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.

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On the loss of unity in contemporary life

One of the dominant characteristics of contemporary life is the dissolution of every form and grade of unity, from the banal to the sublime: with the move of music culture from large record labels and mass radio to self-produced artists and iPods, visual media from basic cable to YouTube, news from print to the blog, retail resources from overblown chains to smaller niche markets and online shopping, the passive homogeny of top-down commercial culture is giving way to a wide array of choices given to each individual singularly; the rapidity of international travel, the increasing ease of immigrating between developed countries, and the peculiar phenomenon of a trans-national culture of multi-culturalism wither away at the sense of national identity once accorded to a people by being citizens of a given state; the hierarchical arrangement of the sciences and the subordination of those sciences to broadly humanistic ideals in the University is ever giving way to a stratified system of autonomous and distinct disciplines thinly tied together by the goal of constantly proliferating new information; the coherence once given to a people by a common religion is no longer normative, and the void left thereby is largely filled by means entirely subservient to the individual—e.g. art as a form of self-expression, self-help psychology, and religion-free “spirituality.”

This loss of unity is present in philosophy specifically in manifold ways: the dissolution of continental philosophy in practice into a multiplicity of Weltanschauung philosophies, each dictated by the needs/whims of a niche audience; the dissolution of analytic philosophy into various sub-disciplines, often with different methodologies, unrelated goals, and radically different assumptions in the mainstream work done in those disciplines; the absence of works written in the last 50 years fitting into a philosophical canon not for specialists of some philosophical sub-discipline, but for all philosophers; the proliferation of “philosophy of” and “meta” disciplines as a means of buttressing the independence of the disciplines that they purport to treat; the replacement of the substantial unity of the book by the journal article qua contribution to the chaotic whirlwind called “the literature”; the rapid proliferation of different systems of logic leading to a de facto pluralism about what constitutes correct thinking.

The Common factor in each of the above

In each of the above cases, advances in technology have served as a material condition for the changes mentioned: the invention of the internet, advances in commerce, the growth of the university, etc. have removed impediments and thus made these changes possible. But technology is not the cause of these changes (except materially, and therefore equivocally).

Rather, considered finally, each of the above changes can be viewed as subservient to the augmentation of the freedom of each individual qua thinker, where freedom is defined as non-compulsion, and thought as self-expression—that is, a pure activity.

This is why soliloquy is becoming a more normative form of speech: witness the blog, the status post, the comment in online media.

This is why the metaphor of thinking as a game, with all the indifference implied thereby, is now an apt one.

This is why the breakdown of the paradigms of modern thought will likely not give way to a new unified philosophical tradition, as, for instance, the breakdown of Aristotelianism gave way to Cartesianism at the dawn of modernity.

This is why contemporary philosophy takes place in an environment in which very little is, in fact, compelling: not because the arguments are malformed or based on faulty or vague intuitions (though they often are); but because compulsion presupposes a passivity that is altogether foreign to the braggadocio of contemporary thinking.

This is why publishing practices in philosophy today prefer novelty to depth.

And this is why, while the waning of the theoretical ends of classical philosophy are reflected in the closing of many—especially liberal arts-oriented—philosophy programs, philosophers survive more and more in a transformed state by subordinating themselves to the practical goals of other disciplines: in so-called experimental philosophy; in business ethics institutes and medical programs; in the development of formal systems of logic as tools both for everyday thinking and for computational systems, and in the task of culture and creed construction for political think tanks.

In short, the loss of unity both within and outside of philosophy is consequent upon the absolute subordination of thinking qua self-assertion to the cause of the freedom of the individual. In a sense writ (very) large, I shall like to call this complex liberalism; if one seeks a further qualification, I shall call it monadological liberalism, in order to distinguish it from its incomplete[1] Lockean counterpart.  Liberalism is the cause of the fragmentation of the modern world.

Some problems reflexively posed for philosophical writing by this fact.

            The most serious problem posed for writing about this phenomenon is the self-reinforcing character of liberalism itself.

Self-reinforcement is not unique to liberalism: witness the skeptic who takes the refutation of his position as further support for it; or the religious pluralist/syncretist, who can only encounter the object of his interest as supporting his own superficial spirit of tolerance, in spite of the repugnance of that spirit to nearly every creed he may encounter.

This self-reinforcement occurs in multiple ways, of which the following are the most immediate. First, the provincialism of different philosophical sub-disciplines serves as a preventative measure against the emergence of a thinking that can alter this status quo; the fragmentation of philosophy into sub-disciplines makes it unfit to receive truth that transcends those disciplines and their characteristic concerns. Second, on the off chance that a thinker of substance does arise, any set of formulae advanced by that individual can be glibly absorbed as the doctrine of a thinker, from which a shallow discourse can be constructed about “n‘s theory of x,” or a school of adherents to this teacher’s doctrine, “n-ists” can be assembled: this a posteriori attribution diverts attention away from the real matter in that thinker’s thinking, and devalues every possible philosophical insight by giving it the prima facie label of an opinion. Third, when an insight is absorbed, it is only so absorbed as a possibility—that is, in accordance with a teleology that makes every philosophical stance purely optional.

This state of affairs has the consequence that any philosophical thinking done under its auspices is effectively sterile until it is itself understood and addressed.


[1] While Locke’s liberalism, along with those liberalisms descending directly from him (e.g. that of the US founding fathers), contains the above mentioned negative definition of freedom, it does not augment it with a clarification of thinking. This was first achieved via Leibniz’s clarification of the Cartesian cogito as a kind of force (see his New System of Nature).  Leibniz’s philosophy served to synthesize two different traditions of Cartesianism: 1) it augmented the philosophy of Newton and Locke by showing the impossibility of explaining the existence of separate, individuated unities by recourse to material atomism; 2) Against Spinoza, it regained the possibility of a formalist answer to the problem of unity while rejecting Spinoza’s monism/pantheism. This is important to the current state of philosophical research because major shifts in the organization of society over the past 100 years have proceeded along exactly parallel lines: Liberalism of a purely negative character lacked the ability to give unity and direction to human activity; hence, various forms of totalitarianism arose; since the widespread revolt against these movements, liberalism has co-opted what made them attractive by being transformed into a creed positively aimed at the maximization of the freedom of the individual, and not merely directed at curbing violations of freedom. Locke, Spinoza, Leibniz: affirmation, negation, synthesis.