Between Familiarity and Bewilderment: Towards A Theory of Incoherent Philosophical Bullshit. A No-Bullshit Approach to Philosophical Bullshit, part I. (Studies in Critical Metaphilosophy & Critical History of Philosophy 6)


1. Introductory Moves

 The output of philosophical practice is extremely varied in its topics and starting points. There are numerous theories of mind, different conceptions of knowledge and truth-value in epistemology, various metaphysical visions about the structure of reality, and varying strands of ethics, ranging from virtue ethics to Kantianism to utilitarianism and other versions of consequentialism, to contract theories, and over against these, various versions of egoism or moral skepticism, and then again, from different directions, Divine Command Ethics, Existential Ethics, and so on. Ethics itself is concerned with such disparate themes as the environment, genetic modification, free will, punishment, political systems, animal rights, and anthropocentrism.

Even in these few preceding sentences, a vast number of respectable schools of thought are already covered, each of which can be further subdivided into schools and sub-schools or factions.

If we take philosophy of mind as an example, we might start by dividing its proponents into materialists and dualists. However, materialists themselves are by no means a united group. Eliminativists like Paul Churchland defend the view that our conception of folk psychology is mistaken and will be replaced by what he calls ‘a matured neuroscience’.[i] Instrumentalists like Daniel Dennett might hold that even if the claims of folk psychology are false or contestable, the existence of folk psychology as such might still be useful for everyday interaction.[ii] Connectionists on the other hand, hold that all the talk about mental states and brain states has been couched too much in our everyday language and turns to models of distributed computing to come up with a new theory of mind. I have so far neglected to mention simulationists, or proponents of model theory-theory, or embodied mind theorists like Robert Hanna and Michelle Maiese and panpsychists like Thomas Nagel, who reject the materialist/dualist dichotomy altogether.[iii]

So it seems that, permuted over the fundamental philosophical problems and issues, the list of different schools and ideas is potentially endless.

What could be a problem here? Is the debate between competing views and hypotheses not precisely what philosophy is about? We could even say that in areas in which human understanding is still regarded as very limited, new debates, schools and groups emerge, prosper and dwindle.

Karl Popper elevated this competition between ideas to one of the central ideas of his philosophical thought. Like organisms in evolution, ideas would compete and the best idea would survive. With falsification taking the role of natural selection, Popper envisioned a bumpy but steady advancement of human knowledge.[iv]

It has seemed to many to be a plausible assumption that the competition between ideas leads to the Truth, if only via a winding and rocky road. The history of philosophy (and science as well) reads as a compendium of ideas that are by turn proposed, affirmed, ridiculed, revived, or rejected out-of-hand.[v] A metaphysical idea like Schopenhauer’s Wille zum Leben was equally scorned, but got a reworking in Nietzsche’s thought and later on again in Gilles Deleuze’s work. Thus, we might even (with Voltaire) say that no matter how ridiculous a position is, you can always find a philosopher who held it.

Real philosophy does spark debate, and this controversy can indeed lead to productive conversations, the rejection of arguments, sharpening of arguments or the development of ideas that are truly critical and illuminating. However, the fact that such debates can be productive it is no guarantee that they always are in fact productive.

What if the way that philosophical debates are performed does have negative consequences for the overall enterprise of philosophy?[vi] The debates I aim at here are not only live debates between two rational human animals, but also the prolonged defenses or attacks on a certain viewpoint, the controversies about certain philosophical doctrines (for example, dualism) and the extended disagreements in both spoken or written form that influence other philosophers.

The critical reader, at this point, will probably object that I am attacking a strawman, and I would have to agree with him. The best procedure would be not to voice general worries about the discipline of philosophy, but to diagnose our situation, and especially to investigate the structure of strategies used to misconduct philosophical debates. So that is what I am intend to do in this essay.

More precisely, what I intend to do in this series of four essays, is simply to develop a taxonomy of philosophical bullshit: ways in which debates can be maltreated, misused, deformed, led astray or otherwise counterproductively influenced. However, this critique should provide ways to think in the other direction: are there ways to recognize and value philosophical ideas? If we know what we do not like, is there a way to express what we do like philosophically?

