Philosophy is Dead – Long Live Philosophy!
7 October 2022
Aérophone Bambara, Institut d'ethnologie de Strasbourg; Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The question of the end of philosophy is essentially the question of its self-narration and construction as “western” or “continental”, and in that it is a political question which resonates with other such movements in the academia. The discussions following the publication of the texts by Jean-Luc Nancy, Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan show that without an enquiry into the ways in which such histories were constituted in the recent past a way out of the crisis of philosophy will not appear. The “geopolitics” which has seized and made use of this recent occidentalized history of philosophy can be opposed by politically aware de-canonization, practicing philosophy without tradition, and raising alternative thought forms including “Bambara thought”.
Continental philosophy is in crisis. With the last few decades spent mainly on a “great figures” approach, this tradition is having to come to terms with the fact that most of its luminaries have now passed away. Derrida’s death in 2004 sent shockwaves through the community and seems to have functioned as marker for the generation before my own (I was not yet an undergraduate when it happened). For the rest of us, 2021 will have been a huge year as it marked the loss of Jean-Luc Nancy, one of the few remaining giants of this tradition who was engaged in the task of thinking to the very end. A friend of mine recently ran a seminar with the title “contemporary continental philosophy” in which every single author on the reading list was dead. A strange understanding of “contemporary”! The course was well-received and I have no doubt the students learned a lot, but it illustrates the scale of the problem we face. At some point, the great sequence that began in France in the 1960s will have to be thought of as another period in the history of philosophy, but our tradition does not seem ready to make that transition just yet. For this to happen, philosophy may first have to take another step, or make another beginning.
But it is not only the literal death of its protagonists that indicates trouble ahead. There is another sense in which this tradition risks metaphorically dying in the contemporary intellectual climate, and this sense is already indicated by the moniker “continental philosophy”. It is assumed to be so obvious which continent is being referred to that it need not even be named; everyone is supposed to know that it could only be Europe. I cannot see how it will be possible for this tradition to open itself up to the tasks of thinking today – which involve, increasingly, global problems – while retaining a name that practically declares a European superiority. Students have no time for this, even here in the West; enrolment in these courses is down in proportion to others, but I am convinced this has to do with the title more than the content, which seems to resonate with young people as well as ever. I have always preferred the name “European philosophy” because it at least says what it means, rather than smugly assuming that the reader shares its view of Europe as the continent that need not be named; but it still obviously remains a limitation for those of us who would like this line of thinking to become less parochially European. To keep this tradition alive, to stop it from becoming history prematurely, we urgently need a new name (the usual, too-easy trick of referring to a “post-continental” philosophy obviously won’t do).
The idea of “the West”, Dwivedi reminds us, “is a very recently invented fact”, and even the idea of philosophy as having a Greek birthplace is only a couple of hundred years old, virtually unknown before the late eighteenth century.
Some of this, to be sure, results from the way in which continental philosophy has inherited a very particular story about philosophy from the great German traditions in the history of philosophy that came before it. In their contributions to this discussion, Nancy, Dwivedi, and Mohan have all emphasized Heidegger’s importance in setting up a certain account of philosophy’s past that has proven surprisingly durable within post-Heideggerian continental philosophy. Elements of this conception are clearly linked to geo-political considerations that seem to have persisted in spite of our strong critiques of Heidegger’s politics, such as the supposed special connection between Germany and ancient Greece, or the construction of a conception of “Western European thinking” that risks becoming a monolith, not doing justice to all the dissenting or minor traditions it holds within itself, never mind those that come from other parts of the world it does not consider. The idea of “the West”, Dwivedi reminds us, “is a very recently invented fact”, and even the idea of philosophy as having a Greek birthplace is only a couple of hundred years old, virtually unknown before the late eighteenth century. (1) It was certainly foreign to the Greeks themselves, who tended to emphasise their own continuity with previous thinkers, even “barbarian” ones about whom they could be quite disparaging. (2)
We should not assume, then, that overcoming this influence will be an easy task. Just as continental philosophy has been declaring its own end ever since Hegel, as Nancy reminds us (3), it has also been declaring, just as insistently, a break with Heidegger. This has taken many forms: the transformation of Destruktion into deconstruction (Derrida), a felt need to escape the “climate” of his thinking (Levinas), the necessity that Being and Time be rewritten from the standpoint of our being-with one another (Nancy). These were all attempts to twist free of Heidegger’s influence, but in the spirit of what is best in continental philosophy they did so by being engaging and creative works of philosophy in their own right. If continental philosophy has been “held hostage” by Heidegger’s corpus, as our editorial suggests, then the task is not merely to criticise it – after all, it has received its fair share of criticism by now! – but instead to make the attempt to begin again, under our new and very different conditions.
