On Reading Philosophy: The Essay.

An edgy essay by Robert Whyte

There are two ways I see of appreciating Carlo Cellucci’s lovely piece “The Most Urgent Task of Philosophy Today,” which recently appeared in Borderless Philosophy 2 (2019). First is the joy getting the gist of the thing. That’s the up side. The downside, perhaps, is the frustrating tendency (I have at least) to get lost and confused in the nitty-gritty minutiae of the argument.

I have to say straight up this is not a Carlo Cellucci problem. It a philosophy problem. It is a problem shared by many disciplines, but it’s philosophy we’re discussing now, so I’m going to stick with this ancient and current practice of trying to “significantly advance our understanding of the world,” to paraphrase Cellucci.

For this exercise I am using Cellucci’s piece as a scaffold to draw out some of the difficulties I experience as a non-philosopher reading philosophy. But that’s not to disparage Cellucci’s piece, quite the opposite. I recommend it without hesitation, to read for yourself, accompanied either by a cup of tea or a stack of sandwiches, as per the above.

Some of the difficulties I experience as a non-philosopher reading philosophy. Hmmm. Why is this important? I suggest it is important because it is another way of looking at Cellucci’s topic, “The Most Urgent Task of Philosophy Today”. (If you are impatient you can skip to the end now, where I explain my take on that.)

Coming to philosophy as a minded animal with no academic training, I see a title like “The Most Urgent Task of Philosophy Today” and I am salivating at the prospect of nuggets of philosophical gold streaming from the udders of Eldorado in the sky accompanied by searing flashes of insight which burn away the scales which have until now covered my eyes.

I then find I am confronted, in Cellucci’s disquisition, by what isn’t “The Most Urgent Task of Philosophy Today.” This is a cute lead-in but a little beside the point. According to Carlo, and I find myself readily agreeing with him, “The Most Urgent Task of Philosophy Today” is certainly not what some other people say it is, notably Friedman and Dummett, who cite a reconciliation of the Analytic and Continental traditions as philosophy’s most urgent task. Huh? I fully agree with Cellucci that “such reconciliation would only bring together two weaknesses.” He substantiates this argument by telling us what those weaknesses are, but to summarise here: Analytic = insignificance vanishing up its own arsehole, and Continental = unrealistic in every sense of the word.

Cellucci then moves on to what he thinks is the answer. The problem, he suggests, is irrelevance, which, he argues, can be tackled by reinstating the view “philosophy is acquisition of knowledge.”

I’m down with that. Identifying philosophy’s most important problem (irrelevance); and tasking us with the need for reassessing, broadening, returning and reinvigorating philosophy by accepting and building upon the notion that philosophy is the “acquisition of knowledge.” Fair enough. Why not?

I don’t agree with his answer (skip to the end), but I agree that irrelevance is certainly the problem. What is the point of having philosophy at all, if it is toothless, ignored, derided, scoffed at; not only not invited to the party of life where the big decisions are made, but also not functioning as it should, which is of course to provide the framework, rules and policy for rational debate everywhere.

Then we get to the detail. Cellucci notes that Wittgenstein, Dummett, Heidegger and (maybe) Gadamer say that philosophy is not about the “acquisition of knowledge”, contrasting philosophy with the “not philosophy” which is science.

I’m also with Cellucci here. I have no doubt these dudes were guilty of both under- and over-reach as far as philosophy is concerned. I also think they were vastly confused as to the nature of science. This is probably because they were not scientists or not familiar enough with the broad principles of scientific enquiry to make a meaning assessment of this kind, and to paraphrase Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, whereof they were intending to speak when they should have remained silent. Not to mention the astonishing hubris of those who deem themselves entitled to make statements about what philosophy is or what it is not. I like the way that Cellucci steers clear of this dingo-trap by talking about tasks for philosophy rather than riffing on philosophy itself.

Whether or not people think philosophy is a search for understanding, or knowledge acquisition, or a game of peas and walnut shells or anything else, doesn’t really matter to me, because (and here’s a clue) these issues are internal to philosophy, while the problem of philosophy’s irrelevance is external. Irrelevance can be tackled by philosophers but not, in my view, by fixing how it is perceived or how it works. I propose it can be tackled by something else entirely. (Dear Reader: skip ahead if you like.)

