The reflection worth indulging doesn’t know where it is going — leaving behind only footprints and never blueprints


From: Herbert Fingarette: The Self in Transformation, Basic Books, New York 1963, p.1

In practicing and cherishing the old,
he attains the new;
 Attaining the new, he reanimates the old;
 He is indeed a teacher (Chuang-Tzu).

This book arises out of a journey of self-exploration and self-teaching. has this journey been a professional one or a personal one? Indeed, the distinction between the two seems to dissolve. In making the journey, I have had no aims. These studies are outcomes rather than realised objectives. They are intellectual footprints, not blueprints. The reader will eventually identify their shape and dimensions to his own satisfaction; he will find their place on the intellectual map and the existential position in which they point. (A preceptive review of this book can be found here.


As I see it, the point is not to identify reality with anything except itself. (Tautologies are, after all, true.) If you wish to persist by asking what reality is; that is, what is really, the answer is that it is what you experience it to be. Reality is as you see, hear, feel, taste and smell it, and as you live it. And it is a multifarious thing. To see this is to be a man without a position. To get out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things is to cease to be an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, or a Christian. I am a man without a position. I do not have the philosophic position that there are no positions or theories or standpoints. (There obviously are.) I am not a sceptic or an agnostic or an atheist. I am simply a man without a position, and this should open the door to detachment.


From: Henry Bugbee: The Inward Morning, University of Georgia Press, Athens 1999 [1st ed. 1958]

Let it flow: Fluency is the stylistic counterpart of the way present experience is invaded with authentic meaning. Basic meanings are not anticipated: they dawn on one. This is the point of keeping up the flow: If one works out the thoughts, the perceptions that press upon him with the demand from completion, as they lead to one another, in time the actual themes of his philosophy may have a chance to define themselves. Such a philosophy will not be set up like the solution of a puzzle, worked out with all the pieces lying there before the eye. It will be more like the clarification of what we know in our bones. Against the professional insistence that one can and should be clear from the start about what he starts from (premises, assumptions), that the procedure and the direction of thought worth understanding should be equally clear, I am going to try to be faithful to the intimations I have had: That the reflection worth indulging doesn’t know where it is going, just as the life that is lived underlies anything the individual is able to patent for himself. There need be no obscurantism in this; if philosophical truth is engendered in depth, we must not expect it to come to light except out of relative obscurity 


The Address

Reflecting in Devon earlier this year
“[T]he reflection worth indulging doesn’t know where it is going”, so said Henry Bugbee.  As I have got older, the truth of this presses upon me ever more strongly. But, culturally, what has pressed upon me with almost equal pressure, is precisely the opposite. When it comes to the class of people known as ministers of religion — which is the capacity in which I stand here this morning — we are taught that the reflection we are supposed to indulge in does know where it is going. How could it be otherwise? Knowing where our reflections are going is expected of us and, anyway, what religious community worth its salt would allow itself to be led by someone who admits that they don’t know where they are going? To allow this to occur would, surely, be to allow the community to be lead by one of the “blind guides of the blind” of whom Jesus spoke when he said “if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15.14). 

Well, this morning, I’m here to admit, quite frankly, that in my own reflections — some part of which I offer you each week — I never know where I’m going. However, as I tell you this I want to suggest — as a footprint of my own journey and not as a blueprint for yours — that  this approach doesn’t necessarily lead into “a pit” but rather it can tend towards the development of a strong, liberal religious discipline which can help us become men and women “without a position” who feel, along with Wienpahl, no need “to identify reality with anything except itself.”

This address points to just four footprints, the making, and/or following of which did not in any way anticipate what I have just said but which, instead, allowed it, only in the past year or so, to emerge into the light out of relative obscurity. Of necessity, this is an incomplete account of a personal “journey of self-exploration and self-teaching” but I hope that what I tell you here will be of some use to you as you try to find your own “place on the intellectual map and the existential position in which [you] point.” 

So to the footprints . . .

In terms of religion my initial position, bequeathed to me at birth, was (as it was for many of you) shaped by Christian belief. But, early on, even as I continued to value, almost beyond measure, Jesus’ human example, I also began increasingly to value another initial position gifted to me via Greek philosophy, namely, that offered by Socrates. This gifted me with the freedom to inquire and discover. And so here we arrive once again at the collaborative identity (that mix of Jesus and Socrates) that I’ve been bringing before you in various ways now for quite a while (see here).

