The Personal Roots of Philosophy

[Another section from my current writing project, a travelogue of our journey together as the universe called ‘You Are Here. A Travelogue‘. The painting is Edward Hopper’s famous ‘Nighthawks’ from 1942. The philosopher is the guy alone on the left.]

The Personal Roots of Philosophy

Entzweiung ist der Quell des Bedürfnisses der Philosophie…
(Separation is the source of the need for philosophy…)

– G.W.F. Hegel, Differenz des Fichteschen und Schellingschen Systems der Philosophie (1801)

One could argue that philosophy began with the question: why pain?

– John Berger, Hold Everything Dear (2007), p. 35


It is post-war, bomb-ruined Germany. A boy grows inside a womb. He is occasionally starved of certain nutrients because his mother has pre-eclampsia. His mother and he have difficulties connecting with each other and birthing him. The boy is pulled from the birth canal with forceps, his head slightly dented and scratched.

Always prone to various childhood diseases, as a two-year-old he is (wrongly) suspected of having scarlet fever and is hospitalised for a week. His parents cannot visit and console him for fear of infection. The nurses say he has screamed all week and they are glad to get rid of him.

When his mother tries to put him in day-care at age four, he stands at the wire fence all day screaming for her to come back. She takes him back home. Now she takes him with her as she cleans school classrooms.

At age six he is obliged to have a tonsillectomy-adenoidectomy operation because his mother and the doctor consider him to be physically ‘non-thriving’. A nurse walks him to the operating room where he sees surgical instruments in a glass cabinet. The surgeon tells him to jump up onto the high operating table, then lifts him up, switches on an enormous light overhead and, placing the gas mask on his face, tells him to count to ten. After the operation there is an emergency as he almost bleeds to death.

He will long harbour, at first largely unconscious, resentment, even rage, towards his mother until, late in life, he realises that she is just another wounded child just like him and many another. He will never feel totally ‘at home’, inside the world, or rather both inside and outside it at the same time, looking on (even as he screams or suffers or fears dying). There is always ‘another’, an observer or witness, inside him who remains unmoved. This witness often stands within him watching even as he is emoting or speaking in everyday conversations. His life will be driven by a certain deep hunger, a search for an explanation, for meaning vis-a-vis all this meaninglessness, this loss, this loneliness, this separation.


When he comes back home from his first day at school and begins speaking English, his mother takes him to the front door. Pointing to the threshold she says, in German, ‘when you step over that you will speak German’. Thus, thankfully, he grows up bilingually. He is both at home and not at home in two worlds.

He is not inside a language and culture or ‘nation’, not inside a ‘native’ or ‘mother tongue’ like a fish in water, but rather both inside and outside two languages, conscious of the water of language and culture itself, of the relativity of meaning. He is not perfect in either language, and, although appreciating core aspects of both cultures, feels neither ‘German’ nor ‘Australian’. He cannot relate to any kind of tribalism or nationalism. He is neither an insider nor an outsider. He is never bullied by insiders. Rather than a ‘native’, he is already a ‘cosmopolitan’ anthropologist looking on, a translator of meanings from one sphere of meaning to the other. He is already a meaning-maker, a hermeneutist.


He grows up as a lonely only-child surrounded by a few adults. He is given an IQ test at school and classified as a ‘gifted’ child and allowed to skip a year in lower primary. At home, his surrogate big brothers are some of the Asian students who board with his parents. One day when he is about six, one of them asks him, ‘Peter, how do you know you exist?’

This existential question and its variations never really leave him.

In his early teenage years, his parents and he will visit the local public library in the evening every two weeks or so to borrow books. One evening, he finds himself standing before a shelf marked ‘Philosophy’. He is awed by how much he doesn’t know. He wonders whether he will ever be able to read and understand the books on that shelf.


In those same adolescent years, encouraged by a revered English teacher, he develops a keen interest in literature. One day he lies down on his bed in his dingy room looking out onto the neighbours’ brick wall with the Modern Age volume of the Pelican Guide to English Literature. He starts trying to read the first chapter on the social background to the Modern Age. Using a dictionary, he finds it very tough going. He persists in the hard labour of meaning-making, of understanding. After a while he notices that he seems to be reading it more easily. When he has finally managed to read and understand the main points of the first two chapters, he feels as if he has experienced some kind of breakthrough, some kind of entry into a new dimension, a new space, that of the mind. He has made meaning from the recalcitrant material of a difficult text. He feels as if his inner quest to become an intellectual, a meaning-maker, might actually be beginning.

In books and ideas, in novels, he finds the meaning, the kindred souls, the mentors that he does not find in life. In novels and later in poetry he finds a connectedness, a wholeness, a depth, an emotional complexity and resonant meaningfulness of characters and human situations he does not find in life. Forming himself in adolescence, he finds himself in protagonists like Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers, Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Winston in 1984, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, Ivan Denisovich in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Felix Krull in Die Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull, Voss in Voss.

