Précis on The Philosophical Act

February 16, 2005

I wrote this précis for a humanities class in my senior year at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. The book is by Josef Pieper (1904-1997), a German Catholic philosopher. The Philosophical Act is, in fact, the second half of Leisure, published in 1952.

Josef Pieper’s four essays together entitled The Philosophical Act make an excellent introduction to philosophy. Pieper’s question is, “What does it mean to do philosophy?” Paradoxically, anyone who attempts to answer this question is already doing philosophy. In fact, questions which are preliminary to other sciences – Pieper uses the example, “What does it mean to do physics?” – are central to philosophy. These questions cannot be answered definitely and our quest to find answers tells us as much about ourselves as the answers will reveal about their subject. From this starting point, Pieper is off and running on a philosophical tour-de-force.

Relating the current investigation to the essays on leisure, Pieper explains that the philosophical act transcends the work-a-day world. So do poetry and prayer, love and death. But these things do not let the work-a-day world alone: they disturb it. Consider the basic question asked by metaphysics: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Such a question must seem irrelevant to the work-a-day world and trying to answer it can only make it nervous.

In the earlier essays, Pieper warned that the world of total work could abuse leisure by reducing it to a mere refueling for further work. Similarly, the work world can squash the very powers that allow us to transcend it. Philosophy done to promote the state’s agenda is not philosophy. Poetry written to praise the state’s achievements is not poetry. Here, things which by their nature ought to be free are subordinated to very earthly ends. In a profound sense, these arts are liberal because they contain their own purpose. This is the original sense of academic freedom. Pieper is not so naive as to think this is a uniquely modern problem. In the classical age, the Sophists were guilty of using philosophy to advance people in the work-a-day world. But against these attempts, Pieper maintains that philosophy must be a sort of stranger to the world because it has no immediate application to it. He cites Cardinal Newman, who called philosophy a “gentleman’s knowledge” (p. 74).

The philosophical act begins with wonder, in Latin mirandum. In this sense, St. Thomas writes that philosophy and poetry are related. In an illuminating comparison, Pieper says that modern philosophy has tended to begin with doubt. Concomitant with the state of wonder is the act of contemplation. There is no desire to manipulate what is contemplated, but only to reverence it. The universe ceases to be mechanical; it becomes Creation. Pieper again identifies a threat from modern philosophy, summarized by Bacon’s famous statement that “knowledge is power” (p. 78). Moderns want to use knowledge for something else; they do not enjoy it for its own sake. But the goal of the real philosopher, the real lover of wisdom, is simply to see things as they are.

In his second essay, Pieper tackles an obvious question: if philosophy transcends the work-a-day world, where does it go? Pieper’s first point is that both regions belong to man: this world of work and the transcendent world. His second point is that they are not, in fact, two worlds, but two ways of seeing the same world. Thus Pieper avoids a dualism. The worker’s way of seeing is certainly less comprehensive than the philosopher’s, but it is just as necessary for man’s well-being. Thus Pieper avoids a spiritualism. On the other hand, the structure of man’s world is distinctly metaphysical. Man’s intellective knowing expands his world by opening to him a new set of relations beyond his physical surroundings. In fact, because he is spirit, man can relate to the totality of existing things since to be is to be related to spirit. Furthermore, man can intuit the essences of existing things. Still, man is a finite spirit and he must hope for a fuller knowing, a theme to which Pieper will return later. These insights proceed in two directions: man’s intellectual power relates him to everything, but it also reveals man’s inwardness, the fact that he is a subject, a person.

In the third essay, Pieper allows us time to digest the intellectual nourishment from the second essay by a series of important clarifications. “Philosophical questioning is entirely directed toward the day-to-day world that lies before our eyes” (p. 99). In a word, philosophy peers into the ultimate nature of things in this world. Philosophy invites us to remove ourselves from the usual meaning of things. Such a mental exercise is certain to make us dizzy, but it is the beginning of philosophy. Nor does the philosopher search for the strange or whimsical: he rather finds the extraordinary in the ordinary. Even the wonder which characterizes the philosophical act is not otherworldly: according to St. Thomas, it is simply the desire for knowing. Wonder is man’s highest aim because wonder of the Creation always leads to wonder of the Creator, which for Thomas proves that man can only be satisfied by God.

Hope is “built-in” to philosophy, according to Pieper. Being as being is incomprehensible, but philosophy urges man to root himself deeper into the mystery, beyond the veil of surface meanings. The problem is not insufficient light: it is inexhaustible, unquenchable light. Man discovers that he will never emerge from his wonder. He does not yet have full knowledge, but it is, in Pieper’s words, an “eternal not-yet” (p. 112). In the final analysis, philosophy is a search for “wisdom, such as God would possess” (p. 114).

The fourth chapter attempts a solution to the dilemma reached at the end of the third. If philosophy all along was a search for divine, not human, wisdom, then it seems to lead to theology. For support, Pieper appeals to classical philosophy. Plato and Aristotle thought theology preceded the work of philosophers. The former writes in the Phaedrus: “The ancients knew the truth; if we could only find it, why would we have to investigate the opinions of men?” (p. 118). Whereas modern philosophy thinks it must depart from or deny religious tradition, classical philosophy embraced it. But Pieper still upholds a clear distinction: philosophy is a look from below while theology is a preservation of traditional truth.

Having stressed the cooperation between philosophy and theology, Pieper now investigates the possibility of a Christian philosophy. A philosophy must be true and living. A true philosophy “would only be possible in counterpoint with a true theology, and after the birth of Christ, that means a Christian theology” (p. 126). This counterpoint with theology also makes philosophy living, “spice” or “existential ‘salt'” in Pieper’s words (p. 125). The philosophical thirst for the divine or infinite can only be satisfied by the counterpoint with theology. But a Christian philosophy, though qualifying as true and living, does not promise all the answers to philosophical questions. It does promise more profound, if incomplete, answers.

Josef Pieper masterfully introduces his reader to the nature of philosophical inquiry. He clearly positions philosophy in the wider field of human activity and learning. If it transcends the work-a-day world, it never leaves the world of man but opens it up to him. If it disturbs the work-a-day world, it does not crush man’s spirit but allows it to soar.