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The Question ‘Why Do I Do Philosophy?’

The Question ‘Why Do I Do
Philosophy?’

James Grant

Someone recently suggested to me – not entirely unkindly
– that I should try and write something to the title ‘Why
do I do Philosophy?’ My first assumption was that the
question was in effect ambiguous, and could be answered
in two quite different ways. In the first place it could be
treated as asking simply ‘Why do Philosophy?’ and
answered by means of an account of the aims, values and
ends proper to philosophy. It would count as an answer to
the question ‘Why do I do Philosophy?’ simply because I
had written it and thus, given that the answer was in good
faith, it would express my reasons for being engaged with
philosophy. But – to vary Wittgenstein’s dictum – .! need
not be mentioned in the answer to the question so
construed, since the result would be an objective and
impersonal piece of philosophising about the nature of
philosophy. On the other hand, the question could be
interpreted as genuinely autobiographical in intention, and
the appropriate answer would be, in essence, a piece of
self-analysis. I would, of course, have to describe some
of my philosophical beliefs (especially about the nature
and aims of philosophy itself), but I would be presenting
them as ‘psychic facts’, as motives for me – I wouldn’t be
trying to persuade the reader of their correctness. So,
construed in this second way, the question would be given
a philosophically neutral answer.

However, a little reflection revealed that the idea of a
philosophically neutral answer to the question ‘Why do I
do philosophy?’ is a chimaera. To take a trivial instance,
suppose I were to say, ‘At the age of sixteen, I read the
Meditations and came to think that the existence of the
physical world is uncertain,’ then I would have already
said something philosophically controversial. Quite a few
twentieth-century philosophers would want to insist that
that cannot be the correct description of the attitude I
arrived at as a result of reading Descartes, since it
suggests that I came to have doubts about the existence of
the physical world, ,which surely I did not. The general
point is this: that the exact way a person’s thoughts and
attitudes towards philosophical questions and ideas are
described and interpreted has phllosophical implications.

In part, this is simply a result of the fact that the
interpretation of anyone’s thoughts, feelings and motives
endeavours to make sense of their relation to some
independently existing environment, and this cannot be
done while at the same time ‘bracketing’ the question of
the real character of that er;lVironment. For the purposes
of this highly schematic view of interpretation, the realm
of philosophical questions and ideas has to count as part
of the subject’s ‘environment’. This would not matter
much, from the point of view of writing a philosophically
innocent piece of autobiography, if an agreed, noncontroversial description of the subject-matter of
philosophy were possible, as it is possible in some

disciplines. Since it is not possible – since the character,
mode of existence and proper formulation of philosophical
problems is itself a central focus of philosophical
controversy – an ‘autobiographical’ account of why I am
engaged with philosophy could not help saying something,
however tentative and incoherent, about the character of
philosophy and philosophical problems.

This is fairly obvious. What is more interesting is that
the same considerations have the converse implication.

Since any worked-out ‘philosophical position’ involves
some particular view about what philosophical problems
are, it thereby implies a distinctive way of interpreting
what someone is doing when they are thinking about, or
talking about philosophy. So the first kind of answer to
the question ‘Why do I do Philosophy?’ – an ‘impersonal
and objective’ statement of the aims and values etc.

proper to philosophy – will still be ‘personal’, not just
because it expresses the writer’s own view, but because it
implies that the writer understands and makes sense of
what he/she is doing when thinking about philosophy in a
particular kind of way. Thus the contrast between the two
different kinds of answer to the question, the ‘impersonal’

answer and the autobiographical answer, is one of
emphasis and literary mode of presentation – it cannot be a
contrast between statements with entirely different kinds
of ‘propositional content’.

Within Anglo-American Philosophy especially, a whole
series of factors – the ‘academicisation’ of the subject, its
consequent allying of itself with ‘scholarship’ and
science, the increasingly ‘technical’ character of much of
its content, the anxiety to distance philosophy from any
kind of introspectionist psychology – have brought it to
pass that a highly impersonal style of expression is
thought to be the appropriate one for expressing
philosophical ideas. As regards the entirely academic
character of modern philosophy, it’s worth calling to mind
the way in which new students have it emphasised to them
that philosophy in ~he ‘Western Intellectual Tradition’ is
entirely different in’ style and purpose from other
traditions of religious, esoteric or self-developmental
philosophy. Explaining this contrast in a general way
usually involves saying something to the effect that these
other traditions of philosophy are connected with
‘personal experience’ in a way in which most modern
Western phllosophy is not. It is in fact difficult to make
the distinction in a way that does not exclude, e.g,
Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sa~tre, but at any rate students
are clearly given to understand that philosophy essays are
to be written in a rigorously impersonal style.

But what exa~tly is the rationale for this stylistic
ruling? Is it that philosophy in the ‘Western Intellectual
Tradition’ is ‘intellectual’ rather than ‘spiritual’ or
’emotional’? That it is ‘theoretical’ rather than

31

‘practical’? Concerned with what is ‘objective’ rather
than ‘subjective’? Concerned with what can be ‘argued
and proved’ rather than with what has to be ‘personally
experienced’? AI1 these distinctions are highly
phllosophical1y questionable, but since on this issue of
how philosophical thinking should be done and what
should be its normal style of presentation they all seem
to cut the same way, their valldity is not usuallY
questioned further in this context. Anyway, one very
concrete point is this: that University and Poly philosophy
lecturers haven’t been trained to be, aren’t paid to be, and
almost certainly don’t want to be spiritual guides or
counsellors in self-development (only ‘personal tutors’).

