Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Valuing philosophy as an historical phenomenon

Levi Bryant has a new post simply asking what is the value of philosophy? A most interesting and complicated question!

I'm reading Peter Sloterdijk's books at the moment and his attitude to philosophy seems to be not that it is a 'love of wisdom' per se but rather that it is a wisdom tradition -- one among others. While Sloterdijk is a curate's egg, to say the least, I like this aspect of his work a lot as it anthropologises, historicises and also pragmatises how we think about philosophy.

The question of the value of philosophy could be posed, on this basis, in (at least) two ways:

First, counter-factually: Would the world be better or worse off if philosophy hadn't been practised all this time? This seems to be an almost impossible question to answer since I can hardly even imagine such a world, such has been the entanglement of philosophical thought and power over the centuries. In this respect enquiring as to the value of philosophy seems to be beside the point; it suggests that not philosophising is somehow an option for those living in its wake.

Second, we could ask: Why should we take up this tradition, enrol in these regimens today? This all hangs on who the 'we' is. If we're talking you, me, whoever is engaging in this conversation then we must recognise that even if we don't then surely someone else will. And we can hardly put the genie back in the bottle or block ourselves off from its deep-seeped whisperings.

So, long story short, 'the value of philosophy' is unthinkable without recognising the entanglement of its regimens with power-effects of various varieties over the course of ('Western') history.

The value of philosophy in this broad, sociopolitical sense (by no means the only sense in which this question can or should be answered) must surely be this: it provides those of us who enrol in it with an opportunity for subjectivity within circuits and milieus where, lacking the privileges afforded by these age-old callisthenics, there would otherwise be none (or, perhaps more modestly: less).

That is not to say that simply having a disposition towards reading difficult books magically gives us the powers to 'change the world' or any such thing -- that would be naive idealism of the most silly sort. However, I think it's fair to say that philosophy makes us agents within certain processes and practices in a way that we would not be otherwise.

The question of philosophy's value should not, therefore, be limited to its eudaimonic, affective, personal qualities -- as profound as these elements of the wisdom tradition in question undoubtedly are (and as sensitively as Levi has articulated them). As wizened old war veterans say, philosophy has 'seen action.' It may be that the tradition's days of serious sociopolitical influence are long behind it but even so the question of its value goes beyond its value to you or me, here or there, then or now.

The values it has created and the effects that its creativity has thus unleashed on the world are irrepressible once one considers philosophy in its historicity.


  1. " I think it's fair to say that philosophy makes us agents within certain processes and practices in a way that we would not be otherwise." ok but what exactly are they and how do we know?

  2. A fair and important question to which I have two responses. First, I don't mean anything especially occult or rarefied by these 'circuits.' Most questions habitually understood as being within the purview of philosophical rumination are intended by this overly floral designation.

    However, there's a deeper and more difficult question raised here, too. I by no means, of course, mean to suggest that philosophical training is required for 'critical reflection' or any such thing. It is one wisdom tradition among others, after all. But within this, and this is the second point, there is a question of the philosophy of intellectual history (not only of the intellectual history of philosophy).

    While philosophical thought and political power have been quite obviously allied at various points in history -- Marcus Aurelius, John Locke, even, say, *Sir* Karl Popper -- there is always a tendency in intellectual history to assume that changes in collective modes of thought, at an elite or popular level, are intrinsically tied to the works of the Great Thinkers. In other words, that if we live in the wake of philosophical tradition, as I put it, that means that we have all, to some extent, swam in and internalised these ideas. If that is so then we have surely also taken on board modes and methods of self-reflections, criticism and so forth.

    So, the question of 'circuits' runs much deeper in this respect: to what extent do our ('our' as in not just the over-educated elites) everyday tools and routines of thinking derive from The Tradition? I've really no idea but it indicates the impossibility of a strictly empirical intellectual history. There must be a philosophy of intellectual history no less than any other sort.

    That probably doesn't answer the question very well but there it is!