Note that it might be difficult, undesirable or impossible to arrive at (universal) standards for coherence in philosophical practice, just by diagnosing our current situation. We might even assume that coherence is impossible to reach in certain stages of a philosophical investigation. I think it is fully legitimate for an author to say: “I am still working on my philosophical project – and I am well aware of all the questions it invites, all the gaps in my argument and all the shortcomings.” We could even hold that the constant pressure for coherence is stifling for innovative thinking and pre-structures any effort at conducting real philosophy.[vii]

Some tentative vagueness in philosophical practice might have a function: it allows conceptual structures to crystallize and grow over time, guarantees a free space for the interplay of ideas and creates an intellectual space in which exploration takes precedence over refining. To an outsider or newcomer to the philosophical project, this vagueness may look incoherent or unstructured, but there might be method in the madness.

When I use the word ‘incoherence’ in this essay, I will not allude to the creative phases in the middle of a philosophical investigation, nor will I allude to artworks where incoherence is part of a communicative strategy.[viii] I will focus on attempts at theorizing that are presented as coherent, serious theory, but that fall below certain standards that seem reasonable.[ix] That those standards can be debated or questioned does not seem problematic for my account. We can adhere to certain standards of coherence, fully realizing that at some point we might have to reconsider or rewrite them.

I would like to present this analysis as a beginning, a tentative attempt at mapping the methodological coordinates of the recent and current situation in professional philosophy, in so far as that influences or even determines contemporary debates, thereby shedding some light on the nature and role of bullshit in this debates and its relation to the presentational structure of philosophical material.

As a starting point, I will continue the line of thinking that APP has set out in two different articles on this website,[x] as well as in offline discussions among members of the APP circle. As a start, I suppose that we can speak of four types of philosophical bullshit:

  • Incoherent bullshit
  • Hyper-specialized, hyper-professionalized bullshit, admitting of degrees
  • Dogmatic bullshit
  • Duplicitous bullshit.

This essay (which is, as I mentioned, the first of a tetralogy) will focus on the notion of incoherent bullshit.

2. Incoherent Bullshit

First of all, the term “incoherent bullshit” is not a tautology. Not all bullshit is incoherent. If it were, then probably our task in discriminating between useful and useless philosophical ideas would be easier. However, some incoherent bullshit might be hard to spot. On the other hand, some of it can be caught out quite easily. Superficial thinking, open contradictions, flouted logical reasoning or baseless conjectures are the adversaries of anyone trying to practice philosophy. It is in general a good idea to guard against these threats, as they can seriously damage philosophical thinking.

With these remarks in mind, how could we detect incoherence in philosophical texts? As a start, I would say that incoherence simply couldn’t be understood despite the reader’s best efforts. A text might contain complicated or technical ideas, but that does not mean that it cannot be understood. An author who relies heavily on formal logic or technical terms to present his ideas might be hard to follow, but given enough effort from the reader, he might in time comprehend the meaning of the text. If the argumentative structure underneath all the technical terminology is sound, the text will be in principle accessible to the devoted reader.

This accessibility allows the reader in turn to comment on and react to the arguments. He might wish to critically examine the author’s arguments, question underlying assumptions, or point to weaknesses in the argumentative edifice.

Incoherence, on the other hand, does not allow for such an approach. Wherever it surfaces in arguments, meaningful comments become impossible. Basic argumentative structures allow and invite comments, reactions and revisions. To put in good old-fashioned verificationist terms: incoherent texts consist largely of meaningless statements. In the following interview fragment, John Searle recalls Michel Foucault’s reaction to incoherence (and meaninglessness) in Jacques Derrida’s work:

With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he’s so obscure. Every time you say, “He says so and so,” he always says, “You misunderstood me.” But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that’s not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking French. And I said, “What the hell do you mean by that?” And he said, “He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying, that’s the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’ That’s the terrorism part.” And I like that. So I wrote an article about Derrida. I asked Michel if it was OK if I quoted that passage, and he said yes.[xi]

Derrida has often been criticized for his rather obscure writing style, but does that automatically mean his ideas were bad? Not necessarily, but this issue seems to come down to an ‘ethics of terminology’, as Susan Haack already noted.[xii] How is the complexity of a philosophical text used in a debate? Is it used to shift meanings forever, always eluding the grasp of the devoted reader? What might be telling here is the attitude of an author: if philosophical practice is related to developing, explaining, questioning and unpacking ideas, then it does not seem a stretch to assume that this task comes with a responsibility as well: to take both the philosophical enterprise and effort of the reader seriously.

