On the Genesis of New Philosophical Subdisciplines

There are two main means whereby new philosophical subdisciplines are generated today.

The first takes a science distinct from philosophy as a subject of study in its own right. This is the cause of the generation of ‘philosophy of’ disciplines like philosophy of physics, biology, mathematics, etc.

The second operates via the assumption that there is something into which being and some other matter can be divided as members of a common genus, from which the other member of this genus can be separated out as a distinct object of study. Correlatively, the disciplines studying these other matters are themselves divided against metaphysics as the science of being.

The first mode suffices to generate disciplines that, while they retain some interest for a time, maintain a subordinate place within the overall organization of the philosophical sciences.

Furthermore, the level of activity generated in this kind of subdiscipline will be proportionate to the admiration held for it in the wider culture, i.e. proportionate to the prominence that science holds in the culture. For instance, for as long as the relative esteem for the sciences remain as they are at present, the quantitative output in philosophy of physics will surpass that in philosophy of biology.

Lastly, the existence of such disciplines is distinctly modern, in that it puts in action a presupposed distinction between philosophical and scientific method: such disciplines can arise today only on the presupposition that the methods practiced by these sciences are themselves insufficient to capture their own activity. [1] This is why today there can be a philosophy of psychology, but no philosophy of philosophy-of-mind.[2]

The second mode, much older, is that whereby new core disciplines in philosophy are generated. Take the phrase “Being and          “, and fill in the blank, and that blank will itself correlate to a distinct core philosophical discipline at a given period. In Ancient Greek philosophy, being is divided against becoming; accordingly, metaphysics is divided against Aristotelian physics, a contrast from which the former discipline receives its name. In the early modern period, being, as material being, is contrasted with both thought and thinking; accordingly, epistemology and philosophical psychology take up a central place. In Kant, we have the separation of being from the realm of the ought or value. This gives rise to modern ethics.[3] In a move beginning with Leibniz and coming to fruition in Husserl, we see the pair being/appearing (which itself goes back to Plato) come to the fore; accordingly, phenomenology comes to form a core part of Continental philosophy, a place it still occupies today. And at the dawn of the analytic tradition, we have the pair being/language. This begets philosophy of language, and provides it with the centrality it had in both the regimenting tradition represented by Russell, Quine, and Tarski; and the ordinary language tradition of Ryle and Austin. This further explains why, in spite of its name, philosophy of language is a discipline of the second rather than the first type.

At the time that a new discipline of the second type arises, it is characterized in each case by a special relation to metaphysics. Often, the discipline becomes something of a rite of passage, a sine qua non for grasping being itself. This is the role taken up by physics in Aristotle, as well as by epistemology in the early modern period.

Other times, the object takes on the character of an insurmountable barrier. Thought does this in later modernity. Accordingly, the discipline studying that object may take on the character of a kind of guardianship, barring the path to superstition. Philosophy of language takes on this prohibitive role in the attitude of the Vienna circle.

Other times, the discipline may merely concede the study of being to another realm, typically on the assumption that the discipline can do well enough without it. This is the attitude of the early Husserl, who concedes the task of studying being to the positive sciences, taking phenomenology to open up a realm distinct from the reach of those sciences and interesting in its own right. This also remains the dominant attitude towards the ought in analytic ethics.[4]

Other times, the discipline may itself revert into a kind of metaphysics. This happens when the object of that discipline itself begins to be perceived as all that there is to the world. This happens in two ways.

  • The first way is when that object is identified with being itself. This occurs in a manner in the transcendental idealism of the later Husserl: since appearing belongs to everything within the sphere of consciousness, talk of being outside of that sphere is simply taken to be nonsense.
  • The second way is when that object is taken not as being itself, but as source of being. Value takes on this role, for instance, in the ethics of Nietzsche: since beings are themselves meaningless, it falls upon the valuer to confer value on beings, and therefore accord them their being.[5] Much earlier, form takes on this role in the philosophy of Aristotle, relative to the being of the material and elemental taken by some pre-Socratics to name being itself.[6]

It is usually assumed, albeit often implicitly and unconsciously, that a wholly adequate philosophical understanding of everything there is would be one whose separate parts cohered in a maximally efficient way: within philosophy, this manifests itself in the desire to have one’s metaphysics ‘mesh’ with an adequate epistemology, semantics, etc. Outside of philosophy, it drives calls for philosophy to become interdisciplinary. It would be better for this new disciplinary egalitarianism to become conscious of the material root from which it arises: the presupposition that some beings simply don’t count as such.philosophical tree

[1] Even into the early modern period, for instance, the method the studying the physical world was sufficiently eidetic that study of this method could only amount to study of the method of philosophy itself; and so Galileo, for instance, could never be a philosopher of physics, but was instead a natural philosopher.

[2] This further gives the lie to the idea that philosophy should adopt the methods of the ‘exact’ sciences, since these sciences themselves witness that doing so would involve a loss in philosophy’s awareness of its own activity and guiding ideal.

[3] Accordingly, it explains its distinct character from Ancient ethics, for which the ought was not the subject, but the good.

[4] This is congruent with many ethicists denying this characterization. To the degree that the question of the relation to being does not enter into the discourse and activity of ethics, this silence itself governs the productivity of the field as a whole.

[5] This is why Nietzsche states, in the famous passage of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, that we, who have killed god, must ourselves become gods to become worthy of the deed.

