Philosophy under Attack
An exercise in philosophical apologetics
Philosophy’s place in the world has always been precarious and embattled. The assaults on our fair mistress are of two sorts. I am not concerned on this occasion with brutal ad baculum suppression by the political or ecclesiastical authorities, but with objections of an intellectual or quasi-intellectual nature. By my count, such objections come from as many directions as there are deadly sins, namely, seven. What are they, and how might we respond? What follows are notes toward an apologia for the philosophical life. But nothing in what follows is intended dogmatically, but in the spirit of open inquiry, as goads to reflection and self-examination. We have it on good authority that the unexamined life is not worth living, an examination that extends to the authorities themselves and all of their dicta.
1. The Objection from Practicality. From Callicles on, philistines have always objected to philosophy on the ground of its impracticality. We are told, for example, that philosophy bakes no bread. The obvious reply is that we do not live by bread alone. A truly human life cannot possibly be a life whose chief pursuit is material goods. Such goods are at best means to a human life. Therefore, to object to philosophy on the ground that it fails to supply us with material goods is to confuse ends and means, besides being supereminently perverse. Philosophy, as the rational pursuit of the ultimate truth about the ultimate matters, is an end in itself; it cannot be legitimately pursued as a means to any end except the end of truth. One whose ultimate aim is to live from philosophy is no true philosopher. Only one whose ultimate aim is to live for it may legitimately live from it. To ask what philosophy is good for is to ask the wrong question. The ultimate goods are good, period; they are not good for anything. To put it another way, one ought not confuse the good with the useful. The useful is instrumentally good, but there are goods that are intrinsic rather than instrumental. Strictly speaking, philosophy is neither useful nor useless. Like chess, love, music, and happiness itself, philosophy is neither good for something nor good for nothing. It is intrinsically good. The inability to grasp this point defines the philistine.
2. The Objection from Science. Here the objection is not that philosophy is impractical, since this objection could be brought against a good deal of pure scientific research, but that philosophy is not legitimate theory: it is an empty speculation that achieves no cognitive result.
Now it cannot be denied that philosophy does not now proceed, and never has proceeded, along what Immanuel Kant called “the sure path of science.” It also cannot be denied that philosophers such as Edmund Husserl who have tried to bring it onto this sure path have all failed. This failure to make a science of philosophy, however, is not so much an objection as an indicator of her nature. This is because philosophy, to the extent that it arrives at results and achieves consensus, is no longer philosophy in the narrow sense here in question, but science. This is especially clear with respect to the natural sciences, but also with respect to the social sciences. Physicists are no longer called natural philosophers as they were as recently as the 19th century. Physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, political ‘science,’ have all asserted their independence — with varying degrees of credibility — and have broken away from the mother discipline. But the matrix is and remains philosophy, so much so that one has to marvel at the ingratitude, if not absurdity, of the attempted matricide perpetrated upon our alma mater by some of the practitioners of such ‘sciences’ as psychology and sociology. For example, a sociologist of knowledge who tries to explain away philosophical theorizing in terms of such sociological notions as class and class-interest is himself playing the philosopher, attempting to outflank her by a mode of theorizing that rests on philosophical presuppositions. But fair Philosophia does not allow herself to be outflanked. She outflanks all possible outflankers.
When contrasted with science, then, philosophy treats the problems and questions that remain once the special sciences have done whatever work they can. It should come as no surprise that these extremely fundamental and extremely difficult problems do not readily submit to solution. The objection from science, therefore, carries no weight. For it ignores the fact that philosophy in the broad — I am tempted to say, ‘matriarchal’— sense has made progress. It is just that this progress is credited to the scientific offspring of philosophy rather than to philosophy herself. When philosophy makes progress it is no longer called philosophy. And to the extent that philosophy (in the narrow sense) has not made progress – well, in that sense no science has made progress either. Have the neuroscientists solved the mind-body problem or any problem in the philosophy of mind? Obviously not. Have the mathematicians laid to rest the outstanding problems in the philosophy of mathematics? No. And so on.
It is therefore unfair to demand that philosophy do what no science can do, namely, make progress on the very questions that no science has ever made progress on. The scientific objector to philosophy applies a double standard: he holds philosophy to a standard that science cannot satisfy insofar as he demands that science definitively solve problems (the various mind-body problems, for example) that science cannot even begin to solve.
