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Beyond Philosophy

photo of chris pinchen

chris pinchen
11th November 2012

Source: Suresh Fernando

What is philosophy? If it is anything it is the domain that aims to answer the most substantial questions in a foundational way. It attempts, for example, to provide an account of Truth or Knowledge in a manner that answers these questions in a way that can be understood as ‘scientific’. The attempt, therefore, is to make ‘objective’ or ‘universal’ certain domains of inquiry.

There is more to philosophy than this, however. In virtue of the inquiry into the problems that are most fundamental, philosophers, privilege their domain of inquiry. Philosopher have a sense that their inquiry is in some way special… that it stands distinct from other inquiries. How justified is this? What is the current status of the inquiry?

Rorty is famous for saying ‘Philosophy is Dead!’ What did he mean by this?

The pursuit of foundationalism has followed two different paths that find their basis in two differing perspectives on the foundations for knowledge. The most central philosophical distinction, dating back to Plato, was that between forms and essences and sense impressions… qualia, and so on. For the former, there was something fundamental that resided outside of one’s direct experience of the world… something essential that we are hopefully able to access. Popularly this frame of reference is known as rationalism.

Empiricism which found its roots in the work of Locke, Berkeley and Hume, was a response to rationalism… It asked all metaphysicians who spoke of transcendent realms… how do you know? What is the basis for your knowledge? Empiricists steadfastly assert that the source and foundation for all of our knowledge is sense experience and everything that we can infer needs to start with this foundation.

Then along came Immanuel Kant who served to bridge this divide by constructing an account, in his magnum opus, the Critique of Pure Reason, that suggests that knowledge is constructed by categories in the mind that impose order on an unstructured external world. So persuasive was this account that it completely shifted the playing field and the way we view knowledge as well as our relation to the world. In effect, Kant bridged the divide between rationalists and empiricists.

This is the first major step in collapsing the distinction between subject/object… private public… inside/outside…

The essence of the Kantian position was that certain forms of knowledge/concepts that are such that the predicate is not contained in the subject, yet it can be known prior to experience. These statements are known as ones that are synthetic a priori (think of ‘all bodies are heavy’). Synthetic statements are contrasted with analytic statements (‘all husbands are male’).

Kant, even in bridging the divide between empiricism and rationalism is still a foundationalist… He reifies reason and the autonomy of human subjectivity. Kant is the philosopher of the enlightentment who, coincident with the emergence of science as a paradigm, develops a view of human subjectivity that elevates the status of humankind… No longer is Truth relegated to transcendent realms… Nor are we merely receptacles for external experience… No longer does subjectivity simply impose order on a world, it serves to structure certain forms of knowledge in a way that provides a foundation for that which is true and certain.

The next wave of modern foundationalists were the logical positivists, the Vienna Circle. In response to the style of philosophy that was prominent on the continent (German Idealism); a style that had a different tone but was nevertheless foundationalist in its own right… a tone that aimed to construct grand systems that integrated everything. Hegel and Marx were examples of this tradition… those that had a view of very broad scope but that postulated objectivity… they had arrived at the truth! Characteristic of the German Idealists was a certain obtuseness… a difficulty in understand what they were saying. What, after all, is Absolute Spirit and how precisely is it expressed through the march of history?

The logical positivists found their roots in the convergence of mathematical logic (Frege, Peano, Cantor. Goedel…), philosophy of language (Russell and Wittgenstein) and empiricism. The emergence of philosophy of language during this period was, at least in part, due to the sense that philosophy had gone astray… had lost its capacity to be foundationalist due to its mode of presentation… as represented by the German tradition. Those like Russell, Frege and Carnap who had been trained in formal logic explored the integration of logical principles into the pantheon of philosophy? How could logic be utilized as the basis for developing a foundation for philosophy?

This spawned a wide range of theories of truth and meaning (Frege and Russell etc…)… foundationalism persisted!