Cellucci has a few heavy hitters waiting in the sheds, who, he says, are on his side rather than the side of Wittgenstein, Dummett, Heidegger and (maybe) Gadamer. And these heavy hitters are arguably the heaviest of them all: Plato, Descartes and Kant. He then goes on to qualify the association of these guys with his side of the argument.

I mentioned at the outset that I trip up on the fine detail. This is not so much a problem of a few errors, elisions and glosses, those are there but it’s ungracious to stumble on a typo when it is not that hard to fill in the blanks and discern the author’s intention. For example, Cellucci mentions that his heavy hitters might not agree with him about what the acquisition of knowledge really means, saying for instance that his (Cellucci’s) concept of knowledge is

a priori not in Kant’s sense that it occurs absolutely independently of all experience but rather, it is a priori in the sense that it is based on hypotheses that go beyond experience. Knowledge that is a priori in this sense is not certain, and yet it is indispensable for the possibility experience, because all sort of knowledge, including the perceptive one, is based on hypotheses.

It would be churlish to point out that there might be an “of” missing from “possibility experience” or that “all sort of knowledge” should be “all sorts of knowledge” or that one might be mystified as to what “the perceptive one” actually means. And of course that’s the BP editor’s problem!, not Cellucci’s. You sloppy boy, Hugh Reginald.

We should instead be able to get what Cellucci is on about here and it’s not that hard. But this is where we become entangled with the indeterminacy at the heart of philosophical conversation, at the coalface level of conversation where the boundaries between argument and assumed agreement become blurred.

Just what does this (text corrected) mean? “Knowledge that is a priori in this sense is not certain, and yet it is indispensable for experience, because all sorts of knowledge, even including those derived from perception, are based on hypotheses.”

Carlo’s reference here is “36, See C. Cellucci, Rethinking Logic: Logic in Relation to Mathematics, Evolution, and Method (Cham, CH: Springer, 2013), pp. 291–294.

So, am I supposed to rush out and grab a copy of this book or just take it on trust? And what am I taking on trust if I do? Three pages of close argument to substantiate this claim? First, I am reading this article, not another book, so the argument needs to be at least summarized and second, I wonder if the stumbles here are actually betraying Carlo’s discomfort with what he is saying. I really can’t see, if I am correcting the text properly, how it is possible to argue that “all sorts of knowledge, even including those derived from perception, are based on hypotheses.”

I am a scientist, so I have a fair idea what a hypothesis is. I am pretty sure its scope does not stretch this far. I would include, as a sort of knowledge, any number of learned responses to the world, some rational when inspected in hindsight some not, but often acquired without the benefit of hypotheses. Epiphanies, for example, are experiences of sudden and striking realization, allowing a situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective. Epiphanies generally follow a process of significant thought and usually feature a depth of prior knowledge, but the leap of understanding is so lateral and dramatic it is likened to a manifestation, as in the Greek root ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia.

A hypothesis is a suggested explanation for a situation. The scientific work needed is to test it, providing argument and evidence as to its appropriateness for being adopted as the working theory, the caveat being that science does not prove anything, restricting itself to substantiating hypotheses or alternatively, finding fault with them.

Careful readers will have noticed I fell prey to the same sort of creeping over-reach as I have disparaged when I said above: “What is the point of having philosophy at all, if it is toothless, ignored, derided, scoffed at; not only not invited to the party of life where the big decisions are made but also not functioning as it should, which is of course to provide the framework, rules and policy for rational debate everywhere.”

That statement was absolutely full up to pussy’s bow with wild assertions assuming agreement as if they were self-evident facts. Who says philosophy is toothless, ignored, derided, or scoffed at? Certainly not New York University, Princeton, Michigan-Ann Arbor, Cornell, MIT, Oxford or Harvard, at least not in their brochures. And as for being not invited to the party of life where the big decisions are made, where is this party? Who is invited? And who says the proper role of philosophy to provide the framework, rules and policy for rational debate everywhere? I admit it. I did. No one else did, at least not that I know of. (OK, perhaps Grice or Habermas. But the former is dead and the latter is 90. I rest my case.)

