Five Theses About Real Philosophy, #2.

By Otto Paans

“Diogenes,” by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1860)



I. Introduction

To a degree, we have collectively provided answers to these questions here during the first six years of blogging at APP. Taken together, however, these answers did not add up to a coherent theory or approach. From these pieces, the vague, sketchy and promising outlines of a methodological theory of real philosophy appear, but remain somewhat dim, as if stuck just beyond the point of sharpness. Partially, this is due to the medium of posting entries on a website. Working in small, accumulative pieces has the advantage of being able to explore different facets of a topic side-by-side, to turn it over in one’s head, but does not reliably result in a bigger picture, let alone a fully developed theory. Another contributing factor to the vagueness is that it is hard to formulate an idea (“real philosophy”) in terms of determinate, well-defined terms, insofar as we are struggling with its definition (if any) ourselves. One’s inquiry may start with a clear idea or a seemingly well-defined intuition, but this once these impressions are externalized in sketchy accounts, broad strokes and assertions, they inevitably bear the mark of being tentative and exploratory. This series of essays should be read with those remarks and limitations in mind.

In this series, I unpack five core theses that jointly constitute the theoretical backbone of what I consider to be the defining characteristics of real philosophy. Doubtless, this is a preliminary account, and my fellow anarcho- or borderless philosophers might disagree with me on several points. Nevertheless, this seems to me no problem at all, given my dialectical sympathies.

Here are the five core theses:

Thesis #1: Real philosophy departs from a philosophical theory or worldview.

Thesis #2: Real philosophy engages intensely with historical or contemporary philosophical ideas — either in the negative (counterreaction) or positive (elaboration, explication) sense.

Thesis #3: Real philosophy contains a philosophical method that is developed by practicing it.

Thesis #4: Real philosophy develops a (tacit) commentary on the practice of philosophy as such.

Thesis #5: Real philosophy provides commentary on a broad range of topics simultaneously: ethics, political theory, metaphysics, epistemology, religion, and so-on.

Some of these theses might look strangely paradoxical or even contradictory — or at least they can be read in ways that lead to contradictions. However, as I intend to explain, these apparent shortcomings can be dispelled by a creative exegesis and elaboration of each statement.

II. An Existential-Tragicomic Predicament

What does it mean to engage in philosophical practice? Or to disengage, for that matter? What does it mean to encounter — or to avoid? These questions are not easily answered, despite the fact that the answer seems to force itself upon us: “To engage in philosophical practice means to study and analyze the premises and conclusion of someone else’s position.” It is the obviousness with which this answer comes to the forefront of our mind that should be deeply distrusted. Often, answers that are obvious are not answers at all, but conditioned responses. That is the difference between responding and answering. The former contends itself with satisfying a stimulus, the latter retains the dialectical tension of question-and-answer.

Socrates’s dialogues are splendid and simultaneously terrifying examples of this tension. They are splendid because they demonstrate how fickle responses are, and how insistent questions are. They are terrifying because the specter of sophistry lurks around every corner, hides in every nook and cranny of expression. Socrates is a tragic figure: he is as much a victim of the prison of expression as those he questions. He is not wiser, more insightful or smarter than they are, just because he asks the questions. Even his insight “that he knows nothing” amounts to no more than a hollow response, forever circled and haunted by the unanswered, insistent question that seems to leap out of reach every time he thought he could catch it. Taunting, mocking, visible in the twilight zone between the self and the world beyond, the question lures and pulls, with us as its fascinated and frustrated victims. Thirty dialogues and zero answers. Thirty attempts to get to the bottom of things, and still paddling around on the surface.

Even Socrates elicits no more than responses from his interlocutors. Answers remain out of reach, yet questions remain and demand answers, like angry gods demanding a sacrifice to appease them. In this sense, the philosopher is the ultimate servant, seeking forever to appease a deity that demands, demands, and demands.

If the response is a conditioned reaction to a question, it turns into sophistry in the same way that pure silver turns black the moment oxidation sets in. Subjected to scrutiny, the response withers and corrodes in the merciless light of investigation and questioning. The god of questions is not easily satisfied and demands answers — nothing less!

