Philosophy as a Contributor to Well-Being
Walter B. Gulick
The main theme of the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, "Paideia: Philosophy Educating Humanity," challenges philosophers to assess what impact philosophy is having and should be having in the world today. The use in the title of the classical term paideia suggests that conference organizers believe that philosophy should have both an beneficial and a broad impact. For implicit in the notion of paideia is the idea that philosophy is a boon bestowing enterprise; in enlightening persons, it improves their well-being. The breadth of impact is suggested by this definition of paideia from Webster's Third New International Dictionary: "The training of the physical and mental faculties in such a way as to produce a broad enlightened mature outlook harmoniously combined with maximum cultural development." I submit that this classical notion remains a worthy ideal expressive of the gifts philosophy can bring humanity. Paideia is cognate to notions of education found in Asian philosophy. Philosophy practiced in the spirit of paideia can indeed be a contributor to human well-being.
However, the world today is a vastly different place than the classical world in which the notion of paideia took root. A challenge facing any interpreter of paideia now is to locate considerations which have arisen in the course of philosophical history which deserve to be incorporated into a contemporary theory of paideia. A further challenge is to organize these philosophical perspectives and claims in such a way that a potential beneficiary of the educational effort is not simply overwhelmed by an array of unrelated claims. A parade of competing theories is likely to possess neither inner coherence nor outer winsomeness.
My suggestion is that philosophy can best lead humans to greater well-being when the various functions of reason are articulated and an organizing framework is constructed that maximizes reason's productive flourishing in interaction with the world. In making this suggestion, I am merely seizing upon rational activity as a necessary ingredient in philosophical insight. I will delineate rational activity and its orienting structures in five arenas of concern. The first two highlight several of reason's basic functions. The third arena helps clarify reason's relation to the body and to well-being. The last two arenas designate constraining conditions which work to ensure that reason in fact secures human well-being in harmony with the world.
Prior to describing these five arenas, however, it is important to say more about the very nature of reason. In Anglo-American philosophy in the first two-thirds of the century, reason often appeared to be a self-evident, and indeed fundamental, notion. Symbolic logic was a paradigm of philosophical rigor, and any attempted investigation into rational activity was discredited as a form of psychologism. The writings of such persons as Quine and Nozick helped bring the idea of reason into question, a movement augmented by the increased influence of Nietzsche and the emergence of Derrida's attack on logocentrism, Foucault's investigation into the archaeology of knowledge, etc. When one speaks of reason now, one must specify and explain what is meant.
The focus of our concern is on human well-being. Any notion of reason employed must address both mental and physical factors, as stated in the definition of paideia above. Philosophy as an educative activity will be absorbed by active, reflective subjects having existential concerns, and a certain emphasis on subjectivity must be accommodated. To meet these interests, I will employ an extended form of Kantian reason. I will begin with the broadest notion of reason Kant employedreason as cognitive spontaneityand enhance it to envision reason as an embodied activity expressed through language in a certain cultural/historical milieu. Robert Neville's description of reason as an activity of valuation in his Reconstruction of Thinking is consistent with the notion of reason employed here, as is Mark Johnson's description of reason in The Body in the Mind.
Embodied reason engaged in a quest for well-being is amenable to philosophical instruction in at least five arenas of concern. A complete education in well-being would require that all five arenas be utilized in the appropriate complementary ways. Additional philosophical approaches and resources are informative and can enrich life, but the five perspectives on reason to be described are virtually indispensable for overall human well-being in the international culture which has emerged at the end of the twentieth century.
First, the exploratory reflective aspect of reason must be evoked in those who would be educated in the spirit of paideia. Philosophers engaged in helping persons seek well-being will ask them why they do what they do. If people say they engage in an activity simply because it is pleasurable, they would ignore the consequences for self and others which are essential to long term well-being. If people carry out activities simply because others do the same, again those people are bereft of any notion of philosophical well-being. Training in exploratory reflection allows people to break away from such automatic responses, opens up a realm of freedom, and enables them to sense the wonder of existence. The aspect of reflection to be stressed in this first arena is an imaginative, seeking type of cognitive activity. It is telic. Through a searching reflection one can begin to envisage what the good life might be like; one can search out basic values and goals which one can use in determining how best to live.
