Shading Candles

You are sitting in a room and it is dusk. Candles have been brought in that you may see to get on with the work in hand. Then you try to look up and out to the garden which lies beyond; and all you can see is the reflection of the candles in the window. To see the garden the candles must be shaded.
Now that is what philosophy does. It prevents us from being dazzled by what we know. It is a form of thinking which ends by saying, don’t think – look.

Maurice O’Connor Drury, The Danger of Words and Writings on Wittgenstein (Bristol: Thoemmes, 2003), p. 114.

Maurice O’Connor Drury was a friend of Wittgenstein from the late 1920s right up to the latter’s death. His book The Danger of Words is a collection of five essays originally prepared as speeches for various audiences. The above passage comes from the fourth, ‘Hypotheses and Philosophy’, which begins with a hypothetical scenario from the Francis Bacon scholar Thomas B. Macaulay. The emperor Justinian, upon his closure of the school of Athens, decides to ask its teachers (e.g., Simplicius, Isidore) what abiding results philosophy has achieved for humankind. Macaulay’s response is that ancient philosophy has had no lasting contribution to human knowledge. Modern philosophy (i.e., natural science), on the other hand, has cured disease, facilitated business, increase men’s powers, and so on. Drury responds, however, that the point of philosophy was never to add to human knowledge or human skill. It is to make us like Socrates and always be aware of what we do not know, to make “people say only just as much as they really know; that when, as happens in every generation, new advances in knowledge are made, they are not taken to be more important than they really are”, ensuring that human wonder remains secure.

Advertisements