The Ultimate Crisis of Civilization: Why Turn to Philosophy?, #2–The Crisis of Philosophy and the Humanities.
By Arran Gare
APP EDITORS’ NOTE:
The essay below, Arran Gare’s “The Ultimate Crisis of Civilization: Why Turn to Philosophy?,” appearing here in serial form, originally appeared as ch. 1 of his recent book, The Philosophical Foundations of Ecological Civilization: A Manifesto for the Future (London/New York: Routledge, 2017), and is reproduced by permission.
This is the second installment.
But you can also read or download a .pdf of the complete essay HERE.
Arran Gare is an Australian philosopher known mainly for his work in environmental philosophy, philosophy of science, philosophy of culture, and the metaphysics of process philosophy.
He currently holds the position of Associate Professor in the Faculty of Life and Social Sciences at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, and is the co-founder and editor of the journal Cosmos and History.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The Crisis of Philosophy and the Humanities
The Two Cultures and the Triumph of Scientism
Continuing the Struggle Against Nihilism
Castoriadis and the Challenge of the Radical Enlightenment
Reconfiguring the History of Philosophy After Kant
Speculative Naturalism, the Radical Enlightenment and Ecological Civilization
The Crisis of Philosophy and the Humanities
What those who turn to philosophy looking for guidance find, however, is that except in rare instances, philosophers who have the privileged conditions provided by universities to address this greatest of all challenges, have redefined philosophy. In Anglophone countries in particular they have transformed it into a multiplicity of subdisciplines and specializations that exclude the questions that challenged the greatest philosophers of the past and exclude engagement with the greatest challenges of the present — as unscholarly. Environmental philosophy, usually characterized as environmental ethics, has been channeled into a minor sub- sub-discipline where, even if radical positions are adopted, they are impotent. Philosophy as a whole has continued its trajectory from the early Twentieth Century, where Robin Collingwood (1939) lamented, philosophers were producing ‘a philosophy so scientific that no-one whose life was not a life of pure research could appreciate it, and so abstruse that only a whole-time student, and a very clever man at that, could understand it’ (p.51) while at the same time they were claiming philosophy as ‘a preserve for professional philosophers, and were loud in their contempt of philosophical utterances by historians, natural scientists, theologians, and other amateurs’ (p.50). Turning their backs on ethics, political philosophy and even epistemology, they reveled in the uselessness of philosophy. The consequences of this are with us in the present. As John Cottingham observed :
Philosophy is among the fastest-growing A-level subjects in Britain. This suggests that despite the pressure from governments to increase the teaching of technical, career oriented subjects, a lot of sixth-formers have a stubborn interest in more traditional enquiries about the meaning of life. … But frustration often ensues as the aspiring philosophy student climbs higher. The university study of philosophy in the anglophone world now offers little by way of a grand synoptic vision of human life and our place in the scheme of things. Instead, the subject has fragmented into a host of highly technical specialisms, whose practitioners increasingly model themselves on the methods of the natural sciences. By the time they reach graduate studies, most students will be resigned to working within intricate, introverted “research” programmes, whose wider significance they might be hard pressed to explain to anyone outside their special area. (Cottingham 2012, p.25)
Effectively, mainstream academic philosophers in Anglophone countries are proselytizing a debilitating, passive nihilism while denigrating and censuring any questioning of this nihilism, either from professional philosophers or anyone else, undermining not only philosophy but the humanities, universities, education, democracy and civilization, and the capacity of humanity to deal with the threats that are now facing it. Perversely, professional philosophers have aligned philosophy with anti-intellectualism and anti-intellectuals.
The contention of this manifesto is that the resurrection of philosophy, and along with it the humanities, the liberal arts and genuine science, will only be achieved by reviving natural philosophy. So, as well as being a manifesto for ecological civilization, this is also a manifesto for natural philosophy, or more precisely (distinguishing it from the naturalism of analytic philosophers), for speculative naturalism. This is the philosophy required to redefine the nature of humanity and its place in nature and the cosmos, to support, integrate and further develop disciplines and professions which have defied the fragmentation, overspecialization and dogmatism of current intellectual inquiry, to open the way to a post-nihilist culture. Only in this way can we achieve a comprehensive understanding of our current situation, open new horizons and enable people to envisage a future in which they will not be in a permanent state of economic insecurity and will have the liberty to augment rather than undermine the conditions for life, and to orient them to battle successfully for this future.
