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Abstract: In this paper I challenge modern philosophy‟s self-conception as an absolute critique (i.e., a critique of everything/anything). I argue that such a conception is not only misconceived, it is also ideological in character. Looking back to its origins, I develop a genealogy of modern philosophy‟s selfunderstanding in order to deconstruct it and disassociate it from possible alternative conceptions of philosophy, arguing for a more modest conception of philosophy as a subject which provides tools for developing human powers of reflection.
The wise in every age conclude, what Pyrrho taught and Hume renewed, that dogmatists are fools. Thomas Blacklock1
This is an essay (exercise/askesis) in the philosophy of philosophy, and not merely in metaphilosophy, to paraphrase the opening lines of Timothy Williamson‟s recent book. As Williamson rightly claims, to talk about philosophy is itself doing philosophy (Williamson, 2007, pp. ix-x). In this sense, a discourse about philosophy cannot be metaphilosophy, done from beyond and above (from an Archimedean vantage point beyond the bounds of specific space and time) (cf. Heidegger, 1956, pp. 21ff.). Willard Quine, following Otto Neurath, has likened science (and) philosophy to “a boat which, if we are to rebuild it, we must rebuild plank by plank while staying afloat in it” (Quine, 1960, p. 3). Quine uses this metaphor principally to demonstrate the piecemeal character of philosophy, but it can also be invoked (as I do here) to allude to its immanent
Acknowledgements: Quoted in Popkin, 1993, p. 517.
character. This discussion is closely connected to the nature of philosophy (or at least to the prominent part of it). Philosophy is not only a reflective but also a self-reflective enterprise;2 in it, reflection and self-reflection are intertwined in a unique way. Sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas has connected this double reflexive character of philosophy to the „essence‟ of natural language itself:
Because of the reflexive character of natural languages, speaking about what has been spoken, direct or indirect mention of speech components, belongs to the normal linguistic process of reaching understanding. The expression “metalinguistic judgments” in a natural language about sentences of the same language suggests a difference in level that does not exist. It is one of the most interesting features of natural languages that they can be used as their own languages of explication. (Habermas, 1998, p. 39)
What Habermas says about natural language applies to philosophy as well, and it is intimately connected to the reflective character of philosophy. Philosophy has existed in many cultures, and it can be safely said that, in a sense, if the properties of reflection and self-reflection are coterminous with human life, philosophy is also coterminous with it. Such reflective attitudes towards the self, the universe, and the other can be found in various places across space and time, and the
Reflection involves distance from the object of enquiry, while self-reflection requires that the subject
maintain a certain distance from herself.
commonality among them can be observed (v. Cohen, 1995; Moore, 1995; Saksena, 1995; Mei, 1995). However, this slight, almost banal, observation should not lead one to conclude that philosophical reflection has taken the same form across space and time, and thus elide the distinctions and specificities which give particular attempts at reflection and self-reflection their unique flavour.3 Modern philosophy4 shares general characteristics with the philosophical activity of other eras and epochs of human civilisation, but that is not what is interesting in understanding its essence: what is interesting is its uniqueness, that which gives it its differential characteristics (in the lingua of Aristotelian logic, what we are interested in is not its genus but its specific difference). Modern philosophy emerged during a revolutionary epoch in the history of Europe, an epoch defined by a transition from the medieval worldview to the modern worldview (so-called „modernity‟). This specific development not only defines (at least in part) the modern world (and especially its „view‟), but also the self-image of philosophy itself: the self-image that philosophy is debating intensely as the distance from the „founding act‟ is becoming remote (v. Williams, 2000; Cottingham, 2009; Solomon, 2001).
Of course, many philosophers deny that philosophy has existed or can exist in any culture. For them,
philosophy needs the fulfilment of specific social conditions in order to exist. It‟s safe to say, however, that in making such claims they have a very specific conception of philosophy in mind, and not philosophy in general (Barry Stroud is one such philosopher: see Stroud, 2001, p. 28. Cf. Cohen, 1995).
Although I use the term „modern philosophy‟ throughout the paper, it should be clear that my critique is
focused on certain specific conception of it (as represented by Graham Pirest, for example); thus, my claims about modern philosophy should be read this in mind.
The revolutionary character of modern philosophy is most manifest in the writings of its undisputed father, the Frenchman René Descartes,5 who claimed that all knowledge needs a radical new beginning and new foundations.6 Descartes was writing in a period (and the same is true of Francis Bacon) when:
. . . familiar teachings of centuries – about religion, politics, and science – were publicly questioned and sharply disputed across a war-torn Europe. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century and the on-going Catholic Counter Reformation, together with the proliferation of religious sects and the foundation of new religious orders, highlighted the fragile intellectual foundations on which the apparent unity of Christianity had relied. (Clarke, 2006, p. 69)
This points to the important fact that modern philosophy emerged in a milieu in which Christianity was still a dominant and ruling force, but was nonetheless finding itself increasingly on the defensive, and was losing ground to the new emerging forces of rational debate. Philosophy7 was one of those forces, and this helped define the self-
Some have suggested two fathers, one for the French side and the other for the English side; the English
one is Francis Bacon (Copleston, 1994, p. 1).
For my perspective in this paper, what is of primary importance is the idea of a radical new beginning in
Descartes, and not the specific method (that is, the method of radical doubt) which he uses to accomplish it.
Of course, philosophy at the time was not separated from science, and the founding fathers especially.
Descartes was a great scientist and mathematician (especially the latter) in his own right, and had a crucial
it suffices for my argument to establish that this is how they saw things. 5 . Copleston. pp. The issue here is not whether they were justified in their assumption that they were making a complete break with the past. which would be quantitatively and qualitatively different from its predecessor. and is attested by. emphasis in the original. Descartes thought that a new beginning had to be made in human knowledge. and thinking through the matter for oneself. p. which corresponds to. 1994. 1). the notion of philosophy as a new beginning (at times an absolute beginning) put forth by both Descartes and Bacon. 1998a. 111-151). they were not entirely unjustified in this self perception: “Men such as Bacon and Descartes were doubtless unaware of the extent to which their minds were influenced by former ways of impact on the early development and orientation of Sir Isaac Newton‟s thought. “Just like Francis Bacon. and he claims that common sense is often a better guide than scholarly tomes. cf.8 Similarly. v. more crucially. 2004 . Descartes is trying to establish a new tradition. 8. his contemporary in England. 1989. pp. The old philosophy of schools could not be reformed: Aristotelianism had to be rejected in toto” (Matthews. 276-277). Descartes often couches his argument in terms of not relying on others‟ opinions. but. 8 Hence Descartes‟ prejudice against „preconceived opinions‟ (praejudicia) (Cottingham. This also partially explains mainstream philosophy‟s partiality towards science. Gadamer.image of philosophy as the revolutionary force without parallel. a new common sense (as opposed to the dominant but receding tradition and idea of common sense). Moreover. This can legitimately be taken as an expression of modern individual self-determination. Francis Bacon saw in the emergence of the new philosophy and the new sciences the prospect of an entirely new age. For the theme of an absolute new beginning one should of course consult Descartes‟ Discourse on Method (see Descartes. as Frederick Copleston aptly notes. 1985. 88.
