‘Philosophy’ has always been bunk, 2: lacks human sensibility to human life 

What Philosophers have always lacked is human intelligence.  They show no awareness of the darkness and depth of the human self.  Their own minds are in the realm of those infuriating schoolboys, the young Sheldons, who are brilliant at mental arithmetic and at undoing puzzles made of squiggly stiff wire, and who keep asking Why.

Philosphers lack ‘human sensibility to human life’.  That is a rather un-concrete term but the closest I have so far found for the mentality of Philosophy. I got it from the F.R. Leavis of many decades ago who had applied it to what literature had got; he wasn’t  himself anti-Philosophy.

Philosophers do a  reductionism on human life until it isn’t human life anymore.   

What  I mean by ‘reductionism’ is that human life is not left as an irreducible whole, as in a novel by Anthony Trollope.  It gets chopped up and mentalized into abstract concepts which are then generalized on.  (Philosophers themselves take the concept  ‘reductionism’ even further, into  realms beyond me, here, here, and here.)

Leavis gave central importance not to Philosophy but to Literature.  How could he do that?  Surely Literature is only a small corner of culture, and consists merely of fiction or of expressions of feeling?  But it is  unique in creating the concrete wholeness of human life.  It doesn’t reproduce or report human life; it creates it, wrote Leavis.  Literature creates concrete particulars and not abstractions.  He also said that language has always had a ‘centrality’ in truth about human life and that literature is the highest point in language.

I think ‘centrality’ means that language is a better vehicle for wisdom about human life than are other ways such as painting or sculpting or music.  (The great musicians have prodigious abilities and look very wise on the sleeves of their discs; but music, I feel, only leads to more music.)  

One does one’s thinking in words. Perhaps there wouldn’t be thinking if there were no words.  (I feel that those last two sentences of mine are rather naive in that this whole subject must already have been gone into endlessly by the intellectuals of the human and social sciences, let alone by philosophers.)  To my naive mind, literature gives experience too — it broadens the mind towards human life.  Open a novel by Anthony Trollope, and you’re amongst the clerics of Barsetshire in the 1850s; you’re a fly on the wall and can wallow in the entertainment.

It is as if portals of awareness to human life aren’t present on the outer surfaces of Philosophers.  It is a dehumanized intelligence, an absence of that special faculty of intelligence that human beings have.  It is replaced by a  mechanical intelligence of logic and maths, with human intelligence wiped away.

Here are some more more thoughts that add to the meaning of ‘sensibility to human life’.  They come from interpreters of Leavis, and have been paraphrased by me: 

‘The concrete and uniquely specific character of human experience’.  To grasp human life, you have to preserve its ‘irreducible concrete wholeness’.  Each moment of human life – of saying, doing or experiencing – is ‘unique and specific’.   It is irreducible into rational abstractions; in fact it has has ‘no abstractable form’, as  Chris Joyce  puts it.  It is unique and ‘unmodifiable’ into a generalization. Once you abstract on the human, you lose it; you are not dealing with the human anymore.

‘Holistic’ is another word applying to ‘sensibility to human life’ that I got from interpreters of Leavis.  Chris Joyce adds the term, ‘the incorporated nature of life’. 

Human life has to be taken in the concrete and as a whole and not converted or reduced to abstractions by logic, let alone by maths or science.  Science is the way to the truth about things, but using it on human life reduces, minifies and deforms it from its concrete reality. 

Don’t abstract and conceptualize on human life; leave it in the concrete.

One reason for the high repute of Science is because it is intellectually more difficult than remaining at the level of concrete perceptions; it is a mental achievement.

(I can’t now trace where exactly I got many of the words in the previous three paragraphs from:  Chris Joyce and Guy Ortolano certainly, and perhaps others too.  Other sources on Leavis were Lionel Trilling, Paul Dean, wikipedianew world encyclopedia,  and Leavis – Life and Work.)

According to Paul Dean, Leavis thought that what is threatened in a world dominated increasingly by technology is the belief in the irreducibility of the individual human being.  (That sounds like an agreeable old saw but for me it needs analysing into its elements.)

The following example of the ‘irreducible concrete wholeness of human life’ (apparently from D.H.Lawrence via Leavis and then Guy Ortolano) is  also rather an old saw, but here it is: “The…statement that water is H2O is a mental tour de force. With our bodies we know that water is not H2O, our intuitions and instincts both know it is not so.”      (‘Mental’ means that the chemical formula ‘H2O’ is a statement of such abstraction that it wipes out the concreteness of sensory life.)

There is the term ‘ the irreducible concrete wholeness of human life’ and here is a rather old and obvious example: That water is H2O is a mental tour de force; our bodies, intuitions and instincts don’t know it as such; they know it as something completely different.  (That example comes apparently from D.H.Lawrence via Leavis and then Ortolano.)


I remember long ago being at the home of someone interested in philosophy, particularly on ethics which he was wont to get up on his hind-legs and lecture on.  I was amazed that his bookshelves contained nothing but human and social sciences.  There were no novels, by Anthony Trollope or by anyone else.  My immediate feeling was: ‘These books on the shelves contain nothing but small de-humanizing generalizations about human beings; they’re not about human beings as they are.’  I think that in my ignorance I was touching on what is meant by ‘abstractionism’ and ‘reductionism’, which are at the other extreme from the concrete irreducible reality of human life which this chap’s intelligence lacked. 


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