But it is not only Heidegger. Other philosophers, especially German ones, have played an important part in this construction of an unduly limited version of what we understand philosophy to be. Though Hegel has been an antagonist to so many in this tradition, his developmental tale of the history of philosophy – a kind of Bildungsroman of thinking that culminates in philosophy’s end or completion in the distinctive sense in which he understands it – has also played a significant role in shaping both the illustrious names that populate our conception of the history of philosophy and its rather limited geography. Though their accounts have a very different valence, to the point where they are often described as mirror images of one another (the sunny optimism of Hegelian progress compared with gloomy Heideggerian visions of abandonment and decline) the stories they tell are not as dissimilar as one might expect given the vast differences in theory. The geography is virtually unchanged, the list of mighty names almost the same.
And in fact, if one looks over to our friends in analytic philosophy – a tradition born out of a reaction against Hegel, and in which Heidegger’s history of philosophy has had close to zero influence – we see a surprisingly similar list of main characters. Peter Park’s Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy illustrates this through a wonderfully jarring juxtaposition. Pointing to one of Heidegger’s more notorious pronouncements about the alleged tautology of the phrase “Western European Philosophy” and its supposed birth in pre-Socratic Greece, he notes that if one opens Bertrand Russell’s History of Philosophy – perhaps the most influential, certainly the most famous work of this genre from the analytic tradition – one will read there, too, that “philosophy begins with Thales”. (4) It would be hard to overstate the chasm that separates the two philosophers, Heidegger and Russell, and how they understand the task of a history of philosophy. And yet the geography, and even some of the founding myths are the same. As Mohan points out, the laden notion of “Greek” is already an imposition bound up in some way with the worst of German politics (“the Greeks never knew themselves as Greeks”, he writes), and it is anyway a nation-statist fiction to refer to the pre-Socratics this way, since they hailed from all across the eastern Mediterranean. (5)
If Nietzsche’s madman were to be reborn today, and ran out into one of the major North American conferences in search of philosophy, his cry would be: “philosophy is dead, and we have killed it, you and I. All of us here are its murderers.” As philosophically seductive as these constructions of the history of philosophy have been for post-Hegelian, post-Nietzschean, and post-Heideggerian continental philosophy, they must be allowed to die so philosophy may live. Here is Mohan: “if the concept of history and the history of philosophy constructed under it are contaminated by geo-politics, then that philosophy must be allowed to end”; Dwivedi: “This construction of ‘philosophy’s beginning’ formed the durable condition, not for philosophy, but for a recent, approximately three hundred year old auto-bio-graphy for philosophy established in certain philosophers’ texts. It is one that has also, as it should have much earlier, arrived at its end”; and Janardhanan: “philosophy under the influence of geopolitics should be allowed to have its own ‘euthanasia’.” (6) This is not a call to “cancel” Plato, say, or Leibniz, whatever that might be imagined to mean, but to abandon an over-simplifying narrative about philosophy and “the West” that has been allowed to persist long past its expiration date. To speak in Deleuze’s idiom, it is the call for a deterritorialisation of philosophy.
