What is philosophy, and who gets to say?

3 01 2011

The attitude of philosophers towards their readers has completely changed. It is no longer the truth they speak, but more rather the reader and the writer who become the principal object of their preoccupation. They themselves confess that they always hope, for their own sake, that the reader will approve of their opinions. What is still more important is that the reader for whom they write is no longer the philosopher, but rather that vague individual called the man of good sense on some occasions, the cultivated man on others, and the general reader on others. Compare that procedure with that of Aristotle or of St. Thomas. The Discourse on Method is essentially a rhetorical work. It was also one of the first appeals to unformed man precisely as he is unformed, an appeal which will some day shine forth in the appeal to the unformed masses insofar as they are unformed.

Philosophical works take on a form which makes them more and more unrefutable according to right thinking. They are rooted in attitudes. Philosophy becomes more and more the expression of the personality of philosophers. It becomes a literary activity. Who will refute a poem? Who will refute the thought of an author?

-Charles de Koninck, from this source (my emphasis)

I am ambivalent about this passage from this great Thomist philosopher. First of all, we need to look at context. This was written, so I think, in the 1940’s and before the Second Vatican Council. Could one be so elitist today as to think that we should deprive the “unformed” of philosophical discourse, especially in the context of the Christian tradition? This is especially the case due to the personalist and phenomenological concerns of many key Catholic figures in the last sixty years or so.

But then we get into the question of what philosophizing meant for the scholastics, and that is even more interesting. To philosophize, one always had to be of the clerical caste, often with similar formations, concerns, and ways of life. Also, one had an arbiter for the process: the Church. As in the religious realm in the revival that led to the Protestant Reformation, the early modern period in philosophy led to a vast dissemination of learning amongst the middle classes. Thus, the shoemaker and miller could conceivably read about philosophical questions outside of the safe confines of the cathedral school or ecclesial institution. Indeed, Descartes’ works can be conceived of as being marketed to a man of modest means in his leisure, instead of being for a monk or friar in a cloister.

That in general tends to burst the bonds of knowledge itself. Does post-Cartesian philosophy appeal to the lower instincts of our nature as de Koninck insinuates? Is it the easy way out to permit licentiousness and permissiveness in the midst of a hollow universe (to use another of de Koninck’s terms)? Does the common man have no business philosophizing, and should he leave it to the caste that is contemplative ex officio?

As I mentioned earlier, this is no longer the world in which we live. Even the clergy to a certain extent have been laicized (except for perhaps a few unfortunate remnants of elitism) in that they no longer have their own language or strict culture that separates them from the plebs. But even so, I think there is a reason why Pierre Hadot faulted Christianity for the death of ancient philosophy in the Western world. Let us remember that Epictetus was a slave, and became a philosopher as one. Perhaps the gate keeping that de Koninck desired is a bit like trying to control the flow of discourse with the edge of a sword or a barrel of a gun. Modernity is characterized by the explosion and uncontrollable nature of human learning, and one cannot put that genie back in the bottle.


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15 responses

4 01 2011
skholiast

Very interesting post on an insight from a neglected thinker. I too am ambivalent about what can be critiqued as the “elitism” in the passage. I am attracted to the conclusion that Cartesianism is symptomatic of a strong shift in the conception of what philosophy is, and i do see this shift in terms close to those de Koninck uses. On the other hand, I second-guess this sympathy of mine. Might it not just be my own elitist aspirations, lusting to identify with the master-discourse? And then the pendulum swings back: For heaven’s sake, man! (I say to myself) Have the courage of your convictions! Are you just going to kow-tow to the prejudices of the age?! But when I slow down a bit and take a breath, I reflect that this very internal dialogue with all its back-&-forth bears a certain resemblance (in a [post]modern key, no doubt) to, say, Socrates’ self-scrutiny (“How very strange of the oracle to call me the wisest of men… whatever could she have meant?”). I am no Socrates, but it seems to me that this sort of question is what lovers of wisdom must repeatedly ask themselves. To quote a very idiosyncratic modern, “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself” (Wittgenstein).

4 01 2011
Christopher

Thank you to everyone for your edifying comments. And thanks, again, to Arturo for hosting such a discussion.

3 01 2011
sortacatholic

de Koninck asserts that many recent philosophical works attempt to appeal to different types of readers simultaneously. Could this desire for “unoriginal originality” arise from notions of intellectual property that have arisen over the past few centuries?

