A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Standing up speaking, sitting down thinking

Intellectual life overflows with regulated forms of discourse about all kinds of urgent matters. Sometimes they are called schools of thought; sometimes theories; sometimes ideologies or positions.

Philosophy could be viewed as the originator of the most prestigious and fundamental discourses about life, like

  • idealism
  • materialism
  • pragmatism
  • existentialism
  • structuralism
  • post-structuralism.

Although this to some extent is historically correct, such a view of philosophy stands in stark contrast to Socrates’ difficulties with speaking and acting publically. His inner voice, his daemon, caused him to hesitate and instead examine himself and his relation to such forms of discourse.

I can imagine Socrates suddenly pausing, torturing himself with questions like

  • why do I want to speak in this way?
  • couldn’t one say the opposite as well?
  • what led me to hold this view?
  • is this merely something I’ve learned to repeat, as a lesson learnt by heart?
  • am I wise, or do I only pretend I am?

My aim here is to draw attention to philosophy as engagement with the latter, self-examining questions. The importance of being sensitive to such questions derives from the fact that intellectual life resembles a marketplace for the former kinds of regulated discourse. Competing schools fight for dominance and accuse each other for neglecting the most decisive aspect of whatever is under discussion.

I want to highlight the importance of somtimes attacking oneself instead; the significance of asking if one is (perhaps) unjust, exaggerating… unwise.

Pursuing the latter questions, we as it were parenthesize our normal obedience to the rules of discourse and examine the extent to which we honestly can abide by them.

– But wouldn’t such questioning of oneself presuppose a discourse of pure self-examination within which the truth finally can be grounded – a discourse that, if it existed, immediately would achieve absolute dominance on the intellectual market?

The marketplace of ideas is attractive. It is the place where we can stand up, speak publically and influence the direction of the world (and achieve reputation). Not surprisingly, philosophers found it difficult to avoid presenting their self-examinations, especially if they found them successful, as being if not truth itself, then at least the right path to truth: as the the discourse that almost guarantees honesty!

To me, these temptations and pitfalls make it all the more important to emphasize the latter list of actually rather simple questions, by which any person can be haunted. Discourse that never is interrupted by pangs of intellectual conscience and consequent self-examinations soon runs amok.

Sometimes, one must sit down and think. Thinking in this sense is not a (silent) form of discourse. But we always compare it with one, and thus we constantly misunderstand philosophy as if it were the purest and most prestigious form of discourse.

Pär Segerdahl

The Ethics Blog - Thinking about thinking

1 Comment

  1. Dawid Bunikowski

    That is very interesting. But do you think it is possible to stand up speaking in the times of political correctness (when you must not say what you really think)? Or rather: you must be silent, then, sitting down thinking? Does anybody have conscience pangs because of it?

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