What is philosophy?

South London Philosophy at the Latchmere, Battersea

Sunday, June 1st 2003.

Two short talks followed by questions and discussion led by Richard Baron and Chris Millar at the Latchmere.What is philosophy? and what is self? (If there is one.)

By Chris Millar. (second talk)

1.      What is philosophy?

1.1 There is a word with a heart stopping sound and it is ‘sophrosyne’.  In Plato’s dialogue, the Charmides – 380  BCE – Socrates, Critias and Charmides try to establish the meaning of the word but it seems to elude them.  The ‘soph’ part of the word could be translated as wisdom and this traditionally is the subject of philosophy.  All the same its hard to pin down.  At the end of the dialogue Socrates asks Charmides, whose name and person embody charm, what he thinks sophrosyne means.  Charmides replies: that if the other two can’t work it out then its unlikely he will be able to.  In the end Socrates and Critias agree that Charmides embodies its essence.  Quite a lot of words have been suggested as meanings of sophrosyne and we might take a mixture of them as describing the case.

Here are some: 



Harmony with self and society.

Self-restrained freedom.

 Obedience to the laws of harmony and proportion.


Charm and charisma (such as Charmides possessed).

I would like to try and get a little further with this than Plato’s Socrates, or rather a little less far.  What I mean by this is that the word sophrosyne had been around for a long time before Socrates, and the point is it had been very well recognized earlier.  I imagine that some of these earlier Greeks were able to see more clearly the point I now propose. 

1.2  I suggest the word ‘poise’ and that with a special sense its meaning is uncovered.  By this word is meant foremostly: a being in present–time and secondly this also includes an ability to hold space.  The main point is to see that presence in present-time is the chief ingredient of poise.  Shortly I will explore what it is that has poise and has its presence in present-time.  After all it is quite possible that a person might think it is thought, which has to be in present-time or perhaps the body or mind, or maybe some such thing as the word ‘person’ suggests. We need to know which of these, or perhaps none, that has to be present for there to be:  poise. To do this I think it best to move east to the philosophy of India and in particular to that of the Upanishads, because the un-named  authors and bare presences who sounded these early teachings are the experts for all time. 

1.3  But before doing so, I have a few things to say which prepare the ground, and a point to make about philosophy. I recently introduced a peculiar term, which needs some explanation.  The hyphenated phrase ‘present–time’, which I used, is supposed to have sense quite distinct from that of the single word ‘present’.  We can never live in the present, because its a no–when, but we can live in present–time.  Present-time is intended to convey the sense of definite quantity, and the quantity can be anything, from very little, to a great deal.  The quantity is of awareness at a moment.  Poise is awareness in present-time.  Additionally, it is implicit in all this that it would be the wrong approach to try and behave in some way or other to bring about poise.  This would be to act or to copy, or perhaps to improve, but all these miss the point.  There can be no acting or attempting, for this poise to make its appearance.  Poise, is the content or character of no-thing in present-time and cannot be the content of aiming to act a part.  

1.4  Lastly,  before heading east I suggest that the traditional classical definition of philosophy as ‘love of wisdom’, can be a fruitful starting point.  It could now be seen as, love of poise.  In my opinion it is a great pity if philosophy is absorbed into the History of Ideas. It’s also a pity if its agreed definition becomes ‘thinking skills’ or something of the sort.  This seems to rule out the thinking no-thought skills, of  Quietist contemplation (in Europe), Zazen and Eastern Philosophy in general.   This parlous state is surely a reflection upon the lack of ‘being’ in academia. I hope to comment on the words, ‘lack of being,’ later. .  I would suggest that there have been great philosophers who have been illiterate including Socrates.  Philosophy does not necessarily involve huge amounts of intelligence.  The great Indian saint and sage Ramakrishna was not only unable to read, but the most basic arithmetic made his head reel.   I would go so far as to say, that it takes a particular sort of fool, to require a great deal of intelligence for the task of life, as many see it more clearly with only modest talents.


