Some time ago, one of APP’s readers asked how real philosophy as we define and practice it (two activities that are inextricably connected) is supposed to be different from other types of philosophy, and whether all philosophy that is not real philosophy should be regarded as “fake” or “inauthentic” philosophy.
To a certain extent, we have provided answers to these questions in these essays:
Taken together, however, these answers do not add up to a fully coherent theory or approach.
From these pieces, the vague, sketchy and promising outlines of a methodological theory of real philosophy appear, but remain somewhat dim, as if projected just beyond the point of clarity and distinctness.
Partially, this is due to the medium of posting entries on a website.
Working in small, accumulative pieces has the advantage of being able to explore different facets of a topic side by side, to turn it over in one’s head, but does not reliably result in a bigger picture, let alone a fully developed theory.
Another contributing factor to the vagueness is that it is hard to formulate an idea (“real philosophy”) in terms of determinate, well-defined terms, insofar as we are struggling with its definition (if any) ourselves.
One’s inquiry may start with a clear idea or a seemingly well-defined intuition, but once these impressions are externalized in sketchy accounts, broad strokes and assertions, they inevitably bear the mark of being tentative and exploratory.
This series of essays should be read with those remarks and limitations in mind.
It is a peculiar irony of philosophical dialectic, however, that the limitations of these pieces are simultaneously their strength.
Concepts—when pushed far enough – yield contradictions that may be approached as productive sites for doing philosophy.
Kant and Hegel recognized this, because they also recognized that they were part of a long-standing dialectical tradition in philosophy.
One camp holds that dialectical tension points towards conceptual knots that are in need of unraveling, the other camp mistrusts any contradiction as a symptom of intolerable incoherence.
In these essays, I embrace the dialectical approach and must admit that when asked for a justification of this choice, I cannot easily think of one.
Instead, this topic will be taken up when discussing theses 3 and 4, because – again in a dialectical fashion – the question itself and its expected answer both point to philosophical problems that may be productively explored.
In my own defense, I may point to the fact that in both the Analytic and Continental traditions, dialectical approaches have sometimes been employed, and with fruitful results.
Especially when reading Collingwood, Ryle, Strawson and at points Dennett, there is an informal, probing quality that takes the reader on a tour through opposing, dialogic or problematic positions that are artfully played out against each other.
The constant interplay between questions, answers and problems raised in succession forms the backbone of these texts.
The dialectical structure as such is not being formalized or made explicit (as in Hegel or Gadamer) but does its structuring work in the background, where one should look closely to notice it at all.
In this series, I elaborate and reflect further on five theses that jointly constitute the theoretical backbone for what I consider to be individually necessary and jointly sufficient characteristics of real philosophy.
Doubtless, this is a preliminary account, and my fellow anarcho-philosophers might disagree with me on several points.
But this seems to me no problem, given my dialectical sympathies.
The list is not exhaustive – it is a work in progress, and each entry may even pose new questions, or point to the need for further qualification of the idea of “real philosophy.”
Here are the five core theses:
Thesis #1: Real philosophy begins with a philosophical theory or worldview.
Thesis #2: Real philosophy engages intensely with historical or contemporary philosophical ideas – either in the negative (counter-reaction) or positive (elaboration, explication) sense.
Thesis #3: Real philosophy contains a philosophical method that is developed by practicing it.
Thesis #4: Real philosophy develops a (tacit) commentary on the practice of philosophy as such.
Thesis #5: Real philosophy provides a commentary on a broad range of topics simultaneously: ethics, political theory, metaphysics, epistemology, religion, and so-on.
Some of these theses might look strangely paradoxical or even contradictory – or at least can be read in ways that lead to contradictions.
However, as I hope to explain, these apparent shortcomings can be dispelled by creative exegesis and elaboration of each statement.
Before looking at thesis #1 in this essay, it is worthwhile making a preliminary distinction regarding the output of philosophical activity.
Philosophical works and philosophical theories
As the APP circle has already discussed, one should make a salient distinction between a philosophical work and a philosophical theory.
A philosophical work contains important philosophical insights or ideas, but is not primarily made for the purpose of practicing philosophy.
For instance, many classic literary works are, or contain, brilliant examples of philosophical activity.