Harry Frankfurt’s charming essay On Bullshit arrives at a similar conclusion. Frankfurt notes that someone who bullshits does not so much lie deliberately. To lie, one has to have some regard for the truth. If I wish to deceive someone, I have to craft a lie intelligently, and make sure that the truth will not be found out later on. Frankfurt observes that someone who tells the truth accepts as it were the authority of the notion of truth, while someone who lies disregards this authority altogether.[xiii] The bullshitter, however, is on neither side: he is indifferent to the truth and plays fast and loose with both truth and lies, as long as it serves his goals; and he is, above all, a phony.[xiv]

Frankfurt says that as audience we get the feeling that the bullshitter gets away with something.[xv] The real agenda of the bullshitter is hidden, but we have the eerie feeling that even while we are not told a straight-faced lie, the truth is withheld from us, and that what we hear is misrepresented to serve some further goal we do not know. Even worse, we are continuously kept in the dark about that further goal.

The attitude of the bullshitter is the antithesis of rational responsibility, as it represents a disregard for both audience and truth. What is so infuriating about it is the attitude of the bullshitter: it is an attitude of deliberate and purposive carelessness.

We could forgive an author who lacked the writing skills to communicate his ideas, or who overlooked a gap in his argument. Both instances occur frequently in philosophy, and they mark the discipline as thoroughly human: our imperfections shape our best efforts at philosophical practice. They may hinder philosophical progress, but they do not make its practice impossible, especially not when the author is well aware of them.[xvi]

For the bullshitter, these shortcomings are not unfortunate by-products of his best attempts to develop and present ideas, but a deliberate choice to bedazzle his audience to serve his further goals.

3. Indicators of Incoherent Bullshit

 Apart from an incoherent presentation and playing fast and loose with the truth, there are (at least) three further indicators that seem important for identifying incoherent bullshit: (i) it does not engage with existing ideas, (ii) it presents ideas without a meaning-supporting context, and (iii) it skims lightly over the complexity of the ideas that it presents.

First, incoherent bullshit has little or no interaction with existing ideas. Not every philosophical idea is a clear extension of an already existing concept or idea – and nor does it always need to be. However, even new and original ideas have some relation to the past. New theories like Darwinian biology or quantum mechanics built on the weaknesses or blank spots in older theories. That there is not always a clear path from old idea to new idea is clear enough – Galileo’s theories were a curious mixture of propaganda, rhetoric and scientific findings used to convince his contemporaries of his status as a scientist. This is why the Catholic Church was at least partially right in Galileo’s case: they viewed themselves as protectors of the development of human ideas, and Galileo’s theories looked at first sight as the incoherent ramblings of a bullshitter or con artist.[xvii]

Even radical breaks in science and philosophy have some relation to the past. Many philosophical ideas were initially formulated as reaction against existing ideas. Descartes rallied against given wisdom in the form of revelation and developed the idea of philosophical doubt, many of Kant’s ideas were a reaction to Hume’s skepticism, Hegel was dissatisfied with the thoughts of Schelling, Fichte and Novalis, Bertrand Russell became convinced that the British branch of Hegelians obscured philosophical inquiry instead of clarifying matter. In all these cases, some existing idea spurs a whole new school of thought, either to defend, partially reject or attack it.

Second, incoherent bullshit does not allow for evaluation against a meaning-supporting background of historical or contemporary ideas. It is incomparable in the negative sense of the word: it does not allow the reader to position himself with regards to the text, or to evaluate its content with regards to what he already knows.

