What Philosophy Is For

What Philosophy Is For


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What is the state of philosophy today, and what might it be tomorrow? With What Philosophy Is For, Michael Hampe answers these questions by exploring the relationships among philosophy, education, science, and narrative, developing a Socratic critique of philosophical doctrines.

Philosophers generally develop systematic theories that lay out the basic structures of human experience, in order to teach the rest of humanity how to rightly understand our place in the world. This “scientific” approach to philosophy, Hampe argues, is too one-sided. In this magnum opus of an essay, Hampe aims to rescue philosophy from its current narrow claims of doctrine and to remind us what it is really for—to productively disillusion us into clearer thinking. Hampe takes us through twenty-five hundred years of intellectual history, starting with Socrates. That archetype of the philosophical teacher did not develop strict doctrines and rules, but rather criticized and refuted doctrines. With the Socratic method, we see the power of narration at work. Narrative and analytical disillusionment, Hampe argues, are the most helpful long-term enterprises of thought, the ones most worth preserving and developing again.

What Philosophy Is For is simultaneously an introduction, a critique, and a call to action. Hampe shows how and why philosophy became what it is today, and, crucially, shows what it could be once more, if it would only turn its back on its pretensions to dogma: a privileged space for reflecting on the human condition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226365282
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/01/2018
Edition description: Translatio
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Michael Hampe is professor of philosophy in the department of humanities, social, and political sciences at the ETH Zürich. He is the author of many books, including The Perfect Life: Four Meditations on Happiness.

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Asserting, Narrating, Educating

Suppose the world consists of individuals who sometimes form patterns. One can tell things about them. But one can also assert quite a lot about them in order to develop a doctrine. Narration seems prima facie to concentrate on the particular, on when something has emerged and how. Assertion, by contrast, is concerned with generalities that refer to many individual aspects. Narration can be personal: "Once, many years ago, I sat in this armchair." Assertion tends to be impersonal and to categorize: "This armchair is a chesterfield, made in 1920." The activities of asserting and of narrating something do not at first appear to exist in an obvious connection; they seem to proceed on parallel paths. From a simplified and psychological perspective, assertion is a serious and strict activity serving true knowledge of the world and the correct explanation of its phenomena. Narration, on the other hand, might be considered a relaxed diversion that takes place after the strictness of asserting and teaching, affording relief from its burden and at most providing something like moral insight so long as one is reading or listening to stories with a moral. Following Horace, one may characterize the art of storytelling along with all other art as at times morally useful in the sense of edifying, but for the most part no more than entertaining. Assertive science teaches the strict and occasionally also unpleasant truth about the world. The art of narration, however, serves to divert the mind after its strenuous grappling with harsh reality and treats it to beautiful or exciting fictions. Even the social circumstances change in the different communicative situations of teaching or narrating: a person who has to take note of an assertion, or is being instructed about something, takes on the attitude of someone learning and faces someone teaching who represents the authority of truth. In this case, the teacher confronts the learner and claims that he is entitled to assertions that his opposite has to accept. Whoever is told a story, however, is being offered diversions. The narrator seems to be providing him with fictions. The storyteller's authority apparently is upheld by nothing but his ability to captivate the attention of his audience or readers with his story.

Of course, this is rarely stated in such plain and simplistic terms. But to characterize disciplines such as physics or chemistry as "hard" sciences and to call epic, dramatic, and lyrical poetry "soft" ventures — characterizations one hears in schools or in college — appears to evince at least implicit estimations of these activities that tend in the direction indicated above. They derive support in part from the conviction that it is the principal purpose of education to impart knowledge of the things in this world that recur over and over again, which means, the world's general basic structures and regularities. These no doubt do exist. We experience particularities and similarities between individual beings. Many things occur again and again; others remain unique in our experience. What defines the purpose of education, however, depends on whether one believes that individuals produce general patterns among themselves or that the general patterns make the existence of distinct individuals possible. Can this question be decided, or is it a variant of the question about the priorities of chicken and egg?

I can't solve this conundrum definitively here — only a hypothetical answer is possible, which the following remarks will make clear. Depending on whether one's thinking and education concentrate on understanding individuals and on telling their stories, or on recognizing generalities and on understanding strategies with which to explain something, one will have a different knowledge of oneself and will live in a differently experienced world. I am not concerned here with asserting, narrating, and, finally, with educating per se, but I am interested in these activities in the context of philosophy. Consequently, I will distinguish between an assertive or doctrinal philosophy and a nondoctrinal philosophy. This distinction is different and more general than that between ideographic and nomothetic sciences or that between the processes of understanding and explaining, differentiations that are familiar from the methodological disputes about the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften) and the social sciences at the end of the nineteenth century. (It's my tacit assumption that proceeding from a unified concept of the sciences as such contributes nothing toward an understanding of the various disciplines.) My focus here is not the specific sciences and their possible categorizations; instead, my central purpose is an understanding of the philosopher's activity and its relevance for life.

