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Some Remarks on the Nature of Philosophy (II)

by Hubertus Fremerey

As I explained in my previous paper[1], my thesis is that the essential danger of analytical philosophy is seeing philosophy as a narrowly intellectual endeavour, as some sort of chess study or brain-twister. To solve problems in real life — while still being an intellectual task — is 'intellectual' in a much broader sense. To solve 'real' problems you typically need trust and thrust, self-esteem and a daring vision of the goal to be achieved and the pertinacity to achieve it against all obstacles, failures, and enemies. Nothing of this can be justified 'from a logical point of view' in the sense of Quine or Russell.

Continental 'lebens-philosophie' from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to Bergson and Heidegger was very aware of this fact, while in the Anglo-Saxon philosophical world there seems to be not even an accepted translation of this word, which labels a well known school of philosophy.

The main themes of Darwin, Marx, and Freud are all about 'fighting forces' of competition, dominance, jealousy, and a striving and struggling will for life and superiority. This view of human behaviour also explains the persistence of religious belief, which seems to be a mystery to the analytical philosopher. While 'logically thinking people' like Lord Russell cannot understand the 'stupidity' of reasonable people believing in God, the true believer fights death and the devil with God at his side. For the true believer God is a positive force in the battle of life, not a logical term in some proposition.

It would be wrong to think that I reject or despise analytical philosophy out of hand. But you cannot analyze what is not there. To analyze a music or a novel, you first should have the music or the novel. As I argued in my previous essay, we would not know much of the fabrications of nature without first being interested to know about it.

In that essay, I also addressed a second important truth: Not only will you have to break from your familiar shore to unknown shores beyond the horizon to find a new continent, but the vision calling you to such a daring endeavour may be totally different from what looks 'meaningful' in the light of cold reason afterwards: What Kepler and Newton were looking for was the wisdom of God showing in His creation, but what they prepared the way for was a godless world of modern science and technology that was never on their minds and was even contrary to their intentions. Things turn out like that in human history. Even Columbus set out for America because he was wrong and ignorant about the true geography of the globe. This is called 'serendipity'.

What I am arguing now is that nothing of this would have been predicted from analytical philosophy. Analytical philosophy would not have told us that our worldview is incomplete, and it would not have told us that to find a new continent we should follow 'absurd and unjustified ideas'. If you do not know where you are and where you are going, you have to be daring and playful and nosy.

Being a mathematical physicist myself, I never could reject or despise analytical philosophy, because I recognize its value as a mental discipline. But in the light of what I said above, I see the dangers of a method that is almost as much corrupting our minds with 'complacency' as was 'good old metaphysics' — albeit in a very different way.

Metaphysics built houses even on untested ground, but at least people could have a good time there until the house eventually came down. Then they built a new house unabashed. All religions and pseudo-religions are of this sort. If you are living in what you think is 'the truth', you do not need to ask for the truth any more. Analytical philosophy on the other hand knows everything about building solid houses 'in principle', but never builds anything of value for the homeless, because 'there is no such thing as truth anyway, but there are only methods and hypotheses.' Thus you dare not build a house, since it may stand on untested ground.

You cannot expect analytical philosophy to understand the inner forces driving human beings. Analytical philosophy can deliver a map and good advice, but it cannot know of human unrest and longing and of the quest for the Holy Grail or some other great goal. Yet these forces of hope and vision and the quest for perfection or salvation and the hunger for truth and justice and beauty are what was on the minds of Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, and on the minds of so many philosophers and saints from all times and places before. They were philosophers of the irrational, of the will to life, of the will to power. This will and unrest is what drives evolution, first the Darwinian one, now the post-Darwinian or cultural one.

What does post-Darwinian or cultural evolution mean? It means that man is what nature invented to overcome its own natural limits. As a being with an ability to think it over and to create in his fantasy pictures of 'what is not there here and now' man has been set at a distance to nature from his very beginning. To be not part of nature is what defines us humans. Nature has brought us forth, but like our own children, we are free to use our own brains and follow our own plans. As children we are not the subservient slaves of our parents but are expected to find our own ways in life. We have to learn to stand on our own two feet.

This does not mean, of course, that we should not love our parents or ask them for support and advice then and now. But to become responsible grown ups is our moral obligation. This is our human position as children of 'mother' nature and 'father' God. To always ask for their will and be submissive and calling harmony with nature and God the highest value, is a fundamentally erroneous attitude. We have to find our own way. That is what post-Darwinian or cultural or 'second' evolution means.

Nature cannot build radios or cars, it cannot build birds with a wingspan of 80 meters and a liftoff weight of over 500 tons, it cannot build programmable computers, it cannot build space stations and space ships, going for the Moon or Mars and beyond. Thus nature made man to accomplish all that nature cannot do by itself. This is the meaning of post-Darwinian evolution, a continuation of Darwinian, natural evolution. Nature invented man, but man invented culture, and with it science and technology, and the arts and philosophy and all else that we call culture in the broadest sense. Culture in almost every respect transcends nature.

We should not speak of harmony. A thinking being with fantasy and passions and longing for unknown shores beyond the horizons of space and time as man is, cannot be in harmony with nature all the time. The philosophers of the East — and the philosophers of the European Medieval period — tried to calm down the unrest of the human mind by directing its energies to the beyond in the form of Brahma or God or Allah. But then Western man turned to nature itself and found a new object for his restless mind: the future that man makes by himself and on his own account. This is our situation. And this is how it should be.

Many people will jeer at this idea or call it stupid or outrageous. They will speak again of this 'dangerous western arrogance' that will destroy the Earth. But in my opinion, what we should see first and foremost is the naturalness of this situation.

