Face to Face with Everything
How Philosophy Looks at the World, and What It Sees*
As human beings we all have faces. But what about the world around us – does it have a face too? Without undue anthropomorphizing, it seems not only that it does, but, in its role as our inescapable ambience, it actually faces us every day. The fact that a face, by definition, is a surface – something superficial – has misled many into positing “appearances” as an impenetrable bubble around our consciousness. But could there be more on this surface than meets the eye?
As we know only too well, our own faces are very busy surfaces. They hide, reveal, suggest, tease and deliver hints regarding worlds of meaning and mystery behind them. But this “behind” does not consist of underlying layers we could gain access to with a surgeon’s scalpel or an x-ray; it is a content that is already somehow present on the surface, in need only of inquiry, patient attention, or perhaps just an invitation.
We search human faces every day in pursuit of meanings and motives. We direct our attention in particular to the eyes – those oft shuttered windows of the soul – and in them we look for clues about the veiled realms behind them. Still, if those eyes are to open to us, protocol is involved in addressing their owner. The wrong approach may turn the face into a brick wall rather than a tiffany curtain. In the ordinary course of things, we are best served when the lower half of the face willingly opens up to us and begins to talk. Gazing upon the look in the eyes will then be enriched by hearkening to the words of the mouth. Here is a mystery perhaps even greater than that of eyes and ears, for it is the very carnal orifice through which we eat, in which we taste, and with which we kiss, that is also the grand oracle through which we speak. And it is speech, more than anything else, that turns the face into a font of revelation.
Does the face of our universe bear comparable properties? Of course it does. Why would philosophers and scientists study it to begin with, were there no hope of detecting principles and causes that might make its appearances speak? The world we look at does indeed wear an articulate face, but like the façade of a gothic cathedral, it is a surface that will only open up and talk to us when properly approached, and reverently entered. Once inside – as when we walk into the nave – we begin to understand the invitation of the façade, and behold, for the first time from within, the stunning colors of its stained-glass windows.
As it is with people, so it is with the world: address it the wrong way and you may cause it to close up and hide its mysteries altogether. It may seem to be nothing more than a source of raw material and brute forces to be used for our own purposes. We may end up merely manhandling, constraining and misusing those appearances, leaving them opaque to any truth about their inner world. After all, much of the time, this is how we treat other people, seeing them merely as means to our ends, objects for our pleasures, or colluders in our schemes. We can abuse the face of cosmic reality in much the same way.
There is another parallel between human and cosmic faces. They both combine the presence of often stunning outer beauty together with the decontextualized and slightly disturbing profundities physically beneath them. For instance, when we examine the muscles, nerves and bones beneath our facial skin, we gain – beyond clues about their physiology – absolutely no insight at all into the meaning of the grins, grimaces and frowns that may soon appear on its surface. Although it is no doubt interesting to learn that there are 42 muscles at work behind the epidermis, this is no more than distracting trivia when we attempt to decipher the ambiguity of Mona Lisa’s half-smile.
Similarly, when I read the statistics of the spectrographs, telescopes and radiometers that inform us of what is happening “behind” the placid nocturnal firmament over our heads, I am also fascinated. But such data offers little to “explain” the intriguing beauty of the nighttime sky, that gorgeous wash of white on black, enchanting my naked eyes as I look into its depths. Could this superficial beauty be more than just aesthetic sheen? And is it not a shame, when several years ago Los Angeles suffered a blackout, that within minutes numerous 911 calls were made by citizens trapped within the sudden gloom, alarmed at a menacing cloud of light hovering over their city? They had never seen the Milky Way before.
Leaving aside the more particular questions regarding modern distinctions between philosophy and science (to be treated of extensively later), in this introduction we shall simply identify what shall be presented as the two properties of genuinely philosophical insight. As hinted at in this book’s subtitle, philosophy is in pursuit of an embracing, incisive view of reality (in the sense of what it seeks to see), but also develops a characteristic way of looking at that view. We have words in our philosophical vocabulary for these two notions: “synoptic,” regarding the object attended to by the philosophical act, and also “cenoscopic”, regarding the very subject that performs that act. It is singularly useful to use the idea of the face to characterize both.