As is well known, Paul did not write all of “Paul”. The tangle of attributed and dubious works in late antiquity and medieval eras of “Western” literature, philosophy, and sciences attests to the previous tradition of pseudonymous strands of philosophical thought based on “plagiarism” and “false attribution” (from our current post-intellectual-rights standpoint). I suggest that recent philosophers’ desire for originality in fact reflects the trend towards originality and autonomy evident in Locke’s dissection of impression and ideas (for example).

3 01 2011
KarlH

Well, I’ve been fighting a lot to convert for years. It would just be so easy. But I’ve not been sure if I could, in good faith, compromise certain moral convictions and areas of philosophical uncertainty that keep me outside of the institutional church. Hell, I attend a Jesuit university, I proof-check all my writings for heresy and compare them to council documents/papal bulls (when it comes to grey areas of heresy, I only suggest my views and note that they’re possibly in error), I believe in the Trinity, and I pray the Rosary almost daily. I suppose to all outward appearances I’m conflicted, but I’m actually rather content with where I am right now. At least, I try to be. Life is tough everywhere, and it’s even tougher when there’s no close family ties or community to plug in to. I am sometimes envious of the community that institutional Catholicism provides—I do feel as if I should belong to some faith tradition, it hurts my soul to spend so much time at a college where there are no children and families running around. The separation of academia from everything else that goes on in the world is unnatural and degrading. I may drop you an email when my fever dies and I can write coherently.

3 01 2011
Carlos

KarlH (plenty of Karl/Carlos/Karl-son here, huh?): In way, yes, it is a pragmatit point of view. I really hope somebody goes on and finds a way to adapt Oriental philosophy so that it can deal with western science, but it will be really hard. Science is based on the world being made of entities that are something apart from us, that can be studied, and Oriental philosophy tends towards a kind of pantheism/imanentism/ wholism that would make them really hard to concile.
As for conversion, I fought a lot *not* to convert, but I lost. I grasped at every small question I could use to withhold assentment, but eventually some thousand years of people a lot smarter than me won. 😀
In my opinion and experience, when one is honest and keeps fighting, the road will eventually lead to Rome. And from Rome we can plenty.
Perhaps – and that is what makes me a reader of this blog, BTW – the fact that I do not come from a Modern society made it easier, as I already had a mindset that is much closer to Catholicism than that of the average American or European. For me, for instance, what is considered to be “traditionalism” in Western countries is so blatant a form of Modernism I have a hard time seeing it as Catholicism. But that is a whole other story. 🙂
If you want to keep the chat going about that, you can write me at profcarlos (at) hsjonline (dot) com so we don’t hickjack the comments.
Of course, the same goes for everybody.

3 01 2011
KarlH

Carlos: You make some interesting points. I’m less skeptical about the /ability/ of Eastern systems to adapt to modern science (though I probably share your doubts that it will happen). Here in the US, there are already a large amount of studies being done looking at Buddhist conceptions of consciousness and its implications for the study of neuroscience, etc. In Japan, there has likewise been a large amount of philosophical works turned out by Buddhist monks over the last century which stand alongside old systematic traditions. Of course, these conceptions aren’t purely “Buddhist,” and I don’t want anyone to think I’m a sectarian. If Eastern and Western metaphysics aren’t just a bunch of hogwash, then they must be one. We both recognize this. However…I just can’t seem to take that “leap of faith” that requires me to stick to the Catholic tradition. There are just so many holes in Catholic thought that can’t even be addressed, due to the nature of magisterial authority.

I guess you’re taking a pragmatic approach to things, right? At least, this is what I’ve often considered doing. I haven’t converted to Catholicism because of my agnosticism about certain fringe matters deemed heretical and because I believe it might be intellectually dishonest to just practice equivocation whenever I want to indirectly suggest something that may or may not be acceptable to whatever orthodoxy is in vogue at the time. Still…it’s undeniable that Catholicism (and Buddhism) has an innate ability to absorb local cultural customs/manifestations of the Perennial Philosophy. Buddhism in the West is a joke, of course. So I’m very sympathetic to your position.

