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!