This essay originally appeared in The Earlhamite, 112, 2 (Winter 1993) 12-14. Copyright © 1993, Peter Suber.

This was the third article in a three-part series run by The Earlhamite. In the first, Earlham physicist Ray Hively asked whether physics was dead —because it had allegedly answered all its questions. In the second, Earlham historian Bob Southard explored whether history was dead —because fundamental political change had allegedly ceased. My writing here is a little cramped because I was given a very small allocation of space. I have corrected one typographical error, and clarified a few overly cramped expressions, in preparing this HTML edition.

Is Philosophy Dead?
Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College

Where death is, I am not; where I am, death is not.

Some say that physics is nearing its end because it will soon answer all its questions; I am not that optimistic. Others claim that philosophy is already at an end because its questions will never be answered and, perhaps, should never have been asked; I am not that pessimistic. I bring the non-news that, as usual, neither our successes nor our failures are at an end.

For physics to answer all its questions would be a triumph of human ingenuity. Yet it is precisely the ingenuity of human beings which makes me doubt that we will ever reach this consummation. For philosophy to leave its questions unaddressed would be a tragic abandonment of reflection and meaning. Yet it is precisely the inescapability of philosophical questions, the fact that they are not merely academic, but arise in life, which makes me doubt that we will ever suffer such a loss. A wave of barbarism and a spate of bad philosophy, yes; but never the utter end of philosophy until human beings have lost their ingenuity, curiosity, troubles, contradictions, and hopes.

In the 20th century, western philosophy divided into two deeply opposed camps, the English-speaking "analytic" philosophers and the European or "continental" philosophers. It doesn't matter much here how they differ, and how recent bridge-building initiatives have fared. One reason why philosophy seems to have died is that major figures from both camps, who agree on little else, seem to agree that it has died.

The English-speaking analysts thought the analysis of language could deliver on the ancient promise to produce knowledge from philosophy —to churn the void and make cheese, as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it. Analyzing language was not grandiose and that was the point; it was humble piece-work that inspired hope precisely because it stayed close to the ground. Ludwig Wittgenstein hoped that the clarification of language would dissolve, rather than solve, philosophical problems, and thereby bring philosophy to an end.

For the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear. The real discovery is the 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. [Philosophical Investigations, §133.]

Philosophy did not die because its problems completely disappeared, however. On the contrary, the analysis of language revealed the extent to which thought is channeled and confused by language and the difficulty of escape. "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language," and its mission is "to shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle." [Philosophical Investigations, §§109, 309.] On this program, philosophy cannot end until a triumph of human ingenuity or self-deception occurs; we're still waiting.

Analytic philosophers are in revolt against the grand manner of traditional philosophy which claimed much and (in their view) established nothing. Consequently, they hope to make progress by diagnosing the source of error —bewitchment by means of language— and curbing their own ambitions. Wittgenstein's goal is simply to escape the systematic delusion of language; other analytic philosophers wish (in John Lange's phrase) to bring one honest pebble to the pile of knowledge. But rather than abandon or deeply reform philosophy, they have kept the title of philosophy and labored in the fields of linguistics and mathematics —areas where progress was possible. Consequently they have left philosophy with new paradigms and disagreements but no progress. Contributions in linguistics and mathematics can pass for philosophy among analytic philosophers because the pressure to make progress has led them to redefine philosophy, just as pressure to be jolly and optimistic has led recent presidents to redefine 'recession'. As Ernest Gellner put it (in Words and Things), a cleric who loses his faith abandons his calling, but a philosopher who loses his redefines his subject.

In Europe, Martin Heidegger largely persuaded the non-analytic philosophers of the 20th century that philosophy died with Nietzsche, and that Nietzsche killed it. Heidegger's thesis has been updated and made popular by Richard Rorty. Nietzsche did not consummate philosophy, answer all its questions, or set it an impossible task, but exposed it as futile and self-deceiving. He too was in revolt against the grand manner in traditional philosophy, finding it to rest on unacknowledged interests and poor self-understanding. Nietzsche's critique joined that of Marx, from another perspective, and later Freud, in stripping philosophy of its pretension to objectivity and asking it to recognize the interests served by inquiry and to take responsibility for serving those interests without claiming truth. If contemporary philosophizing persuades us that all thinking is the kind of systematic distortion of reality we call ideological, a byproduct of race, class, gender, language, temperament, culture, and century, then there is little to do but admit it. Trying to escape it through traditional inquiries for a truth that transcends these contextual chains is (for many) knowable folly. If this critique is correct, then to persist in philosophy is to repeat earlier positions, in a spirit of antiquarianism or nostalgia or ignorance. To accept the critique and self-consciously continue in philosophy without looking for a solution is what Peter Sloterdijk (in his Critique of Cynical Reason) has called enlightened false consciousness.

Heidegger shows a path in recent philosophy from the traditional aspiration toward objectivity, through Nietzsche, to its negation. Rorty shows just how many contemporary movements in philosophy have taken this path. Both know better, however, than to say that all philosophers have taken this path or that post-Nietzschean philosophy is monolithic. But if the claim is revised to say that all good philosophers have taken this path, then it clearly becomes question-begging and arrogant. Moreover, Heidegger and Rorty are hasty to assume that this path leads to non-philosophy rather than simply to bad philosophy or untraditional philosophy or even exciting, revolutionary philosophy.