1994. 1994. as in the critique that must accompany any philosophical reflection. 5). which characterises (and understands) itself as limitless and absolute. Be they actually dominant or imagined to be so. and almost all of them wrote in the vernacular and not in Latin. but their consciousness of standing at the threshold of a new era is not unjustified” (Copleston. different from the one it was aiming to replace. Locke and Hume wrote all their major works in English. Kant wrote mainly in German. it started its life in an environment in which it was a minority view.thought. p. Descartes and Bacon did both write in Latin. and cannot lay claim to that unfeigned respect 9 It is interesting to note that almost none of the founders of modern philosophy were professional philosophers based in universities (only Kant. but a specific conception of critique. subsequently. The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant famously articulated this notion when he wrote: Our age is the genuine age of criticism. the scholarly language of the day (Copleston. and also in French and English respectively. to which everything must submit. 10). modern philosophy began its life as part of a revolutionary movement that heralded a new age. p. 10 In this paper I use the terms „critique‟ and „criticism‟ interchangeably. Thus. Religion through its holiness and legislation through its majesty commonly seek to exempt themselves from it. But in this way they excite a just suspicion against themselves. 11 6 . Furthermore. albeit one which was growing.9 These two facts make it natural that the critique10 of dominant worldviews11 (medieval civilisation and its remnants in this instance) became the main vocation of modern philosophy and part and parcel of its self-image – not critique in general. who is a much later author).
As matters now stand. it‟s clear that in order to gain respect reason doesn‟t need to (shouldn‟t) submit to any other authority but itself.12 True. the answer is: No. and to what extent. a good deal more is required for people on the whole to be in the position. Kant was writing in an age considerably different from that of Descartes and Bacon – if not already the Age of Enlightenment. a total critique can take either piecemeal or wholesale routes (more on this in the main body text. (Kant. Thus the totality of critique in the sense used here shouldn‟t be confused with „wholesale‟ critique. A xii n. but we do live in an age of enlightenment. 7 . or even able to 12 Critique is total. p. in the Kantian conception. There are no exceptions. below). emphasis in the original) Note here that it is reason which “grants” the sought-after “unfeigned respect” – reason is the sole authority which decides which other authorities deserve respect. Here is how Kant himself saw things: If it is now asked whether we live in an enlightened age. What is of further interest (from our perspective) in this paper is Kant‟s use of the universal quantifier to determine the range of criticism („everything‟). On the other hand. but this totality doesn‟t necessarily imply a wholesale critique (that is.that reason grants only to that which has been able to withstand its free and public examination. reason. a critique of everything at once) – it can be carried out piecemeal. 1999. although we find similar requirements for reason elaborated on later in the Critique (A 738-B 766). is self-justificatory in a way in which no other faculty or authority is. it was at least much nearer to it than that of Descartes and Bacon. the critique is total.
In this. But we do have distinct intimations that the field is now being opened for them to work freely in this direction and the hindrances to universal enlightenment or to humankind‟s emergence from its self-incurred tutelage are gradually becoming fewer. of using their own understanding confidently and well in religious matters. translation slightly amended) And here we can see that the self-conception of philosophy has already started to become detached from the „founding act‟ (as something which is universal irrespective of space and time). but such a claim is limited to cognitive knowledge and its conditions. 1998. There is a vast grey area outside this. Kant – as is well known – does claim apodictic certainty for his system (see for example Kuehn.14 Kant instinctively realises that the demise of the medieval Christian world also meant the demise of the idea of absolute certainty. Kant.be put in the position. (Kant. 14 especially p. 655). although comparatively speaking John Locke is more agnostic than Kant. p.13 He doesn‟t share Descartes‟ search for absolute certainty either (in this he is much closer to Nietzsche than to Descartes). doesn‟t share Descartes‟ commitment to the methodic doubt as a way to establish absolute and certain foundations of knowledge. Kant is much closer to John Locke than to Descartes. and not only in the fact that Kant was living much nearer to the actual Age of Enlightenment than Descartes. without another‟s guidance. 2006. 1999. 13 On Descartes‟ methodic doubt and its revolutionary character see Williams. crucially. emphasis in the original. 8 . A word or two must be said about Kant‟s notion of critique and its relation to that of Descartes. Kant‟s enterprise is clearly very different from that of Descartes in many respects. which will always remain as long as we are humans. 21. and does not encompass reason and its territory as a whole. 28-49. pp.
16 “The construction of reason is to be seen as process rather than product.and as a true believer in reason he was willing to sacrifice certainty as a price for believing in reason and reason alone. but is an ongoing project. for Kant. belief in reason is not presuppositionless (although he does think that reason must justify its presuppositions in its own manner if it‟s to retain its authority). it can be total externally but piecemeal internally). Kant retains Descartes‟ notion of absolute critique in the following substantial sense: every authority and every source of knowledge must justify itself on the altar of reason in order to deserve consideration and legitimacy. 303). even if in its own terms. Kant‟s oft-talked about „humility‟ is not about this point at all. rather. For a critique to be total (critique of anything/everything) it only needs to hold that in principle everything is amenable to critique. 15 Thus critique can be total (in its relation to external worldviews) without being presuppositionless (internally) as long as the presuppositions are justified (internally). His humility is related.16 His humility pertains to the fact that his positive estimate of the powers of reason in certain aspects is much weaker than that of Descartes. p. also p. Kant also differs from Descartes in his rejection of presuppositionless knowledge. and that this justification cannot be based on presuppositionless15 and absolute grounds. and there is no authority which has a right to compete with the authority of reason. total critique is not necessarily opposed to piecemeal critique (a critique can be total in its intentions but piecemeal in its execution. Also. 9 . to another point. 292. or. reason has to justify it. as practices of connection and integration rather than as once and for all laying foundations” (O‟Neill. and believing in it in its own terms. he doesn‟t concede anything as far as the absolute authority of reason is concerned. 1992. alternatively. What he does concede is that in order to retain its authority. With these qualifications.
this argument is valid only if Kant is working here with a very thin conception of reason.).e. i. (My interpretation here is heavily indebted to O‟Neill. whose dictates are „givens‟ that cannot be questioned. 483-507). but of its ripened power of judgment. their dictates cannot be shared by everyone (the Christian Church‟s commands make sense only to its devotees. but in its own terms. 293 and passim.Thus. Schneewind. Kant‟s argument fails precisely because he presupposes a very substantive conception of reason that hinges on and presumes the notion of autonomy (self determination). 1992. In my opinion. but not in the sense of being presuppositionless: it is only absolute in the sense that every authority must justify itself in front of it in order to be considered a legitimate authority (be it a theoretical or practical authority). and it doesn‟t arise from scepticism. are termed by Kant „alien‟ authorities because their nature is alien to the essence of reason. Kant‟s notion of critique is not aimed at absolute certainty. As Kant puts it: This is evidently the effect not of the thoughtlessness of our age [i. religion. see her other seminal works. The attitude of questioning is aimed at alien17 authorities – the authorities that are not vindicated by reason. reason‟s dictates are at least in principle sharable by everyone.e. reason itself needs vindication. freedom. etc. however. though O‟Neill doesn‟t make the objection I allude to at the end. 1999. Cf. Again. Reason is absolute. referenced below in the text. even in principle. that of 17 For Kant. the Age of Enlightenment or age of criticism].. p. also. Obviously. pp. Kant also terms these authorities arbitrary because. 1998. p.. State. nature. the „essence‟ of reason is freedom: “[t]he very existence of reason depends upon … freedom” (Kant. while everything else be justified in reason‟s terms. A738/B766). and which demands that reason take on anew the most difficult of all its tasks. The attitude of questioning is to be differentiated from scepticism. which is the common property of all (mature) humans. namely. for example). 10 . The authorities which rely on coercion or dictatorial powers (such as God. which will no longer be put off with illusory knowledge. Church.
(Kant. reason is answerable only to itself.18 Kant‟s notion of critique is much more complex than can be fully explored here. Hence. emphasis in the original) While everything else is answerable to reason and its authority. by which reason may secure its rightful claims while dismissing all its groundless pretensions. 11 . but in determining how to justify the rational enterprise and how to build the edifice of reason once the negative work has been performed. has remained. see the seminal works of Onora O‟Neill (1989. but it can be claimed with some justification that his notion of philosophy as the custodian of reason. which are in potential or actual competition with reason. and this court is none other than the critique of pure reason itself. Here we can see that Kant clearly comes to differentiate between what is revolutionary and what is conservative in the modern philosophical enterprise. A xi-xii. 2004). and to institute a court of justice. The negative critique (critique of competing (alien) authorities) is absolute and revolutionary. Kant differs from Descartes not in delegetimising all authorities. 1992. This is clearly evident in a recent attempt at delimiting the essence (specific difference) of philosophy by a wellknown and well-respected contemporary philosopher and logician. pp. as the critique of „everything‟. Graham Priest. and this not by mere decrees but according to its own eternal and unchangeable laws. 1991. while the positive enterprise is conservative (and constructive). The following two passages are pertinent to our discussion: 18 For an elaboration on these points.self-knowledge.
who typically did not question the claim that God exists. Philosophers qua philosophers and philosophy qua philosophy can potentially criticise everything and anything. 12 . emphasis in the original) As a good logician. . 2006. precisely that there is nothing that may not be challenged. 19 Henceforth. including .19 he is only claiming that if they wanted to they could do so. p. that philosophy is precisely that intellectual inquiry in which anything is open to critical challenge and scrutiny. (Priest. Priest qualifies his claims carefully: he says he does not mean to suggest that every philosophy (or philosopher) actually criticises anything/everything. 202. and barring logical impossibility. p. then.. What is special about philosophy in that? Such a thin conception of potentiality dilutes the notion of criticism to such an extent that it becomes trivial. emphasis in the original) I suggest. anyone could potentially do anything.What distinguishes the role of criticism in philosophy is. where possible. and a poor one at that. 201)! This is a bizarre example. Anything is a fit topic for critical scrutiny and potential rejection. I shall refer to criticism of anything/everything simply as absolute critique or absolute criticisms. (Ibid. . I think. nothing is sacrosanct. and insists that this does not violate their status as philosophers because if they had wanted to question the existence of God “they could have done so” (p. Barring physical impossibility. 201. even the efficacy of critical reasoning itself. Priest considers the counterexample of medieval philosophers.
That is an empirical possibility. in order to make room for a diversity of beliefs. emphasis in the original) They conclude: “[t]he important question. you do not take the presence of famous orchid garden to be a reason to visit Fiji. (p. 258). however. the discussion of the arguments for the proof 13 . surely you could come to accept that as a reason to go there. In general. is really whether it is ever the case that a reason that one single person intelligibly accepts is not also that could be intelligibly accepted by each and every person” (p. James Bohman and Henry Richardson (2009) have justifiably taken them to task by pressing them to come up with an example of reasons that a person could not accept. have put forth the idea of „reasons that all can accept‟ as the final arbitrator of disputes in the political arena. With a sufficient effort of imagination and “enlarged thinking”.20 The dilemma faced by Priest is that if he works with a 20 In both the Christian and Islamic discourses in the Middle Ages one occasionally finds the names of authors who questioned the idea of God altogether. a person does not accept. the medieval philosopher qua philosopher (and I would say qua human being) could surely (in principle) have rejected or doubted the existence of God (and some actually did). Surely the answer should be a resounding „no‟.Priest‟s dilemma here corresponds to the one faced by modern political theorists. as it may be. then surely anyone else should (in principle) be able to do so. there are plenty of reasons that. 257. if one person can accept something. like his modern counterpart. who. Perhaps not caring about flowers. for our purposes. In a similar vein. As they write: To be sure. With such a thin conception of potentiality.
22 As should be clear from the body text as a whole. which we no longer find persuasive. was really a philosophy (one could claim that it was.21 Perhaps Priest would not like to take this route because he is eager to preserve the universality of philosophy. If he works with a robust conception of the possibility of criticism (however defined). 14 . and I would argue that modern philosophy (at least its self-conception) as an absolute critique22 is one conception of philosophy among many. In fact. one can take the route of distinguishing between philosophy in general and the specific forms it takes. Or. rather. Thus. one can define philosophy as a conceptual analysis at the highest level of generality and abstraction: in which case. in which case Priest‟s description would fit modern philosophy (especially its self-image) but not philosophy as such. a theology in disguise). naturally enough (and consistent with my theory) their names have largely gone unmentioned in the dominant discourses of the age. I have so far differentiated between philosophy as such and the specific forms it takes. One could avoid this dilemma by either denying that medieval philosophy. I am not claiming that Priest‟s conception of modern philosophy is a majority view in today‟s mainstream philosophy. then he cannot claim that there was equal (or near equal) possibility of denying the existence of God in medieval philosophy qua philosophy. as in modern philosophy (and in fact in modern philosophy it is the exact opposite: it is becoming increasingly difficult to be a robust theist doing philosophy in our time). and it is the product of of the existence of God by Christian and Islamic philosophers of the Middle Ages on their own are sufficient to establish that such a group of people existed. even though. 21 According to a different conception of philosophy than Priest‟s. by Priest‟s lights.thin conception of the possibility of criticism. this dilutes the uniqueness of the philosophy he wants to establish. such a dilemma would not necessarily arise. I believe it is not. one can find much to admire in medieval philosophy despite the many substantive claims about reality.
It would be tantamount to closing off the openings for thinking. Insistence on accepting a self-conception of modern philosophy as the philosophy. As Michael Foucault puts it: But then. The “essay” – which should be understood as the test by means of which one modifies oneself through the play of truth and not as the simplistic appropriation of others for the purpose of communication – is the living body of philosophy. Difference is crucial not for its own sake but because it is our only panacea against the tyranny of the same. through the practice of a knowledge that is foreign to it. to tell them where their truth is and how to find it. or when it presumes to give them naively positivistic instruction. to dictate to others. I mean – if it is not the critical work of thought on itself? And if it does not consist in the endeavour of knowing how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently. I would argue. at least if we assume 15 . from the outside. But it is its right to explore what might be changed. This specific form cannot be universalised without confusing philosophy in general with one of the specific forms it (historically) took. because one of the things crucial for thought and its prosperity is to always keep open alternatives – the avenues of thinking differently. what is philosophy today – philosophical activity.the specific circumstances in which modern philosophy emerged as a revolutionary force in the 16th and 17th centuries in Western Europe. is against the spirit of philosophy itself (and against the spirit of reflection and critique in general). rather than legitimating what is already known? There is always something ludicrous in philosophical discourse when it tries. in its own thought.
michel-foucault.html [accessed on 27 November 2010]. i. it is only to say that without the possibility of real alternatives there is no thinking. 24 The philosophy which in so doing denies (hides from) and forgets its specific origins. as exemplified by the specific authors I discuss in the text. an “ascesis”. an exercise of the self.com/quote/2001q. and critique – in sum. I don‟t make any claims about modern philosophy as a whole.24 we do so in the interest of thinking.that philosophy is still what it was in times past. Thinking transcends particularity only by locating itself surely and securely within its own particularity (and 23 I have used here the modified translation by Professor Clare O‟Farrell. pp. the claim to absolute critique (taken on face value and without explanation provided in the text) is self-contradictory (or at least incoherent). in my opinion. my contention is. 1992.25 its own situatedness.e. 16 . my argument is only against certain interpretations of what modern philosophy is. in thought. that the claim is false. Thus. my objection is not to the „claim‟ to universality.. But thinking also needs particularity. reflection. when we press and question a specific philosophy which claims to be universal. my problem with the conception of modern philosophy in question is not its claim to universality as such. 25 Again. but that‟s another matter. By denying its own specificity. but its specific claim that it‟s critical in a way in which other traditions (including philosophical traditions) are not. Of course. specificity. 8-9)23 This is not to claim that difference is value in itself. 26 As should be clear from the paper overall. (Foucault. and situatedness within particular traditions in order to prosper. it‟s possible to universalise such a philosophy. in the interest of philosophy itself. Basically. rather. found on her website http://www. Also. modern philosophy26 also denies the very source of its own life because there is no thinking without thinking in a particular space and time.
