Acting Philosophically

Josef Pieper’s essay The Philosophical Act is the B-side to his well known work Leisure: The Basis of Culture (see my review of that essay).  Both leisure and philosophy demand that we occasionally “step out of the world of work.” This is not, however, an excuse for snobbery or laziness. Pieper has no wish “to denigrate this world.” Without the things that go on in our daily life we could not even begin to philosophize. There is (according to Aristotle and Aquinas) a very empirical and matter-of-fact quality to good thinking. Pieper wants us to take into account the immanent qualities of creation as well as the transcendent aspects of the spirit.

The importance of thinking beyond everyday concerns is to avoid the potential tyranny of mundane pursuits. Any activity, even prayer, art or love, can be perverted to serve the interests of the ego or an overweening desire to master and manipulate things. Philosophy does not deal with functional knowledge. It is this quality that makes it a “free” discipline, as in the traditional liberalia studia. For this reason Pieper criticizes the political invasion of the arts and sciences. As soon as any academic discipline is forced to submit to ideological aims it is destroyed.

The Philosophical Act is a “corrective” to Pieper’s study of leisure because some people who read the first essay may mistake his arguments for the kind of antiquarian anti-modern nostalgia that enjoys a vogue among certain “traditionalists.” Pieper is at odds with all idealizations: “To philosophize… means to look at reality purely receptively—in such a way that things are the measure and the soul is exclusively receptive.” To theorize is to think in a way untouched by pragmatic considerations but also in a way that avoids “the smallest intention to alter things.” For this reason Hegel and other subjective theorists are essentially anti-philosophical.

At this point Pieper’s explanation becomes both subtle and incisive. Man can philosophize because of his spiritual quality. Yet curiously enough, an important part of this quality is his awareness of “the totality of existing things.” Man is thus not “pure spirit.” Pieper makes an interesting distinction between the “world” man inhabits and his “environment.” The world (or universe) is a much bigger place. By contrast an animal is limited to its immediate environment because it can never step out of it. It merely survives. Humans can grasp relationships among existing things (through abstraction) that no irrational creature is able to perceive. Pieper laments that not all people take advantage of their supramundane qualities, yet philosophizing in this fundamental sense remains open to all.

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