How to Philosophize with a Hammer and a Blue Guitar, #2–Seven Varieties of Philosophical Quietism.

By Robert Hanna


1. Introduction

2. What I Mean By “Philosophy,” “Politics,” and “Rational”

3. Philosophical Quietism and Philosophical Activism

4. Seven Varieties of Philosophical Quietism

5. How and Why All Seven Varieties of Philosophical Quietism are Rationally Unjustified and Morally Unacceptable

6. Eight Varieties of Philosophical Activism

7. How and Why the First Eight Varieties of Philosophical Activism are Rationally Unjustifiable and Morally Unacceptable

8. The Ninth Variety of Philosophical Activism, the Mind-Body Politic, and How and Why It is Rationally Justifiable and Morally Acceptable

9. Philosophizing with a Blue Guitar

10. Conclusion



4. Seven Varieties of Philosophical Quietism

PQ1: The Consolation of Philosophy

According to The Consolation of Philosophy conception, philosophy should be disengaged from politics, because it’s in the nature of philosophy to undertake a speculative and Stoic withdrawal from the world.

A prime example of The Consolation of Philosophy conception is Boethius’s eponymous The Consolation of Philosophy.

More precisely, as per a dominant strand in classical philosophy, flowing from Aristotle and through the Hellenic and Hellenistic periods, especially including Stoic philosophy, philosophy should be not only abstractly theoretical, and especially focused on speculative metaphysics, the science of first principles and first causes and/or being quâ being, but also resignedly and stoically withdraw from the tyranny, arbitrary violence, and more generally wholly contingent, lucky or unlucky vicissitudes of politics.

Correspondingly, here’s how Wikipedia concisely describes The Consolation:

The Consolation of Philosophy was written in AD 523 during a one-year imprisonment Boethius served while awaiting trial — and eventual execution — for the alleged crime of treason under the Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great. Boethius was at the very heights of power in Rome, holding the prestigious office of magister officiorum, and was brought down by treachery. This experience inspired the text, which reflects on how evil can exist in a world governed by God (the problem of theodicy), and how happiness is still attainable amidst fickle fortune, while also considering the nature of happiness and God. It has been described as “by far the most interesting example of prison literature the world has ever seen.”

Boethius writes the book as a conversation between himself and Lady Philosophy. Lady Philosophy consoles Boethius by discussing the transitory nature of fame and wealth (“no man can ever truly be secure until he has been forsaken by Fortune”), and the ultimate superiority of things of the mind, which she calls the “one true good.” She contends that happiness comes from within, and that virtue is all that one truly has, because it is not imperilled by the vicissitudes of fortune.[i]

PQ2: Enlightenment Lite

According to the Enlightenment Lite conception, philosophy should be disengaged from politics, because although it’s in the nature of philosophy to argue as much as it likes about whatever it likes, nevertheless it must also obey the government and stay clear of politics.

A prime example of the Enlightenment Lite conception is Kant’s famous essay, “What is Enlightenment?,” when considered alongside his almost equally famous political treatise The Doctrine of Right.

But this must also be critically compared and contrasted with Kant’s far less well-known late essay, “The Conflict of the Faculties,” and equally far less well-known complementary political treatise disguised as moral theology, Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason.

All things considered then, Kant presents two mutually inconsistent conceptions of enlightenment,[ii] whose general motto is Sapere aude!, i.e., the rational obligation to dare to know!, or to dare to think for oneself!

According to the first Kantian conception of enlightenment, which expresses a version of neo-Hobbesian mainstream liberal republicanism and/or constitutional monarchy, and which I’ve called enlightenment lite, we have an obligation to dare to know, or to dare to think for ourselves,

(i) that’s nevertheless not an obligation to feel, choose, or act for ourselves, and

(ii) that even as far as free-thinking and freedom of speech are concerned, it’s sharply limited insofar as anyone is a functionary of the State (which Kant very misleadingly calls “the private use of reason”) — e.g., a pastor or other religious official within the State-controlled Church, a public official of the governement, or a university professor, not to mention the State-controlled public functional role played by every citizen as a citizen of a given State — and more generally, even insofar as it involves the so-called “the public use of reason” (roughly, free-thinking and free speech within the boundaries of mere professional academic freedom alone) it’s sharply limited by the Frederick the Great’s crisp, edgy, and (presumably) unintentionally highly ironic formulation of the coercive authoritarianism of the “enlightened despot”: Argue as much as you like about whatever you like, but obey!

