Idiosyncratic Philosophy?

[Note: An unedited version of this post slipped my notice and was published. The changes were in the order of the material presented, in correcting typos, and in adding links.]

I have another question for you.

Last week I asked about a possible analogy in philosophy for contextual theology; if all theology is contextual, because in different contexts people have different questions and people who ask different questions find different answers, surely the same must be true for other forms of inquiry, like philosophy? And if some theology makes explicit its origins in a particular context, is there or could there be some philosophy that makes explicit its own origins in its own context?

Source: Steve Rhodes at flic.kr/p/e8p8tR

Source: Steve Rhodes at flic.kr/p/e8p8tR

Well, now I have a new question.

While describing W. Paul Jones’s 1989 Theological Worlds with my brother the other day, it occurred to me that psychology, personality, or idiosyncrasy might play a role in a person’s philosophy as well. Of course it is obvious to say this in the sense of lay philosophy, of the attitudes and approaches all people carry about with them, but I’d like to think about how academic philosophy might be idiosyncratic as well. Bear in mind, of course, that my experience of academic philosophy is distant at best (I read it now and again, and I took a few courses in my undergraduate: an Intro to Philosophy, the Philosophy of Mathematics, and an Ethics and Social Philosophy course).

Let’s begin with Theological Worlds and then move on to more general ideas. (I am going to describe the Worlds at some length in order to help you get a sense of what Jones means; if it becomes too much, read only the next three paragraphs and then skip to the bottom.)

According to W. Paul Jones, every person’s worldview is characterized by an obsessio and a corresponding epiphania. The obsessio is a central concern, anxiety, or conundrum that has emotional power over a person. The word obsessio bears resemblance to the English “obsession,” but it literally means “to besiege.” The epiphania is the idea or experience that promises to absorb the obsessio and make it tolerable. Because the obsessio is more-than-human, the epiphania must also be more-than-human. Some people live closer to their obsessio, while others live closer to their epiphania.

While Jones is writing from a Christian theological perspective, what he means by theological is perhaps different than what most people would mean. Here he is attempting to characterize all worldviews, not just religious ones. While for Jones personally God refers to the more traditional, orthodox, monotheistic view you might be used to, in this book he uses God in a more functional sense: for each of us, God is what can promise epiphania. For a Christian, Jesus as Messiah promises epiphania, and so Jesus is God, but for another person something else—wealth, say, or a communist utopia—offers epiphania, and so it is God to them in a strictly functional sense.

Using various social studies methods, Jones identifies five theological worlds that characterize all or most people. Of course, most people participate to some degree in two or three worlds rather than just one. However, for everyone there are at least a few worlds that leave them utterly cold. This is one of the reasons lots of evangelistic attempts fail: if a street evangelist approaches someone who lives in World Two with apologetics coming from a World Four perspective, that encounter is doomed to be unsatisfying for everyone involved. At the bottom of the post I will include several paragraphs explaining Jones’s worlds in case you want a further description, but I will move on to my broader point first in case your time is limited.

As Jones points out, if you live in one world and a person starts talking to you from their own world, a lot of what they have to say will fall flat for you, at least emotionally speaking. Their concerns are not your concerns. You may see the logic in what they are saying, but it will be difficult to care. People who care about different things will ask different questions; people who ask different questions get different answers. Of course culture, or context, plays a role in the things you care about, but even within cultures people care about different things. There is thus a kind of interplay between the wider cultural discourse, in which something like contextual philosophy would determine the predominate ideas to which any given thinker will respond, and personal psychology, which determines not just which of these ideas you would most engage with, but also how you will interpret these ideas or find yourself unmoved by or lost in much of it.

As before, I have a question: do any readers know of any work done on this issue? Has there been much or any consideration (beyond novels!) about the ways individuals, and not just contexts, have helped determine which questions, and so which answers, have shaped the different philosophical traditions?


For people living in World One, everything seems arbitrary. They are horrified or distressed by the way in which contingency determines the universe. Nothing had to be the way it is: this planet did not need to have life-friendly conditions, evolution did not need to produce self-aware creatures, I did not need to be born, I did not need to survive until the age I am, I did not need to become the person I am. The world seems to be the chaotic result of randomness and therefore to be pointless. Thus their obsessio is a sense of isolation in a meaningless world, abandoned by whoever or whatever made us. Epiphania must thus involve a new way of seeing the world as containing hidden mystery, even hidden order. Jones mentions Paul Tillich, Franz Kafka, the movie E.T., and the painter El Greco. To me, Northrop Frye and H. P. Lovecraft come to mind, though Lovecraft seems without any epiphania whatsoever.

For people living in World Two, the problem is history. History is marked and marred by violence or evil. Its evil is so pervasive that the problem is clearly not individual people but the system itself. People do evil because of the systems that control them, and those systems are a product of death (or entropy or, in a more mythical term, the Nihil). Death, thus, is the ultimate enemy sitting behind the injustice of history. Their obsessio is the chaos of evil and violence in history. They cannot have some otherworldly epiphania, but rather require an epiphania that occurs at the end of history, as a product and redemption of history, in a sort of New Earth. Jones mentions Karl Barth, Karl Marx, Moby Dick, Vincent Van Gogh, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. For me Richard Beck’s The Slavery of Death and Scott Alexander’s “Meditations on Moloch” come to mind.

For people living in World Three, the obsessio is not out in the world around them, but in themselves. They feel empty, unfulfilled, unlovable, or worthless. They do not fear exposure as the risk of death, as people in World Two do, but as nakedness. And yet whenever a person in World Three feels that they might make something of themselves, they usually feel guilty for it: they are not worth their own effort and attentions. Unlike people in other worlds, those in World Three usually do not generalize or universalize their problem onto others. Their obsessio is self-estrangement felt as impotence or emptiness; thus their epiphania must be an enrichment that allows them to make something of themselves and the permission to do so. Jones mentions Jean-Paul Sartre’s self-creating acts, Søren Kierkegaard’s sense that each person has a unique identity given them by God which they must discover and become, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. For me, Echo’s character arc in Dollhouse seems like pure World Three epiphania.

For people living in World Four, the problem does lie within, but the problem is not that they are empty but that they are awful: humans, all of us, are selfish arrogant striving cruel deluded and posturing competitors. We must kill to eat, and compete to thrive; whatever we do, we do damage. Thus we are each and every one of us guilty and condemned. Even if we try to make amends, we are guilty, because we try to make amends for fear of punishment. Reason is no more than rationalization; charity is no more than self-promotion. The obsessio here is self-interest and arrogance, guilt and condemnation; the epiphania must be forgiveness. Forgiveness is not enough, though, because accepting forgiveness is a selfish act. The epiphania must also offer the ability to accept forgiveness without selfishness. Jones mentions Nathaniel Hawthorne and William Faulkner. For me Angel, the Buffy-spinoff, comes to mind, though it probably also participates in World Two.

For people living in World Five, none of those things is what bothers them. They are just overwhelmed with suffering. Hope is always false; it is a recipe for disappointment. Suffering is perpetual, and it can always get worse. Their obsessio is being engulfed in and by life, which is to say, in suffering. Their epiphania cannot be hope of some kind; it is only endurance and survival. This is often a survival in community, where people suffer with one another if they cannot suffer for them. But in this world there is also a sort of pride in having survived so far and in doing hard productive work. Jones mentions Elie Wiesel, Tennessee Williams, and Rembrandt van Rijn.

I have speculated about these Worlds at some length here, at my old blog, if you want to read that.

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5 thoughts on “Idiosyncratic Philosophy?

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