Do these looming problems portend the imminent demise of philosophy as such? Not at all! Philosophy is not going anywhere – of that we can be sure. It may face threats, even severe ones, to its current form of existence in the university setting: budgets may be cut, departments may close, but this hardly constitutes a death sentence for it. Much of what truly merits the venerable name of “philosophy” today – involving, as Heidegger puts it in the essay whose re-reading sparked this debate, a “transformation of thinking” rather than a mere “propositional statement about a matter at stake” (7) – already takes place outside of the officially sanctioned, appropriately credentialised spaces we call departments of philosophy. These places are as much subject to the technical imperatives that increasingly rule over the whole world than any other workplace. Much of what comes out of them, as Dwivedi points out, already takes on an “industrial essence”; the production of articles as an assembly line in which each worker is supposed to consider just one tiny part of the whole. (8) While students retain some freedom to be carried along the meandering paths of thinking, their teachers, for the most part, must follow the paths laid out for them by the competitive neoliberal university. Everyone knows that the major institutions of the current system – extractive for-profit publishers, tenure, anonymous peer review, the exploitation of a disempowered and increasingly disillusioned teaching workforce – are not fit for purpose. Those who take “philosopher” as their job title are not always those best placed to carry out original thinking today.
As philosophically seductive as these constructions of the history of philosophy have been for post-Hegelian, post-Nietzschean, and post-Heideggerian continental philosophy, they must be allowed to die so philosophy may live. Here is Mohan: “if the concept of history and the history of philosophy constructed under it are contaminated by geo-politics, then that philosophy must be allowed to end”.
But in spite of these many little deaths, philosophy lives on. The question, for those of us who still see themselves as part of this tradition in some sense, is what we should do with ourselves in this funereal period of transition in which the older vision is being laid to rest. Nancy’s text expresses a frustration, even a flash of anger at the current state of philosophy, and he does not spare even apparently well-meaning attempts that have been made to take a different direction. At their worst, recent attempts to revitalise philosophy have been mere repetitions of banalities that everybody already knows: “good words are given out about an ideal – a better, more rational humanity, more open to all and to everyone”; “violence and injustice are condemned, egoism is condemned, and the common good or being-in-common must be rethought”. (9) Who could disagree with any of that? But if attempts to resurrect philosophy rest on nice-sounding but commonplace principles that everyone agrees with when enunciated at this maximal level of abstraction, then they are not the transformative thinking they think themselves to be but a mere moralizing, the “lukewarm waters of common sense.” We’ve all seen it; today, everybody claims to be revolutionizing philosophy, and yet more often than not the revolutionary programme involves nothing more than restating ideas that we all agree with and have heard a hundred times before. This is in part a result of the technical imperatives just mentioned: the easiest way to crank out peer-reviewed articles is to follow the crowd, and right now the crowd likes the language and aesthetics of revolutionary self-criticism.
At their best, though, some of the trends in recent philosophy that Nancy alludes to seem to me more interesting and worthwhile than this. Though I quite agree that what goes under names like “philosophy of management” can be the worst kind of ideology masquerading as philosophy, I am not as confident that there is no such thing as “Bambara philosophy”; or at least, I would not put these tendencies together. (10) Whether or not one uses terms like “philosophy”, “metaphysics”, or “religion” to describe this thinking – and there are serious questions about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of each of these words in which their very sense is at stake – it raises real questions about the cosmos and our place in it, the nature of creation (unfinished, according to this tradition), the presence of the dead in the world of the living, the threefold division of all beings into “mute inanimates”, “immobile inanimates”, and “mobile animates”, and so on. We know that Modern European philosophy is overwhelmingly born out of the experience of European monotheisms (including atheism); the coming deterritorialization of philosophy will inevitably destabilise some of its inherited concepts, distinctions, and schema. For example, Bambara philosophy or Bambara thinking – an oral tradition that has preferred to remain one – involves a sustained meditation on the relationship between speech and writing, but in a completely different sense than it has had within Western metaphysics, even that version of it which has passed through deconstruction. (11) Whether or not one calls this “philosophy” does not seem to me the most pressing issue; this thinking raises questions that are of abiding interest to the philosopher, and the same cannot be said of the so-called philosophy of management, business ethics or whatever else it may be, which degrade the name of philosophy whenever they call it in to dignify the latest dressed up justifications of capitalist exploitation.
