Advice about How to Do Philosophy in the Twenty-First Century

Stephen Voss

[Judi Upton-Ward, ed., New Millennium Perspectives in the Humanities (Global Humanities Press, 2002]


            It was common a few decades ago to describe philosophy as a tree from which the sciences were branching off century by century. When philosophy began in the west, it included all the scientific domains. Gradually each science branched off -- physics, astronomy, biology, chemistry, psychology. A few decades ago many suspected that all that was left of philosophy was linguistic studies -- and they were apprehensive that when linguistics split off, no branches would be left at all.

            We have begun to see that this process is not annihilating philosophy. For one thing, we can see at the growing tip of each branch more philosophy -- the philosophical questions each science generates at its cutting edge. For another thing, this is a special tree -- the tip of each branch, far from replacing the tree, nourishes it. The growing tips of each branch constitute a set of questions which feed the great central trunk, and the central questions of metaphysics and morals show no sign of being assimilated by special sciences.

            Philosophy is hardly dead. But it seems strangely ill. Why do non-philosophers accord it so little respect? Does this only reflect their philistinism, as we may suppose, or rather something in the way we do it? What should we make philosophy in the twenty-first century?

            First of all, philosophy needs to be revolutionary, in Thomas Kuhn’s sense. It must always include the search for better paradigms and can never limit itself to work within the current ones. Science is sometimes ‘normal’ and sometimes ‘revolutionary’ and by its nature can’t always be the latter. It depends for revolution on resources that are often inaccessible to theory makers, such as mathematics, data, and instrumentation. By contrast, philosophy must always lay itself open to revolution. It must always let itself suspect that the current situation contains symptoms of the need for revolution.

            Corollary. Philosophy is essentially anarchic.

            The twenty-first century is ripe for revolution, and it will be good to have before us reminders of earlier revolutions in western philosophy, earlier transformations of its face. I will list seven revolutions. I hope that you will think of your own list.

            (1)        Socrates, who helps me face myself, and look for varieties of self-knowledge

            (2)        Plato, who conceives the good life as the life of reason

            (3)        Augustine, who makes philosophy theological

            (4)        Descartes, who makes philosophy mathematical

            (5)        Kant, who makes it transcendental

            (6)        Hegel, who makes it historical and cultural

            (7)        Nietzsche, who makes it human

            (8)        It is time for a new transformation. Philosophy needs to fully appropriate what is alive in previous revolutions. But it needs to be revolutionary in new ways we cannot anticipate. If you look at (1)-(7), you begin to see how hard it is to predict the nature of the next revolution.

            If we had an accurate definition of philosophy, along with a clear vision of its essential aims, strategies, techniques, tools, and questions, we might be able to steer by it, and understand which transformation the present situation requires. I think that philosophy does have a universally valid essential nature. But we will understand its nature only when it has achieved its essential aims. The definition of philosophy is itself an unsolved philosophical problem, which will be soluble only to hindsight, after we’ve learned what the central problems really are and how we were able to solve them. Given how far we are from that, there is no hope of reading off the required revolution from a God’s eye view of its requirements.

            My guess at the essence of philosophy is that it is the utterly devoted search for understanding of the world and our place in it (an account derivable from the etymology of ‘philosophy’). This kind of devotion entails a struggle against a host of obstacles, among them prejudice, provincialism, wishful thinking, timidity, the lure of extraneous aims like fame or respectability, the sleep of complacency, the shifting obstacles of class and economic factors, and some of the special traps Wittgenstein and others have pointed out. It requires contrary attitudes -- mania and logos, boldness and reflectiveness, speculation and self-criticism. Philosophers look for a place to stand but, unlike Archimedes, can never let themselves be sure they’ve found one. They must repair their ship on the open sea, not on land or even a sheltered harbor, and keep it from sinking. There is no category to put philosophy in -- neither science nor art nor social institution -- because like any love affair it has no respect for boundaries. For more than 2000 years mothers have been saddened when their sons became philosophers instead of being respectable, and now daughters are making their fathers suffer the same fate. -- This is a sketch which contains truth, but it is theatrical where it ought to be prescient, and as I say it can’t be prescient enough to help us very much now.

