Philosophy: Always in Crisis

Few either within or outside philosophy see the field as thriving. Analyses operate at various levels. One set of accounts consists of what has become a philosophical commonplace – an announcement of a wholesale shift in the nature of philosophy. Besides Dewey, 20th century representatives of this view include Heidegger (e.g., ‘The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking’) and Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature). But it’s a move that has defined philosophy, at least modern philosophy, since its beginning. Thus Descartes, in the Discourse:

Of philosophy I will say nothing, except that when I saw that it had been cultivated for many ages by the most distinguished men, and that yet there is not a single matter within its sphere which is not still in dispute, and nothing, therefore, which is above doubt.

Philosophy is always in crisis, 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.


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