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All Or Nothing

by Anja Steinbauer

‘Philosophers on Philosophy’? Preposterous!”, I hear you mutter. “Doesn’t this reveal, even unashamedly celebrate, the incestuous nature of philosophical activity? How navel-gazingly self-congratulatory! When will philosophers stop thinking about their own little intellectual cloud cuckoo’s nest and engage with the real world? We expected better of you, Philosophy Now!”

Touché, dear reader. If the above has been your reaction to the theme of the current issue, you are completely right … And completely wrong.

What happens when philosophers talk about philosophy? It sounds like they might be running round in circles like headless chickens. Though it can’t be denied that this occasionally happens, on the whole a lot more is at stake here. In fact everything is at stake. So much hinges on this discussion because of the unique nature of philosophy as an intellectual discipline and attitude.

As an intellectual discipline philosophy is literally about all or nothing. Philosophers philosophise about everything: the world around them, aesthetic experiences, human choices, scientific insights and even … ‘nothingness’. In order to do this responsibly and for us to seriously consider their ideas, they owe us an answer as to what they think they are doing, what it is they think needs to be done and what makes their work distinctive, relevant and valuable.

Philosophical enquiry is ongoing and as we engage in it, we define and redefine what it means and what it is and should be about. Carol Nicholson, for example, identifies two rival definitions of philosophy, and Mark Phelan discusses a new philosophical movement called ‘experimental philosophy’.

Who can participate in philosophical discourse? Who can legitimately call themselves a philosopher? In his article ‘Philosophy Inc.’ Christopher Norris argues that philosophy must neither be restricted to an “inward-focused elite club”, nor allow its rigour to be watered down. How is this best to be achieved? Is there the danger of too many cooks spoiling the broth? Or is everybody cooking up their own broth? If so, are several or even all broths, though different, of culinary value? Or is there only one true broth?

Can we never truly settle anything in philosophy? Well, as Arkesilas used to say: “Nothing is for certain, and not even that is for certain.” And so we may think that ultimately there are no guarantees in philosophy. However, as you can find out, John Corcoran experiences no Arkesilasian lack of certainty when it comes to the principles of logical thinking and therefore offers his students a life-time warranty on his logic classes.

So if philosophy is an ongoing process, will we ever arrive at an end? Is it possible that it does not really amount to much more than a kind of drunken pleasure cruise? (Find out about Emery Cournand’s personal ‘Journey’ of philosophical exploration) What is the point of philosophy? There may be almost as many answers as there are philosophers. Some answers are inspiring, some aren’t. Philosophising can yield excellent results but is, importantly, in itself infinitely compelling. Plato only accepted those into his Academy who understood and valued this. Once a student asked Plato what could be gained from philosophising. Furious, Plato ordered a slave to give the student some money, “so that he has gained something” and then to show him the door.

What is the attitude of the true philosopher? After all, philosophers disagree a lot, have competing and conflicting views on everything. True, but what is common to many philosophers is the way in which they relate to the world and to human life: They don’t feel at home in it, like a shoe that doesn’t quite fit. Well, you might say, seek help, stop philosophising or see a psychiatrist, rather than trying to convince the rest of us that our shoes don’t fit either. However, it is this discomfort with what should be comfortable, the unfamiliarity of the familiar, that makes philosophers ask new questions and think fresh thoughts. This is nicely expressed in one of my favourite explanations of what philosophising means. It comes from Wittgenstein, who would have known: “A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than to push it.” Go on – pull!

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