Language philosophers, as a result of their inquiry into the status of language and role in philosophy came to more deeply understand the relationship between thought and language, and therefore the limits of what we can know… This elevated the importance of language within the broader discourse… Philosophy becomes about language…

Truth, knowledge, reality itself become about language…This is known as the linguistic turn…

One might say that the end of foundationalism came when William Van Orman Quine, in the Two Dogmas of Empiricism, offered a powerful critique of the Kantian position, thereby challenging the ‘internalist’ position, which challenges the analytic/synthetic divide and thereby the possibility of synthetic a priori statements… In mounting a successful challenge, he refutes the idea that the rational agent can, simply in virtue of categories of the mind, create certain sorts of concepts; synthetic ones.

The crux of the argument lies in a demonstration that language is a property of community interaction… that all linguistic terms get their meaning from our interaction with others and therefore reference to internal constitution of truth/meaning is off target.

That philosophy can be foundational is further challenged by Wilfred Sellar’s attacks the empiricist perspective (and therefore the ground of knowledge) from a different perspective when he elucidates the Myth of the Given. He challenges the foundation of the empiricist position through arguments that suggest that all knowledge is linguistic/propositional… that there can be nothing ‘given’ that can serve as the basis for inferential knowledge. Sellars’ position is anti-foundationalist in that it eliminates the hierarchy/foundation for knowledge… that which is simply ‘given’ from which all else is inferred.

Both Quine and Sellars, coming from different directions, place language at the center!

Both of these arguments serve, in different ways, to shift the ground for knowledge into the public domain; to make knowledge a social construct… what Rorty would refer to as epistemic behaviourism… This is, in some sense, the grounding for the entire tradition of ‘pragmatism’ (Dewey, James, Rorty…)… a tradition that rejects Truth and Knowledge as the basis for foundationalism… or the relevance of foundationalism at all…

But is there more to be said about foundationalism in philosophy?

The combination of the Kantian focus on the ‘point of cognition’… as well as the move to a more internalist position gave rise to another branch of German philosophy that explored the way that our mind connects with the world and brings to bear on our knowledge of the world. Isn’t the way that sensory information is presented to cognition a good basis for studying the ‘phenomena’ of consciousness? This gave rise to a deeper examination of the way phenomenon present themselves to consciousness and the domain of Phenomenology and is represented through the work of Husserl is born.

Phenomenology aims to raise, to a level of ‘science’ the examination of the way that objects in the world present themselves to consciousness. As such the ‘boundary’ of its domain of inquiry is subjectivity itself. This approach is also found wanting… Martin Heidegger, Husserl’s most famous student in his magnum opus, Being and Time, introduces the notion of Dasein… Being-in-the-world. The basic insight is that we cannot examine merely the objects of consciousness; how they are presented to us; how we interpret them; what meaning they give us and so on because our consciousness cannot be understood as having a boundary. We, as human beings, bring to each moment a long history that preceded us. We are influenced by our parents our teachers as well as our communal context. We are embedded in a complex and deep nexus of activity and relations that serve to define us at each moment. We are, in some large sense, constituted by our context, history and relations… Our march forward in time, therefore, is not a series of discrete moments but a continuous stream of ‘meaning-to-us’ that serves to shape our consciousness… Heidegger extends the notion of inquiry by raising the question: ‘What is it to be?’

This, in some sense, marks the birth of existentialism…

Who else might be considered the ‘founder’ of existentialism? Well, Friedrich Nietzsche of course!

Nietzsche… a genius of extraordinary proportions and, arguably the most influential ‘contemporary’ philosopher of all time was heavily influenced by Arthur Schopenauer who was, in turn, greatly influenced by Kant. Essential to the Kantian position was the notion of the thing-in-itself… that aspect of reality that we could not know. If our mind’s impose order on reality, there is an aspect of reality that is beyond our grasp. Schopenhauer wondered if it were possible to have access, in some way, to the realm of the thing-in-itself… was there any evidence from the state of affairs in the world to suggest what might lie beneath the surface… that we could not see but might be able to infer something about? In observing the state of affairs in the world; a world rife with suffering, pain, war, conflict, genocide etc… he could only conclude that what lay beneath the surface was something furious, animalistic, uncontrolled… Dionysian… a fury that impelled and propelled us individually and as a species in a particular direction, but that was always in conflict with our rational aims… our higher ambitions. Schopenhauer is famous for being a pessimist; not seeing any way out of this morass… He eventually sought solace in eastern mysticism as he concluded that renunciation of this Will was the only hope!