So the institutional character of academic philosophy
decides the issue in advance of any theoretical (which is to
say philosophical) rationale.

However, there is one philosophical factor which seems
to insist on the appropriateness of an impersonal mode of
presentation for philosophical thinking. Its basis is one of
the dominant and perennial distinctions drawn within
Western Philosophy – that between particular and
universal.

When philosophers have philosophical thoughts and
beliefs, or make philosophical assertions, the thought- or
speech-act (X’s believl!:!g or assertl!:!g) is particular, while
what the philosopher thinks or asserts – the content,
proposition, Fregean thought, or meaning – is universal.

The former is an event in space and time, located at a
particular point in the causal nexus, while the latter is a
general characteristic which may be exempllfied in any
number of different thought-acts or speech acts, located
in quite different parts of the spatial/temporal/causal
framework. Therefore it seems that the particular and
peculiar features and circumstances and X’s thinking the
philosophical thought that p do not enter into the content
of the thought. (There are enormous problems with this
when the content of the thought involves essential
reference to a named or demonstrated particular, but I’m
trying to summarise the general sweep of the idea. In any
case, the content of a philosophical thought is
traditional1y supposed to be entirely universal.) So to
this extent it seems that, in thinking philosophically, the
philosopher should keep in quite separate mental
compartments (a) awareness of the content of his/her
philosophical thoughts, bellefs, etc., and (b) awareness of
the particular circumstances in which s/he thinks those
thoughts. Therefore what the philosopher should assert,
talk about as a philosopher – put in papers, essays, etc. should be the philosophical content of the thoughts being
expressed, not ,anything to do with the nature,
circumstances or experiential content of the thought-acts
being expressed.

Now I have made the point that phiIosophers are
required to think about the nature and circumstances of
their philosophical thinking whenever they turn to the
question of the nature of the philosophical thinking itself.

At that point philosophical thinking must involve selfreflection and self-interpretation, because the question
arises whether one is prepared to understand and interpret
oneself and one’s philosophical thinking, and also that of
others, in a particular way. Does not this imply that we
should expect to find one genre of philosophical writing
which is autobiographical and self-reflective in style?

(Descartes’ Discourse on the Method is just about the only
major work I can think oTIn the accepted canon which is in
that style.) The reason why we do not lies in the
character of the oldest and most powerful view of the
nature of philosophical knowledge, which has imparted its
peculiar momentum to later and more prosaic accounts:

the Platonic one. According to this view, in philosophical
understanding one comes to, or rather recovers, a direct
apprehension, not mediated by the experience of timebound particulars, of something universal and eternal the Form or Idea. So the particular circumstances and
experiences which provide the occasion for the individual

32

coming to have a piece of philosophical knowledge are
strictly speaking irrelevant to understanding the essential
nature of that act of knowing, which in fact lifts the
individual free of time, into the realm of the eternal.

Schopenhauer, who holds a modified version of the
Platonic view, puts the point very well (he is in fact
speaking of aesthetic contemplation, which grasps
intuitively what philosophy adumbrates conceptual1y):

The knowing individual as such and the particular
thing known by him are always in a particular
place, at a particular time, and are links in the
chain of causes and effects. The pure subject of
knowledge and its correlative, the idea, have
passed out of all these forms…. Time, place, the
individual that knows, and the individual that is
known, have no meaning for them.

(The ~orld as Will and Representation, trans. E.

Payne, Vol~ 1, p. 179)
So, according to this kind of view, the meaning of what you
achieve in philosophical knowledge is not to be
understood or interpreted in relation to the ‘hermeneutic
circle’ of the rest of your life and experience, except in
the negative sense that the whole point of that knowledge
is that it lifts you free of the circle of the rest of your
life and experience.

Now if the Platonic Forms, as the proper objects of
philosophical- thinking, have ~hrunk to something more
mundane – for instance, concepts, or intentional objects,
or meanings – these things are still universal,
transpersonal and (at least relatively) timeless. And by
the time that someone has sufficient grasp of their
language to be doing philosophy, it can be assumed that
they have an immediate access to these things which is
(again, relatively) independent of the particular
experiences and circumstances of their lives, and which is
available for explicit articulation in philosophical
theory. So these things are the after-images of Plato’S
Forms in this respect too, that self-conscious theoretical
reflection on them can be conducted in an impersonal way,
in abstraction from the details of an individual’s life and
experience.

But there is, of course, this difference. Whereas
contemplation of the Forms realises your eternal nature and who wouldn’t (given you believe the story in the first
place) want to do that? – analysis of concepts or meanings
only brings conceptual clarity, and it’s by no means
certain whether that is something particularly worth
having. On the other hand, the idea that there is a
distinctive realm of fixed philosophical (e.g. ‘conceptual’

or ‘necessary’) truth awaiting discovery is quite as
controversial and dubious now as it was for Plato’s
con tempor ar ies.