491). imagination.28 In external criticism. 2000. our interests. one criticises another worldview at the level of individual ideas. Let us call them internal (positive) criticism and negative (external) criticism respectively. empathising with them to such an extent that we internalise them. p. internal criticism loses its immanent status and becomes a 27 Every critique is self-interested. If we transit to that latter option. Thus. and the wider social conditions. or at the system level. It is also in the interest of thinking itself that we defend various minority traditions of thinking against the imperialistic onslaught of modern philosophy. it‟s determined by us. 17 . it is in the interest of thinking that we expose the fallacy of modern philosophy‟s claim to universality (which involves the denial of its own particularity).by self-consciously recognising this). but how we use those powers is not determined by philosophy. The latter activity still remains within the ambit of immanent criticism as long as this „making sense of‟ stops at the points which are essential to our view (without which our view would lose its rationale and collapse as a coherent and self-evident whole for us). and alternative thinking.27 The mistake behind the claim that philosophy is absolute critique is to ignore two distinct but interrelated aspects of criticism. Internal criticism can also either be an immanent criticism where one acts and argues “within the framework of [her] own ideas”. on the other hand. 28 There is also a possibility for internal critique of worldviews other than our own – for example. Philosophy teaches us self-reflection and enhances our powers of reflection. Internal criticism is a form of self-criticism in which one critiques one‟s own ideas or one‟s own world view (at the level of the system). or it can be carried out as “the philosophical activity of reflecting on those ideas at a more general level and trying to make sense of them” (Williams. although whether such identification is possible is controversial.
philosophy naturally criticised everything/anything it could lay its hand on precisely because it was a minority view aiming to destroy and overcome the prevalent worldview. At the time. 717 n6. 10 ). 18. But the same cannot be true today. later Walter de Gruyter & Co. But it is a totally different ballgame when 29 Kant uses „transcendent‟ to refer to “objects (Objects) that cannot be encountered in … experience” (quoted in Kant. My use of „transcendent‟ here is different from that of Kant.. edited by the Royal Prussian (later German) Academy of Sciences (Berlin: Georg Reiner. p. original quote is from Kant’s gesammelte Schriften. 1900). or Christendom. and no longer remains internal. 18 . in the same way in which we criticise a view which is external to our view.transcendent29 criticism. it‟s sufficient to suppose that the worldview presupposed by the modern philosophical enterprise is dominant today.30 Even today. its self conception as absolute criticism emerged at the particular juncture of history when philosophy (and her allies) was a minority activity pitted against the stilldominant but receding and retreating worldview that had prevailed in Europe since the Middle Ages (whether it goes under the name of feudalism. vol. To put this categorisation in the context of the birth of modern philosophy: as we have seen. it transforms itself into a species of external criticism. when modern philosophy (and her allies) is without doubt a dominant force (although this obviously does not imply that they have absolute power). 1999. and merely alludes to the fact that in transcendent criticism. 30 For my argument here I don‟t need to presume that philosophy itself is a dominant force in today‟s world. or Christian civilisation). modern philosophy is at its best when it takes aim at the remnants of the old forces. p. since now we‟re reflecting on our fundamental ideas in a neutral or impartial way (as if from the viewpoint of someone outside our worldview – we become strangers to our own view). relation of immanence with the object of criticism is totally severed.
But that is not the point. That would be empirically wrong. But we cannot in our thought go beyond our outlook into the future and remain identified with the result: that is to say. and in this. modern philosophy is no different than other traditions. and in those terms there are no alternatives for us. we cannot overcome our outlook. (Williams. that is to say various ways. 494. other ways in which human beings might live in the future. Indeed. Those elements are indeed unhintergehbar . p. . writes: History presents alternatives only in terms of a wider „us‟: it presents alternative ways. Self-criticism when it is transcendent criticism (that is. people overcome their outlooks all the time (even if such people are 19 . we can identify with the process that led to our outlook because we can identify with its outcome. emphasis in the original) The point is not that we cannot factually overcome our outlook.philosophy indulges in positive criticism. As Bernard Williams. to carry no alternatives with them. in which human beings have lived and hence can live. one of the most outstanding and perceptive of post-war British philosophers. a species of external criticism) is always much harder than criticising others. What in this connection seem to be simply there. 2000. in those terms we may be able to conceive. if only schematically and with difficulty. are elements of our ethical and political outlook. .
no fundamental difference between Quine‟s and my position here. 20-46). religious people becoming non-religious. one does not need to subscribe to foundationalism in order to preserve Williams‟ distinction between „essential‟ and „non-essential‟ elements of a worldview. pp. atheists becoming religious. For Quine. There is. and elements which do not require wide-ranging changes. Thus. Quine‟s distinction between elements which require wide-ranging adjustments if rejected.31 Moreover.32 It‟s 31 Straightforward examples of this are conversions: people converting from one religion to another. although his foundation was of course different from the empiricists‟ sense data). secular. in my opinion. 1961. a matter of degree – and even at the most fundamental area of the continuum there are no beliefs that are so fundamental that they are immune to potential revision. The latter. and the types of statements that cannot be so revised (without drastic changes in the system as a whole) (see Quine. some beliefs are more fundamental or important than others.essentially always a minority in non-revolutionary or „normal‟ times). and then build up all knowledge from those foundations (akin to the way that Descartes thought you could build up knowledge. however. when 20 . fundamental precepts of a worldview are immune from criticism in a way in which non-fundamental precepts or precepts of another system are not. or atheists. in the sense that revising or giving them up would involve many more far-reaching changes elsewhere in our belief system in order to maintain their coherence. What Williams is claiming is that in normal circumstances (be it on an individual level or on a civilisational level). But for Quine this is a continuum – that is. and so on. is much rarer: civilisational shifts don‟t occur everyday. however. will suffice. 32 This essentially corresponds to Quine‟s view about the types of statements which can be revised easily (without much disturbance to the system as a whole in which they are embedded). One group that Quine has in his sights are the empiricists/positivists who thought you could start with foundations of sense data of which you were absolutely certain. not only can individuals factually overcome their outlook. civilisations can transform themselves entirely into radically different ones (something comparable to what happened in the transformation of medieval civilisation into modern Western civilisation).
which were familiar and out of discussion. 74). practices. The history of thought is the analysis of the way an unproblematic field of experience. by giving a new rationale or new justification to the old ideas – or it becomes unable to hold on to the old ideas. and who put to work specific kinds of institutions. practices.33 But the crisis of explanation itself can be divided into two types: the crisis which can be resolved by internal revisions without any fundamental changes.only in times of crisis (the „crisis of explanation‟. The civilisation concerned can reinvigorate/rejuvenate itself without giving up any of the fundamental precepts – this can happen. What Foucault calls here „problematisation‟ is the same thing that Williams calls „crisis of explanation‟. and this moment is often identified by the appearance of a new word. If most of the fundamental precepts of our worldview become suspect. and the crisis which cannot be resolved without revising (or giving up) some or all of our fundamental precepts. becomes a problem. and behavior become a problem for people who behave in specific sorts of ways. in which case it Williams talks about „essential elements of our worldview‟. 2001. habits. habits. p. raises discussion and debate. as Williams calls it) that fundamental precepts become amenable to criticism. who have certain types of habits. There are two possible ways to overcome a fundamental crisis. . or a set of practices which were accepted without question. . . 33 Michel Foucault explains the same point in his distinction between the „history of ideas‟ and the „history of thought‟: “I would like to distinguish between the „history of ideas‟ and the „history of thought‟. Most of the time a historian of ideas tries to determine when a specific concept appears. But what I am attempting to do as a historian of thought is something different. who engage in certain kinds of practices. and induces a crisis in the previously silent behavior. or lose their hold on us. for example. I take him to mean those elements the rejection of which would require wide-ranging adjustments to our worldview. then the crisis of explanation can be termed a fundamental crisis. incites new reactions. I am trying to analyze the way institutions. and institutions” (Foucault. 21 .