Philosophers who work in doctrinal philosophy engage in this activity with the intent of educating other people through or on the basis of their assertions. They seek to convince other people to embrace their assertions as a doctrine. By contrast, those who represent nondoctrinal philosophy seek to assert as little as possible or nothing at all. Instead, it is their principal intention to find out and to make their assertive colleagues see why they think they have to assert something, and what the consequences of this attitude are. Sometimes philosophical enterprises of this kind are couched in a narrative, as in the Platonic dialogue in which Socrates questions Theaetetus who still has to be educated. The Theaetetus, surprisingly, includes passages that describe how questioning causes the person being educated to stop making assertions. It is a pedagogical text that demonstrates the futility of doctrinal philosophy. It is not simply an entertaining narrative but a canonized philosophical text. Because nondoctrinal philosophy uses a narrative to show students why it is better not to make assertions about knowledge and virtue, the relationship between philosophy, education, and narrative — the focus of this study — is complicated and unclear.

Educating with New Concepts

That philosophy makes assertions is obvious, even more so than the fact that there also exists a nondoctrinal philosophy. Aristotle asserts that the world is eternal. Thomas Aquinas states that it was created. Descartes claims that there exist two substances; Spinoza maintains that there is only one. Kant asserts that there is a clear difference between analytic and synthetic judgments; Willard van Orman Quine contests his assertion. This kind of list could be extended at will, indicating that such assertions are reactions to the world — a world of particularities as, in a seeming paradox, I am prepared to assert here. How people react to the world, if this reaction does not happen spontaneously, depends, among other things, on their education. It is this education that familiarizes them with the general concepts that they will have to make use of in their assertions. The people to be educated are being taught what can be asserted about the world and what cannot. Sometimes, though rather infrequently, they also learn how to react to the world with a story. Philosophy has paid attention to these processes in great detail. In Plato's politeia (The Republic), for example, paideia (education) is a potentially lifelong process that in a few exceptional persons will culminate in their knowing the idea of the good, as the paramount general concept. Only philosophers, who have been appointed to serve as leaders of the state, can direct this process because they alone have comprehended these universals, and they alone know how to apply them in their judgments. Other prominent examples of educational philosophy are Rousseau's cultural criticism and Wittgenstein's critique of metaphysics. These thinkers aim either at a reeducation of human beings, who have been ruined by culture, or at a therapeutic philosophy that would educate philosophically warped adults. Individuals of this kind are people who have lost sight of the multifarious ways in which ordinary language functions and, for this reason, try to invent new conceptual terms or search for the supposedly concealed or difficult-to-fathom meaning of expressions like "understanding," "being in pain," "wishing," and so forth. It is above all Stanley Cavell who at present continues Wittgenstein's therapeutic philosophy as an education of adults, the roots of which extend to Kierkegaard's existential philosophy, which in turn is connected with Socrates.

On the one hand, philosophy has to do with knowledge that may be given expression in assertions. But on the other hand, just like literature and different from the empirical sciences, many of the "great" doctrinal philosophical authors seem, as it were, to invent anew the conceptual language they use, thereby indicating that knowledge in philosophy does not simply accumulate in a thoroughly differentiating terminology. This is why any careful examination of a philosophical work that seeks to attain certain innovations in thinking may be compared with a process of education. One cannot learn philosophy like physics. Anyone who has learned to understand concepts such as mass, energy, force, charge, acceleration, and others has acquired a fundamental stock of knowledge that can be relied on. However, anyone who for the first time enters into a critical exploration of Spinoza or Whitehead after having studied Plato and Aristotle or Descartes and Kant has to learn a new language insofar as these kinds of philosophers change the meaning of the concepts they adopt from their predecessors because they react differently to the world than these predecessors or consider other experiences as exemplary for their thinking. To put it terminologically: they are dissident speakers. Inevitably, readers, even those who have philosophical preparation, on opening the books of an author who is new to them, begin their exploration without understanding a thing.

Sometimes philosophers even create new concepts. That means they don't merely take the liberty of giving different meanings to established words, of using them by deviating from customary practice. They go so far as to coin new linguistic formations such as "affection," "thing in itself" (Ding an sich), "actual essentiality," "noematic correlative," and so on, all of which makes the "recipients'" learning process especially difficult. And finally, some philosophers recommend that their readers should simply drop certain concepts, such as that of the "absolute" or of "God," of "essence," or "soul." Nietzsche, for example, gave such recommendations in his critique of metaphysics. Therefore, readers will not only have to learn a different language, but they must also learn new things or unlearn acquired stuff if they want to understand these authors. Their respective texts may likewise subject to a process of reeducation those who try to find their way into the thoughts of a philosopher as yet unfamiliar to them. If one considers concepts to be habits of differentiation, then these educational processes aim at establishing new habits of this kind. To claim an expansion of knowledge through philosophy, so long as such a presumption addresses itself to only adults, is in the final analysis connected with the unreasonable demand of undergoing a conceptual reeducation, even though very few would put it in exactly these terms. If this reeducation is successful, it is meant to bring about a different way of speaking and thinking about the world and perhaps for once of acting differently in it.