There is yet another way to respond to the objection from science. That is by simply denying that philosophy has achieved no results. Admittedly, philosophy has achieved no agreed-upon results if by ‘result’ we mean a final solution to a problem, or definitive answer to a question. But the knowledge that there are certain genuine, but seemingly intractable, problems can be said to count as a result of philosophical inquiry. Accordingly, philosophical knowledge is not knowledge of solutions, but knowledge of problems. This ‘negative knowledge’ — this docta ignorantia or learned ignorance in the Socratic spirit — is a knowledge of the limits of our intellect. To know one’s limits, whether physical, moral, or intellectual is a good thing. This negative knowledge is a large component in what we call wisdom. Classically, and by etymology, philosophy is the love of wisdom. To understand the depth and complexity of philosophical problems is to be armed in advance against the pretentious pseudo-understanding the sciences are inclined to provide when they overstep their bounds.
3. The Objection from Religion. Philosophy and religion share topics and questions. Both are concerned with ultimates, among them, God, the soul, and the world as a whole, its whence, whither, and wherefore. Both are concerned with the good life for human beings, what it is, and how it is to be achieved. Thus it would be the pot calling the kettle black were religionists to echo empirical scientists in complaining that philosophy is meta-physical: neither religion nor philosophy is content with grubbing in the merely empirical. Despite these similarities, religionists often see philosophy as an intellectual game, a form of verbal quibbling and jousting, conducive only to pride and arrogance, and far removed from the sorts of devotion and mindfulness that religions aspire to inculcate. We will be told by Christians that it is better to feel compunction than to be able to define it. We will be told by Buddhists that the Tathāgata has no theories, that speculation is a distraction from the one thing necessary. If your house is on fire, you must flee it and not inquire into the causes of the fire, or what is worse, speculate about the nature of causation. If you have been shot with a poisoned arrow, the unum necessarium is to extract the arrow, not speculate about the arrow’s trajectory, the chemical composition of the poison, or the social class of the archer.
The objection from religion, then, is not that philosophy is useless for the pursuit of mundane goods, or that it is not legitimate theory that establishes a consensus grounded in firm cognitive results, but that philosophy is useless for the pursuit of spiritual goods, and positively harmful insofar as it fills us with pride and distracts us from such practices as prayer and meditation which alone can lead us on to our ultimate good, whether this be union with God, entry into Nibbana/Nirvana, or something else. What are we acolytes of philosophy to say in response?
A fair-minded and sympathetic, as opposed to dismissive, critique of religion and its objections to philosophy must first concede that Athens needs Jerusalem: philosophers serious about the ultimate truth need what religion claims to provide. (Whether religion can provide it is of course a further question.) We need what religion claims to provide because experience teaches that we cannot generate ultimate insight from our own resources. We cannot generate it from pure thinking, or from thinking aided by sense experience, or from tradition. Insight must come from beyond the human-all-too-human. It must be revealed to us. Unfortunately, there are many competing (logically incompatible) putative revelations. Since competing revelations cannot all be true, it follows that some of these ‘revelations’ are not revelations, or are humanly distorted revelations. For example, Christians believe that the final divine truth is revealed to man in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jews and Muslims do not believe this. No doubt they accept both the need for divine revelation and its actuality; but they do not accept the Christian revelation: for them, the Christian ‘revelation’ is either no revelation, or not the revelation it claims to be. (Thus Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet, but not as the son of God.)
And let’s not forget that Jewish and Islamic opposition to Christianity is a principled one. Standing firm on the central tenet of monotheism, both Jews and Muslims (in different ways) deny the very possibility of divine incarnation. Indeed, they object to the latter for a broadly philosophical reason, namely, that divine incarnation is inconsistent with monotheism and divine transcendence. There is no god but God, whence it follows that God cannot have a son. (Whether this reason is a good one or not is beside the present point.) Thus Jews and Muslims appeal to philosophy to discredit a rival religion. This is something we philosophers should keep an eye on: despite their objections to philosophy, religionists have no qualms about appealing to our fair mistress and pressing her into service when it suits them. Their motto is philosophia ancilla theologiae.
Now here is the problem. We need revelation, but there are many on offer. To decide which revelation is the true one, we need criteria of evaluation: we must first know the marks of an authentic revelation if we are to be able to decide if any candidate revelation is authentic. Now either (i) we become acquainted with these marks or criteria by a use of reason unaided by revelation — which is just what philosophy is — or (ii) we become acquainted with them through revelation. But this alternative appears to be a dilemma for the view that philosophy is subordinate to religion. How so?
