• Thomas M. Ward

Conformity to the Real

Philosophy is an activity and all activities aim at the good. What good does Philosophy aim at?


Knowledge, Wisdom, Understanding. These are the most common sorts of answers. And they're good answers--or, at least, the second two are. Knowledge, I think, is in many cases not worth having for its own sake, but worth having for the sake of something else, namely, Wisdom or Understanding. These latter two get at something deeper than mere knowledge, something like knowledge to which the knower, in all aspects of her being, is appropriately related.


This italicized bit gets us very close to what I think is the Goal of Philosophy: Conformity to the Verum.


Now, why did I go and use a Latin word just now. Shouldn't I just have said, conformity to Truth, or, The True?


Well, it wasn't a slip of the pen; sadly, I have never learned to think in Latin: my inner monologue is monoglot, though I did have a few dreams in Spanish back in high school.


I say Verum here because it permits a connotation which is hard for English speakers to hear in the word, True. The connotation is something like this: what is Real. "Truth" in ordinary English is something that attaches only to privileged, cerebral things, like beliefs or statements. But there lingers in English an older understanding of truth, in which truth can attach itself to just about anything whatsoever. A true wheel is a wheel that is as it ought to be; a true friend just is a friend (a false friend is no friend at all, and neither is a bad friend). A true love is the one you really love. And so on. We are not using words badly when we call such things true. We're just making a more expansive, but totally legitimate, use of the concept of truth than our lexical description of "truth" would normally clue us into.


Verum preserves this broader application. You might almost define the word as "the true/real."


I really love this way of thinking about truth. I really really love it. It makes me happy. And you should love it too.


Here's why. It is not enough to be wise to have lots of knowledge and to be able to process information quickly and accurately, and to be able to make good arguments. What's necessary for wisdom is to be rightly related to the real.


What would it be for things like us, human beings, to be rightly related to the real? Well, it would involve all our various powers being rightly related to the real, not just our special mental powers of believing and speaking. The right relation of the intellect to the real is something like knowledge. But the right relation of the will to the real is love, with hatred for the unreality which is evil. The right relation of the senses to the real is enjoyment of the beautiful and pleasant to the extent that is good for the person who is sensing, and aversion from the ugly and painful, again, as much as is good for the person. Human error and human wrongdoing keep one or more of our powers from being rightly related to the real.


Philosophy as practiced nowadays privileges the right relation of certain aspects of our mental powers to the real, where the activities characteristic of what counts as philosophy are overwhelmingly linguistic: constructing theories and criticizing theories. These are good activities but they are not always good for the ones who do them. I will not get used to the cold water by putting just one part of myself in it. I've got to put all of me in.


I have a recurring image in mind, of what it is like to be rightly related to the real. I wrote about it here a few weeks ago. A rock surrounded by water. It is hard to say whether the water is actively surrounding the rock, or whether it is passively parted by the rock. Either description seems correct. But the point of the image is not to defend a theory about what's doing what.


Instead, the image is a way to think about the simultaneous ambition and humility of the ideal philosopher. Philosophy is a kind of reaching out or striving, with all of one's being (not just "the mind"), toward the real. But the success of the striving requires a willingness to take on a new shape, to be conformed to the real.


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