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Strange Days for Philosophers

COMMENT
Strange Days for Philosophers
Geoffrey Thomas

Philosophers appear to have an unquiet certainty that
something is happening to their subject. What I don’t think
is happening is the “end” of philosophy. Rather there is a
confusion of two things which are very easily detachable.

As a distinctive activity philosophy is ineliminable at a
certain level of reflection; as an autonomous discipline it
has, in my view, virtually no future. I want here to
explain and justify that distinction; and, using some ideas
drawn from my experience of running adult education
classes, to show its connection with radical philosophy.

In analytical philosophy the philosopher’s self-image is
that of the “conceptual policeman”. Philosophy is
autonomous for the analytical philosopher because it
stands apart from other activities and examines the
categorial frameworks on which they rely. It is “secondorder”. It has no independent subject-matter and no prior
commitment to the internal coherence or mutual
compatibility of the frameworks on which its rigorous
scrutiny is directed. But this independent concern with the
“logical good conduct” of other disciplines is the merest
pretension, and this for two reasons.

One is just that philosophy ineluctably has its roots in
personal activity and experience. A philosophical
problem needs to be felt; it is something which arises
when one is reflective at a certain level about an activity
or experience in which oneself is involved. The
possibility of “knowing other mine.’:,”, or the question “how
is knowledge of the past possible since, quite plainly, in
some sense the past doesn’t exist?” are problems apt to
present themselves to a reflective historian. They
worried me; history was one of the roads that led me into
philosophy. On the analytical approach history is
regarded as a “discipline” which other people “do”, one
with a categorial framework which philosophy examines.

So in its philosophy of history analytical philosophy
offers fragments and scraps of concepts torn from their
proper posi t ion and context. r 0 put things the right way
round: philosophy grows from monitoring one’s own
activity or experience. But the analytical philosopher has
no real comprehension of, or use for, this personal
element in the nature of philosophy. At this point it might
be useful to say that the view of philosophy as standing
apart from other disciplines and impinging critically on
them only in reviewing their categorial frameworks, isn’t
a view of it really as second-order. The arithmetic dips
below that. Second-order is a person’s reflection about
their own activity or experience: what analytical
philosophy does is to abstract from the nuances of that
reflection. So emerge “the problems of philosophy”,
analytical philosophy’s substitute for the real thing.

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Analytical philosophy has an alias. It is also armchair
philosophy; and the second reason which checks the myth
of philosophy as autonomous is that the comfortable days
of armchair philosophy are over. Philosophy as the
elucidation of fine distinctions of “ordinary language” or,
earlier in G. E. Moore, as the analysis of “common sense”,
is inadequate even to the traditionally non-technical
areas of ethics and political philosophy: areas to which,
as the textbooks say, nobody is a stranger since any
activity involves one in “issues of integrity and principle”.

Even here, increasingly, the issues cannot be settled on
general philosophical grounds. Major complications in
moral topics are opening a gulf between the inexpert
philosopher and the requirements of informed discussion.

The topic of animal experiments will give an idea of what
I mean.

The “high priori” road is open to anybody. An armchair
philosopher is free to hold that it is never right to cause
suffering to animals purely for human benefit. Or to
adopt a utilitarian approach on which the morality of
animal dissection in medical experiments is to be decided
by the arithmetic of human welfare and animal pain (not
that such a philosopher would attempt the calculation).

But if computer modelling techniques can replace animal
experiments, this deprives the vivisectionists of any ground
on which they might plausibly even try to justify the
dissection of animals. How far this replacement can go how far computers can simulate animals’ complete
biological systems and the effects of drugs on animal
tissues – is no matter for armchair decision about “what we
would say” or the deliverances of “common sense”. The
moral philosopher needs to ascertain some facts about
micro-computers, multiplexors, chart recorders and
programming. And here I would not be misunderstood. It
is not a question of talking to experts for a crossfertilization of philosophy by discussion. Philosophy
itself needs to become expert.

Autonomy is a myth, but philosophy is still a distinctive
activity. It arises when one asks something like the
reflective historian’S question about the reality of the
past; and I cannot see that, as such an ‘activity, philosophy
is overshadowed by daunting question-marks. The “end” of
philosophy has been envisaged in many ways. For one,
there is the familiar picture of philosophy as the home of
inchoate disciplines which finally emerge as independent
studies. So philosophy once encompassed physics and
psychology. But doesn’t it still include philosophy of
science and philosophical psychology? Once independent
of philosophy, a discipline can still provoke philosophical
questions for those who engage in its activities. Nor does

the Wittgensteinian “end” of philosophy appear remotely
plausible with its view that philosophical problems arise
only when our relationship to language is skewed. The
reason I take this view as a termination of philosophy isn’t
that it suggests (post-Tractatus) a halt to philosophy as
activity; only that it makes philosophy look different, and
trivial. The linguistic bias is surely wrong. A
philosophical problem can be generated not simply when
language “goes on holiday” but when a model or metaphor
is wrongly transposed (as in the doctrine that knowledge
has “foundations”). The real tragedy is that Wittgenstein
fails to exploit his own insight that language, “what we
would say”, is deeply and intimately blended with “forms
of life”. The exploration of that insight could link very
easily with the historical specificity sought and practised
by radical philosophy.

