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pathways (guide)

CAN PHILOSOPHY BE TAUGHT? (4)

I exist, therefore...what?

What was the underlying theme running through all of this? I was attempting to recapture the beginners' mind. That was the real purpose, it now seemed to me, of returning to the dawn of philosophy, and the point also of presenting science fiction stories with little or no philosophical background, so that the problems could speak for themselves. I was doing this for my students, and also for myself. I wanted to be a beginner again, like them.

If you're looking for an example of a radical beginning for philosophy, Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy is the one obvious choice. I had avoided it, partly because it is so obvious. As philosophy texts go, it is also pretty hard going for beginners. Anyway, I wasn't going to try to persuade my class to go away and study a book. My voice would have been drowned in storms of protest.

This is how the idea of Searching for the Soul came about. Together, my class and I would search for a radical beginning to philosophical inquiry inside our own minds.

In Plato's dialogue Phaedo, Socrates describes how in his youth he was captivated by the speculations of the early philosophers concerning the nature of the universe around us. Then he came to realize that man himself, far from being just another of the multitude of things to be found in the world, was in fact the central problem, and the only reason for doing philosophy in the first place.

Descartes, and I, were doing more, however, than simply retracing the steps of Socrates. The focus of Socrates' concern was moral and political. My interest was metaphysical. 'Descartes and I'! I didn't actually go so far as to put a picture of Descartes on my desk, but he did become a kind of imaginary mentor. It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I didn't want just to understand Descartes, I wanted to be him.

To cut to the chase, my class and I together pursued the soul through all the labyrinthine complexities of the mind-body problem — eventually leaving Descartes and his theory of an 'immaterial soul substance' far behind — and the further we pursued it, the more philosophical problems that we had studied were dragged up in its wake. Knowledge and scepticism, freedom of the will, personal identity, other minds, the reality of time, the foundations of morals — the familiar list, in fact.

We were finally looking at the bricks behind the fresco, and 'I exist' was written on every brick. I told you I wasn't going to talk about my theory, and I'm not going to. Let's just say that the fact that I exist, the Being of my subjective point of view on the universe, emerges as not so much the ultimate starting point as the ultimate sticking point, the one stubborn fact that cannot be fitted in to a Presocratic, or Aristotelian, account of the Being of the Universe 'as such'. As I had stated in the Preface to my book Naive Metaphysics, 'The world is and will always remain something absolutely other than I.'

But that's going back all the way to where I first started. In relation to my quest for the essence of philosophy my book was old hat. No mere 'theory', however finely wrought, could ever be a satisfactory answer to my question. I'd known that from the start.

What did my students learn? What did I learn? I had discovered three pieces of a jig saw. There might be other pieces, I don't know. If the pieces didn't exactly fit, at least one could say roughly where they were supposed to go. Philosophy starts with radical wonderment about the Being of the universe; it starts with the problems of philosophy; it starts with the self. Whichever base you take as your launching point, you will eventually cover all three. (Contd.)