            Philosophy stands in need of revolution. Revolutions are made by geniuses. Geniuses are unpredictable. When someone once asked Einstein what he was doing, he replied, ‘If I knew what I was doing, it wouldn’t be research.’ So I can’t hope to give advice in the most direct style. But history suggests some clues.

            Philosophy has always entertained a tension between the idea that we are animals and the idea that we are gods. Thales told us at the very beginning that all things -- presumably including us -- are full of gods, and philosophy reinterprets the tension with each revolution. The 8th revolution will need a new reinterpretation. Consider the first seven, which happen to feature philosophers as the best candidates for divinity -- Creator, Savior, Judge ....

            Socrates in the Apology has both a daemon and a wisdom that is only human.

            Plato portrays a soul modeled after a god, a soul capable of immortality, with memories of chariot rides with the Olympians. In Phaedrus 230a, he makes Socrates wonder whether his nature is multiform and monstrous, or simpler and more divine than that.

            Augustine says that we are finite and sinful by nature, yet made in God’s image, with hearts that are restless until they find their rest in God. He is not so much a citizen of Rome as a citizen of the City of God.

            Descartes’s Ego stands outside of human life, in order to gain absolute epistemic certainty and absolute emotional security. Metaphysically, it stands beyond all that is physical, beyond the best machine and the highest animal. Epistemically, it stands above the entire universe, vanquishing the deceiving god in hand-to-hand combat.

            Kant depicts the transcendental ego as creator of the world of space and time and autonomous source of its own kingdom of ends, its own realm of freedom and duty.

            Hegel offers to stand eschatologically at the end of history, not as creator but as judge, another Ego beyond the limitations of the merely human, in the process blurring the line between Absolute Spirit and himself as its apotheosis.

            Nietzsche describes humanity as ‘a rope, tied between beast and Übermensch,’ and then proclaims the death of God. As an immediate consequence, he exclaims eschatologically that ‘the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea”.’ (Thus Spoke Zarathustra I, 4; Joyful Wisdom V, 343) Now we are all-too-human, now we are as gods -- at the very least, Übermenschen.

            The historical message is clear. One central, and perhaps essential, philosophical question is the question who I am -- animal or god. (We will consider some less exciting alternatives in a moment.) We ought to ask whether the tension is better resolved in eastern philosophy. The Hindu believes quite simply ‘That art thou.’ The Taoist believes that ‘the ten thousand things’ are the ways in which the infinite and perfect Tao manifests itself. Nietzsche confronts us with the question in these words:

We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge -- and with good reason. We have never sought ourselves -- how could it happen that we should ever find ourselves? It has rightly been said: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”; our treasure is where the beehives of our knowledge are. We are constantly making for them, being by nature winged creatures and honey-gatherers of the spirit; there is one thing alone we really care about from the heart -- “bringing something home.” Whatever else there is in life, so-called “experiences” -- which of us has sufficient earnestness for them? Or sufficient time? Present experience has, I am afraid, always found us “absent-minded”: we cannot give our hearts to it -- not even our ears! Rather, as one divinely preoccupied and immersed in himself into whose ear the bell has just boomed with all its strength the twelve beats of noon suddenly starts up and asks himself: “what really was that which just struck?” so we sometimes rub our ears afterward and ask, utterly surprised and disconcerted, “what really was that which we have just experienced?” and moreover: “who are we really?” and afterward, as aforesaid, count the twelve trembling bell-strokes of our experience, our life, our being -- and alas! miscount them. -- So we are necessarily strangers to ourselves, we do not comprehend ourselves, we have to misunderstand ourselves, for us the law “Each is furthest from himself” applies to all eternity -- we are not “men of knowledge” with respect to ourselves. (Genealogy of Morals, Preface, 1)

            Another task for the twenty-first century is to assess adequately the philosophical paradigms we have inherited. For one thing, we are both all-too-Cartesian and all-too-Kantian.

            Hardly anyone will confess being Cartesian. But there was much that was good in Descartes. There was much that remains controversial -- for example, the mathematization of the physical universe. There was much that was just wrong -- for example, the dualism. I think that in our rush to deny Descartes we have not drawn the line between the good and the bad with nearly enough care. The result is that we still remain much too Cartesian.

