Don’t Philosophize Only with a Hammer

31 Jul 2017, Posted by Alexandros in Philosophy Reborn, Writings


In a previous post entitled The Art of Enquiry I had divided enquiry into six dimensions with the vertical dimension being contrasted with the horizontal one:

“The horizontal dimension has to do with how fast you progress in getting to the logical conclusion of a question within a fixed framework of presuppositions. The vertical dimension has to do with how aware you are of the factors that determine the way you think. To give a more concrete example think of a car. The more you step on the gas the faster it goes. That’s horizontal progression. The vertical dimension would be being aware of how the engine makes such a motion possible.”

This post is an exploration of the vertical dimension, specifically focusing on how certain conceptual presuppositions and methods affect the way we think.

Just as most of us are not aware of all the complex bio-chemical processes that are involved in thinking the same goes for all the conceptual presuppositions that determine the way we think. In other words, our thinking is guided by certain unconscious beliefs about the world. Fortunately, it is possible to access those beliefs and change them.

To use a computer metaphor (and one should not forget it’s only a metaphor, and not necessarily a good one), if our brain, the grey matter, the physical stuff that is in our skull is thought of as the “hardware”, then our conceptual framework is its software. Just as software has evolved over the years, so have our conceptual frameworks. Just as most people don’t use the full capabilities of their computers, and forget to upgrade their operating system, the same goes for our conceptual framework. People do not upgrade because they think they don’t need to. Thus they are unaware of the possibilities that are available to them or the ways their outdated system sabotages their thinking.

The Conceptual Bedrock of your Mind: Epistemology and Metaphysics

As we grow up in life we come to certain conclusions as to what we can know and how we go about knowing it. What exists in the world and how it exists is what metaphysics is mainly about and how we know what exists in the world and what this knowledge is makes up epistemology.

All our judgments about the world presuppose these two frameworks. In fact, any judgment is impossible without them. The better your metaphysics and epistemology the better the quality of your judgments.

Remember what we said earlier? That people don’t upgrade because they can do just fine with earlier versions of their conceptual software?

Well that might have been true for thousands of years when humans had to satisfy very basic needs relating to survival and reproduction. However, the more complex our methods for surviving and living become, the more our conceptual frameworks struggle to evolve to accommodate the increasing complexity. They were suited for a different environment, and when we try to use them to do something else, they falter.

It is like trying to use a hammer to measure the temperature. It’s not made for it. But just because you can’t measure the temperature with a hammer that doesn’t mean that temperature does not exist or that it cannot be known. Amusing as this example may be, this sometimes is a good analogy for the way we try to make sense of the world.

Correspondence: The Hammer that thinks Temperature does not exist

We have a wonderful method for knowing that has served us well for countless years. It’s called correspondence. You ask John where your friend Sara is. John tells you that he believes that Sara is behind the door. You look behind the door and you find Sara.

What did just happen?

You found a way to see whether John was telling the truth. You used your senses and when you saw Sara behind the door, you found out that John’s belief corresponded with reality. If you hadn’t found Sara behind the door you would have thought that either John lied to you or that simply John’s belief just didn’t correspond to reality, that it was untrue.

We have the remarkable ability to believe things that may not correspond to reality. Given people are aware of this, some use lies to their advantage, and in response we have figured out ways to protect ourselves from liars. One such way is correspondence.

In most of our everyday tasks, correspondence is invaluable. It works well.

So do our senses. They get us around and unless we tamper with them they will do the job well. With them we determine whether we should take our umbrella with us today, whether our coffee needs more sugar, and whether our beloved is home from work.

And yet even though they can tell us whether she is home from work they cannot tell us whether she’s in love.

And if we were to sit down with our beloved and read her a poem, and we disagreed on whether the poem was beautiful, correspondence would not be able to help us find the beauty behind the door, like we found Sara.

So some people opt to declare beauty, love, right and wrong as non-existent and therefore unknowable because they cannot find the door let alone what’s behind it.

They are like the persons with the hammer who declare that temperature is non-existent and impossible to measure because it cannot be done with a hammer.

Puzzling as this may seem, this is a belief widely held today. Some people believe that there is no right and wrong, beautiful and ugly. These things exist only in our heads. And because they exist only in our heads they cannot be true or false, and we can choose to ascribe them wherever we want. They are, as people say “subjective”.

Whereas Sara behind the door is not just in our heads. She is behind the door too.

How do we solve this problem? Correspondence obviously cannot help us. Because beauty is not a “thing”. And correspondence is only good for things: stuff, stones, tables, chairs, bodies and corpses. For beauty, rightness and the soul you need something else. Something more delicate than a hammer.

The Soul: Something delicate

Before I continue, I’d like to add a brief remark for contemporary readers: Do not be estranged by my use of the word “soul”. I am not presupposing abstract “substances” in other-worldly realms. Originally, I was thinking to use the word “mind” instead of “soul”, but then my heart intervened. The word “mind” has been too much associated with our thoughts and less with our emotions. Yet our emotions are as important in correct judgment as our thoughts. As Dylan Evans in his book Emotion: The Science of Sentiment reminds us, people who lose emotional capacities because of brain damage do not become more rational but less rational: they can make disastrous choices as to who to trust or take an extraordinary amount of time to decide among different options1. To speak in the vernacular, our mind is good at seeing all the options but our heart is better at knowing which one is worth choosing. I only chose the word “soul” because it seems to entail both the intellectual and the affective part our judgment. For the mind is sharp, but without the heart, it has no finesse (alluding to Pascal’s esprit de finesse). To paraphrase Kant, the mind without the heart is empty but the heart without the mind is blind. The soul that balances those spheres is on its way to wisdom.