Kant‟s idea of autonomy is a rejection of the idea of servitude and complete submission to God (found in classical Judaism. 53-54). and. argument works only on people who have been 36 37 properly prepared” (Feyerabend. with that in place. It‟s beside the point to say that Descartes or Kant don‟t reject the idea of God altogether. See Taylor (2007. the point is. but its significance is often not fully realised. self-evident.35 The insight behind all this is that every civilisation creates an intellectual climate (an intellectual milieu)36 in which certain things seem obvious. the belief in God and its particular Christian 34 Thus. . 2-4 and 25-28) on this point. pp. and more probable. both Descartes and Kant make good use of the concept of God in their positive system once the act of demolition is over. In the beautiful words of Paul Feyerabend: “ . what really matters is their conception of God. 35 This is almost a tautological claim. reinterpretations. and that‟s no doubt essentially different from the one predominant in the Middle Ages). pp. and Kant‟s own days in Pietism) (for perceptive remarks see Kuehn. like extinction or assimilation into another dominant civilisation. 299). doesn‟t mean that the civilisation totally abandons its erstwhile ideas – what‟s required is only that the fundamental precepts are rejected and/or their internal configuration is changed. The transformation into a new civilisation. 22 . a prospect faced by many civilisations today vis-à-vis the dominant modern Western civilisation). that the probability of it is very low as long as a worldview is dominant. medieval Christianity. of course. 2001. and certain other things less so. the point is not that we can‟t (may not) potentially or actually doubt the essentials of our worldview. and reconfigurations (all of these are empirical points). rather. p. many other options. 1987.ultimately gives way to a new set of fundamental precepts and transforms itself into a new civilisation (there are. . but their conception of God and its role in the worldview they erect is fundamentally different from that in the Christian civilisation of the Middle Ages.34 Thus. however. previous ideas can still retain their role. albeit with changed emphases.37 In the medieval Christian civilisation.
this situation is hard to see. Muslim civilisation faced the same dilemma. with the advent of the age of colonialism. If we look at the actual philosophical practice of.interpretation was a „natural‟ thought to occur. not only culturally. in philosophy as such). whereas in Christian or Jewish civilisations (for example) it‟s normatively prohibited to critique their fundamental precepts (“[i]n religion one is explicitly not allowed to question certain things” – Priest. I only controvert its claim about its critical ethos. in the case of Priest. Descartes or Kant (and their descendants).38 It might be claimed at this point that the fundamental difference between modern philosophy and the civilisation it defends (and is associated with) is that. The same rule applies to modern Western civilisation. 201). as I see it. or Jewish civilisation. It might be normatively permissible to raise 38 Hence I do not controvert truth claims made by modern civilisation. and eventually lead to the collapse of medieval Christian civilisation as a whole. and still is in a transitional phase. and thinking against it was normatively and factually difficult and improbable. but in the age of crisis (roughly from the 16th to the 19th centuries) such doubts became easier. but only on the surface. say. but about the way human rationality works. p. in actual fact the odds of this happening are the same as criticising God in a Christian. Islamic. but since it‟s so overwhelmingly dominant today. Thus Williams‟ point. The point is powerful. in modern philosophy (and. we realise that although philosophy (and modern civilisation in general) claims that it‟s normatively permissible to criticise any of its precepts. including its philosophical schools. is not an argument for relativism. but economically and technologically. criticism of everything is normatively justified even if the factual constraints determine the actual possibility and extent of such criticisms. 2006. 23 .
while the second false.fundamental questions about reason. especially pp. our critic might add that it is one thing to say that you cannot rebuild all the bits of the boat all at once. 10-11.. Going back to the Neurath/Quine analogy of the boat. cf. It is one thing to say that you cannot question everything all at once. It might be objected that there is an ambiguity here that I‟ve overlooked in my explication of Williams‟ quote.g. Rawls. above. autonomy. The reason is because fundamentalism presents a view of religion that supposedly transcends the well-defined limits of the Enlightenment tolerance of religion (see Habermas. 3-25. e. A word or two must also be said about the distinction between piecemeal criticism and wholesale criticism..39 etc. The first could be true. The point will only be proven if we see fundamental critiques of reason or autonomy within modern philosophy and worldview as a normal practice (and I submit this is not only not the case but conceptually speaking can not be the case). then for those purposes you have to take the right side of the boat as a given or fixed point in order to get anything done. pp. and never a fundamental critique. 2006. and that there are some fixed points or aspects of our outlook that we must always take for granted. 24 . rebuild or alter the left side of the boat. But it would be quite another thing to say that there are some bits of the boat that cannot ever be changed or rebuilt: the right side of the 39 Just think of the rage and disgust poor fundamentalism (a term never properly defined and arbitrarily used) elicits at all intellectual levels. pp. 1996. It might be claimed that Williams (or I on his behalf) has failed to acknowledge ambiguity in his (or his and my) position. The list of gag rules keeps piling up. 64ff. but it is another thing to say that there are some things that we cannot ever question. If you are going to. but in actual practice it‟s almost always a normal criticism (internal criticism). and passim). and that all questioning has to be done from a fixed point or outlook that we take for granted.
apparently has its own idols in front of which it trembles lest it utter any unwarranted words. in civilisational transformations. a piecemeal critique can be fundamental when it progresses in piecemeal fashion. for pressing me to clarify these points. but pertains to the core of our worldview. I am thinking of mainstream modern 40 Thanks to . Thus. But. which is fundamental if it requires abandoning our fundamental precepts.. Modern philosophy. . the issue here is not whether criticism is piecemeal or wholesale – the issue is rather whether the critique pertains to fundamentals of our worldview or not. which has the reputation of throwing everything upside down. when one jettisons her precepts en masse. e. Generally speaking. A similar point applies to a crisis of explanation. but the precepts involved don‟t belong to the core of her worldview. In this reading.41 A wholesale critique can be non-fundamental.40 But the criticism misses the point here. 25 . the boat analogy leaves many other options out of view.g. it‟s only of secondary concern whether such abandonment is piecemeal or a wholesale. they are complementary). taking nothing as sacrosanct. piecemeal changes occur over long stretches of 41 time and are followed by the event of wholesale transformation. My claim in this paper is simply that modern philosophy is no different to any other worldview in the dynamics of change sketched above. To start with. the so-called „revolutionary event‟. not whether it‟s piecemeal or wholesale. the distinction between peicemeal and wholesale criticism is irrelevant. In such cases the better option might be to jump to another available boat. piecemeal changes and wholesale changes are not contradictory (rather. I am not talking about the fringes here. aside from this. or. . it might be the case that the boat is so rotten that there is no option for repairing at all – piecemeal or otherwise.boat could be altered or changed too. for example. the more fundamental point is whether a criticism is fundamental or not. For my argument.