            Consider two central problems in contemporary philosophy of mind: Are there qualia? Are they physical? These two problems not only find a cozy home in the Cartesian problematic; we can specify where each finds its home (respectively, the Second and the Sixth Meditations).

            Or consider other ways in which contemporary philosophy investigates human beings. Suppose that we bracket and do phenomenology. That is once again the Second Meditation, where Descartes writes:

I see the light, I hear the noise, I feel the heat. You will tell me that these appearances are false and I am sleeping. However that may be, at least I certainly seem to see, to hear, and to be warmed. What is called sensing in me is strictly just this, and sensing understood in this restricted way is simply thinking.

Suppose that we try to solve the mind-body problem. That once more is the Sixth Meditation. Suppose that we ask whether machines can think. That’s Part 5 of the Discourse on Method. Suppose, finally, that we claim to be anti-Cartesian. That’s just bad faith.

            Gilbert Ryle once observed:

[Psychologists] have ... continued to suffer unnecessary qualms of anxiety, lest [the] diversion of psychology from the task of describing the ghostly might not commit it to tasks of describing the merely mechanical. But the influence of the bogy of mechanism has for a century been dwindling because, among other reasons, the biological sciences have established their title of ‘sciences’. The Newtonian system is no longer the sole paradigm of natural science. Man need not be degraded to a machine by being denied to be a ghost in a machine. He might, after all, be a sort of animal, namely, a higher mammal. There has yet to be ventured the hazardous leap to the hypothesis that perhaps he is a man. (The Concept of Mind, p. 328)

It is time for the hazardous leap! It is time to see what is alive and what is dead in Descartes.

            Where do we turn for resources, once we take on that project? Should we reclaim forgotten insights and paradigms from ancient Greece? I think that is part of the answer. I will suggest two insights worth remembering.

            One is the distinction between intellect, a faculty capable of intuiting or contemplating the truth about reality, and reason, a discursive faculty capable of moving in truth-preserving ways from one proposition to another. Plato’s divided line places intellect (nous) one step higher than reason (dianoia) (Republic 510-11). Aristotle asks intellect (nous) to intuit the premises that are the basis of scientific knowledge (Posterior Analytics II 19). Plotinus regards ‘seeing’ as higher than discursive reason (Enneads I.3.4, IV.8.8). (Spinoza similarly ranks intuitive knowledge (intuitus) above reason (ratio) (Ethics IIP40S2), but no one noticed.)  They all believe that human beings have two distinct faculties: discursive reasoning and the capacity for intellectual intuition. Plato holds that while a youth may be capable of the discursive variety of dialectic, it takes a mature person who has completed the program of the Republic to do real philosophy.

            It is no coincidence that skepticism became an insoluble challenge at about the time when western philosophy forgot intellect. As the last 360 years of epistemology show, a philosopher who develops only reason and not intellect has no acceptable reply to Descartes’s First Meditation. I suggest, as a hypothesis worth testing over the next 360 years, that a disciplined intellect is the key to genuine knowledge of many kinds.

            We are accustomed to thinking that when we have earned a Ph.D. we are capable of true philosophy. I suggest that at best we are capable of discursive dialectic. Our universities train our reason but do little to train our intellect, or even prepare us for the task. The result is a book like Self and World, by the respected Oxford philosopher Quassim Cassam, which occupies itself entirely with tracing logical relationships and distinctions among various theses, and occupies itself absolutely minimally with the question whether any of them are worthy of belief. It is a triumph of reason over intellect.

            The philosopher’s tool is the mind. Twentieth century philosophy may be the only discipline that supposes it can do serious work without good tools. Often we suppose that without a disciplined intellect something of excellence can result. Often we suppose that all we need in order to be a good philosopher is high IQ, cleverness, and mastery of a set of techniques. But a person so trained is ill prepared to create or understand revolution.