One of the best examples is listed on the Internet page of the Bad Writing Contest:

Total presence breaks on the univocal predication of the exterior absolute the absolute existent (of that of which it is not possible to univocally predicate an outside, while the equivocal predication of the outside of the absolute exterior is possible of that of which the reality so predicated is not the reality, viz., of the dark/of the self, the identity of which is not outside the absolute identity of the outside, which is to say that the equivocal predication of identity is possible of the self-identity which is not identity, while identity is univocally predicated of the limit to the darkness, of the limit of the reality of the self).[xviii]

This is an especially incoherent example, but I think that there are more than enough authors who – even if they do not match the level of incoherence in this text – produce text and ideas that are at least as incomprehensible. It is striking that philosophical terms are utilized in a way that is barely recognizable. Terms that have a familiar meaning are used in ways that their inventors did not have in mind, and that are not explained to the innocent reader.

Consequently, the text looks vaguely familiar, since the individual terms and concepts are known. Yet, these terms and concepts are strung together in ways that are utterly alien and resist any form of understanding or systematic approach to them.

This oscillation between familiarity and bewilderment prevents any meaningful commentary on the text at all. Even to start thinking about the usage of the concept of identity in the example is impossible. What kind of identity is the author talking about? What relation does it have to exteriority? Are we talking about personal identity? Has absolute identity in this text something to do with Hegel?

Third, another strategy for presenting incoherent bullshit as profound insight is to cite other authors in a way that is not only sloppy, but does little justice to their complex ideas. Here are two examples:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.[xix]

It thus relativizes discourse not just to form — that familiar perversion of the modernist; nor to authorial intention — that conceit of the romantics; nor to a foundational world beyond discourse — that desperate grasping for a separate reality of the mystic and scientist alike; nor even to history and ideology — those refuges of the hermeneuticist; nor even less to language — that hypostasized abstraction of the linguist; nor, ultimately, even to discourse — that Nietzschean playground of world-lost signifiers of the structuralist and grammatologist, but to all or none of these, for it is anarchic, though not for the sake of anarchy but because it refuses to become a fetishized object among objects — to be dismantled, compared, classified, and neutered in that parody of scientific scrutiny known as criticism.[xx]

The first example assumes familiarity with structuralist accounts of capital and goes on to mention a hegemony (in the sense that Marx used the term?) and cites Althusserian theory (but which one?). However, all of these ideas are complex in themselves. It is not probable that there is a standard structuralist account of capital that all structuralists agreed on. The same criticism applies to mentioning theories of Louis Althusser in passing. Whatever might be said about (for instance) his theory of structural totalities, it is certainly more complex than presented here. In conclusion, the lack of conceptual/textual analysis or serious commentary should probably be alarming.

The second example boasts again an impressive number of thinkers, schools of thought and professions: romantics, modernists, mystics, scientists, hermeneuticists, linguists, grammatologists, structuralists and Nietzscheans. In addition, this quote closes with some sweeping statements about the nature of anarchism and criticism.

The nonchalance with which all thinkers and groups mentioned are treated feels almost like name-dropping: surely it is hard to formulate a shared viewpoint for all romantics or all modernists? The same applies for mentioning Nietzscheans. The thought of Friedrich Nietzsche inspired many philosophers, writers and thinkers, but when one analyzes this group of people, that is about the only common feature they share.

Note that this usage of authors and ideas creates a completely artificial structure that one can attack: I doubt that there is a group of people whom collectively self-identify as hermeneuticists or grammatologists. In the second quotation, however, they are presented as a group, a common opponent with real goals and viewpoints.

As Peirce noted, the practice of philosophy (in conjunction with science) should enrich our understanding of reality.

In the process of understanding, our guiding concepts and ideas are filled with more and more meaning as our knowledge grows.[xxi] This growth of knowledge results in a deeper appreciation of reality, and generates more acute insights in problems and inconsistencies in our own thinking. This understanding, again, is not only rational. It is felt and experienced as much as rationally comprehended.[xxii]

This growth of meaning through the careful development of concepts is radically undercut by incoherent bullshit that is presented as philosophical insight. If anything, the concepts presented in the quotations above are badly formulated, borrowed, mischaracterized and lumped together with other (sometimes unrelated) theories and ideas. Such a mix of seemingly profound terminology with baseless conjecture is as far removed from Peirce’s ideal as imaginable.

