Stanley’s “Crisis of Philosophy”

I’ve seen this article attract a great many replies, reactions, disagreements and agreements. Many of my most respected of living philosophers have commented on this issue. The issue, as I see it is this: The reputation of philosophy is being undermined by the anti-philosophical intellectuals that have emerged since the 19th Century.

I thought that I would contribute to clarity on understanding what the crisis is. As such, I am going to address the issue of what is seen as the ‘enemy’ to analytic philosophers, namely, the ‘anti-philosophies’ which can sometimes be called  ‘continental philosophy’. I shall then address a general issue of how philosophy’s history can be potentially misunderstood where anachronism can infect the general reputation of philosophy.

Lastly I would address the reputation of philosophy, where the real ‘crisis’ expresses itself. Philosophy faces a reputation that negatively affects its genuine practicioners and benefits its sophistical demagogues. This affects everything from rants against philosophy in dinner parties to where public academic funding is directed.

The conception of anti-philosophy

The founding figures of the ‘anti’ philosophical tendency usually appeal to the likes of Nietzsche or Marx. I like to invoke the distinction (as do many others) towards Continental philosophy. The anti-philosophical sentiment opposes systematic philosophy. For these anti-philosophical philosophies, there is a distinct sense of opposition to ‘how things previously have been’; the objects of such opposition involve fundamental oppositions to the possibility of rational analysis; where subjectivity seems to take a greater primacy.

This tendency to ‘subjectify’ philosophy takes place through emphasising the role of the individual subject’s experience which cannot be understood by ‘grand theories’ that impose upon persons. The notion of systems and rules of conduct are limiting in favour of other competing ‘anti-philosophical’ accounts.

For anti-philosophies, the analysis of justice, knowledge and understanding natural sciences are seen as fruitless and ‘dated’ notions. Feuerbach’s eleventh thesis concerning the application of philosophy makes any kind of ‘theoretical’ philosophy a derogatory pursuit. Some serious misconceptions are easy to make: for instance; that systematic or theoretical philosophy is distinct from ‘applied’ philosophy.

Anti-philosophies have allied themselves with the humanities such as literary theory, film studies, cultural studies and some of the mainstream social sciences. The popularity and the infection of anti-philosophical theorists has led to the irony of those bodies of thought to establish their own canons of systematicity. Perhaps the temptation of the system is just too unavoidable. While Marx opposed the Kantian-enlightenment vision of the system of nature; his own vision became a system constrained by the process of history. For the contemporary social theorists, much appeasement is needed to the former Gods of post-structuralism or postmodernism. This is the very scholasticism and dogmatism that the Englightenment had tried to dissolve.

Misunderstanding history, and the place of historical figures

There are many cultural factors that lead to such philosophical divergences. Conversation between traditions and cultures has always been part of European philosophy, however we must also acknowledge that the conventional histories of philosophy, if taken as strong and reified accounts; lead to anachronism. It is not the case that Descartes’ knew that philosophers after him would always refer to his work nor would he see that many persons after him from mathematicians to cognitive scientists would see him as one of their founders. The view from the present makes the disjoined and sometimes the initially uneventful seem monumental. That is perhaps reasonable to see considering that we can tell of the real implications of say, a historian from Scotland who never recieved a professorship (David Hume) or a lens grinder (Baruch Spinoza).

My old sociology lecturer warned us not to read too much into the deviants and countercultures of any given time. While it may be the case that one revolutionary can turn into the dogmatist’s prophet; they may be in their own time outside of the mainstream. An analogy may be in place: let us not try to read too much into the emergences of youth cultures when during their infancy; many of the first generations of fans were in a minority. Was everyone into grunge during the late 80s? Was every teenager a punk during the 70s? Probably not: lets not forget the fashion travesties of the mainstream in our plotted cultural history. Most people got on with their lives, and most intellectuals worked within the paradigm of their dominant discourse. Leibniz in his early career was an Aristotelian philosopher; Kant worked within the scholarly german fashion of the Leibniz-Wolffian system and Descartes’. Our misunderstanding of philosophy today is in large part to a general misunderstanding of its history.

The reputation of philosophy

The reputation of philosophy has many dimensions of influence. Let us start off with a negative reputation of philosophy. Here’s a list:

  • Philosophy doesn’t apply to the real world
  • Philosophy (undefined) is no longer relevant, but [x’s philosophy] tells us that that [x’s philosophy] is right and relevant (insert any of the following names: Zizek, Nietzsche, Marx, Butler, Freud, Deepak Chopra, Jesus, some long haired lunatic &c …)
  • Philosophy has been defeated by [x] (insert name from list above, maybe add in Rorty, Wittgenstein, Semiotics, sociology of scientists, ‘science’ genera, and Jesus again)
  • Philosophy doesn’t need much funding
  • Philosophy doesn’t deserve funding
  • Philosophy doesn’t fit into the goals of the new style of academic management: impact, impact impact are the three distinct and all encompassing goals of academia
  • Philosophy has turned too literary/linguistic/logical/mathematical/historical/academic/elitist/scientific
  • Other subjects have taken the work of conventional philosophical concerns to render it obsolete: Sociology, Political Science, Mathematical logic, Cognitive science and linguistics, psychology and the neurosciences, history of science
  • Interdisciplinarity has undermined and diluted philosophy to a buzzword that fits in to some doctrinal quota
  • Contemporary philosophy has detached from theology
  • Contemporary philosophy has too many associations with atheism

I could dedicate a post to each of these issues, but for the sake of parity perhaps I’ll leave them standing as they are. The negative reputation of philosophy consists of various propositions about philosophy that I would largely consider as misapprehensions of what contemporary philosophy is. The contemporary practice of philosophy involves many different kinds of people: borderline scientists; actual scientists; dual-wield PhDs (my favourite kind); academics; non-academics; activists; bourgeois; working class; upper class; post-docs; teachers; politically oriented; broadsheet article writers; podcasters; cultural researchers; humanists; scientists; social scientists and so on. As such, there are many different perspectives on philosophy and many different kinds of ideas. While I could most easily deride some and not others, the fact of the matter is that most co-exist within the same social environment but are affected in different ways. Some benefit by nepotistic and ingratiating research programmes (I’ll name no names); others stand alone and work on substantive issues; other make their way to name drop and draw the lines of factions; others try to establish a sense of community to serve other philosophers and the public.

The reputation of philosophy impacts on future interest in philosophy, the direction of philosophy and in the contemporary light; where funding is allocated and following this, what kinds of philosophical programmes survive. If academia were like Darwinian natural selection; only the best and truest ideas would survive. However, academia is more like social function, and the most socially functioning person (not necessarily the best) finds flourishing. I think that the crisis of philosophy lay in its poor reputation, and the funding and imposed guidelines for research bodies that are more often than not determined by political and bureaucratic influences.

What can be done to save philosophy? We can overcome the misconceptions of philosophy and its history by achieving proper understandings and avoiding second hand readings. Another way to help would be to establish the virtues of intellectual honesty and nobility. Achieve the mindset and ethical mindset not of an oppurtunist and business-like individual which proliferates academic management, but rise above and show that the intellectual caste are much different, much better than the ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ fashions of political and intellectual orientations. The academic world, if ideal; would allow the freedom of expression for many intellectuals as well as greater liberality of research programme from the bottom up. Would it be democratic? I’m not sure. Would it be populist? Certainly NOT!

Michael (and Destre)