And so if one is asked, ‘Why do you do philosophy?’ especially if one still operates by and large from within
the Analytical tradition, and it is from that position that
write – the main tendency of the tradition is that you
should present what you are doing as a technical
speciallty, akin to mathematics or micro-biology, and that
you should therefore explain philosophy’s special subjectmatter, its objectives, its distinctive methods and

techniques – and then, in that context, explain why ~
personal1y find it engaging and exciting, and why it seems
to you useful and important.

The rest of this paper is about the fact that I cannot
give an answer of this kind without feeJing that what I say
is hol1ow, and that my personal engagement with
phllosophy is with its problematic character.

11

People don’t often ask me this question directly. When I
feel caIJed upon to. explain myself, it’s more usual1y in
response to some qu”estion about the nature of Philosophy
itself. Someone says to you, ‘TeIJ me, I’ve never really
understood, what exactly ~ Philosophy?’ The question is
apparently asked in good faith, but an undertone of
irritated puzzlement already present in the voice teIJs
you that the questioner knows in advance they’re not going
to get a straight answer, and that they think you’re
someone who’s being paid to teach a bogus subject.

In this type of situation, I usuaIJy assume that what
have to do is to take a central phllosophical question,
explain why I think it’s important, and at the same time
make clear that it is an important problem for me. But,
however articulate I manage to be, and howeverrelaxed I
manage to sound, I always feel a bit of a sham, as if I’m
putting up a front. It’s not just that I sense that my
questioner – who is evidently one of those intelligent
people who are from birth immune to philosophy – is not
being convinced, though that is an essential component of
my discomfort. Rather the problem is this: to make a
conv incing presentation I have to give a clear formulation
of my chosen problem. I cannot afford to dwell too much
on legitimate questions which can be raised about the
formulation. Least of all can I introduce the possibility
that a rigorous critique of the formulation, and all
alternative formulations, might resolve the question by
‘dissolving’ it. – After all, the task which the situation
has set for me is to lead my questioner to see the
philosophical problem as a real problem, not to confirm
his/her inveterate suspicion that there is no problem. But
this means that I cannot be honest about the way in which
philosophical problems are important problems for me,
since for me the problematic character of philosophical
questions as questions is part of their essence.

It’s not that I am in fact a convinced Wittgensteinian
who finds it difficult to come clean on social occasions.

Nor is that I’m unsure whether the Wittgensteinian view of
philosophical problems as being generated by ‘language
on holiday’ is ‘right’ or not. I’m not referring to
phllosophical positions, beliefs or strategies and my
commitment or uncertainty with respect to them at all,
but rather to something more everyday but also more
difficult to talk about precisely – the way in which my
thinking and feeJing with respect to philosophical
questions seems so acutely susceptible to mood-like
fluctuations.

Of course, engagement in any kind of intellectual
activity is subject to alterations of mood. But those
characteristics for which philosophy is notorious – the
lack of agreement on any substantive issue, the
disagreement about what the important problems are, or
how they should properly be formulated, the disagreement
about methods and aims, the all-importance of fine
discriminations of meaning taken together with the fact
that such discriminqtions can only be drawn by means of
terms equally open’ to mUltiple interpretation, the
importance and difficulty of fixing the exact dialectical
context of any given philosophical pronouncement – render
‘thinking’ about philosophy subject to subtle and profound
modulations of a kind which we usually associate with
feeling and emotion. To say that philosophical thinking is
pecularly affected by changes in mood is perhaps to put
the point wrongly. It’s rather than one’s perspective on,
one’s understanding of, a given philosophical idea can be

subject to variations which in their incalculability are
like changes in feeling or mood. The same philosophical
doctrine can seem crystal-clear and profoundly important
one week, virtually incomprehensible the following week,
and then clear again but flat and trivial the week after
that. Explaining the ‘Private Language Argument’ to one
seminar you find that it encapsulates issues crucial to
Epistemology, then at another class it comes to seem
arbitrary and barmy.

Perhaps my experience is somewhat untypical. I am one
of the most non-committal of people, and, as is therefore
not surprising, I have not pubJished anything. I do not have
publicly staked-out ‘positions’ by which to re-orientate
myself when I find that my thinking on a certain issue has
drifted to an unfamiliar perspective. I make definite
judgements when lecturing, of course (I try not to be too
infuriating as a teacher), but these are put forward as-‘something that can be clearly stated in relation to the
debate as it stands’ rather than as ‘what I really think’.

So I have adopted the role of a ‘flaneur’ within the city of
philosophy, and perhaps the sense of the continual
shiftingness of philosophical thought bears upon me more
insistently than others who are, so to speak, regularly
employed articulating and defending specific
philosophical positions. All the same, the experience I
describe is surely familiar to everyone who is involved
with philosophy. It is part of the ‘average everydayness’

of doing philosophy.

Now I am not trying to suggest that this day-to-day
experience of the fluid and shifting character of
philosophical thought implies some kind of scepticism or
relativism about philosophical truth, so that we are all
somehow temporary sceptics for those moments that this
aspect of philosophy comes to the fore. The experience is
entirely compatible with, and describable and
interpretable in terms of, any account of philosophy from
the Platonic Theory of Recollection to the Positivist
theory of philosophy as the ‘logical analysis of language’.