What does it imply? Of course it is not just computers and spaceships. Science and technology are but two aspects of human culture. But we should first of all realize that electrical engineering and atomic engineering and computers and the internet are not something nature could do. Brains and computers are complementary: Where the brain is strong, the computer is weak, and vice versa. Man is not just copying nature, he is enhancing nature by using nature's laws to realize possibilities nature never could have realized herself. And those new possibilities brought about by human science and technology are not just some little enhancements here and there, but a whole new second nature, larger than the first one which has brought forth man himself. The first nature, 'natura naturans' of the old metaphysics, was restricted in its possibilities. But at least it brought forth us nosy and inquisitive humans.

Natura naturata, the natural world we have inhabited for many millennia, is but a very special realization of what is possible under the restrictions of natural laws. The number of worlds compatible with the laws of nature is immense. And while the world of airplanes and computers and space-ships at first sight is just one more possible realization of what can be done under the restrictions of natural laws, man, by the principles of applied science and technology, could invent and realize countless additional different extensions of nature.

If you know a language, you do not write only one or two texts, you can write innumerable texts of all sorts. So if you know how to apply the laws of nature, you may be able to realize innumerable varieties of new plants and animals and perhaps even new humanlike thinking robots. Well, we do not know so far what it takes and whether it will be possible. But we see the principle. To invent the wheel and the carriage is one thing, but to put electricity and the atoms and even the nuclei to the service of man is quite another thing. To do that, engineering intelligence and inventiveness could not suffice. Man had to develop advanced mathematics and strange theories first. And — as was shown in the other essay — these were introduced by metaphysical and even by theological reasoning and not by practical common sense.

Some will ask, 'What about wisdom?' Building and launching a spaceship can be done 'in the fear of God' as well as building and launching a wooden ship 2.500 years ago on the shores of Israel or Greece. Socrates' maxim 'know thyself' is not incompatible with an understanding that the most honourable task of man is to put his freedom into full use and become the explorer of the universe. I cannot see why wisdom should keep us humans 'true to the earth' or 'in harmony with nature'. As I stated above: We may be children of God and nature, but growing up we should find our own ways.

But of course we have to decide on this. In principle we could decide 'to stay home' in the same way as the Chinese decided in the middle of the 15th century, after they had reached out from 1404 with large ships and several thousands of troops very probably to much of Africa and Australia and even America too.[2] The wise Confucians decided that to explore the world was not worth the trouble.

Now what has all this to do with philosophy and in particular with analytical philosophy? I once wanted to remind us all that analytical philosophy is a formalism to improve methodology and the correct evaluation of statements. It does not tell us what to do. But this is what we want to know and what I called in another essay 'the terrible question of utopia.'[3] We need to find out what to do, and facts will never tell us. By concentrating on the facts, people shun the responsibility for creative and daring deeds.

Should we stay home? Should we live in peace with nature? I don't think so. Man is a nosy rat. Nature has made him so. By being nosy we eventually become knowledgeable about the world around us. Such behaviour is part of the self-protecting strategy of our genes and is part of our apish ancestry. The 'irrational' scientific inquisitiveness and daring explorative drive, and the permanent quest for unknown countries of the globe and of the mind, is western man's main legacy to mankind. Modern man is a 'frontiers man', pushing into the unknown.

This by itself is not philosophy. But we have to think it over and correct our image of ourselves correspondingly. Man seen as a frontiers man exploring the world and transforming the world according to his view of a better future is not man the peaceful farmer and shepherd of those good ol' days. And I think that to realize and to ponder this fact is philosophy.

I would like to add one last note: Since analytical philosophy is mainly a critical endeavour, we even tend to see Enlightenment as a cognitive project. Was not Hume writing on 'human understanding'? Was not the main concern of Kant a critical evaluation of the limits of thinking? But this is quite misleading. The project of Enlightenment was first of all a practical one. The guiding idea always has been, to turn our world into a better place for human beings to inhabit, where wars and violence, crime and poverty, illness and madness and all other evils would be driven back and eventually eliminated by the force of reason and scientific understanding. To understand 'human understanding' was never meant to be a goal in itself by Locke, Hume or Kant, but was always meant to provide the necessary means for improving the world in the best service of man.

I am only stating a natural mechanism, as mechanical and as matter of fact as is 'neo-Darwinism'. All talk of 'progress', 'Weltgeist', 'spiritual evolution' is purely speculative. The question of what a better future of mankind should be like and what we should do about it will not vanish from our philosophical agenda. This question cannot be formalized into something scientific. No science will tell us what is good and valuable. Only some creative genius can show us. Overall it is a moral and metaphysical question, not a technical one.

Man is not just a smart rat; he is not only a thinking animal, a homo sapiens. He is an inventive animal, struggling creatively with the countless mysteries of his strange existence in this world. He tries to understand his situation and to overcome obstacles by inventiveness and fighting and hard work. This is much more than mere thinking, reflecting a situation. Man is homo creativus, the creative animal building bridges and roads and spaceships — physical and spiritual ones — to explore and conquer the world.

Man the explorer, man the conqueror of his future, man the transformer of the world, man carrying on the creative task of nature need not be man the madman or man the destroyer. To be the trustee of nature and to expand and transform it is not in itself contradictory any more than to continue the work that our parents could not finish themselves. We can transform nature and be in harmony with nature at the same time. This would be the very meaning of being a 'trustee' of nature, by putting its capital to work.


1. Hubertus Fremerey 'Some Remarks on the Nature of Philosophy' Philosophy Pathways Issue 133, 8th February 2008

2. See:

3. Hubertus Fremerey 'What is "Modern" in Modern Philosophy?' Philosophy Pathways Issue 84, 16th May 2004

© Hubertus Fremerey 2008