The fact that these ideas are presented without context undercuts Peirce’s ideal even further: for concepts to acquire meaning, a certain accumulation of knowledge is required. Peirce’s concepts are embedded in contexts that grow richer and more interlinked over time. The modern concept of the atom makes sense against the background of both theories about the interaction of subatomic particles and our knowledge about molecules. These bodies of knowledge are themselves embedded in further contexts of quantum physics and organic chemistry. Part of what makes us appreciative of the idea of an atom is its place in the bigger scheme of things. Without this context, we might end up with something like Democritus’s ideas about atoms, some sort of abstract ideal, but not as rich in content as our current understanding of atoms.

When reading the examples of incoherent bullshit cited previously, one question rises automatically: Do the authors of these texts really believe what they write? Are they really convinced that their way of working and writing adds something to the debate? If we have to follow Frankfurt’s line of reasoning, the bullshitter aims to get away with something. He might possibly hope that we regard him as profound, an authority and might utilize deliberate carelessness to achieve this goal.

If we do not follow Frankfurt’s line of thinking and give the authors in the examples the benefit of the doubt, what should be our conclusion? Some authors may be poor writers; others might be deluded; yet others might try to come across as profound. However, it is quite a stretch to assume that this applies to all authors who write dense texts or who are not understood. In subsequent essays, I will explore the roles of professionalism and dogmatism in relation to dense texts further, but for now, I will focus on those authors who present the reader with what I call “hidden gems in thorny works.”

4. Hidden Gems in Thorny Works

What if a text looks like absolute incoherent bullshit on first glance but nevertheless might hold unexpected deep conceptual or non-conceptual insights, i.e., real philosophical gems, either for later generations or for contemporaries who are willing to work through it? Hegel is the paradigmatic example: his texts were dense, abstract, filled with jargon and all-in-all not a very good example of clarity, to put it mildly. This led Schopenhauer (who wrote beautifully crafted prose himself), to deride him in ways that are too good not to quote:

In fact in the most recent years in the writings of the Hegelians I have come across descriptions of the Kantian philosophy which really reach the incredible. How could minds strained and ruined in the freshness of youth by the [bullshit] of Hegelism still be capable of following Kant’s profound investigations? They are early accustomed to regard the hollowest of verbiage as philosophical thoughts, the most miserable sophisms as sagacity, and silly craziness as dialectic; and by accepting frantic word-combinations in which the mind torments and exhausts itself in vain to conceive something, their heads are disorganized.[xxiii]

Even if we forgive Schopenhauer his extravagance and exaggeration, and also forgive me for anachronistically substituting “bullshit” for “nonsense” in Schopenhauer’s original text, it is difficult not to think of him as having lost the historical battle of ideas. Hegel’s thought is nowadays far more studied than Schopenhauer’s, and has in fact been far more productive, in the sense that it has yielded many truly philosophically important spin-offs, e.g., Feuerbach’s analysis of religion, Marx’s dialectical materialism, F.H. Bradley’s neo-Hegelianism and the Moore-Russell counter-reaction that created the first wave of analytic philosophy, and so-on).

It seems Schopenhauer judged too quickly, and that Hegel’s thought had implications he overlooked, simply based on Hegel’s writing style.[xxiv] Thus, even while a thorny text may seem incoherent to us, we might be missing the gems that are hidden there. And if there is such a thing as genius, that allows one individual to think beyond the limits of his contemporaries, then the chances that we would recognize true innovation if we encountered it would seem to be very slim indeed.

Two considerations come immediately into play here: (i) the intent of the author[xxv] (does he ultimately wish to display the truth, or deceive us?) and (ii) his skills for both philosophizing and communicating (is he creating a brilliantly new presentational form for philosophical works, or not?).[xxvi]

The fact that many innovative minds are not primarily concerned with clear and distinct exposition does not exactly help. A striking example can be found in the work of Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906), an Austrian physicist and philosopher. Boltzmann had been working for years on his theories on particle physics, but his works were so scattered, unstructured, and openly contradictory that his contemporaries had little sympathy for his theories. Indeed, Boltzmann posited no less than four different definitions of probability in his work, each one an update or revision of the former ones. Only after his death, when his complete works were edited and ordered by his pupil Paul Ehrenfest, did the true implications and scope of his contributions to physics become known.[xxvii]

So, as per Boltzmann, suppose that philosopher F introduces concepts that are genuinely new and also pushes against the boundaries of conventional expression in everyday language and current professional vocabularies. The vocabulary that F uses is alien to her readers, since they have to navigate a new conceptual world that is described by this freshly invented terminology. We could say that it is the mark of a good communicator to translate these concepts into prose that can be understood by his public.