So: change is in the air, and yet it has proven much easier to noisily declare oneself in favor of it than it has been to actually bring it about. It is nothing to philosophy to critique itself, even strongly: that has been a central part of its self-definition since Kant if not earlier. But to bring about a genuinely transformative rupture in thinking – well, that is not so easy! Whatever comes next must be up to the task, equal in its speculative daring to the Heideggerian, Hegelian, even Derridean accounts it is trying to move past. These are the stakes of formulations like “another beginning” or “anastasis of philosophy”; one should never predict what the results will be, but the ambition is there, the problem well-posed.
What characteristics may we expect, then, from this philosophy of the future? Coming out of a period like the one we have just been through, my sense is that we will see a tremendous eclecticism, in which we will hear about many more “minor” figures than was typical of the previous sequence. At its worst, this will involve a continuation of all the bad characteristics of the mediatized “reign of opinion” criticized by Nancy. We are already seeing, for example, the rehabilitation of high Tory, monarchist early modern women philosophers in the name of inclusivity; this is the mirror of a media culture in which the late queen Elizabeth II can be celebrated as an “example and expectation to generations of women and girls, helping us move to a world where opportunity opens for many more”. (12) That’s right: the hereditary monarchy is a symbol of opportunity! But at its best, this mass project that philosophy is currently undertaking will unearth more of the countless hidden treasures that lie buried within the archives, and which have indeed been unjustly ignored for all the reasons we are familiar with. Some will turn out to be fool’s gold and not worth the trouble, but that is an inevitable part of any process of decanonisation and recanonisation. It is not a bad problem to have, so long as we are willing to put in the work and be patient with one another.
As this process continues to unfold, young philosophers will feel less and less need to legitimate their interest in non-canonical works by comparing them to established classics. We have come out on the other side of a period where one had to justify an interest in Fanon, say, by comparing him to a Sartre or a Merleau-Ponty; today, students are as likely to say that they are interested in Sartre and Merleau-Ponty because they are trying to understand Fanon. Instead of emphasizing the similarities between the less known and the more known philosopher, one tends to hear more today about their differences, which seems to me to mark a step in the right direction. It is not especially philosophically interesting to hear that some non-canonical figure writing in the Mediaeval period says some things that are similar to Aristotle, for example. If they are just saying the same things as The Philosopher – someone whose central place in any future canon is unassailable – then why the need to read their work at all? Much more philosophically interesting are the differences; that way, one gets to what is genuinely unique and new about the ideas of the unfamiliar name.
Just as continental philosophy has been declaring its own end ever since Hegel, as Nancy reminds us, it has also been declaring, just as insistently, a break with Heidegger.
One of the worst aspects of the old, dying standard story is the way it tried to corral all philosophers into a series of set positions – empiricist or rationalist, materialist or idealist, realist or anti-realist – that were fully laid out in advance. This classificatory endeavor, more reminiscent of Linnaean taxonomy than philosophy, actually prevents readers from having a philosophical encounter with the texts, since it determines in advance not only all the questions they might pose, but also all the answers that may legitimately be given. Like Borges’s Library of Babel, all possible thoughts must already exist somewhere, hidden in the unthinking grid itself, waiting to be discovered; the model of philosophical progress is filling out the empty squares in logical space. A particularly maddening example of this tendency is a series of surveys carried out by the social media platform PhilPeople, in which they asked a long list of questions about longstanding philosophical issues, listed the standard answers to them, and then reported how professional philosophers employed by Anglophone philosophy departments answered by percentage. (13) We learn, for example, that 46% of philosophers think the principle of sufficient reason is false, that 63% believe that ought implies can, and that 61% prefer analytic/rational reconstruction to contextual/historicist approaches in the history of philosophy. Obviously, philosophy is destroyed in an enterprise like this! The possibility that one might, for example, have a position that is not described by a pre-existing label is ruled out in advance, captured only by the awkward option of “other” (I was especially surprised to see that “other” did not generally score highly). The choice of survey respondents also raises obvious questions: why only Anglophone professionals? If this is what we mean by philosophy today, then it is truly dead – and it deserves its sorry fate. But in reality, there have always been many more problems, characters, positions, tendencies, and even movements within philosophy than is recognized in standard histories and the reductive, over-simplifying classifications they so often use. We would do well to let a thousand flowers bloom, and I believe they will in the coming years.
