The Beginning and the End of Positive Philosophy

In the Theaeteus, Plato has Socrates say that “wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” In his Metaphysics, Aristotle echoes this by writing that “it was their wonder, astonishment, that first led men to philosophize and still leads them.”

In the Phaedo, Plato has Socrates say that “those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death.”

Philosophy, then,–at least if we take Socrates’s, Plato’s, and Aristotle’s words for it–begins in wonder and ends with death.

To become a philosopher, you must first be astonished by your own self-consciousness of the world, by the feeling of knowing your own ignorance of the whole. There is more to this ignorance than meets the eye. Socrates would never deny the truths grasped by geometry or logic. These are true enough. His is a learned ignorance: a gnosis that consists primarily in knowing that he does not know all the things he at first seems to.

Learned ignorance is not simple knowing, since the occult knowledge it provides cannot be stated clearly and distinctly in some logical formula. The Truth it approaches is no good for building marble archways or winning arguments in court. But nor is it simple ignorance, since underlying the philosopher’s knowledge of ignorance is an intuition of the whole. The philosopher is ignorant of this or that particular thing, but of the cosmos, he can be sure it exists-as-one, that it is a unity, a universe.

To wonder is to feel the infinite Whole–and in feeling it to know that it exists (existence), even if you cannot as of yet know what it is (essence). Wonder is not the feeling of everything together, but the intuition of All at once. This is the beginning of philosophy. Emerson describes it in Nature:

Standing on the bare ground,–my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,–all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God…

The goal is not to rest in this feeling, in an immediate intuition of the One, but through it to overcome the fear of death. Such a fear is natural for self-conscious animals like us, but by learning to think and to know lovingly–that is, by philosophizing–we can come to meet death willingly, thereby relating to the body not as soul prison by as soul portal.

The soul is individual only so long as it lives with a body. To the extent that philosophy is preparation for death, for the soul’s passage beyond the body, it is the desire to think objectively, without the limitation of subjectivity. The philosopher seeks to think beyond the body. The world, then, is the arena of philosophy. Though of course it remains all the while centered on the soul–that is, the soul of the world.

Between a philosopher’s initial astonishment of the fact of the world and his passage through shadow into source, there is much to think and write about.

Kant thought quite a bit about wonder, even attempting to think methodically so as to make a science of philosophy. In the end, he could only contradict himself. He thought knowledge must begin with sensory experience, with the givens of outer spatiality and inner temporality; on the other hand, he argued that the given world of experience would make no sense in the absence of a priori concepts like substance/accident, cause/effect, and quantity/quality. Kant formulates this contradiction–which is simultaneously the generative paradox underlying the power of his entire philosophical program–with the statement: “thoughts without content are empty, and intuitions without concepts are blind.”

Kant brought forth what Schelling would later call negative philosophy. He forgoes knowledge of the Whole for knowledge of the conditions of the possibility of knowing the Whole. Having then established these conditions (e.g., space-time, the categories), he denies theoretical knowledge of anything but the parts, since it is only parts that we experience with our physical bodies. Schelling describes this negative, critical moment in the movement of philosophy as a necessary step along the way toward a new dogmatism, or a positive philosophy. Positive philosophy is unlike the dogmatisms of old, since it does not assume that the divine’s status as “the most supreme being” leads of itself to this divinity’s “necessary existence.” To think the infinity of the Whole upon feeling it is one thing, actually knowing and expressing its reality is another.

“Schelling characterizes the execution and fulfillment of this task as the never-ending process of demonstrating God’s divinity that, as the interpretation of a process freely initiated, posits an open future incapable of being reduced to the necessary unfolding of any predetermined plan.” (-Bruce Matthews, p. 69, from the introduction of The Grounding of Positive Philosophy by F.W.J Schelling [2007]).

Theologians have long looked to philosophy to prove the existence of God. Not only does this imply that philosophy might come to glimpse God’s essence as though it were a static blueprint it could copy down on paper, it also implies that God is a mere belief in need of abstract justification. Schelling admits that no such a priori proof of God is possible–since God is not merely an idea, but a fact. Philosophy begins in wonder, which is to say it begins in an experience of the divinity of the world. To attempt to logically prove God’s existence would be pointlessly tautological, since the proof itself would always depend upon God as its own condition of possibility. For positive philosophy, the point is to communicate the divine meaning of the actual world as we experience it, to remind the actual soul of its immortality and universality while alive here and now.

“The experience toward which positive philosophy proceeds is not just of a particular kind, but is the entirety of all experience from beginning to end. What contributes to the proof is not a part of experience, but all of experience. For precisely this reason, though, this proof itself is not just the beginning or a part of a science (least of all some type of syllogistic proof posited at the apex of philosophy), it is the entire science, that is, the entire positive philosophy–and this is nothing other than the progressive, strengthening with every step, and continually growing proof of the actually existing God. Because the realm of reality in which this proof moves is not finished and complete–for even if nature is now at its end and stands still, there is, nonetheless, still the unrelenting advance and movement of history–because insofar as the realm of reality is not complete, but is a realm perpetually nearing its consummation, the proof is therefore also never finished, and for this very reason this science is only a philo-sophie” (-Schelling, p. 181, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy).

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4 thoughts on “The Beginning and the End of Positive Philosophy

  1. Matt,
    In that same Schelling volume, see “Abduction as the Method of Positive Philosophy” in the translator’s introduction (pg. 68 of the SUNY version).

    Great post by the way. I like to sit down and read what you write when I can find time (especially your more reflective posts drawing on Emerson, Schelling, Plato, to balance out technical posts on Whitehead, et al).

    Leon / after nature

    • Thanks for stopping by, Leon. I will certainly read that section drawing out Pierce’s debt to Schelling. I skipped much of the translator’s introduction to read Schelling’s lecture first, but what I’ve read of it thus far clarifies a lot. I hope to read your book soon, as well.

  2. Pingback: The Eternal Form of Philosophy (a response to Archive Fire) | Footnotes to Plato

  3. Pingback: [Rough Draft] The Poetic Imagination in the Speculative Philosophies of Plato, Schelling, and Whitehead | Footnotes to Plato

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