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Philosophers under siege

7 April 2021

Books | Are reports of philosophy’s death premature?

Right:

What makes knowledge possible? Immanuel Kant (at the head of the table) and friends, as depicted by German artist Emil Doerstling in 1900. Science History Images/Alamy

What makes knowledge possible? Immanuel Kant (at the head of the table) and friends, as depicted by German artist Emil Doerstling in 1900. Science History Images/Alamy

The Failures of Philosophy: A Historical Essay
By Stephen Gaukroger | Princeton University Press | $59.99 | 316 pages


“Philosophy is dead,” declared the physicist Stephen Hawking. All the wisdom we need can be supplied by science. By pronouncing on the nature of knowledge, though, Hawking was doing exactly what he had declared redundant. Philosophy is inescapable; engaging in speculation about knowledge and value comes naturally to any reflective person. But he is not alone in believing that philosophy as a discipline has nothing of value to offer.

Sydney-based philosopher and historian Stephen Gaukroger believes that philosophy, though not dead, suffers from disabling ill health. But, he adds, this isn’t a new development in the history of Western philosophy. Becoming subservient to science is only the latest chapter in a history of “failure.” In this thought-provoking book he subverts the story of progress presented by those histories of philosophy that aim to explain how the discipline found its way to the views they support. In concentrating on the failures of philosophy he believes we can learn something important about its nature — and thus about possibilities for its future.

Philosophy as an enterprise with a distinct claim to knowledge came into existence with the ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates and Plato. Their primary purpose was moral — to determine how individuals can live a good and virtuous life — and they opposed those who thought virtue meant conforming to social conventions. To be moral, they insisted, you have to ask basic questions about the nature of justice, piety and virtue. Plato’s answer was metaphysical. Knowledge, he believed, is achieved only through acquaintance with ideals that have an existence independent of things of the world. The good life means organising oneself and society in harmony with these ideals, and only a philosopher knows how this can be done.

By setting out to ask and answer questions about the nature of virtue, these early thinkers constructed philosophy as an abstract, second-order discourse. Gaukroger thinks their approach to moral questions failed to tackle issues of great concern to ordinary people: the conflicts between desire, duty and loyalty explored in Greek tragedies, and the requirements attached to social roles. From the start, he says, philosophy’s answer to the question of what is a good life was inadequate, but its real defeat came with the rise of Christianity, which had answers to this question that depended on a relationship to God and the belief in an afterlife. Philosophy in the early Middle Ages became totally subservient to theology.

Philosophy as an independent approach to knowledge got a new lease of life in the late Middle Ages when its practitioners felt the need to reconcile Christian theology with the development of knowledge based on empirical investigation, and to justify central Christian doctrines like the immortality of the soul and the transformation of communion wine into Christ’s blood. The desire to explain why Christian beliefs were true created a real need for philosophy, says Gaukroger. Thomas Aquinas and other philosophers met the challenge by using Aristotle’s metaphysics to argue that there is a natural law, discoverable by reason, that all individuals, whatever their faith, ought to accept, and that reason was capable of establishing the truth of basic Christian doctrines.

According to Gaukroger, the ascendency of philosophy as the dominant form of knowledge was completed by Descartes, who argued that all beliefs had to be founded on what could not be doubted by reason. His aim was to reconcile Copernican astronomy with religious faith by setting up reason rather than scripture as the true source of theological as well as scientific knowledge.

Locke and other philosophers influenced by new scientific knowledge had other tasks of reconciliation to perform. They needed to explain how the commonsense view that we discover the nature of the world through our senses could be reconciled with research that seemed to show that all we can ever perceive are impressions received by our sense organs. In the moral realm, they wanted to reconcile the virtues of frugality, prudence and benevolence with the profligacy and self-interest that made a commercial society prosperous. Adam Smith, who celebrated the latter in The Wealth of Nations, advocated a moral philosophy that made sympathy the adjudicator between conflicting values. Jeremy Bentham, on the other hand, argued that public good — the happiness of the greatest number — was all that mattered in moral decision-making.