It is to be expected that a discussion of reason's role in education would emphasize reflection and contemplation. During the Age of Enlightenment the ability of reflective reason to search out and establish an autonomous life style was regarded as its distinctive characteristic. The second arena of concern is also traditionally associated with rational activity and indeed with reflection. I'm referring to the analytical, critical dimension of reasoning. Searching reflection is primarily directed toward seeking new ideas and alternative insights; critical reflection is oriented toward developing explanations and assessing arguments for logical consistency. Critical reflection has tendencies toward reductionism. An impressive variety of philosophical movements has been driven by critical reflection: for instance, Descartes' rejection of medieval thought in favor of rational methodology, Kant's use of critique to uncover the necessary conditions underlying some domain of thought, and Marx's exposition of the economic substructure and ideological superstructure of society.
The third arena of reason to be examined will doubtless require the greatest stretch beyond the received view of reason of any of the five. Embodied reason is seen in this third arena as the creator of existential meaning. A person experiences existential meaning when some among that person's basic interests or concerns are brought into a significant cognitive relation with their aims or validating contexts so that satisfactions (positive existential meaning) or dissatisfactions (negative existential meaning) are felt and savored. Positive experiences of existential meaning are the sort of thing Kierkegaard was referring to when he spoke of (existential) truth as subjectivity. Just as tastes differ, so do the types of experiences that different individuals find existentially meaningful. For one person, closing a business deal may be especially meaningful, while falling in love may be a peak experience for another, and time to read a good book in a lonely cabin will be truly satisfying for yet another. Persons experiencing satisfactions such as these with some intensity and frequency are generally able to testify that life is worth living.
Why is it appropriate to include evidently psychological experiences such as these in a presentation of a rational quest for well-being? Aren't emotions more evident in these experiences than reason? And doesn't philosophy fall into an indeterminate morass of empirical data and self indulgent introspection if existential meaning is adopted into the fold? Why aren't the insights which led to the exclusion of psychologism from philosophy in the late nineteenth century as sound today as ever?
The Kantian ideal of philosophy as grounded in pure reason has been rather thoroughly discredited in this century. All programs centered about the self validating nature of reason, whether offered by Russell, Carnap or the early Wittgenstein, have encountered trouble in hooking on to reality as experienced. Even though cautious, the steps away from the a priori taken by Quine, Sellars, and Goodman implicitly did away with the bogeyman of psychologism. In recent years much good work has been done by Robert Solomon, Amelie Rorty, Patricia Greenspan and many others to overcome the dichotomy, traceable to Platonism, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, et. al., between reason and emotion. From a neurological perspective Antonio Damasio's book, Descartes' Error, convincingly connects reason with feeling and emotion. Years ago, William James and Susanne Langer well understood that embodied reasoning is grounded in feelings. When basic purposes are reenforced or thwarted, the resulting intensified feelings manifest themselves as emotions. Reasons conjoined with emotions have the power to motivate us. In contrast, reason as the disincarnate expression of logic is cold and disconnected to the quest for well-being. In sum, embodied cognitive activity necessarily includes both reason and emotion, each of which contributes to experiences of well-being.
By paying attention to the sorts of experiences which produce existential meaning, individuals become aware of the actual grounds of their caring and loving, two important ingredients of well-being. An exposition of existential meaning contributes to an understanding of what actually motivates us, in contrast to the oughts mediated to us through society. But an analysis of existential meaning is not simply a fancy new way of talking about pleasure, for what is meaningful to us stands on its own and engages us in a whole world. An expanded version of epistemology needs to clarify the dynamics of existential meaning, revealing how it links us to the past and the future, illuminating how we contribute to the world in which we participate. Surely evocation and integration will be shown to be key moments in the human creation of meaning. Persons sensitive to ways to enhance experiences of existential meaning will understand much about the the roots of that which is authentic for them.
In seeking well-being why do we need to attend to anything more than existential meaning? Why are rational constraints needed to augment the satisfactions and connections characteristic of existential meaning? For one thing, experiences of existential meaning are individualistic and can be highly self-centered. Despite their world creating character, they lend themselves easily to aesthetic analysis, in Kierkegaard's sense of that term. Presumably Johannes the Seducerand Hitlerexperience existential satisfaction from their activities. Since humans are social animals who live in a variety of environments, an analysis which ignores the reciprocal relationship between the tasks and personalities of daily living and the reflective aspects of reason is incomplete. Likewise, well-being is more than an individualistic notion; it encompasses ideal relationships with other persons and one's environment. Human well-being therefore necessarily includes a moral dimension.