However, while some authors are very good philosophers, they are not necessarily even minimally good communicators. If philosopher F is such a person, it leaves her in the same predicament as Boltzmann or Hegel.

In addition, the fact that a text is hard to understand does not automatically mean that the author must be a genius. Being a genius is an exception, while the production of incomprehensible texts occurs almost constantly.

Moreover, the historical dimension does play a role. While Hegel was already difficult to read in his own time, this task has become even more difficult as time has progressed. During his own lifetime, Hegel worked among contemporaries like Fichte and Schelling who were also steeped in the Wolffian and Kantian metaphysical frameworks that he drew upon while developing his theories.[xxviii] Readers from his own time could at least relate quite directly to Hegel’s 18th century predecessors to interpret his works, an advantage that later generations of scholars did not have.

The historical development of knowledge and the formulation of new concepts add another complication here: not only can ideas themselves be coherent or incoherent, but the audience understands them only against a background of already existing presuppositions and knowledge.[xxix] Certain new ideas do not always get a fair chance at critical interpretation – as it were, to compete in the arena of Popperian falsification – because they are simply rejected out-of-hand by people doing “normal science” in the prevailing paradigm. Thus, the road to truth might be more winding and bumpy than Popper initially imagined.

All these factors make it notoriously difficult to define standards to define what constitutes coherence.[xxx] Of course, we might refer to useful practices such as avoiding jargon, constructing clear chains of reasoning and introducing definitions, avoiding merely superficial contact with other authors and ideas, etc. It is important to note that these practices are beneficial for conducting real philosophy.

However, once in a while some individual will come along who lacks the skill to write clear and distinct prose in conventional terms, but does possess the skill to advance philosophy. The important point here is that we deal with a lack of conventional expository skill in the author. But I think it would be wrong to say that the obscure language is necessary to make the philosophical point, hence the author had no choice but to walk the route of incoherence. Terminology that is peppered with contradictory definitions, neologisms, and vagueness seems to me no necessary condition for doing any sort of real philosophy. Indeed, it impedes thinking and makes texts harder to access for later generations of thinkers and scholars. So while presentational incoherence is sometimes permissible, it is never philosophically obligatory.

5. From Exposition to Content: Limitations on Our Faculty of Judgment, and Philosophical “Concept-Radicals”

While it might be possible to avoid incoherence at the level of presentation by paying attention to careful argumentation and text editing, it might be harder to avoid incoherence at the level of philosophical ideas.

When can we say that a philosophical idea is incoherent bullshit? This issue is far more difficult to handle than it seems on first sight. I will proceed here by sketching two limits on our ability to judge easily whether a philosophical idea is incoherent.

First of all, philosophical ideas do not originate in a vacuum. They are formulated and developed by individuals with ideas, backgrounds, beliefs, convictions and limitations. An idea might have been extremely useful when it was first invented. Lamarckian theories of evolution seemed a good idea in the 19th century, since they offered a reasonable explanation of inheritance of physical characteristics. Note, however, that it looked like a good idea only against the epistemic background of existing biological knowledge at the time. Lamarck’s theoretical position (direct inheritance of phenotypical characteristics from direct ancestors) was refuted once Darwin’s and Wallace’s theory of evolution transformed the whole background against which biological facts had to be interpreted. All of a sudden, Lamarck’s theory did not match with the new background, rendering his ideas incoherent within the Darwinian worldview.[xxxi]

In the same way, there is a radical break between pre- and post-Kantian philosophy. Kant’s idea that our cognitive access to the world limited itself to the innately-preformatted phenomena, and excluded noumena, was not merely an isolated philosophical idea – it consequently changed the whole background against which new ideas about cognition had to be read. The shift from Hume’s resigned skepticism to Kant’s theory about the conditions for access to manifest reality and its mentalistic constitution was a radical shift in philosophical thinking that fundamentally changed the worldview of modern philosophy.