The world we study as philosophers is a world we endeavor to view as comprehensively as possible. Plato’s word for this is synopsis, that is, a “view” of reality (opsis) which endeavors to bring all its parts together (syn). He is referring here not so much to the way we look at things, but rather to the manner in which they present themselves to us (if only we would pay attention). After all, the word opsis was used in Greek theater to refer to the “spectacle,” the “show.” Accordingly, synopsis would be a kind of show. But in this case, what is showing itself to us is, in theory, all of external reality. Here is a spectacle to which we are invited, something on unmistakable display, at least to those who have eyes to see. We see such eyes especially on the faces of small children. When we admire the wide-eyed expression on the face of an infant, what strikes us is the impact the world’s display of itself is having on an innocent consciousness. In more than a metaphorical sense, the child is witnessing the best show on Earth.
It is significant that Plato did not use another Greek word, panopsis, meaning “a view of all,” but synopsis. In other words, he is suggesting that we are not aspiring to know everything, pan = ‘all,’ but simply to see whatever we do see as connected with the whole, syn = ‘together.’ In semiotic terms, the philosopher is endeavoring to see the significance of anything and everything, convinced that nothing is without its semantic link with the whole. And yet here too, we are still concerned only with what we see, and not how we see it or with which faculties.
When we comment, for instance, on the lovely “view” of a landscape, we are obviously referring to the landscape itself, and not to our eyes. If you look for a picnic site or a hotel window “with a nice view,” you are alluding to the spectacle spread out before you and not to some virtuosic accomplishment of your sense of vision. We are being taken captive by a view that has encountered us, perhaps even ravished us, and are not just peering at something we intend to “observe.”
The wonder that fills our experience is due, in part, to the fact that we cannot master the views before us, nor can we see them all at once, even in sequence. And yet we do – at various moments of our lives and from various vantages – catch glimpses of the spectacle’s true and expressive “face,” and a face that seems eager to communicate with us. As we slowly understand its parts insofar as they are signs, we discover that even the smallest item, under proper consideration, can begin to speak to us about the whole. This, I think, is Plato’s point about synopsis, and what leads him to insist that “the one who sees things synoptically is a dialectician [i.e., a philosopher]; the one who does not, is not.”
Accordingly, a cardinal quality of the good philosopher is this attentiveness to the whole, even without seeing the whole – a mode of reading the face of reality in its innermost and most encompassing connections. This is done independently of whatever abundance or paucity of that reality happens to be showing itself at a particular moment. Even when complex lines of philosophical inquiry are pursued, with great discipline and perhaps meticulous phenomenological analysis, the philosopher learns to do so without losing sight, even for an instant, of the synoptic context into which they are woven.
However, simply being present to a synoptic object is not enough for the full philosophical act to unfold itself. The subject – that is, the very philosopher as agent of this form of knowing – must be poised so as to “face up” to the comprehensive view on offer. If the subject is predisposed to squint, or worse, to start reaching prematurely for telescopes, microscopes or fancy calculations, the synopsis may eventually slip out of view. If we do not first learn to gaze patiently upon the synoptic object – with prolonged and leisurely attention – we may, it is true, end up detailing another discovery of empirical science or producing another possibility of technological mastery. However, the “reflective generalist” (one good definition of the philosopher, by the way) will have left the enterprise. Instead, we will have morphed into just one more specialist.
Now, how we see the face of reality depends very much on the disposition of our own face, and I mean this quite literally. The face is obviously where our organs of sense are most concentrated. As we will discuss on a later page of this book, other species have better smell, better hearing and better vision, but humans, rather than boasting any one of these isolated superlatives, have a distinct endowment quite unrivalled among the higher animals.
We humans proudly possess the unique and harmonized configuration of all the senses. In fact, this configuration is one way to define what a human face is. Its beauty and mystery are intriguing, and its varieties of personal emphasis and character engaging, precisely by virtue of this finely tuned symphony of eyes, ears, nose and mouth, all supported and accompanied by our extraordinarily dexterous pair of hands. We are reminded of this when we watch a talented mimic covered in black except for his face and hands, which are all he needs to tell his stories. This combination of five senses – with no artificial zoom on the eyes through optical gadgets – provides the proportioned and natural way a human ought first to “look” at the real world. And here I make bold to contend that it is only within this sensorial womb – and through the preservation and defense of its cognitive authority – that true philosophy can germinate and grow.
