Some time ago, I attended a conference — I won’t say where the conference was — at which a certain speaker was talking about what he called the “fundamental conditions of human existence”. The speaker was a tall, rather distinguished looking Norwegian academic; and as he spoke, he laid out what he believed these conditions to be. “Existential loneliness,” he said. “Consciousness of impending mortality. Exposure to the terror of existence…” At the end of the paper, there was a chance for questions. I raised my hand. But unfortunately, time being limited, and I didn’t get a chance to ask my question; and what with one thing and another, I didn’t get round to asking the speaker in person. The question, however, has stayed with me; and so I’ll raise is here instead. The question is this: are these things — existential loneliness, consciousness of impending mortality, terror, exposure, etc. — the fundamental conditions of human existence, or are they instead the fundamental conditions of Norwegian existence?
It may seem as if this was not an entirely serious question; but, in one sense, it was a wholly serious question, because, as I was listening to this paper, I couldn’t help finding myself wondering quite how fundamental these conditions were, or wondering whose existence the philosopher was talking about. Did this apply to all of us? Why didn’t I recognise myself in this diagnosis? Would it, in fact, have made a difference if I was Norwegian?
In is true, of course, that we are all born, we all go about our lives with the various drives and impulses that come with being human, and we all die: these are things that unite us all. But the trouble with the notion of “the human condition” is not only that the authorities are really not agreed on what this condition might be, but also that this condition is more often than not seen as something that ails us, and those who like to talk about the fundamental conditions of existence often present themselves as diagnosticians of the sickness that is human life.
The notion of philosophy as diagnosis and as therapy is one that has a long and distinguished pedigree. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, in part because questions of health and sickness have been very much on my mind. As recently as a month ago, my partner was diagnosed with breast cancer; and if I have been relatively quiet on this blog, it is because I have been preoccupied with matters of more pressing importance elsewhere. For much of the last month, we have been thinking hard about health and about sickness, trying to work out the implications of the diagnosis, becoming familiar with medical processes and procedures and with the inside workings of hospitals and so forth. It has been a difficult few weeks.
But this is not what I want to talk about here: or not directly. Because spending the last few weeks actively involved with questions about the way that medicine works, has got me thinking about the way that philosophical diagnosis often works. I have long thought that philosophy — that strange business of thinking through existence and finding creative practices in response to this thinking-through of existence — is to some extent a diagnostic exercise, one that explores, and makes concrete proposals, about how one might live well, just as medicine is a diagnostic exercise that explores, and makes concrete proposals, about how one might be well. A long time ago now, I found myself intrigued by the notion in Buddhism that the so-called Four Noble Truths are diagnostic in intent, and are directly modelled on a medical model. First you diagnose the symptoms, then you diagnose the cause, then you establish if there is a cure, and then you set out the stages of the cure. This kind of model has, to an extent, become a model for how I think about philosophy more generally.
But there is, I think, a problem with the tendency to see philosophy in the light of this kind of medical analogy. It is a problem that exists in certain presentations of Buddhism, but that also exists in other forms of philosophy that attempt to explore the ills of how we are living, and to suggest how we might put these ills to right.
The problem can be made clearer if one looks more closely at how diagnosis and treatment work in medicine. The fourfold formula above is a pretty good approximation. You start with, “Oh, look, there’s a problem!” Then you look into the possible causes. Then you think about how, knowing the cause, you might treat the problem (sometimes, you don’t need to worry about underlying causes to treat symptoms, but often it can help). Then you prescribe whatever therapeutic course is the best response to the problem. So what is the difference when it comes to philosophy? The difference, I think, is that a good doctor will not assume that there is some kind of fundamental condition of corporeal existence, a fundamental condition for which there is a single cure. A doctor who prescribed antibiotics (or exorcism, or cupping, or a week’s holiday) for everything under the sun—broken legs, viruses or what have you — would be a poor doctor indeed. There is no single fundamental condition that is “illness”; and so there is no panacea for all ills. This is why doctors need a degree of cunning. They need their wits about them, they need to know that bodies are complex and that they behave in all manner of different ways, and they need to know that there are innumerable ways of responding to these complexities. Not only this, but there is not always a problem: a good doctor is also able to diagnose, sometimes, that nothing much is wrong, and that patient can be sent upon their way, reassured that nothing (at least at the moment) needs to be done.
In the light of this, sometimes it seems to me that philosophical diagnosticians lack the cunning of their medical counterparts (not for nothing were the precursors of today’s doctors called “cunning men”). Let us say, for the sake of argument, that if doctors treat bodies and what goes wrong with bodies, philosophical diagnosticians try (at least) to treat lives, and what goes wrong with lives. But it seems to me that good philosophical diagnosticians, just like good doctors, should be capable of recognising that lives too are complex things, and that just as there is no single “human condition” that needs treating, so there is no single treatment that is appropriate. Indeed, a good philosophical diagnostician, I think, should — just like a doctor — have the ability to recognise that sometimes there is nothing much wrong with the way that life is going, and to refrain from offering remedies that in truth remedy nothing (and that may have unwelcome side-effects).
This is why talk of the “human condition” is so unhelpful. It would be unwise to consult a doctor who believed that there was a single illness that pervaded all of humanity and that required a single cure; and I think it would be unwise to consult a philosopher who claimed the same thing. For philosophy to be useful, we need to free ourselves firstly from the idea that there is something inherently and necessarily wrong about our existence, and secondly from the idea that the things that do go wrong within human life can be gathered together into a single problem. Then we can revisit the various philosophies that aim to respond to the different problems with which we might be confronted not as “cures” for some over-arching “human condition” or sickness, but instead as contributions to what might be called the pharmacopoeia of humankind, a store of knowledge, experience, hunches, proposals, suggestions and ideas to which we have access, and which might be used — now here, now there — to address problems as and when they arise. It is this approach that I took in my little book Introducing Happiness—A Practical Guide, published earlier this year: a book that has disappointed some readers in its refusal recognise either a single problem — “unhappiness”, for example — or a single solution, for example, “happiness”.
So let me end on a personal note. The last few weeks have been unusually difficult. Buddhist friends might say that I’ve been encountering what they call “Reality” (spoken in such a way that the capital “R” is almost audible). Certain Norwegian philosophers might like to claim that I’ve been face-to-face with “the human condition”. But what has been going on, it seems to me, has been rather more everyday and pragmatic. These few weeks have been made up of now this, now that particular demand or difficulty; and in responding to these demands and difficulties, no single body of knowledge has provided the resources that have helped us, between ourselves, to respond to each of these problems. Nevertheless, over these few weeks, I’ve been enormously grateful for the little philosophy I have studied over the years, this rich pharmacopoeia that has been bequeathed to us all, whether drawn from the ancient Greeks, the Buddhist traditions, Chinese thought, or more recent philosophy (a body of knowledge to which we have, these days, the most extraordinary access). I have been grateful, because this body of knowledge has helped with navigating the difficulties of these peculiarly difficult few weeks, and because it will, I am sure, help with navigating the difficulties of the weeks to come.
There is no human condition. There is no philosophical cure for the human condition. Recognising these two things, I am reminded, once again, of the very usefulness of the various philosophical traditions as a resource for living.