Sophistry emerges once we direct our attention only towards arguments, positions, responses, and utterances. Suddenly, what seemed meaningful appears banal, what seemed sacred appears profane, what seems profound appears vulgar. Go on, try it with any question you like, and you will notice two things: first, this phenomenon exists in the form I just described it, and subsequently turns immediately into something banal; second, it is maddening and demands a cure — or at least a temporary distraction.

How many times has this been said already? “Everything that is solid melts into air” — yes, before your very eyes, as if their glance caused a solid, stone castle to evaporate. We are all Kierkegaard’s clowns: no matter how we feel the end of the world and the foundationless abyss appear, in uttering it we only elicit laughter. We are not the spectators in the theatre: that reading is too much of a biblical parable, a pedantic moral tale at home in the pedagogical literature of the 19th century. We are all the clowns, and we are so involuntarily. The clown cannot divorce himself from his role, and everything he says is interpreted as being part of his humorous act. The more he tries to divorce himself from his role, the more hilarity ensues.

To respond is to serve up a lukewarm and conditioned response to a pressing philosophical question. To answer the question means that one must actively engage with it. And will this engagement result in the accumulation of answers, neatly organized along conceptual lines and discrete, well-defined categories? Not at all. Why should this be so? We have seen Socrates trying to catch answers to his questions as they leaped out of reach, and we have witnessed Kierkegaard’s unwilling and despairing clowns trying to get a point across. We should here add a third tragic figure: Nietzsche. Can you imagine him, dancing with his concepts and furiously hopping from concepts to definitions in a desperate search for answers?

Glattes Eis/Slippery ice

Ein Paradeis/A Paradise

Fur dem, den gut zu Tanzen Weiss/For those who know how to dance well[iii]

But what is Nietzsche’s dance? Is it a joyful dance with concepts and ideas towards a higher insight? At some points in his oeuvre, Nietzsche gives the impression of enjoying the dance, mockingly poking fun at his enemies and those he secretly admires (“Kant, that conceptual cripple…”). His Gay Science seems a mocking, leaping, joyful, obsessive, playful choreography of moving concepts, terms and ideas. But then, there is always the undercurrent of misery, and merciless self-cultivation. The freedom to dance does not comes cheap for Nietzsche. It costs him dearly, and at some points, you almost think that Nietzsche is beguiled by the music of the Elves, doomed to dance forever. According to the Nordic myth, the Elves could force one to dance until death-by-exhaustion ensued while they played an enchanted melody on their flute. The only way to lift the affliction was to play the melody backwards, something the Elves would cruelly refuse, making their hapless victims objects of their entertainment.

If we picture Nietzsche like this, he starts to look like the Kierkegaardian clown: dancing, leaping, and jumping with more and more erratic moves, he endlessly and involuntarily provides a source for drily academic amusement, juggling with concepts that appear more and more absurd in his hands. In his greatest moments (later in life, when he wrote Twilight of the Gods, Zarathustra and The Will to Power) he danced like a madman — but a gifted one. Allusions, references, puns, barbs, and maxims tumble over one another in the frantic mind of Dionysus. Nietzsche has stopped being Nietzsche — Dionysus has set up quarters in his mind, and like Zarathustra, an irreversible transformation has set in. The frantic dance has irreversibly changed Nietzsche, and while he danced into the abyss, the abyss danced into him, altering him, and ultimately consuming him.

Is there a higher form of engagement possible than the sacrifice that Nietzsche brought? His life, his health, and at last his sanity? To Nietzsche, a thought is a feeling, an emotion, a pillar on which existence at that moment rests. Is all philosophical engagement of this type? Perhaps not. No matter how extreme the example of Nietzsche is, it shows us what engagement is not. It cannot be rote memorization, a mechanical answer according to dogmas previously set in stone. It cannot stop halfway, resting satisfied after warding off the most obvious objections. Above it, it cannot be something that lacks passion. To engage is to be passionate. It might not be a passion that enslaves us and consumes us, but it is at the very least a driving force that spurs on questioning, thinking, and starting all over again.

