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Between the Deer and the Idea: On Woodland Philosophy by Sebastian Morello

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Between the Deer and the Idea: On Woodland Philosophy

"Young Man Reading under a Tree," a 19.3 x 25 cm watercolor, pen and black ink, over graphite on paper by Julien Léopold Boilly (1796-1874).

Photo: The Morgan Library & Museum in New York

Earlier this week, I lay in bed staring up at the ceiling as my mind raced with a hundred new ideas. It is not the first time that this has happened. I am tormented by sporadic insomnia. 

I drew back the curtain and held my wristwatch up to the full moon’s light; it was 3 a.m. In my study I jotted down a few thoughts on a notepad in the hope that their transference into an extramental condition would free me from them. No dice. I returned to bed and lay there for another hour. It was no use.

By 4:20 a.m., I was downstairs and drinking coffee. I suddenly realised what I needed: I needed the woods. I put on my jacket and walking boots, woke up the dog, and got into the car. By 4:45 a.m. I was in the heart of the Chiltern Hills, wandering deep in the woods. I have always loved these woods. As a teenager I would drive my little hatchback out there and walk to find my favourite tree, an ancient and somewhat deformed elm which I called Agatha. In those years, sitting in this tree’s branches, I read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the Bhagavad Gita, and undertook what turned out to be a lifechanging reading of The Gospel of St. John.

Many years ago, during one of my intimate moments with Agatha, I heard the gentle rustling of cloven hooves below. Foraging beneath me, as I lay out on one of Agatha’s thick branches, was a large herd of fallow deer. I never moved a muscle, and they never saw me. For perhaps five minutes, suspended a few feet above their heads, I watched them. I enjoyed a similar experience by a lake some years later, staying in Nepal’s Chitwan rainforest, when a rhinoceros stepped out of the forest and, taking no notice of me, bathed before me for nearly an hour. There was something especially remarkable, however, about my encounter with the fallow herd that day. Many times since, I have returned to watch the deer in that wood, and the novelty of seeing them has never worn off.

Often, as a youngster, when I was researching for college, I would find a spot outdoors to do so. Even now, after hours of being in my study, my habit is to take my dog into the countryside and wander about, inspecting the trees, looking for wildlife, or collecting nettles for soup. I think this behaviour makes sense. The life of the mind is fundamentally dangerous when divorced from the world. Indeed, intellectuals have a moral duty to seek out ways of encountering reality—the thing out there—if they are to avoid becoming a tremendous nuisance to others, a trait so common among their kind.

Why does the life of the mind often become disconnected from reality? The answer, I think, may be found in the problematic composition of reality itself. 

Philosophy began not with questions about isolated emotional states, or personal identity, or the limits of knowledge, but with the question of the stuff around us. The pre-Socratics, for example, focused on finding some one principle that would account for the world’s existence. Plato, with his theory of the ‘perfect forms,’ was undertaking the same task, as was Aristotle with his famous account of the ‘four causes.’ And philosophy continued on in this way. 

For this reason, philosophy was generally taught along the lines of the following curriculum: philosophy of nature (what is all the stuff out there?), metaphysics (what accounts for the stuff out there?), epistemology (how do I know about the stuff out there?), philosophical anthropology (what am I, this thing asking these questions?), ethics (knowing what I know, how should I live?) and politics (knowing what we know, how should we live together?). These are all questions of being: what is being and what is it to be? Somewhere along the way, however, being dropped out of philosophy.

In response to people like me who complain about the disappearance of fundamental philosophical questions from the discipline of philosophy, it is often said that scientific investigation and experimentation have replaced philosophical questions of being. This, however, is clearly false, since the scientific enterprise presupposes all sorts of philosophical conclusions about the inherent intelligibility of the universe that science aims at exploring, as well as the capacity of the human mind to grasp that intelligibility. How, then, did being drop out of philosophy?

Again, it seems to me that the problem lies with the inherently problematic composition of reality itself. Let me explain. All that is, is. That is to say: everything that has being, exists. Hopefully we can all agree on that. But everything that exists also exists as something. If you see a large tawny object moving through the woods, you know that something is there, an existent being of some sort, but only when you have identified it as a deer do you know what it is. In turn, everything that is is composed of two principles: existence and essence. Everything that is also is as something (indeed, these correspond to the existential and predicative forms of the copula ‘is,’ but we needn’t worry about that).