What was happening here was rhetoric. This is not the same as an underlying agreement on certain basic understandings which are so universally accepted as to be the substrate upon which discussion occurs. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. It is not science, but science has its own spin too. Phrenology was a science once. It isn’t now. John Locke believed in the blank slate. It was a moral-political phantasm. Giovanni Schiaparelli mapped the canals on Mars. They were an optical illusion. Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier decided the planet Vulcan between Mercury and the sun explained the nature of Mercury’s orbit. It didn’t exist.

Rhetoric is spin, regardless of the innocence or complicity of its promulgators. Rhetoric is used in every aspect of human endeavour, with good will or bad, in moderation or excess. It is inescapable human nature. As is the assumption of some agreed bedrock of commonly accepted foundations which we need in order to enable any discussion at all. The same rock perhaps that Samuel Johnson kicked in order to refute Berkeley’s proposal that matter did not exist. But that’s not the whole story. Shared knowledge is inescapable, often confirmed, but easily disrupted. Close scrutiny can easily see the solid bedrock become shifting sand. If say to you “Could you pass the salt?” the meaning of this sentence will change in as many ways that there are differences between us and therefore our relationship. No, I don’t want to marry you.

Perhaps none of this matters, except to the extent that it has its base in humanity. I mean by humanity, “minded animals characterised by written language and shared decision-making.” Is this a good definition of humanity? On what reference? None, because I just made it up. A Google search finds no results for “minded animals characterised by written language and shared decision-making,” so it appears there is little chance of this phrase being a shared understanding between anyone, let alone the un-marriageable me and you. Nevertheless, you saw how I used it there as assumed shared knowledge without a second thought. Just tossed it in there. We do this all the time. If we pause to discuss or even, Darwin forbid, contest this notion it won’t before at least one of us disappears up his or her own arsehole in a puff of logic. So, let’s not go there. You see, I did it again.

Or maybe we will just hang for a while, because there is something interesting clawing at the edges of my consciousness, having made that “minded animals characterised by written language and shared decision-making” remark. The written language part is conventional wisdom as part of the species definition for humans, but not the collective decision making. Lots of animals participate in collective decision making, so what’s going on with them? Indeed, how much of collective decision making, properly the domain of politics, philosophy, ethics and everyday family life, is animal behaviour? For that matter, how much of language is also present in animals. Are we including the querulous tone of a chook (Australian for chicken, Gallus domesticus) when confronted with the prospect of tasty food but whose desire to get some of it is mitigated by the proximity of and signals from her flock captain not to mention the presence of a brush turkey (Alectura lathami), a known chook food thief and chicken harasser.

I would argue (and it appears I am doing so) that querulous whimpers are also common among human flocks and mean much the same as they do in chickens. I would go even further and say that chook and human whimpers, including Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, are properly within the domain of both philosophy and science and that these two domains are interchangeable and mutually supportive. It follows (this is another of those rhetorical devices) that fields of science such as neuroscience, evolution, psychology, endocrinology, medicine, history and cognition can shed light on philosophical questions such as the nature of consciousness.

This seems not to be the view of Peter Hacker, who Cellucci goes on to discuss and refute at some length. Peter Hacker, of Oxford University, is as of this writing is in his 79th year, a cohort shared by Carlo Cellucci who is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Sapienza University of Rome. Being the same age, it seems likely that Carlo and Peter have been sparring similarly throughout their careers.