III. To Engage: Positioning

The theme of philosophical engagement has been on my mind for quite some time. From my perspective, philosophy as practiced in the Anglo-American Analytic tradition has the tendency to be excessively precise or formalist throughout. It attempts to achieve an all-out precision or formalization even when this is not possible or even counterproductive. Consequently, notions and terms that are being debated are no longer questioned, and the debaters are divided into two camps of ideologues who hurl increasingly irrelevant and arcane arguments at each other. Granted, a good debate can sharpen one’s opinion or raise pressing questions. But it seems to me that in many cases one could do without many of the distinctions that are made merely for the purpose of refuting an opponent.

In this climate of broadly Analytic scholasticism, how is it possible to produce a work of philosophical acumen? One strategy would be to turn to approaches found in Continental philosophy. However, the situation in the Continental camp strikes me as not being much better. Instead of logic and precision, history and canonicity take pride of place. “But one cannot read Kant without reading….” or “hasn’t Heidegger said that…?” If anything, many such arguments are not made to advance the discussion but serve merely to appeal to the authority of those long gone, or to demonstrate the superior knowledge of the person making objections of this kind.

If both camps are arguing in this manner, then how is philosophical engagement possible? It should be noted that “philosophical engagement” as I understand it has little to do with argumentation, spotting logical fallacies, or with thinking up irrefutable refutations. These are fine practices, but they are philosophical techniques. They do not indicate engagement, but they are the instruments used during engagement. No, philosophical engagement is the hallmark of having found a position from which to think. To be original does not imply that one is disconnected from the philosophical tradition; neither does it mean that one invents the wheel over and over. Instead, it is having found a vantage point from which the reach and content of one’s thought is not exhaustively determined by the thoughts of others.[v] It implies a familiarity with the ideas of others, but it reserves the right to deal with those ideas on one’s own terms. If we put this in Kantian terminology, then originality is to claim one’s autonomy and the right to dare to think for oneself in ways that — although not insulated from the history of philosophy — irreducibly bear the stamp of one’s individual agency.

To merely respond is to play by rules that have been defined beforehand, not to challenge or re-think the rules themselves. Argumentation then becomes the application of a mere technique: to respond is to make the next move in the game. However, instead of being a games-player, compiler, encyclopaedist, or sophist, one must put old and new ideas to work in new and changing philosophical constellations. The theologian Paul Tillich was certainly one of the most creative thinkers in his discipline, and in the Introduction to his massive work Systematic Theology, he made a distinction that is applicable to philosophy and theology alike:

The fact that fundamentalist ideas are eagerly grasped in a period of personal or communal disintegration does not prove their theological validity, just as the success of a liberal theology in periods of personal or communal integration is no certification of its truth. The “situation” theology must consider is the creative interpretation of existence, an interpretation which is carried on in every period of history under all kinds of psychological and sociological conditions. The “situation” certainly is not independent of these factors. However, theology deals with the cultural expression they have found in practice as well as in theory and not with these conditioning factors as such.[vi]

Dogmatic (“fundamentalist”) thinking stifles creativity, and it provides a handhold for those obstinately clinging to the pseudo-certainties it provides. The situation that philosophy (and theology) confront is an engagement with the conditions of the present, without reducing their frame of reference to them. One must accomplish a split in thinking: engaging with the past in the temporal setting of the present and coming future. Tradition of any kind may serve as a moderating influence on all-too-radical ideas; dogmatism tries to ignore and undermine them.

To engage, then, is actively and passionately to think from within the present situation with the help of inherited tools or newly-forged devices. In all works of philosophy that display an amount of originality over and above mere countering arguments or raising objections, one can sense a kind of personal engagement at work that surpasses technical acumen, argumentative rigour, creative countermoves, or logical competence. All these factors are present in a work of real philosophy (and in real-philosophical engagement), but they are but a part of the work. The “active and personal” thinking about which Bataille speaks permeates real philosophy. One has the impression that one reads a thinker who is not completely clear on all his positions and ideas; this openness of the text is what gives real philosophy a vividness that is seldomly found into today’s professional academic writing. How could it be otherwise? Many or even most professional academics try to smother all criticism in the cradle: they are in the business of closing off intellectual and imaginative possibilities, whereas real thinking opens them up.