Works like Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Frank Herbert’s Dune, or Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses contain moments of authentic, existential or spot-on observations on the human condition, science, art, or the limitations of what we can know.
Likewise, movies like The Seventh Seal, Rashomon, Ikiru, Bladerunner, Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix, Children of Men, or District 9 contain important philosophical ideas and make their implications visually felt.
While works of philosophy might deal with both abstract and concrete reality in narrative, literary, aesthetic or religious way, philosophical theories are more-or-less systematic expositions of this abstract and concrete reality.
Where works of philosophy could have a very informal, anecdotal or unsystematic character (and the author might not even know that he was actually practicing philosophy), philosophical theories have a more formal, systematic character.
Moreover, they are formulated and composed with philosophical intent in mind, as they are systematic, technical expositions of some content that is approached with the goal of exposition or clarification.
Some interesting historical philosophical works intriguingly oscillate between being a philosophical work and being a philosophical theory.
To my mind, works by De Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Bergson and the later Wittgenstein are quite hard to put into one category due to the variation of their contents.
Perhaps systematic-expository works like Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, or Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition could be counted as philosophical theories.
Those works are concerned with the practice of philosophy, although they also contain, as it happens, much more material than their authors describe in their prefaces and introductions.
These secondary themes appear implicitly, as it were, strewn throughout the text.
Moreover, works like Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, Nietzsche’s Gay Science, and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations contain traces of systematic philosophy in its formal form, but also elements of Lebensphilosophie, and all touch on existential concerns and the limits of what can be known, not unlike the split between moral/practical works and theoretical/metaphysical works that can be discerned in the case of Kant.
Here, the distinction between formal/technical philosophy and Lebensphilosophie runs throughout his body of work: roughly, a demarcation can be drawn between treatises that are more concerned with philosophical systematicity, and treatises that are more concerned with moral and political philosophy.
While the difference between a philosophical work and philosophical theory can be made intelligible, these two categories are distributed in various ways in the works from individual philosophers.
In part, this has to do with individual preferences, but also with the cultural context in which some authors wrote.
Byron, the Shelleys, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard all adopt a specific, rather non-technical idiom and approach to philosophy, in keeping with the core tenets of Romanticism.
Compared to often formal, technical works by Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza or Kant, the Romantics created a mental world in which the philosophical focus had shifted from understanding the causally determined, mechanistic, ultimately rational cosmos to the condition of the individual in the face of modernity.
This focal shift had its effect on how philosophical theories and works co-existed side-by-side in the oeuvres of philosophers during the 19th century.
The Lebensphilosophie that emerged during the 19th century has a noticeably different character than moral philosophy in the 17th and 18th century.
What seems particularly striking throughout the 19th century is a sense of bewilderment in the face of a mechanistic scientific worldview combined with a modernizing capitalist society.
The optimistic tone discernible in 17th/18th century philosophy, and the implicit trust that humanity will eventually solve its problems and enter the space of universal reason was violently shaken as the 19th century goes on.
This violent shake-up leads to a new kind of philosophy that appears to be more concerned with simply “making sense of what is going on” than with solving abstract problems or grasping the nature of reality as such.
The optimism has been replaced by a bleak, sometimes sombre cynicism.
All this does not imply that Lebensphilosopie as such is unsystematic or uninterested in traditional philosophical topics–such as free will, necessity, the nature of mind, moral laws, etc.–at all: on the contrary.
Instead, the whole framework in which these topics are being discussed topples, and consequently, not only philosophy, but also the way of conducting it has to be re-invented.
These attempts at re-invention yielded very different results, but the important point here is that they lead directly to the first thesis: philosophy as conducted from a philosophical theory or worldview, with all the consequences this implies.
Thesis #1: Real philosophy begins with a philosophical theory or worldview
This thesis is more complex than it seems at first.
It does not imply that real philosophy has a ready-made view of the world, or a fully prepared theory before the real philosophizing starts.
Sometimes one gets the impression that a worldview is the source of the framing of all philosophical problems, or that all problems are being reduced and truncated in order to fit into a certain, predefined worldview, in a Procrustean way.
