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The Social Function of Philosophy



When the words physics, chemistry, medicine, or
history are mentioned in a conversation, the participants usually have something very definite in mind.

Should any difference of opinion arise, we could
consult an encyclopaedia or accepted textbook or turn
to one or more outstanding specialists in the field in
question. The definition of anyone of these sciences
derives immediately from its place in present day
society. Though these sciences may make the greatest
advances in the future, though it is even conceivable
that several of them, physics and chemistry for example,
may some day be merged, no one is really interested in
defining these concepts in any other way than by
reference to the scientific activities now being
carried on under such headings ….

… The situation in philosophy is not the same
as in other intellectual pursuits. No matter how many
points of dispute there may be in those fields, at
least the general line of their intellectual work is
universally recognized. The prominent representatives
more or less agree on subject matter and methods.

In philosophy, however, refutation of one school by
another usually involves complete rejection, the
negation of the substance of its work as fundamentally
false. This attitude is not shared by all schools, of
course. A L1ialectical philosophy, for example, in
keeping with its principles, will tend to extract the
relative truths of the indiviLlual points of view and
introduce them in its own comprehensive theory. Other
philosophical doctrines, such as modern positivism,
have less clastic principles, and they simply exclude
from the realm of knowledge a very large part of the
philosophical literature, especially the great systems
of the past. In short, it cannot be taken for granted
that anyone who uses the term “philosophy” shares with
his audience more than a few very vague conceptions.

The individual sciences apply themselves to
problems which must be treateLl because they arise out
of the life process of present day society. Both the
individual problems and their allotment to specific
disciplines derive, in the last analysis, from the needs
of mankind in its past and present forms or organization
This does not mean that every single scientific investigation satisfies some urgent need. Many scientific
undertakings produced results that mankind could easily
do without. Science is no exception to that misapplication of energy which we observe in every sphere of
cultural life. The development of branches of science
“‘hich have only a dubious practical value for the
immediate present is, however, part of that expenditure
of human labour which is one of the necessary conditions
of scientific and technological progress. We should
remember that certain branches of mathematics, which
appeared to be mere playthings at first, later turned
out to be extraordinarily useful.

Thus, though there are scientific undertakings
which can lead to no immediate use, all of them have
some potential applicability within the given social
reality, remote and vague as it may be. By its very
nature, the work of the scientist is capable of

maH Harkheimer
enriching life in its present ferm. His fields of
activity are therefore largely marked out for him, and
the attempts to alter the boundaries between the
several domains of science, to develop new diSCiplines,
as well as continuously to differentiate and integrate
them, are always guided by social need, whether
consciously or not. This need is also operative,
though indirectly, in the laboratories and lecture
halls of the university, not to mention the chemical
laboratories and statistical departments of large
industrial enterprises and in the hospitals.

Philosophy has no such guide. Naturally, many
desires play upon it; it is expected to find solutions
for problems which the sciences either do not deal
with or treat unsatisfactorily. But the practice of
social life offers no criterion for philosophy;
philosophy can point to no successes. Insofar as
individual philosophers occasionally do offer something
in this respect, it is a matter of services which are
not specjfically philosophical. We have, for example,
the mathematical discoveries of Descartes and Leibniz,
the psychological researches of Hume, the physical
theories of Ernst Mach, and so forth. The opponents
of philosophy also say that insofar as it has value,
it is not philosophy but positive science. Everything
else in philosophical systems is mere talk, they
claim, occasionally stimulating, but usually boring and
always useless. Philosophers, on the other hand, show
a certain obstinate disregard for the verdict of the
outside world. Ever since the trial of Socrates, it has
been clear that they have a strained relationship with
reality as it is, and especially with the community in
which they live. The tension sometimes takes the fOrID
of open persecution; at other times merely failure to
understand their language. They must live in hiding,
physically or intellectually. Scientists, too, have
come into conflict with the societies of their time.

But here we must resume the distinction between the
philosophical and the scientific elements of which we
have already spoken, and reverse the picture, because
the reasons for the persecution usually lay in the
philosophical views of these thinkers, not in their
scientific theories. Galileo’s bitter persecutors among
the Jesuits admitted that he would have been free to
publish his heliocentric theory if he had placed it in
the proper philosophical and theological context.

Albertus Magnus himself discussed the heliocentric
theory in his Summa, and he was never attacked for it.