[6] This is the relation most clearly intended in Heidegger’s description of metaphysics itself as onto-theology, with Aristotle and Nietzsche as bookends to the story. This further is what undergirds Heidegger’s claim, in “Nietzsche’s word: God is Dead” that Nietzsche’s thought, in contrast with that of Kierkegaard, remains essentially within the purview of Aristotle’s.

Continental Philosophy: ‘working in’ and ‘working on’.

Many philosophers – and I think this is more the case as we survey younger and younger generations of philosophers – wish we could simply move past the so-called analytic-continental divide, and tend to view the whole division as a byproduct of misunderstanding, or even of a the politico-cultural situation of philosophers of a previous generation. Frankly, we disdain the division, and vacillate between wishing the distinction no longer existed and acting as though it in fact no longer did:[1] that is, we pretend to be ‘over it’.

That this is a pretense, however, is shown up in the structures governing the advancement of work that purports to promote dialogue between, or work across, these traditions.

The model followed in nearly all such attempts – and paradigmatically, in the structuring of pluralistic or continental-friendly departments – is that of attempting to achieve numerical proportionality between those working ‘on’ analytic philosophy, and those working ‘on’ continental philosophy. In some departments, the desideratum will be a 1:1 ratio; in others, 1:2; while in others, having even one philosopher working in a tradition differing from that of the majority of departmental faculty would suffice.

What is left unnoticed in these efforts is the way the manner of appropriation itself affects the reception of content.

Since Heidegger, much continental philosophy – and especially that which has grown out of the phenomenological tradition – has been deeply preoccupied with philosophical reflection on the nature of philosophy itself, and especially on the manner in which philosophy qua philosophy supposedly thinks being qua being as a mode of presence. Thus, one finds in the work of thinkers like Levinas and Derrida attempts (whatever merit they may have) to teach philosophy to think something other than the presence which has supposedly pervaded philosophical thinking until today.

And yet, at least in the U. S., hires attempting to bolster this tradition manage to be self-undermining on exactly this point. In seeking hires ‘in’ the continental tradition, advertisements are sent out for specialists ‘on’ continental philosophy. That is, instead of hiring philosophers working in the continental tradition, we hire philosophers who take that tradition, or some attenuated portion of it, as the object of their study.

Inasmuch as the tradition is encountered in the mode of objectness, it itself must become something encountered as what is present-at-hand. To ‘fit the bill’ of a continental hire, one must either work ‘on’ a figure – e.g. Heidegger, Hegel, Deleuze; or one must work ‘on’ a topic of broad interest to analytic philosophers to which continental philosophers have also made ‘contributions’ – e.g. ‘continental’ philosophy of the body (Irigaray, Henri), philosophy of religion (Levinas, Marion), or philosophy of perception (Husserl, Merleau-Ponty). In the case of working ‘on’ figures, the problem is compounded inasmuch as nearly all work in the history of philosophy is partitioned between approaches that either a) construe the object of inquiry as the thought of a thinker, and thereby psychologize it; or b) pay attention only to the ‘tenets’ of the philosopher, and taking this propositional edifice as an object of evaluation in its own right, thereby de-historicize it. While the alternative appropriation of the tradition by way of hot crossover topics falls prey to the same tendency: continental philosophy at the service of a specialization, where the ‘species’ of specialization is all-too-present, is continental philosophy as a philosophy of objectivity, and thus of objectification. Hence, a precondition for the dominant mode of appropriation of the tradition is the rejection of one of the most salient points of that tradition: the critique of any philosophy of objectivity.

In approaching the object of one’s study as that-which-lies-before, one disregards another manner in which it may also show itself: as that-which-lies-behind the inquiry that the philosopher is himself engaged in, the soil from which the very inquiry itself springs. That is, in taking the matter as object, one disregards it as tradition. I shall call the former approach working on a philosophy, and the latter working in one.

There are important differences between working on and working in continental philosophy. And to the degree that hires related to continental philosophy are hires ‘on’ that philosophy, there will be elements in tension with alternative approaches that hire ‘in’ continental. For example, a hire ‘on’ a continental philosopher, given the objectifying structure of such a hire, will rarely be as well versed in the inheritance of that philosopher that is the object as the study as that philosopher himself was. Thus, Husserl scholars will be ignorant of Hegel, Heidegger scholars of Aristotle, Deleuze scholars of Leibniz, and so on.

This is not merely to say (though it says this, too) that specialist hirees are often ignorant of the canon that their favored philosophers worked within; it is rather to say that they typically do not work within that tradition at all. To work within a tradition is to encounter the wisdom received through that philosopher as an inheritance, and not merely as an object. Doing so opens up an altogether different kind of appropriation of the matter of that thinker’s thinking: the understanding of that thought as constituting part of a history. More accurately a past, even my own past. Better, something that has passed, i.e. has passed me by, as the angel of death passed over the house of Israel in Egypt: a structural event that continues to govern the present in its passing. Not a chronology, (which is just a reduction of lived history to a mode of presence), but a history.

This subordination of the philosopher to the matter of thinking as what came before, as opposed to what comes before, is itself something deeply lacking in most work ‘on’ continental philosophy, precisely in its character as work on the tradition rather than in it. And so, in attempting to safeguard those traditions under the continental umbrella, it behooves us to shelter the questions animating that tradition itself and deepen them as part of our own inheritance.

[1] In this respect, the structure of the discourse strictly parallels (in quality, though by no means in volume or gravity) the discourse surrounding the overcoming of racism in societies that remain essentially dominated by white culture.