My philosophical “credo”: all right (mostly) after all these years

“Elements of a Credo” was probably the first piece I wrote for my antique (i.e., not mobile-friendly) philosophy site in 2004. (Compare the edited version below with the original.) I wrestle with its applicability to my current thinking. That is, I’m unhappy with its pretension to theological “neutrality.” But reading it as though it were written by someone else, I think it good enough to share in the hope that it might provoke conversation.—AGF

“He who tells me only what I already know, what I already believe, and what I like to hear, may please me, but he does not contribute to my grasp of the subject.  Whereas, he who compels me to face aspects of the matter which I would like to avoid really does something for me.”

  George Andrew Lundberg 1

I am a philosopher. That is, I seek to “frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” (Alfred North WhiteheadProcess and Reality).

I am also a commentator on the passing scene.  Apart from any degree of success I may enjoy as a philosopher, I feel compelled to venture provisional, qualified judgments in advance of the completion of my speculative philosophy.

As philosopher and commentator, I seek the truth. To do that, I need the cooperation of some and, more importantly, the noninterference of all.

Some may not refrain from interfering.  They would even coerce my cooperators into shunning me.  For the unfettered seeking of truth invariably leads to the expression of particular truths, or just the exposure of falsehood, which threatens to harm the (at least short-term) interests of the coercers.

That has ever been the nature of the truth-seeking business. It has never been merely about straightening out someone else’s muddled thinking within the ambit of a journal article and then repairing to one’s study for a cigar and a glass of sherry. Socrates made that clear. Nothing has changed since his day.

I am a seeker,2 not a seer. I seek what I largely do not have. When an interpretation of experience seems right to me, but does not cohere with the experience being delivered to me, I may note the discrepancy and strive to resolve it. What I may not do is pretend that there is none. In the eyes of some, that inability to pretend is a symptom of a criminal mind.

Neither illuminated nor divinely inspired, I weigh evidence and judge that “A exists,” or “B does not exist,” or “C occurred,” or “D did not occur,” or “E is better” or “F is worse.” We do that every day. My interest in and stamina for doing it, however, may exceed the norm.

That doesn’t make me a better or worse person.  Even if my affirmations or denials are wrong, my intention to be faithful to my inherent desire to know, the beating heart of truth-seeking, is of greater value than achieving correctness on this or that issue.

I am eager to have someone else demonstrate my fallibility by overturning my judgments. But I wish others to judge me first by that willingness.

The one who inhibits and suppresses the expression of truth-seeking (and falsehood-exposing), even should the suppressor be right in a given matter, is a malefactor. In dishonoring truth and persecuting the allegedly erroneous one, he does more harm than the propagation of error ever could.

They will, of course, claim that they are preventing greater harm. The world is divided over how that is to be done. The history of philosophy shows one way. The history of political power shows the other.

Such is my credo.  If it be “rationalism,” “liberalism,” or “modernism,” let my critics make the most of it.

I must clear away the brush of thoughts that have held me fast for many years, but not without giving others a chance to show me the errors of my ways, especially if they repute the clearing to be my worst.

But they must show me, for I will not trim my sails to court their company. I hope that, in exchange for their attention, they will enjoy the discovery of and engagement with lines of thinking that may not otherwise have occurred to them, even if they do not find those avenues congenial. Of course, I look forward to hearing from anyone who finds that his inquiries and mine overlap.

Many thinkers have inspired me, but I am responsible for any abuse their learning has suffered at my hands, as they are due any credit for the interest my poor renditions may stimulate in my visitors. Only the synthesis attempted herein is unavoidably original. Its value lies, however, not in its originality, but in any coherence and experiential adequacy it may possess, which each reader must judge for himself.

Remarks in tribute to Harry Elmer Barnes, February 9, 1955, which Lundberg cites in his foreword  to Harry Elmer Barnes: Learned Crusader. The New History in Action. Colorado Springs: Ralph Myles, 1968, xxxix. This echoes what John Stuart Mill had written almost a century earlier:

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. On LibertyII.

“Tony, you’re a great fellow, but there are two kinds of intellectuals in this world, the Seekers and the Finders, and I am afraid that you are an unregenerate Seeker.”  Murray Rothbard, letter to author, August 11, 1984.