. internal debates. and science.philosophy. What is missing is the distance from science (and a certain irreverence towards it) which should be natural for a view which prides itself on its openended and critical character. for example. If one cannot see the benefits of living in a liberal constitutional democracy.42 There are powerful internal critiques. . What do you say to an Adolf Hitler? The answer 42 I think philosophers are justified in taking science seriously. there is also the sort of rubbish which goes along with the „factual‟ element in discourse about science). 26 . . if one does not see the virtue of that ideal. I would like to see more persistent problematisation of „science‟ as a generic word or concept (what we should take seriously are „facts‟ and not science as such. when I go around speaking for Rawls. . . democracy. if I‟m wrong in this assumption. and rivalries regarding different interpretations of these concepts. The typical response is expressed with atypical honesty and frankness by Burt Dreben (referring to John Rawls‟ political liberalism): What Rawls is saying is that there is in a constitutional liberal democracy a tradition of thought which it is our job to explore and see whether it can be made coherent and consistent. The same point goes for the other concepts mentioned above. sometimes I am asked. then I do not know how to convince him. We take for granted that today only a fool would not want to live in such a society. my argument in this paper will collapse. It should be added here that I presume the veracity of the point made in the text without any real argument. To be perfectly blunt. but no fundamental critiques in the sense of the „fundamental‟ elaborated above. Thus. We are not arguing for such a society. In modern philosophy one would search in vain for any fundamental critique of the notions of autonomy. . secularism.
a diehard royalist in the early modern age would have harboured similar views about a democrat. Again. also pp. But one does not just contain diseases.is [nothing]. 1996. You do not try to reason with him. So I do not want to discuss it. and not those of Rawls. 328-329)43 A typical medieval philosopher would no doubt have held the same sentiments about an atheist. 27 . normally it is not true when it engages in internal criticism. one should be reminded that Rawls himself likens the views that reject constitutional democracy to war and disease: he talks about “the practical task of containing them” as they are “war and disease” (Rawls. You shoot him.).44 What the above discussion makes clear is that modern philosophy‟s claim to be an absolute critique is only true when it is engaged in external (negative) criticism. pp. I am only disputing the specific self-understanding of modern philosophy as absolute critique. those philosophers who have a different conception of philosophy or modern philosophy are not my targets here. one tries to eradicate them! 44 So. What makes political philosophy (for example) remotely special in this regard? It is only modern philosophy‟s self-conception as absolute critique that makes the otherwise understandable views of Williams and Dreben (however atrociously expressed by the latter) so bizarre. 64ff. especially when this internal criticism involves the fundamentals of the modern worldview. Recall that I have not denied the universality of philosophy as such. and so on. 64 n. (Dreben. 2003. I am not advocating any form of relativism and its cogency here. Although not all modern philosophers theorise about what modern philosophy is (in fact they rarely do). 43 Lest anyone think that these are isolated views of the characteristically combative Dreben. they might still have the same conception of philosophy or modern philosophy criticised here.19. pp. Reason has no bearing on this question.
Modern philosophy indeed claims to be subversive. Having accomplished the above. in its view). I have argued further that modern philosophy‟s self-conception as absolute critique mostly applies to its criticism of external forces. but is in fact highly conservative in the original sense of the word (the contemporary supporters of the American Republican Party do not have exclusive copyright on the term). c) it is universal in its import. I will briefly examine all these claims (and reject them as they stand – the rejection emanates from my discussion in the paper up to this point). viz: a) philosophy (read „modern philosophy‟) is subversive. When it comes to this it is as meek as any other enterprise in modern society (and at times even more so because of the guilty consciousness that stems from the explicit claim of its own status as absolute criticism).I have argued above (persuasively I hope) that Priest‟s notion of philosophy as absolute critique is mistaken. it should rather be taken as a self-conception of modern philosophy only. Subversiveness of philosophy. It is conservative in the sense that it is the custodian of the worldview and civilisation that replaced the medieval Christian civilisation of Europe. 28 .45 45 My analysis here and below is purely functional. b) it is unsettling for students. and not to the fundamentals of its own worldview. it is easy to summarily dispose of three corollaries that Priest derives from his notion of philosophy as absolute critique. and which then imposed itself (through whatever means) on almost the entire world. This should exclude any suspicion of a „conspiracy theory‟ approach. philosophy is not only not subversive. When it comes to its own internal matters. but it is subversive only when it critiques external forces (forces that are still lingering on from the „dark ages‟. I don‟t assume that philosophers or philosophy do any of this consciously.
global university system. for example. with which I have only very superficial acquaintance. authors. naturally. constitutional democracy. but there is no dispute whatsoever about their desirability and the need to defend them singlehandedly. pp. Philosophy today has 46 The bankruptcy of the so-called critical and innovative powers of modern thinking becomes starkly clear when one realises that. 2008. subjects. despite financial crises and pending environmental disaster. and debates. human rights. Philosophy today is part of a well-established. cultural. differences of interpretation and emphasis among its different foci.47 most philosophy departments around the world follow the same sorts of topics. 49 „Responsibility‟ construed in functional terms here. 29 .48 Philosophers are. There are internal debates about these fundamentals within philosophy. highly paid professionals. the other.There are. the other maverick). and the most innovative one gets is to advocate a middle ground between the two! 47 For the influence (economic. but generally speaking it is a civilisation based on a strong belief in secularism. and part of the ruling elite (defined broadly): responsible49 for producing and reproducing the standard discourse about the self. 48 My claims here exclude the Eastern European scene. modern thinking (including philosophical thinking) has not gone beyond the dichotomy of capitalism and socialism (both part of Enlightenment thinking – one mainstream. relatively speaking. see Gross.46 and science. but in the official language of the empire (English) or in a few other main languages (predominantly French and German) which replaced Latin as the official languages of higher education in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries and onwards. capitalism. and the relationship between them. vii-xvii. They write not in vernaculars as such. and social) of the university (and college) system – especially the humanities and social sciences – in America (the most advanced capitalist country). Philosophers are not wandering outsiders. and the universe.
science.52 Philosophy as unsettling subject for students. any reflective subject will do this. more fundamentally. pp. it is the custodian of conservatism. and now increasingly popular science writings) that religion played in the Middle Ages. however. Michel Foucault. my claim is primarily about philosophy‟s self-conception and. philosophy questions our assumptions about ourselves. the other. Philosophers generally tend to minimise their own influence (in line with their overall victimhood narrative). day after day” (Popkin. Note. In fact. wider culture. 51 Just notice the plethora of books in recent decades defending evolution. 1993. its relation to the modern worldview. for urging me to clarify this point. Richard Rorty. This influence is augmented by the existence of public intellectuals like Jürgen Habermas. that my construing of a „sceptical problem‟ is much broader than that of Popkin. but my own impression of philosophy‟s influence is that it‟s much deeper. especially on the general humanities. and at the battlefront of science wars.50 Philosophers are at the forefront of defending modern civilisation. through them. it is the prime conservative force today. I don‟t make any claim about the actual influence of philosophy today. . etc. evolutionary wars.51 It is a travesty to consider philosophy as a subversive force in today‟s world. as far as defending the basics of the prevailing secular capitalist worldview is concerned. Popkin writes: “Seventeenth-century epistemological and religious scepticism has left a legacy that continues to affect our twentieth-century world. one can go 50 As Richard H. authored by philosophers.almost the same role (perhaps combined with journalism and novel (fiction) writing. and the quote here should be read in the context of the paper as a whole. 30 . and others. . 52 Again. However. As a reflective subject. Thanks to . social sciences and. 514-515). (It would seem that one function of our present professional philosophers is to act as a new priestcraft. and the universe (for example) – there is no doubt about that. religious wars. exorcising the sceptical demons as they turn up. etc.
a believing Jew. it is related to his notion of philosophy as absolute critique – hence.through unsettling experiences reading history or physics. or Muslim. Modern philosophy is absolute critique only vis-à-vis the views which are external to its own preferred views. Where philosophy is the subject that makes reflection and its possibility its prime concern. progressive. Thus. it is not (typically) unsettling in the absolute sense because it doesn‟t challenge students with background beliefs mostly congruent with the modern worldview. 53 She would (typically) rather find confirmation of her views (and hence comfort and reassurance) in her experience with philosophy. but principally only for students coming from backgrounds radically different from the secular modern worldview propagated by modern philosophy. environment-cherishing liberal will be unlikely to experience any such discomfort. or Christian (to give a straightforward example) will generally feel the force of the absolutely unsettling nature of philosophy (if she lets herself be pulled by the lure of philosophy. 31 . its venom and its cutting sword are reserved exclusively for the views which are historically challenged by her. animal loving. depending on the way they are taught and the way they are received. it must be conceived as the absolute unsettling experience. that is). but a secular. it is bound to be more unsettling than any other subject studied within the modern university. Is philosophy unsettling in the absolute sense? Perhaps.53 The reason is obvious from our discussion in this paper. But the unsettling experience Priest is referring to must be more fundamental than the sort of unsettling experiences I just mentioned. and not the views which are constructively favoured by her (a different sort of critique is applied in that context).
