THE question ‘what is philosophy? is one that is often neglected by philosophers. After all, while there may be a philosophy of science or of art and other disciplines, there cannot be a philosophy of philosophy without vicious circularity in the same way that empirical methods cannot be used to prove empiricism as the Scottish philosopher David Hume demonstrated.
Bertrand Russell attempted to solve the problem by identifying the value of philosophy, rather than its definition, as lying in the study of uncertainty. In his view, once a question has been answered it is no longer a philosophical problem. According to Russell, then, the value of philosophy lies in its uncertainty and ‘while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what may be’ and ‘keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect’. This view also challenges our obsession with getting answers at all costs.
Marx, of course, famously wrote: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” This is another attempt to show the value of philosophy rather than to define it. As an aside, according to Engels not even Marx called himself a Marxist. But it is possible to call oneself a Marxist without also having to agree with everything he wrote, just as it’s possible to call oneself a Christian without believing every word in the Bible. For example, one may be swayed by Marx’s fundamental materialistic philosophy and his belief that our individual consciousness is largely determined by our material and social being, without necessarily agreeing with his full political agenda, even though this would tend to place you on the communitarian side of politics.
The French philosopher Michel Serres argued that the ‘philosopher is the shepherd who tends the flock of the possibles on the highland…’ – a view closer in spirit to Russell than Marx but again has more descriptive than definitional power.
For Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari – two long-time collaborators – philosophy is the creation of concepts. This is a deceptively simple idea but, once said it’s difficult to imagine a philosophical idea that doesn’t in some sense, at least, involve a concept, even one that claims that philosophy is nothing but uncertainty. But what is a concept? According to the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy ‘there is considerable disagreement about what exactly a concept is’, which isn’t very helpful. In their book What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari seem to have the same problem in as much as the concept ‘has a combination. It is a multiplicity’. Their meaning comes into sharper focus when they give examples, the first of which is Descartes’s ‘cogito’ which itself has three components – ‘doubting, thinking, and being’. Other concepts might be Kant’s Categorial Imperative or analytical a priori judgements, Mill’s Harm Principle, Schopenhauer’s Will to Live or Nietzsche’s Will to Power.
Deleuze and Guattari don’t rest there, however, because they also make the claim that because ‘concepts are fragmentary’, in order to have some consistency they exist on ‘one and the same plane’ – what they rather enigmatically call ‘the plane of immanence’. The work is difficult to fathom because a lot of it is expressed in metaphors, so it’s hard to uncover the underlying meaning. But things become a little clearer when they write that the ‘plane of immanence must be regarded as prephilosopical’ and a ‘field of consciousness’. However, it is what they call ‘conceptual personae’ who activate the concept within the plane. And one of these ‘conceptual personae’ is none other than Réne Descartes, whom the authors describe as an Idiot, hence the title of this article. By now, however, it should be obvious that we are not talking about idiocy in its modern sense but in the original Greek idiotes, meaning private person. In this sense Descartes is the ‘Idiot who says “I” and sets up the cogito’. And again: “The idiot is the private thinker, in contrast to the public teacher”, like, perhaps, Socrates or, in our day, the public intellectual Michael Sandel (perhaps our meaning of the word idiot today applies to the private person who, with apologies to Socrates, leads an unexamined life).
Ultimately, What is Philosophy? has more in common with Marx than Russell or Serres in that, as the translators Graham Burchell and Hugh Tomlinson note, it reads like a ‘manifesto produced under the slogan “Philosophers of the world, create”.’ At the same time, however, Deleuze and Guattari have no firm answers, concluding that ‘concepts, sensations, and functions become undecidable at the same time as philosophy, art, and science become indiscernible’. No answers there then, only more questions!
What is philosophy?
Philosophy of philosophy, despite risking logical infinite loops, is in
fact accessible because it’s a meta topic, ie. a topic about a topic and
not the topic itself.
Considering a “soul” as being an Emergent property, ie. a by-product of
a sufficiently complex organ (brain), is helpful but incomplete, probably.
We look at the subject with zoom lens
glasses choosing whichever scale works for the current enquiry. It is
unfortunate that studies at other scales produce differing results to
our own, and confusion reigns, making the whole subject … rather
Anyway, there are too many people, and it’s a race between worldwide
education with rising standards of living stabilising the population
level by the end of the century, and global warming & wars putting an
end to all of us. My money is on the insects taking over because we’re
collectively too stupid to do much about it until it affects us
individually, by which time it’s too late of course.
by Stuart Fyfe
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Hi Stuart, maybe you’re right and I was too quick to suggest that a philosophy of philosophy is impossible. It is difficult to see how this can be done, especially if you cannot use the tools often deployed by philosophers – like reason, logic and necessary and sufficient conditions – to do so. Maybe there is a way of doing it with circularity or infinite regress. For example, I don’t think it’s legitimate to use reason to either justify or reject reason. But you can go some way to justify reason empirically by pointing to its efficacy, although in justifying it are you also defining it? Is it possible to define reason? In this light it’s possible that I’m also being unfair to Russell by suggesting that all he is doing is pointing to the value of philosophy by describing its uncertainty. Perhaps he is also defining it in describing it or delineating its boundaries. The interesting claim by Deleuze and Guattari that philosophy is nothing but the creation of concepts in a plane of immanence, activated by conceptual personae, does seem to have some power to it, particularly if it is true that concepts are the sole preserve of philosophy and no other discipline. Of course, other disciplines do use concepts but Deleuze and Guattari argue that in doing so they are philosophizing.
