Couldn’t sleep the other night and watched Examined Life, a film about philosophy. Half of the philosophers interviewed in the film were predictably obtuse and stiff as philosophers often are, but the other half all said things that shook me up and rattled my mind.
I’d heard of Cornell West before, but honestly didn’t think much of him from the sound bytes I’d seen (and his involvement with the philosophically muddy Matrix trilogy). But he offered this impromptu monologue in the back seat of a cab and it blew me away. Not just for his eloquence and presence, but for how easy it was for him to clearly make complex points:
It takes tremendous discipline, tremendous courage to think for yourself. W.B. Yeats said ‘It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield.’ Courage to think critically. Courage is the enabling virtue for any philosopher, for an human being. Courage to think. Courage to love. Courage to hope.
[I think of] truth as a way of life, as opposed to a set of propositions that correspond to things in the world. Human beings are unable to ever gain any monopoly on Truth (capital T), we might have access to truth (little t), but they are fallible claims about truth and they could be wrong, and open to revision and so on. So there is a certain kind of mystery that goes hand in hand with truth. This is why so many existential thinkers whether they be religious or secular… have worked to accent our finitude and our inability to fully grasp the ultimate nature of reality and truth about things. And therefore you talk about truth being tied to the way to truth, because once you give up on the notion of fully grasping the way the world is you’re gonna talk about what are the ways I can sustain my quest for truth. How do you sustain a journey, a path, toward truth? The way to truth? The truth talk goes hand in hand with talk about the way to truth.
And scientists can talk about this in terms of producing evidence or reliable conclusions. Religious folks can talk about this in terms of surrendering ones arrogance and pride in the face of divine revelation and what have you, but they’re all ways of acknowledging our finitude. Our fallibility.