The most clear-cut example seems to be the Vienna Circle: taking “the scientific conception of the world” as point of departure was a tactical move that was intended to bring all philosophical problems within the domain of the logically expressible.
The worldview is the delineation of what may and may not be questioned.
We will not be concerned with this type of pre-emptive, Procrustean worldview here except as a negative example, telling us what to avoid.
Instead, the view that informs all real philosophical activity is often only a posteriori readable or detectable.
When and only when the oeuvre of a philosopher or school is reviewed as a whole, a set of presuppositions emerges that informs the philosophical activity of that individual or school.
Of course, one should take care not to read one’s own prejudices directly, dogmatically, and uncritically into the work of others, retroactively – although, on the other hand, creative appropriation that is both charitable and self-critical can be a very fruitful philosophical approach as well.
In this connection, Gilles Deleuze once said that every philosopher works on a question that he cannot formulate clearly.
What we perceive when we read philosophy is the surface effect of the philosopher’s fascination.
To find the core underlying this philosophical activity is a task that can often only be done later, after all the shooting and shouting is over, and sufficient time for reflection has elapsed.
For example, when examining the oeuvre of Michel Foucault, one can detect a fascination with regulating and institutionalizing mechanisms.
The manifestation of this fascination is a series of analyses of mental health institutions, clinics, prisons and heterotopias, but also applied to the understanding of sexuality, structures of classification, and knowledge production.
The worldview or theory that serves as point of departure may be a disciplinary, metaphysical, epistemological, ontological or moral perspective that can have both positive and negative effects.
It may direct philosophical inquiry towards new, unexplored territory, but it may also be used to cling to one’s beliefs and convictions dogmatically and uncritically.
Robert Nozick humorously noted that the larger part of philosophical activity is devoted to squeezing one’s findings into a premade, theoretical pigeonhole-model of the world in order to arrive at a nice, harmonious picture.
In a similar, more serious vein, Max Horkheimer argued that one has to follow the internal logic of a subject, and refrain from wanting to arrive at a cheerful conclusion.
It is not enough merely to be systematic or to use predefined methods – some methods for philosophizing must be invented on to go, while dealing with a subject, and within the context of dealing with that subject.
A worldview cannot be used to philosophize indiscriminately on every subject by applying it in a mechanical, rote manner, like Wolff cranking out Leibnizian rationalism, or like Hegel’s followers cranking out the Hegelian dialectic.
If we follow this line of reasoning, then the mechanical, rote application of classical propositional logic, modal logic, or even dialetheic logic to address any philosophical problem or question cannot be an adequate philosophical method.
It avoids philosophical thinking, applying a tool in an automatic manner, hoping for clear answers that are consistent with a pre-established view on philosophy or reality.
Babich quotes Heidegger as explicitly rejecting this type of thinking, and calling it a tool for “creating the technological world.”
Indeed, the rise of Analytic philosophy in recent and contemporary academic philosophy non-accidentally coincides with the rise of the post-War consumer society and large-scale advanced capitalism, in which problem solving–minimizing risk, maximizing profit, rigorously applying rules–as a purely instrumental form of rationality, takes centre stage.
Indeed, this reductive, over-analytic aspect of the post-war society was criticized by various members of the Frankfurt School, like Adorno, Fromm and Marcuse.
Heidegger’s apocalyptic observations were spot on, as the doctrines of logical atomism and later verificationism fitted neatly into an “engineering mind-set” in which problems could be exhaustively described, analysed, and solved within a pre-given framework.
The idea of technical rationality was successfully utilized in constructing the physical world, and its success in that domain was often used as a justification its widespread application in other domains.
Nevertheless, the philosophical worldview meant here is not a mechanical method, or fool- proof way of problem-solving.
As such, philosophy can be analytic, but it cannot be just analytic in the sense of mechanically dissolving its own subject matter into the purest abstractions.
It is a theoretical vantage point that is broader than a merely mechanical rule-following operation or an efficient procedure for subsuming every problem under one narrow type of knowledge, or one hegemonic theoretical model.
Therefore, it is precisely unlike the doctrine of Logical Empiricism, aka Logical Positivism, that began with “the scientific conception of the world,” and then sought to assimilate all knowledge to formal or natural scientific knowledge, in order to justify it, with philosophy playing the Lockean role of the “handmaiden” or “underlaborer” of the sciences.