But according to the second Kantian conception of enlightenment, to some extent inspired by Spinoza and the philosophical fall-out from the immensely important 17th and 18th century Spinozism Controversy,[iii] a Kantian conception that in fact expresses an early version of cosmopolitan anarcho-socialism, which I’ve called heavy-duty enlightenment or radical enlightenment, we have a rational obligation

(i) that requires us not only to think for ourselves, but also to feel, choose, and act for ourselves, hence a rational obligation to free will and practical agency, including autonomy,

(ii) that’s not limited by the coercive authoritarianism of the State, and indeed even requires us to exit the State in order to create and sustain a world-wide ethical community, and thereby finally to achieve intellectual, emotional, and moral maturity, as he explicitly formulates it in Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason.

Not surprisingly, given the personal and political risks of explicitly defending heavy-duty or radical enlightenment in the age of despots, Kant carefully self-censors his own writings by using prima facie incoherent or even contradictory, or at least highly subtle, formulations, often buried away in the middle of longish, otherwise seemingly non-radical texts, and he thereby intentionally designs his philosophical rhetoric and writing in such a way as to make his defense of the heavy-duty or radical enlightenment doctrine esoteric rather than exoteric.

Correspondingly, although perhaps not too surprisingly, one of the most absurd and maddening things about contemporary professional academic Kant-scholarship is its almost completely mind-manacled inability to recognize that Kant’s theory of enlightenment and political philosophy has a heavy-duty and radical strand, in addition to its intellectually and morally lite and mainstream liberal republican strand.

But in any case, I’ll come back to heavy-duty or radical enlightenment later, in section 8.

PQ3: The Owl of Minerva

According to The Owl of Minerva conception, philosophy should be disengaged from politics, because it’s in the nature of philosophy to be post-historical and therefore post-political.

A prime example of The Owl of Minerva conception is expressed in the final paragraph of Hegel’s Preface to The Philosophy of Right:

One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy … always comes on the scene too late to give it. As the thought of the world, it appears only when actuality is already there cut and dried after its process of formation has been completed. The teaching of the concept, which is also history’s inescapable lesson, is that only when actuality is mature that the ideal first first appears over against the real and the ideal apprehends this same world in its substance and builds it up for itself into the shape of an intellectual realm. When philosophy paints its grey-on-grey, then has a shape of the world grown old. By philosophy’s grey-on-grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.[iv]

And here’s how Thomas Pogge glosses that famous text:

“Minerva” is the Roman name of the Greek Athena, goddess of wisdom and philosophy, and associated with the owl (as preserved in the saying “bringing owls to Athens” which means bringing something to a place that already has more than enough thereof).

The meaning of Hegel’s saying is that philosophy/wisdom takes flight only at the end of the day, after the day’s main events have taken place. For Hegel, this was not tragic. His particular point is that it is only at the end of human history (which he associated with his own time, the early 19th century) that human beings can come to understand history’s developmental logic. In fact, our coming to understand history is part of this developmental logic; and once we fully understand we are reconciled to history and thus would not have wanted history to have gone differently in any important respect.[v]

So in other words, Hegel is saying philosophy by its nature is the rationally self-conscious reflection, realized in thought, of any historical period, and also that philosophy, like the Owl of Minerva, spreads its wings only as the light of day wanes, i.e., at dusk, which is to say that philosophy by its nature comes onto the scene only after all the shooting in particular, and all the real-world political engagement more generally, has already happened.

PQ4: Leaving The World Alone

According to the Leaving The World Alone conception, philosophy should be disengaged from politics because it’s in the nature of philosophy not to infere with human practical activity.