There is obviously a variety of perspectives from which we can look at the world, from a mountain top or from a sofa in our living room. But independently of how embracing and inclusive a given perspective is, we find ourselves forever face to face with everything. The remaining 99% of reality may lie beyond the horizon of whatever we at any moment perceive, but there is a link between the two, if only we can spot it. To be sure, some sights are so cluttered with distractions, so dominated by obtrusive technology, or just so ugly in the extreme, we might struggle to see them as genuine epiphanies of the real. But that is a question we will address in the second chapter of the book, regarding the humanities. Due to the seriousness of this complication, understanding that meditation is perhaps, for our day and age, the most imperative of all.
However, our native cenoscopic outlook is a hard habit to shake. Although we obviously cannot come close to cognitively embracing the totality of the world as such, still, we do indeed face that world as a totality – totus sed non totaliter, as Thomas Aquinas said in another context, referring to the possible vision of an infinite God (although we could never see everything about God, we still aspire to see the whole God). Even human persons can only be known when they are encountered as whole persons, without ever knowing, or needing to know, everything about a person’s genealogy, history, future and innermost feelings and thoughts.
Experience even testifies that too much trivia about someone can actually impede true understanding of the person as person. We experience this after first googling someone, or analyzing their CV, and only afterwards encountering them, often taken aback when we meet them in the flesh. The world too is like this. We are standing in front of the whole thing – the whole “blooming, buzzing confusion,” in the famous words of William James – even though we encounter just a fraction of its actual content at any one time. But this focus belongs to the very situation of our nature in the hierarchy of beings and is hardly a handicap. It is, however, an invitation to look at that fraction in a truly philosophical manner.
After all, our heads can look straight ahead, turn to the right or to the left, turn around to the back, look up and look down. We are not like cherubim – said, symbolically, to gaze in multiple directions at once – but we do look in all directions in sequence. Our flexible necks allow us to look north, south, east and west, up into the heavens and down into the depths.
In summary, there is an important distinction between the synopticity we should attend to as philosophers, and the cenoscopy with which we should view it. These two Greek terms distinguish between two faces of the real. To encounter the synoptic face of the world, we must initially approach it with the cenoscopic face of our naturally configured powers of cognition. The conceptual pair cenoscopy/idioscopy – contrasting common and specialized views of reality – was introduced in the early 19th century by Jeremy Bentham, further developed later in the same century by Charles Sanders Peirce, and then quite recently highlighted in the works of John Deely (much more about this further ahead in chapters 9 and 10).
Their meaning is actually quite simple and straightforward, and what follows in this book is largely an argument in favor of their quite detectable presence in everyday experience. If philosophy must take pains in its exercise, engage in tough methodological investigations in its elaboration, and exhibit more than usual strain in liberating its insights, it is not because its subject matter is difficult or abstruse in itself (as might be particle physics or recombinant DNA). It is due instead to the very familiarity of its objects, which causes them to habitually slip out of awareness – like the ticking of a clock when we are attending to something else.
As opsis in Greek possesses a more objective sense, referring to the “spectacle” spread out before us, skopia, in contrast, is a more subjective term in Greek, referring to the act of “looking at” or “beholding.” Synopsis, therefore, involves allowing reality in its manifold connections to exhibit itself, demanding of us only that we seek out perspectives where this is least obstructed and minimally compromised. Philosophers live from these “philosophical moments.” The term cenoscopy (from the root koinos = “common”, thus a common cognitive outlook) involves a look at that synoptic whole with our everyday, impromptu human sensorium, leaving sophisticated instruments and experiments for later and more specialized investigation, that is, idioscopy (from the root idios = “special”).
Philosophy’s insights do not so much concern matters that have eluded knowledge because of their inscrutability, but rather truths that get sidelined due to their very ubiquity; not questions that are obscure for lack of light, but fugitive by their very lucidity. One could even say that philosophy’s central reflection on being is something like a long and patient reflection on the nature of light itself. Although everything we see, we see in light, still, to ponder the light itself – and not just the objects reflected in it – demands that we stop and think. And despite all that modern physics has taught us about electromagnetic waves and photons, light remains, precisely by its overwhelming familiarity, profoundly and teasingly mysterious. The same can be said of the native objects of philosophical inquiry.