Furthermore, the conflict between scientists and
society, at least in modern times, is not concerned
with fundamentals but only with individual doctrines,
not tolerated by this or that authority in one country
at one time, tolerated and even celebrated in some
other country at the same time or soon aften~ards.

When it was said that the tension between
phi losophy and reality is fundamental, unli ke the
occasional difficulties against which science must
struggle in social life, this referred to the tendency
embodied in philosophy, not to put an end to thought,
and to exercise particular control ove! all those
factors of life which are generally held to be fixed,
unconquerable forces or eternal laws. This was
precisely the issue in the trial of Socrates. Against
the demand ~or submi~si~n to the c~storr.s protecte~ ~y
>.;~. ;If’.ll L:’qUf-~~t1on to the tradltl’)nal

forms of life, Socrates asserted the principle that man
should know what he does, and shape his own destiny.

His god dwells within him, that is to say, in his own
reason and will. Today the conflicts in philosophy no
longer appear as struggles over gods, but the situation
of the world is no less critical. We should indeed be
accepting the present situation if we were to maintain
that reason and reality have been reconcilep, and that
man’s autonomy was assured within this society. The
original function of philosophy is still very

It may not be incorrect to suppose that these are
the reasons why discussions within philosophy, and
even discussions about the concept of philosophy, are
so much more radical and unconciliatory than discussions
in the sciences. Unlike any other pursuit, philosophy
does not have a field of action marked out for it
within the given order. This order of life, with its
hierarchy of values, is itself a problem for philosophy.

While science is still able to refer to given data
which point the way for it, philosophy must fall back
upon itself, upon its own theoretical activity. The
determination of its object falls within its own program
much more than is the case with the special sciences,
even today when the latter are so deeply engrossed with
problems of theory and methodology. Our analysis also
gives us an insight into the reason why philosophy has
received so much more attention in European life than
in America. The geographical expansion and historical
development have made it possible for certain social
conflicts, which have flared up repeatedly and sharply
in Europe because of the existing relationships, to
decline in significance in this continent under the
strain of opening up the country and of performing the
daily tasks. The basic problems of societal life found
a temporary practical solution, and so the tensions
which give rise to theoretical thought in specific
historical situations, never became so important. In
this country, theoretical thought usually lags far
behind the determination and accumulation of facts.

Whether that kind of activity still satisfies the
demands which are justly made upon knowledge in this
country too, is a problem which we do not have the
time to discuss now.

It is true that the definitions of many modern
authors, some of which have already been cited, hardly
reveal that character of philosophy which distinguishes
it from all the special sciences. Many philosophers
throw envious glances at their colleagues in other
faculties who are much better off because they have a
well marked field of work, whose fruitfulness for
society cannot be questioned. These authors struggle
to “sell” philosophy as a particular kind of science,
or at least, to prove that it is very useful for the
special sciences. Presented. in this way, philosophy
is no longer the critic, but the servant of science
and the social forms in general. Such an attitude is
a confession that thought which transcends the prevailing forms of scientific activity, and thus transcends
the horizon of contemporary society, is impossible.

Thought should rather be content to accept the tasks
set for it by the ever renewed needs of government and
industry, and to deal with these tasks in the form in
which they are received. The extent to which the
form and content of these tasks are the correct ones
for mankind at the present historical moment, the
question whether the social organization in which they
arise is still suitable for mankind – such problems are
neither scientific nor philosophical in the eyes of
those humble philosophers; they are matters for personal
decision, for subjective evaluation by the individual
who has surrendered to his taste and temper. The only
philosophical position which can be recognized in such
a conception is the negative doctrine that there really
is no philosophy, that systematic thought must retire
at the decisive moments of life, in short, philosophical
skepticism and nihilism.

Before proceeding further, it is necessary to
distinguish the conception of the social function of
philosophy presented here from another view, best
represented in several branches of modern sociology,


which identifies philosophy with one general social
function, namely ideology [1]. This view maintains
that philosophical thought, or more correctly, thought
as such, is merely the expression of a specific social
Situation. Every social group – the German Junkers,
for example – develops a conceptual apparatus, certain
methods of thought and a specific style of thought
adapted to its social position. For centuries the life
of the Junkers has been associated with a specific order
of succession; their relationship to the princely
dynasty upon which they were depe~dent and to their
own servants had patriarchal features. Consequently,
·… they tended to base their whole thought on the forms of
the organic, the ordered succession of generations, on
biological growth. Everything appeared under the
aspect of the organism and natural ties. The liberal
bourgeoisie, on the other hand, whose happiness and
unhappiness depend upon business success, whose
experience has taught them that everything must be
reduced to the common denominator of money, have
developed a more abstract, more mechanistic way of
thinking. Not hierarchical but levelling tendencies
are characteristic of their intellectual style, of their
philosophy. The same approach applies to other groups,
past and present.