2.      Self

2.1  “In the whole world there can be no study so beneficial and elevated as that of the Upanishads.  They have been the solace of my life. They will be the solace of my death.”  So said Arthur Schopenhauer who died in 1860. 

He would have had a copy of the translation from Persian into Latin, which appeared in Europe in 1802.  Schopenhauer’s translation had 50 Upanishads.  More complete collections have 108.  Kant died in 1804 and I wonder if Western Philosophy would have been any different had he studied them.

2.2  The earliest Upansishads, the Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya go back to, say 900 BCE, and the most recent were written about 100 BCE.  These works are supremely abstract in their content. They spoke from direct experience of the ground of all being.  It was as though there was no need for philosophy because they were the very understanding that the subject seeks.  This was the equivalent of the Greek alethia. In Heidegger’s treatment of it: the unconcealed.

The word Upanishad has several meanings.  It has the meaning: secret teaching, perhaps secret only because the meaning is not fully accessible without strict preparation and practise of meditation.  Another meaning is:  to be seated near the sage and to listen.

2.3  The core of this teaching rests in a very small number of words and I will try to put this across.We need to grapple first with two words, or in fact just one word repeated.  The words in Sanskrit are ‘neti neti,’ and they mean: not this, not this - sometimes rendered: neither this nor that.  These words appear in the heart of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.  It is the longest Upanishad.  Brihad means great, and aranyaka means forest, so it is the great forest sermon. To what these words, neti neti  refer, is self.  Thus it is a statement that self cannot be found among things, i.e. this or that, or anything, which can be described in the whole field of nama and rupa.  That is the field of name and form, which includes both the perceivable and the unperceivable universe.  Nowhere in this field can self be found and yet it is this self, which is life’s fulfilment.  And of course I am bound to say that it is this self who has poise. 

2.4  A great light is shed upon the words neti neti by the philosopher Adi Sankara who lived a short life from 788-820 CE.  He wrote brilliant commentaries on the most important of the Upanishads including the Brihadaranyaka.  The essence of what he said about ‘neti neti’ is conveyed by the words ‘tat tvam asi’. In other words having stated, that we as self are no-things in the whole field of name and form, Sankara says ‘Thou Art That’ and the word ‘That’ points outward.  ‘That’ is named Brahmin, which is the totality of reality of the Universe, but consists in neither name nor form and is non-dual.  To every sage who has ever had an inkling about this pointing word That:  in practise it unfolds the secret of the universe and self not as a chaotic, or featureless plenum but as sat, chit, ananda which means, being, consciousness and bliss.  Even more essentially, it is awareness of awareness, but this is not two.  It is not awareness of another thing.

2.5  For there to be this understanding there has to be practical work, which is essentially achieved through the mystical technique of meditation. It is purely an aid to the giving up of this and that. I am a purist when it comes to meditation, so essentially it means sitting absolutely still without the slightest movement of thoughts.  On the one hand reason and logic have to be left behind and on the other there can be no useful mysticism without philosophy, nor of course any decent philosophy without mysticism.  As ‘That’ it points to Brahmin, taken to mean supreme reality, this then is Truth with a capital T.  As such it has no relation to the common tangles about truth or truths as correctness of data. In any case the usual arguments about the word truth may be better described as tangles about facts, and the word fact should leave the word Truth, free of fact, as its origin suggests.

2.6  The following quotation does not come from the Upanishads themselves but is in the Vedic corpus.  The philosophy as a whole is called the Vedanta based chiefly around 4 long Vedic poems upon which the Upanishads are attached at their ends.  I can’t remember where this came from but it is somewhere in this vast literature.

It goes like this: “That which can be thought is untrue, which thought is itself untrue. Lie after lie thou hast suppressed and yet, O unhappy one; thou art ten millionfold more in the grip of illusion than ever.”

A meeting with the reality of this surely carries one out of rationalization to the next step, which lies in the realm of meditation and the serious work of annihilating thought within oneself.  The result will not be the deadly effort of Sisyphus pushing his rock without any grounds for doing so, but sat, chit, ananda.  Furthermore what logic says will have nothing whatever to do with it.  Logic and ratiocination are too many steps removed from the real and as Heidegger recognized we need to unconceal some way behind reason.

