Philosophy has no future

This is cross-posted at NewAPPS

With a provocative title such as this, it is easy to imagine how the rest of the story will go. Philosophy, one will read, no longer has an effective role to play in society. One could perhaps draw on the authority of Stephen Hawking and argue, as Hawking does, that philosophy is dead and serves no purpose for it is now physics that best provides the answers to the questions that were once the focus of philosophers. The title may also lead one to anticipate the economic argument where philosophy is portrayed as being one of the most useless of the humanities degrees with the subsequent encouragement that one pursue, for the sake of their professional future, a more economically viable degree.

If either of these arguments are what the “philosophy has no future” title intends, then there are counter-arguments at the ready. With respect to the first, there is plenty of room to argue, as many have (see Laurie Paul’s essay for example), that the physics Hawking encourages presupposes a metaphysics that leaves plenty of opportunity for traditional philosophical questions to gain traction and in turn foster cooperative engagement between philosophy and science (Roberta’s excellent post along with Eric’s post on dark matter are cases in point of just such cooperation). There is also plenty of evidence to challenge the common assumption that philosophy is not a good degree to pursue in order to get a lucrative job upon graduation. Far from being a hindrance to future economic success, philosophy majors on the whole earn more than graduates with other degrees (see this story [h/t Catarina]). Philosophy majors also outperform students from other majors when it comes to standardized tests – e.g., LSAT, GRE (see this).

These counter-arguments are persuasive and as far as I’m concerned definitively undermine the two assumptions that may appear to motivate the title of this post. These assumptions, however, are not what motivated the title. What motivated it instead is not the notion that philosophy has no future because it has been displaced by competing forces that have now taken over the future that philosophy could once claim, but rather that the very attitude that philosophy ought to have such a future is itself derivative of a philosophy that has no future.

I would propose defending, to state the thesis more directly, a contemporary reworking of Camus’ philosophy of the absurd.

Key to understanding the relationship between a philosophy with a telos and a philosophy without hope or future (à la Camus), is to look to what philosophers do as a result of their encounters with the absurd, or with what I would call the problematic (following Deleuze and Foucault who, in many ways I would argue, take onboard key components of Camus’ thought). What philosophers do in such encounters, in short, is to create concepts in response to the problematic. Such concepts, however, do not function as representations of an already existent reality, fencing in and demarcating what is there so to speak; nor are philosophic concepts tools of discovery whereby that which is not known to be there comes to be identified as having been there all along. In both these cases concepts are understood relative to an already individuated reality. These concepts, in short, are related to a past that gives them their substantive content.

At the same time philosophers do not create concepts as part of the process of addressing a set of established, acceptable problems in order to attain a possible solution, even if the solution to the problem is unanticipated and not clearly demarcated in advance by the way the problem is conceptualized. When philosophy creates concepts, therefore, it is not, to adopt Kuhn’s terminology, engaged in the practice of normal science. Concepts are not a means to solving problems. Philosophers also do not create concepts that anticipate or prophesize an improbable, apparently impossible future, a future that may nonetheless come to pass and fulfill the prophecy (see Eric Schliesser’s post on this subject). Whether the conceptual innovations and creations realize a solution that was already anticipated and sought for as a possibility, or whether they emerge as the prophetic call for an improbable future that becomes fulfilled, in each of these cases the creation of concepts is related to a future that gives these concepts their substantive content.

The task of a philosophy that has no future is not one of creating concepts that get their substantive content from an already presupposed past or from a future that serves as its yet-to-be-realized telos. The concepts of a philosophy that has no future neither lack a future state nor are they related to an already individuated past. The concepts are, instead, creative events that allow for the possibility of the relationship between philosophy and its past and future, whether past solutions or potential future solutions.

