1. “What is philosophy?”— What kind of question is that? I’ve long found it fascinating and of huge importance that, “What is philosophy?” is itself a philosophical question. This is not the same for other fields. That is, “What is science?” is not a scientific question. Perhaps if it is read as asking, “What do people called ‘scientists’ do?” it could be read as an empirical question, though that is not enough to make it scientific. I take the questions, “What is philosophy?” and “What is science?” to be asking about how we should think of them, which may or may not correspond to how anyone actually does think of them. This is not to say that there is a single correct answer to either question, though that in itself is controversial. However, if Wittgenstein’s denial of essences and his alternative picture of family resemblance has a place anywhere, I’d say it is here, with how we should conceive of philosophy (and most likely science).
As Wittgenstein realized, this could be seen as “taking the easy way out,” as it might seem to avoid the hard work of figuring out that one thing that philosophy is supposed to be. However, while I want to put forward a certain conception of philosophy—write its manifesto—without taking that to mean it is the only way philosophy should be conceived or pursued this does not mean that just anything goes. Much less that things will be easy. It is a potentially misleading analogy, but just as the possibility of a variety of legitimate interpretations of a poem does not mean that just any interpretation is of value, so with philosophy: not just anything will do.
2. There are many ways one can divide up the (meta-) philosophical terrain. A distinction that is vital for my purpose here is that between conceptions of philosophy that see it as something that could or should be brought to an end (at least in theory) and conceptions of philosophy that do not see it as something that could or should be brought to an end (theoretically or no). There are a variety of ways one might conceive of philosophy as “endable.” For example, in a well-known passage from 1931, Wittgenstein writes:
People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don’t understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions. (Culture and Value, Tran. Winch, 16)
A rough sketch, particularly one that exaggerates certain features, can be more useful than a finely proportioned, subtle, and detailed drawing. This may be the case, for example, when one wants to highlight certain features that otherwise may be missed if they are buried in detail and perfect lines. With this in mind, I want to discuss a disturbing aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy in order to foreground an even more disturbing aspect of American culture.
At one point at least, Nietzsche viewed what he considered High Culture—by which I take it he meant the cultural achievements of the likes of Beethoven, Goethe, Wagner (at one time), et al., and perhaps even the work of a Darwin—to justify the enslavement of lower types/classes. While there is the alternative of opting for universal equity, that can only occur with a sacrifice of culture. Safranski writes:
In his notes, Nietzsche sharpened the problem of the link between culture and social justice. When it comes to culture, he contended, a decision must be made as to its essential aim. The two major options are the well-being of the greatest possible number of people, on the one hand, and the success of individual lives, on the other. The moral point of view gives priority to the well-being of the greatest possible number of people, whereas the aesthetic view declares that the meaning of culture lies in the culmination of auspicious forms, the “peak of rapture.” (Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, 73.)
There is a special class of knowledge or wisdom that we might call insight or realization. This comes in a variety of forms and degrees. For example, someone tells you how scary it is to be in the water when someone spots a shark. You’ve been afraid before, you’ve been in the ocean before, so you think you have a pretty good idea of what that must be like. But you don’t really realize what it’s like until you’ve been swimming on the North Shore of Oahu and someone yells, “Shark!” At which point you panic like never before, swim like never before. Or you have a conversation with a friend and they tell you something that sounds plausible and halfway interesting, but it doesn’t really connect with anything else you’ve been thinking about or that is meaningful to you. But some years later, after reading different things, thinking things through, you suddenly have an insight, you suddenly have this realization. You then happen to excitedly tell your friend about it, and their reaction is, “That’s what I told you two years ago!”
What is importantly common to the shark and friend examples is that they both involve a kind of “seeing” for oneself. The shark example is different in the speed at which the realization happens. It is a purer form of realizing what it is like to experience or do something. The example with the friend is less of a realizing what it is like and more a realizing the significance of something. This realizing the significance often means seeing connections, how an idea, for example, connects up with other important ideas, one’s other beliefs and values, etc. Such realizations are markedly different from simple cases of knowing how to do something like ride a bike and knowing what we might call “trivia” or pieces of information. For example, one might readily learn and know that in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is an important philosopher, is convicted and sentenced to death, eventually dying by drinking hemlock. So much is relatively easy to understand/know. But it takes years of studying philosophy and reading Plato, etc., to realize the full significance of those bits of knowledge, their value/significance, how they connect up with other issues, both in philosophy and one’s life. Continue reading →