Everyone recognises that human existence relies on the veracity of sense perception. Anyone can use sympathetic engagement with others to determine what they ought to do. For Bentham, and later for John Stuart Mill, determining the greatest good was a matter for empirical investigation. Philosophers, it seemed, had no distinctive claim to knowledge and no special role in enabling people to act morally. Once again, philosophy’s claim to a special status had failed. David Hume made this failure evident by showing that speculative reason leads to scepticism rather than knowledge.

Kant renewed the claims of philosophy by taking Hume’s scepticism about the role of metaphysical speculation as a reason for arguing that philosophy’s true task is to define what makes knowledge possible. What we can know, he argued, depends on the categories our minds impose on data of the senses, and philosophy’s role is to investigate the operation of these categories and the world they construct. Kant’s philosophy, Gaukroger explains, was the beginning of an ambitious but ultimately doomed attempt to devise a theory of everything. This project culminated in Hegel’s attempt to complete philosophy by incorporating all of history and thought into a logical progression ending with absolute knowledge. But this view of philosophy lost favour when it became evident that science could make a better claim to provide an account of everything.

After this final failure, Gaukroger says, the fate of philosophy was to become as subservient to science as it had, in earlier times, been to theology. Some philosophers have resisted this fate. Wittgenstein’s contextual account of meaning and Heidegger’s focus on the human condition are attempts to show that not all matters of importance can be resolved by science. But Gaukroger doesn’t seem to think that they, or any other philosophers, have provided a promising new direction for philosophy.


Gaukroger’s history of philosophy highlights how many of the causes of its failure and rebirth came from outside the discipline. The attempt to found virtue on an idealist metaphysics failed because of changes in society and the rise of Christianity. The resurrection of philosophy was motivated by changes within the Christian world and the confrontation of Christianity with other monotheistic religions. Philosophy failed as a means of reconciliation because of the moral pluralism that was partly created by the rise of a commercial society. Philosophy as a theory of everything was abandoned because of the outstanding success of science.

If the direction of philosophy is driven by external developments, then its future is not likely to be decided by philosophers drawing lessons from the failures of philosophy. Perhaps a serious environmental crisis or the prospect of complete control of the human genome will create the need for a renewed philosophical enquiry into what it means to be human.

Some philosophers will likely object to the language of failure that pervades Gaukroger’s history. Many still regard Kant’s transcendentalism, Descartes’s epistemology, Aristotle’s account of the virtues and Plato’s idealism as important contributions to an understanding of ourselves and the world. The pretensions of these philosophers may be unjustified, but their accomplishments are real. Some will object, rightly I think, to Gaukroger’s cursory treatment of philosophers who have refused to become handmaidens of science, particularly those in the phenomenological tradition. And some won’t agree that philosophy’s present state is as dire as he supposes.

The present state of philosophy, he thinks, is illustrated by the answer given by the Oxford analytical philosopher John Austin when he was asked for a definition of philosophy. Philosophy, he said, is what philosophers do. This definition, though unhelpful, is apt because contemporary philosophy lacks a central core or an agreed method. Philosophers like me, whose expertise is in political philosophy or ethics, inhabit a different philosophical world from those who investigate the nature of time, those who work with cognitive scientists on artificial intelligence, or those who develop systems of logic. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for a subject that resists definition, regards every area of human thought and action as a potential object of inquiry, and has no respect for discipline boundaries.

Gaukroger sometimes wonders whether the original sin of Western philosophy was to set itself up as a self-sufficient, second-order discipline sitting in judgement over all human thought and action. This, he suggests, was bound to lead to failure. No form of knowledge is independent and self-justifying. If this is the right prognosis for the failures of philosophy, then its future direction lies not in further attempts to become “the queen of the sciences” but in collaboration with others. •

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