With the philosophy of Descartes, for example, we
must ask whether his notions corresponded to the
aristocratic and Jesuit groups of the court, or to the
noblesse de robe, or to the lower bourgeoisie and the
masses. Every pattern of thought, every philosophical
or other cultural work, belongs to a specific social
group, with which it originates and with whose existence
it is bound up. Every pattern of thought is “ideology”.

There can be no doubt that there is some truth in
this attitude. Many ideas prevalent today are revealed
to be mere illusions when we consider them from the
point of view of their social basis. But it is not
enough merely to correlate these ideas with some one
social group, as that sociological school does. We
must penetrate deeper and develop them out of the
decisive historical process from which the social
groups themselves are to be explained. Let us take an
example. In Descartes’ philosophy, mechanistic
thinking, particularly mathematics, plays an important
part. We can even say that this whole philosophy is
the universalization of mathematical thought. Of
course, we can now try to find some group in society
whose character is correlative with this viewpoint, and
we shall probably find some such definite group in the
society of Descartes’ time. But a more complicated,
yet more adequate, approach is to study the productive
system of those days and to show how a member of the
rising middle class,by force of his very activity in
commerce and manufacture, was induced to make precise
calculations if he wished to preserve and increase his
power in the newly developed competitive market, and the
same holds true of his agents, so to speak, in science
and technology whose inventions and other scientific
work played so large a part in the constant struggle
between individuals, cities, and nations in the modern
era. For all these subjects, the given approach to the
world was its consideration in mathematical terms.

Because this class, through the development of society,
became characteristic of the whole of society, that
approach was widely diffused far beyond the middle
class itself. Sociology is not sufficient. We must
have a comprehensive theory of history if we wish to
avoid serious errors. Otherwise we run the risk of
relating important philosophical theories to accidental,
or at any rate, not decisive groups, and of misconstruing the significance of the specific group in the whole
of society, and, therefore, of misconstruing the culture
pattern in question. But this is not the chief objection. The stereotyped application of the concept of
ideology to every pattern of t~ought is, in the last
analysis, based on the notion that there is no
philosophical truth, in fact no truth at all for
humanity, and that all thought is seinsgebunden
Cf. Karl Mannheim,

Ideology and Utopia,


(situationally determined). In its methods and results
it belongs only to a specific stratum of mankind and is
valid only for this stratum. The attitude to be taken
to philosophical ideas does not comprise objective
testing and practical application. but a more or less
complicated correlation to a social group. And the
claims of philosophy are thus satisfied. We easily
recognize that this tendency. the final consequence of
which is the resolution of philosophy into a special
science. into sociology. merely repeats the skeptical
view which we have already criticized. It is not
calculated to explain the social function of philosophy.

but rather to perform one itself. namely. to discourage
thought from its practical tendency of pointing to
the future.

The real social function of philosophy lies in its
criticism of what is prevalent. That does not mean
superficial fault-finding with individual ideas or
conditions. as though a philosopher were a crank.

Nor does it mean that the philosopher complains about
this or that isolated condition and suggests remedies.

The chief aim of such criticism is to prevent mankind
from losing itself in those ideas and activities which
the existing organization of society instills into its
members. Man must be made to see the relationship
between his activities and what is achieved thereby.

between his particular existence and the general life
of society. between his everyday projects and the
great ideas which he acknowledges. Philosophy exposes
the contradiction in which man is entangled insofar as
he must attach himself to isolated ideas and concepts
in everyday life. My point can easily be seen from
the following. The aim of western philosophy in its
first complete form. in Plato. was to cancel and negate
one-sidedness in a more comprehensive system of thought.

in a system more flexible and better adapted to reality.

