9. What Is Philosophy?

What can philosophy be today?

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What can philosophy be today? Writing about the Encyclopedia in the Encyclopedia, Diderot proclaimed that it was “possible only as the endeavor of a philosophical century” (Encyclopédie V:644/18).18 The twentieth century was definitely an unphilosophical century, and so far, at any rate, the twenty-first century looks equally so. We seem to be living in a time when the social and political climate of the United States, and therefore of the globe over which it self-righteously tyrannizes, has grown ever blinder, nastier, more irrational. The always dominant economic and political structures have become increasingly wealthy, powerful, arrogant, ambitious, greedy, and short-sighted. In this country, the tradition of democracy (always a name expressing a hope more than achievement) has been hijacked by wealth. ‘Freedom’ is redefined as the license to despoil nature, expropriate resources from those who are too powerless to protect them, and assert the dominion of those who own over those who labor.

As life becomes harder and more hopeless for those excluded from wealth and power, numbers of people turn back to ancient enthusiasms and superstitions, outgrown passions and old hatreds. Religion reverts to its age-old powers of fear and ignorance. Parochial forms of community reassert themselves because the only order representing itself as new and rational is devoid of any genuine community, since it holds people together only by entangling them in a confused nexus of unbridled power and the most unenlightened kind of self-interest. Some of those who see their culture excluded from power turn their resentful malignancy against the modern culture they hold responsible for this new and evil order. Or people turn away from all reason because they believe the new order’s false claims to rationality. For them, ‘spirituality’ becomes the common euphemism for superstition, childishness, slavishness and intellectual dishonesty, self-deceptively posing as inner liberation and a return to innocence. But there is no going home again, and every pretense do so only takes people deeper into pathological forms of spiritual corruption.

Progressive social movements, whose vocation for two centuries was to build a free community grounded on the rational dignity of all human beings, must now use their whole strength and courage merely to survive in a world grown hostile to them. The task of philosophers – to oppose unreason, speak truth to power, think the way toward a genuine community – is frequently usurped by those who choose instead to apologize for the rationally indefensible, or else by people caught up in the fashionable mood of irony, absurdity and hyper-intellectual self-destruction. Both tendencies exhibit how they have lost the Enlightenment’s confidence in the mind’s authority over human life and its power to find better ways for people to live.

In such an age, the defense of philosophy must remain (as always) self-critical, but its end result, I think, will continue to be mainly the reassertion of the most radical aims of the Enlightenment tradition, in a spirit of sober perseverance and (if need be) of stubborn impenitence.


1 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, II. 4-5.

2 Aristotle, Politics, 1259 a 6-23.

3 Plato, Republic 343-348, Gorgias 463-465.

4 Perhaps it is not even possible to form the concept of philosophy, in the sense in which I mean the term, except in a context where the natural and self-directed use of our cognitive faculties can be distinguished from other uses, directed from outside by other forces, such as tradition, poetic inspiration or religious revelation.

55 See also Kant, O 8:146.

6 See Michel Foucault, “What is critique?” in J. Schmidt (ed.) What is Enlightenment? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 388. This portrayal, of course, is only a latter day version of the famous diatribe in Horkheimer and Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, translated by John Cummig (New York: Continuum, 1973).

7 All citations from Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une société des gens des lettres. Mis en ordre à publié par M. Diderot (Paris: Briasson, 1751-1765) will be by French title of the article or essay and volume:page number in the original edition. Where translations are also cited, the English edition will be footnoted at the first occurrence and the page number(s) of the translation will be given following the French page number(s), separated by a slash (/). Jean le Rond d’Alembert, “Discours Preliminaire,” is cited in the following English translation: Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, tr. R. Schwab. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963).

8 The full title of Newton's Principia means "The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy". In the first half of the nineteenth century, items of laboratory equipment were still referred to as "philosophical instruments". The terms ‘philosophy’ and ‘philosophical’, in my view, are entirely appropriate in that title. ‘Scientific’ thinking can be distinguished from philosophy only by the ways in which specific subject matters have been successfully dealt with through determinate investigative techniques, methods and theories. The idea that there is something called ‘the scientific method’ which says what the "sciences" have in common, and how they are distinct from “philosophy” or “metaphysics” has always seemed to me a false idea.