Sankara defended the existence of the self, which he called atman, while the Buddhists consider the ultimate reality to be anatman. Anatman means no-self. Sankara’s atman and the Buddhist anatman must be the same even though logic might tempt one to consider them opposites in some sense.

Sankara’s philosophy is non-dualist or Advaita, and he would contend that the Upanishads themselves are Advaita. This means that: the barrier between observed and observer and between I and me needs to be broken down. There is an absurd sense that we seem to be a twosome in which there is a me looking at some other me the first me is reflecting upon:  This twosome needs to end to become a onesome.  Beginning to understand carries things forward to the next step, which looks at what I may call the physics of it all. In effect it is a physics, which gives the greater understanding of practical poise. 

2.7  I affirm that the self who can have presence is not personality or forms of thought or gender or name, that it can neither have shape, nor size, nor position, nor mass, and certainly not body, but in not being any of these, it can and will contradictorily pervade all of them with being, consciousness, and bliss So there is an entrance through the negative gate into all life, and where this occurs we find poise.  In this analysis it enters the body having denied it, and perhaps establishes being on earth.

There are practical matters to bear in mind.  For example although concerned with the annihilation of thought one may meditate in the morning and learn thinking skills in the afternoon.  One can do this and be a great scholar or scientist. The full annihilation of thought may take several lifetimes.  Also there are degrees of abstraction. These may be compromises but it can sometimes simply be impossible to get further all at once, and so for example one may be forced to consider an observing self to have some sort of location expressed as a point.  One might live with this even though one is on the way to dissolving it.

2.8  Before moving on to what I call the story of the universe. The Upanishads have a great deal to say about the fundamental gestalt of breathing.  It can be considered that everything is an influence upon or an interruption to breathing. The body itself and more superficially its behaviour and character are layers of somatics laid down by interruptions to breath.  I am happy to call a level of this: genetic, but there is a close Sanskrit term in the word ‘Samskaras’. The Upanishads refer to an energy called prana.  This is not exactly breath.  It has been called subtle breath.  The meditator may discover a gentle rising and falling in the body, which suggests itself as the truer nature of physical existence.  Subtle breath and actual breath require harmonizing and, I hazard, that it is here that the real nature of the problems on Earth between people and societies can be found. Technology appears to look after our insecurity as beings not yet ready to try and harmonize with the subtle breath.  The problem is that humanity has not yet arrived on earth but hovers somewhere insecurely in its vicinity. 

2.9  Relatedly, the Sanskrit language symbolizes subtle silences, and the reality of meaning seems to be here. A scholar of these things told me that the line across the top of Sanskrit letters denotes material silence, such as in a remote wilderness. Then the form of the letter, which hangs from it, symbolizes structures of silence, or octaves of ever-profounder silences, experienced by mind silenced of thought.  Behind material silence and these structures, are meaning itself.  Behind breathing is physical existence.  In meditation subtle silence hits you with the obviousness of an elephant on the doorstep, and one cannot mistake the relationship to self of this experience.  All will agree that these at least: self, expanding space, peace, subtle silence, bliss and tranquility, consciousness and inward emptiness, are a unity.


3.    The story of the universe

3.1     It can be convincingly stated that the basis of the universe is consciousness. Not only Eastern thinkers but a strong line running through the European tradition has taken this view.  This is to say that the only material in the Universe across all time and throughout all its possible dimensions is consciousness.  This single nature which does not include time or persistence in space, has undergone billions of alterations to place before us the table and chairs and indeed our persons.  Even a solid thing such as a table consists fundamentally of no other material but consciousness.

And yet our individual consciousness is also the same, and we have therefore made the universe a million times over.  Later discoveries reflect processes of our own creation and so science and other future developments are bound to work, as consciousness requires and unfolds.  Consciousness is a superior form of matter or unconcealed matter and may ultimately give matter any shape all the way to pure consciousness itself.