But it is also clear from the context that what Priest is claiming is not the universal import of philosophy as such. This is something very natural. pp. 7-10. or any other 54 Even capitalism (or the bourgeois class. so I would not deny Priest‟s claim that philosophy has this quality. every revolution must abolish any possibility of further revolution or counter-revolution (recall Kafka: “Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy. as I have shown. 1971. and we cannot blame modern philosophy. 119-20). but it faces the dilemma that any revolutionary force must face. must become fundamentally a non-revolutionary and conservative force. Once it is successful. this conception of philosophy is specific to a particular juncture in human history. Modern philosophy emerged out of a revolutionary period in human history and as a revolutionary force. Janouch. In reality. but self-entrenched interests refuse to go along with it.54 its main purpose becomes safeguarding the house it has successfully built. Any revolutionary force. even this specific philosophy is absolute critique only in the limited facets of its praxis. which was hailed by Karl Marx as a revolutionary force par excellence. where the system‟s imperatives require it to move on from an oil-based economy. but his specific conception of philosophy as absolute critique. we have only to look at its current dilemma. furthermore. and. and not of its reality. became conservative once it established its hegemony. This is something part and parcel of human nature conjoined with the human condition. The chains of tormented mankind are made out of red tape”. 2012. I believe in the universal import of philosophy.Philosophy as a universal pursuit. pp. to be specific). is true only as self-understanding of this specific philosophy. 32 . But. For a very perceptive review of the future of capitalism see Lanchester. Its revolutionary venom expresses itself mainly in safeguarding its victory against opposing forces. once successful.
One of the fundamental problems with Priest‟s conception of philosophy is that he sees philosophy as a permanent revolutionary force (see Priest. There is no end to revolutionary pretensions. is always revolutionary! Priest thinks that “a certain dogmatism” that is essential to progress in science is not only not essential for philosophy‟s progress. Alas. is its pretension that even after the victory it remains some sort of a revolutionary minority pitted against endless powerful enemies that are threatening to engulf it from every direction. p. but in fact would undermine the very meaning and existence of philosophy (Priest thinks that when science is in its revolutionary phases the distinction between philosophy and science becomes blurred: ibid. 2006. p. 56 33 . writing in 1958. although he admits that there is a difference between normal and revolutionary science. What we can blame modern philosophy for. claims Priest. on that account.). 202). claimed the following. op. in fact – following Khun – he claims that “a certain dogmatism is essential to both the teaching of science and to its progress” (ibid. No wonder Priest has such a low view of Wittgenstein‟s work.. This is 55 In this he is one with Heidegger (see Heidegger. cit. Martin Wolfson.revolutionary force.55 Thus. or at least his conception of philosophy. This stance – that philosophy is a quintessentially revolutionary enterprise – is not new to Priest. On the contrary. this is a vain hope. philosophy. but one would have hoped that Wittgenstein56 and countless other philosophers might have educated us out of this nonsense. though.). which succinctly captures the mindset of those who believe philosophy to be inherently revolutionary: Philosophical interpretation is inherently a fighting stance for change. This is just not true. 202).
counterrevolutionary.e. i. it‟s all back to normal. Philosophy.why the intellectual life in its true self can be nothing but revolutionary. and/or apologetic depending on the time and 34 . rather. The argument of this paper has been that philosophy. emphasis in the original) Once the initial revolutionary task is accomplished. It is tragic to the intellectual life when “intellectuals” forget this. i. 323) But even old Kant. Bxxxv. it must prove its conclusions strictly a priori from secure principles). (Kant. p. like any other human activity. Dogmatism is therefore the dogmatic procedure of pure reason. As he puts it: Criticism is not opposed to the dogmatic procedure of reason in its pure cognition as science (for science must always be dogmatic. is a revolutionary enterprise.. can be revolutionary. to the presumption of getting on solely with pure cognition from (philosophical) concepts according to principles. which reason has been using for a long time without first inquiring in what way and by what right it has obtained them. it is opposed only to dogmatism. therefore..e. 1958. (Wolfson. it is either apologetics or counterrevolutionary. who made „revolution‟ central to his philosophical enterprise. If philosophy purports not to be. 1999. knew that‟s not true. without an antecedent critique of its own capacity.
firstly. 58 It is hardly surprising. and like human civilisations.58 Like the sciences. ideas. secondly. and today they are necessarily apologists of that system. and that “[t]hose who are secure in the knowledge of their place have little need for philosophy. then. and. this not to deny the existence of true revolutionary philosophical individuals. Modern philosophy and its proponents felt a sense of 35 . 2001. who claims that the origin of philosophy lies “in a sense of homelessness”. pp. Again. I can agree with Harries on this if we add two clauses to his definition: a) that it applies in revolutionary times only. Like any other human activity. Descartes and Kant were true revolutionaries because they were living in an age of revolution. those traditions are by definition not norms. because their revolution has long-since succeeded. the idea of philosophy as a permanent revolutionary activity is just a figment of Priest‟s imagination. it does not correspond to reality. just as those who think themselves at home are not likely to suffer from homesickness” (p. that those who consider philosophy to be a permanent revolutionary activity are compelled to continuously hark back to presumed revolutionary periods of their discipline – for Heidegger it was going back to the Pre-Socratics. 61). revolutionary 57 It‟s no wonder that works like After Virtue (McIntyre. if we take my account as the correct interpretation then we can accommodate such figures from the past and in the present without making philosophy into what it is not: that is. 2007 ) belong to the Thomistic tradition and not to the Cartesian or Kantian traditions. but. It also explains the certain infatuation with the mythic figure of Socrates. and minority traditions. the martyr of philosophy. what is normal is „normal‟ philosophy. a timeless revolutionary force.57 Thus.conditions. But the heirs of Descartes and Kant can‟t claim the same. Compare this with Karsten Harries. But. Priest‟s ambition to become the Trotsky of philosophy is doomed. for example. 47-73. b) such philosophy is not restricted to any particular content. philosophy has its normal and revolutionary periods. they don‟t belong to the tradition of Descartes and Kant. and not a revolutionary philosophy. and an expression of modern philosophy‟s propensity for self-aggrandisement.
calls the “philosophical life” into their real lives. and hence those who in it cannot integrate what Foucault . . often a persecuted minority (even though the persecution is not as bad as it used to be: it mainly consists of the occasional closure of philosophy departments. (Wood. or the modern worldview in general. is simply that the world is ruled by enemies of this enlightened ethos [i. the life of reason and self reflection. when they have built the home. they are a minority. .periods in philosophy are exceptional and far apart.. p. even today. or those in power don‟t heed to their advice as often as they „should‟). in other words life according to philosophical ideals – Ali]. But today. 2001. The only way philosophers can maintain the aura of perpetual revolutionary activity for their trade is by falsely claiming that. At most they can worry about the condition of the home. and wanted to build a new world in which they would be at home. Allen Wood: The obstacle. and its viability in the face of future challenges. This in turn is because. now as in the eighteenth century. and in the belief that the philosopher kings of our age are not given their due or share of power. This self-perception of philosophers that they are a permanent minority comes out in the following quote from a prominent Kantian. those who feel „homeless‟ in the modern world are true revolutionaries today even if the „content‟ of their ideas is very „conservative‟ by the lights of the proponents of modern philosophy. philosophers can‟t pretend that they are still homeless. as Diderot‟s dialogue already made dramatically clear. On the other hand. even the most enlightened individuals do not belong to a society whose practical life coheres even minimally with demands of reflective reason. 36 . 116) „homelessness‟ in the late Middle Ages because they were in fact not at home in that world.e.