The Logical Positivist worldview was a theoretical construct that was imposed on reality, and subsequently, all reality – indeed, all intellectual activity – had to be remodelled to conform to it.
About imposing one’s views on reality, Nozick’s point is well made – all too often, philosophers and scientists construct worldviews first, and spend considerable amounts of time squeezing all new findings and seeming anomalies within their pre-given frames.
Philosophical or scientific orthodoxies develop by clinging onto a set of firmly-held beliefs while new insights make it harder and harder to accept the orthodox view, or if they necessitate theoretically far-fetched assumptions.
While some theories do indeed possess an intellectually attractive and satisfying cognitive economy when they are first posited, the influence of new data often undermines their cogency for explaining phenomena, causing them to rely on more and more outlandish hypotheses that performed less and less real explanatory work.
Cartesian dualism may be the paradigmatic example here: Descartes seemed to provide a neat solution to age-old philosophical problems by introducing a hard and fast mind-body divide, but this theory became the source of intensive criticism, making its points of departure seem utterly implausible at last.
Both philosophers and scientists alike apply the rule that they do not like outliers – exceptional cases that refute mainstream beliefs.
In turn, those beliefs cannot be used to explain the existence of outliers in the first place.
To get rid of the outliers, their significance is downplayed or they are ignored altogether, as in the well-attested cognitive phenomenon of confirmation bias.
If one subscribes to Cartesian dualism nowadays, considerable downplaying and intellectual epicycling is required to maintain any form of credibility.
Traumatically, however, outliers confront any theory with its limitations.
They show that a theory cannot account for their existence.
In keeping with scientific practice, this feature is used for formulating objections.
Objections often identify actual or possible outliers to demonstrate theoretical shortcomings.
Given theory T, we construct objection O, for which T has no explanation, and therefore we have refuted theory T, or at least identified a serious shortcoming or seriously underdeveloped aspect.
Utilizing this strategy is not without danger, although it looks hard-nosed and rigorous on the surface.
Objections may theoretically undermine a theory, but that does not always undermine its relevance or its explanatory value.
A theory may be insightful or otherwise intellectually fruitful, notwithstanding objections made to it, and despite its imperfections.
Thus, if an objection is to be effective at all, it should possess some fairly high degree of relevance.
An objection that touches a minor point does little to advance a theory or to refute it, unless that minor point has the potential to undermine the theory to such a degree that reconsidering it is necessary.
The relevance of objections is also closely related to their often being counterfactual.
It is possible to refute any theory by constructing an imaginary world in which the theory to be refuted cannot possibly be true.
Counterfactual reasoning is an important skill when applied critically and sparingly.
However, constructing counterfactual objections without precision and without relating them explicitly to a structural feature of the theory to be refuted easily leads to sophism instead of philosophy.
Daniel Dennett introduced the idea of the “intuition pump” to describe how philosophical objections may be constructively used.
An intuition pump is a simulation of a conceptual situation in which each of its components is isolated, in much the same way that an engineer might manipulate individual properties of a material sample.
Suppose, e.g., that we are confronted with the classical Trolley Problem: if a moral agent refuses to sacrifice one person to stop an oncoming trolley, five persons will die.
In this case, the cost in lives will be higher if the observer decides to do nothing.
However, the intuition pump takes out individual elements of the story and manipulates them.
For example, suppose that it is not guaranteed that the trolley will kill the five persons, but that there is a small but non-trivial chance that it will derail before reaching them.
Or suppose that the one person to be sacrificed will invent a cure for cancer in the near future, or that it is Beethoven.
Or in another alternative range of cases, suppose that either the one person alone, or some or all of the five persons endangered by the trolley, are mass murderers.
These questions put conceptual and intuitive spins on the original idea, attempting to tease out where the difficulty lies.
But there is a significant problem with sophistry here, in that such cases are generally not used to illuminate the issue, but only to find an exception that is claimed to be a decisive case against the original theory.
This sophistical procedure creates the illusion of precision by “meticulous,” “rigorous” questioning, but overlooks the philosophically crucial fact that every objection is laden with uncriticized content – the objections themselves represent subjective viewpoints and preferences that have not been explicitly identified or criticized.