This brings us to the very notion of a philosophical position. I have said before that to engage philosophically is think from within a situation. One takes up a philosophical position from which to think outwards. But what exactly is a philosophical position? To reduce it to a set of precepts or rules leads one — often gradually — back to an unthinking dogmatism or unwillingness to consider ideas that are located outside the confines of what one feels comfortable about. To clarify the nature of a philosophical position is, we can use an example from Kenjutsu, the Japanese art of sword fighting. In Kenjutsu, the position is where one is located in the act of sword fighting — and where one is located in the act of sword fighting depends crucially one the position of one’s opponent. Consequently, one is never static for very long, because the opponent moves around. The utility and validity of one’s sword fighting position is not determined a priori, but by reference to a real-world situation in which one is dynamically embedded. Of course, there are certain rules of engagement, but engaging itself is a dynamic exercise in which these rules are continuously applied. Each of these rules is multiple realizable: they can be applied in a variety of ways and a broad range of situations, depending on one’s tactics and preferences. Again, not coincidentally, it was Wittgenstein who gave a terse yet accurate description on how such rules are learned:

Can one learn this knowledge? Yes. Some can learn it. Not, however, by taking a course of study in it, but through ‘experience’. — Can someone else be a man’s teacher in this? Certainly. From time to time he gives him the right tip. — This is what learning and teaching are like here. — What one acquires here is not a technique; one learns correct judgments. There are also rules, but they do not form a system, and only experienced people can apply them rightly. Unlike calculating rules.[vii]

The application of rules, in turn, is a thoroughly personal activity: it enables a practitioner to develop a singular understanding of the art through engagement and experience with the help of a few basic principles that allow for flexible interpretation. The same observation can be made with regard to many activities: for instance, playing soccer, playing chess, or negotiating. When we think of philosophy in this manner, we can see that real philosophy derives its methodological innovations from the very substance of the rules of philosophical engagement itself. It turns its self-critical capacities upon itself, creating a reflexive relationship between its nature and its practice.

On a personal level, the practice of real philosophy is liberationist because the mastery of its rules enables their self-overcoming. One liberates oneself from one’s preconceptions by applying rules of engagement with a host of different ideas. One must free oneself from dogmatism by going through the ordeal of internalizing the rules of engagement to such a degree that they become second nature — and as one progresses, they finally become one’s primary nature. One becomes the embodiment of one’s engagements, just as Nietzsche said: by staring into the abyss, the abyss stares back into oneself by being gazed upon. Mastering an art is an abyss of sorts: one must overcome doubts, hesitation, procrastination, laziness, only to fail and improve. One must internalize the rules to a degree that extends well beyond mere rote-memorization or thoughtless application. Making the right decision, or judging correctly must be learned in practice, and it is very hard to define any a priori rules for learning it.

Real philosophy grows and affirms itself by seemingly breaking down what was painstakingly built; by criticizing that which seemed proven or given; and by revisiting what seemed concluded. This process continuously creates new openings in the conceptual strongholds that have been built and fortified over time. Yet, the discipline itself thrives on these internal conflicts and recurring frictions. Its restless search is at the same time innovative and liberationist. This searching process is like a snake feeding on its own tail — it liberates itself from its own methodological presuppositions in a process of inquiry that is not reducible to mere argumentation or winning arguments.

The combination between innovation and liberation corresponds to two themes that can be identified in the history of philosophy. First, there is the situatedness and first-person viewpoint of the philosopher practicing some form of engagement.

