Winter Solstice, and the Vocation of Philosophy

According to my NavClock app, the sun rose over our patch of Long Island Sound today at 7:18 this morning. It will set this afternoon at 4:28, meaning that today, the shortest day of the year, will be just over 9 hours and 9 minutes long. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, starting tomorrow, the sun begins its leisurely trek back north.


Well, Galileo, it’s not really the sun that does the moving. But of course that’s how it seems to us. I can trace the sun’s changing angle as it moves between two lines of trees outside my study window, which faces due West. In June, the sun set well to the right of that big elm tree to the right. Now it sets way over to the left. To me, sitting here at my desk, it’s obvious that as summer gives way to autumn and the winter, the sun moves gradually from point A over yonder to the north towards point B to the south.

It’s obvious, but is it true? In his short book Secondary Worlds, W. H. Auden observes:

We seem to have reached a point where if the word “real” can be used at all, then the only world which is “real” for us, as in the world in which all of us, including scientists, are born, work, love, hate and die, is the primary phenomenal world as it is and always has been presented to us through our senses, a world in which the sun moves across the sky from east to west, the stars are hung like lamps in the vault of heaven, the measure of magnitude is the human body and objects are either in motion or at rest.

Of course, we know that the sun does not really move from east to west, just as we know that the stars are not really hung like lamps from the sky. And yet, what do we actually experience?


Oscar Wilde once said that only very shallow people do not judge the world by appearances. Mere flippant Wildean irony? Not quite. Philosophy, like science, begins by interrogating our everyday understanding of the world. Yet all of its fancy conceptual footwork is for naught if it does not in the end lead us to affirm a fully human world. This is the reason that art and aesthetic experience loom so large in a fully human understanding of the world: the vision of completeness provides an alternative to the abstractions of philosophy and science.

It is a delicate matter. In one sense, philosophy is the helpmeet of science. It aids in the task of putting our conceptual household in order: tidying up arguments, discarding unjustified claims. But in another sense, philosophy peeks over the shoulder of science to a world that science in principle cannot countenance. As the philosopher Roger Scruton has argued, “The search for meaning and the search for explanation are two different enterprises.” Science offers us an explanation of the world; it may start out as an attempt to explain appearances, “but it rapidly begins to replace them.” Philosophy seen as the search for meaning must in the end endorse the world of appearance.

If we had full access to that god-like, “perspectiveless” vision that Descartes dreamed of, then there would be no problem. The ghostly truths that science furnishes us would not only allow us to control reality but would also provide us with a world we could inhabit. The problem is that we do not, cannot, inhabit the abstract world that science describes. Reason allows us to distinguish between appearance and reality; but our reality turns out to be rooted firmly in the realm of appearance. “This worry is not just philosophical,” Scruton notes:


[I]t is also spiritual. The meaning of the world is enshrined in conceptions that science does not endorse: conceptions like beauty, goodness and the soul which grow in the thin top-soil of human discourse. This top-soil is quickly eroded when the flora are cleared from it, and nothing ever grows thereafter. You can see the process at work in the matter of sex. Human sexuality has usually been understood through ideas of love and belonging … . The sexologist clears all this tangled undergrowth away, to reveal the scientific truth of things: the animal organs, the unmoralized impulses, and the tingling sensations. … The meaning of the experience plays no part in the scientific description.

It is “naked truth.” In Eliot’s words: “We had the experience but missed the meaning”:

The scientific attempt to explore the “depth” of human things is accompanied by a singular danger. For it threatens to destroy our response to the surface. Yet it is on the surface that we live and act: it is there that we are created, as complex appearances sustained by the social interaction which we, as appearances, also create. It is in this thin top-soil that the seeds of human happiness are sown, and the reckless desire to scrape it away — a desire which has inspired all those “sciences of man,” from Marx and Freud to sociobiology — deprives us of our consolation.


Consolation? Indeed, more: it threatens to deprive us of our humanity. In Plato’s phrase, philosophy turns out in the end to be an effort to “save the appearances.” For my part, I am looking forward to watching the sun reverse course and begin its long, nurturing trek back toward Spring.


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