            The other ancient insight I commend is the idea that philosophy exists primarily to provide support for a life of excellence. True, Aristotle thought that knowledge has intrinsic value. But as William Dennes once observed, there seems no intrinsic value in knowing the weight of the cubic mile of dirt underneath the room you are in. By contrast, most western philosophers before the Augustinian and Cartesian revolutions, and some like Spinoza and Nietzsche after them, value philosophy primarily for its capacity to support a way of life. Among eastern philosophers that view seems nearly universal. Foucault suggests that western philosophy might wish to return to that task. Should it?

            The philosophy shelves in bookstores are, as always, full of philosophical therapy and other books which popularize philosophy. But there are now also books by professional philosophers, for example Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life and  Richard Shusterman’s Practicing Philosophy, which argue that one of philosophy’s legitimate tasks is to make possible an excellent life. I think they may be right.

            Between the Inaugural Dissertation and the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant came to believe that we have two utterly distinct faculties: sensibility, which allows intuitions of individuals, and understanding, which allows thought through concepts. He created a chasm between them which both rationalists and empiricists had rejected, when he insisted that sensibility makes possible an entirely non-conceptual apprehension of individuals. You can observe this philosophical tragedy taking place by comparing Section 2 of the 1770 Dissertation with pages 19 and 50-51 of the 1781 first edition of the Critique.

            Kant’s new theory of sensibility is sustained by what Wilfrid Sellars calls the Myth of the Given, and the Myth lives on today. For Kant and many philosophers after him, sensing is a form of knowing which helps provide the foundations of knowledge. But what is sensed is individual objects, not facts or propositions. The Myth gives us at once particulars to intuit and facts to know. The result, as Sellars shows in his classical paper ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’ (to be found in his Science, Perception and Reality), corrupts both theory of knowledge and philosophy of mind. The corruption is so deep that even Sellars does not entirely escape it.

            This is, I believe, only the first of a number of major philosophical errors at the very foundation of the Critique. Kant thinks very hard about how things must be, on the basis of his revolutionary errors and insights. To read Kant is to gain a sense of enormous depth. But the depth is sometimes the depth of a coal pit, to use Thomas Reid’s phrase. Deep though the thought may be, it is just about impossible to describe the resulting metaphysics coherently. We ought to honor Kant for the depth and purity of his efforts, and for the fruitfulness of the work he makes us do when we try to understand these efforts, but not always for the viability or even intelligibility of the picture they generate.

            That is important. For nearly every form of contemporary philosophy is a kind of neo-Kantianism. Analytic philosophy derives directly from Russell’s obsolete logical atomism, but its most significant living source is Kant’s transcendental logic. Phenomenology derives most significantly from Kant’s bracketed studies of the structure of experience and the constitution of phenomena. Much post-phenomenological continental philosophy derives just as truly from Kant, though often indirectly by way of hermeneutic or historicist applications of Kantian positions. In short, both analytic and continental philosophy as they are done today are very often unthinkable without their Kantian inheritances.

            I believe that once philosophers come to grips with this simple point, they will see that much that is essential in those Kantian inheritances will have to be rejected. When that happens, they may have to reject much that contemporary neo-Kantianism has erected on those foundations.

            If this judgment about our Cartesian and Kantian inheritances is close to the truth, we are in a position to offer advice about the proper relation between analytic and continental philosophy. Should there be greater dialogue between these schools? Should members of these schools seek a rapprochement?

            Well, there is something insufficiently anarchic in the very idea of belonging to a philosophical school. Speaking of the philosophical schools from Plato to Plotinus, Pierre Hadot observes that ‘the dogmas and methodological principles of each school are not open to discussion. In this period, to philosophize is to choose a school, convert to its way of life, and accept its dogmas.’ (Philosophy as a Way of Life, p. 60) But that is precisely because these schools sought not only to understand but to create a way of life based on what they understood -- in other words, to combine two ends which are necessarily in tension. We do not have their excuse.

            It is a tribute to Kant’s sense of the seriousness of philosophy that he allowed Hume to awaken him, and pry him loose from his Leibnizianism. Philosophy ought to be a continual battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by our own graduate advisors, our own tradition, and the authors with whom we happen to feel most congenial. Imagine how much more interesting the history of philosophy would be if Augustine had taken Aristotle more seriously, or Locke Aquinas, or Hegel Hume, or Nietzsche and Wittgenstein anyone at all besides Nietzsche and Wittgenstein and sometimes Schopenhauer.

            In particular, I think that there is little value in a reconciliation of analytic and continental philosophy. They are both dinosaurs. They should be allowed to become extinct. Of course something living will emerge from their ashes; neither is entirely worthless. But far too much in their foundations is suspect for us to continue taking them so seriously as sources of understanding.

            I suggest that the interesting dialogue in the twenty-first century won’t span the very small philosophical gap that corresponds to the English Channel. It will span the gap between eastern philosophy and the philosophy that rises from the ashes of neo-Kantianism. And by ‘eastern’ I mean the part of the world that stretches eastward from Edirne, whose first main outpost is Istanbul. The history of philosophy provides models of philosophers who sought understanding from all available sources (sometimes in the teeth of ingrained parochialism or strident nationalism) -- Pico della Mirandola, a Christian neo-Platonist who valued Chaldean and Muslim writings; Leibniz, who tried to learn Chinese philosophy; the Kyoto School in Japan, which studied Husserl and Heidegger; and Heidegger, who in turn learned from the Japanese.

            The results might be revolutionary. For example, philosophers of mind who would like to understand consciousness might turn from the Cartesian tradition, whose well has long been dry, and study the writings of Indian, Chinese, and Japanese philosophers, which may contain the best work there is on consciousness. Anglo-American philosophers might get ready for this step by reading Husserl. We might all then plunge into the works of people like Hsüan-tsang, whose consciousness-only school flourished briefly in seventh century China. (Two good places to begin are Wing-Tsit Chan's Source Book in Chinese Philosophy and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore's Source Book in Indian Philosophy.) We ignore such work only out of a parochialism incompatible with the seriousness of the philosophical enterprise.

            It might be suggested that postmodern thought offers a viable response to the failures of neo-Cartesianism and neo-Kantianism. My next piece of advice is to regard this suggestion with a cold and fishy eye.

            Much postmodernism arises out of a failure of heart, a failure of courage. Of course modernist philosophy frequently fails. But that is not because the aspirations of classical and modern philosophy are too high. Philosophy need not content itself with edifying cocktail-party conversation driven by complex forms of the will to power. The failures of recent philosophy might have been avoided if recent philosophy had taken itself more seriously, and if it had been driven less by parochial forms of reason and more by disciplined forms of intellect. There is still time to hope for that.

            Plato understood that philosophy begins in Eros. Nietzsche understood that love and timidity are the great opposing poles in the life of the mind, as in human life generally. Real philosophy calls for authenticity rather than ressentiment, courage rather than trivialization, love rather than fear.

            Why don’t non-philosophers take philosophy more seriously? One answer is that they might take it seriously if philosophers themselves did. My central advice to twenty-first century philosophers is therefore to take philosophy as seriously as the subject demands. How seriously is that? I extrapolate from a line attributed to Heraclitus:

            Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play;

and suggest (perhaps as a corollary, given that philosophy may be part of what it is to be human):

            Philosophy is most nearly itself when it achieves the seriousness of a child at play.

Like a game or a dance, philosophy has its own ways, many still to be charted. We have yet to see what would happen if we gave ourselves fully to them.



Cassam, Quassim. Self and World. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Descartes, Rene. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch. Three volumes. Cambridge and New York : Cambridge University Press, 1984-1991. Volume I contains the Discourse on Method and Volume II contains the Meditations.

Hadot, Pierre. Philosophy as a Way of Life. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Kant, Immanuel. Theoretical Philosophy, 1755-1770. Translated by David Walford and Ralf Meerbote. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Contains the Inaugural Dissertation.

Kuhn, Thomas M. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Translated by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage, 1968.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Portable Nietzsche. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York : Penguin Books, 1976. Contains Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the passage from Joyful Wisdom quoted in the text.

Plato. Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper.  Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli and Charles A. Moore, eds. A Source Book in Indian Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind. London and New York : Hutchinson's University Library, 1949.

Sellars, Wilfrid. Science, Perception and Reality. New York: The Humanities Press, 1963.

Shusterman, Richard. Practicing Philosophy: Pragmatism and Philosophical Lýfe. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Wing-tsit Chan, ed. and trans. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.