“The Owl of Minerva” – Where are we right now in philosophy? In need of a revolution.

Hegel famously wrote that the owl of Minerva starts its flight at dusk. He meant to say that philosophy, far from being avant-garde, is, in some ways, always behind its time. For first comes reality and only then, belatedly, comes our understanding of it. Our words and theories are always chasing after the facts.

But it appears that our philosophizing is now more seriously falling behind reality. We have entered an age of profound technological change. And this is affecting, in turn, our entire social and political reality. No aspect of human life is any longer stable. The tremors are passing certainly also through the academy. The humanities that were once at the center of academic life seem to be losing their footing. But our philosophers feel and see nothing. They are living in their homespun cocoon of familiar questions and topics and are happy when they have one of their papers published in a professional journal with a minute and diminishing readership.

This has not always been so. Both the “analytic” and the so-called “Continental” tradition in philosophy – the two movements that are still the main sources of our current philosophizing – had once a vitality and importance that is now sadly lacking. They related directly to the most pressing issues of their time: the crisis of mathematics and natural science that began in the late nineteenth century, the shaking up of our traditional conceptions of consciousness and the mind due to  psychology and linguistics, the cultural, moral, and political upheavals of the twentieth century. I often think that there was once a heroic age in analytic philosophy in which Frege, Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, Carnap and others in their company systematically changed the contours of the subject. Similarly, we can make out a heroic period in the broadly differentiated field of Continental philosophy. From Nietzsche, through Husserl and Heidegger, to Sartre and Foucault (and again others in their company) these thinkers grappled with the most difficult issues of their time.

We may be too much in awe of this singularly creative moment in philosophy that began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and lasted till the last quarter of the twentieth. But we are already half a century beyond that point and our reality is no longer the same. We are undergoing a revolution in all dimensions of our existence and we need a revolution in our thinking, too.

This is a good and a bad moment for philosophy. Good, because it gives room for adventurous spirits. Bad, because such spirits may not turn up and the subject may dwindle into scholastic irrelevance. Not all the great philosophers of the past have been academic teachers. It is always possible that the most productive philosophical thinking will once again take place outside the academy.

There is, surely, something presumptuous in trying to tell others how they should conduct themselves philosophically. It is also useless. If we want philosophy to take a different course, we have to take it ourselves and, perhaps, others will do the same. The best I can do is to say in a few words, how I myself mean to proceed at this point.

  1. Say “No” to the formalism that holds our thinking in such a straightjacket. We need to overcome our preoccupation with the Kantian conception of philosophy as a “purely conceptual” inquiry. This must be our objective, in particular, in ethics and politics – a move away from abstract normative theorizing into a diagnostic form of ethical and political thinking.  Even logic and mathematics may be thought of in concretely natural terms as a human and historical practice. Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mathematics can provide us with clues. Why should we think that a late eighteenth century thinker can be our major philosophical guide in the twenty-first century?
  2. Practice a determined realism – by which I don’t mean an attachment to metaphysical realism but keeping a philosophical eye on the actual, concrete, historical facts. That kind of realism will also be aware of the limits of our understanding of our reality- particularly when it comes to history, society, and politics. Think of varieties of localized skepticism as realistic options.
  3. Develop a philosophy of technology. It is technology that is changing our world. We need to think about the technical instruments but also of the techniques of their use. We need to look also at the social and political effects of technological change. We need to study how technology affects and changes the distribution of power, its dispersion and concentration. We need to have an eye on the destructive potential and side-effects of technological development both in the natural and the cultural domain.
  4. Make politics your first philosophy. We must conceive political philosophy as a comprehensive inquiry into human existence and look at all aspects of philosophy in a political manner. But this requires a broad conception of politics, one that treats politics and ethics as distinct but connected strata.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.