The question arises, is the distinction between existence and essence merely a distinction of the mind, or are the things out there in the world really such compositions of two knowable principles? Classically—and it is certainly the answer that makes the most sense to me—thinkers have argued that the distinction between existence and essence is not merely a mental (or logical) distinction but a real distinction. First, that something exists does not explain why it exists as this kind of thing, since other things also exist which are different kinds of things. Second, this kind of thing need not have ever existed; for example, any given deer, or all deer, might conceivably have never come into being. In turn, the essence of a thing does not explain why it exists. Indeed, it is perfectly possible to conceive of essences that are not conjoined to any corresponding principle of existence—just think of any mythical creature, for example. So, it seems that these principles are real, rather than merely mental categories, for existence and essence explain the being of any given thing and are simultaneously irreducible to each other.

So far, so good. I call this composition of reality ‘problematic,’ however, because it can all get rather messy when a mind turns up. The human mind knows what something is—a fallow deer, say—because it gives the really existing deer an intentional existence within itself, thereby intentionally becoming the thing known. The essence of the being out there in the world is recreated as a being of the mind. And this we call, in common parlance, “having an idea of something.” That, in short, is how we know what something is. We know that something is, however, by judging it to be.

What is this judgement of something to be? It cannot be solely on account of the five senses, for the senses cannot know or ‘judge’ anything. That would be like saying, “the eyes see.” No, they do not see. Your eyes receive reflected light. You see. Nor can one judge a thing to be merely by having an idea of the thing, for, as noted, it is perfectly possible to have ideas of things that do not exist. What is it, then, that judges a thing to be? The answer is you. You judge things to be. The ‘judgement of existence,’ as it is sometimes called, is an act of the whole person. Why, indeed, should I suppose that when I act, it is in fact only a part of me which acts, rather than the whole of me? We are not machines, we are organisms, and we act—including the act of knowing a thing—as single, unified agents.

Then… René Descartes decided to ask a question that never should have been raised: how do I know that things exist outside my mind? This is the question of a mad man, but unfortunately it was taken seriously by everyone, and rather than making a sane man out of Descartes, his question turned everyone mad. 

Descartes’ solution, famously, was to attempt to retrieve the notion of ‘external reality’ by attending to the ideas in his mind. The trouble is that, as noted, ideas in the mind are of essences that need not be conjoined with a principle of existence, and they may indeed not correspond to anything out there in the world. Again, one does not know something to be by having an idea of its existence, but by judging it to be. Real existence, of which we can have no intelligible idea—but rather only judge something to be or not to be—cannot, then, be conjured up out of the ideas of the mind.

Today, we are so far downstream from Descartes that we think it is reasonable, on conceiving an idea, to believe that its existential realisation will naturally follow from having such an idea. This assumption, indeed, is largely behind every murderous utopian regime of the last five centuries to the now popular belief that one can declare oneself a member of the other sex and—as if by magic—that makes it true. 

Due to the way reality is composed, this epistemic error was always a possibility for the one who thinks about reality. It was finally committed, and the ensuing carnage has largely wrecked the world. This error is now an ever-present temptation for the intellectual. The intellectual is constantly tempted to turn first to the content of his mind rather than the world out there. For this reason, the intellectual, rather than being a guiding light for civilisation, has become a constant mischief-maker.

There have, however, always been those who have operated on the assumption that things (real beings) are more real than ideas (intentional beings), and those people are called ‘conservatives.’ Indeed, this, I believe, above any other trait, is what defines the conservative, and the reverse of this assumption is what defines all those proponents of revolutionary mayhem who comprise the conservative’s political, social, and moral adversaries.

It does not surprise me that the error of so-called ‘turning to the subject’—or, as I prefer to put it, Descartes’ mad musing—was committed by a mathematician with poor health and a fragile constitution. I sometimes wonder: would Descartes have made such a terrible epistemic mistake had he spent fewer hours working out equations and more time in trees spying on fallow deer? Anyone who is inclined to the intellectual life, I think, is under an obligation to get outdoors. The intellectual who is not an outdoorsman is too great a threat to his fellow man, whom he will no doubt eventually come to torment with his ideas.

Earlier this week, wandering in those woods in the glow of the moon, bidding it farewell as the sun slowly rose to take its place, I found myself in the company of that great deer herd. I crouched down, keeping my dog close to me so that he didn’t startle them, and shifted behind a fallen tree where I remained for a long time to watch them bathe in the morning sun beams that flooded the woods with orange light. It is not good for a scholar to be sleep-deprived, but in the circumstances I did the right thing in heading outdoors, for the alternative was to sit at home and cogitate, eventually to become another intellectual rascal.

Sebastian Morello is a lecturer, public speaker, and columnist. Trained by Sir Roger Scruton, he has published books on philosophy, history, and education. He lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and children.