Escaping to books, in books he finds that he is not alone. The effects of reading linger on in real life, widening and heightening it, in-forming his framings and responses. His life and sensibility will be as much determined, as much drawn out (e-ducated), by his reading experiences, this exciting world-within-the-world, as by his experiences in the world. At parties he will often be drawn more to exploring any bookshelves than to conversations. He will remember second-hand bookstores and the books he found there as much or more than the towns and cities they were in. Over the years he will fill his home with thousands of books.

(Nevertheless, he will never become stereotypically ‘bookish’, he will participate in sports as a boy, love dancing and pursue both meaning- and body-oriented activities like street and experimental theatre, yoga and tai chi.)


He is in fourth class primary school. Bored during a lesson, he looks up and focusses on a small, dark watermark on the ceiling. Suddenly, he is riveted by the question of whether all he is may be just a material collection of body parts working on its own without ‘him’. He hovers between deep anxiety and exhilaration. Who or what am I?


He is five or six years old. He has spent a gloriously exhausting few hours playing with his friends in the neighbourhood. It is sunset. Before going in to have dinner, he lies down on the kerbside strip of grass. He looks up at the sky and feels wideness and bliss.

He knows in the marrow of his bones that not the conscious thoughts but rather the specific sensibility or mode of feeling or awareness looking out through the eyes of that child he was on the kerbside grass is exactly the same sensibility or awareness now writing these words.

If this is so, and nothing has changed in the essential quality of the sensibility or awareness of that child and the present old man, then that sensibility or awareness is timeless. It is unconditioned, undying, unborn. This insight seems an utterly unremarkable fact, as real as the chair he is now sitting on.


On holiday on the northern coast of France in his twenties he has for the first, and last, time swallowed some LSD. He has a sense of seeing his seeing, i.e. seeing his sense organs-and-brain actually constructing the reality he sees, feels and hears around him as his attention, for some reason, moves from one place to the next. He is empirically experiencing social constructionism. (Who is the ‘he’ doing the seeing and experiencing?) The world seems at once inside his head and outside it. Everything ‘outside’ he is sensing is also his very own body, a process of continuous rapid transformation of ‘it’ into ‘myself’. (In his own LSD report The Joyous Cosmology, Alan Watts asks: ‘Where do we begin? Does the order of the brain create the order of the world, or the order of the world the brain? The two seem like egg and hen, or like back and front.’)

At the end of the experience he sees the powerful numenosity of the rocks and boulders glowing in the long afternoon light, a numenosity which seems somehow linked to, or the same as, both the shapes and luminescent colours of the rocks and sky and a most powerful, profound stillness, silence or emptiness that is almost palpable. He feels as if he is slowly rising again like a diver through clear, limpid water up to the sunlit, busy surface of everyday constructed reality from some profoundly still and silent place he has been down, deep in the abyss of the ocean. Even as he rises, he can already feel a certain sadness of returning to the, or his own, surface.

Briefly, as he looks at his partner Barbara and the landscape he feels as if he and she were somehow mythological or archetypal beings, god and goddess, sitting there by the ocean ‘at the end of the world’, co-creating their world or ‘world game’ present and future…


He is in his forties, in a class teaching recent migrants English. Each student is presenting him- or herself to the class. He is utterly focussed on the students speaking of themselves. Then, while one student is speaking, a Polish man who was a pilot in his own country, he suddenly becomes that student. He does not sympathise or identify with or project himself into the student, he is him. He is both sitting ‘here’ and over ‘there’ at the same time. What is speaking from the Polish man’s his mouth is speaking from his own mouth. There is no separation at all. This state of identity seems utterly natural and real and unremarkable, until it ends and he is back here on his chair listening to a student over there.

If this is so, and he is really both that person and himself, there is no reason this should not be so in relation to everyone and everything. At some deep level we know there is no separation between beings. We are both ourselves and other, conditioned and unconditioned, temporal and timeless, personas and Witness, both individuals and the universe. Tat tvam asi (That Art Thou). Mostly we identify exclusively, and erroneously, with the former.

Such experiences ground my interest in philosophy, contemplation and literature: in Eastern philosophies like Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism and Taoism, in western mysticism (Plotinus, Meister Eckhart, Krishnamurti, Thomas Merton, Alan Watts), critical theory and dialectical philosophy (Schelling, Hegel, Marx, Adorno, Marcuse, Bloch, Debord), poetry (e.g. Rumi, Blake, Whitman, Eliot) and novels (e.g. Joyce, Beckett, Nabokov, Borges, White).

Such personal experiences and readings – individual variations of which many others will share ‒ ground this attempt to find individual and collective meaning in the evolution of the universe. Hence this travelogue.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on April 2, 2018.

2 Responses to “The Personal Roots of Philosophy”

  1. …” this attempt to find individual and collective meaning in the evolution of the universe”
    Many thanx for this Peter…more for me to absorb…it’s an amazing, never boring, and never ending light-bulb moments, path to be on…

  2. Thanx Kristi. Hope you’re well and fine and dandy and spring is a springin…

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