If this eclectic philosophy of the future is to preserve some relationship to what was called continental philosophy, then there are some places within that tradition it could take some inspiration, which may help avoid the worst of these tendencies. One prodigiously inventive example of this – and the philosopher I have personally found most useful in thinking through these issues in recent years – is Foucault. Though he is now as canonical a philosopher as they come, cited and re-cited more than anybody else in the humanities, it is striking that his general approach to the history of philosophy seems to have had so little impact on our own philosophical practice. Foucault, more than any other philosopher I know, found a way to philosophise without the canon. The hoary old story about the history of philosophy, “from Thales to Heidegger”, is quite simply absent from his thinking; it plays no role whatsoever. He goes out of his way to avoid its familiar names; when approved canonical figures do appear in Foucault’s archaeologies and genealogies – Descartes, Hobbes, Kant – it is to explain either why they were not part of the transformation he is talking about, or to emphasise a minor passage or text that can form part of his own account only because it goes against “official” interpretations of their thinking. The major historical ruptures, in his varying accounts of them, involve figures like Cuvier, Quesnay, and Migne. The first great theoretician of biopolitics, according to Foucault, is not Rousseau, Smith, or even Aristotle, but the virtually unknown French proto-demographer Jean-Baptiste Moheau, the first one to have developed techniques for modelling the size of the population through birth rates and death rates. (14)
Even though “biopolitics” has proven an extraordinarily successful concept that is often discussed, philosophy does not seem to have followed Foucault’s lead in de-emphasising the already famous figures he seems to be encouraging us to ignore in our understanding of this concept, or in reading the less known figures he seems to be attempting to nudge our attention towards. A search for Moheau and biopolitics turns up just one article written in Bulgarian, where one can find scores of studies in countless languages that relate it to Plato, Marx, or virtually any other well-known theorist. Even as Foucault himself has become about as canonized as it is possible to be, this aspect of his thinking has had almost no impact, even on those who write on him or see themselves as continuing in the kind of work he did. We have found it easier to abandon universals than we have to think without the guard-rails of the familiar canon. If our goal is to open up philosophy and the history of philosophy to other people and places, then we simply must become more comfortable working on “lesser” figures, and on questions or problems that are not immediately familiar, without having to immediately relate them to a standard story whose centrality is thereby strengthened even further. Foucault gives us as good a model as I know of how to do this; his texts are an excellent training ground.
We have come out on the other side of a period where one had to justify an interest in Fanon, say, by comparing him to a Sartre or a Merleau-Ponty; today, students are as likely to say that they are interested in Sartre and Merleau-Ponty because they are trying to understand Fanon.
To be sure, there is a common enough version of “Foucauldianism” that is part of the sorry state of affairs Nancy criticises; he refers to the ways in which concepts like “genealogy” or “subjectivation” can be used as a way to repeat the same old same old, only this time “spiced up with some more modern spices”. (15) We probably do not need to hear any more chatter about the panopticon, for example. Foucault’s genealogies were born of a different time and under different conditions, and belong to that moment that I am suggesting will soon become fossilized history; they certainly suffer from the same problems. Said famously charged that Foucault’s Eurocentrism was “near total”, maybe even worse than the other greats of his generation. (16) That is a fair point, though it should also be said that his thought has travelled unusually well in spite of this; it has been an essential point of reference for many of the contemporary philosophers who have been most successful in pushing the continental tradition outside of its European comfort zone. In his contribution to this debate, Esposito speaks of multiple paths being open to contemporary philosophy. (17) Other participants in this discussion have mentioned the deconstructive or post-deconstructive path; this seems to me another promising one, especially for those whose concerns centre on the history of philosophy.