In the course of some of the dialogues. the teacher
demonstrates how his interlocutor is inevitably
involved in contradictions if he maintains his position
too one-sidedly. The teacher shows that it is necessar
to advance from this one idea to another. for each idea
receives its proper meaning only within the whole syste
of ideas. Consider. for example. the discussion of the
nature of courage in the Laches. When the interlocutor
clings to his definition that courage means not running
away from the battlefield. he is made to realize that
in certain situations. such behavior would not be a
virtue but foolhardiness. as when the whole army is
retreating and a single i~dividual attempts to win the
battle all by himself. The same applies to the idea
of Sophrosyne, inadequately translated as temperance or
moderation. Sophrosyne is certainly a virtue. but it
becomes dubious if it is made the sole end of action
and is not grounded in knowledge of all the other
virtues. Sophrosyne is conceivable only as a moment of
correct conduct within the whole. Nor is the case less
true for justice. Good will. the will to be just. is a
beautiful thing. But this subjective striving is not
enough. The title of justice does not accrue to actions
which were good in intention but failed in execution.

This applies to private life as well as to State
activity. Every measure. regardless of the good
intentions of its author. may become harmful unless it
is based on comprehensive knowledge and is appropriate
for the situation. Summum jus, says Hegel in a similar
context. may become summa ~nJuria. We may recall the
comparison drawn in the Gorgias. The trades of the
baker. the cook and the tailor are in themselves very
useful. But they may lead to injury unless hygienic
considerations determine their place in the lives of
the individual and of mankind. Habors. shipyards.

fortifications. and taxes are good in the same sense.

But if the happiness of the community is forgotten.

these factors of security and prosperity become
instruments of destruction.

Thus. in Europe. in the last decades before the
outbreak of the present war. we find the chaotic growth
of individual elements of social life: giant economic
enterprises. crushing taxes, an enormous increase in
armies and armaments. coercive discipline. one-sided
cultivation of the natural sciences. and so on.

Instead of rational organization of domestic and
international relations. there was the rapid spread of
certain portions of civilization at the expense of the
whole. One stood against the other. and mankind as a
whole was destroyed thereby. Plato’s demand that the
state should be ruled by philosophers does not mean
that these rulers should be selected from among the
authors of textbooks on logic. In business life. the
Fachgeist, the spirit of the specialist. knows only
profit. in military life power. and even in science only
success in a special discipline. When this spirit is
left unchecked. it typifies an anarchic state of
society. For Plato. philosophy meant the tendency to
bring and maintain the various energies and branches
of knowledge in a unity which would transform these
partially destructive elements into productive ones in
the fullest sense. This is the meaning of his demand
that the philosophers should rule. It means lack of
faith in the prevailing popular thought. Unlike the
latter. reason never loses itself in a single idea.

though that idea might be the correct one at any given
moment. Reason exists in the whole system of ideas.

in the progression from one idea to another. so that
every idea is understood and applied in its true
meaning. that is to say. in its meaning within the
whole of knowledge. Only such thought is rational

This dialectical conception has been applied to
the concrete problems of life by the great philosophers;
indeed. the rational organization of human existence
is the real goal of their philosophies. Dialectical
clarification and refinement of the conceptual world
which we meet in daily and scientific life. education
of the individual for right thinking and acting. has
as its goal the realization of the good. and. during
the flourishing periods of philosophy at least. that
$eant the rational organization of human society.

Though Aristotle. in his Metaphysics. regards the selfcontemplation of the mind. theoretical activity. as
the greatest happiness. he expressly states that this
happiness is possible only on a specific material
baSis. that is. under certain social and economic
conditions. Plato and Aristotle did not.believe with
Antisthenes and the Cynics that reason could forever
continue to develop in people who literally led a
dog’s life. nor thtt wisdom could go hand in hand with
misery. An equitable state of affairs was for them
the necessary condition for the unfolding of man’s
intellectual powers, and this idea lies at the basis
Qf all of Western humanism.

Anyone who studies modern philosophy. not merely
in the standard compendia, but through his own
historical researches. will perceive the social problem
to be a very decisive motive. I need only mention
Hobbes and Spinoza. The Tractatus TheologicoPoliticus of Spinoza was tlie only major work which he
published during his lifetime. With other thinkers.

Leibniz and Kant for instance. a more penetrating
analysis reveals the existence of social and historical
categories in the foundations of the most abstract
chapters of their works. their metaphysical and transcendental doctrimes. Without these categories. it is
impossible to understand or solve their problems. A
basic analysis of the content of purely theoretical
philosophical doctrines is therefore one of the most
interesting tasks of modern research in the history of
philosophy. But this task has little in Common with
the superficial correlation to which reference has
already been made. The historian of art of literature
has corresponding tasks.

