Is Philosophy Inherently Escapist?

W2: I wanted to raise a question in light of your recent post, Hyper-Disciplined Minds. 

One of my concerns is that some problems you raise for professionalized philosophers are, in fact, problems for anyone who pursues philosophy full time.

The fact that experts in critical thinking are siphoned off into the ivory tower, where society is largely insulated from them, is very convenient for the neo-liberal industrialized military complex.

Don’t get me wrong–I think universities ought to have full time experts who teach hardcore critical thinking.

But at the same time, I am continually haunted by Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach:

Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

What if the point of philosophy is to outgrow it after awhile (indeed, much like therapy)? And what if the individual’s continuing pursuit of philosophy ends up being more problematic than not?

A natural reply is that real philosophy, ultimately, aims at assisting effective action. So the practical worth of real philosophy is secure.

But then I wonder how much of the discipline (professionalized or not) counts as “real philosophy.”

For instance, even though Hume on causation is unquestionably a great part of our history, how much does it really serve practical ends?

(The critical thinking exemplified by Hume can serve such ends very well… but how much does Hume’s doctrine of anti-realism about causation serve those ends?)

Relatedly, I worry that philosophy, even great examples of it, is more escapist than practical.

Here I am reminded of Nietzsche in Genealogy of Morals, 3:

The proficiency of our finest scholars, their heedless industry, their heads smoking day and night, their very craftsmanship: how often the real meaning of ll this lies in the desire to keep something hidden from oneself!

Let me be clear–I am only raising the question; I am not necessarily convinced of a pessimistic answer to it. But it seems worthwhile to raise the question.

Z:  It’s a terrific, and terrifically hard, question.

I think that there are at least two distinct worries here: (i) that classical real philosophy, even the greatest classical real philosophy, has been in some fundamental way escapist, and (ii) that all philosophy, including real philosophy, is inherently escapist.

As to the first worry, I do think it’s true that much of even the greatest classical philosophy is, in some fundamental way, escapist.

I’m thinking, e.g., of Aristotle’s philosophical ideal of contemplation, of Plato’s philosophical ideal of Eidos-gazing and his elitist Academy, of Boethius’s idea that philosophy is a consolation for the awfulness of the actual world, of Cartesian solo-meditating, of Spinoza’s ideal of viewing god-or-nature sub specie aeternitatis, of Hegel’s intuitive understanding of everything from the standpoint of the Absolute, of Schopenhauer’s profound pessimism and his reactive ideal of detached, Buddhist, aesthetic contemplation, of early Husserlian phenomenological “bracketting” and “seeing essences,” of early Wittgenstein’s mystical-aesthetic experience of the world and his own life after kicking the theoretical-scientific “representational” ladder away, etc., etc.

In response to this escapism, Nietzsche and the later Wittgenstein (and of course early Marx too) say that we need to get over philosophy, liberate ourselves from mere interpretation and theory, and try to live our lives creatively in the world instead; and even Hume said that playing backgammon gets you more in touch with reality than the kind of metaphysics he was skeptically attacking, i.e., noumenal metaphysics, and of course he basically quit serious philosophy forever in his late 20s, after the Treatise “fell dead-born from the press.”

Let’s call this the “overcoming philosophy” tradition in philosophy.

But on the other hand, there’s Socrates, who said that as a part of philosophy itself, we’ve got to go back into the Cave, and who was prepared to drink hemlock in order to make a philosophical point about what it means to be a citizen of a state (which I actually regard as a reductio of Statism, contrary to most readings of the Apology and Phaedo, but that’s another story for another day); Kant, who said that as a part of philosophy itself we have to deny knowledge in order to make room for moral faith, and also that the ultimate goal of philosophy is “exiting our self-incurred immaturity”—i.e., liberating ourselves from mental slavery—then having a “revolution of the heart,” and finally daring not only to think and speak for ourselves, but also act for ourselves, in order to achieve enlightenment in all its “thick” senses: intellectual, religious, and political, all of them ultimately moral; the American pragmatists, who said that the meaningfulness of all real philosophy originally and ultimately flows from rational human interests and practices, and cannot remain unchanged in its encounters with its own essentially human sources; and the Existentialists, who said that real philosophy is itself nothing more and nothing less than the life-long attempt to rebel against absurdity, wholeheartedly choose and act freely, take deep responsibility, and thereby create a meaningful life.

Let’s call this the “life-changing metaphysics” tradition in philosophy.

Obviously, I’m deeply sympathetic to the life-changing metaphysics tradition.

Correspondingly, I also think that the philosophy-is-inherently-escapist worry depends upon a classical two-part assumption to the effect that (i) theory and practice essentially exclude each other and (ii) philosophy is fundamentally theoretical, not practical.

I reject both of those, and also want to assert the primacy of the practical, with irreducible theory fully embedded inside it.

This entails viewing natural science as irreducibly alethic and committed to an ideal of truth and knowledge, but only against the backdrop of categorically normative presuppositions fully embedded in irreducible logic and irreducible mathematics; and then also holding that philosophy not only inherently shares all these categorically normative presuppositions, but also, as synoptic reflection on the rational human condition, has the inherent goal of achieving Kant-style enlightenment in all those thick senses I mentioned above–“intellectual, religious, and political, all of them ultimately moral,”—while also fully taking on board the basic pragmatist and Existentialist thoughts about the nature of real philosophy.