Where does this leave us? Though there is much to lament in the present state of things, as there often is in the passing of one phase and the beginning, however inchoate, of a new one, and all the disorder this entails, there is much to give us hope about the future of philosophy. In any case, laments never change anything; they are the discourse of those who have given up the fight. The old world must go – and it will go, whether we want it to or not. I am convinced that there is a historical necessity at work here that is higher than the will of any individual philosopher who may decide to either welcome or resist what is going to happen anyway. Heidegger’s text puts this well: “each epoch of philosophy has its own necessity. We simply have to acknowledge the fact that a philosophy is the way it is. It is not our business to prefer one to the other” (18) The thesis of this discussion, if I may put it like this, is that philosophy as we have known it is dead or dying (we have killed it, you and I…), and that a new epoch and hence a new necessity has begun, different from the Heideggerian one though perhaps still ancestrally related to it. Our task – our business – is to grasp this rebirth as best we can and to acknowledge it in the way that it is.
Long live philosophy!
1. Divya Dwivedi, “Nancy’s Wager”, Philosophy World Democracy 2.7, July 2021: https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/other-beginning/nancys-wager.
2. See, e.g. Critias’s speech in Timaeus 21a7-26e1. But the idea of a Greek origin of philosophy was not widespread even in the early modern period; an arch-conservative like Hobbes counts India, Persia, Chaldea and Egypt as having “the most ancient philosophers”; see Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury vol. III ed. Sir William Molesworth, London: John Bohn, 1839, p. 666.
3. Jean-Luc Nancy, “‘The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking’”, Philosophy World Democracy, 30 July 2021, https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/other-beginning/the-end-of-philosophy.
4. Peter Park, Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780-1830, New York: SUNY Press, p. 4. For a history of the idea that Thales was the first philosopher, see Lea Cantor, “Thales – ‘The First Philosopher’? A Troubled Chapter in the Historiography of Philosophy”, British Journal for the History of Philosophy 30(5), pp. 727-750.
5. Shaj Mohan, “And the Beginning of Philosophy”, Philosophy World Democracy 2.7, July 2021: https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/other-beginning/and-the-beginning-of-philosophy.
6. Shaj Mohan, “And the Beginning of Philosophy”; Divya Dwivedi, “Nancy’s Wager”; Reghu Janardhanan, “Deconstructive Materialism: Einsteinian Revolution in Philosophy”, Philosophy World Democracy, 13 November 2021, https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/other-beginning/deconstructive-materialism.
7. Martin Heidegger, “ ‘The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking’ ”, in On Time and Being trans. Joan Stambaugh, New York: Harper & Row, 1972, p. 55.
8. Divya Dwivedi, “Nancy’s Wager”.
9. Jean-Luc Nancy, “‘The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking’”.
10. Jean-Luc Nancy, “ ‘The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking’ ”.
11. On Bambara thought, especially the question of speech and writing, see Amadou Hampaté Bâ, “The Living Tradition” in General History of Africa vol. 1: Methodology and African Prehistory, ed. J. Ki-Zerbo, Paris, UNESCO, 1980, 166-205.
12. This is Tory MP Sir John Redwood: https://twitter.com/johnredwood/status/1568093144595533825
14. Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978, trans. Graham Burchell, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, p. 22.
15. Jean-Luc Nancy, “ ‘The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking’ ”.
16. Edward W. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000, 196. I stressed that Foucault practices philosophy without “the” canon – by this I mean to refer only to the standard philosophical canon; I am certainly not trying to suggest that he proceeds without any canon at all. He often relies on tropes and narratives that are well-worn in other disciplines or areas of study, but philosophy is often so insular in what it reads that even this can seem like a novel surprise to many of his readers.
17. Roberto Esposito, “What is Philosophy? – Tribute to Jean-Luc Nancy”, 14 September, https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/other-beginning/what-is-philosophy
18. Heidegger, “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking”, 56.