9. What Is Philosophy?

Philosophy and Enlightenment

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Philosophy and Enlightenment. My own favorite historical paradigm of philosophy is the eighteenth century movement that called itself the ‘Enlightenment’ (éclaircissment, Aufklärung). I will accordingly conceive my answer to the question “What is philosophy?” as an Enlightenment answer.

Kant defined ‘enlightenment’ as the human being’s emancipation from “self-incurred minority”. “Minority” is defined as a condition in which one’s understanding is used only under the authority and direction of another, and minority is “self-incurred” when it is due not to the immaturity or impairment of the understanding, but because it refuses to trust itself and prefers the comfort and security of tutelage to the risks and responsibilities of thinking for oneself (Kant, A 8:35).5 The Enlightenment thought of itself as a philosophical age, and its best and most forward-looking thinkers proudly assumed the title of philosophe. They sought to make the independent, collective use of human reason in to the final judge of all things – especially of human systems of thinking and of social institutions.

In some quarters there is skepticism about whether there was anything resembling a single project among eighteenth century thinkers who thought of themselves as lumières or Auflkärer. In history, as in philosophy, there is always a great deal (too much, in fact) to be said on the skeptical side of every question. The sober-minded are always temperate in their consumption of skeptical arguments, as they are of all commodities that delight the palate of connoisseurs but are intoxicating and debilitating if enjoyed in excess.

The best reason for viewing the Enlightenment as a real and a single movement is not that some Enlightenment philosophers saw themselves as part of such a movement. Even more it is that we ought to see ourselves as heirs of the Enlightenment, and therefore ought to include a unified understanding of the Enlightenment as an essential part of our self-understanding. The enemies of Enlightenment, in the twentieth century as well as the eighteenth, often prominently include not only its natural enemies – political tyranny and religious superstition – but also some of its own offspring – those who see themselves (in contrast to what they criticize as Enlightenment’s arrogant and false pretenses to intellectual and political emancipation) as the true freethinkers and liberators of the mind. One perniciously distorted view of the Enlightenment sees its essential traits as positivistic dogmatism, the reduction of reason to instrumental reason, and hence leading in politics to a kind of scientistic statism in the service of whatever irrational goals happen to be lying at hand.6 This in effect identifies Enlightenment exclusively with the deeds of its historic enemies and then criticizes it on the basis of values which the critics draw from nowhere but the Enlightenment itself. Where there is any truth at all in these criticisms – as when they reveal racist or patriarchal assumptions on the part of eighteenth century philosophers -- they merely blame the Enlightenment for not being already what precisely it has made us to be. Or even more unfairly, they blame it for not being already what we still aspire to be and are not. The truth hidden in such charges is the acknowledgment that it is the Enlightenment tradition alone that is the source of all these aspirations. But the charges themselves are often nothing but attempts to evade the responsibilities imposed by the acceptance of Enlightenment values. We see this in those who want to be always on the enlightened side of any moral or political issue but to adopt a lightheartedly nihilistic attitude toward Enlightenment principles – as though their being on the right side were due merely to their own innate goodness, requiring no rational thought on their part. Critics of Enlightenment have always attacked it for being arrogant, hypocritical and self-deceptive; but the worst forms of self-conceit and bad faith are surely to be found among these critics of it

My contrast of philosophy with art and religion a bit ago may remind some of Hegel’s triadic division of the sphere of absolute spirit. But let us refine and correct such an account by looking for a moment at what the philosophes themselves thought about this question. In his Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia published in seventeen volumes between 1751 and 1765, Jean le Rond d’Alembert divides the works of the human mind into three spheres:

  1. the sphere of memory, including history (both natural and human, sacred as well as profane) and all useful arts,

  2. the sphere of imagination, which includes all ‘poetry’ in the broadest sense, both sacred and profane, narrative, drama, painting, sculpture and music, and

(3) the sphere of reason, whose province is philosophy. This includes first, metaphysics, the science of being in general, theology and the knowledge of soul or spirit, second the knowledge of nature, which is divided into mathematics and physics, and third the knowledge of the human, which comprises logic and ethics (Discours preliminaire, I: xlvii-lii, especially the table at l-li/144-145).7

In our day, on the other hand, ‘philosophy’ is often contrasted with ‘science’ – whether natural or social science. But as the philosophes understood ‘philosophy’, and as I intend to understand it, science is not fundamentally different from philosophy, but only one form it can take. It was not until sometime in the nineteenth century that people began using the word ‘science’ to refer to something that was supposed to be distinct from philosophy.8 There is no ‘scientific method’ that distinguishes ‘science’ from ‘philosophy’, from ‘religion’ from ‘pseudo-science’ or from anything else. ‘Science’ can be distinguished from "philosophy" only in the same contingent way that all academic disciplines and departments are distinguished from one another. Using the term ‘philosophy’ in the apologetic sense I intend, the sciences are simply parts of it.9

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