Before moving on it’s worth spending a brief moment reminding ourselves of what it is that by following his method (elenchus) Socrates helps us discover. The Socratic method moves through the following four basic steps. 

  • Firstly, Socrates’ conversation partner asserts a thesis, for example “Courage is endurance of the soul”, which Socrates considers false and wishes to refute (see The Laches)
  • Secondly, Socrates then gets his conversation partner to agree to further premises, for example “Courage is a fine thing” and “Ignorant endurance is not a fine thing”. 
  • Thirdly, Socrates then argues, and gets his conversation partner to agree, that these further premises contradict the original thesis, in this case it leads to, for example, “courage is not endurance of the soul”. 
  • Lastly, Socrates then claims that he has shown that his conversation partner’s thesis is false and that its negation is true (source here).

Each working through of the method leads to some new and, hopefully, more refined examination of the concept under consideration. But it is vitally important to see two things here: 1) that a full Socratic inquiry requires the ongoing use of the method — it’s not a one-time fix and, 2) that we end up, not in possession of the final truth of the matter but, instead, with what is called “aporia”, that is to say doubt or puzzlement. And so we arrive at the wonderful thing Socrates helps us discover, namely, that the one thing we know we know is that we don’t know. In this consists a major part of our wisdom.

To pursue philosophy in this Socratic fashion is, therefore, to drink deeply of a strange mix of disappointment and wonder; disappointment that one’s initial ideas have turned out to be mistaken, but an even greater wonder at the process by which (and the person through whom) one has discovered this and been able to learn something new or, at least, something more nuanced about our world. Philosophy, the love of wisdom, begins not just in wonder, but in disappointment and wonder.
So here is the first footprint I wish to point at: Although early on my commitment to the example of the human Jesus made it appear to me — and to others — that I was holding to a Christian position, in truth, thanks to its combination with the approach of Socrates, I discovered I had really been gifted with an odd but clear kind of “position”, one that simply did not not allow me to hold a simple, fixed “position” in which I could say to myself or others that “I knew the truth” and that, in my reflections, “I knew, indubitably, where I was going.” 

But, as I have already intimated, a potentially entrapping aspect of our culture is the idea that ministers of religion should know the truth in some way and know where their reflections are going and where, therefore, they are leading their community. When you are young and new to the job of being a minister it’s truly frightening to begin to admit to yourself, let alone to others that, as far as you are concerned, you really did not know either of these things. To have admitted this at the time seemed very close to being an admission of weakness and terminal confusion and so, like most people who find themselves in this situation, I mostly kept quiet about it and let it be thought that I really knew where my reflections were going. To admit otherwise would, it seemed, be to admit that I was lost. However, the truth is that I have never felt lost on this journey — I’ve felt profoundly anxious, certainly, but that was because for the first twelve years or so of my professional ministry I simply couldn’t find a strong and confident way to say that, although I knew I didn’t know anything and did not know where my reflections were going, on balance this seemed to me to be a jolly good thing and something central to the whole liberal religious project. 

We can now move to my second footprint, the words you heard from Paul Wienpahl written in 1956. During my sabbatical in 2008 his writing helped me begin to understand — in a startlingly sudden and life-changing way — that this mix of Jesus and Socrates had for years quietly been helping me “to get away from knowing to living, from trying to understand and classify things to the things themselves” and, to feel directly, as Spinoza felt (Wienpahl was a great lover of Spinoza's philosophy), that “The more we understand singular things, the more we understand God” (Book V, Prop XXIV, trans. Wienpahl). Wienpahl helped me articulate the feeling that, the closer I was able to get to things themselves, the more I was going to be able “to get out of the mind and into the world [and] beyond language” and this, in turn, meant I could see I was ceasing to be “an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, or a Christian . . . a sceptic or an agnostic or an atheist.” This was a great relief in many ways (see here) but, for a minister of religion, an admission that I was losing of all my once cherished labels was still a very scary and risky thing to admit to.

Now I come, for today, to my last two footprints, both of which have been made in quick succession in only the last month as I prepare to enter my fiftieth year of life. 

