a guest post by Regina Rini
I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again “I know that’s a tree”, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: “This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty
The word ‘end’ is usefully ambiguous in the following question: ‘What is the end of philosophy?’ This question could be asking about the goal of philosophy. What is philosophy trying to do? Or it might be asking about where philosophy ends up. What is philosophy’s final resting place? In this post I am asking – and answering – both questions at the same time.
Most philosophers will tell you that truth is their goal. They want to know the truth about Knowledge or Existence or Justice. I’m sure this is how they sincerely experience it – but I conjecture that ‘truth’ is only an instrumental goal. What these philosophers really want, I suspect, is certainty. They want to hold aspects of the world finally fixed in their minds, to make it the case that they cannot be wrong, at least about certain things. In service of this aim, they will jettison areas of inquiry about which certainty seems impossible. Hence, their category of the philosophical excludes the empirical, the accidental, and the historically contingent. What is left are the necessary truths – those that can be known to need to be true.
My conjecture fits a dominant thread in western philosophy. What was Descartes doing, after all, other than paring his thoughts back to that which could not be doubted, and then building forward only on foundations of certainty? What was positivism, but an attempt to secure certainty for philosophy by designating as ‘nonsense’ that which could not be verified? And what is the contemporary project of philosophical analysis – with its insistent investigation of proxy concepts amenable to enumerated necessary and sufficient conditions – other than a flight from uncertain actualities?
Absurdity lurks not far below certainty. We conjure thought experiments in which we have stipulated certainty about the laws of nature or human motivation, and we say that this is the real test of a philosophical concept, even as we struggle to apply that same finely sculpted concept to the unstipulated world. We carve nature at its joints, then display the bleached bones in positions they never naturally took. A protestor comes to our class from the streets of Ferguson, the smell of tear gas on her clothes, seeking guidance of which we apologetically demur; this is a seminar on ideal theory, and she is asking a non-ideal question. “We are not insane,” we say to the intruder in the garden. “We are only doing philosophy.”
This brings me to the other sense of philosophy’s ‘end’: where does philosophy end up? Where is it located in social space? At the periphery, I think, and trending further so. Contemporary American society has little interest in contemporary American philosophy. When earnest public broadcasters put together a program on the mysteries of the universe, they turn first to physicists. If they want to chat about human nature, they call neuroscientists. Plato at the Googleplex, a very successful recent book, was noted for the thesis that philosophy still matters at all. No one makes news writing that about physics.
I think that philosophy’s goal-end of certainty helps to explain its outcome-end of social irrelevance. Many people do want certainty, but philosophy is not where they will go to find it. Religion, of course, is an ancient and numerically dominant certainty-provider. But a sense of certainty can also be found in political ideology. Or, increasingly, in science. Philosophy is trying to compete in the certainty marketplace, and it is not winning.
Philosophy has a crucial weakness when it contends for certainty-seekers. Unlike religion or political ideology, it abjures the manifest certainty of a supreme authority. And unlike science, it does not trend toward disciplinary consensus. A central fact about philosophy is that philosophers have been debating the same questions for millennia, with no end in sight. Philosophy is essentially discursive, even disagreeable, in a way that makes its aim of certainty a collectively self-defeating one. Any particular philosopher may become certain about her own beliefs, but from the outside philosophy will always appear as a squabble among people asserting mutually contradictory claims with equal degrees of extreme confidence.
This shows the problem with the official justification for philosophical analysis. We say that we need to step back from messy reality in order to sharpen our concepts. We’ll just be away awhile, whetting our logical knives on some stipulated thought experiments. We’ll come back to the world, we insist, once we’ve polished our sufficient conditions. But we never come back. We argue endlessly about what we would need to make our truths necessary, and then we die and are replaced by the next generation’s assorted –ism-ists. We retire from the disorderly public square, into our shaded garden, its trees all arranged in logical space and known with certainty… and we never return.
Of course some philosophers do venture out from the garden. But for every one who does, there are a half dozen others who whisper unkindly about the impurity of the thing. Philosophy done in public rarely displays the rigor that is a precondition of necessity. There are limits to the number of fussy objections one can anticipate without hogging the speaker’s platform. And so public philosophy will never produce the certainty that many philosophers seek.
What if we took philosophy out of the certainty game? What would it mean, for philosophers to tolerate uncertainty, ambiguity, irresolution? It might mean trading the necessary for the contingent. Conceding that politics are never ideal. Acknowledging that knowers are embodied and temporal beings are located in history. None of this is absolutely alien to philosophy, but it is far from the apparent aim of many practitioners. Yet if we care about being anywhere other than the social periphery, perhaps we will have to adjust our ends.
This is my final guest post at The Splintered Mind. Thanks so much to Eric for the wonderful opportunity to speak from this platform. And thanks to everyone who has read and commented on my posts. This has been incredibly enjoyable – of that, I am certain.
image credit: 'Tree in Fog' by Matthew Paulson-------------------------------------
Thanks so much, Gina, for your wonderful series of posts over the last several weeks!
For interested readers, here are the other five: