9. What Is Philosophy?

An Enlightenment critique of philosophy

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An Enlightenment critique of philosophy. The Enlightenment tradition’s record of success in these struggles has been mixed at best. Seen in this light, Dumarsais’ portrait of the ideal philosopher as different from the ordinary man is an acknowledgment of the fact that the possibility of a life (above all, a collective social life) guided by rational reflection remains an ideal which stands in sharp contrast to the ordinary life in which we find ourselves enmeshed, for which what counts is not reason and self-transparent reflection, not free communication and public spirited community, but only a system of collective unfreedom driven by the blind competition for power, wealth and prestige, in which forms of communication increasingly take merely the form of tools or weapons which are ever more exclusively at the disposal of dominant powers.

These considerations point directly to the analytical (or critical) consideration of the question “What is philosophy?” I confess that this critique, which is required to complement my apologetic consideration of the question, has been delayed too long here, no doubt by my fondness or even partisanship for philosophy. Its starting point is Dumarsais’ insight that critical reflection is from and for society -- that philosophy arises out of our sociability and is meant to belong to it. Yet as philosophy, critical thinking appears as the individual possession of individuals – even of a few peculiar individuals (philosophers) who must defend themselves against the charge of being unsociable. Even when the Enlightenment grasped philosophy as a social activity of critical reflection, it understood it as an activity set apart from actual social life – an isolation that was meant to win toleration for it, but also made it seem artificial and impotent. For Kant and the German Enlightenment, the social side of philosophy was the province of Gelehrten – “scholars” or “the learned”, people who are to be free to address one another in a public forum simply as rational individuals, members of a learned public, even if their actions and speech must also be restricted by their duties to the state and to their professions when they are considered as private persons (Kant A 8:36-41). It was not difficult for Kant’s counter-enlightenment friend Hamann to satirize this conception, characterizing the “public use of reason” as merely a “sumptuous dessert” to be enjoyed only after the private use of reason supplies one’s “daily bread.”14 Philosophy, then, is condemned to be a form of critical thinking that aims at practical transformation of the world yet remains essentially divorced from that world. Philosophy succumbs to its own dialectic: When we understand what it is, we understand why it can never be what it aims to be.

This critique of Enlightenment philosophy, like many more fashionable critiques of Enlightenment thinking, was already understood as clearly by Enlightenment thinkers themselves as by anyone since. In the brilliant satirical dialogue Rameau’s Nephew, Denis Diderot confronts the Enlightenment philosopher (ostensibly Diderot himself) with the dark, ironical reflections of an envious second-rate musician (who is, however, a first rate wit and social sycophant). The nephew of the famous composer Rameau has just been ostracized from the world of the rich and powerful because, in an unguarded moment of excessive honesty, he has offended his social patron.15 The younger Rameau represents the corrupt world the philosopher finds around him, yet he also sees its internal contradictions far more clearly than the philosopher does. Further, he sees the essential hollowness of philosophy, its uselessness and irrelevance to real life as it is being lived (Rameau, pp. 30-34, 62-66). The moralizing philosopher can only stand aloof from the entire social milieu Rameau so wittily and perceptively analyzes, condemning equally its hypocrisy and Rameau’s irreverent, amoralistic critique of it. As for Rameau, himself, the philosopher has nothing to advise beyond acceptance of things as they are. He even tells Rameau that he should make it up with those he has offended (Rameau, pp. 32, 62, 40).

No one can ever be sure what Diderot had in mind in writing Rameau’s Nephew. But the lessons I think we should take away from it are that the social role of the philosopher in modern society is deeply problematic, and that Enlightenment philosophy’s exclusively moralistic approach both to personal life and social reform is hopelessly shallow. The rational reflection that is supposed to constitute the foundation of the philosopher’s life will always to remain defective unless it includes a comprehension of social reality enabling it to understand the social role and function of philosophy itself and leading to a practical orientation toward that reality which actualizes the goals of reflective reason.

We can best put the critical point I am making about philosophy if we use the vocabulary of a later stage in the development of the Enlightenment tradition, and say that philosophy is essentially ideology. By this I mean what Marx meant: that it is thinking separated from social practice, which for this very reason can never achieve its own essential aim of self-transparent rational action. Philosophy is condemned either to endorse the existing social order by mystifying it, or else to stand over against that order as a critical reflection that comprehends and rejects it but has no power to change it. The early Marx stated this best when he said that it is for practice not to negate philosophy but to actualize it, but the actualization of philosophy is at the same time the Aufhebung of philosophy (Marx, p. 28).16 If we translate this out of the language of young Hegelianism into the more contemporary language I have been using, what it means is that the critical reflection can direct action only if it ceases to play the kinds of social roles it has played in modern society thus far, and becomes instead an aspect of a social movement transforming society. “Philosophers have only interpreted the world differently, what matters is to change it” (Marx, p. 82).

