• The Great Whatever
    I've become increasingly interested lately in the practice of philosophy itself, more so than the questions the practice tends to ask. I'm coming to believe that no interesting philosophy can fail to be meta-philosophical, i.e. contain within its praxis a recursive understanding of its own practice as a philosophy, and express, either theoretically or just implicitly in practice, some conception of what it means to do philosophy.

    This is a commitment that I see as pretty much inseparable from the Socratic tradition, and one I think was basically lost with Plato and Aristotle, who theorized more or less 'dogmatically' without this reflective understanding of inquiry (see Aristippus' reproach of Plato: 'our friend, in any case [Socrates], never spoke that way') -- though the genuinely 'Socratic,' aka Hellenistic, traditions, preserved and developed it. Modern philosophy of all kinds is essentially non-Socratic on this view, i.e. it lacks irony, self-reflection, or any tie to living and the practice of philosophy that is anything but accidental or arbitrary. Because of this, it lacks a certain life and depth, because nothing hinges on anything that it reflects on, except insofar as the arbitrary project is furthered for its own sake.

    I've also come to think that any philosophy that understands itself in this manner must be self-destructive or in some sense 'explosive,' in that it contains the seeds of its own destruction, and so poses questions that, when answered fully rigorously, dismantle the coherence of the philosophical project itself, along with the need to do philosophy. On this view, philosophy is not an abstract discipline, but a kind of itching that responds to a pain, a yearning for understanding that one vaguely feels oneself to lack. By contrast, 'dogmatic' traditions have no metric for their success, no purpose to their existing, and no 'endgame' -- because they do not ask why they philosophize, and have no real understanding of what it is to philosophize, they treat philosophy itself as a kind of autonomous machine that individuals pick up and die while doing, a never-ending project that other generations are free to pick up and contribute to for no real reason, that is, a never-ending itch whose purpose is to inflame itself perpetually and so create the resource for new scratchings. This represents a 'professionalization,' or if you like an 'industrialization,' of philosophy, as something that makes intellectual products and furthers the intellectual superstructure that pumps them out. Since it has no goals, no standard for success, and no serious principles, it continues to dogmatize forever, and learns nothing.

    Shades of the inner explosivity of philosophy can be seen in 'quietist' strands e.g. of Wittgenstein, but in a less interesting way than it's present in the Greeks (since Wittgenstein is a philosopher who archetypally starts not from the demands of life in order that those demands come back round to understanding themselves, but from an arbitrary point in a dogmatic intellectual history, i.e. the projects of Frege and Russell, and circles back round to mysticism only incidentally: the seeds of Wittgensteinian quietism are to be found in the person Wittgenstein himself, not in the logic of what guides his philosophy from the outset).

    The self-desructiveness of philosophy has its germ in Socrates himself, of course, but can be seen worked out to various conclusions, and is strongest in the Skeptics, Cynics, and Cyrenaics, all of whom seem to espouse philosophical theses or tendencies that are themselves seemingly hostile to philosophy, as a result of philosophizing.

    Why is philosophy self-destructive so long as it is interestingly self-reflective (that is, Socratic or ironic)? For the simple reason that philosophy does not happen in isolation, but germinates out of a kind of pain as a way of seeking to overcome and transform that pain: therefore, the very conditions that set out its coming to exist set out the path for its ceasing to exist, if its goals are fulfilled (since when the pains are gone, the inquiry is ipso facto defunct).