But lest the accessibility of cenoscopic consciousness seem too easy, one final caution must be urged. Common experience in an industrial, and even more in a post-industrial and highly digital age, puts us in a somewhat awkward position. Our ambience is at times almost wholly determined by products of extremely specialized, idioscopic science – a “view” of reality encumbered by meddlesome technology, and highly filtered through screens and networks.
More often than not, we find ourselves situated in an environment almost entirely of our own making. “Nature” has to be sought out, either on rural excursions or in a city park. A jaunt among tall buildings, bumping into strangers and dodging automobile traffic, hardly qualifies as a natural perspective from which to philosophize. At best – as we have witnessed in the last couple of centuries – it forces us to philosophize about the very unnaturalness of our situation, and some such philosophizing is no doubt unavoidable. But philosophy in its original configuration aims for more.
Gratefully, the existence of those parks and our continued romance with the beauties of the natural world, allow us to quickly re-connect with the pre-industrial. The grass and bushes in our suburban yards, the plants we water in our living rooms, and the pets we love, remind us how tenacious our grip on nature remains. The flight to the suburbs, so many decades ago – as regrettable as many of its consequences have been – was a sign that we are still conscious of the inalienable natural pedigree of our cognitive powers. Mowing yards, growing trees and raising puppies have served to maintain a lifeline between our increasingly urban selves and the country and sky we still long for.
These reservations made, we can still pursue the face-to-face encounter with everything, even within the complications of modernity. In fact, the modern world has not only brought environmental impediments to the philosophical act, but also some important benefits (as we will highlight in chapter 8). Still, our invitation to synopticity and cenoscopy will have to be joined to the imperative of seeking out, as much as is feasible, natural surroundings through walks in the park and country outings. And more importantly yet, like those pathetic Angelenos, we will need to relearn the cenoscopic art of looking up, seeking out opportunities to find the requisite nocturnal dark that allows us to turn our eyes once again to the starry sky above us. That view has so much to teach us that can never be put into words. And when we do philosophize in words, a tacit world of wonder will envelop those words just as much as the heavens envelop the Earth. Should star-gazing ever become practically impossible, philosophy’s obituary will have already been written.
Philosophy’s Troubled Curriculum
Traditional philosophical disciplines crystallized over time into a list that goes something like this, more or less in pedagogical order: logic, cosmology, philosophical anthropology, metaphysics, ethics, political philosophy and aesthetics – and, in the modern age, the hybrid and often imperialistic enquiry known as epistemology. Still, additional attention was increasingly demanded by issues lying both between and beyond these well-defined areas. Thus was generated a long list of “philosophies of…” (for instance: of science, religion, history, art, mind, language, education, culture, law, social science, technology, and more).
Until quite recently, philosophy claimed a purview that had, at the very least, something to say about literally everything. However, as the 19th century gave way to the 20th and then to the 21st, some suspected Lady Philosophy may have stretched herself so thin as to no longer be about anything at all. As someone has said, only half-jokingly, it seems that as science learns more and more about less and less, it will soon know everything about nothing, whereas philosophy will learn less and less about more and more, until it knows nothing about everything. The present book, I hope, will provide an answer to this worrying prognosis.
Many philosophers of the Analytic tradition have in fact maintained that no terrain is left for philosophy as such, and that her best survival option would be to merely arbitrate among the real sciences. Her practitioners could henceforth serve as technical specialists in conceptual and argumentative clarification, but with no cognitive claims of their own. Still others tried to show how one domain of old philosophy – logic, ethics, or philosophy of language, for instance – could maneuver in such a way as to gain purchase on the whole enterprise. In other words, in the final analysis, maybe philosophy is just logic, or is just an application of ethics, or is just about language, and nothing more. The rest of reality could then be turned over to the new specialists in the natural and social sciences.
Indeed, ever since Hegel, philosophy and science have seemed to agree on an amicable separation, later to devolve into a sometimes-ugly divorce. The troubled vocation of the love of wisdom, after all, finds itself today in a world that often grants unchallenged cognitive supremacy to the new sciences. The landmark of this sea change was in 1831, with the founding of the British Science Association (BSA), giving the first public cachet to the new, restrictive construal of the word. Until then, science and philosophy had enjoyed roughly equivalent, and almost interchangeable meanings; they referred to virtually any carefully organized body of knowledge. This sense is still present in the German term Wissenschaft, where you find expressions that would make little sense in other languages, like Religionswissenschaft and Kunstwissenschaft – that is, the science of religion or of art.
