The Codex Quaerentis
A Pragmatic Analysis of Philosophy from the Meaning of Words to the Meaning of Life.
In these essays I would like to take you on a guided journey through the entire world of philosophy. It will start with what the practice of philosophy is even about, and why it matters. Next I will detail how a certain general approach to philosophy is required to correctly do what philosophy is setting out to do. Then I will go into further detail on the ways that many other common philosophical positions end up going against that general approach in some way or another.
The core principles of that general philosophy that I will outline have immediate implications about what kinds of things are real, what kinds of things are moral, the ways to attain knowledge, and the ways to attain justice, which will each be covered in their own essays. Those positions then raise immediate questions about the nature of the mind and the will, and the legitimacy of educational and governmental institutions, which will again each be covered in their own essays.
But all of that first requires a framework of linguistic meaning to make any sense of, which will be covered in its own essay, along with attendant essays on the related topics of logic and mathematics, and rhetoric and the arts, each covering different facets of communication in more detail. And with all of that in place, we finally have the background to tackle the most practical questions of enlightenment, empowerment, and leading a meaningful life, each of which will be covered in its own essay as well.
Most of the individual pieces of my philosophy are not by themselves wholly new to the world, and when they aren't I will try to mention prior thinkers who have held similar views, for the reader's further reference on those lines of thought. But I have often independently reinvented these positions prior to learning that other famous thinkers already wrote extensively on similar thoughts long before I was even born. As such, my versions of these positions are often slightly different than the usual ones learned from a study of the history of philosophy.
But it is not so much those small differences in the individual pieces, but the overall structure of my philosophical worldview, the way that all of these different positions on different topics fit together to mutually support each other, that I think is the greatest novelty of my philosophical thought. The largest and most important aspect of this structure is how my examination of reality, the mind, knowledge, and education, largely retracing and bolstering the more or less standard views of the modern physical sciences, is then mirrored by a symmetric examination of morality, the will, justice, and governance, laying the groundwork for an analogous kind of ethical sciences.
Long before I even knew what philosophy was, I was looking for something fundamental, for which I didn't even have a name. I had always had very broad intellectual interests, and was always searching for ever more and more fundamental principles underlying all of those interests. So I increasingly focused my natural science interests toward physics, and my social science interests toward something in the direction of economics or political science.
Digging deeper into each of those, I eventually realized that my interests were essentially in what I now recognize as roughly metaphysics and ethics. When I discovered professional philosophy and realized that those two things were, broadly speaking, what the field was all about, I thought that that field was the place where I would find what I was looking for, and that that was the name for it: the right philosophy.
I didn't find it.
But in time I found most of the parts of it. They just needed to be shaped and polished a bit, assembled together in the right way, and a few gaps filled in. While studying, I "tried on" the many different philosophies I learned of, but never found one that felt like "the right fit" – an existing, notable "-ism" that I could endorse without reservation.
I found that often opposite sides of a philosophical disagreement each made strong points and weak points, and that their strong points were not necessarily in conflict, even as they defeated the other side's weak points. Yet I was disappointed that nobody seemed to espouse a position that combined all the strong without any of the weak.
I found also that views on one topic depended heavily on views on another topic, but those dependencies were often not accounted for. Likewise, I found that solutions to problems in one area often had parallel solutions to problems in another area, appealing to the same principles but in different domains, which were again often not accounted for.
So I began this work, documenting my own views on the various topics within philosophy, the combinations of strong points made by everyone on every side of every topic, the missing pieces still unaccounted for after that, and the symmetries and interrelations between them, tracing both all of my own views and all of those I found problematic back to small sets of very general principles.
This book is meant to be the thing I came to philosophy looking for, but never found. I hope it will be of use to people who are looking for the same thing I was, whether they don't yet know the first thing about philosophy, or they have already studied it more extensively than I have.
These essays are targeted primarily at a lay audience, one without professional philosophical education, and as such I will be attempting to include a brief education on the arguments that have been made thus far on each topic that I will discuss, definitions of the technical terminology used, and so forth. However, I am still attempting to engage with the contemporary professional philosophical discourse in these essays, hoping not merely to pass on an overview of the thoughts of others that I learned in my professional education, but to put forth my own original thoughts as well.
Philosophy writers are often advised to keep in mind three segments of their potential audience, to help make their writing clear, concise, and unambiguous: those who don't really understand what we're trying to say, those who don't really care what we're trying to say, and those who don't really like what we're trying to say. But in my experience, it is only possible to reach at best two of those three segments.
And I have focused these essays on reaching those who won't really understand what I'm trying to say, and those who won't really like what I'm trying to say, to the neglect of those who won't really care. Consequently, I don't ask that you be particularly charitable in your interpretation, nor that you be particularly intelligent or well-educated. But I do need to ask that you have the patience to allow me the words to explain myself clearly, for those who think they won't really understand it, and unambiguously, for those who think they won't really like it.
