John Burnheim's autobiography is being launched by David Malouf at Gleebooks tonight. Here is an extract from the book:
My view is that philosophy has to give up pretensions to providing a sort of universal guide to what we should prefer or in what terms we should think of things. But it need not become merely academic, of little practical relevance. Instead it should occupy itself with drawing attention to aspects of our situation that we are likely to ignore or misconceive and with trying to suggest new perspectives on old problems or new problems of which we are hardly aware. Such activity can result in major shifts of perspective such as traditional philosophy sought, without the dubious universalistic or reductionist tactics that so often characterised it.
Old philosophy can still be of use, not just in providing reminders of how easily we can get things wrong or reminding us of problems that they were right to be concerned about even when they misconstrued them, but also in giving us a benchmark against which we can measure the specific novelty of the problems that now confront us in the light of what we now know and of the changes in our ways of living. Even ‘eternal’ problems change as what we can know and do changes. Philosophers should be seen mainly as making suggestions, ‘assembling reminders for a purpose’, as Wittgenstein put it.
To some unquantifiable degree all of us live our lives in a network of what from an externalised scientific perspective are mistaken beliefs, illusions and misunderstandings. Many of these are intersubjective, the result of the particular perspective on things that we share as human beings, with our limited sensory equipment and conceptual resources, in thrall to psychological needs that were developed in very different circumstances from our present ones. All our poetry and arts, our moralities and identities, sensibilities and spontaneous intuitions are built up on this intersubjective matrix. To reject it, to attempt to think of our lives exclusively in the categories of the sciences is not only impossible but radically impoverishing of everything that gives meaning to life.
We cannot live by objective truth alone. Enriching our lives involves exploring and expanding the intersubjective world, finding new perceptions, new practices, new aspirations, incorporating as much as we can of the scientific understanding of the matrix of our lives into human uses.
In this process old ways of thinking about, explaining and evaluating things change in ways that only in retrospect become fully apparent. In differing respects there is progress and loss, much of it necessarily unconcluded and only inconclusively assessable.
To reason why: from religion to philosophy and beyond
By John Burnheim