A prime example of the Leaving The World Alone conception is the later Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

In the Investigations, Wittgenstein says that philosophy’s role in intellectual and moral life is entirely descriptive, critical, diagnostic, and therapeutic:

It was true to say that our considerations could not be scientific (wissenschaftliche) ones. It was not of any possible interest to us to find out empirically “that, contrary to our preconceived ideas, it is possible think such-and-such” — whatever that may mean… And we may not advance any kind of [scientific] theory…. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place. These are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings: in spite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known. (PI §109)[vi]

Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it.

For it cannot give it any foundation either.

It leaves everything as it is. (PI, §124)[vii]

It is not our aim to refine or complete the system of rules for the use of words in unheard-of ways. For the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But that simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear. The real discovery is one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. –The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question…. There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies. (PI§133)[viii]

Therefore, philosophy cannot engage with politics, lest it become some other kind of enterprise altogether, namely some sort of practical enterprise.

PQ5: The Icy Slopes of Logic

According to The Icy Slopes of Logic conception, philosophy should be disengaged from politics because it’s in the nature of philosophy to focus exclusively on stipulative truths of the formal sciences, especially logic and formal semantics, and on natural-scientific “facts,” and correspondingly to avoid all pronouncements about “values.”

A prime example of The Icy Slopes of Logic conception is Carnap’s logico-philosophical writings after 1945, e.g., Meaning and Necessity.

In the 1920s and 1930s, prior to World War II, on the one hand, Carnap was a socialist, (like the other leading member of the Vienna Circle, Otto Neurath); and yet also on the other hand, Carnap essentially identified philosophy with logic (like Russell in Our Knowledge of the External World, chapter 2, “Logic as the Essence of Philosophy”) and also explicitly claimed that as a philosopher, he preferred the “icy slopes of logic.”[ix]

But during these decades between the two World Wars, the apparent incoherence between a “hot” (i.e., engaged) commitment to socialism and a “cold” (i.e., disengaged) commitment to logic was resolved, or at least temporarily mitigated, by Carnap’s strong interest in Esperanto as a universal language of rational human communication.[x]

Nevertheless after World War II, when he was living in the USA, and during the McCarthy anti-communist era, especially when he was teaching at UCLA, Carnap gradually evolved towards political disengagement and a full-time residency on the icy slopes.

More generally, once most of the members of the Vienna Circle, in fleeing the Nazis, had been exiled mostly to the USA, and as Analytic philosophers in the Logical Empiricist mode were achieving social-institutional dominance and ideological hegemony over Anglo-American philosophy during the anti-communist McCarthy period in the 1950s,[xi] then in order to play it safe and keep their jobs, they uniformly disengaged themselves from politics and focused exclusively on logic, language, the foundations of the formal and natural sciences, and a basic commitment to scientism.[xii]

And even though Logical Empiricism has been dead since the appearance and dissemination of Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and even though since then mainstream Analytic philosophy has rumbled on-and-on through what remained of “the linguistic turn,”[xiii] then philosophy of language-&-mind, then philosophy of mind, and (most recently) Analytic metaphysics, experimental philosophy (aka X-Phi), and formal epistemology, blah, blah, blah — although always retaining a vestigial methodological attachment to the icy slopes of logic and scientism — nevertheless this sharp disjunction between mainstream Analytic philosophy and political engagement has remained in place in Anglo-American professional philosophy right until this morning at 6am.

PQ6: Present as Many Political Alternatives as You Like, and Don’t Surrender Too Readily To Totalitarian Political Regimes Like the Nazis; But Whatever You Do, Never Lay Down Authoritative Standards of Political Action, Lest You Fall into Describing Useless Utopias or Giving Dangerous Instructions

According to this longwindedly-titled conception, philosophy should be disengaged from politics because it’s in the nature of philosophy to avoid indulging in either postulating political cloud-cuckoo-lands or issuing morally bad political imperatives.

And a prime example of this conception is Hans Sluga in Heidegger’s Crisis: Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany.

Heidegger’s Crisis, as its subtitle clearly indicates, is an extended critical reflection on the question of how philosophy should be related to politics, based on a detailed historical study of German philosophy during the Nazi period.