When I was younger and had more grandiose aspirations for this project, I once aimed to position my philosophy as the kind of epoch-defining synthesis of opposing sides of great philosophical divides that has repeatedly punctuated the history of western philosophy:
- After the first recognized western philosopher, Thales, in the period that we now call Presocratic philosophy, there were two broad schools of thought. One was the Ionians, following mostly after Thales' student Anaximander, who focused largely on reasoning about the natural world. The other was the Italiotes, following mostly after Anaximander's student Pythagoras, who placed heavy emphasis on mathematics.
- That period ended with the work of Socrates, which incorporated elements of both schools of thought. But then in what we call the Classical era of philosophy, there were again two broad schools of thought. One followed after Socrates' student Plato, and echoed the more abstract leanings of the Italiotes. The other followed after Plato's student Aristotle, and echoed the more practical leanings of the Ionians.
- The field was again united much later under the Scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas, which again incorporated elements of both Platonism and Aristotelianism, in what we call the Medieval period of philosophy. But out of that unified Scholasticism the field was again divided, at the start of what we call the Modern period of philosophy. One side of that division came to be called the Rationalists, following largely after philosophers like Rene Descartes and echoing the abstract leanings of the Platonists. The other were called the Empiricists, following largely after philosophers like John Locke and echoing the practical leanings of the Aristotelians.
- Then Immanuel Kant once again briefly reunited philosophy, explicitly creating a synthesis of Rationalist and Empiricist thought. But following Kant, in what I like to call the Postkantian period (as historians disagree about where or whether the Modern period ended), philosophy was again divided. On the one hand, what was called the Continental school, following philosophers such as Georg Hegel, echoed the practical leanings of the Empiricists. On the other hand, the Analytic school, following philosophers such as Bertrand Russel, echoed the abstract leanings of the Rationalists.
I'm painting a very rough historical picture here of the relations between these different periods' main schools of thought, and I don't want to seem as if I am claiming too much continuity between them. I am merely illustrating that each historical period of division seems to always have one side emphasizing mathematical, ideal, or linguistic abstractions, and another emphasizing the experiential, embodied, practical life. I suspect that the tension between these poles may be an inherent part of philosophical practice due to its relation to other more abstract and more practical subjects, which I will explain soon in my essay on metaphilosophy.
When I once dared to dream bigger than I probably should have, I dreamt that maybe some day I would be "the new Kant", in that I aim to once again reconcile the linguistic abstraction of the contemporary Analytic school (as well as their precision, detail, and professionalism) with the practical and experiential emphasis of the contemporary Continental school (as well as their breadth, holism, and personal applicability). But I don't pretend anymore that that is likely to ever happen.
Instead, I am only presenting my views as food for thought for whoever should happen to read these essays. I don't even intend to argue in a properly persuasive way that you the reader ought to change your mind in this way or that. Instead, I intend merely to state what it is that I think, and the reasons why I think it, and leave it to you to consider the merits of those thoughts and my reasons for them, and what if any impact that ought to have on your own view of the world. I am merely presenting my worldview here for you to try on for size, and see if you find it fits.
Though my views have not changed much since I began this work properly, they have evolved dramatically over the course of my life. No matter where in the wide range of possibilities from naive faith to abject nihilism you might find your own views, I have probably held similar views myself at one point, and consequently have sympathy for why you hold your views now, even though I probably no longer agree with them, since I have long since disagreed with most of the possible worldviews I have encountered in my life.
I was raised in a religious family, and so in my early childhood held unexamined and innocuous-seeming religious views. I never had a reactionary moment in my life where I strongly rebelled against those. Instead, I slowly grew out of them as I aged and learned more about the world. I was in fact surprised in my adolescence to realize that adults sincerely held those views, and didn't merely teach them as metaphorical stories for children.
The new views that I grew into amid my adolescence were themselves, in retrospect, mere secularizations of views structurally similar to the religious ones I had grown out of: faith placed in learned academics to be the authorities on knowledge and reality, and in responsible politicians to be the authorities on justice and morality; merely replacing faith in some divine authority, which might well not even exist, with faith in the correct human authorities, whoever they should turn out to be. As I approached adulthood, however, my views grew increasingly skeptical.
Focusing on how to determine who the correct human leaders were to guide us to knowledge and justice, the right emphasis increasingly seemed to be on methodology, not authority. The correct academics to trust to lead us to knowledge were the ones dedicated to the correct scientific method; and the correct politicians to trust to lead us to justice were the ones dedicated to the correct system of rights and duties. And with such methodologies identified, it seemed not to matter who employed them, as anyone using them would have as much claim to authority as anyone else using them, effectively undermining all claims to special authority on either knowledge or justice.