But it does all the same ..@y open the possibility of
scepticism or relativism of some kind or another about
philosophy.

So my point is a simple and obvious one: that the
problematic character of philosophical questions and
philosophical inquiry is not a consequence of the fact that
there exist well-articulated sceptical attacks on the
claims of philosophy or the possibility of philosophical
knowledge. Rather it has its basis in the day-to-day
experience of people who think about philosophical
questions. One doesn’t have to appeal to some puritanical
theory of knowledge or theory of meaning, or to
conventionalism or pragmatism, or to a rejection of
‘logocentrism’ to think the thought ‘there is no definite
“true” answer to these questions’. That is-simply one
possible response to what happens when one thinks about
philosophy, which, so to speak, lies available along with
‘this is exciting – you think something new every moment’

and ‘this is difficult – I must get myself a method’.

Some philosophers find philosophical statements of
scepticisl’TJ or relativism about philosophical truth
straightforwardly irritating, since it seems obvious to them
that the ‘tu quoque’ response is sufficient to eliminate any
kind of attempt to undermine philosophy from within. And
I think they are quite right in this: attempts to protect
relativism from this criticism by basing it in some body of
theory supposedly distinct from philosophy – e.g. ‘theory
of meaning’ or ‘theory of ideology’ certainly look fairly
thin, and if ‘there is no philosophical truth’ is stated as a
philosophical truth it is merely a slightly round-about
way of asserting ‘what I am now saying is not true’. But to
make this entirely valid point and then to think that one
has dismissed scepticism about philosophical truth as
something worth any consideration is to mistake the true
force and basis of such scepticism, and also to fail to see
its intimate relation to the ‘very being’ of philosophy. To
use a temporal metaphor: to dismiss scepticism about

33

philosophy in this way is to think of it as a perversion of
philosophIcal thinking whIch comes along after philosophy
has got under way, rather than as something whIch comes
into being with philosophy, as its shadow-side or dark twin.

Certainly when stated and defended as a philosophIcal
truth, such scepticism is self-defeating, but it doesn’t have
to express itself in the attempted assertion of a truth at
all. It can simply appear as a refusal to take seriously
speech-acts or thought-acts of a certain kind. The best
characterisation of such a manifestation of antiphilosophIcal scepticism comes at the end of the
Tractatus, at 6.53:

The correct method in philosophy would really be
the following: to say nothing except what can be
said, I.e. propositions of natural science – i.e.

something that has nothing to do with philosophy and then, whenever someone else wanted to say
something metaphysIcal, to demonstrate to him
that he had failed to give a meaning to certain
signs in his propositions. Although it would not be
satisfying to the other person – he would not have
the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy
– this method would be the only strIctly correct
one.

Of course, everything depends here on how the antiphilosopher is supposed to ‘demonstrate’ that a certain
sign lacks meaning. If they are meant to prove this by
invoking the Tractatus theory of meaning, then we once
more have phl1osophIcal scepticism of the self-defeating
kind, since Wittgenstein makes clear that his own theory
of meaning involves the Hlegitimate attempt to pIcture
logIcal form, and thus to say what cannot be said. But
‘nachweisen’ can simply be read ‘show’ or ‘indIcate’, and
so perhaps the anti-philosopher simply screws up their
nose, or makes an obscene noise when the trainee attempts
to say something metaphysIcal. One actually meets
people like this at parties. (They are even more unnerving
than the type who ask you what philosophy is.) When you
try to raise a query of a philosophIcal kind about the
subject under discussion, they reply with the ‘famlllar,
slightly frozen, polite stare’ that Willlams encountered
when he asked what ‘culture’ meant, or, worse sti11, they
laugh in your face. This type of scepticism about
philosophy – the kind we encounter every day – remains
entirely consistent as long as it does not allow itself to
be tempted onto the terrain of philosophy in order to
defend itself.

This does not mean that such an everyday antiphilosopher cannot say anything in defence, or at least
explanation, of their attitude. For example, they can say
something like this, without sliding irretrievably into
phl1osophy:

Look, as far as I can see, philosophers discuss three
kinds of question. (1) Questions (Hke the existence
of the ‘external world’) where there is in fact no
disagreement among ordinary people and where the
answer seems obvious. (iD Questions (Hke the mindbody problem) where ordinary people disagree, but
where philosophers also disagree, so that” they are
unable to demonstrate any special ablllty to
resolve the question. (iH) Questions apparently
only raised by philosophers, where no-one has been
able to show me that it would make any difference
to anything C?f value to me how they are answered.

About all three types of question there is
apparently complete disagreement among
philosophers. There are evidently fashions in
philosophy, so that whole groups of philosophers
agree on a programme or a method and move in the
same direction at once. It then appears, temporally
and locally, that progress is being made to an
agreed set of conclusions to a range of questions.

But thereafter there i~ a revolution, or a simple
change of fashion, and everything is called into
question again. So on questions of kind (H) and (ill)

34

have no reason to suppose that any of the methods
of philosophy provide a way of coming to find the
answers – or even that there are answers waiting to
be discovered. On questions of kind (1), I think that
the agreed, commonsense answers are correct, but
don’t see any need for the elaborate proofs and
recherche ‘justifIcations’ whIch philosophers
construct, and about whIch they in any case
disagree.