Peter Hacker appears to consider the domain of philosophy to be restricted to the dark interior of a very small tin can, rejecting the notion that light can be shed on philosophical questions by any of those sciences mentioned. In “Some Remarks on Philosophy and on Wittgenstein’s Conception of Philosophy and its Misinterpretation,” Hacker reminds us that

Philosophy is not a natural science. There is no body of philosophical facts, on the model of facts of physics. There is no body of well-established philosophical truths, on the model of the truths of chemistry. There are no philosophical theories on the model of theories in the natural sciences that can be or have been confirmed by experiment and observation. Philosophy, unlike the hard sciences, issues no predictions. Philosophical reasoning, unlike scientific reasoning, involves no idealizations of observable phenomena for theoretical purposes and formulations of laws of nature. There are no hypotheses in philosophy that may be confirmed or disconfirmed by an experiment. Nor can philosophy tolerate approximations to the facts. For philosophy is not concerned with discovering laws of nature or with determining the facts. It is concerned with plotting the bounds of sense. And a mere approximation to sense is one form or another of nonsense.[i]

This sounds more like a series of decrees than reminders. Who says philosophy is not a natural science? Why not? I could point to many instances where natural sciences and philosophising have been essentially indistinguishable. I could also to point to many other instances where they are not. So what? Why throw up a fort around this notion of philosophy when it can easily expand, enlarge, and embrace the natural sciences. Without borders, one might say. Because of its long history and vast scope, philosophy is perhaps the only discipline than can embrace and include all others in fulfilling its role of trying to “significantly advance our understanding of the world”. It is hard to imagine neuroscience expanding to include, say, geology or botany, but philosophy is the megamonster who can happily swallow all comers and have them reside unharmed in its giant corpus.

Proceeding with Hacker’s statement, rather than agree with their non-existence, I stub my toe repeatedly on many bodies of philosophical facts like those of physics and chemistry. There are theories of philosophy which, as in the natural sciences, can be or have been confirmed by experiment and observation. To take the topic up a notch, it is hard to accept Peter’s notion of what science is and what it does, seemingly formulated in order to persuade us that it is not philosophy. If you look more closely you will find that physics and chemistry do not have those golden facts at the end or the rainbow. In fact, they are not really that “hard” in contrast to the implied “softness” of philosophy. And of course philosophy can be “concerned with discovering laws of nature” and with “determining the facts”. It does this all the time, unless we have suddenly agreed that we are all dead, or ethereal, or our existence and our philosophising is somehow beyond the realm of nature. Hacker restricts philosophy to being “concerned with plotting the bounds of sense.” That may well be one of the things philosophy does. But other fields investigate and plot these bounds, arguably better than philosophy might, and anyway why should philosophy be so restricted?

Interpolated within Hacker’s statement is the assertion that philosophy cannot tolerate approximations to the facts (as if science does so as a matter of course) “[f]or philosophy is not concerned … with determining the facts.” Huh? That’s not a reason, it’s a concatenation of assertions. Never mind. We’ll go on. It seems that Hacker is making this point because he wishes to spin another. That in regard to plotting the bounds of sense “mere approximation to sense is one form or another of nonsense.” Whoa! Far be it from me to quibble with the arguments of the owner of a distinguished career as an Oxford don, but this sounds like sophistry to me. There were some peas, and I saw the walnut shells move very fast and now three peas are under one walnut shell. How did they get there?

Oh well, it seems that now I have quibbled with the arguments of an Oxford don. Indeed, a cat may look at a king. And I am sure many other cats have done the same, not the least Carlo Cellucci, much better positioned cat-wise than I am to take issue with what his friend Peter might say.

Cellucci points out that the philosophies of the so-called “hard sciences” such as the philosophy of physics or the philosophy of the psychological sciences did not arise from these sciences but in fact preceded them, contra Hacker. He also notes Hacker’s apparent conception of the philosopher as an under-labourer of the sciences to, as Locke says “clear the ground a little, … removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge,” or as Hacker says, philosophy “is a Tribunal of Reason, before which scientists and mathematicians may be arraigned for their transgressions.” Cellucci argues this view is unwarranted, because science does not need philosophers for this, they naturally do it themselves, as their sciences mature. Cellucci also disputes Hacker’s claim that no philosophical question can be answered by scientific means, saying that since antiquity, many philosophical questions have been answered by the sciences and will go on being answered by the sciences.