Philosophical thinking does not as a rule reflect these processes of educating adults by having them acquire new conceptual tools. But stories can produce such a reflection. They can change the worldview of their readers with means other than those of conceptual variation. For example, one grants literature the ability to educate the emotions of readers (in an éducation sentimentale). But irrespective of this, literature can focus on the experiences that lead to certain conceptual decisions and reactions. Narratives can show what kind of experiences people need to have before they can consider the use of certain universal concepts to be the right reaction to the world, or why a certain person does not accept a certain habit of differentiation that is being recommended. This is why only a superficial point of view regards literature as little more than an entertainment program.

Focusing on education separates the deliberation of how doctrinal relates to nondoctrinal philosophy from the debate about skepticism. The nondoctrinal philosophy examined here does come close to skepticism, to be sure. But the present issue is not primarily the concept of knowing or the question of whether human beings can know anything to begin with. Rather, the question is, "What is the teaching of philosophy?" Is there anything at all that philosophy can teach? One can consider the existence of knowledge to be a condition for teaching. But even the skeptics have something to teach; there is even a doctrine of ignorance, a docta ignorantia. But when attention is focused on teaching and educating, political and social dimensions of philosophy become part of the discussion that are not present in the cognitive debates involving skepticism. "There is no revolutionary social vision which does not include a new vision of education; and contrariwise." The pragmatic perspective, in which philosophy has to legitimate itself by its relevance for human life, makes the question of whether and, if so, what philosophy has to teach much more relevant than a definition of the concept of knowledge and the problem of skepticism. Cognitive investigations into the classification of the concept of knowledge are concerned with nothing but doctrinal philosophy from within and with what some philosophers try to discover as the conditions that make science possible — an issue to which the sciences themselves hardly pay attention any longer. The social role of assertive philosophy (and science), however, has to do with its (and their) claim that they provide the kind of instruction that, if it is carried out with success, has an influence on how human beings react to the world, and that means in the final analysis what kind of a life people lead.

Also the art of poetry exerts influence on the way people react to the world, how they perceive it and act in it. It does not come as a surprise, however, that texts from Sophocles to Beckett, from Homer to Proust, and from Pindar to Celan offer insights about the world that include, as does many a philosophical discourse, a deviant manner of speaking. (Readers must "find a way into" Beckett and Celan as much as into Spinoza and Deleuze.) Aside from the superficialities of the academic division of labor, nothing speaks against calling Sophocles, Beckett, Proust, and Celan philosophers. But it is hardly a prevalent insight that poetry can be both entertaining and also philosophically relevant when its narrative reflections about philosophical thinking, for example, manifest new basic philosophical insights. And exactly that is what the present deliberations are all about. For, in contrast to philosophy, the art of poetry only rarely brings about changes in our view of the world through new or reinterpreted conceptual terminologies; it does its work differently. Concepts and arguments play a very minor role in poetry. The reason for this is that an argumentative dispute about the respective individual beginnings of philosophical thinking and engaging in arguments, about basic decisions effecting concepts, is no longer possible. But one can tell stories about them; it is possible to tell plausibly how a person arrived at his or her basic conceptual decisions. A writer can do this by unfolding the inner world of a human being who perceives reality in a specific way that perhaps is impossible or very alien to one's own mind. A narrative fiction of the kind that J. M. Coetzee, for example, has written in his novel Elizabeth Costello (which I'll later discuss in detail) uses storytelling to disclose insights even into the beginnings of philosophical thinking. These stories present a clear picture of how a person can get to see the world in a particular way, which means with the help of certain universals, and to act in accordance with this way of seeing things.


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Table of Contents

Preface to the American Edition
 1          Asserting, Narrating, Educating
2          Maieutic and Academic Philosophy
3          Life, Subjectivity, Assimilation
4          The Life of Assertive Beings, Linguistic Dissidence
5          Ordinary Language, Theories, and Explanations
6          The Ordinary and Its Truth
7          Expertocracy and the Education of Individuals
8          Freedom, Necessity, Creativity
9          Reacting to the World
10        Telling Stories about Assertions and Arguments
11        Concreteness and Critique
12        Arriving at the End of Asserting
Epilogue to the History of Philosophy

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