Sluga writes:

Philosophers in my view are not qualified to lay down authoritative standards of political action. Whenever they have tried their hand at this, they hav either described useless utopias or given dangerous instructions. It might be more attractive to think of them as playing a critical role. But political critique is productive only if it is tempered by common sense and practical experience. Philosophical critics of politics, on the other hand, proceed all too often from supposedly absolute truths, and what they say then proves generally unhelpful and sometimes even destructive. Insofar as philosophy has any task to perform in politics, it is to map out new possibilities. By confronting actual political conditions with alternatives, it can help to undermine the belief that these conditions are inevitable. If the German philosophers of the 1930s had engaged in such reflection, they would not have surrendered so readily to the false certainties of Nazism.[xiv]

PQ7: Disciplined Minds

According to the Disciplined Minds conception, philosophy should be disengaged from politics because it’s in the nature of professional academic philosophy for professional philosophers to do whatever it takes in order to have a safe and solid professional career, especially including officially distancing themselves from politics other than the obedient liberalism of the professional academy, lest they get in serious trouble by indulging in unorthodox political commitment and action.

A prime example of the Disciplined Minds conception is Justin Weinberg’s contemporary professional philosophy blog, Daily Nous.

And I noted above in section 2 above that (with the exception of a very few political philosophers influenced by Frankfurt School neo-Marxism, like Finlayson — and also, not altogether coincidentally, her Cambridge PhD supervisor, Raymond Geuss) virtually all contemporary political philosophers are (in Manne’s nice phrase) “relentlessly apolitical” professional academic specialists who live, move, and have their being entirely enclosed within the well-patrolled orthodox liberal borders of the post-World War II, 20th century and 21st century neoliberal university: but the same is true of virtually all contemporary professional academic philosophers, no matter what their self-proclaimed, fateful, career-determining “area of specialization,” aka AOS.

More precisely, as Jeff Schmidt has shown in his cogent and incisive critical analysis of salaried professionalism, especially including the professional academy,[xv] late 20th and early 21st century professional academics are, generally speaking, ideologically controlled, obedient, rule-following, self-censoring, playpen-creative thinkers who consistently avoid any political engagement, lest it attract the ire of their university administrator bosses, or the ire of the people outside universities who fund private or public universities, or the ire of coercive moralistic colleagues — and thereby face complaints, reprimands, punishment, or even dismissal, thereby irreparably harming or even outright destroying their careers and professional reputations.


[i] Wikipedia, “The Consolation of Philosophy” (2019), available online at URL = <>.

[ii] For an elaborated and extended version of the argument that follows immediately in the text, see R. Hanna, “Exiting the State and Debunking the State of Nature,” Con-Textos Kantianos 5 (2017), available online at URL = <>; and R. Hanna, “The New Conflict of the Faculties: Kant, Radical Enlightenment, and the Deep(er) State,” (April 2019 version), available online, HERE.

[iii] See, e.g., F. Beiser, The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1987), chs. 2–3.

[iv] G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon/Oxford Univ. Press, 1952), pp. 12–13, translation slightly modified.

[v] T. Pogge, “Ask Philosophers,” (16 March 2007), available online at URL = <>.

[vi] L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1953), p. 47e.

[vii] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p. 49e.

[viii] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p. 51e.

[ix] See, e.g., M. Friedman, A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger (Peru, IL: Open Court, 200); and G. Reich, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005).

[x] See Friedman, A Parting of the Ways, p. 153 and n. 210.

[xi] See, e.g., J. Katzav and K. Vaesen, “On the Emergence of American Analytic Philosophy,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 25 (2017): 772–798.

[xii] See, e.g., J. McCumber, The Philosophy Scare: The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2016).

[xiii] See, e.g., R. Rorty (ed.), The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Method (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicagp Press, 1967).

[xiv] H. Sluga, Heidegger’s Crisis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1995), pp. ix-x.

[xv] See J. Schmidt, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 29 October 2019

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Mr Nemo

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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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