Benjamin Bestgen: Philosophical thinking
In the first in a series of jurisprudential primers, Benjamin Bestgen reflects on philosophical thinking.
When I studied philosophy, one of the typical remarks from well-meaning people with little knowledge of the subject were pointers to Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker and that it must be interesting to “ponder the deep questions” (the other remark was “What kind of job will you get with this?”).
While I learned to ponder some “deep questions”, philosophical thinking, as a method, is more about clarity and justification. Philosophers, like lawyers, deal with claims, usually in the form of statements: “This decision is fair and just”, “A baby is not a person and lacks legal capacity” or “The hedge is high”.
Claims can be true or false, complex or simple, abstract or concrete, clear or opaque. Philosophers will aim to clarify the claims by splitting them up into separate parts and questions, offering detailed explanations for key concepts used and assumptions made in relation to the claim or concepts. They will also proceed to justify their points through arguments and supporting evidence.
Indeed, depth doesn’t always help: “One must be sane to think clearly, but one can think deeply and be quite insane.” was one of the musings of the father of electricity, Nikola Tesla. I think he meant that depth of thought risks continuing the questioning and re-questioning of one’s assumptions, clarifications and justifications to a level where it ceases to be useful or illuminating. Instead, it becomes fanciful to such a degree that very few people can still see sense in the enquiry or its conclusion.
Philosophical solipsism (the belief that I only know that I exist and I can never know whether anything or anybody else really exists) is one of these “deep ones” (in the Lovecraftian sense, in my opinion…).
Another risk of philosophical (and legal) thinking is putting too much emphasis on analysing the meaning of words and concepts, using purely armchair musings, based on our own intuitions and preconceptions. Such philosophy (and approach to law) risks becoming a mere language game where semantics rule and the world we all live in falls by the wayside.
But how to think clearly and justify our points properly? Much has been written on it but for a short note like this one I would recommend John Dewey’s working definition of “reflective thinking” as our starting point: “[…] active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends.”
Thomas Hobbes noted that leisure is the mother of philosophy, acknowledging that good thinking and well-reasoned arguments take time and effort.
So instead of following the latest failings of American presidents, why not use some of the self-isolation time to look at philosophical questions that run through life (and law)? An unexamined life is not necessarily happier and almost certainly poorer – let’s make the most of what we’ve got.
Benjamin Bestgen is a solicitor and notary public (qualified in Scotland). He also holds a Master of Arts degree in philosophy and tutored in practical philosophy and jurisprudence at the Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main and the University of Edinburgh.