If we come to know the marks of authenticity via a use of unaided reason, then religion must be subordinated to philosophy, and philosophy remains the ultimate court of appeal. Both its necessity and its value are thereby assured contra the objection from religion, and the latter’s charge that philosophy is useless and pernicious collapses. If, however, we come to know the marks of authentic revelation via revelation, then either (a) we embark upon an infinite regress, with one revelation vouching for another ad infinitum; or (b) we turn in a circle of embarrassingly short diameter, using one revelation to vouch for another and the other for the one; or (c) we take a given revelation to vouch for itself, i.e., to be self-authenticating. Now (a) and (b) are easily excluded. This leaves (c). But (c) founders on the reef of revelational diversity. Since there is a plurality of logically incompatible revelations, each will appear to its adherents as self-authenticating — which of course implies that none is. That no revelation is self-authenticating implies that we are once again referred to philosophy as the ultimate court of appeal. In this way, philosophy once again gains the upper hand, outflanking this putative outflanker.
Religion, like science, has a totalitarian tendency: it claims to be the sole route to the only truth ultimately worth knowing. When science makes this claim, we call it scientism, a philosophical doctrine that cannot be justified scientifically, and yet, because it rejects philosophy as a mode of knowledge, cannot be justified philosophically either. For if you say that the only genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge, then you make a philosophical assertion: the assertion is about science rather than from within science. Hence it cannot be justified scientifically, by empirical tests. Since scientism cannot be justified philosophically either, it has no rational justification. It thereby reveals itself to be nothing more than a blind dogma.
When religion lays claim to be the sole way to the only truth ultimately worth knowing, we may call it ‘religionism.’ Like scientism, religionism cannot be justified religiously, and yet, because it rejects philosophy as a mode of knowledge, cannot be justified philosophically either. It thereby reveals itself to be nothing more than a blind dogma. Philosophy must reject both scientism and religionism, and for the same reason: they uncritically absolutize their own truth-seeking procedure.
4. The Objection from Mysticism. The mystic attacks philosophy with the club of (intellectual) intuition, unlike the religionist who wields the club of faith/devotion. Mysticism, like philosophy and religion, is a way to the Absolute. Mysticism may be defined as the activity whereby a questing individual, driven by a deep-seated need for direct contact with the Absolute, disgusted with verbiage and abstraction as well as with mere belief and empty rites and rituals, seeks to know the Absolute immediately, which is to say, neither philosophically through the mediation of concepts, judgments and arguments, nor religiously through the mediation of faith, trust, devotion, obedience, and adherence to tradition. The mystic does not want to know about the Absolute, that it exists, what its properties are, how it is related to the relative plane, etc.; nor does he want merely to believe or trust in it. He does not want knowledge by description, but knowledge by acquaintance. Nor is he willing, like the religionist, to postpone his enjoyment of it. He wants it, he wants it whole, and he wants it now. He wants to verify its existence for himself here and now in the most direct way possible: by intuiting it. ‘Intuition’ is a terminus technicus: it refers to direct cognitive access to an object or state of affairs. You should think of the Latin intuitus as used by Descartes, and the German Anschauung as employed by Kant. The intuition in question is of course not sensible but intellectual. Thus the mystical ‘faculty’ is that of intellectual intuition. It is activated by (non-discursive) meditation combined with a more or less strict ascesis of the senses and the discursive intellect. The possibility of intellektuelle Anschauung was of course famously denied by Kant.
The mystic’s objection to philosophy, then, is that it is a farrago of empty verbiage and bloodless abstraction that blocks, rather than clears, our path to the saving insight. Unfortunately, the mystic faces a problem similar to the one faced by the religionist, namely, the problem of competing revelations. If the Absolute reveals itself to the mystic at all, it reveals itself to him in logically incompatible ways. This implies that no one of them is self-authenticating and that the question of veridicality arises for each of them. The question of veridicality, however, is a quintessentially philosophical question. So philosophy once again gains the upper hand. She must stand guard to curb mystic excesses and the dangerous fanaticism to which they sometimes give rise.
5. The Objection from Socio-Political Activism. In the 11th of his Theses on Feuerbach, Karl Marx writes that “The philosophers have variously interpreted the world, but the point is to change it.” This nicely sums up the attitude of the activist. Accordingly, the activist objection is that philosophy is mere theory. This objection is distinct from the objection from science. The latter holds that philosophy lacks demonstrable cognitivity: it doesn’t amount to knowledge. The activist, however, could admit that philosophy is genuine knowledge. The point is rather that philosophical knowledge is irrelevant to the task of transforming the world, or, if it is relevant, then what is important is the implementation of this knowledge rather than its mere contemplation. The objection from activism is therefore a close cousin of the objection from religion. Both are opposed to mere theory because is it a distraction from what really needs to be done. Thus both hold it to be useless for the attainment of a superior end, personal salvation in the one case, socio-political change in the other. Both advocate transformation, whether it be the transformation of the socio-political status quo, or the metanoia (change of heart) of the individual. For the typical activist, however, the promises of religion are illusory, and religious life is sheer escapism.
