whereas you — just look at you! — you seem to dwell with the angels already! Now, if you will excuse me … And, with that, he slipped out of the inn. It was then, the story adds, that people at the inn realized that the sheik they had been waiting for had just left them.

The story of the Sufi master mirrors the state of much of contemporary philosophy. For there is at work in it a strong purist assumption: the notion that philosophy is reducible to a purely logical exercise, conducted strictly by the rules of rational argumentation and debate: whatever is not translatable into argument is irrelevant. Philosophers are somehow exempted from the laws that govern the rest of humankind, managing to operate on some superior, angelic plane, where their earthiness and their mundanity never follow them.

But philosophy has never only been about rational argumentation. It would be the saddest thing if it were, and it would not have lasted that long. What makes philosophy such an endurable affair, in the West as well as in the East, is that it engages not only our cognition, but also our imagination, emotions, artistic sensibility, religious impulses — in short, our being complicated, messy, impure creatures. To be human is to be always caught in existential entanglements, to have to deal with hybridity and messiness of all sorts. We are an unlikely union of high and low, spirit and flesh, reason and unreason. And philosophers, if they are not to lose their integrity, need to account for such wholeness.

That’s why philosophy — not the bland academic sort, but the lasting, transformative variety that we come across in Lao Tzu, Pythagoras, Plato, Saint Augustine, Rumi, Meister Eckhart, Spinoza, Marx, Nietzsche, Gandhi, Simone Weil — doesn’t come in a pure state. It always gets mixed with myth, poetry, drama, mysticism, scientific thinking, political militancy, or social activism. To complicate matters, often fiction writers (think Dostoyevsky, Huxley, or Borges) turn out to be particularly insightful philosophers, and so do filmmakers — such as Bergman, Kurosawa, and Tarkovsky — who philosophize just as insightfully on screen. All these entanglements and contaminations mark philosophy profoundly — indeed, they make it what it is.

Take a Sufi poem by Rumi. How can we tell, as we let ourselves be absorbed by it, where poetry ends and philosophy begins, or when and how mysticism starts stealing in? When Lao Tzu speaks of water — “the best (man) is like water. Water is good; it benefits all things and does not compete with them. It dwells in (lowly) places that all disdain. That is why it is so near to Tao” — does he really “make an argument”? Why should we care? There is a cosmic vision encapsulated here, a sense of being in the world and an understanding of the human condition that defy our petty notions of how philosophy should conduct itself. To cut open such a work only to extract from it its “argument” — discarding everything else, ignoring the design and vision of its author — is to kill the beating heart of that work, and to start dealing in corpses. Why should we do that?

Walter Benjamin used storytelling liberally in his philosophical work. He created fictions, long and short, or borrowed them from others, and this was no whim: Benjamin really thought philosophy and literature were profoundly interlinked; he speaks of “the epic side of truth,” and relates it to “the art of storytelling.” Humans are narrative-driven creatures for whom form is as important as any content. We can make sense of ourselves and the world in which we live insofar as we can weave narratives about ourselves and the world. Sartre, who knew a thing or two about philosophy and literature, wanted, in his work, to be both Spinoza and Stendhal.

If we experience everything as a story in the making, then there is indeed an “epic side” to truth, and philosophy, by definition, is bound to use literary craft. With every new story we make the world anew. Storytelling pushes the boundaries of what it means to be human: envisions and rehearses new forms of experience, gives firm shape to something that hasn’t existed before, makes the unthought-of suddenly intelligible. Storytelling and philosophy are twins. Plato’s “allegory of the cave” makes an important philosophical point in such a poignant manner precisely because it’s such a good story. Yet how are we to tell, in such a case, the storyteller from the philosopher? “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” wondered the poet. But why should we?

Since philosophy and literature are so intimately intertwined, pathos is not something philosophers just pepper their work with, but it’s already there, embedded in their work. No sooner do you start philosophizing than you begin emplotting ideas, experimenting with form, employing rhetorical tropes, toying with emotions, and making room for empathy — that is, crafting a piece of literature. One philosopher writes, with studied relief, of arriving to “the land of truth,” which is “surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the region of illusion, where many a fog-bank, many an iceberg, seems to the mariner, on his voyage of discovery, a new country.” The quote is not from Nietzsche or Benjamin’s work, nor from other “literary philosophers” — it’s from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Even the driest of thinkers cannot help making use of literary images and metaphors, of fables and stories. (Ironically, the sheer act of “making an argument,” on which the philosophical purists swear today, is, in important sense, a form of storytelling, but that’s another story.)

A lively conversation has been taking place lately on mainstream philosophy in the West today and the way it treats non-Western traditions of thought as insufficiently philosophical. Such bias, though serious, is only a symptom — one among many — of parochial, purist philosophy’s misunderstanding of itself. Not only are other philosophical traditions easily dismissed, but within the Western tradition itself important genres, thinkers, bodies of work are rejected just as arrogantly.

Such arrogance comes with its own blinding punishment: we can no longer tell the essential from the trifling, a genuine problem from a passing fad. We are no longer able to detect the philosophical unless it comes to us in the form of the peer-reviewed academic article, published (preferably in English) in a journal with a stellar ranking and a top-notch editorial board. No wonder philosophy has become so irrelevant today. Why should anyone need philosophers, if philosophy limits itself so radically?

What we badly need now is a liberal dose of humility. We should at last understand that philosophy comes under different guises, and by many names, that it never comes in a pure state but loves messiness and hybridity, that it gets entangled with the philosophers’ lives and earthiness. Such an act of humility wouldn’t impoverish philosophy at all. On the contrary, it would empower the philosophers and make philosophy a richer, more sophisticated, and more relevant affair.

If only we could find a Sufi master to humble us a bit.


Costica Bradatan is a professor of Humanities and the author, most recently, of Dying for Ideas. The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers (Bloomsbury, 2015). He serves as the religion/comparative studies editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.