These conflicts become poignant when institutions are 37 . by definition.One can say only two things about Wood‟s claim here: either his conception of philosophy is so hopelessly idealistic that it cannot be fulfilled. Of course. and compare them with alternatives. or. Of course. . . At their best. while recognising that norms of good reasoning carry their own presuppositions and assumptions that are not exempt from scrutiny. the only master that philosophers serve is reason itself. . Gary Malinas explains one form that these internal conflicts take and its nature succinctly: Philosophers reflect the interests of masters to whom philosophers are beholden. but absolute dominance is itself another unrealistic ideal. The reluctance of philosophers to shackle their examinations of social and institutional norms and the practices based upon them can put them in conflict with the aims and projects of the institutions that employ them. At their best. if he is talking about philosophy in more historical and realistic terms. the claim that Enlightenment ideals are not ruling force today (at least in the developed world) seems to me not just not true. philosophers identify the fundamental presuppositions and assumptions of the societies and institutions to which they belong. They explore their consequences. and is not to deny that philosophy is a minority within the ruling party. these ideals aren‟t absolutely dominant. the claim that philosophy today belongs to the ruling party doesn‟t mean that there are no internal conflicts between different groups within the party. test them for consistency.
Such conflicts are part and parcel of any living system.59 and when it denies its ruling character. 2011. 65) This. One must read them like fairytales which have lots of interesting things to say but which also contain wicked lies. it becomes an ideology. in my view. All ideologies are dangerous.committed to parochial aims that define boundaries philosophers are prone to ignore. and not necessarily regarding internal alternatives within the system). and there is nothing unique about the modern system of governance. p. (Malinas. among others: All ideologies must be seen in perspective. especially the ideologies with revolutionary pretensions. here I‟m not making any claim about the relative influence of philosophy in the modern world. properly explains some of the internal conflicts that some philosophers get into from time to time. or like ethical prescriptions 59 Again. alternatives and strategies which are in contention are almost as a rule internal as well. Modern philosophy is one of the ruling forces in the world today. This is a lesson which we have (or should have) learnt from Paul Feyerabend. but they are precisely internal conflicts. My claim is that it is a group within the ruling party. its conservative function (conservative relative to the system as a whole. The internal power struggle of the ruling party doesn‟t concern me here. One must not take them too seriously. and it is modern philosophy qua ideology and not qua philosophy that must be rejected. and philosophy as a party to that system. 38 .
(Feyerabend. p. he writes: Any ideology that breaks the hold of a comprehensive system of thought has on the minds of men contributes to the liberation of man. but to reject the elements of them which have become ideological. Any ideology that makes man question inherited beliefs is an aid to enlightenment. Feyerabend‟s discussion of science in this context provides strong support for the view I have taken in this paper towards modern philosophy. Comparing the different roles that science played in the 17th and 18th centuries to the one it plays today. or constitutional democracy. A truth that reigns without checks and balances is a tyrant who must be overthrown. this is not necessarily to reject philosophy. It does not follow that science is bound to remain such an instrument. Again. and it is doubly dangerous because it is the custodian of other modern fairytales. such as science. and any falsehood that can aid us in the overthrow of this tyrant is to be welcomed. science. 39 . etc. There is nothing inherently good or liberating about philosophy or science. There is nothing inherent in science or any other ideology that makes it essentially liberating. 1981. constitutional democracy. 156) The notion of philosophy as absolute critique is one such fairytale today. Ideologies can deteriorate and become stupid religions. It follows that 17th and 18th century science indeed was an instrument of liberation and enlightenment.which may be useful rules of thumb but which are deadly when followed to the letter.
so. 1969. is that Popper is still enthralled by the myth of absolute critique while Feyerabend is not: he merely uses it pragmatically. 156-157. I have also argued that the effort to universalise such a specific and narrow conception of philosophy is ideological in its character and inherently oppressive. 1981. however.(Feyerabend. it has its own limitations. even still. 62 One of the reasons for this might be that most philosophers „do‟ philosophy rather than philosophising about what it is.and 18th-century Europe. 190-192. 61 This last claim follows from my discussion of the different roles of internal and external criticism within modern philosophy.61 Without rejecting this ideologically driven notion of philosophy outright. it is only a small part of it as it is practiced throughout the world. when it has become a dominant power (at least) in its own specific realm. But I want to conclude by saying that such an ideologically driven notion of philosophy is not the whole philosophy. emphasis in the original)60 This exactly parallels my argument in this paper regarding modern philosophy. I have argued that the conception of modern philosophy as absolute critique is only one among others. especially in societies (and minority traditions within modern philosophy) which do not share the historical experiences of 17th. pp. including America and other first-world countries. philosophy in general as a liberating force has no future in the contemporary world. fortunately.62 And 60 For an uncanny resemblance between Feyerabend‟s argument here and Karl Popper‟s notion of scientific method as critique see Popper. pp. it might still be the case that they implicitly share the view of philosophy propounded 40 . the difference. and especially the distinction between the role it played when it was a minority revolutionary force and the role it plays today.
to be fair to him. What we need is Priest‟s great efforts in logic.this is because philosophy as reflection on reflection. It is only when he attempts to develop his self-understanding of philosophy qua philosophy that part of it comes across as highly ideological. as thinking about thinking. 2001). not his ideological views about what philosophy is. Despite the role of philosophy as a dominant ideology in today‟s world. independently. is something universal and part of the human condition. most of his work in philosophy is not ideological at all. In this paper. In a recent excellent collection of essays (perhaps with the exception of Nussbaum and Apel‟s essays) at least Wood seems to share Priest‟s view of philosophy (see Ragland and Heidt. the bulk of the philosophical enterprise is not ideological but constructive. and critically. and any culture would be impoverished if it were to be deprived of such a contribution. but. whether attributed to evolution or considered as God-granted gifts. Every society and every culture needs these tools in order to deepen its understanding of itself and the other: reflectively. are regarded by most cultures as the essence of humanity. Reflection and self-reflection. self-respect. by Priest. but are not bothered about it much. and culture. and philosophy – as the study of this unique capacity and the impulse to develop instruments to enhance this capacity – is an important human endeavour which is needed in every society and culture. 41 . This type of philosophy is necessary to develop the thinking and reflective capacities of individual. differentiating humans from other beings. society. is in fact revolutionary. It might also be possible that Priest‟s view is not a majority view. Priest‟s work. especially in logic. courage. in order for those communities to survive and develop a human civilisation imbued with the virtues of honour. and independence of mind. I have used Priest‟s views as a foil to develop my argument.
Vol. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. John (Ed. 17: 3. IV – Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Leibniz. and “Reasons that All Can Accept”. Cohen. A History of Philosophy. The Role of Philosophy in Culture. but that is something to be left for another occasion. Joseph W. I believe. 2010. John (1998b). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Liberalism. London: Image Books. Clarke. Cottingham (Ed. References Bohman. Descartes. (1995).63 which in turn is crucial for developing the capacity to see alternative scenarios when considering an issue. for the importance of imagination for critical thinking.Similarly. (2006). Cottingham. Philosophy East and West. 1-27). and consequently for assessing any issues regarding any subject matter critically and thoughtfully.) (1998a). (1994) . Oxford: Oxford University Press. 5: 2. and arriving at a considered judgement about it. and should be part and parcel of the modern university education system because it is a great tool in enhancing the power of the imagination. Descartes: A Biography. The Journal of Political Philosophy. just to give one more example. and to show that it is not the only conception of philosophy: this. James and Richardson. 42 . Introduction. In J. What I have tried to do in this paper is to make a case against a particular conception of philosophy. is the first step towards reasserting the liberating role of philosophy in the contemporary world. Henry S. Desmond M. Cottingham.) Descartes (pp. Deliberative Democracy. Frederick S. 253-274. 99-112. the counter-example method used by modern analytic philosophers should be learnt. Copleston. J. (2009). 63 See Williamsons. We can add on particular examples here.
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