Confronted with this, we philosophers would try to get our
VoIce of Common Sense to recognise that they are making
a host of philosophIcal assumptions whIch need
philosophIcal defence. Why, for example, make the
assumption that agreement is a sign that there is
knowledge of some truth? The answer would be something
of this kind: ‘It’s just commonsense. It’s a rough and ready
principle everyone follows. Of course, we sometimes find
that people have, by accident or conspiracy, agreed
something that turns out false, but only because something
subsequently emerges whIch people agree about whIch
shows that. You follow the principle as well, so stop
creating diffIculties.’ At this point, the sceptic refuses to
argue the point any more, rather in the manner of various
Socrates’ interlocutors. Since the category of ‘the
philosophIcal’ is constructed with phl1osophy on the basis
of some kind of theory of knowledge, or metaphysic, of
meaning, our sceptic doesn’t operate any such abstract
category, and so cannot be required to admit that ‘they are
already doing philosophy’. Thus if they say things that
we, in terms of our abstract category, class as
‘phl1osophIcal’, this does not mean that they have tacitly
conceded that there exists a domain of philosophIcal
truth. As far as they are concerned, there is an assortment
of agreed commonsensIcal truths, maxims and principles on
the one hand, and on the other a series of ‘fishy’ ideas,
theories and questions, typIcally discussed by people
call1ng themselves ‘philosophers’, about which there isn’t
agreement and whIch the sceptic therefore thinks not
worth arguing about. Now we may well succeed. – it may
prove very easy – in provoking the sceptIc to say something
whIch s/he thinks is obvious and commonsense, but which
we can subsequently show wouldn’t be agreed by all
persons-in-the-stree~, and is in fact a controversial move
in a famlllar philosophIcal debate. But the sceptic can
just respond: ‘That just shows how insidious philosophy is now you’ve got me on the slippery slope’, withdrawing
whatever it was they said and retreating to what they
think is agreed commonsense.

So sceptIcism about philosophy is a consistent and
reasoned attitude to the attempt to argue or reason about
certain questions. It may be called a ‘philosophy’ in the
sense that it is a general wq.y, or style, of thinking,
speaking and living whIch involves a certain attitude to
phllosophIcal questions, but it is not a phllosophIcal
‘position’ in any sense that makes it radIcally selfdefeating, since its essence is a refusal to admit the
category of phllosophIcal truth or knowledge, and thus quite consistently – to refuse to allow that it presents
itself as making a philosophIcal statement. It is an
attitude we encounter all the time, not just among people
who are, temperamentally or by policy, antiphilosophIcal on every occasion, but also from people who
adopt it as a strategy, or as a sort of mood, at some times
and not at others. It is an attitude adopted within
phllosophy, when some phllosophers decide that one part
of phl1osophy is legitimate (e.g. theory of meaning) and
another part (e.g. metaphysics) is not.

Since such scepticism is a response to the perennial and
incorrigible fallure to reach agreement within
philosophIcal debate – the fact that it seems to be
possible to argue all points all ways on – we also find the
basis of this scepticism within ourselves when we think
philosophIcally. After all, the fact that we find
continual changes in our phllosophIcal thinking, that new
perspectives are always presenting themselves, is simply

the manifestation in our philosophical thinking of the
open-ended and inconclusive character of public
philosophical debate.

III

That the idea that there is philosophical truth and the
possiblllty of knowing that truth is set up in the face of
scepticism about such truth is shown in the two most
powerful historical articulations of this conception – in
Plato and Descartes.

It se~ms agreed that when Socrates and Plato insisted
that there were fixed truths about the nature of justice,
virtue, beauty etc., and that these truths could be
apprehended by the mind as a result of inteHectual
investigation, they were asserting this against a kind of
relativism which took the view that such values were the
product of social agreement and convention, that the way
these ‘things’ were conceived may vary, as conventions
vary, from society to society, and therefore that, where
such divergences were found, with respect (say) to justice,
it was futile to insist that one of the conceptions must be
right. It is not at all clear whether any of the Sophist
teachers, to whom this view is collectively ascribed, held
this with respect to all truth. It seems entirely likely
that they took their sociological account of the origin of
morality to be a general natural fact (not itself produced
by agreement) and that their relativism applied
specifically to those moral and political values which
particularly interested Plato and Socrates. So it looks as
if the sceptical resistance tQ their project which Socrates
and Plato encountered was not by and large a scepticism
of an intellectually perverse or paradoxical kind, but the
enlightened cosmopolltanism generated by a group of
itinerant freelance teachers who set themselves the
modest objective of teaching their pupils to speak and
argue convincingly about politics and morality. And in
the dialogues themselves, the chief opposition Plato’s
Socrates has to confront is a scepticism as to whether
reasoning and argument can achieve what Socrates claims
it can achieve, fixed truths about the nature of justice,
virtue etc., valid for aJl occasions and societies, and quite
different from anything people are at first inclined to say
or accept – a scepticism which expresses itself most
intractably, not in any abstract assertion of relativism,
but in a refusal to take Socrates’ process of argument
seriously. At a certain point in the Phaedo, Socrates
caricatures this kind of attitude, and represents it as
embodying a kind of metaphysical position:

••• that when one believes that an argument is true
without reference to the art of logic, and then a
little later decides rightly or wrongly that it is
false, and the same thing happens again and again you know how it is, especiaHy with those who spend
their time in arguing both sides; they end by
believing that they are wiser than anyone else,
because they alone have ·discovered that there is
nothing stable or dependable either in facts or in
arguments, and that everything fluctuates just like
the water in a tidal channel, and never stays at any
point for any time.