In any case, I am not convinced that we are doomed to historical relativism or distortions introduced by the grammar of our language. But neither am I convinced that these "post-modern" claims are false. I am sympathetic to them because I sympathize with the revolt against the slipshod reasoning and grandiose claims in much traditional philosophy. But I have trouble accepting these post-modern propositions because they are not only indemonstrable but self-subverting. Traditional philosophy admirably recognized the difficulties of advocating relativism without self-contradiction. To simplify these: if I say that "all beliefs are relative to historical circumstances," then this claim applies to itself. If it is false, we can ignore it; if it is true, then it is merely relative to its time and place, hence not true in general or true for most other people. One question that has not died is whether this dilemma oversimplifies the difficulties facing relativism. Plato first pointed it out and relativists have been trying to answer it ever since. The fact that we have not reached consensus on the outcome is just another sign of philosophical futility to some; but to me it is the sign of an unavoidable question. Metaphysics may be dead; but epistemology cannot die until proclamations of its death are not so epistemologically naive and problematic that they demand the attention of philosophers.

In short, I think that both the analytic and continental philosophers who proclaim the death of philosophy are motivated by disenchantment with the ideal of objective knowledge and resigned to different kinds of linguistic or historical relativism. But objective knowledge was never a defining condition of philosophy; it was a research program or an ideal, and by no means one for all philosophers. Indeed, relativism is a philosophy as much as objectivism. Hence, the frustration of the objectivist research program is neither a good ground for relativism nor a good ground for proclaiming the death of philosophy. But if this is so, why would otherwise acute philosophers overstep their premises to claim the death of philosophy? I support this interpretation by Thomas Nagel [from his The View From Nowhere, p. 11.]:

If the theories of historical captivity and grammatical delusion are not [known to be] true, why have some philosophers felt themselves cured of their metaphysical problems by these forms of therapy? My counterdiagnosis is that a lot of philosophers are sick of the subject and glad to be rid of its problems. Most of us find it hopeless some of the time, but some react to its intractability by welcoming the suggestion that the enterprise is misconceived and the problems unreal.

Why have I not been driven from philosophy? The short answer is that I have not been persuaded by the analytic program to wake up from the nightmare of language or to obtain philosophical knowledge from its analysis; nor have I been persuaded by the non-analytic diagnosis that philosophy became repetitive or self-deceptive after Nietzsche. Why have I not been persuaded? Partly for good philosophical reasons; I think these conclusions are hasty, fed in part by ignorance of the history of philosophy, lack of creativity in imagining the options open to us, and fad thinking.

But mainly we differ in our models of what philosophy is and ought to be. What Nagel calls the intractability of philosophy is not a rude shock to my image of philosophy. I don't think philosophy is limited to the search for systematic, objective truth, although it has often taken that form in the past; hence, when this search begins to look suspiciously unsuccessful, I do not fret for philosophy. No research program, assumption, or hope is sacred to my vision of philosophy. Let any or all of them fall; it will be philosophy that discovers their failure, philosophy that progresses on account of that discovery, and philosophy that copes with the aftermath.

I am a skeptic who lacks anxiety for closure. Hence, I am not dismayed by the inability of philosophers to reach agreement or produce scientific answers to philosophical questions; nor am I dismayed by the prospect that some forms of delusion are inescapable —or if I am, I don't hold it against philosophy. Ironically, I am more optimistic as a skeptic than the non-skeptics who have diagnosed the futility of philosophy. Even if philosophy produces no science and even if it cannot escape the snares of illusion, and, I would say, especially in these interesting circumstances, there is much for philosophy to do. As Bertrand Russell put it (in his Unpopular Essays), "contempt for philosophy, if developed to the point at which it becomes systematic, is itself a philosophy."

For philosophy is the love of wisdom —as opposed to the possession of wisdom— and an articulate, reflective response to our condition. If our condition is a nest of troubles, contradictions, makeshifts, and hopes, or if the grand hope of systematic objectivity withers, then only a flabby kind of philosophy dies: the philosophy that must be optimistic or quit the field.

Hence, philosophy lives in at least two senses. First, as the love of wisdom, or as the reflective response to our condition, philosophy does not require objectivity and cannot die in thinking beings. Second, philosophy has much of its classical work to do, for example, determining whether relativism is self-contradictory. In neither sense is philosophy thwarted by difficulties; instead it feeds on them.

The death of philosophy is an overstated slogan even to its proponents. I've called it naive for underestimating the difficulties of its implicit relativism. But so is much of the traditional philosophy naive to which it is the reaction. In this sense, while overstating its point, the death of philosophy movement is just another case of philosophy finding internal reasons for changing its direction, a mark of vitality and ground for hope. So the death of philosophy movement is, ironically, a clear sign of life and progress. What could be worse for the movement? Just one thing: the thought that grand philosophy was not as naive as it thinks it is. And this too I believe.

But maybe philosophy is ending because it has become preoccupied by its own problems. If it is directed to the question whether it is dead, can it be much alive? I reply that if this disciplinary narcissism were widespread or unavoidable, philosophy would not deserve our attention; we would all be much better off making lots of money.

Ribbon] Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374, U.S.A. Copyright © 1993, Peter Suber.