The Crisis Motif

The crisis motif surrounding philosophy, and the humanities more generally, has become a genre onto itself. Articles appear with regularity in the popular media, the blogosphere, as well as in scholarly articles and monographs. We’ve made our own contributions to the genre over the years, including our upcoming Socrates Tenured.

But crisis has defined philosophy, at least modern philosophy, since its beginning with Descrates’ observations in the Discourse. If anything, philosophy is always in crisis waiting to be saved by the work of the next philosopher.

But while it is usually claimed that practical consequences will result, these crises and the proposed reformations invariably consist of the substitution of one set of conceptual analyses for another. Take for instance mid-20th century existentialists, who aimed to turn ontology and ethics upside-down by claiming that existence precedes essence. Thus Sartre: “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.” Sartre thought that people are condemned to be free, forced to determine the meaning of their life because life does not possess any inherent value. Even here, however, the act of self-creation mainly consisted of mental attitudes and a set of personal values rather than the kind of philosophical practice we are advocating with field philosophy.