Public Philosophy and Our Spiritual Predicament

When I was 16, I was confirmed Lutheran. By the time I got to college, I’d been won over to atheism. Seemed like a no brainer at the time. Sometime after that, though, I lost my way and gained some insight.

(This, I assure you, is not a story about being dipped in water or writhing on the floor.)

I’ve since noticed a certain post-Kantian convergence emerge in our fragile secular age. As Kant showed in the First Critique, all rational proofs for God’s existence, the immortality of the soul, and the ex nihilo creation of the universe have failed, and yet from these results we have no grounds for concluding that a God can’t exist, that the self can’t perdure in some form or another, or that the universe can’t have a beginning “from without.” As a result, religious and metaphysical questions have persisted well into our time and have been raised with no less force or weight today because they can’t so easily be put to rest.

In a conversation I had with a journalist recently, we discussed what he deemed the two temptations of our post-print era. One is getting mixed up in what he called the“information jungle.” The other is sitting complacently in a “filter bubble.” He suggested that the task of good journalism in the coming years will be to serve as a curator for the public, exposing citizens to, without overfeeding them on, information and ideas that challenge or deepen their firmly held beliefs. All right, but what shall we call it? How about “out-of-the-jungle, beyond-the-bubble Black Swan journalism?”

It seems to me that, whatever it’s called, this style of curating is vital to public education but also insufficient. It’s vital because it complexifies our understanding and compels us to re-examine our tendency to circle the wagons, engage in groupthink, and confirm our biases. But it’s insufficient inasmuch as it doesn’t seek to move us, in some stepping stone way, from lower to higher, from worse answers to better ones, from a fragmented picture of things to a more synoptic view of the whole.

This is one place where public philosophy as a form of public education can and should stake its claim. The Latin word educare retains the agrarian sense of “rearing,” “bringing up,” and “leading forth.” One task of public philosophy, I submit, could be to lead us in a certain direction without pandering, bullying, or nannying. “Leading forth” is neither hand-holding nor forcing your hand. It’s not florid rhetoric or hard-nosed criticism, both of which are concerned with getting us to admit the flaws in our arguments, to make up our minds regarding our deepest commitments, or to change our positions about public affairs. Instead, public philosophy as educare urges us to follow a certain line of thought, to strike out on a path and see where it takes us. From there and throughout, we would ask, “Does this bring us greater clarity about ourselves and our world?”

Assuming that this is a worthwhile endeavor (and I think it is), I’m not entirely sure how to go about it. One essay in educare could be to reinvigorate the commonplace book tradition—to reintroduce it with a twist. Commonplace books, popular from the Renaissance up through the seventeenth century, were scrapbooks of maxims, drawings, lists, inspirational quotations, and marginal notes. By design, they were meant to be hodgepodge: a recipe here, a line from Horace there. In this serendipity there was exquisite beauty. However, insofar as they were unsorted collections of curiosities and wonderments, they didn’t seek to develop the collector’s mind in any one direction. And, my God, how many collages, mélanges, bric-a-bracs, shards, and fragments are lying about us today?

I wonder whether we could retain something of the magic and surprise of the commonplace book but also order the bits and pieces so that they appear as if they were making an argument, giving us a better, more holistic way of seeing things, or leading us down a path toward higher understanding? I wonder whether the parts can be gathered together into a synthetic whole.

I’d like to see. In what follows, I’ve arranged a handful quotes in such a way as to imply some subtle working out, some groping toward a more synoptic vision of our spiritual predicament. As you read, will you feel, with Brian Magee, the “mystery of things”? Will you sit in the morning alongside Richard Holloway and also remark on this wistful mood of “committed unknowing?” Will you too recall coming upon a holy site where your hands, like Geoff Dyer’s, also seemed tied? I don’t know, but I’m dying to find out.


Religion will not go away simply because people are told—very firmly—that Proper Adults should have no truck with supernaturalist myths. Darwinian atheism accepts, and reinforces, a common assumption about religion, to wit, that being a religious person or living a religious life is primarily a matter of believing particular doctrines. Sophisticated thinkers about religion have, for a very long time now, taken a rather different view. Central to the religions of the world are many other tings: complexes of psychological attitudes (aspirations, intentions, and emotions) among their adherents, forms of social organization, rituals, and forms of joint behavior. Within contemporary religions (and, for citizens of the affluent nations, most prominent in Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity) there are movements that emancipate themselves from doctrine entirely: these forms of religion are simply not in the (literal) belief business. In their recitals of ancient texts, they recognize valuable stories, not to be understood as literally true but important because of their orientation of the psychological life, the pointing of desire I the right directions, the raising of some emotions and the calming of others. One might even conjecture that the social and affective aspects of religion were, somewhere in prehistory, the ur-phenomena of religion, that religious life begins with particular emotions (awe, joyful acceptance) and with shared forms of ritualized behavior, and that the stories Darwinian atheists wish to debunk are later supplements, devised to bind the earlier practices together.