At the beginning of June I stumbled across and bought a remaindered copy of a book of essays about Henry Bugbee’s 1958 book The Inward Morning. I was so captivated by what I read that I immediately ordered Bugbee’s book; it was truly a revelation. Quite unexpectedly I was encountering a writer who, in the most powerful and poetic way, was able to gather up and present to me quite beautiful and helpful reminders from his own life about how better to live and talk about the kind of life Wienpahl’s words had introduced me to back in 2008. 

I was so impressed by what I read that I wrote to the editor of the book of essays, Edward F. Mooney, who has, since then, graciously been engaging with me in conversation. To my surprise and delight it turned out that he had studied briefly with Wienpahl and that he found his sketch of being “a man without a position” pretty much his own stance even though he had “never heard it laid out as plainly as he does.” Professor Mooney also told me that he had gone to UCSB (where Wienpahl taught) because he wished to study with Herbert Fingarrette who had thanked Wienpahl in his book, The Self in Transformation. 

I felt I had to read this and so I ordered a second-hand copy which landed on my doorstep only this week. In the acknowledgements Fingarrette wrote that Wienpahl had brought him “to wrestle, in the right way, with points of view I had either dismissed as plainly wrong or else had too quickly taken for granted with only a surface appreciation. He has forced me to see freshly.” “Yes, yes, me too!”, I involuntarily uttered out loud at the kitchen table, and how wonderfully like Socrates this sounded! And then, at the very beginning of the book proper, I read the words you heard earlier. 

It was another “Eureka!” moment because he says there what, in a nutshell, I have been trying to say to you for a long while now, namely, that in making the reflections I offer you each week from this lectern I have never really had any kind of aim, I have never known where they are going. Despite occasional lapses (for which I apologise) everything I have said for the last couple of years was intended simply to be an intellectual footprint and not a blueprint. I am trying to offer here my reflections (some successful, others less so) in the simple hope that they will begin to help us all better to identify their shape and dimensions to our own satisfaction so that we can better find our own place on the intellectual map and the existential position in which we individually point. My reflections are offered to help us in ways appropriate to our individual conditions, “to get out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things”, to help us all cease to be idealists or pragmatists, or existentialists, or Christians . . . sceptics or agnostics or atheists. They are offered simply to help us become ourselves, men and women without a position in the hope that this opens the door to detachment. This is, I think, the best way to achieve the complete spiritual freedom that our greatest historian, Earl Morse Wilbur, thought was the most distinctive general quality of our liberal religious movement.

Now, you may say that, despite my protestations, together all the above constitutes an aim. Well, yes and no. It is true that in my role as minister I am aiming to help us all be in the world in an authentic way but, as Wienpahl noted, because reality is a multifarious thing, and since “what is really” is what we individually experience it to be, how we see, hear, feel, taste and smell it, and as we live it, I cannot meaningfully be said to be aiming at anything definite for you because I am not you. And anyway, as someone who has been gifted with the combined methods of living and learning offered by Jesus and Socrates, I have been forced to admit that since I don’t know even where my own life and reflections are going how, on earth, can I aim to tell you where yours will lead or what to aim for?

And the point of all this — this aimless aim, this knowing unknowing and position of no-position? Well, surely it is to allow it all — our life and reality — to flow naturally as the Taoists (e.g. Lao-Tse and Chuang-Tzu) have always known.

Bugbee could see, as could the Taoists, Spinoza, Wienpahl, Fingarette and Mooney, and now even me a little bit, that it is only when you genuinely let things flow and we allow ourselves to move with them, without being fixed in one position, that we begin to develop a truly flexible, living philosophy that is not “set up like the solution of a puzzle, worked out with all the pieces lying there before the eye” but something that is “more like the clarification of what we know in our bones.”

But this clarification is always coming into the light out of the relative obscurity of existence itself and this means, as Bugbee saw, that the basic meanings of our unfolding lives can never be anticipated — they can only dawn upon us. We can never know, as Socrates saw, where our true reflections are going to lead us. 

So surely it is good idea for us in this liberal religious community consciously to develop a religious and philosophical discipline that helps us become men and women without a fixed position who will endeavour always remain open to the extraordinary creative and sublime flow of life as it is lived; to become together a pilgrim people who leave behind for those who follow us in the journey of life only footprints and never blueprints.