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.

The Philosopher as Midwife and Aristophanes’ Immanent Critique of Immanent Critique

To understand the telos of philosophy, it is useful to go back to its beginning.

Consider the person of Socrates. Socrates is a teacher of sorts. He teaches no particular doctrine, but he teaches his interlocutors nonetheless.

Especially in the earlier Platonic dialogues, Socrates typically begins an inquiry by starting with some particular action or belief of his interlocutor. For instance, the Euthyphro begins with the fact that Euthyphro is taking his father to court on the charge of impiety. Euthyphro eventually says that he believes that this action of his is itself an example of something pious.

Throughout this dialogue and others, Socrates disabuses his interlocutor of some particular belief based on other things that they hold in esteem. In the Euthyphro, Socrates shakes Euthyphro’s confidence in his ability to justify the piety of this action, but precisely by keeping the higher concern on which this particular action depends – Euthyphro’s concern with piety itself – in view. This is Socrates’ midwifery: to take the good that his interlocutor already has in mind and to determine it in a given direction, stripping away those elements in the confused idea with which the determined idea is incompatible.  Socratic questioning is a means of helping the interlocutor to the object of his desire, and thereby to help him to himself.

Socratic midwifery only gives as much as it is given. Abstracted from the particulars of the desire of a given individual, Socratic instruction by immanent critique of the sought good of the interlocutor has the desirable as both its principle and its term.796758-spilled-wine

The Socrates of Aristophanes’ Clouds resembles the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues far more than the sophists with which Socrates contrasts himself in the Apology in this deeply important respect: he practices the method of immanent critique. He does not, as the Sophists do, instruct his students in speeches that serve as set pieces. Hence, it is reasonable to think that the Aristophanes’ critique of the “new learning” is far more a critique of genuine Socratic philosophy than one of mere sophistry.

That which is unjust is disjointed from its surroundings; in the Clouds, the character of Unjust Speech is, in its essential activity, disjointing. Whereas the manner in which Just Speech teaches is essentially by recollection and exhortation, Unjust Speech, that speech which is out of joint, succeeds in overcoming Just Speech by unhinging the different elements of Just Speech’s speech from each other – pointing out, for instance, contradictions in the legends that Just speech holds sacred. Yet Unjust Speech does not, and cannot, put anything in its place. Zeus has been driven out, and Vortex is now king.

Socratic method comes into its own at the beginning of the modern period – in part via the break with medieval ecclesial dogmatism, in part via the newfound centrality of a concern with method itself. Desire, no longer pre-formed by a holding of the sacred in mind, begins to become its own end, though philosophy does not become conscious of this happening until the start of the 19th century. Wholly stripped of its positive elements now unmasked as relics of a dogmatic heritage, the only tasks remaining for philosophy are to help each individual to him/herself, and to coordinate this in such a way that the desires of individuals interfere with each other as little as possible. Hence the pluralism and the consequentialism of philosophy as such in its attainment of its own absoluteness.

Even today, philosophy is characterized by precisely this form of hospitality. One speaks of philosophical instruction as teaching a method as opposed to a particular doctrine: it teaches the art of arguing well, even if it knows little in the way of actual conclusions. In other words, in coming to its own, philosophical instruction has become aimless. And having gnawed away the trunk that supports its very striving, this desire itself withers away: the dominant attitude of thinking becomes less and less the arrogance, misguided yet passionate, of the early modern period (though this is still easy enough to find today), but apathy, bewilderment, stupefaction.