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Some Remarks on the Nature of Philosophy (I)

by Hubertus Fremerey


In this essay I comment on some inherent limitations of philosophy. It could be questioned whether this is philosophy at all. But thinking about the inherent limits of philosophy is meta-philosophy. I did not need Godel to know that you cannot criticize a theory from within. If you are a true Marxist, you cannot concede that there is a meta-theory to Marxism, since in your Marxist world Marxism is the highest form of theory possible. Thus from a Marxist point of view, for to be a 'meta-Marxist' you have to be wrong. And in the opinion of the analytical philosopher there cannot be such a thing as 'meta-analytical' philosophy, since to be analytic is by definition the highest form of philosophical thinking. But we all know that this is wrong, because analytical philosophy misses many problems by denying their existence. As a result analytical thinking becomes blinding dogmatism. When you simply define what is real, then if something does not fit your criteria of 'reality', it cannot be real. What did Hamlet answer to Polonius when he was asked what he was reading? 'Words, words, nothing but words!'

The point of my essay below is just this: When you define what philosophy is, the most important philosophy may simply evade you (since according to your predefined standards it is no philosophy at all), and then you may be in for a shock, because 'that which is no philosophy at all' has turned out to be a more vital and more effective philosophy than your own. Compare it to art: For many lovers of art the painting of Cezanne and Gauguin and Picasso some hundred years ago was 'no art at all'. And surely not what we call 'primitive art' today or even pop-art or op-art or abstract art etc. But our concept of art has changed. In the same way our concept of philosophy has changed. This is not just from the confrontation with Hindu or Buddhist or Chinese or African philosophy in the first line, but as much from confrontation with phenomenology, hermeneutics, structuralism, feminism and language analysis etc.

Kant saw certain limitations in philosophy, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and others saw different limitations, and this is the way philosophy proceeds: Not only by solving logical problems, but by expanding the limits (= definitions) of philosophy and seeing problems from new perspectives and in a different light, which has nothing to do with logical or methodological solutions of problems, but with a change of awareness. Problems are not just there to be solved. Problems come and go, depending on light and perspective and our understanding.

Kant was not the end of philosophy, neither was Hegel, and not even Heidegger or Derrida or Wittgenstein have defined the limits of philosophy. They all did what Socrates did: Instead of solving problems, they expanded our awareness of what philosophical problems can be. No analytical philosophy will ever tell you where philosophy ends. If you think otherwise you have a restricted idea of what philosophy is in the same way as the critics of Picasso had a restricted idea of what art is.

In this time of globalization, we see a new and rising interest in what is called 'intercultural philosophy'. So I take my illustrating example from a note on Indian philosophy. From the Wiki-article on Indian Philosophy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_philosophy) I take the following:

Chatterjee and Datta give this definition, explaining that a cornerstone of Indian philosophy is a tradition of respect for multiple views:

'Indian philosophy denotes the philosophical speculations of all Indian thinkers, ancient or modern, Hindus or non-Hindus, theists or atheists... Indian philosophy is marked... by a striking breadth of outlook which only testifies to its unflinching devotion to the search for truth. Though there were many different schools and their views differed sometimes vary widely, yet each school took care to learn the views of all the others and did not come to any conclusions before considering thoroughly what others had to say and how their points could be met... If the openness of mind — the willingness to listen to what others have to say — has been one of the chief causes of the wealth and greatness of Indian philosophy in the past, it has a definite moral for the future.'

Chatterjee, Satischandra; Datta, Dhirendramohan (1984). An Introduction to Indian Philosophy, Eighth Reprint Edition, Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

But, as is well known, Indian philosophy in all its breadth of understanding did not arrive at modern 'Western' rational science. And why not? Because there was no felt need to even ask for it.

This may sound strange. But think again: All children in the world sometime will ask their parents: 'Mom, dad, what is the moon?' But the parents might answer — quite naturally: 'We don't know, God made it, he will know, and that suffices.' Indeed, for some, it does. Because how should we know what the moon is — and why? To find out has been a very difficult task, and the driving force behind this achievement has not been the moon itself but the invention of telescopes in the times of Galilei and Kepler around 1600. If you have a telescope you will see many things you did not see before. But why should you build a telescope? Perhaps for navigation on seagoing ships? Or for observing the stars as an astrologer? Surely not for observing the moon in the first place.

And in this same way we may ask: Why at all should the Hindus or the Chinese or the inhabitants of Africa have been interested in studying nature? Of course they all knew much about the plants and animals around from observations and experiences. But this is not methodical science. Only the Greeks tried to find out about nature because of a strange sort of curiousness. They wanted to live in a world that was rational, consistent and explained. This is quite uncommon and not at all natural. The Jews never even tried to develop a natural science or the math needed to support it. In the opinion of the Jews God would care about his creation, while man should care about his relation with God. This is a natural attitude. Neither Jesus nor the Buddha nor Confucius were interested in natural sciences. Not even Socrates was. They all said that to become a good human and to improve mutual understanding among humans natural science is not needed. So why bother?

This is the main explanation of the seemingly strange fact that in all of Asia and Africa nobody got really interested in doing natural science in any methodically strict way. Science starts with 'what is nature?' and 'how to find out?' Thus you should not be interested in the moon, you should be interested in the nature of nature. And you should not speculate like the astrologer and alchemist. Instead you should observe and do experiments and consider your observations and experiments critically. This is what the Greeks and later the 'Occidentals' or 'Franken' did. If you are interested in the study of nature, you eventually will find out about the moon, but the moon itself is of no help when embarking on such a grand endeavour.