3 01 2011
Carlos

KarlH: From a purely philosophical staring point, because it is here and it is adequate to our civilizational reading of reality. Adopting an Oriental religious philosophy would entail learning to see everything from a different pont of view, so alien to Western mentality that it would almost be impossible to reconcile it with the sub-products of Western thought (such as modern sciences). The Orientals themselvez often abandon their religious/philosophical theories when they have to deal with (western, modern) science, ot at least develop a “double reality” mindset which, in fact, keeps philosophy and science as much apart as in the worst of Cartesianism.
From a religious viewpoint, because its agreement with Christianity has already been worked out. Confucionism could be on th eway to obtaining that agreement, too, but it wouldn’t help much in dealing with modern science.

3 01 2011
KarlH

I feel as if Arturo is too dismissive of Kierkegaard in earlier posts/maybe just doesn’t understand him outside of various commentaries and vague mentions, but Kierkegaard is interesting especially in his explorations of the existential side of a philosopher. He once said: “what the age needs is not a genius — it has had geniuses enough, but a martyr, who in order to teach men to obey would himself be obedient unto death.”

This, in a sense, is a core element of his thought: we can philosophize ad nauseaum but if we’re not devoted to actual Truth/the Good and instead taking active enjoyment in the various idols as a thing-in-itself (whether Hegelian or that of Schelling), we’re only producing so much noise. There can be no harmony, no grand symphony of intellectual discovery. The life of a philosopher for Kierkegaard, then, is based upon an actual love for philosophy. It is obedience and not reliant upon or prey to the passing trends of the age, though it should dialogue with such.

3 01 2011
KarlH

But why accept the Thomistic scholastic worldview? Even if it is a very well-refined and coherent system, there are many other philosophical systems belonging to various religious traditions which are also coherent and complete and founded on the same scholastic methods. We have the various scholastic schools in Tibetan Buddhism, the highly-developed philosophical texts belonging to pre-Zen Buddhism in China, etc. I guess my question is this: why accept the Thomistic worldview over, say, another religious scholastic tradition? They are also built upon hundreds of years of dialogue and construction and are even more “developed” on certain points because they are able to ask questions to which Catholics can’t supply certain answers (for instance, if the world is ultimately pure-consciousness or awareness—well, no. We can’t have that because we have to maintain a Creator-created distinction. And you can claim that this is the introduction of Descartesian thought, but hey. That’s been taught by a few Eastern schools for thousands of years.

(Please note that I’m generalizing/being hasty with concepts)

3 01 2011
Carlos

Karlson, I agree; people tend to forget that the body of knowledge has to grow organically, and it often means shedding something that has been proved wrong and inserting new material. That is why I urge my students to check everything and try to establish a connection with what has been discovered outside the (now) strict field of philosophy. Philosophy cannot be about what people think, and St. Thomas himself said that already.
Anonymous: The problem with D & G is that they are more concerned with dismantling a discourse (that does need some dismantling, BTW) that with making sense of things. Plenty of good insights, but no framework to make sense of things, IMHO.
And when there is no framework, it is easy to fall into some crazy half-baked extension of some technical or scientific discovery and build a killing creed from it (for instance, Darwinism applied to human society, spawning Nazism and Capitalism).
The human mind begs for sense, and if philosophy does not try to provide it, it will be found somewhere else.

3 01 2011
Anonymous

Deleuze & Guattari fit the bill on this… it seems like most contemporary philosophers are following in their wake and making various adjustments to the their work – like the new British “Speculative Realists,” Badiou, Zizek, and others. It’s an anti-system ecology of various machines… lines of flight, striations, territorializations, etc. I wish there was more serious engagement with their works among Catholic and Orthodox thinkers, but maybe that’s just me not knowing French or German – there could be a whole treasure trove of French Catholic thinkers who have worked with Deleuze that I’m unaware with.

3 01 2011
Henry Karlson

I fully agree with Arturo’s emphasis in this post. One of the problems of Thomism, vs Thomas, is the dogmatic stablization of his ideas, which become no longer philosophical but ideological tools. St Thomas was willing to explore a wide range of thought and engage it, not just expect one form or way as being “the way” for philosophy, nor did he think, though he came with a great system, that he presented “the final form” of anything.

The difficulties which modernity has brought to philosophy are manifold: on the one hand, we understand even more the problems of over-arching systems, on the other hand, we feel the need for them. On the one hand, we have way too much to work with, on the other hand, we have few really interested in engaging philosophy, even philosophers are more historians than philosophers.