—Philip Kitcher, “Challenges for Secularism,” Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now, ed. George Levine.


Each of these motives for irreligion – problems of scale [humans are minute and insignificant in comparison with the sheer breadth of the universe], of the afterlife, and of morality – makes the idea of God less comforting than it would otherwise be; but none of them constitutes an argument for atheism. Believers of a post-superstitious persuasion – followers of Kierkegaard for example – might indeed see them as hymns to divine glory: paeans to god not as a miraculous personal trainer or jealous cosmic controller, but as what you might call a memento absurdi, a guardian of fragility, contingency, mystery and incommensurability, and a reminder that however clever you may be, there will always be an awful lot of things you do not understand.

Opponents of religion – anti-clericals, humanists, rationalists or whatever we want to call ourselves – ought to recognise that religion is a complicated box of tricks, containing much wisdom as well as folly, along with diversity, dynamism and disagreement. And we need to realise that many modern believers have moved a long way from the positions of their predecessors: as Mill once said, they may believe they are loyal to an old-time religion when in reality they have subjected it to “modifications amounting to an essential change of its character.” In particular, they may not accept the idea of God as an actually existing entity, so arguments for atheism will not disturb them; and they will be aware that there has always been more to religion than belief in God. The dividing lines between religiosity and secularism, or between belief and disenchantment, are not getting any clearer as time goes by, and if there has been a lot of traffic travelling from the camp of religion to the camp of disbelief in the past couple of centuries, it has followed many different paths, and is bound for many different destinations.

—Jonathan Rée, “Varieties of Irreligious Experience,” New Humanist(Sept/Oct 2011)


Not being religious myself, yet believing that most of reality is likely to be permanently unknowable to human beings, I see a compelling need for the demystification of the unknowable. It seems to me that most people tend either to believe that all reality is in principle knowable or to believe that there is a religious dimension to things. A third alternative—that we can know very little but have equally little ground for religious belief—receives scant consideration, and yet seems to me to be where the truth lies. Simple though it is, people have difficulty getting their minds round it. In practice I find that rationalistic humanists often think of me as someone with soft-centered crypto-religious longings while religious people tend to see me as making token acknowledgement of the transcendental while being actually still far too rationalistic. What that means is that each sees me as a fellow-traveller of the other—when in fact I occupy a third position which neither of them seems to see the possibility of, and which repudiates both. What I want very much to see are two mass migrations, one out of the shallows of rationalistic humanism to an appreciation of the mystery of things, the other out of religious faith to a true appreciation of our ignorance.

—Brian Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher: A Personal Journey through Western Philosophy from Plato to Popper


Who is there to praise for the gift of life? It is now six o’clock in the morning and the city is beginning to wake up. I brew more coffee and get back into the chair. The mood has changed. Celan has softened Larkin’s bleak nihilism and restored a sense of latency to the scene, a sense of something undisclosed, something absent that might once have been present. Wistfulness rather than despair is the mood now. I call this six-o-clock-in-the-morning mood ‘sensing an absence’. And it is God who is absent. The sense of the absence of God is strong in Europe at the moment. I am not talking on behalf of confident secularists for whom God has never been present. For them the universe has been thoroughly disenchanted, even disinfected, purged of any residue of that disturbing presence. And I am obviously not talking about confident believers for whom God is still on tap. No, I am talking about those who find themselves living in the No Man’s Land between the opposing forces of confident unbelief and confident belief. Those of us who are living Out There in the place where God is absent are deafened by the clash of claim and counter claim, as the rival explanations fired over our heads. It is important to say Out There is not a place of neutral agnosticism. It is a place of committed unknowing.

—Richard Holloway, Looking in the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning


In Si Satchanalai that morning I’d made my way round to the front of the Buddha at Wat Khao Phanom Phloeng. The sun was still burning red through the trees. The air was full of the sound of birds. The Buddha exuded such serenity that I had an impulse to fall to my knees. I resisted it, but what can you do when you are profoundly moved? There is only a limited repertoire of gestures available to us in moments like these. What might take their place? Are there new gestures, new ways of articulating our need for grace and beauty?

—Geoff Dyer, Yoga for People who Can’t be Bothered to do it

About the Author

Andrew Taggart is a philosophical counselor and educational adviser living in New York City.

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