Second, ideas may have a limited lifetime once their epistemic background is overthrown. Some philosophical ideas, however, seem to have a life without that epistemic background, and are often revived and rejected when conceptions change, like philosophical concept-generating “radicals.” For example, the notion of vitalism (see also note 5) seems to haunt the history of philosophy and is by turns revived or rejected. The interesting thing is that once it is revived, it becomes connected to new ideas, taking on a whole new position. The early forms of vitalism posited some mysterious life force whose nature was unknown. Many modern thinkers saw nothing in this idea. For instance, in the Hobbesian-Cartesian-Newtonian mechanistic philosophy, there is simply no place for vitalism: Descartes himself explicitly interprets the living human body as a special kind of machine.[xxxii]

At the end of the 19th century, embryologist Hans Driesch reintroduced vitalism as an explanation for embryonic development. Henri Bergson took this idea in a new and unexpected direction: he asserted that vitalism itself had a view of life that was too narrow and proposed a concept of élan vital, a driving force that was meant to explain the creativity of evolutionary processes. This life-force was not confined to living organisms: Bergson explicitly defended the notion of memory in nature in his 1905 book Matter and Memory. Bergson published a thematically similar book titled Creative Evolution in 1907, foreshadowing important developments in non-equilibrium thermodynamics and evolutionary biology that would occur later in the 20th century.

The crucial thing to note here is that the development of quantum mechanics would prove Bergson right at some points: matter itself turned out to be a lot more creative that conventional physics would have imagined. Later in the 20th century, British biologist Rupert Sheldrake posited the idea of morphogenetic fields in his 1981 book A New Science of Life.[xxxiii] His thought was that nature itself has a form of memory that ripples throughout time and that explains and shapes the similarity of evolutionary processes. Interestingly enough, the physicist David Böhm hit on a similar idea with his concept of implicit and explicit orders in the universe.[xxxiv] While conventional forms of vitalism turned out to be implausible against the changed epistemic background, the new and more refined thinking that it stimulated proved some of its initial assumptions.

Another profoundly interesting thing about philosophical concept-radicals like vitalism (and other controversial recurring ideas such as panpsychism, pre-reflectively conscious mentality like the Freudian individual “unconscious” and the Jungian collective “unconscious,” and pantheism) is that they keep turning up: apparently, there are blind spots on the map of understanding that are constantly filled out in different historical contexts, according to these seemingly incoherent yet highly creative idea-generators. These ideas might at one point in time look incoherent, and the level of scientific knowledge in that moment might refute them. However when new knowledge is acquired or perceptions change due to the introduction of new ideas, these old ideas acquire new meaning against a new epistemic background – again, just in the way Peirce already imagined. A good example of concept-radicals in action is the 1980 book A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. The idea behind this book was to focus on philosophical experimentation instead of developing a coherent theory. As a consequence, the book lacks definitions, can be read in any order, makes no attempt to formulate conclusions, and yet contains a lot of philosophical concepts that are useful and innovative.

Summarizing now, deciding whether an idea or concept is incoherent might be extremely complicated due to the issues outlined above: an idea is to be read in conjunction with an existing epistemic background, and might at a different moment in time acquire a new and unexpected meaning that supersedes yet confirms (some of) the initial assumptions built into it, if it turns out to be a philosophical concept-radical.

In the meantime, I suppose it is best to watch out for superficiality in philosophical practice, to be mindful of the context in which ideas and concepts are embedded, strive to communicate in clear and distinct language, and to search for a productive engagement with ideas and concepts of the past.

Whether we will, at any given time, reject or affirm these concepts is of little relevance: perhaps real philosophy should be seen as a form of creative evolution itself – rooted in history, yet producing endless forms, endlessly insightful in context, and endlessly intellectually beautiful to the contemplative mind.[xxxv]


[i] See: Paul Churchland, Matter and Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press,  3rd edition, 2013) p. 77-82.

[ii] See for example: Daniel Dennett, The Intentional Stance (Cambridge, MA, The M.I.T. Press, 1987) p.13-35.

[iii] See: R. Hanna and M. Maiese, Embodied Minds in Action (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009); Thomas Nagel, “Panpsychism,” in T. Nagel, Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 181-195; and W. Seager and  William and S. Allen-Hermanson, “Panpsychism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), E.N. Zalta (ed.), available online at URL = <>.