As I said billions of alterations give rise to matter. Alteration is structurally similar to a lie.  There can be no persistence in time or life in form, without such lies. The more solid and inert the more lies to disentangle but the greater the persistence.  True love lasts briefly.   Consciousness entirely pervades the universe  and regroups as understandings in some localities.  In these localities understanding flares up to make something more like the fundamental consciousness again.  Its characteristic is lightness or masslessness and we can always see at a practical level that it is our misunderstandings and confusions that we carry as weights. 

3.2  This activity of consciousness in its sub-form of understanding works away to rebuild mental structures themselves the same as alterations or tangles or lies, but it is when this achieves a full reflection of the very time and space in the original, that there is the best enlightenment.

It is a most practical revelation that human beings can see nothing as it is through their eyes because they only see forwards. This distortion is held in common with most mammals and other creatures.  The totally stilled mind without the slightest movement of brain can dispense with such tyrannical distortions by the senses and receive nourishment from another source.  There can be recognition that self is everywhere.  There is no such real thing as space.  It is truer that we vanish and appear and reappear than that we move. When you turn round, try and observe only what appears and what disappears, without the significance of movement. I have mentioned before that there is no difference between observer and observed.

3.3  I wonder if you saw Leyton Hewitt’s face as he played his winning match at Wimbledon last year.  In the interview he said the tennis ball was the size of a football, and during the match his face showed an unmistakeable transfiguration.   We have been using the word numinous in recent years to describe this experience.  It is essentially an ending of that devilish twosome by which I mean the relationship between I and me.  But we must learn to live in it and bring it on.


4.     Poise and Scope or Being and Science

4.1  Karl Jaspers makes the distinction between existential and intellectual metaphysics.   Intellectual metaphysics is like philosophy without mysticism, which makes of it something just intellectual without the passion of realization and transformation.

But it was only late in life that he was able to see. Although he had not lacked a passion for philosophy, he realized that he had arrived at the launching point but had not launched.  He realized this fully when he met the Zen Master Deshimaru at his dojo outside Paris. As a result of this meeting he said:  ‘If I were to start my life over again, I would not write books – I would sit in silence.’ 

4.2  Heidegger reached much the same conclusion after reading the Zen Master Dogen’s chapter on the question of time in the book Shobogenzo.  Heidegger was described as a Quietist in later life and there is no doubt that he studied the European Quietists of the 17th  and early 18th Century such as Madam Guyon, Miguel de Molynos and Archbishop Fenelon who’s motto by the way was, -‘ strive to be unknown.’ They, in Europe had fully grasped the import of the non-dualist self.   The essential teaching of the Shobogenzo is that only ‘now’ exists, and without compromise there is no such thing as past or future.  We only can exist in the now of present-time.

4.3  People are always saying things like ‘meditation is not for me.’   Or ‘I have tried but it doesn’t work.’   I’m not sure about the health of these attitudes so I will comment upon them.  Firstly meditation is not an opinion, it’s a habit.  It’s something like bathing or brushing one’s teeth and we all agree to do these things without much dispute.  Of course people experience difficulties, sometimes severe, but this is all the more reason to persevere. Many Japanese businessmen go on a six-week course once or twice a lifetime.  They do about 15 hours meditation a day, alternating a half hour walking meditation with a sitting meditation, moreorless without breaks except for two meals, and the effects inform for a lifetime.  Monks work even more intensely over many years.  D T Suzuki did a disservice taking Zen to America, because he created the impression that Zen was about studying texts.  Zen is about meditation, or as it is called zazen shikantaza.  The Texts are of much less importance. 

If I suggest that fulfilment is about poise then security is about scope.   By the word scope I mean a huge extensive thing that comes within the remit of science. The main role of science is to secure the playing field of life.   Science cannot explore self.   And for those scientists who deny the existence of self, what thing would they seek to find that does not exist?  Are they to deny the existence of position for an observer, but I have not even asserted that such a position is self.  The self exists both as anatman, which is no self, and as atman, which is self.  It can only be found when reason is left far behind - so far behind that we can pass beyond the absurdity of denying existence without needing to assert it.  Neti neti, tat tvam asi.  As Heiddeger pointed out, in lectures of the late 1930’s, it is the chief trait of metaphysical philosophy that it became unable to confront that being is non-being.