Despite the important part played in philosophy
by the examination of social problems. expressed or
unexpressed, conscious or unconscious. let us again
emphasize that the social function of philosophy is
not to be found just there, but rather in the development of critical and dialectical thought. Philosophy
is the methodical and steadfast attempt to bring reason
into the world. Its precarious and controversial
position results from this. Philosophy is inconvenient.

obstinate. and with all that. of no immediate use –

in fact it is a source of annoyance. Philosophy lacks
criteria and compelling proofs. Investigation of
facts is strenuous, too, but one at least knows what to
go by. Man is naturally quite reluctant to occupy
himself with the confusion and entanglements of his
private and public life: he feels insecure and on
dangerous ground. In our present division of labor,
those prObleas are assigned to the philosopher or
theologian. Or, man consoles himself with the thought
that the discords are erely transient and that fUndamentally everything is all right. In the past century
of European history, it has been shown conclusively’

that, despite a seablance of security, .an has not
been able to arrange his life in accordance with his
conceptions of hUllani ty • There is a gulf between the
ide8$ by which men judge theaselves and the world on
the one hand, and he social reality which they
reproduce through their actions on the other hand.

Because of thiscircu.stance. all their conceptions
and judgments are two-sided and falsified. Now man
sees himself heading for disaster or already engulfed
in it. and in many countries he is so paralyzed by
approaching barbarisa that he is alaost ccapletely
unable to react and protect himself. He is the rabbit
before the hungry stoat. There are tiaes perhaps when
one can get along without theory. but this deficiency
lowers man and renders him helpless against force.

The fact that theory may rise into the rarified ataosphere of a hollow and bloodless idealisa or sink into
tiresca and eatpty phraseaongering. does not mean that
these forms are its true forms. As far as tedi~ and
banality are concerned. philosophy often finds its
match in the so-called investigation of facts. Today.

at any event. the whole historical dynaaic has placed
philosophy in the center of social actuality, and
social actuality in the center of philosophy.

Attention should be drawn to a particularly
important change which has taken place along these
lines since classical antiquity. Plato held that Eros
enables the sage to know the ideas.. He linked knowledge with a moral or psychological state. Eros, whiCh
in principle may exist at every historical moment.

For this reason. his proposed State appeared to hiJR as
an eternal ideal of reason. not bound up with any
historical condition. The dialogue on the Laws, then.

was a compromise, accepted as a preliminary step which
did not affect the eternal ideal. Plato’s State is an
Utopia. like those projected at the beginning of the
modern era and even in our own days. But Utopia is no
longer the proper philosophic form for dealing with the
problem of society. It has been recognized that the
contradictions in thought cannot be resolved by
purely theoretical reduction. That requires an
historical development beyond which we canpot leap in
thought. Knowledge is bound up not only with psychological and moral conditions, but also with social
conditions. The enunciation and description of
perfect political and social forms out of pure ideas is
neither meaningful nor adequate.

Utopia as the crown of philosophical systems is
therefore replaced by a scientific description of conr
~rete relationships and tendencies, which can lead to
an improvement of hlDllan life. This change has the most
far-reaching consequences for the structure and meaning
of philosophical theory. Modern philosophy shares with
the ancients their high opinion of the potentialities
of the hlDllan race, their optimism over man’s potential
achievements. The proposition that man is by nature
incapable of living a good life or of achieving the
highest levels of social ‘organization, has been rejec~ed
by the greatest thinkers. Let us recall Kant’s famou~
remarks about; Plato’s Utopia: “The Platonic Republic
has been supposed to be a striking example of purely
imaginary perfection. It has become a byword, as
something that could exist in the brain of an idle
thinker only, and Bruckner thinks it ridiculous that
Plato could have said that no prince could ever goverp
.ell, unless he participated in the ideas. We should
40 better, however, to follow up this thought and
~ndeavour (where that excellent philosopher leaves us . .

without his guidance) to place it in a clearer light ~y~

our own efforts, rather than to throw it aside as useless, under the miserable and very dangerous pretext of
its impracticability •.• For nothing can be more
.u.schievous and more unworthy a philosopher than the
vulgar appeal to what is called adverse experience.

which possibly might never have existed, if at the
proper time institutions had been framed according to
those ideas, and not according to crude ‘concepts,
which, because they were derived frOll experience only.

have .arred all good intentions.” [2]
Since Plato, philosophy bas never deserted the
true idealisa that it is possible to introduce reason
aong individuals and among nations. It has only
discarded the false idealism that it is sufficient to
set up the picture of perfection with no regard for
the way in which it is to be attained. In modern times,
loyalty to the highest ideas has been linked, in a
world opposed to them, with the sober desire to know
how these ideas can be realized on earth.

