The unexamined life, as Socrates famously stated, is not worth living. But what is it, to examine a life? How does one examine a life? Where do we begin? Is there a set of tools for its examination, methods to conduct our inquiry? Is there a training in its performance?
Some would say “no”–but they would be wrong. For, although philosophical inquiry does not follow the rigid methodologies of contemporary science (what Jeremy Bentham named, and Charles Peirce took up calling, “idioscopic science”), it nevertheless is itself a scientific endeavor (what Bentham, and again Peirce, called “cenoscopic science”): meaning that its pursuit tends to the production of knowledge corresponding to acts of understanding following upon demonstrations. This process, moreover, is a recursive one: a continued reevaluation whereby the sole instrument of philosophy–that common faculty of intellectual reasoning accessible by all men and women–refines continually our grasp and articulation of the truth. This refinement does not occur all of its own, but by the exercise of conscious control in questioning both the beings that appear before us and our beliefs concerning them.
This will to inquire arises not by mere spontaneity in a given moment or two, but as a matter of an operative habitual disposition. Such a habit, as writes Jacques Maritain, is acquired:
…by exercise and customary use; but we must not therefore confuse habit in the present technical sense with the modern meaning of the word, namely, mere mechanical bent and routine: the two are utterly differently and opposed. Customary habit, which attests the solid weight of matter, resides in the nerve centres. Operative habit, which attests the activity of the mind, resides chiefly in an immaterial faculty only, in the mind or the will… Habits are interior growths of spontaneous life, vital developments which make the soul better in a given sphere and fill it full of a vigorous sap: turgentia ubera animae, as John of St. Thomas calls them.Jacques Maritain 1923: Art and Scholasticism.
Unfortunately, our world does not make the development of an operative habit of inquiry easy: for every operative habit, as Maritain goes on, “Is stable and permanent… precisely because of the object which specifies it”. To have a habit of inquiry requires that we learn truly to question for understanding, not merely to query a search engine for information. Against this anti-inquisitive suppression characteristic of the contemporary world, philosophical reflection and the habit of inquiry stand at the center of the Lyceum Institute’s mission.
Philosophy informs everything we do: not only in the explicitly philosophical study carried out in seminars, but also in our daily conversations, our study of languages, and our discussions of history, science, politics, and literature.