[iv] Notably in his Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934).

[v] A particularly good example here is the doctrine of vitalism, the idea of a driving life-force that is innate in living beings. The doctrine was already known to the ancient Greeks, but was revived in the early 20th century by embryologist Hans Driesch, and later by French philosopher Henri Bergson as elan vital. Subsequently, it had a major impact on Gilbert Simondon and Gilles Deleuze. The latter developed it further with his notion of agency, steering the course of continental materialism in a new direction. Meanwhile, many scientists and materialist philosophers reject the idea, as they see it as an attempt to smuggle ‘magic’ in via the backdoor.

[vi] As  – rather polemically – outlined in the manifesto on this website. See: ( [accessed 19 February 2016].

[vii] See: ( [accessed 8 March 2016].

[viii] My thanks to L_E for bringing this point up.

[ix] See: ( [accessed 19 February 2016].

[x] See: ( and (link to Z’s essay of minimal/fetishized rigor) [accessed 19 February 2016].

[xi] The interview can be found here: ( [accessed 19 February 2016].

[xii] Susan Haack, The Meaning of Pragmatism: The Ethics of Terminology and the Language of Philosophy, teorema XXVIII.3, 2009, p. 17-23, sections III and IV.

[xiii] Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005) p. 60-61.

[xiv] Ibid. p. 49-51.

[xv] Ibid. p. 23.

[xvi] An excellent example of this awareness can be found in Robert Nozick’s description of his own philosophical practice in the preface of Anarchy, State and Utopia.

[xvii] See: Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (London: Verso, 4th edition, 2010) for a good overview of Galileo’s case, his motivations, the reactions of his contemporaries and the response of the church.

[xviii] ( [Accessed 24 February 2016]. The excerpt is from D. G. Leahy, Foundation: Matter the Body Itself (New York: State University of New York Press, 1996).

[xix] ( [Accessed 24 February 2016]. The example is from Judith Butler, Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time, published in Diacritics (1997).

[xx] ( [Accessed 24 February 2016]. The example has been written by Stephen Tyler in James Clifford and George E. Marcus (eds.) Writing Culture (University of California Press, 1986).

[xxi] ibid. p. 16-17.

[xxii] Susan Haack, “The Meaning of Pragmatism: The Ethics of Terminology and the Language of Philosophy,” teorema XXVIII.3, 2009, p. 14-17.

[xxiii] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol. I (New York: Dover Publications, 1969) p. xxiv

[xxiv] And quite possibly his jealousy with regards to Hegel’s intellectual status during his life.

[xxv] Frankfurt notes in On Bullshit (p. 7-10) that we can make a distinction between the content of a statement (it might be true or false) and the intent of the person who delivered it. A person might tell the truth, but may still wish to deceive us by doing so, or by his mode of representation. Bullshit is therefore not the synonymous with lying: a bullshitter might get things right, but still with a morally reprehensible intent.

[xxvi] See Z, “What is a Work of Philosophy? Presentational Hylomorphism and Polymorphism,” APP, available online at URL = <>.

[xxvii] My sincere thanks to Marijn Hollestelle for pointing this out to me.

[xxviii] See for a good commentary on this topic: [accessed 19 February 2016]. Note also that Hegel engaged with ideas of the past, instead of dismissing them.

[xxix] I am grateful to L_E for bringing this point to my attention.

[xxx] The difficulty we have in formulating a coherent conception of coherence might be telling here.

[xxxi] The interesting thing to note here is that Charles Darwin himself had quite some Lamarckian tendencies. The criticism on Lamarck took off once a new generation of Neodarwinians started to combine biology with mathematical modeling and Lamarck’s ideas did not fit the models. Ironically, recent development in epigenetics has proven Lamarck partially right in way that he probably could not imagine.

[xxxii] Notably in the Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences, part V.

[xxxiii] At which point, Sir John Maddox wrote an editorial in Nature, calling it “a book for burning.”

[xxxiv] An interview between Sheldrake and Böhm can be found here: ( [accessed 8 March 2016].

[xxxv] My sincere thanks to Z for providing helpful comments and mark-up on the successive drafts of this essay.