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Ancient ruins

My first idea came about like this. The reason it is so difficult to capture the essence of philosophy, I thought, is that Western Culture is the product of philosophy. Philosophy is everywhere and we are all philosophers. Through lack of proper training, we naturally tend to be rather bad philosophers. That's a well-worn justification for studying the subject I've fallen back on many a time! However, as I, and some of my students too had begun to suspect, the formula answer begs the question. Might there not have been any philosophy? What would things have been like if there had been no philosophy? Might we not have been better off after all?

The obvious answer is to look at how philosophy first came about. There was a time when there was no philosophy. Then someone came along and invented it. That's the picture you get when you study the first Greek philosophers, called the 'Presocratics' because they came before Socrates.

It was Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Xenophanes and Pythagoras, Parmenides, Zeno and Melissus, Empedocles and Anaxagoras, Democritus and Leucippus who gave us the concepts, 'logic', 'theory', and most importantly of all, 'Being'. In a nutshell: the philosopher uses reason and logic to construct theories about the nature of Being. Maybe you're not very moved by that bare-bones account. It was the finer details, the details I uncovered when I began to investigate the fragments and testimonia of the Presocratics that blew my mind, and I hoped would blow my students minds.

The thrill of the discovery that we possess in our own minds, in our capacity to reason, the key to unlock the mystery of the universe, the mystery of Being, is something I cannot convey to those who haven't experienced it. One has to make the discovery for oneself. We think we already know what theorising is, or what it is to reason, and that's the big obstacle. These notions have become corrupted and soiled through over-use. Worst of all — as Heidegger notoriously lamented — the Being of the universe has sunk back into the obscurity from which the Presocratics first rescued it. The triumph of science has been the ruin of metaphysics.

What is it to investigate Being? In insisting on the relevance of this question I am taking a stand. When I first looked at the Presocratics, I was already sold on the idea that the core activity of philosophy is metaphysics, or the study of 'Being qua Being', to use Aristotle's formula. The question of the why and wherefore of philosophy was, for me, the why and wherefore of metaphysics. That's not an answer. Its a specification of the form that any acceptable answer should take. What it's really saying is, 'Philosophy has its own unique subject matter. It is not just a useful critical tool for evaluating other areas of knowledge or human activity.'

The subject matter of philosophy is Being. What is that? My students were most amused by the thought that the Being of things might be water, or air, or fire, or the odd and even numbers. They were perplexed by Zeno's paradoxes concerning the infinity of Being, aghast at the thought that everything in the universe, space, time and themselves included, might disappear into the dark homogeneity of Parmenides' One Being. In short, the classes were a success. I put bottoms on seats, and kept them there. But I don't think my students ever perceived the underlying point.

I have my own theory about Being. I'll spare you the details. I am not even sure that the theory is true. It might be. True or not, though, one theory about Being is not an answer to the question what it is, what it means to theorise about Being. To use the language of Socrates in the Meno, to give an example of X is not to give a definition of X. Until we have our definition, we are not even sure what to make of the example, or even whether its a good example.

I'll going to leave things at that rather unsatisfactory point. It's time to get on to the second piece of the jig-saw. (Contd.)