What should be questioned in such cases are the criteria by which the objector constructed his objections.
Philosophical precision, like every precision-made tool, has its uses, but also degrees and limits of application.
For some cases, it simply makes no sense to be too precise.
This may sound paradoxical for a discipline that takes pride in its rigour, but this point has been made succinctly by Gaston Bachelard when he wrote that every idea or concept has a “vector of abstraction.”
That is, every idea or concept is effective to the degree that it is precisely imprecise enough, insofar as its level of abstraction allows it to make complex conceptual relations intelligible.
When precision is applied too rigorously and too early, real thought is stifled, because it needs freedom to develop and flourish.
Like a sculptor working on a block of marble, the overall contours of the statue have to appear first, before finer tools can be applied.
To start sculpting a rough block with the finest chisel is to apply a degree of precision that is unproductive for the intended outcome.
Worse, it presupposes that the final degree of precision is known in advance, robbing the sculpting process of its properly creative, investigative qualities.
It falsely assumes that the sculptor knows precisely what he is going to make, that the activity of sculpting knows all its results in advance, and that its execution is a matter of mechanical application, instead of creative skill.
If we transpose the sculptor’s situation to the discipline of philosophy, we would have to assume that one had an adequate idea of the required precision of one’s theory before one starts philosophizing.
If philosophy is viewed as a mere problem-solving exercise within a well-known cognitive frame, this procedure can be applied.
However, if philosophy is viewed as a creative investigative process of intellectual exploration, this procedure is not applicable at all.
Likely, the nature of the question and the cognitive frame in which to interpret it will change as the investigation progresses – if one practices real philosophy, that is.
In turn, this real philosophical practice undermines the very idea of knowing very clearly in advance where one would end up after philosophizing.
Real philosophy is almost always punctuated by a question mark, rarely by an exclamation mark.
By way of conclusion, objections may be useful in developing a theory, but their effectiveness depends on creative, skilful deployment.
Objections are motivated from within a certain worldview.
If someone maintains that the only legitimate philosophy is broadly logical positivist, his objections will most likely reflect his philosophical orientation.
While such a confrontation of worldviews may be useful, opponents might be less than charitable in constructing their objections.
In such cases, the rigidity of one worldview prevent fruitful interaction with other views, effectively bulldozing them by using objections.
Adrian Piper called this attitude towards philosophy out by giving the perfect character sketch of such a Bulldozer:
Sometimes the Bulldozer seems almost to induce in himself a trance state by the sound of his own words, and seems impervious to your ineffectual attempts to get a word in edgewise. And should you momentarily succeed in getting a word in edgewise, rest assured that there will not be many of those. For any one of them may set off a further volcanic eruption of speech in the Bulldozer, a shower of philosophical associations that must be pursued at that moment and to the fullest extent, relentlessly, wherever they may lead.
The chief characteristic of the bulldoze is his adherence to dogma, and the insistence on precision and rigorousness is used to forcibly projecting his own frame of thinking on others, and his unwillingness to consider other frames of thinking. In turn, this attitude makes any intellectual contact impossible: one is lectured instead of beings treated as an equal partner in the conversation, and any attempts to equalize the discussion are systematically undermined.
In a stroke of genius, Piper notes that the more aggressive variation of the Bulldozer is the Bully: one who resorts to more aggressive strategies in force others into intellectual obedience:
She may deploy familiar locutions designed to forestall objections or questions before they are raised: “Surely it is obvious that …” or “It is perfectly clear that …” or “Well, I take it that …” The message here is that anyone who would display such ignorance and lack of insight as to call these self-evident truths into question is too philosophically challenged to take seriously; and the intended effect is to intimidate the misguided into silence.
Preceding objections with rhetorical devices abut self-evident truths and the reasonableness of one’s own position gives the objections some added force: the one who is disagreeing is painted by his opponent as someone who does not see the obvious, reasonable or plausible way of doing philosophy: he or she cannot be taken seriously, and – that’s the tacit assumption kept alive here – to disagree with the objection is a result of displaying not enough rigor, or possessing not enough historical knowledge.