In contrast, the Indians and the Chinese engaged in speculation and magical thinking. You can see the outcome in so many of todays 'kung fu' and 'mystical' movies (f.i. 'Tiger and Dragon' see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0190332/ ). The concept of nature in these movies (and there are many of this sort) is a magical 'Daoist' one, not a scientific one. True natural science is a Western invention and had to be imported into all of Asia and Africa. (See f.i. Joseph Needham, the great scholar of Chinese science, on this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Needham and http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/11/feb93/cowling.htm).

But this has absolutely nothing to do with any lack of brains in Asia or Africa. There simply was no felt need to methodically study nature since it did not bear to the only questions that mattered: 'How to become a good human and how to build a stable and well governed society?' What do we care the true nature of the moon then?

Lest I am looked upon as a 'racist Eurocentric' here let me once more make the point very clear: If you dismiss mathematics as irrelevant and not worth studying, even if you are a mathematical genius you will not arrive at great results in mathematics. And if you dismiss the study of nature as not helping in the understanding and improving of man and society, you will not be knowledgeable on the nature of nature, even if you are very bright and easily would have got at great results in studying nature. It is not a matter of intelligence whether you become a gardener or a technician. It's a matter of choice. But if you choose to become a gardener, you will not come out as a famous maker of cars and airplanes. You cannot expect to be good at what you are not interested in.

Only by a strange and improbable coincidence of very special conditions did Newton stumble over his law of gravitation of 1678. He himself acknowledged that he perhaps would not have arrived at his results without the work of the mystic Behmen. Behmen was a simple shoemaker and ignorant of mathematics. But once more: To get at the law of gravitation, you first have to be interested in it. What Newton wanted to achieve was not 'industrial society' (which was completely out of sight for him and his time) but a demonstration of the wisdom of God. He was interested in the wisdom of God — in theo-sophy — and so was Behmen. Thus modern natural science was derived from theology and theosophy.

But instead of speculating about the nature of God, Kepler, Galileo and Newton all were mathematicians and observers of nature. This explains why in Asia and Africa and even in the eastern part of Europe, there was no Kepler nor Galileo nor Newton. What was lacking was an interest in methodical observations of nature, and a culture of mathematics, which made the calculations of Kepler and Newton possible.

Thus a telescope and an interest in methodical observations of nature and a knowledge of advanced mathematics had to come together to start modern sciences. All three were lacking in the Orient more or less, and this explains why modern natural science could not start there, because it had no cultural base from which to start.

Seen in this light, even while 'the openness of mind... has been one of the chief causes of the wealth and greatness of Indian philosophy in the past', it did not arrive at modern thinking and very probably never would have in the future, since before you can find out about nature, you first need reason and motivation to find out. The Greeks had such motivation and reason, and the scientists of the later Western Renaissance the same, but of another sort. The Greeks expected the world to be rationally understandable, and the Western Christians wanted to see God's wisdom incorporated in his creation. In both cases the driving force was a metaphysical assumption. So the main difference between Occidental and Oriental thinking in this questions was a difference of metaphysics.

Which is an aside on the current contempt of metaphysics in Western analytical philosophy of today.

To be not misunderstood: What I fight is a naive idea that it could suffice to sit down and think a bit and by this become wise and all-knowing. To become knowledgeable about electrodynamics you cannot sit down and study the Upanishads or the wisdom of Lao Tse or Confucius. Nor do you lock yourself away in a Western university, merely looking at books. You have to do experiments and you have to do math in the way Faraday and Maxwell did. You have to change not your books but your attitudes with respect to reality.

And what about the modern liberal state and human and civil rights? Did they grow in India or in China or in Africa? No! They were born in the English and French Revolutions of 1649 and 1789, and in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776. India and China with all their openness to new ideas were in fact closed to any new ideas not fitting their fundamental assumptions. And since the ideas of freedom and progress and the 'common wealth and happinesse' are metaphysical ideas, this once more is a comment on the current contempt of metaphysics.

One could speak of mere 'cultural differences', but 'cultural differences' sounds too much like 'costumes and customs'. But I am speaking of different approaches to reality here, which is metaphysics. Cf. the well known 'Athens-Jerusalem' topic.

I think we could afford some second thoughts on the state of philosophy and on its relation to the world we live in today. We should try to see the whole picture again and not be content with solving this or that analytical problem, as valuable as this may be. The destination of mankind is not an analytical but a metaphysical problem of the first order. I even expect some valuable contributions from the Asian and African traditions. But to become valuable counselors the philosophers of the East and of Africa have to understand 'the modern condition' first.

Modern man lives in a dynamic world of rapid changes and technical adaptations, not in the quasi static world of 'the ways of our ancestors.' This is what modern philosophy is up to, from whatever region of the world it may originate. All else would be 'seeking your lost Western soul in Asia and Africa' as in the days of the 'Dharma bums' of the 1970s and of the 'New Age' movement thereafter. But the task of philosophy is not that of psychotherapy, even while both ask for truth and clarification. Instead we have to clarify the true meaning of philosophy again, which is to ask for reason in a maddening world.

© Hubertus Fremerey 2008

E-mail: hubertus@fremerey.net