Nietzsche begged to differ! He embraced the notion of Will, but saw in this notion something deeper… something that provided life with a source of meaning. Nietzsche shares Schopenhaur’s intuition that there is something furious, uncontrolled and uncontrollable in human nature. He understand the internal fury that ensues… the constant internal struggle between the ferocity of our animal nature and our attempt to transcend this. Nietzsche sees reason/rationality as an essential element in the human experience; one that is always in conflict with the animal in us… Nietzsche articulates the Apollonia/Dionysius distinction… the two sides of human nature… For Nietzsche transcendence is the refined convergence of these two internal imperatives.

In viewing things as such, Nietzsche introduces the notion of temporality and provides a suggestion as to how we might guide our lives… through transcendence… of ourselves…

He also deconstructs all metaphysical claims, showing with precision that all thought forms are social constructs… ‘God is Dead!’ In doing so he places the responsibility squarely on our shoulders. We cannot appeal to anything outside of ourselves for guidance… We have created this mess and now we must clean it up!

He also provides an intuition as to where the problem may lie… If we are, in part, guided by our animal nature… a subpersonal world that we have no visibility into that is motivated by base imperatives to survive, procreate and so on that comes into contact with our more rational selves, how can we contend with this conflict? Is this conflict the source of our conflict with ourselves? The source of our unhappiness… the source of tension with others… the source of conflicts between nation states?

Is transcendence a possibility?

And then along came Sartre who granted us radical autonomy! Sarte suggested that, in the final analysis, we are free to choose to do exactly as we want. Even faced with a gun to our head, we choose our response… The aspiration towards freedom motivates most social organization in western culture and the prospect of personal freedom can be intoxicating! But is he correct?

The most important contribution that Sartre has made is his notion of Being-for-itself… the idea that humankind is distinct from the animal kingdom in virtue of its ability to reflect on itself… to create a picture of itself… to represent itself to itself. It provides an intuition, at a deeper level, of the source of existential struggle… the disconnection between who we are and who we ought to be…

It also raises to the fore the notion of representation… that sense in which a rational cognition can construct the way that it stands in relation to itself as well as the way that it stands in relation to others…

So what now?

Truth is to philosophy as God is to religion… a ‘foundational distraction’

We need not concern ourselves with ultimate truths that apply to everyone. What matters is not what is True or what you Know but what is sufficient that we choose to do this or that. What is incontrovertible is that we move through space and time, describing an arc of activity that defines us. This set of actions, consequences, responses… serve to define us. In this is sense Sartre was correct. We are no more than we do.

What need to understand is not what is foundational for Truth or Knowledge, but what is foundational for choice… for the discrimination that results, in the moment, in choosing to go left or right. This choice is not grounded in Truth or Knowledge… categories that have received much philosophical attention.. but Relevance… the satisfaction of conditions necessary for a particular individual… to choose…

What is relevant for you or I will not require that knowledge be True or Certain… but that it be meaningful for us from moment to moment. This meaning will be derived from a deep realization of the complexity of human existence (the combination of our animal and rational nature) as well a realization of the complexities of our social and global context. What is Relevant for an individual must also account for our connection to others that are significant to us as well as our communal context.

We need not pursue a deeper understanding of what is True in some deep or abstract sense, or what the conditions are for the possibility of deeper, foundational Knowledge. What matters is our human experience… that we understand the inner machinations of our internal and external world such that we live in peace and harmony.

There is a sense in which this position is eminently pragmatic… Rorty, a pragmatist, when asked whether he was a relativist suggested that all he could offer was that we organize ourselves based on the way western democracies have organized themselves… that philosophy cannot base its inquiry on something deeper.

This is not good enough!

W will need to do better…


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