What then is the relation of philosophical concepts to the past and future? Put simply, as related to a problematic condition, philosophical concepts are creative events that are neither reducible to nor exhausted by the past, nor are they exhausted by the solutions that come to pass in the future. Philosophical concepts are thus not unlike Nietzsche’s characterization, in his “Uses and Abuses of History for Life” essay, of the individuals within the “republic of genius” who “live contemporaneously with one another” and who are no longer caught up in “any kind of process” but rather call “to [one] another across the desert intervals of time.” When a philosophical concept relates to the concepts of a past philosopher—such as when Kant, for instance, adopted Plato’s use of the concept Idea—it is the problematic that is the contemporaneous condition that allows for the possibility of the relationship between the current concept (Kant’s “transcendental Idea”) and the past concept (Plato’s Idea [for Kant’s use of Plato’s concept of ‘idea’, see CPR A313/B370]). This contemporaneous condition, however, is neither fully present in the past (Plato) nor in a future iteration and variation of this past (Kant). A concept as problematic event is thus not to be strictly identified with the past or the future; it has no identifiable past or future, nor is it an identifiable process of the past becoming future—it is what one might call a contemporaneous all at once (implying monism, see this post).

As Deleuze states a related point in the opening pages of Difference and Repetition, the “fall of the Bastille,” or “Monet’s first water lily” are, as events, not the already individuated reality that comes to be repeated and commemorated by future holidays, or represented by the other water lily paintings Monet would paint (or even the paintings of other impressionist painters who would draw inspiration from them); rather, as an event, it is “the fall of the Bastille which celebrates and repeats in advance all the Federation Days; or Monet’s first water lily which repeats all the others.” (DR 1). Similarly for the concept as an event, it is contemporaneous to its past and future manifestations without being confused or identified with them—it has no past or future precisely because it is the condition for the possibility of identifying a difference between a philosophical past and future.

I’ll close with how an example of what I take to be a philosophy with no future, or an example of a contemporary extension of Camus.

Foucault

In Fearless Speech Foucault offers a distinction between “history of ideas” and “history of thought” that addresses, implicitly at least, one of the key criticisms that has been directed at Foucault’s work by historians—namely, historians often criticize Foucault for being too loose with the facts and for lacking the rigor of proper historical methodology. As a result, they argue, many of the claims Foucault makes regarding the nature and history of past events, such as the history of madness, prisons, etc., are suspect.

As Foucault lays out the distinction between a history of ideas and a history of thought, he claims that a history of ideas “tries to determine when a specific concept appears,” and it further attempts an “analysis of [this concept] from its birth, through its development, and in the setting of other ideas which constitute its context.” (FS 74). If this were what Foucault was attempting to do, then the criticism that he lacked historical rigor may be germane, but Foucault is doing a history of thought, which he claims consists of “the analysis of the way an unproblematic field of experience, or a set of practices, which were accepted without question, which were familiar and ‘silent,’ out of discussion, becomes a problem, raises discussion and debate, incites new reactions, and induces a crisis in the previously silent behavior, habits, practices, and institutions.” (ibid.). Moreover, the conceptual innovations that enabled Foucault to address the problematization of an “unproblematic field of experience” (archaeology, regimes of truth, etc.) were intended not simply to portray and represent the problems of the past but more importantly they show how these problems constitute the contemporaneous condition of the manner in which we currently experience madness, crime, and sex. Foucault’s concepts are thus not to be confused with the problems of the past. They are also not to be confused with a future state that Foucault calls upon or prophesizes. If the problematization of our contemporary field of experience brings about changes in the future, it is not because the changes that occur were what Foucault’s project intended to bring about; rather, such changes will emerge as solutions to the problematization that Foucault’s conceptual innovations help to bring about while doing so without exhausting or eliminating the problematic as such. The contemporaneous nature of problems will forever be without an exhaustive and determinate relation to the past and future; there will always be an aspect of these problems that escapes the past and future, or it does not have and is not to be identified with a determinate past or future. To the extent then that Foucault’s project is concerned with creating concepts in relation to these problems, his philosophy has no future.


6 responses to “Philosophy has no future

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