Monday, November 05, 2007

The starting point for philosophical reflection is not, as some had supposed, some state of total equanimity with respect to every question. This neutrality is what we should like to have; yet it is not only unattainable in practice, but a complete fiction in theory. The very criteria by which we accept some forms of inference rather than others do not come to us a priori; they themselves must have been determined to some degree before the inquiry began.

We do, however, have a starting point, albeit one that embarrasses too many of us: it is the cultural and intellectual milieu we have been educated in. Our very modes of thought do not derive from ourselves in the first place; and refusing to acknowledge this is the most naive self-deception. Consider the youthful rebel who casts off the shackles of his parents' ideology and revels in the newfound freedom of his thought- which happens to precisely match that of his new friends, or the book he has just read for the first time. He is no freer than he was before, and in fact is much less well-equipped to think critically in the new terms he has just learned than in the old ones he has rejected.

This is by no means an encouragement to retain all one's old opinions and patterns of thought; for in fact, there are ways in which progress is made. Thankfully, some of the modes of thought that we have been raised with can effectively critique, contradict and transcend themselves. Socrates did not attack his interlocutors with ideas foreign to Athenian mores, but with those very ideas they had been raised to accept. For my part, I found the seeds of my own apostasy not in any external critique, but in the Catholic account of reason and the unity of truth (although other paths in Catholic thought do not lead where I have gone, and it is quite possible for one to remain an intellectually honest Catholic).

And I want also to stress that I am no relativist; I say that we should consciously begin our foundational inquiries within our own intellectual culture not because each approach is valid, but because we might as well acknowledge that this is in fact where we begin, whether we like it or not.

No comments: