Saturday, September 17, 2011

Lesser Expectations

Lately I've been wondering, albeit as a mere dilettante, about the path of philosophy.  We hear much of the distinction between Continental and Analytic philosophy, or Continental and Anglo-American philosophy, and whether they may coexist, or whether one or the other strain is dead or dying, or will become or is predominant.

I will say upfront that to the extent I know philosophy-or at least read it-what I know (or read) would be considered Anglo-American.  My reading has been in the Analytic and Pragmatic traditions for the most part.  My fondness for Stoicism is I suppose an exception, but even there I'm fond of the later Stoics, and they were notoriously unconcerned with metaphysics and epistemology, their focus being almost exclusively with ethics.  It happens that my feeling is ethics and politics should be the greatest concern of philosophy and philosophers in these times.

I think the tendency of Anglo-American philosophy has been to critique the pretensions of traditional philosophy, to the extent it was devoted to ascertaining such things as the True, the Real, the Good (note the capital letters).  Among other things, it has noted that our use or misuse of language has lead us to involve ourselves in futile speculations, or that our search for certainty or absolutes is misguided.  Grand, systematic thinking has been eschewed.  Continental philosophy, or what I know of it, still seems to engage in a search for those words which begin in capital letters, or devotes itself to pondering ways to search for those words which are not as subject to critique by analytic methods.  Alternatively, it may simply despair, and bemoan the meaninglessness of life.

My guess is that philosophy will lead us no closer to knowing the True, the Real, the Good than it has done in the past, which I think is as much to say that it will lead us nowhere it has not already lead us, which is to a very dead end.  I doubt we're any smarter than we have been over the past 2500 or so years, and feel that no matter how hard we think we won't come up with something nobody has thought of in the past.  There are limits to what philosophical analysis can achieve.

This is no reason to abandon philosophical analysis, though.  It may mean that philosophical pursuits will not be as grandiose, as titanic, as otherworldly--as pretentious--as they have been in the past, however.  And I think that's all to the good.

I think it's to the good because it may lead us to focus finally not on what is True, or Real or Good, but on what our intelligence can actually address, i.e. our lives, and the lives of others, and the world of which we are a part.  I don't think this has been much of a concern for philosophers in the past, except as an extension of their unfounded conclusions regarding the True, Real or Good.  Philosophers have speculated regarding the fundamentals of reality, as if there were such things, and having come to certain conclusions laboriously impose them on us, deducing how we should live, think and act, to the extent they concern themselves with us at all.

Aristophanes rightly entitled his farcical spoof of philosophy The Clouds.  Philosophy should come down from them, and focus on the "ordinary day to day life" it has spurned in the past, with some few noteworthy exceptions.  It could use some serious thought, and it will be possible to arrive at solutions which are necessarily provisional as there are no absolutes, but those solutions will become more and more effective as they are tested in real life.

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