Second, there is the multiple realizability of rigor. For instance, during the Romantic era, philosophical attempts to break away from the 19th-century professional academic paradigm vividly manifested themselves. In Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche these escape-attempts take almost the form of a series of raging fits, rattling the methodological cage. Kierkegaard adopted dozens of pseudonyms and different prose styles; Schopenhauer wrote insightful tirades against “university philosophy” and his contemporary Hegel; and Nietzsche declared “war on the house of Hohenzollern”. We can see this as the “Romantic response” to the perceived instrumentality of the sciences and the replacement of procedure for real thinking. This undercurrent of thinking is also fully visible in Byron, the Shelleys, Woodsworth, Dostoevsky, and Kafka. In a sense, such literary works engage by being iconoclastically different on purpose, even if I doubt whether Nietzsche or Kafka self-consciously chose to write the way he wrote. Nevertheless, their writing has the effect of providing an alternative, opening up a conceptual domain that remains inaccessible to mainstream professional academic, or overtly scholastic ways of thinking.

Not surprisingly, lost in scholasticism is precisely Schopenhauer’s charge against Hegel. Although Schopenhauer is a committed Kantian, and therefore not averse to systematic thought as such, for him, Hegel’s thinking goes many steps too far. Throughout the World as Will and Representation, the primacy of original ways of thinking and original ways feeling always surfaces: Schopenhauer realizes very well that systematic reasoning only gets us so far, so he shuns all attempts at merely explaining things away.

In Nietzsche, the notion that thinking and feeling are fundamental to practicing philosophy is worked out differently. Just sitting and writing is considered almost an absolute sin. Nietzsche rejects all attempts at systematicity (accusing the creators of systems of a lack of integrity), and what he calls “conceptual cobwebbery.” Instead, Nietzsche walks about, taking his notebooks with him, and uses the aphorism and the paragraph as the units of thought. In Thus Spoke Zarathrustra, prophecy rather than argumentation comes to the fore. It is as if Nietzsche repeats familiar ideas in a different mode, opening up a whole different form of philosophical life, a Lebensphilosophie in the literal sense of the word.

Yet, at the beginning of the 20th century, Analytic philosophy railed against these attempts to construct a new and anti-professional-academic kind of philosophy, thereby distrusting specifically any form of situatedness. The dispassionate, objective scientist was their model, and metaphysical speculation was to be shunned. In particular British neo-Hegelian Absolute Idealism, modelled after Hegel’s thought, was seen as a philosophical dead end — and a dusty one at that. So the 1929 Manifesto of the Vienna Circle attempts to open the crypt and let fresh air in, not unlike the glass-and-steels buildings of the architectural modernists. That this very move also rested on a philosophical position and some unargued dogmas was easily overlooked and only later became apparent as the logicistic and analytic research program of the classical Analytic philosophers was surpassed by post-classical Analytic philosophy in the Quinean and post-Quinean mode. One can write about anything in the Analytic style, but that is only a matter of phrasing and rhetoric, and does not convey a distinctive content. The only remaining fixed point is scientism and its associated mode of expression.

What Nietzsche demonstrated in his works is an almost a deadly blow to any and all attempts at being too “rigorous” in the contemporary professional academic sense of that word. But despite his professed aversion to systems, his thought is not irrational, incomprehensible, or incoherent. It is as if Nietzsche purposely set out to do demonstrates that philosophical rigor in its contemporary sense is entombed in a state of perpetual rigor mortis, as long as philosophical passion is at work. Always the practical joker, he shows a tremendous capacity for wordplay, satire, and subversion (read the chapter “My Impossibles” in Twilight of the Idols for a splendid demonstration). Nietzsche demonstrates that life outside the rules and conventions of a given system is possible and even rewarding. In this sense, real philosophy is liberationist. It ruthlessly questions the norms and rules imposed by institutions, by experts, by those in power, or by convention.

In the cases of Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, this liberation has an extra sting. Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer wrote beautiful prose, and Nietzsche was impossibly erudite. Yet, all three men abstain from being tedious or overtly professional. No-one reading them charitably could have failed to notice these features. In a sense, then, there is certain existential ideal involved in both authors. They assert passionately what and who they are, and in no uncertain terms, and thereby establish their intellectual and literary status. Then they complete this liberation by setting up a niche outside the professional academic system. The philosophies developed in these niches are not less rigorous than the established formats of philosophy, but they are certainly different, because they allow their inhabitants to open up a new (essentially non-) conceptual terrain. This terrain was closed off by accepted modes of expression or thought, but it is their confining influence that such institutional norms instigate their own downfall.

