How Philosophical Writers Think

Regular visitors to this blog know that the French philosopher and spiritual writer Antonin Sertillanges is a favourite of mine and has been a huge influence on my thinking when it comes to living a thinker’s life; his thoughts on the lifestyle, attitudes, and work habits of the serious intellectual are always worthy of careful consideration. In this post, I am going to look at some key considerations that underpin a philosophical work and link them to my own subjective approach.

Detail from Rembrandt's Philosopher Meditating

Effective philosophical works need a suitable scale, a unique personal perspective, and a definite focus. (Image: Wikimedia)

The Scale and Origins of the Work

Sertillanges: “A few well-chosen facts, a few big ideas, big rather by their coherence and their inter-connection than by their tenor, are matter enough for an inspired work.”

This is the quality before quantity argument, and it raises the obvious question of where you get those quality ideas in the first place. Good choices are easier to make once you have revealed or recognized your personal worldview, for then you can select objective facts from the world around you and choose more general philosophical ideas using the criterion that they must extend or develop what you already have. That is to say, if you know who you genuinely are, you can exploit the personal philosophy that is already driving your life. Your work then becomes part of the lifelong process of self-realization, of making the best of who you are, of developing what you already have at your disposal. Look for a select few ideas that possess internal consistency and have links among them that you can see and explain from your own unique perspective.

Working from Your Insides Out

Work that arises from within has the added benefit or receiving the backing of authentic will. Without the motivation of your genuine will, it is unlikely you will finish what you have started. With your own authentic will backing the project, your path may not be smooth, but in all likelihood, you will reach your destination in the end. Remember to keep your final destination reasonably flexible in case things do not go the way you have anticipated. If things do take a turn, rethink your goals to bring them in line with the project’s new direction. Do not get hung up on trying to reach goals that are no longer viable.

The Focus of the Work

Sertillanges: “There is a great revelation in discovering the hidden links that exist between ideas and systems most dissimilar. To address oneself to this work of reconstituting the integral truth out of its misinterpretations is far more fruitful than to be perpetually criticising.”

This hidden links idea is especially valid where “spiritual” or philosophical matters are concerned. All serious seekers seem to be talking about the same thing or things, but each one from a different perspective. I believe the ultimate source of all spiritual yearning is the unconscious mind, and all systems of spiritual thought, in the end, map the human psyche or some aspect of it. Philosophy arises from a similar inner imperative but has a more external objective focus and tries to explain the physical world “out there” rather than the spiritual world “in here.”

Sertillanges’ reference to misinterpretations is a call to correct the erroneous ideas of others. If this frightens you, or you believe everything is entirely subjective and therefore there is nothing to correct, here are a few things to consider. First, subjectivity extends only so far. Not everything is open to personal interpretation and knowing where the boundaries lie is a large part of being wise. Second, spirituality and philosophy are subtle and complex topics that require a good deal of intelligence, erudition, and care in their elaboration. Blunders are rife. There is always plenty of cleaning up to do. Third, as time passes and more people apply themselves to a particular spiritual or philosophical problem it becomes possible to go over the growing body of newer work and gain fresh perspectives not seen by earlier thinkers. In other words, from our advantageous position in the present we can correct or elaborate the philosophers of the past.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

8 thoughts on “How Philosophical Writers Think”

  1. I tackle philosophy from the simple traditional angle of rational utility. I am interested in wisdom and a broader understanding that may be of practical use in our daily lives, in understanding ourselves as human beings, and that may be of some use in the creative process as it relates to culture. In this post, I extended my thinking to include the task of straightforward philosophical writing within that “love of wisdom” framework. My core idea is that what is esoteric and complex cannot be used for anything other than endless theoretical discussions. I have even simplified Jung’s definition of the self (bringing in the findings of creativity research) to make it more concrete and therefore more useful.

    I believe that intuition does not belong in philosophy in the way that you mean to use it. (Remember, I am not talking about the interpretation or deconstruction of texts and haggling over the meaning of words that so obsesses contemporary “philosophy.”) Intuitive insights, as Jung has pointed out, are primarily of significance only to the intuiter. Whatever utility they may have beyond that is limited in terms of both scope and duration. In that broader context, of what use is a philosophy built on sand? While I do not believe in absolutes, I do believe the self is constant, discoverable, and entirely comprehensible.