Hacker claims that philosophy as acquisition of knowledge does not account for moral, legal, and political philosophy. Cellucci counters this by saying such a view is “based on the assumption that moral, legal, and political philosophy are about values, while knowledge is about facts, and values and facts have nothing to do with each other.” But what really happens, Cellucci says, is that values depend on what we know about the world and may change when our knowledge about the world changes, so values actually depend on facts. Furthermore, Cellucci says, moral, legal, and political philosophies are acquisition of knowledge just as philosophy is in general.

Let’s just refresh ourselves here, with another sip of tea or bite of a sandwich, then press on.

Cellucci is advocating for the view that philosophy is the acquisition of knowledge, but Hacker says it is not. Remember, Hacker said philosophy is about plotting the bounds to sense. But this is a tricky concept not easy to explain. Does he include the sense of chicken whimpering, or is that beyond his scope?

Cellucci clears this up by translating Peter’s view for us as “the view that philosophy is a search for understanding”. I’m sure Hacker would go along with that and agree that he is following Wittgenstein in holding this view. But Cellucci doesn’t stop there. He says that Hacker’s view “that philosophy is a search for understanding is inadequate in several respects” and goes on to explain why. It’s all about language, of course. Hacker says that, for example, “non-euclidean geometries are not alternative theories of space but alternative grammars for the description of spatial relationships”. Cellucci says, nope, non-euclidean geometries are a thing, just as much as euclidean geometries are a thing.

Cellucci presents Hacker’s view that “by means of conceptual analysis, philosophy can solve or dissolve conceptual unclarity or misunderstanding, and answer conceptual questions concerning both ordinary concepts and concepts of the sciences and mathematics”. Cellucci then responds to this by saying however much you might value conceptual analysis, for clarity and understanding you also need more knowledge.

Cellucci says that the Hacker-position on language might be that “philosophy can achieve understanding by an investigation into the use of words, phrases, and sentences.” But, says Cellucci, philosophy is not only about understanding words, phrases, and sentences. Philosophy, in fact, aims to understand not only sentences, but the world. Hacker says philosophy can penetrate the essence of things. Cellucci says there is no such essence.

And so on. Personally, I think Cellucci succeeds in establishing his case “that philosophy is a search for understanding is not a viable alternative to the view that philosophy is knowledge acquisition.” No doubt Hacker would violently disagree and pick it apart like a whirling dervish, scattering all those nicely phrased arguments to the four winds.

But does any of this matter? Is any of it really related to philosophy’s mooted problem, irrelevance?

I don’t think so. We inescapably bring to the table, when attempting to discuss such topics as “The Most Urgent Task of Philosophy Today,” our views of what philosophy is. I think we can see here that these views may differ quite radically.

I think views about what philosophy is are, like professional academic philosophy itself at the moment, irrelevant. What I see as relevant, and a solution to the irrelevance problem, is is for philosophy to broaden the scope of who is the intended audience to include all people, in other words, all of humanity. Philosophy, of all human activities, has the capacity, unlike any other single activity, of being inclusive of all of humanity’s inquiries and speculations, resulting in both knowledge and understanding, which can be argued are not mutually exclusive as suggested by some.

Answering the irrelevance problem is grasping the notion that people simply don’t get whatever it is that philosophy might offer. They have drifted away, losing the ability to engage in critical thinking, being tricked by spin, having their buttons pushed by the forces of good, or evil, lacking a meta understanding of their own situation and biases from any remote and, as much as possible, objective viewpoint. They are not armed with the defences against what used to be called “cant” (unfortunately for Kantians, a homophone of “Kant”) and is now called lies, lies and more lies, formulated innocently or not.

This is because philosophy is not being communicated, which it needs to be, to provide the framework, rules and policy for rational debate everywhere. Is this a problem with transmission or reception? Can we argue that people are just not listening and a result not hearing? No matter what philosophers say, do people just tune out? I don’t think so. Let philosophers attempt to communicate to all of humanity, which means successful transmission and reception of what they have to say, and let’s see what happens. It’s worth a try.


[i] Available online at <http://argumenta.uniss.it/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Argumenta-11-Peter-Hacker-Some-Remarks-on-Philosophy-OK.pdf>.



Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 2 July 2019

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

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