But is even historical specificity, the embeddedness of
philosophy (its methods and problems) in specific “forms of
life”, enough to secure its future? If philosophy is
specific to forms of life, what of a form of life which
ceased to generate philosophy? Marx’s understanding of
the “end” of philosophy rests on the idea of a form of
social organization from which the causal conditions of
philosophical puzzlement are absent. Since such a form
of social organization isn’t exactly nudging the horizon,
it’s unlikely to be the source of present worries. The
question remains: is there a real possibility that with the
coming of Marx’s communist society, philosophy would
“end” with the removal of the present social causes. Why
should it? In ethics and political philosophy, the areas to
which this idea is most obviously applicable, the case is
doubtful. If the classless society wre one of post-scarcity
abundance then problems of distributive justice would
disappear with the conditions that produced them; this part
of ethics would vanish. But marxism speaks principally to
the removal of a particular source of fragility and tension
in human relationships – the class antagonisms of past and
present society. One would still have to choose what kind
of person to be, and work at relationships with other
people in light of their own needs and ideals. The moral
life would remain, however transformed, and with it the
ethical investigation of choices of action and the conduct

of life.

Then we have three conclusions. Philosophy is
unlikely to “end”; it is not autonomous; and it is a
distinctive activity. But how do we get from philosophy to
radical philosophy? What mediates that particular
transition?

The failure of autonomy shows how philosophy can be
radical. If philosophy emerges from personal activity and
experience, it emerges from our activity and experience as
radicals. The following example points this up; it shows
also how the notion of the “radical” needs careful
handling. In 1984-85 I ran an adult education class. The
subject was ethics; and I discussed, not abstract topics
(“rights”, “justice”, “freedom”) but moral issues and social
problems: lesbian and gay rights in the current state of
English law, the right to employment (work as praxis and
self-discovery), animal rights and the testing of drugs,
justice and the economic deprivation of the Third World.

Very often students introduced the discussion, locating the
week’s topic within their own activity or experience
(through personal knowledge, the experience of people
they knew, their work, etc.).

The discussion was radical because the conclusion in
each case was that the present condition of society was
badly flawed. But topics were always subject to
interpretations that could not be reconciled. Radicalism
never meant that as a group we could agree on the “root”,
a single main cause that produced all the social flaws our
discussions showed up week by week. There is a lesson in
this: that lines of opposition can run together on
particular issues, no matter if they diverge towards
infinity on everything else. A marxist, Nonconformist
socialist, existentialist, liberation theologian, can all
recognize that women are subject to systematic social
injustice. Anarchist and liberal can agree on the
inadequacy of any available theory of political obligation
to the social complexities of a modern state. Radical
philosophy can involve a “rainbow of opposition”, the kind
of background on which greens have organized the politics
of ecology. Such diversity should be the mar~ of. our own
journal of Radical Philosophy.

RADICAL PHILOSOPHY CONFERENCE
November 1stl2nd 1986
Polytechnic of Central London, New Cavendish Street, London W1

Philosophies of the Left Since 1968
Plenary Sessions on: The Legacy of ’68; Feminism as a Problem for Philosophy; Marxism and Pluralism; Socialism,
Humanism, Philosophy.

Workshops on: Eastern Europe and the Future of Socialism; Mass Media and the Question of Ideology; Farewell to the
Proletariat?; Socialism and Work; Capitalism and CriSis; From Modernity to Postmodernity?; The New Right; Radical
Periodicals and their Readers; Marxism and Morality; Philosophy and the Third World.

Speakers include: Martin Barker, Geoff Bennington, Ted Benton, Andrew Collier, Peter Dews, Jean Grimshaw, Charles
Landry, Kathleen Lennon, Loretta Loach, Stephen Lukes, John Mepham, Mandy Merck, Istvan Meszaros, Francis Mulhern,
Sue Q’Sullivan, Jonathan Ree, Michael Rustin, Sean Sayers, Tony Skillen, Kate Soper, John Urry, David Widgery,
Elizabeth Wilson.

Conference Fee: £10 (waged), £2 (unwaged)
Advance Registration and further details: Peter Osborne (RP Conference), Middlesex Polytechnic, Faculty of
Social Science, Queensway, Enfield, Middlesex, EN3 4SF.

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