Other people cannot see what is in our soul. But they can see what is in the physical world. That is the big advantage of correspondence, that other people can know one side of the equation (the world of things) and can test whether the other (our beliefs) is true even though they do not have direct access to it.

But what happens with right and wrong? Beauty and Ugliness? Now we all recognize that these things are not “things”. They do not have physical characteristics. Yet we can attribute them to physical things. We call some paintings beautiful. What is going on?

The truth is that we do not use just one way of getting to truth. In fact, we do not behave as if there are only things in this world. And I do not need some complex argument to prove this. We only need to direct our attention to something we are aware of every day and undeniably exists: desires.

Desires are not things. Though they might have physical preconditions (e.g. a living body) they do not have physical characteristics. Yet no one would claim they do not exist. Why not? Other people cannot see them2. Other people cannot hear them, smell them, taste them. So why don’t they send them to the realm of non-existence like some decided to do with beauty and rightness? Because everybody feels them. They see them “from the inside”.

Yet in recognizing this, we just enriched our epistemology and metaphysics. For now we have a new way of knowing and something new to know. Correspondence isn’t that useful in detecting desire. If I were to tell you that Sara desired John, there would be no door that you could open that would reveal this to you – unless you opened the door of Sara’s heart, and that cannot be done with the senses3. A hammer might break one’s heart but it will never reveal its secrets.

So how do you unlock the door to Sara’s heart? The one word answer is: interpretation.

Interpretation versus Correspondence, a New Realm, and the Role of Poetry

We are not just slates that record impressions from the physical world. We feel. Our lives are a complex mosaic of feelings intertwined with impressions in myriad ways, and in trying to express this mosaic we invented a way: poetry.

Poetry exists because we are more than we can say. For those who first wrote it, it wasn’t a luxury, but a necessity. They did not choose to be poets, they felt differently, and language in its literal sense was too poor to express what they felt. So they broke the rules and combined words in uncustomary ways. Sometimes they were seen as liars, distorting reality with their words (see Plato on this). But other times their art revealed truths that resonated so deeply within the souls of men, that they were seen as messengers of the gods or people endowed with the ability to directly apprehend the truth (ironically, the latter position also belongs to Plato. See his dialogue Ion).

You do not verify a poem. You feel it. You interpret it.
To believe that an interpretation is true if it corresponds to the “meaning” of the poem is to carry over correspondence from the realm of things to that of the sentiments without being aware of the difference in context.

That does not mean that any interpretation is as good as any other.

It only means you need to use a different way to discern which interpretations are better and which are worse.

But let us go back to desire.

Where is it? If you were to ask that question, you immediately presuppose that it exists within space. But does it? If you open your heart will you find it there? No. You will just find muscle, blood, veins and arteries.

You see, when poetry becomes vernacular, we forget it started as metaphor. When somebody tells you: “Look within”. He does not mean that you should start dissecting your body so that you can look within it. He is using a metaphor to tell you to use not your eyesight, but your insight. But the “in” even though spatial in origin (in/out), does not refer to a spatial realm. What is going on?

We have just discovered a realm that undeniably exists but is unlike the realm of everyday things.

Yet I don’t recall being taught about it in school. When we did physics, I don’t recall the professor saying: “Oh yeah, and there’s this other realm that doesn’t exist in space and is not made out of atoms, it’s where your fears, desires and dreams live, but physics doesn’t cover that.”

Nobody told me of that place where dreams exist, yet every night I went there. And when on summer nights I lie on the wet sand looking at the stars above, the strongest telescope cannot capture my awe.

It seemed to me, that the stories of men, were not just made out of spears and blood, stars and winds. But of fears and desires. Love and hate. And yet in school we were taught more about the courses of projectiles, than those of our hearts.

There are more people who are trained to make a gun than there are people who ask why one should use it. Perhaps when we are taught a history of the realm of sentiments, we would be more inclined to direct our hearts towards the production of something more beneficial to our future.

To echo Flaubert, what we need is a Sentimental Education. Not to make us more sentimental4, but wiser. To connect thoughts with feelings and feelings with thoughts. To be moved by the right feelings while thinking the right thoughts and taking the right action. That is wisdom.

Fritz Lang, the director of the film Metropolis, was alarmed by the heartless rationality that seemed to be taking the upper hand in leading the direction of Western societies. His belief was that a world ruled by thought empty of emotion is bound to lead to a dehumanized society that was cruel and blind to its own immorality. Where men had become cogs in machines of their own making, alienated from one another.

Let us not forget the wisdom expressed in the film’s main message: The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart.


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  1. See p. 130-134 from Emotion: The Science of Sentiment, by Dylan Evans, Oxford University Press, 2001
  2. Just like listening to music is not the same as looking at the score, looking at brain activity that correlates with a desire is not the same as experiencing that desire, hence there are reasonable doubts as to whether such an activity would count as “seeing a desire”.
  3. Operationalizing internal states with outward behaviors is a poor work-around but not more than that.
  4. For sentimentality, as the poet Haris Vlavianos, a past teacher and current friend of mine used to say, is the “failure of emotion”. An epidermal affectation not an effect of the stirrings of one’s soul.