Before concluding. let us return once more to a
aisunderstanding which has already been mentioned.

in philosophy. unlike business and politics. criticism
does not mean the condemnation of a thing, grlDllbling
about SOlle measure or other, or mere negation and
repudiation. Under certain conditions, criticism may
actually take the destructive turn; there are examples
in the Hellenistic age. By criticism. we mean that
intellectual, and eventually practical, effort which
is not satisfied to accept the prevailing ideas,
actions, and social conditions unthinkingly and from
mere habit; effort which aims to coordinate the
individual sides of social life with each other and
wi th the general ide~ and aims of> the epoch, to
deduce thea genetically, to distinguish the appearance
from the essence, to examine the foundations of things,
in sh~t, really to know them. Hegel, the philosopher
to whom we are most indebted in many respects, was so
far reaoved from any querulous repudiation of specific
conditions, that the King of Prussia caned him to
Berlin to inculcate the students with proper loyalty
and to iBmunize them against political opposition.

Hegel did his best in that direction, and declared
the Prussian state to be the embodiment of the divine
Idea on earth. But thought is a peculiar factor. To
justify the Prussian state, Hegel had to teach man to
overcome the one-sidedness and limitations of ordinary
hlDllan understanding and to see the inter-relationship
between all conceptual and real relations. Further,
he had to teach man to construe human history in its
complex and contradictory structure, to search out the
ideas of freedom and justice in the lives of nations,
to know how nations perish when their principle proves
inadequate and the time is ripe for new social forms.

The fact that Hegel thus had ~o train his students in
theoretical thought, had highly eqUivocal consequences
for the Prussian state. In the long run, Hegel’s work
did more serious harm to that reactionary institution
than all the use the latter could derive from his
formal glorification. Reason is a poor ally of reaction. A little less than ten years after Hegel’s death
(his chair remained unoccupied that long) the King
appointed a successor to fight the “dragon’s teeth
of Hegelian pantheism”, and the “arrogance and
fanaticism of his school”.

We cannot say that, in the history of philosophy,
the thinkers who had the most progressive effect were
those who found most to criticize or who were always
on hand with so-called practical programs. Things are
not that simple. A philosophical doctrine has many
sides, and each side may have the most diverse historical effects. Only in exceptional historical periods,
such as the French Enlightenment, does philosophy itself
become politics. In that period the word philosophy
did not call to mind logic and epistemology so much as
attacks on the Church hierarchy and on an inhuman
judicial system. The removal of certain preconceptions
was virtually equivalent to opening the gates of the

I Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. by F. Max
MUller, New York 1920, pp.257-258

new world. Tradition and faith were two of the most
powerful bulwarks of the old regine. and the philosophical attackes constituted an immediate historical
action. Today. however. it is not a matter of eliminating a creed. for in the totalitarian states. where the
noisiest appeal is made to heroism and a lofty Weltanschauung, neither faith nor WeltanschaQung rule. but
Qnly dull indifference and the apathy of the individual
~owards destiny and to what comes from above.


Qur task is rather to ensure that. in the future. the
capacity for theory and for action which derives from
theory will never again disappear. even in some coming
period of peace when the daily routine may tend to
allow the whole problem to be forgotten once more. Our
task is continually to struggle. lest mankind becomes
completely disheartened by the frightful happenings of
the present. lest man’s belief in a worthy. peaceful and
happy direction of society perishes from the earth.


Is pbUosopb, reaD,


As almost any philosopher assigned the task of
teaching the history of his subject is ready to admit
it is pointless simply to present the student with a ‘

chronological sequence of doctrines. with what &
succession of celebrities taught of “held”. Pointless
because there is nothing the student can do with such
doctrines in isolation except burden his memory and
bore his examiners. We must. we frequently say.

correlate them with the problems they were designed
to solve. Suppose. however. that the problems in
question are those of determining whether we may not
be dre~ing all the time. or whether we can have any
knowledge ofa world other than ourselves. Does it
not still remain to be shown that we are doing more
that teaching him an esoteric game. which has no
obvious connection with the major concerns of humanity. and the value of which as intellectual exercise
could arguably be realised equally well. and with a
greater practical bonus. by a course in mathematics?