In a stroke of irony, the work of one of the most rigorous philosophers of the 20th century — the early Ludwig Wittgenstein of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus– would be regarded as the pinnacle of precise philosophizing. And yet, the later Wittgenstein achieves what Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche also accomplished by setting up their homes outside the professional academy. If one reads, for instance, the Philosophical Investigations, one is confronted with a very strange phenomenon: like Nietzsche, Wittgenstein deliberately eschews all formalities. Both men share even their erratic use of punctuation. Sentences are divided, cut short, interrupted, or strung together. Indeed, just as one might do when making notes. (Much to Wittgenstein’s annoyance, the publication of the Tractatus almost failed because it did not meet the formatting requirements laid down by Cambridge University Press, hence was rejected by them, and had to be published initially in a German journal, Annalen der Naturphilosophie, and then finally in an English translation by Routledge Kegan Paul).

In later Wittgenstein’s work, just as in Nietzsche’s, thoughts jump here and there. Topics that were unfinished emerge in a different context; classical problems of philosophy are addressed, but in ways that seem utterly strange; new threads of thought join and take off in different directions. Yet, the passion with which Wittgenstein asks questions of himself and of his own thought borders on the maniacal: above all, Wittgenstein is a passionate thinker in this regard.

What makes for uncomfortable reading in the cases discussed here is that the importance and sometimes trauma of the questions is hammered home time and time again. Unlike a professional academic paper in which thorny issues can be strategically avoided (“The focus of this paper is on X and does not allow me to delve into topic Y”), and in which a triumphant conclusion can be reached, in real philosophy the questioning goes on.

In all the cases I’ve discussed so far, there is a very real engagement with ideas of the past (for instance, Nietzsche’s engagement with Kant, with Schopenhauer, or with Plato’s Socrates), however, this is engagement conducted in the terms of the authors themselves, not in the terms of the professional academy or a journal editor. Such personal philosophical engagements by real thinkers typically leads to their expulsion from professional academic publishing, or at least to a turbulent relationship with professional academic social institutions.

Kant’s injunction to “dare to think for yourself” acquires here the added meaning of daring to choose the terms of philosophical engagement for yourself. Sometimes a radically new position is needed for real thinking, and existing conventions and norms very often are inimical to the presentational formats and nurture of philosophical originality. Liberation is not merely a shedding of someone else’s conventions and norms, but an active search for a place where one’s own thoughts can flourish and grow according to their natural inclination, and this is by no means always possible in professional academic circles — indeed it is very often practically impossible under such conditions.

To liberate oneself, then, means to cut oneself loose from rules and impositions issued by others without proper justification. It means to find a space in which one’s thought can develop, unencumbered by power structures and social-institutional influences that impede and corrode it. This insight brings us up to the next feature of engagement in real philosophy. Practicing real philosophy means not only finding a new normative place in which one’s thoughts can develop, but also exploring a new methodological space in which it subtly or not-so-subtly subverts existing methods and ways of writing and thinking. Moreover, this subversion is a method all by itself, and will therefore be the topic of the next installment in this series.


[ii] S. Kierkegaard, Either/Or. A Fragment of Life, trans. A. Hannay (New York, NY: Penguin, 2004), p. 49

[iii] F. Nietzsche, Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft (Hamburg: Nikol Verlag, 2014), p. 19. This little poem appears in Scherz, List und Rache, and is titled “Für Tänzer” (For Dancers).

[iv] G. Bataille, “Eroticism, Sanctity, Solitude,” in C. Cazeaux (ed.), The Continental Aesthetics Reader (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000), pp. 384–391, at p. 386.

[v] A. Schopenhauer, “On Reading and Books,” in A. Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, trans. A. Del Caro and C. Janaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), pp. 496–505, at p. 496.

[vi] P. Tillich, Systematic Theology, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1967), p. 6.

[vii] L. Wittgenstein, L., Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and J. Schulte (4th edn.,London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), p. 239e.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Thursday 16 April 2020

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