4.4  Reality is a difficult word because it can be defined on so many levels.  It can be used on a par with Truth, at the highest level of the That, which thou Art, which is Brahmin the Universe.  In another context, I personally am happiest to use it to mean the shared agreement, and to make of reality a construction, of such shared agreements.  This does not seem to rely upon scientific validity.  The world could easily have been more real when people thought the world flat, than when, as now, they consider it round.  There is a strong argument to suggest that modern humans are very lacking in ‘being,’ and almost because of their science, or at any rate materialism, they inhabit a much less real world than some earlier humans.

4.5   Lastly I will finish with a quotation from The Book of the Damned by Charles Hoy Fort, a great critic of science and in my opinion a fine Taoist. Unfortunately his work attracted a great many cranks as anyone who has the misfortune to come upon that mad newspaper the Fortean Times can attest, but it really does not reflect his views.

Charles Fort writes: 

“By the damned, I mean the excluded from the canon of science, and  by the excluded I mean that which will some day be the excluding.

Or everything that is won’t be.

And everything that isn’t will be –

But, of course, will be that which won’t be –

It is our expression that the flux between that which isn’t and that which won’t be, or the state which is commonly and absurdly called ‘existence,’ is a rhythm of heavens and hells:   that the damned won’t stay damned; that salvation only precedes perdition.  The inference is that some day our accursed tatterdemalions will be sleek angels.  Then the sub-inference is that, some later day, back they’ll go whence they came.”



Sophrosyne (Greek) – temperance, balance, charm.

Vedanta  -  The end of the Veda i.e. the Upanishads but generally taken to mean the fundamental texts of Hinduism, including the main commentaries

The four Vedic poems – the main part of the Vedanta or Vedic scriptures

Veda – the word itself means: looking or knowing and therefore curiously, is the earliest sense of  ‘religion’.

Sanskrit (Devanagari script)  -  the ancient language of the Vedas

Upanishads – abstract writings attached to the ends of the Vedas.  From about 1000 BCE, some considerably more recent. There are 108 of them in the usual compilation.  They vary in length from less than a page to 50 or so pages.

Upanishad – The word itself means ‘secret teaching’ or  ‘sitting near a sage (rishi) to listen.’

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad – Great forest sermon.  It is the longest Upanishad

neti neti – famous words occuring in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad which mean ‘not this, not this’ sometimes rendered ‘neither this nor that’.

nama and rupa – name and form /   In other words this and that

‘Tat tvam asi’ – ‘Thou art that’     …famously put by  Adi Shankara (788 – 820) arguably the greatest Indian philosopher.   

Sat chit ananda – being, consciousness, bliss

Advaita – the best known Indian philosophy.  Advaita means non-dualism.  The universe is essentially one.  Adi Shankara was the chief exponent.

Dvaita – dualism / teaches that the world is not illusion but reality and that the creator is separate from the created. Individuals are separate.

Visistadvaita – qualified non-dualism

Quietism – essentially a 17th – early18th Century European movement which in its most extreme form asserts that all decision and action which comes from a person has to be denied in order to make way for God to act directly through the person. Contemplation without mental images was the method.  Miguel de Molynos and Madam Guyon were famous Quietists.  Archbishop Fenelon (died 1817) was a semi-quietist.

Zazen – Japanese meditation which is essentially, just sitting, for some time.

Zazen shikantaza – the two words are often combined.  Shikantaza is posture with a straight back and chin in.

Shobo-genzo    -   the work of the Zen master Dogen 1200 - 1253, considered the most profound of all Zen writings.  The main idea is ‘uji’ meaning existence-time.

Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976)  - German Existentialist.  He had an approach which defined Being, which he held to be the main subject of philosophy, through the origins of such important words as ‘truth’ (alethia) as he analysed them, in pre Socratic philosophy.

Karl Jaspers  (1883 - 1969) – German Existentialist