Socrates presents the attitude he’S describing as one of
great perversity, analogous to misanthropy, but after aU
the basis of it – the view that on any question forceful and
persuasive arguments can always be constructed on both
sides, and therefore that one should not take argument too
seriously – is one that many people take to be simple
commonsense.

It is an effect of the dialogue form, and surely an
effect Plato fully envisaged, that the Socratic-Platonic
conception of philosophical truth and knowledge is
articulated in dramatic opposition, not just to theoretical
statements of scepticism, but to every variety of
conversational and dialectical expression of the sceptical
attitude against which the idea of philosophy is being
defined.

It might at fir’st appear that the same kind of point
cannot be made in relation to Descartes, since in his great
set-piece presentation of his philosophical programme in
the Meditations, he elaborates his structure of
philosophical knowledge, not in opposition to the type of
‘everyday’ anti-philosophical scepticism. I have been
discussing, but by means of a theoretically-based
scepticism which already presupposes something
resembling the Platonic conq~ption of philosophical
knowledge, since it involves the determination to accept
only whatever can be apprehended as completely certain.

However, it is clear that Descartes is quite as aware as
Plato of the force of anti-philosophical scepticism, but it
makes it appearance, not in the mouth of a real or
artificial opponent who is to be refuted, but in Descartes’

own attitude to the bulk of pre-existing philosophy. Thus,
his first words about philosophy in Part One of the
Discourse on the Method are these: ‘I knew ••• that
philosophy glves the means by which one can speak
plausibly on all matters and win the admiration of the
less learned’ (trans. Sutcliffe, Penguin, p. 30). There then
follows, a couple of pages later, this famous passage:

I shaH say nothing about philosophy, except
that, seeing that it has been cultivated by the very
best minds which have ever existed over· several
centuries and that, nevertheless, not one of its
problems is not subject to disagreement, and
consequently is uncertain, I was not presumptuous
enough to hope to succeed in it any better than
others; and seeing how many different opinions are
sustained by learned men about one item, without
its being possible for more than one ever to be true,
I took to be tantamount to false everything which
was merely probable.

As for the other sciences, in so far as they
borrow their principles from philosophy, I
considered that nothing solid could have been built
on such shifting foundations; and neither the honour
nor the material gain held out by them was
sufficient to induce me to study them.

(Ibid., p. 32)
The concluding sentence expresses Descartes’ conviction
of the importance of philosophical truth, but his attitude
to actual existing philosophy is exactly that of the
‘practical man of common sense’, with whom he explicitly
identifies himself against the speculative philosopher:

For it seemed to me that I might find much more
truth in the reasonings which each one makes in
matters that affect him closely, the result of
which must be detrimental to him if his judgement is
faulty, than from the speculations of a man of
letters in his study which produce no concrete
effect and which are of no other consequence to him
except perhaps that the further away they are from
common sense; the more vanity he wlll derive from
them, because he wlll have had to use that much
more skill and subtlety in order to try to make
them seem dialectically possible.

(Ibid., p. 33)
So the aim of Descartes’ philosophical programme was not

35

simply to arrive at complete certainty by overcoming the
methodological, phllosophically sophisticated sceptical
arguments of ~ed • .1 but thereby to satisfy the antiphllosophical scepticism of ‘practical good sense’, whose
force he felt to the full.

IV

Perhaps I am wrong to suggest that all phllosophers at
some moments, or in some moods, or in some contexts, feel
stirrings of scepticism about phllosophy. Maybe a number
of phllosophers have establlshed enough fixed points in
their thInking to experience the protean character of
phllosophical thought and debate as simply a testament to
its difficulty, and are therefore able to maintain a settled
and unforced confidence that there is truth to be
establlshed here.

It also seems llkely that there are other phllosophers
whose position is that of a calm and sober, if quallfied,
acceptance of the sceptical attitude. Here is one way this
might come about. One accepts, along with the sceptic,
that on any given phllosophical question there may be a
number of possible positions, all equally capable of
coherent and internally consistent articulation and
defence, so that there is nothing ‘ultimately’ to show that
one is right and all the others wrong. They would
therefore not endorse Descartes’ insistence that where
there are ‘many diverse opinions learned men may maintain
on a single question ••• it is impossible for more than one
to be true’. However, they would recognise that, in some
cases at least, it makes a difference to how one Ilves and
acts which philosophical position one takes up. Thus in
some contexts – in polltics, for instance, or in the more
problematic areas of science – confllcting philosophical
positions are seen to be competing ideologies, which
rationallse divergent paths of individual and collective
action. So, though the sceptic may be right to expect that
no one of these different positions can be shown, from the
neutral standpoint of disinterested philosophical reason,
to be the ‘true’ one – since each may De articulated
consistently in its own terms – s/he is wrong to dismiss
phllosophical thought and debate as pointless. Even
though, if one is clear-headed, one chooses one’s
philosophical position on the basis of interest, and
polltical or moral commitment, all the same
phllrJsophical discourse is one of the terrains on which
these competing ideologies fight it out, so there is every
pragmatic reason tq engage in it and take it seriously.

