26. Proust : we do not receive wisdom, we must discover it -------------- Previous - Next - Contents

Olivier Philipponnat & Patrick Lienhardt (who discovered the original Fire in the Blood manuscript) state in their Foreword to the book that Irène Némirovsky was greatly inspired for 'Fire in the Blood' after rereading these "marvelous words" by Marcel Proust in his book Within a Budding Grove ("A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur"). "They seemed to express to perfection the subject that preoccupied her" :

We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.

The lives that you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you, have not been shaped by a paterfamilias or a schoolmaster, they have sprung from very different beginnings, having been influenced by everything evil or commonplace that prevailed round about them. They represent a struggle and a victory.

Marcel Proust

I too find this a wonderfully creative and inspiring description of wisdom and can strongly identify with it. In fact it largely overlaps what I in this Blog have called awareness. It does not come to you, you have to go out and search for it, struggle and decide what is true and what is false.

Wisdom - mural by Robert Reid The online Wikipedia Encyclopedia contains another gem of a definition for 'wisdom'. It states :

A standard philosophical, (philos-sophia: literally "lover of wisdom"), definition says that wisdom consists of making the best use of available knowledge.
As with any decision, a wise decision may be made with incomplete information.

This definition clearly links wisdom and knowledge together in a kind of mental production chain. Knowledge and experience are the "fuel" that drives the "verhicle" (philosophical method) to its ultimate "destination" : wisdom. What this wisdom amounts to is of course entirely up to you, as unique individual, because it is you who gathers the fuel and who drives the vehicle.

Philosophy (as defined in the Wikipedia Encyclopedia) is the study of general problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, truth, beauty, justice, validity, mind, and language.   Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing these questions by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on reasoned argument.

Philosophy - mural by Robert Reid My Concise Oxford Dictionary contains several definitions of the word. Here is the first and most specific one, which subtly hints at a kind of split which has opened up (over the past 200 years or so ?) between traditional philosophy and the philosophy of the natural sciences. Here it is :

Philosophy = seeking after wisdom or knowledge,
especially that which deals with ultimate reality.

The word "or" above suggests that there are two separate routes that can lead to that "ultimate reality". One through general philosophy (based on general knowledge, experience and reason), the other through the search, analysis and discoveries in the fields of the natural sciences.

When I studied and graduated in Geology we were (together with the other natural sciences like biology, physics, chemistry, astronomy) part of the Faculty of Philosophy at Leiden University.
The essential criteria for a school of learning to belong to that Faculty was that its underlying directional aim was to find an answer to that elusive ultimate reality. Significantly the School of Philosophy ("Wijsbegeerte" in Dutch, meaning "desire for wisdom") was not part of the Faculty (neither were Theology, Law, Medicine, Psychology, etc.).   (I state the above in the past tense as I am not sure whether the situation is still the same. One can become a "Doctor in Philosophy" (PhD) in just about any Tertiary School of learning these days.)

Knowledge - mural by Robert Reid

Nevertheless the split is still there, and I clearly perceive some considerable animosity between the two camps (as revealed in their writing). Ever since Socrates general philosophy has been top dog in the field.
However these last 200 years or so they have been increasingly sidelined

  1. because traditional philosophy has now become such a specialist field,
    that only professionals can grasp it, and

  2. through the spectacular developments in the natural sciences (with breakthroughs by the likes of Galileo, Darwin, Wegener, Newton, Einstein and others) which are generating deeper insights into the evolution of life, the earth and the universe.

It are (I believe) therefore the natural sciences that are providing the "super fuel" which slowly but inevitably will power the philosophy "vehicle" closer towards its so elusive destination : a maturing wisdom and understanding of the true "ultimate reality".
Now, through the popular writings by Brian Greene (The Fabric of the Cosmos), Richard Dawkins (Books, CDs, News) and others, it opens up these new evolving ideas to ordinary people like you and me (meaning : non specialists in these fields), to all those who are interested in and in search of that "ultimate reality".

Traditional philosophy will always have a function in many aspects of human society (like politics, ethics, etc.), but to tackle the ultimate reality it requires more than just ordinary daily experiences and reason. It needs to be complemented by the knowledge wrestled from observations, investigations, discoveries of the world and universe around us to come closer to that goal.

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