Of course Marx thought he knew just how philosophy was to be actualized. He offered the remarks just quoted as advice simultaneously to philosophers and to political activists. The proletariat was to find its intellectual weapons in philosophy, just as philosophy was to find its material weapons in the proletariat. The actualization (and simultaneous Aufhebung) of philosophy was to constitute the universal emancipation of humanity (Marx, pp. 33-34). Unfortunately, I have no such knowledge, and do not mean my remarks as the sort of advice Marx thought he was in a position to give. Nor, apart from my reservations about the excessively moralistic emphasis of Enlightenment philosophy, do I mean to criticize the kind of thinking represented by philosophy as Dumarsais describes it -- and by extension, as it is represented by the radical tradition of Enlightenment thought don to the present day. Both philosophy and society are unfortunately still at the stage where the world must be interpreted differently before it can be changed. My chief complaint about the radical Enlightenment tradition in this respect is only the obvious one -- that its representatives seem to be too few, and their influence on the course of things is too weak.

I am especially far from agreeing with the fashionable criticisms of Enlightenment thought which say that ‘reason’ is just another mode of power, and that the class of philosophers (or intellectuals), with its scientific pretensions, is merely another priesthood seeking to bring humanity under its tutelage. I reject these charges not because there is no truth in them but because they are in no way criticisms of Enlightenment principles. On the contrary, they presuppose not only those principles but even to a considerable extent the Enlightenment conception of society and history. In effect they accuse the enlighteners only of failing to fulfill their self-appointed historical vocation.

Foucault is certainly right when he describes the genuine accomplishment of the enlightenment as "an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them" (Foucault, p. 50).17 But when people live in this spirit, then we should not say (as Foucault does) that they are merely seeking the mature adulthood of enlightenment. Rather, they have already achieved it, and their further search for the standpoint of reason is simply the human condition as it must be taken over by mature adults. The obstacle, now as in the eighteenth century, is simply that the world is ruled by enemies of this enlightened ethos, and hence those who share in it cannot integrate what Foucault here calls the "philosophical life" into their real lives. This in turn is because, as Diderot’s dialogue already made dramatically clear, even the most enlightened individuals do not belong to a society whose practical life coheres even minimally with the demands of reflective reason.

It seems to me, however, that the real motivation behind the recently fashionable internal critiques of Enlightenment has often been nothing more than that the progressive causes spawned by the Enlightenment have failed – either that they have ceased to move forward or else (as in the case of Marxian socialism) are commonly thought to have met with final historic annihilation. The critics, who sympathize with the aims of the vanquished causes, are in a state of confusion because they cannot understand what went wrong and, lacking the maturity Kant took to be the essence of Enlightenment, their first priority is to find a psychological defense against the humiliation of defeat. Their critiques of the Enlightenment are like the curses hurled at a charismatic leader by followers who trusted in his invincibility and now experience his downfall as an act of personal betrayal.

What the critics really want is a reconceptualization of progressive thinking and practice. But they have no clear idea of what they are seeking, nor will they ever get any as long as they sink themselves in skepticism, aestheticism and self-subversion. They simply have yet to face up to the fact that the historic defeats are due not to internal flaws in Enlightenment but to the superior power, at least for the time being, of its traditional enemies – above all entrenched systems of power and privilege, which know very well how to deploy to their advantage the deadly charm of custom, the comfort of old superstitions, and infantile fears in the face of freedom.

Those of us who continue to share the aims of philosophy, as the Enlightenment conceived it, cannot pursue these aims in any confident spirit of historical inevitability. Our spirit must instead be one of sober recognition that for an honest, thinking human being – a philosopher, in Dumarsais’ sense -- there is simply no acceptable alternative. This is why even such twentieth century critics of Enlightenment as Adorno and Foucault do not, in the end, decisively break with it. Supporters of Enlightenment can sympathize with their search for new and less compromised ways to articulate its aims. And of course we too hunger for more effective strategies for realizing them under altered historical circumstances. We must remind them that these can never be more than finding new devices for making the eighteenth century ideals recognizable to a time in which they have been effaced, and discovering (or creating) new agencies to play the familiar roles in a fundamentally unchanged narrative of human liberation.

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