But that in turn raised the question of how to identify the correct methods that would lead us all to knowledge and justice, if only we could get people to follow them; and whether there actually were or even could be such methods at all. I had definite opinions on what the correct methods were, but skeptical infinite regressions that I learned more about as I studied philosophy continued to undermine the very possibility of ever grounding any opinion on anything, leading me eventually far away from my earliest faith in divine authority, far from any trust in human authority or even in individual human ability to pursue knowledge or justice ourselves, into a nigh-nihilistic depression where it seemed any claim about anything must be denounced as just as equally baseless as any other.
That philosophical depression coincided with a period of actual clinical depression about my own life circumstances, around the same time I finished my philosophy degree. The way I eventually found my way out of that real life depression turned out to also be the key to salvaging my philosophical views from abject nihilism, eventually building my way back up to views somewhere around the middle of that wide range I had crossed between early childhood and the end of my philosophical education.
It may be hopeless, but I'm trying anyway.
Trying to live a meaningful life, by empowering and enlightening myself and others. Trying to bolster the right institutions of governance and education, that will best promote justice and knowledge, helping bring our wills and our minds into alignment with what is moral and what is real. Trying to understand what it even means for something to be moral or for something to be real, by understanding the language we use to discuss any of this, and all that that entails about logic and rhetoric, mathematics and the arts.
Maybe that endeavor is hopeless. Maybe life is meaningless, all social institutions are incorrigibly corrupt, justice and knowledge are impossible, the mind and will powerless to grasp what is real or what is moral, if anything is at all, if it even makes any sense to try to talk about such things. Maybe that's all hopeless.
But just in case it's not, I think we stand a better chance of succeeding at that endeavor, should success be at all possible, if we act on the assumption that it's not hopeless, and we try anyway.
That is the core principle at the heart of my philosophy, which I will elaborate in the following essays: to always try, and thereby act as if success is always possible, though never guaranteed.
The general worldview I am going to lay out is one that seems to me a naively uncontroversial, common-sense kind of view, i.e. the kind of view that I expect people who have given no thought at all to philosophical questions to find trivial and obvious. Nevertheless I expect most readers, of most points of view, to largely disagree with the consequent details of it, until I explain why they are entailed by that common-sense view. For as Bertrand Russell wrote, "The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it."
Many various other philosophical schools of thought deviate from that common-sense view in different ways, and their adherents usually think that they have surpassed that naive common sense and attained a deeper understanding. But as Dogen, the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, is reported to have said: "Before one studies [...] mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth [...] mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters."
That means that the general view of the world that one ends up with after truly mastering philosophy is one that is not radically different from the naive pre-philosophical view that people start out with; but on the way from that naive beginning to the masterful end, one's whole worldview gets turned upside down and inside out as one questions everything. The only thing the master has in the end that the beginner does not is an understanding of why those "obvious" answers are as they are, and why all the craziness they explored along the way was wrong.
So in these essays I aim to shore up and refine the common-sense view into a more rigorous form that can better withstand the temptation of such deviation, and to show the common error underlying all of those different deviations from this common-sense view. Put most succinctly, that common error is assuming the false dichotomy that either there must be some unquestionable answers (answers that are not to be questioned), or else we will be left with some unanswerable questions (questions that cannot be answered). I will argue that accepting either of those options constitutes a failure to even try to genuinely answer the questions at hand, and that all of the deviations from the view I defend stem ultimately from falling to one side or the other of that false dichotomy, on some topic or another.
In contrast, my philosophy is the view that we must always try to answer our questions, and must therefore always proceed on the assumption that there are no unanswerable questions, and no unquestionable answers; that every meaningful question can in principle be answered, and any meaningful answer proposed must be open to question.
Very loosely speaking, that means that there are correct answers to be had for all meaningful questions, both about reality and about morality, and that we can in principle differentiate those correct answers from the incorrect ones; and that those correct answers are not correct simply because someone decreed them so, but rather, they are independent of anyone's particular opinions, and grounded instead in our common experience, or else are utterly meaningless.
Put another way, that means that what is true and what is good are beyond the decree of any of us, yet within reach of each of us; and that we can in principle always eventually tell whether someone's opinion is right or wrong, but we can never immediately assume any opinion to be such, and must give each the benefit of the doubt until proof is found one way or the other.
That general philosophical view is the underlying reason I will give for all of my more specific philosophical views: everything that follows does so as necessary to conform to that broad general philosophy, rejecting any views that require either just taking someone's word on some question or else giving up all hope of ever answering such a question, settling on whatever views remain in the wake of that rejection.
Begin with the first essay, The Metaphilosophy of Analytic Pragmatism.