I was also interested in your comments about insects taking over. Are you familiar with the work of Lynn Margulis? She challenged the neo-Darwinian view that evolution is a blind process by arguing for what she called symbiogenics which examines intelligence on an evolutionary scale. According to this theory organisms like bacteria are not passive lumbering robots but active learners that construct their environment. According to the latest edition of Philosophy Now Margulis believed that bacteria will ‘almost certainly outlive humans’ because macrobes ‘like us are relatively transient biological forms – temporary structures gone with the evolutionary wind like dust’. So, you might be right about the insects!
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Hi Stuart and Dickie,
Interesting articles, I enjoyed reading them. I would like to reply in depth about Marx and philosophers, alas I am not feeling well so I will limit myself to just simple two comments.
Does Marxism fit in to the modern global world?
I was struck by our friends comment at the last café about public ownership today: Could that be done in the UK today when large sectors of the ‘industrial manufacturing’ – the traditional Marxism ‘production’ – are either a) publicly owned via the stock market and PLC’s (which did not exist in Marx’s day) and b) so much of British ‘production’ is currently foreign owned (again another ‘state’ that did not exist when Marx proposed his social economic theories). Finally, of course, I say nothing about the service sector and financial markets, another ‘state’ that did not exist 100 years ago, and the income and wealth that they ‘move about’.
The world is very different place from the days Das Kapital was written. I doubt Marx could have envisaged global ‘financial derivatives’ and cryptocurrency. How does one nationalise cryptocurrency?
Also, in my mind, there is a difference between ‘public ownership’ and ‘government ownership’. Governments nationalising the means of production is not ‘public ownership’. Of course, the base of the idea is that governments are owned by the people. However, global experiments in ‘government ownership’ have proven to be less that desirable: the public neither control or benefit from the ‘means of production’. Rather it becomes a means of controlling the people. Though, many books, essays and articles have been written on the merits and demerits of Marxism and I don’t wish to suggest I know enough to write with authority on the subject. [My get out cause!]
Anyway, I was really motivated to reply by Stuart’s comment: “My money is on the insects taking over because we’re collectively too stupid to do much about it until it affects us individually, by which time it’s too late of course”. This reminded me of a book I read many years ago, I even dated the author once!
The book overlaps with climate environment and philosophy, sort of anyway. I am not going to argue it is a good book, just that I found the concept contained therein interesting. To summarise, the author says: that the earth is simply a huge compost pile, everything is breaking down, getting smaller, from dinosaurs to the current demise of large animals (elephants, whales, etc), the great trees to modern trees. Man is the woodlouse of the earth, breaking things down, consuming and digesting the earth, and is destined to do so. The earth itself will eventually become a heaving mass of bacteria (and viruses maybe, I can’t remember her mentioning viruses). Then the earth will reform and begin the cycle all over again. All this is completely out of homo sapiens control, our cognitive control, we are driven by the bacteria within our own bodies.
So rather than the insects taking over perhaps bacteria (very small insects?) are already in control.
I cannot find the book. My memory tells me the authors name was Monica Bryant but I cannot remember the title of the book, and I am not 100% sure about her name. Perhaps it has just disappeared into obscurity, devoured by bacteria.
The insects might be here already!
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I note that at the end of it, the translators are mentioned using the word Manifesto. Now, as you know, I am not a Public Teacher, and therefore, according to another bit of the text, I am presumably an Idiot. And my contribution, hoping it is not too Idiotic to be borne, is just to underline, in the third paragraph from the beginning (about Marx) the words “everything he wrote”. I call myself a Marxist in appreciation of his philosophical and economic Interpretations. I do not take “Marxist” as a label for upholders of the Policy of the Communist Manifesto, which was surely just a declaration of the political aims of Communists in 1848. Policy ought never to be confused with Philosophy, should it? Any more than Fact should be confused with Opinion, as I so often argue in Democracy Café.
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Hi Christopher, I couldn’t agree more! The problem is that many people do indeed take you to mean Marx’s political agenda if you call yourself a Marxist and not an advocate of his fundamental philosophy. I agree with you that Fact should not be confused with Opinion, although I would add that the latter can be more or less valuable depending on the degree to which it is, or is not, informed by Fact.
In response to Mike’s comments, I think it is important to place all thinkers within their social and historical contexts. On the other hand it also seems to be a natural law that all great thinkers are destined to be traduced by lesser brains like mine. Another great thinker that has been shamelessly exploited is Adam Smith whose idea of the invisible hand has been reduced to justify small government, when in fact the Wealth of Nations was intended to be a series of recipes and recommendations for governments and policy-makers on how to expand the economy. He was primarily a moral philosopher and the Wealth of Nations was supposed to be read in conjunction with his epic Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is also often thought that Marx came up with the idea of the labour theory of value, but it was actually Smith, which was then developed by Ricardo, although it was Marx who refined the concept and developed the notion of surplus value and then started asking obvious questions about distribution. He also foresaw the danger of increasing financialization. As an interesting aside, the methods used by Soviet Russia in the years after 1917 to calculate national production owed more to Smith than Marx.
But to return to my opening gambit, then I think that while have to be cautious about great thinkers of the past, they can inform our thinking today as well as help us to understand how and why ideas have evolved.
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