Could Philosophers Have a Blind Spot?

Some Reflections on Philosophy and Leisure

We are all familiar with the notion of a blind spot in our peripheral vision. Ironically, the blind spot is caused precisely by that which enables the eye to see, namely, the optic nerve. The optic nerve sends the visual information from the retina to the brain, but in the one place where the optic nerve connects to the retina, there are no cones and rods, and thus a blind spot.

Could philosophy, or more precisely philosophers, have a blind spot in their range of understanding? Before we look into some possible reasons to think this, let us note that this particular blindness would be justifiably disturbing to all philosophers, if true. After all, the wisdom that philosophy cultivates has long been cherished as a knowledge of everything–in the way that such knowledge is possible for human beings. For instance, as Aristotle conceived it, philosophical wisdom is the science of the causes and principles of being qua being, for which reason it concerns itself with all that is, i.e., all things in so far as they are. Put differently, the universal scope of philosophy is apparent in the fact that philosophers can seemingly provide an analysis of nearly anything by laying out the principles and causes of that thing, its purpose, and its meaning. Indeed, upon reflection, it seems that there is nothing whatever that lies outside the visual field of philosophy, and that philosophy in principle could have no such blind spot.

However, we must remember that philosophy is never practiced in the abstract, but always by living human beings. In fact, philosophers have never actually claimed to possess the knowledge of all things, but only to be pursuing it (in fact, “philosophy” literally means the “love of wisdom,” not the “complete possession of wisdom”), so that while philosophy itself might not in principle be blind to anything, philosophers (either singly or as a whole) may develop certain myopias.

Indeed, a clue to a philosophical blind spot can be found in our optical analogy. As we saw in the case of the eye, it is the eye’s very dependence on the optic nerve that brings about its blindness to one area of its visual field. In a similar way, the philosopher has a very specific dependency to which he or she owes the ability to do philosophy. Long ago, Aristotle noted this dependency when he remarked that philosophical speculation began only when men had leisure time, only when the necessities of life had been adequately supplied. The reason for this is that philosophy begins in wonder, and it is only when humans have freedom from the daily concerns and worries of existence (ta pragmata) that they have the opportunity to look about them and wonder (Met. I 982b12-27). A more modern expression of this found in the writings of Hannah Arendt, who describes the moment of philosophical provenance as the “stop-and-think,” and sees it illustrated in Socrates’ propensity to pause and become lost in thought in the midst of whatever he was doing. In short, one cannot be doing if one wishes properly to be thinking. Philosophy, essentially an activity of the mind, requires a stillness of the body and, therefore, a withdrawal from the labors and concerns that are attached to our bodily existence.

Does a blind spot perhaps exist here? Philosophers have long looked askance at the work-a-day world, relegating work to the category of the merely instrumental, i.e., as having little or no value in itself. Indeed, earning a living has been cast by philosophers as mere “moneymaking,” as “servile,” as befitting those who lack the intellectual light to pursue more contemplative activities. And yet the ones who write these sorts of things, more often than not, were not those who had any long acquaintance with labor and work. When surveying the annals of philosophy, one might become suspicious about the authority behind these claims, for those annals reveal that the history of western philosophy has been the history of the speculation not of plumbers, carpenters, farmers, midwives, and shop-owners, but of aristocrats, monks, and university professors—precisely those individuals who have never had to struggle 70-80 hours a week at labor in order to supply food, clothing, and shelter for themselves and their families. Again, it is no accident that this is so, since philosophy requires rest from labor, but it does raise a question: are there, perhaps, truths that could only be discovered in and through a life of labor? Would not such truths remain unknown to the aristocrat, the monk, and the university professor?

As long as humankind has existed, the majority of people spend their adult life (and often their youth) engaged in toil. Whether it is in tilling the soil, caring for livestock, working in factories, building houses, or cooking meals and keeping house, men and women spend 99% of their waking lives engaged in some form of work. It is a startling realization. And yet, strangely, very little is ever done by philosophers to explore the meaning and value of the activity that occupies so much of our lives. Again, one can only wonder: are there subtle lessons and truths about reality to be learned in the life of work—that remain unknown to the metaphysician in his leisure? Are there great moral insights to be gained by struggling year round to make ends meet, as yet unknown to the moral philosopher in his contemplation?

Consider John the electrician. He spends the morning helping prepare breakfast for the family, dressing children and bustling them off to school. He then rushes off to his carpentry job, where he spends 8-10 hours cutting plywood and nailing it to the frame of a house. He then returns home in the early evening (perhaps stopping at the market on the way home), helps prepare dinner, clean the kitchen, and do laundry. He might even have a look at the bathroom faucet, which has been leaking for several weeks (after he has opened up the latest mind-numbing dental bills for his children). At the end of the day, after perhaps telling a bedtime story to his children, he collapses in bed only to awaken the next day to do it all over again. What kind of meaning can be found in such a working life?

Here is one possibility, among a great many. John is learning a great lesson of self-sacrifice. The hourly, daily, monthly, yearly grind of caring for his family and his customers has slowly taught him to care for others as much as, or (in the case of his family) more than himself. He has learned this lesson not merely as an idea, but in every fiber of his being–in the dark circles around his eyes and the aches in his knees: that life is only meaningful to the extent that we can serve others. John could not have learned this lesson in contemplation, no, not if he had all the leisure time in the world.