Our Top 10 for 2013. No. 5: Simon Willis says the best philosophy is one without rules

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2013

Outside the entrance to Plato’s Academy in Athens, there is said to have been a little sign which read, "Let no one enter here who knows no geometry". Whether or not this is true, it tells us something about the qualities philosophers have tended to prize.

But what if those qualities distort the conversation? Philosophy is a house of many mansions: abstract concepts might be just what you’re after in the philosophy of mathematics, but what about the questions raised by everyday lifequestions about how we should live? Kant, for example, tried to derive moral principles using reason alone, and for all his rigour and logic it can be hard to recognise ourselves in what he wrote. He wasn’t even trying to give us a mirror, but to define what morality looks like for any rational creature, not just a human one. "There is, in philosophy," the American philosopher Stanley Cavell has said, "a certain drive to the inhuman, to an inhuman idea of intellectuality." I’m looking for a philosophy which brings us back to earth.

That philosophy is particularism, a fancy word for a simple idea: that in our ethical lives, rules are useless. Instead we should pay attention to real people in real situations. You can find arguments for it in thinkers as diverse as Aristotle in the fourth century BC and Ludwig Wittgenstein nearly 2,500 years later. Aristotle thought of ethical judgment as a matter of discernment and fine distinctions, literally seeing a situation in all its complexity. Wittgenstein wrote of rules in his "Philosophical Investigations" that "only experienced people can apply them aright". You can be up to your neck in rules, but they don’t in themselves tell you how to apportion blame, or to whom, or how much. For that, you need to look at what’s in front of you. If you don’t, you’re driving in the dark without headlights.

Placing practice above principle puts the burden of judgment back on us, and leaves us vulnerable to life’s obscurities and self-deceptions, to the tangle of our duties and commitments. We might aspire to clarity, but we could easily be blind. That said, it’s an idea which represents the difficulty of doing the right thing, and why would we want less than that? 

What do you think is the best philosophy? Read Jesse Norman on Aristotle, mashed up, Angie Hobbs on Plato's idea of flourishing, Anthony Gottlieb on Hume's scepticism, Colin Blakemore on doubt and Susie Orbach on self-knowledge. Vote now in our online poll

Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life and a former associate editor of Granta

Illustration Neil Gower