One of the things any good, new system will have to do is provide a way to be a system which is yet open for modification. One of the great things about Platonism was this — its fluidity and genius was such that changes in scientific knowledge didn’t put Platonic thought in dispute, as it did with the philosophy of Aristotle. On the other hand, this is also its weakness — if people are materialistically bound, and interested in knowledge that follows the dictates of science, Platonism will always be seen as something outside of it. Any new system will have to be more capable of being scientific, like Aristotle, but more open and capable of modification. Until that happens, I think we will find ourselves drifting, as we do in the modern age.

3 01 2011
Carlos

I am probably oversimplifying, yes. After all, it is a comments box, and it has its limits. 🙂
And yes, I also confess I am a Thomist, and I do see the Hellenistic philosophic works as (often very good) attemps at philosophy, but not much more than that. Their equivalent today would be found more in the works of those who try to find out a recipe for living (from Osho to self-help writers) than in Modern philosophy, though.
But the point is that the body of knowledge is not “up to dispute”: it is simply ignored. Nobody bothered replying to that body of knowledge; they just started a new ball game, in which the point is not to understand the world, but rather how to avoid complete solipsism. Descartes walled himself inside his own mind, and what came thereafter are just attempts at opening tiny pinpricks in his walls.
There are plenty of good insights in Modern philosophy – I am, myself, a fan of Ortega y Gasset, for instance – but the lack of a larger worldview makes it easy to fall into logic traps.
And, answering your question, if one wants to study the notion of motion it is worthwhile to study the body of knowldge of modern physics. In fact, I always say physicists are the only people working with metaphysics nowadays, even if it is a reductionist mathematical metaphysical model.
On the other hand, neurologists have arrived at a very similar conception of epistemology to that of St. Thomas. I always tell my students to study some neurology if they want to really understand Thomist epistemology.
The body of knowledge of Aristotelian-Thomist (what I did call classical) philosophy provides a starting point to establish the connections between the different in-depth studies. Without that body of knoledge (or some other, but nobody built it), the disconnection between the branches of science (Ethics included) becomes dangerous. If one is able to do something, one sees oneself as allowed to do it.

3 01 2011
Arturo Vasquez

I think you are oversimplifying here. You mistake perhaps Aristotle’s and the subsequent scholastic approach for the “classical” approach to philosophy. At least from the rhetorical point of view, Nietzschean-style aphorisms were far more common, say, in Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, to give just two examples, as well as the Pythagorean Golden Verses. (Nietzsche was, after all, a classical philologist.) In other words, citing the scholarship of Pierre Hadot, I would have to say that aphorisms and “small punctual works” were the norm in the ancient world. The idea that a philosopher could develop a systematic text that studies a whole “body of knowledge to go on to specifics” was foreign to ancient philosophy with the possible exception of Aristotle.

I think you are right when you say that modern philosophers want to be unique, and perhaps this is detrimental. On the other hand, as insinutated in the original post, this is due primarily to the breakdown of one single hegemonic approach to a broad set of physical and metaphysical problems. In other words, the “body of knowledge” in question is up for dispute, there is no undisputed canon that one has to master first, and particular branches of knowledge have become highly technical and specialized. Does a good Thomist philosopher today need to study the whole body of knowledge when it comes to quantum physics and modern astronomy to then move on to the specifics of the nature of motion in metaphysics, for example, or is it sufficient to just read Aristotle on the question? I think one is starting to wander into the field of dogmatism at that point, which defeats the purpose of philosophy, lest one just give up and become a fideist.

3 01 2011
Carlos

I would think the author was pointing to a different problem: while classical philosophy is/was concerned with the construction of a body of knowledge that aloows us to understand the world, Modern philosophy is more concerned with unconnected “insights”. In order to understand any science (physics, biology, etc.), one has to study the whole body of knowledge before moving on to the specifics; the same happens in classical philosophy. In Modern philosophy, on the other hand, every philosopher, starting with Descartes, tries to concoct a new way of seeing the world, necessarily simplified, as one single person could not build such a great body of knowledge. At the end, all that remains are insights for the layperson, sorely lacking of the universality of classical philosophy.
If one takes, for instance, Descartes and Nietzsche, it is easy to see that both do the same thing, seeing man as composed of reason and body, and appealling to one of them. Descartes leaves the body aside, Nietasche leaves the mind aside, but both are building from nothing a viewpoint that in the end becomes nothins more than a small series of insights. That is why aphorisms and small punctual works became so prevalent in Modern philosophy.

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