Speculative naturalism is distinguished both from the kind of philosophy that eschews speculation and focuses entirely on critical analysis, and from Idealism. Idealism developed largely as a reaction to the Cartesian/Hobbesian/Newtonian cosmology forged in the scientific revolution of the Seventeenth Century, while critical analysis developed as a reaction against Idealism. While eschewing speculation does not imply support for Newtonian cosmology, or support for speculative philosophy imply support for Idealism, in recent decades there has been a strong tendency to assume these linkages. The dominant figures in the tradition of critical analysis, or analytic philosophy as it is now called, particularly in the USA and other Anglophone countries, have vigorously upheld a reductionist naturalism based on largely Newtonian assumptions (without being aware of this), and defended the claims of mainstream science to be able to extend its methods to explain every aspect of reality, including human consciousness. That is, in the tradition of positivism and logical positivism, they have defended ‘scientism’, the view that science has a monopoly on the methods required to acquire and accumulate genuine knowledge, including defining what is genuine knowledge. Despite analytic philosophy itself originating in Austria and Germany, philosophy that is not analytic and naturalist tends to be labeled ‘continental philosophy’, with the usually tacit assumption that ‘continental’ philosophers (many of them in Anglophone countries) are continuing a tradition of philosophical thinking that upholds intuitions, claims to knowledge or forms of reasoning that transcend any naturalistic or scientific explanation. In doing so, it is upholding some form of Idealism. This is evident in the recent histories of continental philosophy by Braver (2007) and Redding (2009), both of which characterize continental philosophy as Idealist. At its worst, Idealism is seen to be speculative. Speculative naturalism not only brings into question the correlation between these oppositions but rejects this categorization as the root cause of the paralysis, trivialization and marginalization of philosophy, and along with this, the undermining of the humanities and the entrenchment of nihilistic assumptions of mainstream reductionist science in the broader culture and society. Acting on these nihilistic assumptions is now producing effects that threaten the future of democracy, civilization, humanity and the current regime of the global eco-system. Alive to these threats, speculative naturalists, many of them eminent scientists and mathematicians, are concerned to revive and reinstate ‘philosophy’ as the quest for a comprehensive understanding of humanity and its place in nature to challenge and replace the prevailing world-view, to overcome this nihilism and to avoid a global eco-catastrophe.[i]
On the surface of it, the generality of the categories defining these oppositions and the difficulty of categorizing all philosophers in terms of these oppositions would make such strong claims, and such a strong agenda, highly questionable. World-wide, philosophy in recent decades has been characterized by an immense diversity of ideas and approaches (Habermas1992b). It is possible to point to a whole range of philosophers who cannot be pigeon-holed by these categories. This is particularly true of philosophies and philosophers lumped together as ‘continental philosophy’. Paul M. Livingston (2012) argues that poststructuralism has converged with the metalogic of analytic philosophy, while James Bradley (2012) has argued that ‘continental philosophy’ is an Anglo-American invention, and French ‘continental philosophy’ has converged with analytic philosophy in denying any status to subjects. The structuralist reaction led by Claude Lévi-Strauss against neo-Hegelians, phenomenologists and proponents of hermeneutics have almost completely swept aside such Idealist and humanist philosophies, most importantly, the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre. According to orthodox structuralism and poststructuralism, the world and human subjects are nothing more than the effects of those functional structures that define their behaviour. While structuralism was a form of reductionism, it was antithetical to the kind of naturalism promoted by Anglophone philosophers. Under the influence of Peirce, Scandinavian analytic philosophy has converged with phenomenology, hermeneutics and semiotics. Marxist philosophers are generally opposed to reductionist naturalism and to speculative Idealism and have developed a range of philosophical positions. Promising developments have included the dialectical critical realism of Roy Bhaskar, which has been applied to the problems of dealing with climate change and achieving sustainability (Bhaskar 2010). The recent proponents of ‘speculative realism’ or ‘speculative materialism’ do claim to promote speculative thought while being anti-Idealist, although what they mean by ‘speculative’ is by no means clear (Bryant et al. 2011; Johnston, 2014). This is an anti-Kantian philosophy very different from speculative naturalism, however. There is an assertive group of philosophers promoting revolutionary developments within science who are influenced by process metaphysics, complexity theory and Peircian semiotics who do value speculation, although such philosophers are barely tolerated and have only a marginal influence (Hooker 2011). However, from the perspective defended here, this diversity is symptomatic of the marginalization of philosophy and simply serves to disguise which ideas really dominate, and how speculative naturalism, which could effectively challenge the dominant ideas, has been marginalized.
[i] Because the term ‘philosophy’ is claimed by members of philosophy departments who have redefined it to match their preoccupations, scientists and mathematicians who are engaged in this project often do not characterize their work as philosophy, although it would have been recognized as such by the great philosophers of the past. Many academics who call themselves philosophers, which after all means ‘lovers of wisdom’, bring to mind what was called the Ministry of Love in George Orwell’s 1984, the place where people showing any sign of dissidence were taken to be tortured and then vaporized.
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