Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

What is the Point of Philosophy? Anglophone Philosophical Quietism

The same subject-matter is discussed over and over again by the heretics and the philosophers; the same arguments are involved. Whence comes evil? Why is it permitted? What is the origin of man? And in what way does he come? […] Unhappy Aristotle! Who invented for these men dialectics, the art of building up and pulling down; an art so evasive in its propositions, so far-fetched in its conjectures, so harsh, in its arguments, so productive of contentions— embarrassing even to itself, retracting everything, and really treating of nothing! Whence spring those fables and endless genealogies, (1 Timothy 1:4) and unprofitable questions, (Titus 3:9) and words which spread like a cancer? Timothy 2:17 From all these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against.Writing to the Colossians, he says, See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost. He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, while it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects.

-Tertullian, The Prescription against Heretics

Generally I identify myself as a sort of philosophical quietist. In the words of Wittgenstein, philosophy “leaves everything as it is”. If the medieval tradition believe that philosophy is the handmaiden of theology than the Anglophone tradition in general believes that philosophy exists in service of life, not in substitute thereof.

The point of philosophy is therefore unashamedly rationalisation after the fact. Anglophone philosophy, as opposed to the Continental tradition, does not usually engage in system construction or deduce everything from scratch based on some a priori principles. This is why for example the early British scientists and thinkers did not feel compelled to attain absolute certainty but merely “moral certainty”, evidence sufficient for life which would later pass unto the Anglophone legal tradition as “proof beyond a reasonable doubt”. It doesn’t begin with itself but with concrete realities out there in the world in an immanent form of life. Thus the tendency of the Anglophone tradition towards particular concrete realities over universalising tendencies of the Continentals.

Having its starting point in concrete realities, the Anglophone tradition sees the philosophical task as mainly therapeutic. It begins with the premise that life can go on jolly well without any philosophical thinking or activity whatsoever. Philosophy is the not basis of life, life is the basis of philosophy. As the Chinese Legalist Han Fei once puts it, “in the state of the enlightened sovereign there is no literature written on bamboo slips, but the law is the only teaching; there are no quoted sayings of the early kings, but the magistrates are the only instructors”. In the ideal state, people would be so integrated into their concrete life settings that there would be no need for philosophy.

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Thus particularly in the Anglophone analytic tradition, philosophy is not about providing some awe inspiring romantic vision of life or reality or whatever. It merely has a particular function, that is the clarification of concepts and the concretisation of abstract terms. Its main task is to clear up confusions, to bring into focus nebulous concepts in concrete terms, and to tease out the implication of various philosophical arguments and terms. In the words of George Berkeley, the main problem with philosophy is that “We have first raised a dust and then complain we cannot see”. A lot of philosophical problems are problems of our own invention due to excessive speculation where words exceed their concrete realities. The task of philosophy is to regiment and discipline our philosophical language to keep it rooted in concrete realities and not exceed its proper bounds and tasks. It is mostly about dispelling this massive illusion created by our imprecise philosophical language, to separate the concrete wheat from the abstract tares and to preserve the former and burn the latter.

This is why the Anglophone tradition tends towards common sense, empiricism and nominalism, nominalism understood properly as terms referring directly to concrete particular realities than abstract universals. The task of philosophy is not to be a substitute for life, it isn’t meant to create awe inspiring ideal vision of society or humanity or whatever. That is what religion, which alone properly makes claims to universality due to a sovereign divinity, is for.

But philosophy is a lot like the sciences, to provide solutions towards problems which occurs in the course of life. In the past Newton’s system was known as “natural philosophy”, but since the predictive sciences have separated themselves from philosophy to become the hard sciences, the philosopher’s task today is mainly clarification of terms, the spelling out of the implications of various philosophical arguments and concepts and the proposal of concrete reconciliation of clashing concrete life situations in tension with one another.

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This entry was posted on August 9, 2015 by in Uncategorized.
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