    As an example, the Cyrenaic tradition says that the only thing one can know is one's own pathe, the felt motions of one's own body. One wonders, then, whether one can know philosophical theses, such as 'the only thing one can know...' One might be tempted to say yes, and provide for different kinds of knowledge. But if the point of the philosophy is not to continue forever in internal consistency, but to destroy itself in finishing its need, what if we instead say 'no,' and admit that by the logic of knowing, it is impossible to know the very theses set out about how one comes to know things? And what if this realization is itself something that, in coming to understand it, dispels the desire for knowledge by undermining the reason one looked for it? After all, why does one search for knowledge? For no reason? Is there some psychological lack, some feeling of insecurity or incompleteness, in thinking one doesn't know, and so provides the reason for one wanting to know? But if the very examination of what it means to know causes those reasons to become incoherent, and so undoes the desires that drove the will to know, the philosophical project emerges out of its own backside, and the beginning of a 'post-philosophical' life begins, where, if properly understood, philosophy is only employe,d if at all, ironically, that is, in response to challenges, in order to meet them on their own terms and cause them to implode.

    A simple example of this is when someone asks Aristippus whether a good man will wear perfume (seen by the Greeks as an undue luxury or sign of effeminacy). Aristippus responds by asking whether the prince of Persia is a good man; the interlocutor answers yes; he then asks whether he wears perfume; the interlocutor answers yes; and so he concludes that wearing perfume cannot be a sufficient condition for not being a good man. Notice that none of this argument commits Aristippus himself to any positive theses, because presumably he does not actually care one way or the other about the effects of perfume on one's 'goodness' and so on -- rather, he meets his interlocutor's position on its own terms and turns it inside out. The entire argument is, if you like, entertained ironically, at the height of Socratic questioning. If we take the sage as a model, there is a sense in which the questions of philosophy lose their intrinsic interest, because what made them interesting has dissipated: they can be seen as so many urges that arise out of so many inadequacies, and the question that the 'industrial' philosophy can't ask itself, 'why do I philosophize? what gives these questions their importance?' are seen as shapes of these desires and so are ended when the desires are.

    There is a sense in which I think 'industrial' philosophy is like astrology -- it makes claims, but doesn't know anything, and worse it dupes people into spending time and money on it under the impression that it does. It is a scam -- one with academic prestige, but still a scam, and people would be warned about it for the scam it is, just as we make people aware of the deleterious effects of cults. Socratic philosophy, by contrast, pits the tools of reason against itself in dialectic, and ironically takes the guise of the scam in order to fold the scam inside out.
  • darthbarracuda
    Interesting post, tgw. I, too, share your interest in meta-philosophy.

    I can't remember exactly where I saw it, but to the Pre-Socratics (up to Socrates and including him, that is), philosophy was less of a discipline and more of a way of life. It was treated almost like a religion (albeit far more rational :P). You see a lot of specific Greek words that correlate to an idea, and these Greek words oftentimes represented ideals.

    One question I have for you though is why you claim philosophy is necessarily spawn from this "pain". I don't particularly feel like I pursue philosophy necessarily and only because of some kind of pain, discomfort, or what have you. More often than not it is merely curiosity.

    In which case, I think Heidegger's idea that anxiety is a necessary quality of existence and contemplation works better than the rather vague terminology of "pain". I feel anxious when I don't know something, which prompts philosophical thinking. I'm curious but alongside this curiosity is the anxiety that comes with uncertainty.

    I heartily agree with you that philosophy cannot "know" anything...in fact it would be rather odd if our a priori thinking led to any new knowledge. Wittgenstein, like you said, hit the nail on the head in his quietism in that philosophy is meant to clarify and organize rather than produce new knowledge. Also, I believe it was Heidegger who said that the only things we can know are how to do things. A blacksmith knows how to smelt iron. That's knowledge.

    Cool thread.
  • Thorongil
    On this view, philosophy is not an abstract discipline, but a kind of itching that responds to a pain, a yearning for understanding that one vaguely feels oneself to lack.The Great Whatever

    This has always been my experience with philosophy. It also reminds me of things Ortega y Gasset said somewhere. Are you familiar with him?
  • mcdoodle
    In my not-so-brilliant career as a writer of fiction and drama, I did as a self-reflective person enjoy inserting meta-fictional references. Who can create good fiction without reflecting on its nature and meaning?

    But then, the audience enters the fictional world knowing it's fictional. So isn't it condescending and a bit author-preening to keep reminding them?