After the split, and the new focus of empirical science, the christening of the qualified practitioner was soon to follow. Accordingly, to the two already-laureled heroes of the brave new world – namely: the “inspired artist” and the “political savior” – would be added the third trusted champion of modernity: the “scientist.”
Before this metamorphosis, even Mr. Science himself, Sir Isaac Newton, had famously christened his 17th century opus magnum on classical mechanics – hardly a part of anyone’s love of wisdom today – as a work of natural philosophy. But the latter term’s affinity with metaphysics – which seems to follow philosophy wherever it goes – and a long collaborative romance with theology in the Middle Ages, spelled doom for any abiding parity with the New Science. The maverick sparks from the rising state-of-the-art knowledge tended to stand clear of any supposed sunshine from the world of wisdom. They ignited instead a secular explosion of new empirical specializations, wary not only of theological intrusions but also of metaphysical generalities.
Those who still upheld the viability of classical philosophy had to negotiate its seemingly Davidic stature in the face of the Goliath of modern science. If philosophy was to defend its traditional Platonic role of being “synoptic” – that is, having something to say (in both principle and context) about everything – it would have to address the challenges of these aggressive newcomers. The freshly empowered specialists, after all, did not shy away from trying, within their own well-defined spheres, to say everything about something.
But even though the new scientists often dispute philosophy’s relevance, still, when they try to interpret the meaning, value and purpose of their own discoveries, all too often they trespass onto philosophical turf (often quite awkwardly). Only a trained philosopher will be able to call their bluff. And only a display of the philosophical act in its full maturity will allow all things – including conclusions from these alien specializations – to occupy their appointed place in the Big Picture.
Philosophers, for instance, have always had something to say about “the world,” but today need to mark off their cognitive claims as distinct, but not contrary, to what today’s physicists, astronomers, chemists and geologists teach from their university chairs. Similarly, they need also show they are not ignorant of what poetry and the arts, and even mythology, might have to say about that world.
And they have a brand-new task before them. Philosophers must show themselves adroit at identifying what happened when the world turned modern, and be able to point out the causes and consequences of this unprecedented shift. Only religion seemed more threatened by the modern world than traditional philosophy itself. But, whether more traditional or contemporary, philosophy will always need to prove that its contribution has something unique to offer, and something not available from the aforementioned disciplines. Nonetheless that something must show itself to be clearly relevant to the understanding and interpretation of any and all of the modern world’s novelties.
As we survey the horizons of these varieties of human knowledge and activity which the philosopher inevitably faces, but cannot by rights command, we can roughly enumerate seven such domains: 1) the so-called humanities (especially history, human geography, language and literature), 2) the world of “production” (the useful, fine and liberal arts), 3) the physical sciences, 4) the life sciences, 5) the new and still evolving social sciences, 6) the world of religion and spirituality, and 7) the very “problem of modernity.”
Anyone who has not found their way to a cenoscopic attitude towards the synoptic dimensions of such matters – but without necessarily claiming expertise in any of them – is still only half a philosopher. The wise, Aquinas reminds us, are the ones who judge all things. They do this, however, not as poly-specialists, but rather as those whose cognitive patience and contemplative leisure favor a posture of open enquiry. That posture allows their minds to slowly spot overarching principles, gain more embracing vantage points, and identify perspectives that escape the more specialist eye. All this, in turn, gives birth to a wealth of insights. Within the light of this gradually dawning intellectual gaze, all the multiple and oft recalcitrant things in the world – both around us and within us – can finally begin to share in an epiphany that discloses their coherence, or, as the Germans say, how they all “hang together.”
The present book will begin with a metaphilosophical discussion of how philosophy has defined itself historically, and then how it can and should define itself today. This will be followed by discussion of its obligatory interface with each of the seven areas mentioned above.
The last two chapters of the book will provide a more comprehensive examination of the cenoscopic outlook and how idioscopy, as its complement and at times adversary, has arisen especially in modern thought. Despite the importance and accomplishments of the latter, the defence of the former will be seen as at least as important as the defence of synopticity. The book’s argument, in summary, is simply that the two dimensions of philosophy can only survive when kept together, each forever rousing, refreshing and cultivating the other. Never have two faces stood in greater need of each other.
 Plato, The Republic, VII, 257d
* New book with ten chapters, from which only the Introduction has been posted.