Saturday 20 September 2014

The empire of Science, the retreat of Philosophy—five responses

It's a familiar story: The explosive successes of the empirical, modern sciences after [insert Great Man or Important Event here] forced philosophy back into ever narrower corridors of speculatability, like polar bears on a shrinking iceberg. How did philosophers respond? In several ways.

First, by grovelling—becoming lackeys, imitators, under-labourers, popularisers, celebrants, sanctioners, policemen, epistemologists. Second, by taking flight—becoming idealists, phenomenon-botherers, intrepid explorers of the ineffable ethers of language, morality, love, art, experience and religion. Third, by criticising—becoming on-lookers to history, lords of the margins, doyens of discourse, geniuses of the presupposition, sniping and biting for plurality and process, railing against fixity, sediment and being-forgetting, deploring all dogmatism. Fourth, by returning to dogmatism—becoming artists of object-schemes, journeymen of the dreaded litany, scenographers of the grandest thing-scapes, brave speculators on the furniture and infrastructure of the universe, incisively discerning the withdrawn fundamentals that had previously passed us by. Fifth, by focusing on problems—becoming pragmatists, anthropologists, sociologists, finding license to think wherever there are problems to be thought through; thus, travelling wherever they please, being barred from nowhere, but never traversing Reality, never journeying 'everywhere.'

It'll be clear from my rhetoric where my sympathies reside. Philosophers were right to be chastened by the successes of the sciences. Where they came a cropper, to use a beautiful Britishism, was in their responses—at least until they arrived at the properly pragmatic option of understanding the purpose of tradition-disciplined philosophical thought practices to be the invention and transformation of concepts in response to particular problems, in alliance with various other actors.

It is perfectly right to wish to once again grant philosophers their passport to travel wherever they please, regardless of this or that domain's domination by whatever scientific power. Indeed, such domination is certain to raise problems requiring philosophical attention; thus intellectual wanderlust is explicitly encouraged in the problem-pragmatic understanding. What is wrong is to think that such papers give philosophers access to a reality over and above (or even simply beyond and beside) that which is available to the sciences or to any other practice-complex.

Indeed, philosophy does not access.

A defence of philosophy without a concomitant deflation results not in advocacy as part of a diplomatic process but in fortification in a process of war-making. Which brings us to a first-order cosmopolitical question that can now be understood as lying at the heart of philosophical discourse: is it coexistence or victory that is the order of the day?