(I may have made it sound as if one could only adopt
this latter semi-sceptical or relativist stance in relation
to phllosophy on the basis of some well-worked theory of
‘phllosophy as ideology’. I do not mean to suggest that.

My intention in the above was rather to give one possible
spelllng out of the way some philosophers feel about their
engagement with philosophy. Put to them all the
problems about the nature and status of phllosophical
truth and they would be llk~ly to respond, somewhat
impatiently: ‘Look I don’t know why you’re carrying on
about this. Just because we take phllosophy seriously and
argue things out, that doesn’t mean that we have to have
some naive bellef in there being “ultimate true answers”
to these questions, lying side by side by side in an
inaccessible Platonic heaven. The point is simply that it
matters what we say on these issues, it matters that we
spell out the positions we adopt as clearly and
consistently as possible, and it matters that we expose the
unclarities and contradictions in the positions we have
decided against.’)
But – to return now to my starting point – I, at any rate,
am unable to set the question of the status of philosophy
and phllosophical truth aside in either of these ways. I
experience the everyday fact of the endlessly shifting
character of my phllosophical thinking as bringing this
question continuously before me, so that, like the Kantian
‘I’ that accompanies all representations, this question
itself always accompanies my thinking about other

36

specific phllosophical questions. So, for me, phllosophy is
essentially that way of thinking that is ‘tormented by
questions which bring itself in question’ (Phllosophical
Investigations, I, 133).

At this point I can imagine someone saying: ‘Right,
you’ve shown how the problem about the very status and
valldity of phllosophy is a problem for ~ personally.

Well, I think that is exactly what you have demonstrated,
but in a different sense than you intend. What you say has
the ring of doubt or insecurity of an obsessional kind.

After all, the majority of subjects have parallel
questions about their valldity or value. The Person at the
Party is often just as dismissive of sociology, or
psychology or economics. Meanwhlle there are attacks
from other directions on the value or worth even of the
“hard sciences”. To have made a professional commitment
to philosophy as you have, and yet to have internalised the
voices antagonistic to it to the degree ‘you describe surely
suggests that you have allowed profound insecurities of a
fundamentally psychological and personal kind to get
projected onto your engagement with phllosophy and to
disrupt it.’

Well, in a sense this is correct. I can, in retrospect,
identify aspects of myself as I was before I became
engaged in phllosophy, which can explain the centrallty I
have assigned to t~e question of the status of phllosophy,
as well as my inabillty to resolve the question. In brief:

(l) I have always been a slow thinker, slow to pick
up what people are saying, and especially slow to
pick up new terminologies and ways of talking. I
used to comfort myself with the thought that I saw
deep problems and ambiguities in what was being said
which others, with more faclle intelllgences,
glossed over. But I also suspected that this was just
an excuse, a way of avoiding the recognition that I
was slow- (if not dim-) witted.

(in I have a natural wish to agree with people, and
a disllke of having to admit that I disagree. I have
always tried to justify this attitude with .the ‘bellef
that there is usually a good amount of truth in most
of what most people say, and that most disagreement
gets generated because (a) people don’t clearly
express the truth they have in mind, (b) people
confuse and misinterpret what each other are saying
in order to maximise disagreement, (c) the resulting
bad feellng increases the confusion and fuels the
wlll to find disagreement. Thus, faced with a heated
argument, I would adopt a detached and neutral
stance, rationallsed by the view that clear, thorough
and dispassionate thinking would reveal that there
was a lot of truth on both sides.

(iil) I was brought up in a Baptist Church, and was
led to expect that a moment of future revelation
(the conversion experience) would make the meaning
of things clear to me. Pending this definitive
clarification of matters, which of course I couldn’t
effect in my own wlll (not that I wanted to) since it
depended on God’s grace, it seemed wise to leave
decision of various crucial general issues in
abeyance.

It is easy to see how these features of my teenage self
should have led me into phllosophy. It could promise me
the prospect of that definitive clarification of obscurities
and confusions which I had always presented myself to
myself as awaiting, and this could pave the way, at some
indeterminate point in the future, to cool and
dispassionate decisions about pressing and heated issues.

This latter ‘ultimate clarification’ of commitments could
clearly serve as a rational substitute for the rellgious
revelation I had previously both projected and feared though I had less to fear from the substitute since it would
be subject to my rational control.

However, it’s also easy to see how these factors of my
‘personality structure’ explain why philosophy should
remain so acutely questionable for me. I have always

been half-aware of the dubious motives which led me to
posit the ideal of the ‘definitive clarification’, and to set
up the ideal of myself as the ‘detached and dispassionate
clarifier’ – fear that I was slow-witted and stupid, fear of
conflict and of decisions in situations of conflict, fear of
decisions which involve any leap of commitment, a
tendency to postpone such decisions till a future point
when circumstances wlll have rendered the decision
obvious, straightforward and risk- and conflict-free.