Thus, the person disagreeing must be forced into obedience, should be made into an example, and the most effective way of doing this is of forcing one’s own dogmatic frame of thinking onto the other person, accusing him of sloppiness, a lack of knowledge or insight or dumbness if he objects from within his own frame of mind.
[W]ithin the Vienna Circle, charges of meaninglessness were quite common in informal discussion, especially in the mouths of Schlick, Carnap and Waismann (…) Even positivistic colleagues could be accused of uttering meaningless sentences by a philosopher who was sufficiently convinced that his own views were the correct ones.
Ideally, a worldview or theory in real philosophy is not a static, dogmatic set of beliefs, but a cognitive object that develops over time, and that structures and directs philosophical inquiry without imposing itself on the results.
Again, this statement sounds paradoxical: how can the philosophical worldview be present when directing the inquiry, but be absent when judging its results?
The first thing to notice is that this claim does not mean that the philosopher is free of biases, prejudices, theoretical preferences, blind spots etc.
It merely sets an ideal that structures the whole direction of the inquiry.
Note also that this statement does not guarantee a road to truth or even philosophically interestingly results.
The history of philosophy is full of examples where philosophers turned a blind eye or resorted to intellectual forgery when unwelcome conclusions or findings upset their worldview—this is now known as “Nozick’s Syndrome.”
Kant’s attempts to unite the structure of cognition with the application of moral law, Hegel’s attempts to make the State the expression of all individual wills, or the insistence on meaningful statements in the case of the Logical Positivists all point towards the same phenomenon: an inability or blind spot with regards to one’s own thinking, and a dogmatic move to vindicate their own worldview.
Real philosophy is thus a commitment to limit the influence of dogmatism, and to keep an open mind with regards to alternative options and possible objections.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that one cannot maintain convictions, preferences or blind spots.
The philosophical worldview is a way of structuring the inquiry without pretending that it is the only, correct, justifiable or best system around. As such, it is opposed to the uncritical application of philosophical tools like logic, objections or propositions. Instead, the first move is to problematize their use.
One could think of this worldview as a necessary fiction: a philosopher may self-consciously know that he is less than perfect, biased, or misguided.
However, even these attitudes with all the limitations they imply are put at use towards the ideal of something greater than individual effort: a search for truth, or coherence, or progress – depending on what one favors.
This adherence to an ideal does not mean that every move or strategy is warranted.
Propaganda in service of the truth is abhorrent, since such an approach assumes that one possesses the truth already, and that the rest of the world should be tricked into accepting it, thereby not respecting their dignity and autonomy as persons.
Again, history provides an invaluable guide of philosophical tools, arguments, shortcomings, sophistry, different worldviews, cognitive frames and commentary.
This historical collection provides invaluable insights into occasions where philosophers did not apply their own standards, were overtly dogmatic, convinced themselves a little too much or simply overlooked crucial counter-arguments.
This repository is essential for discussing old and new philosophical problems, although many problems may be reframed in logical or propositional terms, an excellent practice to clarify one’s thoughts about a certain topic.
Instead of expecting that this ordering activity and propositional representing of problems or ideas does the philosophical work, one should consciously move beyond what logic or propositions can deliver.
The philosophical worldview is a necessary tool to start philosophizing, to ‘clear the slate’ for a moment, exploring where the next thought might lead. However, as the coming essays will explain, this move introduces the need for historical awareness and doing metaphilosophy.
 See Popper’s treatment of Hegelian dialectic and the topic of contradiction in Conjectures and Refutations, chapter 15 in which he rejects the productive character or possibility of notably Hegelian dialectics
 See, for example, Scruton’s treatment of Zizek’s work:.
 Babette Babich, On the Analytic-Continental in philosophy in Prado, C. G. (ed.), A House Divided: Comparing Analytic and Continental Philosophy Philosophy (New York, NY: Humanity Books, 2003) p. 94, note 7.
 Babette Babich, On the Analytic-Continental in philosophy, p. 68; here quoting L. Jonathan Cohen from The Dialogue of Reason: An Analysis of Analytic Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986) in Prado, C. G. (ed.), A House Divided: Comparing Analytic and Continental Philosophy (New York, NY: Humanity Books, 2003).