  2. Well, you speak a lot from an introverted thinker’s perspective, and I speak a lot from an introverted intuitive’s perspective. Seems to me you haven’t quite realized the wide utility of the introvert intuitive mind yet. When you do, I think you’ll be able to appreciate me also.

    What use is a philosophy built on sand? You ask. An intuitive could reply: the aim is not to construct any building at all. They tend to regard philosophy as an activity rather than as a body of doctrine.

    You read Jürgen Habermas? He is a writer who recognizes both intuition and thinking (though I tend to think he doesn’t recognize intuition enough)… and he is concerned with the public importance of philosophy

  3. Dandre, I think you and I may have very different ideas of what constitutes an introverted intuitive person’s perspective. I’m using Jung’s idea that introverted intuitives do not completely understand their own internal motivations even though they are profoundly influenced by them. This is so because their motivations are unconscious. (Intuition lives in the unconscious.)

    Introverted intuitives find meaning through their unconscious subjective ideas about the world. This means they are extremely superstitious. Jung believed that introverted intuitive types, when not completely dysfunctional, are often found among mystics, surrealistic artists, and religious fanatics. He bluntly described the type as “the most useless of men” adding that a few may redeem themselves by finding a way to make profitable use of their unconscious imagery in art.

    I am assuming your notion of an introverted intuitive is very different.

    As for regarding “philosophy as an activity rather than a doctrine,” I don’t have a philosophical doctrine either. I have a personal philosophy of life. I am thinking that philosophy as “an activity” when practiced by an intuitive would be little more than living by your intuition. Can you elaborate?

  4. Can’t find the exact quote, but my guess would be that you are referring to this passage:
    “From an extraverted and rationalistic standpoint, such types are indeed the most fruitless of men. But, viewed from a higher standpoint, such men are living evidence of the fact that this rich and varied world with its overflowing and intoxicating life is not purely external, but also exists within.”

    I think that it is important to stress that everyone uses all 8 functions described by Jung. Anyone who doesn’t (if possible not to) will become dysfunctional. However, people will excel more in some functions than others. I prefer to see the dominant function as a “special talent”, rather than as an “only alternative”. Here are lists of people that been typed as introvert intuitives:

    Philosophy as an activity from an intuitive perspective – here I find Socratic maieutics as a good example. Helping people to see clear by reminding and asking questions.

  5. You have the right passage, Dandre. My quote is from a translation by Barbara Hannah, a student, long-time colleague, and eventual biographer of Jung. The latter portion of the passage refers to the immensely rich inner life experienced by introverted intuitives in lieu of the typically more-external life of other personality types. Jung argued that this powerful inner focus meant these people were of little practical use in the world.

    The rest of your comment clears up much confusion. You are referencing the Myers-Briggs personality *inventory* test, and appear to have bought into its questionable supporting ideas in a big way. While this test was inspired by Jung’s work, it has no credibility as an indicator of personality type. It is merely an indicator of *preference* rather than actual *function.* That is to say, it may indicate what you like, but not what your “special talent” may be. Since most of us aren’t particularly honest or realistic when it comes to viewing ourselves, we usually need a professional assessment to learn our actual type. Numerous studies have shown that between 40 and 75 percent of those who later take the Myers-Briggs test a second time get a different result. None of this has stopped the test from becoming immensely popular, however!

    So that you know where I am coming from, I should mention that I suffer from manic-depressive illness (rapid cycling bipolar I) and have been in therapy of one kind or another for nearly twenty-five years.

    You mention Socrates. I guess I’m old-fashioned. I see the Socratic Method as a teaching aid rather than “philosophy as an activity.” Or to put it another way, the Socratic Method is a teaching activity not necessarily linked to philosophy.

  6. Well, I think most of all important that all of the 8 types described by Jung becomes depotentiated when they don’t recognize the other functions. The introvert intuitive indeed, but same applies for the other “pure types” also. As Jung says the extraverted thinker ends up saying just “‘Est, ergo est’ (‘It is ; therefore it is’)” and the introverted thinker “‘Cogito, ergo cogito’ (‘ I think ; therefore I think’)”

    Intuition can be helpful, and so can all the other functions. I think it’s much the charm of Jung’s typology that all functions are needed, and no function necessarily better or more important than the other.

    Take care!

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