Wednesday 5 June 2013

The emptiness of philosophy, a pragmatic rendering

Levi Bryant argues that philosophy is empty and has no distinct subject matter.
The funny thing is that no one ever listens.  Scientists, for example, do just fine defining the epistemological and methodological requirements of their work and their eyes grow glassy whenever they are lectured by the philosopher about knowledge.
It's true that scientists don't need philosophers to put their abstractions in order.  However, it's also true that when scientists attempt to 'do' philosophy they often do so very badly.  Just because they don't need philosophers doesn't mean that their own implicit (or explicit) philosophies aren't dreadful and misguided, only that they function well enough for their purposes.

Actually, when thinking about what philosophy is I find it useful to start with what Geertz said of anthropology's relation to philosophy, which was that the role of anthropology is not to provide answers to the 'big questions' but to provide a record of the answers that various peoples have given to such questions.  If it is also true that, as Whitehead put it, the philosopher is the 'critic of abstractions' then it seems that we can anthropologise and pragmatise the practice of philosophy.

Not only scientists but even the denizens of remote, non-modern villages (i.e. the stereotypical subjects of anthropology) are perfectly capable of developing complex and sophisticated systems of abstractions.  Anyone capable of submitting such abstractions to some form of critique could be said to be philosophising.  What we call Philosophy is, then, simply the institutionalisation, formalisation and professionalisation of this function.  Which isn't to say that it is 'universal' but nor is it necessarily all that particular.  Perhaps some people are without a socio-linguistic capacity we could call 'critical' in this sense but wherever there *are* people with this capacity we can say that there is philosophy as an anthropological phenomenon.

So, in this sense scientists are already philosophers of their own life worlds.  As Latour has said so often, scientists are constantly doing metaphysics, constantly re-imagining how reality is stitched together.  If they lacked this capacity then they couldn't do their jobs.

But, then, how do I reconcile this with my previous point about scientists often making very bad philosophers?  Well, we could say that philosophy as a formalised, institutionalised phenomenon -- capital P Philosophy, if you like -- represents a canon of thought against which present philosophers are judged and through which an ongoing assemblage of competing and overlapping systems of rules, preferences and traditions are impressed upon present philosophers.

Or, in short, maybe everyone does philosophy but only a few do Philosophy -- only a few raise that basic anthropological function to a level of formality and deliberation that can be recognised as a distinct epistemic institution.  Scientists, for their part, are expert philosophers -- they have to be -- but they don't always make very good Philosophers -- because that requires a whole other set of experiences and competencies.