9 Physics can be a part of philosophy without the philosophical question “What is physics?” being part of physics. This is because physics is not that part of philosophy whose business includes asking what physics is. The differences between philosophy and ‘science’ could be thought of metaphorically as generational ones, where philosophy could be thought of as a (middle aged) parent and science is its (adolescent or young adult) child. According to a familiar stereotype, such children tend to be overconfident and a bit cocky, anxious to be independent of their parents, impatient with the parent's slowness to change, also with the parent's attachment to old ideas and reluctance the throw them over for new ones. The child sometimes rushes headlong into unwise enterprises against which the parent warns it. Sometimes these warnings are wise, but sometimes they show excessive caution and insufficient recognition of the fact that the world of the child is a new one, for which the parent’s experience is no longer a secure guide. In a similar way, science sometimes sees no serious point in philosophical questions, thinking that it has found a way either to answer them (if they are worth answering) or else to avoid them (as not worth the trouble). Notoriously, some of the greatest scientific discoveries had to overcome resistance from philosophers who were reluctant to accept the fundamental changes in thinking these discoveries demanded of them. On the other hand, many theories trumpeted by their founders and proponents as ‘scientific’– whether they are theories within science or theories about science -- have been propounded with great overconfidence, only to be utterly discredited a few generations later, outlived by the philosophical questions and doubts they treated with contempt. More important than the family squabbling between science and philosophy, however, is their intimate kinship and the fundamental continuity between them.

10 This essay is still of interest to literary theorists and has been republished within the last decade: Dumarsais, Des tropes, ou, Des differents sens (Paris: Flammarion, 1988).

11 The history and attribution of this essay is dealt with extensively in Herbert Dieckmann, Le Philosophe (St. Louis: Washington University Studies, New Series, No. 18, 1948). Dieckmann casts doubt both on the attribution of the essay to Dumarsais and on the idea that it was Diderot himself who adapted it for the Encyclopedia. English citation of the article ‘philosopher’ will be to the following translation: Diderot, D’Alembert and others, Encyclopedia (Selections), tr. N. Hoyt and T. Cassirer (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), pp. 283-290.

12 The Encyclopedia version of the article omits some explicit attacks on religion included in the longer versions of Dumarsais’ essay. There is also a book length study purporting to contain Dumarsais’ apology, but apparently written by d’Holbach: found in Holbach, Paul Henri Thiry, baron d’, Essai sur les préjugés, ou, De l’influence des opinions sur les moeurs & sur le bonheur des hommes: Ouvrages contenant l’apologie de la philosophe par Dumarsais. Paris: J. Desray, L’an I de la République français [1792]. There seem to be virtually no verbatim quotations from the Apology in this volume, however.

13 As Dumarsais puts it, to the philosopher, even truth is not like a “mistress who corrupts his imagination, and therefore appears to him everywhere” (Philosophe, XII:509/ 285).

14 J. G. Hamann, Letter to Christian Jacob Kraus, 18 December 1784, in James Schmidt (ed.) What Is Enlightenment? Eighteenth Century Answers and Twentieth Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 148.

15 Denis Diderot, Le neveu de Rameau; (tr. Goethe) Rameaus Neffe Dual language (French-German) edition. (Frankfurt: Insel, 1996). Abbreviated as “Rameau”, and cited by page number in the French version. The dialogue was composed sometime after 1761, but still published at Diderot’s death in 1784, and remained unknown until 1805, when a copy of the manuscript (which was among Diderot’s papers left at the court of Catherine the Great of Russia) apparently found its way to Schiller and was published in a German translation by Goethe.

16 Karl Marx, “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction” (1843) in A. Wood (ed.), Marx: Selections (New York: Macmillan, 1988). This source is abbreviated as “Marx” and cited by page number.

17 P. Rabinow (ed.), A Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1984, abbreviated as “Foucault” and cited by page number.

18 The English citation is to Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie in Isaac Kramnick (ed.) The Portable Enlightenment Reader (New York: Penguin, 1995).

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