The philosopher should say to the socio-political activist something like the following. To change the world is not necessarily to improve it. To improve it is to make it better. For this two things are required. First, one must understand the world and the people in it both as to what they actually are and as to what they are capable of. In particular, one must possess a sound understanding of human nature. Second, one must know how things objectively ought to be. Can the various activists and world-improvers claim to know these two things? Well, they can claim to know them, but not with any show of legitimacy. Truly ameliorative praxis must be based on sound theory concerning what is and what ought to be, and this alone philosophy can provide – if anything can provide it.
I suggest we turn Marx on his head: The activists have variously tampered with the world, often with horrendous results; the point, however, is to understand it before making it worse.
6. The Objection from Anti-Philosophy. The objections from anti-philosophy are those that emanate from elements within philosophy that turn against her, using her methods against her.
To be mentioned here are sophistry, some forms of skepticism, pure empiricism, relativism, historicism, logical positivism, deconstruction. Scientism, too, can be classed as a form of anti-philosophy in that it is a perversion of science which has its origin in philosophy.
There are various forms of skepticism, not all of them anti-philosophical. Indeed there are healthy forms of skepticism without which philosophy would be impossible. Doubt is the engine of inquiry, and philosophy is inquiry. But let us consider that anti-philosophical form of skepticism one could call cathartic or aperient skepticism. (‘Aperient’ from L. aperire, to gently move the bowels.) This form of skepticism is found in Carneades and Aenesidemus and is definitively codified in late antiquity in the writings of Sextus Empiricus. Recall his graphic metaphor of the laxative that flushes itself out along with everything else. Philosophy on this aperient view culminates in the self-evacuation of the mind. The function of skeptical thoughts and arguments is to cleanse the mind of all philosophical thoughts and arguments, together with these very skeptical thoughts and arguments. After bringing us to the realization that no dogmatic position can conclusively refute any other, cathartic skepticism urges a suspension of judgment and a tranquil re-entry into the quotidian. The philosopher sees the futility of his enterprise, gives up philosophy, and returns to his life in Plato’s Cave. What he thought was the road to reality is now revealed to be a cul-de-sac abutting a swamp of dialectical illusion. So he turns around and decides that the Cave is not so bad after all. It is not so bad to acquiesce in what Nietzsche calls the "morality of mores" and to let ordinary talk take the lead in our thinking. Something very similar to this can be seen in the direction taken by the later Wittgenstein.
The cathartic skeptic objects to the philosopher: ‘The mental state you induce in yourself when you pursue the ultimate truth by discursive means is a diseased state, nothing but a state of mental perturbation. The therapy I prescribe is one of using philosophical arguments to come to an insight into the futility of philosophical arguments. Once you see that both a thesis and its negation are equally supportable by reasons, you will come to appreciate that discursive reason is inherently antinomian and gets us nowhere.’
To this the philosopher may respond: Your thesis is that discursive reason is inherently antinomian, that by its very nature it gives rise to antinomies, and so cannot lead us to truth. Call your thesis T. You argue for T by adducing arguments that ‘cancel each other out.’ Thus you infer T from premise Q: Any two arguments, A1 and A2, for p and ~p respectively, cancel each other out in that both arguments seem sound, yet issue in diametrically opposed conclusions. Q is equivalent to the claim that it is impossible that any argument establish its conclusion. (For no argument can be said to establish its conclusion C if a second argument, with the same show of plausibility, establishes the negation of C.) But the argument from Q to T is supposed to establish T; yet it cannot if T is true. For if T is true, then there is no sound argument for T. Therefore, discursive reason can give itself no good reason to accept T, which is to say, its own inherently antinomian character. T remains ungrounded; to that extent it is a mere assumption, or else a dogmatic assertion.
7. The Objection from Art. The novelist, the poet, the composer will find in philosophy nothing but abstractions. As the poet Wallace Stevens puts it in Adagia, “The momentum of the mind is all towards abstraction.” Stevens does not intend this approvingly. Like the mystic, the artist objects to the perceived abstractness of philosophy and seeks direct experience of the concrete. Unlike the mystic, however, the artist seeks this concreteness not in a world-transcending experience of, say, the unity of all things, but in the lived experience of the singularities of the multiple world.
If there is an objection from art, it must be that ultimate reality lies in the aforementioned singularities, and not where philosophy seeks it. But it would be folly to look to a poet or a novelist for any justification of this theory of reality. Only a philosopher can provide such justification. Of course, if a philosopher is brought in to provide it, philosophy again gains the upper hand.