“The body plays a major role in the life of a philosopher. Everything that can be said on the subject can be found in the preface to The Gay Science. Nietzsche knew from where he spoke–he knew nothing but migraines, opthalmy, nausea, vomiting, and a collection of other maladies. He proclaimed that all philosophy is reducible to the embrace of the body, to autobiography of a Being that suffers. Thought emerges out of a subjective flesh that says ‘I’ and ‘the world contains me.’ Thought does not come down from above like the Holy Spirit that causes the elect to speak in tongues. Rather, it rises through the body, welling up from the flesh and entrails. What philosophizes within a body is nothing other than strength and weakness, ability and disability.” – Michel Onfray, A Hedonist Manifesto, translated by Joseph McCellan
Today I came to a realization that I have had many times, but its flavor changed on my tongue from sweet to slightly bitter: Doubt has characterized most of my life. I no longer see this as a positive trait. It is not that being critical has not served me well, but critical towards what exactly? What has motivated my reasoning? A friend pointed out to me in response, “I never see skepticism that isn’t subtly directed by sentiment…” echoing Hume. Reasoning is motivated, and mine is no exception. A Christian friend said, “Doubt is an invitation to an answer. It’s not an answer.”
In many secular theologies, I have invested a lot of my time. The irony of starting with myself, with my body, my thought leads me to something that is unsettling: I can doubt anything, even the consistency of my own being and mind, but I cannot doubt the experience of my body as an experience. Logic may be a check against incoherence coming from the piecemeal development of experience. It, however, as many psychologists repeatedly tell us is not an answer against our own biases–indeed, if we are honest, we can hide our biases in our axioms and the logic still flows. So starting with myself I must admit that how much secular world rhymes when with I encountered in church, but how traveling the world taught me that this isn’t nearly as universal as someone like Michael Shermer would assert.
Starting with that fundamental point, my own body and experience, I have left with one conclusion. I cannot ignore my own context and my own motivated reasoning. I returned to Hegel and Marx when I felt like I saw capitalism failing the people I loved, and my first marriage cracked under the economic strain and the stress of my self-misconceptions. Now, after seven and a half years abroad and listening–not watching–to my current wife fight late-stage melanoma through immune therapy from skype calls in Cairo, it makes sense that my patience with systemization that seems to confirm what I would like to be true would start to run out.
This is not to say I have totally given up on these “grand narratives” of history. Even starting with my self and my own body, I see that history is hard to predict and yet rhymes with itself immensely. As I said in another context, the minutiae of history are largely stochastic, it is only more predictable in aggregate. Yet it is the individual minutiae that build the aggregate like every lived minute makes up a life. This disconnect is in the tension between self and other, and how that relationship defines both.
Ironically, removing a lot of doubt in my life also means removing a lot of false certainties. I cannot make an assertion truth just by uttering it. People perhaps have noticed this in my podcasts, in my increased hedging of grand theories, and the inclusion of “maybes” or a thousand little caveats.
I am veering towards the abstract again. This seems natural. To formalize is to make the comparison more plausible. It is why quantitative analysis seems more sturdy than qualitative, and mathematics a better way to build an aggregate model than phenomenology. Yet, if I am honest, I no longer think you can build things just with critique, and no longer see some form of Ur-rationality as enough to base any observation on.
The last three years, I have nearly died myself of complications of typhoid, moved back to my home country, lost nearly 100 pounds, and lived in fear of losing my spouse from something that was no one’s fault and to which there was no real answer. To reduce my doubts, I have to admit that there is a difference between what I will and what I know. To make what I will into being required work–both my own and others who will to want the same.
I suppose this is why I never had the hostility to Nietzsche as many others. Yes, Nietzsche is unsystematic and resists hard consistency, but why should we expect a suffering philologist to be so? Many of the systems we build are descriptive, limitedly, and we wish to make them prescriptive as if thinking would make categories ontological real just because they appear coherent.
Walking in the cold winter afternoon today with my wife to the car, seeing her smile but walk slowly from the effects of the last two years, I am struck by how much I don’t know. At how much the rearview picture seems consistent and obvious, but the constant doubting is, in a way, a way to avoid looking at the limitations of my knowledge.