On Beginning in Philosophy: 3 Essential Moods to start the practice

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written in 2013 or sometime before, as a handout for the Intro to Comparative World Philosophy taught at Marion Correctional Institution inside the prison community center operated by Healing Broken Circles in Marion, OH between 2012 and 2016. Document updated and revised 2019.

“What Dante had written on the gate of the inferno, ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’, is also inscribed on the gate to philosophy” – Schelling

We can say that a beginning in philosophy is always a beginning again. Philosophical questioning is already a basic mental disposition; Aristotle declares that philosophy begins in wonder, and indeed what disposition is more basic for us than wonder? Moments of wonder and awe leave us with the jaw slack and our tongue devoid of speech. In this silence of mind and body, we open towards experience. Sometimes this openness is definitive, we are stunned by something taking the form of a statement or declaration, often we find that moments of stunned and bare attention also leave us with a residue, a remainder of questioning.  Wonder is the opening of philosophy – historically for humans as well as for us personally. Wonder carries each of us to philosophy in the same way as it has historically for all of humanity.

When we begin our comparative historical approach to philosophy we begin with the thoughts of the so-called Pre-Socratic philosophers of Greece, with the Upanishads of India, with the Tao te Ching of China. We must understand that these traditional source-texts are also beginnings-again, embedded in cultural contexts and lineages of questioning: by naming these disparate works as beginnings we are not saying that they are “firsts”, nevertheless they have become for us historical foundations or roots of beginning-again. And these beginnings-again are awakened in us as further beginnings on each returning reading. Attention to the nature of these beginnings brings us to the preconditions of the beginning’s beginning. In order that anything get under way there must be some-where to begin, a place for growth and unfolding to occur: fertile soil to receive seeds, water and sunlight. We are this potential ground, our senses are the soil. Our capacity to host and grow a garden of thoughts begins with the capacity to listen, whether to the person across from us in a room, to ancient texts, to our own thoughts, or to nature. We prepare this fertile soil with the three essential moods of philosophy.

1 – The joy of questioning

2 – The honor of being questioned

3 – The humility of the second ignorance [aporia]

We open philosophy through the joy of questioning. Philosophy begins with the return of a closed matter or a deferred question to active questioning and investigation: the moment when what seemed fixed flows back into questioning. We do not open this questioning as a chore or an empty ritual, but engage questioning joyfully – especially when what is being opened for questioning is inconvenient for us, when we feel we have something to gain from a particular question remaining closed. To be joyful at the opening of questioning is the essence of philosophy as the loving pursuit of wisdom. Joyful questioning is not an irresponsible or cavalier lightheartedness. Joyful questioning brings a sober assessment of the plight of the question: we are brought into the question’s magnitude and resonance, invited to remain in the questioning. We find ourselves situated within the question. We are not asking about something abstract at-arms-length in a casual manner: we are asking about that which is now an issue for us.

When a question becomes an issue for us, we are standing within the question. Standing within the question, we bring the question to ourselves as a question. We must be prepared to receive questioning as an honor. Philosophy is quickly closed by defensive and evasive tactics; we are tempted to manipulate the outcomes of questioning for personal gain. Instead we must be honored by being brought to questioning. How much more could have been accomplished by Socrates and Euthyphro if Euthyphro had remained honored by the questioning which was brought to him! When we are brought to a question we are involved in the weight of the issue at hand: for someone or some issue to bring us into questioning is the highest honor: we receive questioning in gratitude.

When we are involved with the questioning as an issue for us, we risk our pride and the constructions of our identity. The desire to be right eclipses the desire to question when we do not demand of ourselves the primacy of the question over our own stake and position in the question. If we succumb to this weakness masking itself as strength we will fail in the crucial moment of questioning. We will fall out of the question and into our old habitual patterns of numb nonresponse. In the course of questioning, we will be frequently shown to have missed the essence of the question – we will find that our own thinking has not approximated the entirety of the question, we will find that we have answered too hastily in our impatience, we will find that we have solidified artificially that which is flowing in the questioning. In moments such as these it is all too easy to retreat into dogmatic defensiveness in an attempt to shelter ourselves. In this sheltering we shrink back from an occasion to grow into the question. By relinquishing the perspectives we use to reconstruct our identities we allow ourselves to be changed by the questioning. Openness for challenge and change is what establishes us as worthy of the question; openness is what makes the question a question as such rather than a charade or mime of thinking.

It is only after we have established these three moods that we can begin to truly work with philosophical questions. A deficiency in these resolutions will prevent us from being consistent in our questioning: we will be thrown again and again from the raft and philosophical dialogue will stop in its tracks.

The accumulation of these three essential moods brings us into the essential disposition of philosophical patience. Patience prepares the time for philosophizing; without patience there is no time for philosophy. To remain in a question, to wait for the resonance and residue of thoughts and actions, to follow many divergent paths through the same question, to map narratives and perspectives on to the questioning: these are tasks which require a depth and expanse of time. In our current times everyone has “run out of time”, we have distracted ourselves into endless business. Thankfully, our subjective experience of time is itself elastic – moments pass as quickly during a favorite activity as they pass slowly when we are forced against our will to sit and wait. A special kind of quiet patience is a direct means to control the flow of time.

Philosophy re-collects our focus, gathering us back into thinking. Philosophy does not relinquish itself to the rampant desire for instant gratification, nor does it open a way for the mind that jumps this way and that, finding connections between points it has not yet inhabited. Philosophy begins as a dialogue between ourselves and the question, between ourselves and those who have questioned before.

Can it be said of beginnings that they belong to what they generate? Yes. Can it be said of beginnings that they are totally included in what they generate? No, not entirely. A beginning triggers an event, contains in itself the seed of the event’s temporal unfolding, but is not merely a temporal section of the event (as in “beginning, middle, end”). Instead the beginning stands as always-before, laying beneath thinking but remaining before it. Embracing these three essential moods, sitting within the arrival of patience, we do not know what will come. In the beginning of this kind of questioning, we relinquish control, the future remains unknown. Philosophy asks about and remains near these beginnings: “what is the beginning of virtue?” “what is the beginning of justice?” “what is the beginning of selfhood?” “what is the beginning of being?” and perhaps more importantly, “what is my beginning? where did the themes of my life begin?” To ask of a beginning is not just to ask of origin and foundation, it is to actually begin.

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