In addition to instructing persons about existential meaning, then, a contemporary theory of paideia must engage a fourth arena of philosophical inquiry, ethics. Perhaps no other area of philosophical endeavor has changed as much in recent decades as ethics. Whereas at mid-century an ethereal metaethics prevailed in Anglo-American philosophy, the influence of feminist thought and the demand for applied ethics have been powerful forces serving to broaden dramatically the scope of ethical concerns. Yet the sort of moral considerations needed in this discussion of the promotion of human well-being are brief and focussed. What is needed is a moral point of view which can be used to help ensure that the sorts of existential meanings individuals are involved with are beneficial to the whole community.
The moral point of view articulated by Kurt Baier forty years ago continues to be useful in assessing proposed activities today. Baier distinguishes between following a principle of narrow self-interest, which, as in the Hobbesian world, creates a dangerous world of competing interests, and the moral point of view, which overrides self-interest when everyone's long term well-being would thus be harmed. Taking the moral point of view, a person utilizes searching reflection to adopt a point of view that is essentially ecological in nature. All components in a system and all envisioned consequences are taken into account in discerning which of various possible actions to take. Thus the moral point of view can brake heedless, self-indulgent acts carried out in pursuit of existential meaning.
Baier's moral point of view might remain an abstract wish to consider all interests in a situation unless enriched by two further considerations. First, the strand of ethical thought which emphasizes the role of sensitivity to othersempathy, if you willhas an important part to play. Hume and Schopenhauer can be taken as examples of thinkers whose appreciative discussion of sentiment might be enlisted in fleshing out how all the actors involved in a moral situation might feel. Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings add depth to this discussion. Second, the fruitfulness of rational engagement among all the actors would be enhanced if Habermas' insights concerning communicative competence were noted and employed.
Yet one factor essential to genuine well-being is lacking. How does searching reflection determine what is of greatest value in a situation? Is that which is of greatest existential meaning to a person to be the final arbiter of value? If so, wouldn't Protagoras be correct: man is the measure of all things? More specifically, wouldn't each person be locked in a monad of taste, wouldn't each monad seek ever greater personal satisfaction, and lacking any guarantee of a pre-established harmony, wouldn't each monad's hope of gaining cooperation or agreement with other monads seem more a function of power than of reason?
The fifth arena of concern addresses just this issue. Humans as reasoning beings need to be aware of the limits of reason. Attunement to the world requires a radical openness to the things of the world. Through a sort of Heideggerian moment of aletheia, things in their richness, their value, reveal themselves. In this affirmation, Western philosophy is in harmony with much Asian philosophy, Heidegger in accord with Nishitani. In their self revelation, things display their depth, their weight, their complexity. Thus is the egocentric predicament broken. In receptive openness, the human assignment of value to the things and events of the world is a dependent recognition, not a creative act.
Before leaving this fifth arena of concern, I'd like to address two related issues. First, experiences of existential meaning need not be incompatible with genuine experiences of things themselves. True, there is a felt, autobiographical dimension to existential meaning, but there is also a participatory dimension: they connect us to things, persons, events beyond ourselves. The richest experiences of existential meaning are those most deeply embedded in the world. Thus an emphasis on existential meaning need not lead to the Protagoran impasse. Second, Heidegger's discourse about things has been nicely extended by Albert Borgmann and David Strong to make some important points about how technological devices and commodities often shield us from full engagement in today's world. The advertised promises of material fulfillment and technological control entice us into a lax mode of living in which "satisfying needs" comes to define the good life. Attention to needs leads individuals to the thinness of self and away from the richness of the world. Surely the goal of paideia is not to support isolated lives of consumption, but to lead people to richer lives of engagement.
It has been claimed that not just any haphazardly proclaimed philosophical ideas have the power to educate humanity today. In this essay five complementary arenas of concern have been set forth as candidates for a cogent contemporary theory of paideia. Reasoning in the form of reflecting in both searching and critical modes is central to paideia today even as it was in Hellenistic times. But the way reason is connected to embodied activity through feeling is a more recent discovery. Sensitivity to existential meaning helps people to determine what they really want and believe, and it also joins them to the persons, things, and events that matter most to them. Use of the moral point of view safeguards individuals against wallowing in merely self-indulgent meanings heedless of the welfare of others and of the world as a whole. Finally, only by being open to the complex and challenging things of the world is a person receptive to the mysterious dimensions of life and able to discern ultimate priorities. It is my hope and belief that persons guiding themselves by the five-leveled notion of paideia articulated here will again experience the power of philosophy to confer well-being on themselves and the world.