Clearly, the best way to meet the implied critic~
ism here would be to demonstrate that the problems a~
solutions together have an important function in the
general economy of human thought and activity in the
period of history under discussion – or. better still
in any period. And doubtless we should be willing

to accept the challenge of mastering the requisite
history outside our own speciality. It remains.

however, an open question to what extent we can
demonstrate this of, say, the time-honoured texts
prescribed for courses on ”modern philosophy”,
Cartesian and post-Cartesian. We may be forced to
admit that a substantial part of their content was
superfluous to, or parasitic on, the development of
scientific research; and that while there undoubtedly
is something of the first importance for that ‘

development which can properly be called philosophy,
our primary sources for its study lie elsewhere.

But, if so, then so much the worse for our standard

Consider one or two ways in which we might. in
teaching our modern philosophy course, try to avoid
crea~ing an impression of misused ingenuity or fantasy.

We m1ght, for example, portray Descartes and his
successors as deeply preoccupied with a problem of
authority, i.e. of what is to count as sufficient
grounds for accepting any statement as true. We
could suggest obvious enough reasons why this problem
should have had a particular urgency in seventeenthcentury Europe (the conflicting claims of rival
religious institutions, the accelerating development
of natural science, the appeal of quasi-mathematical
systems … ). And we can go on to make the quite
general point that the acceptance, in any historical
context, of any body of statements as true presuppose~
some solution to our problem of authority, even though
it may be adopted without any notable intellectual

Or we might take up Professor Mundle’s suggestion
that one worthwhile task of philosophy. which he would 14
apparently like us to resume, has traditionally been

that of exploring. and mapping, alternative categorical systems. “The exploration of ways of relating
categories to each other. of alternative categorical
systeas. has in the past been one of the main pursuits
of aetaphysics •.• ” – the purpose of any such system
being that ” •.• it should apply to, fit and aake
sense of non-linguistic facts, what is currently
known or believed about the world and ourselves”. (1)
Both these suggestions aay be inte~esting enough
in themselves but, ~en if they serve to throw sOlle
light on what Descartes and his successors were
actually doing, they scarcely suffice to vindicate its
importance. To begin with, as the passage just quoted
.~esexplicit. we are presenting philosophy as an
activity which starts only when the serious business
of research, of finding out about the world and our
relations with it, has already yielded results in the
form of ready-for.llated statements and> established
facts. Given these, the philosopher then agonises,
r~ther self-consciously it would seem, over which of
the statements, he can conscientiously “accept”, or
elaborates alternative systems designed to “apply”, in
sOlle sense not very clearly specified, to facts
already discovered by sa.eone else. And aeanwhile,
prestaably, the develo~ent of natural science. and
its interactions with the general life of the ca..uni ty in which it developes, contime unaffectEd which still leaves philosophy very JlUch in the
position of an intellectual luxury, as activity
dependent, as it were, on first-order enquiry, without
contributing anything essential to it.

Characteristically, philosophies in this sense
are exposed to the paradoxes of relativiSll. We aight
for example, list ~ range of answers, actually adopted
Or aerely possible, to the problem of authority.

Suppose, then, sameone asks naievely: How are we to
tel~ wh~ch one is right? We can only offer in reply,
or 1n 11eu of reply, a thoroughgoing relativistic
thesis – very briefly, sOllething like the following:

To make a case for or against any proposed solution
(e.g. on the grounds that its adoption would expose
~s to the risk of self-contradiction or subjectivism)
1S to accept as’true whatever statements we propose to
use as evidence in support of our case. But we don’t
accept these at random; in accepting them we have in
effect already adopted, and are using, one ‘solution.

It follows that all enquirers (ourselves included. of
course) must adopt at least one solution without any
evidence whatsoever – though presumably we could trace
causes of such adoptions, educational background etc.

It follows also that if different enquirers or schools
of enquiry adopt different solutioBS. they might
assign truth-values among a given range of statements
in ~ays different from each other but all equally

Nonetheless, relativism requires an answer.

1be argument just outlined is not obviously fallacious,
nor is its application in the history of philosophy
tnvariably unconvincing, even if some of its consequences are disturbingly paradoxical. (The historian
pf philosophy could sometimes be forgiven for taking
up something like the stance of an existentialist
hero. surveying, from the vantage-point of disillusion,
the earnest endeavours of those less conscious of
their own arbitrariness, and from there demonstrating,
pot the importance of their activity, but the self1



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