(After all, at the end of the day, I think it’s undeniable that American pragmatism and Existentialism alike are what I’ll call crypto-Kantian trends in philosophy, i.e., trends with secret, deep allegiance to their Kantian origins.)

Then my reply to Marx is this: Yes!, we should be changing the world, not merely interpreting it. But we need real philosophy in order to change our lives, and only then can we change the world in the right way.

And one last thought, by way of a postscript.

I totally agree with what you say about Hume on causation, and also with what you imply about the absurdity of our teaching Hume on causation over and over and over again, ad nauseam, thereby inducing a kind of philosophical sickness-unto-death in our students and ourselves, as if Hume’s devastating skeptical analysis were some sort of philosophical end-in-itself.

But that’s because we’ve locke-d ourselves (pun so totally intended) into teaching epistemology and metaphysics as if it somehow floated independently of moral philosophy, philosophy of religion, and political philosophy. So really, the only way to teach Hume on causation properly  would be to teach it alongside the whole fucking Treatise and both Enquiries, as well as his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, and whatever we can glean about his political philosophy from his essays, his History of England, and his historically-embedded biography. Ditto mutatis mutandis for Locke on innate ideas or personal identity, only in the larger context of his political philosophy and his embedded bio.

It would also mean that every distinct segment of every proper course in the history of modern philosophy would take at least a semester of serious reading and discussion, and every such course would take four years to complete.

–Which would also mean that we’d have to change our working conception of undergraduate education in philosophy completely, not to mention changing our working conception of undergraduate liberal arts education as such, fundamentally.

But then we knew that already, which is what the Rebel Arts Education post was all about.

But what the fuck:  just because it would be really difficult to do it, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying with all our hearts to do it.

W2:  I suppose I remain unconvinced… though again, that’s not to say I’m convinced of the opposite view.

I’m thinking that much of what you say in favor of “life-changing metaphysics” (though not all of it) is compatible with the “overcoming philosophy” tradition. One must be engaged with philosophy at some point in order to “overcome” it.

But when does it make sense to overcome it? Presumably after it’s done it’s life-changing work (to the extent that it can do that). Now it may be unclear when one has exhausted philosophy’s capacities in this respect. But a vague line is still a line, in that there can still be clear cases when philosophy has become “too much of a good thing.”

Still, I sympathize to a degree with the Existentialist line about philosophy as a life-long stance against the absurd, or the Socratic idea that philosophy is part of the good life.

Though again, I would want to distinguish the activity of critical (/Socratic!) thinking from the doctrines that philosophers have created.

Also, while it’s true in one sense that “theory” is a part of praxis, there’s another sense in which “theory” is opposed to praxis. And when they are opposed, the Marxian advice is to go for praxis. This still leaves some room for “theory” in the former sense. But does it leave enough for the pursuit of theory as a full time job? I don’t know.

Z:  Hmm: also really interesting! I have three quick follow-up thoughts, by way of conclusion.

First, I think that my conception of real philosophy as life-changing metaphysics properly folds “overcoming misguided classical Rationalist noumenal-metaphysical theorizing and its skeptical reactive spinoffs, like Schopenhauer’s aesthetic neo-Buddhism, etc.” into the activity of real philosophy itself—that’s of course the Kantian “critique of pure reason.”

And in that sense, the overcoming-philosophy conception and the life-changing-metaphysics conception would be fully consistent: overcoming philosophy (= the Kantian “critique of pure reason”) is just a proper part, or “moment,” of real philosophy.

Second, I wouldn’t want to identify Socratic philosophizing in any way with “critical thinking”!, about which I have some serious worries along the lines of Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment, and Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason, as per my Enlightenment Lite post, also the upcoming “What (the Hell) is Enlightenment?” dialogue we’ll be publishing next Friday.

Third, and finally, I do think that the “theory” which is opposed to “praxis” is nothing but the misguided theorizing that falls under the Kantian “critique of pure reason,” hence overcoming it is integral to real philosophy, not something beyond real philosophy.

So what I’d conclude is (i) that real philosophy doesn’t have to be escapist, and (ii) that we should all be trying wholeheartedly to think, talk, write, and teach that kind of real, non-escapist philosophy.

Of course, we could fail miserably.

But again, what the fuck: and what have we got to lose but our Nietzschean “smoking heads,” and our smiley, smug APA game-faces–the masks we use to do battle for our ten minutes of fame and career-validation in The Fortune 500 Philosophy Club ?

–It’s infinitely better to be a real philosopher and a “failed academic,” than a smoking-headed, smiley-faced President of the APA.

This entry was posted in Conversations by W. Bookmark the permalink.

About W

W is a 20-something, 30-something, 40-something, or even 50-something non-tenure track philosopher currently teaching at a private or public institution of higher education somewhere in North America. Different people will contribute to W’s diary. Like X, W is a philosophical persona composed by several real persons.

About Z

Z is a 50-something cosmopolitan anarcho-philosopher, and previously was a tenured full professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America, but still managed to escape with his life.