Aware of the operation of these motives, I therefore had
reasons to suspect that the process of ‘dispassionate
clarification’ I had idealised, and the future moment of
complete clarification I had projected might be my own
fictions. It was inevitable, ~hen, that I should transfer
this guiity suspicion to philosophy’s claim to provide
access to a realm of clear, fixed, necessary and therefore
definitive truth, once I had latched onto philosophy as
embodying my pre-existing ideal. If it was possible that I,
before encountering philosophy as an academic subject,
had set up the idea of definitive intellectual clarification
on the basis of a variety of dubious motives, was it not
possible that, throughout history, a far vaster coalescence
of comparable motives had conspired to erect the myth of
philosophical truth?

Now I think this is a perfectly good, if sketchy,
explanation of why I am so concerned with the question of
the status of philosophy, and cannot let the issue go. One
can say, if one chooses, that the explanation shows why I
am ‘obsessed with’, ‘fixated on’ the problem. To put it
like that is to add the assertion that my concern with the
problem is excessive, or mistaken or unjustified – but the
explanation does not back up the assertion. To say that
the personality structure I have described is in some sense
mildly ‘neurotic’ would be perfectly acceptable, given
that one was thereby saying that such a person would be
very ill-adapted to a lot of roles or functions in life roles which require the ability to take quick and difficult
decisions and so on. Perhaps it’s’a bad personality
structure even for a professional philosopher, if it’s part
of that role to produce a respectable quantity of research.

But if there is a problem about the nature and status of
philosophy, mine may be an excellent personality
structure for the purpose of thinking that problem through.

That is to say, it may be that my personality and
experience give me at once a strong motivation to engage
in philosophy, together with a very vivid sense of the
possibility that the claim of Western philosophy to be
able to decide important ‘problems of living’ by means of
a style of intellectual investigation which aspires to the
clarity and certainty of mathematics is a kind of fraud,
-involving a manouevre, first effected by the Pythagoreans,
by which philosophic certainty is substituted, as a source
of conviction and ‘right living’, for religious ecstasy.

But the real point is, not that I am in a particularly
good position to ‘think through’ the problem of the nature
and status of philosophy, but rather than the problem is
my position whether I like it or not, and thus I have to
think through it if I am going to think through any
philosophical questi9ns at all. When trying in the past to
write about ‘other” philosophical questions, I found I was
unable to finish anything, not really because I couldn’t
reach a conclusion – since I could often see conclusions

which were very arguable in relation to the various issues
– but because what I was writing felt false and I sooner or
later ground to a halt. I now see that the reason for this
was that, to write my paper, I had adopted a certain
philosophical approach and method, which implied a
certain kind of position abou.t what philosophy is and what
is the character of philosophical truth, when in fact this
position was one I was not in. Trying to write about the
philosophical issue in question from that assumed ‘protem’ stance was like standing on one hill and trying to
draw a picture of how the landscape looks from another
hill a couple of miles away.

By contrast, working out, in the kind of way just
sketched, the way in which the problem of the status of
philosophy is a problem for me, also begins to bring out
the way in which other problems – some of them quite
‘technical’ in character – are also problems for me. To
take just one example, referring back to the features of
myself described on p. ??? above: feature (l) locates a
concrete context in which I am ‘naturally’ concerned
about philosophical questions about the nature of meaning,
of what is involved in the understanding of meaning, of
what it is for meaning to be clear as opposed to unclear,
about whether there is always a definite answer to the
question ‘Exactly what does he/she mean?’ and so on.

Also, the locating of these philosophical concerns in
relation to this personal context of anxiety highlights a
relation between those ‘technical’ philosophical issues
and the question of the status and pretensions of
philosophy and shows how all these questions have to be
answered together.

This brings me to a final point about the relation of the
‘personal’ to the impersonal in philosophy, which will
have to serve as my conclusion. In listing, at the
beginning of my paper, various factors which seem to insist
on the ‘impersonal’ character of philosophical thinking
and discourse, there was one important factor I neglected
to mention. Though most philosophers would acknowledge
that all philosophical questions are linked in with one
another in myriad ways, philosophers cannot ‘talk to each
other about everything all together at once. In order for
debate to be possible, philosophy is divided up into
‘problems’, ‘questions’ and ‘topics’. The increasingly
professional – either ‘scientific’ and ‘technical’, or
‘scholarly’ – character of the subject accentuates this
cutting up of philosophy into separate topics. And certain
conceptions of what philosophy does imply that this
specialist narrowing of focus is not just institutionally
necessary, but also the correct way to resolve the
problems. For example, if solving the ‘problems of
knowledge’ is a ma.tter of ‘analysing’ the ‘concept’ of
knowledge, then lifting this concept free and holding it
under the analytic microscope is presumably the approach
to adopt.

But the division of philosophy in this way into discrete
topics, however it may be justified methodologically and
pragmatically, increases the difficulty of spelling out to
oneself how philosophical problems have an existence as
problems for oneself, since what is a problem for the
individual is in fact a total ,interconnected network of
problems which become problematic in relation to an
equally interconnected network of contexts.

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