    I feel the ambivalence of holding both positions about meta philosophy. I get the subtext: Sellars say (thanks to those here who have pointed me at him, my current reading) has thought about meta questions maybe as much as Heidegger, but he's decided to dive in to The Project of current philosophy and dig deep. I don't want everyone digging around in their own presuppositions.

    But sometimes one gets jaded, as I am with fiction now, and only elaborately intellectual fiction will please me. All the tricks look tired. That's when musicians, for instance, seek out fresh collaborators. New genres. Investigate the meaning of bum notes.
  • Janus

    I agree that philosophy in its ethical dimension is more a matter of dissolving problems than solving them. Of course, there is no "endgame" in philosophy, no final solution. Anyone who expects such a thing is bound to be disappointed.

    The other dimension of philosophy; its positive dimension, lies in the creation of new concepts for thinking about problems. This is specifically Deleuze's conception of philosophy, and for me this an activity that may be loved for its own sake, a kind of practice akin to the arts, or it may be more seriously aligned to ethical and political concerns. After all it is only the practice of philosophy that allows for, and positively evolves, self-understanding and dissent.

    For me, although it is not really my bag (due to limited time as much as disposition), even analytic philosophy has its clarificatory uses. So when you say this:

    they treat philosophy itself as a kind of autonomous machine that individuals pick up and die while doing, a never-ending project that other generations are free to pick up and contribute to for no real reasonThe Great Whatever

    I can't help but wonder how you could ever have thought it could, or even should, be otherwise. Just like poetry, painting, music and science philosophy is an enriching intellectual (at the very least) practice that has no limits or final ends; why would you expect, or even want, it to be otherwise?

    If you don't find it enriching, enlightening or even merely interesting then of course you should turn your attention elsewhere. There are plenty of other interesting avenues for a keen intellect to explore.
  • Moliere
    While I have a higher opinion of academia than yourself -- and given that I enjoy art for the sake of art, etc, that may be of no surprise -- I found this post very engaging and good. I'm sympathetic to a lot of it.

    I tried to formulate a more thorough response over time but this is about all I could come up with.
  • Marchesk
    I only have interest in philosophy to the extent that it asks interesting questions. If it exists to undermine itself, then I'd rather waste time thinking about something else.
  • darthbarracuda
    Of course, there is no "endgame" in philosophy, no final solution. Anyone who expects such a thing is bound to be disappointed.John

    I think this applies to anything, really. I mean, what's the final goal of, say, astronomy? To capture every single star in the universe? To know everything about the cosmos? Is that even possible?!

    Instead, practitioners of whatever are interested in small goals to keep our interest. Basically, life itself is one glorious waste of time. Philosophy is just one of the ways we pass it.
  • Janus

    I don't disagree with your first sentence, after all I did also write this in the same post:
    Just like poetry, painting, music and science philosophy is an enriching intellectual (at the very least) practice that has no limits or final ends;John

    I think the idea that life is generally ( read 'always') "a waste of time" dissolves the distinction between lives that are more or less a waste of time. It's true there are so many ways such a thing could be evaluated that there is no 'one size fits all' definite measure, but nonetheless I think it's a distinction we should not want to do away with entirely.

    The other issue I have with the idea that life is always a waste of time is that it would seem somewhat pointless and even incoherent to characterize something as a "waste of time" if there were no possibility that it could ever be otherwise. That is, it only makes sense to say of resources that could be useful or valuable in some way that they can be wasted.

    Those "finally endless' (in both senses of the word "endless") activities like science and philosophy that we both refer to are obviously not without relative ends. Practical ends in the case of science, and the end of being intellectually enriching in the case of both disciplines (as well as many others). These ends insure that in a relative sense, at least, the activities of science and philosophy and the like, and thus the life they inhabit, cannot be totally a "waste of time".

    But I do agree that life is "glorious" and that it has no final end, so I think we are on the same page at least.
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