Why does philosophy continue?

Janus
Janus

Why does philosophy “continue” when it can never seem to achieve final resolution of its problems?

I’ve found that Heidegger offers the most compelling account for why philosophy continually returns to its source problems, whereas sciences seem to come to once-and-for-all conclusions.

On Heidegger’s account, philosophy or Theory began when the Greeks explicitly articulated the question of “being”, from which has unfolded historically all the various branches and species of theoretically grounded Knowledge. Thus in Western civilization a particular answer to the question of “being” lies implicitly at the root of all our modern and functional species of knowledge today, such that we tend to think it pointless, trivial, or useless to examine our underlying historical assumption about what we mean by the “being” of things we think we know and understand.

The assumption we’ve inherited from particular past philosophers is that “being” means “what is (truly) present”, or more exactly: what can be rendered present to us in or about some object of theoretical inquiry, because it is what Finally underlies various false appearances. Once false instances of appearing are scraped away, then we will have exclusively what is present.

But notice that there is implicit or suppressed in this historical assumption of ours (a) a temporal character and a bias for the “present” aspect or moment of temporality, which is a bias against the past and future aspects intrinsic to temporality also; and (b) a relative character in that what “is” must be rendered present-to-us.

Having disclosed this temporal character of theoretical knowledge, Heidegger finds by phenomenological analysis that it derives and unfolds from the underlying practical, laboring, and temporal character of “Da-sein”. In Da-sein or human “being-there”, phenomenologically, we find things initially appear as most solid or ‘real’ in their being there as Tools for our use. Since Theoretical Objects are themselves ‘like’ Tools, Heidegger thus offers an Instrumentalist account or theory of Science itself.

But this does NOT mean that Heidegger is a mere “relativist” regarding all our sciences and claims, or that he is seeking to undermine them in an illegitimate or unreasonable manner, as many of his critics unfairly charge. Rather, the substantive reality he means to uncover in his work is that the implicit and suppressed meaning of “being” is Time or Temporality, including a past, present, and future — and this entails — “it” entails — that nothing can ever be rendered completely “present” by us once-and-for-all. Rather, we must continually in philosophical thinking and practice (by which I include science as a branch of applied theory) bring the being of things forth to-presence in some particular way, manner, or practice, repeatedly.

This answers the question why philosophy “continues”: it must continually return to the question of “being” which by its nature is never finally “present”; it has to return to the original, generative question that remains implicit, only ever seemingly resolved within any particular, momentary claim or any particular science.

We in the West have been operating for centuries with a faulty underlying assumption that “being” is merely a “present-ness” in things that can be overlooked once we move on to more specialized knowledges. Instead the “being” of things is never rendered finally-present and so we must constantly engage in the philosophical activity of bringing-to-presence temporally and historically.

Now, none of this means that the sciences as we know them today will not reify or ossify into forms that become increasingly oblivious to their own grounding in a particular answer to the question of “being”. It might be expected that insofar as they are ignorant or forgetful of this basis they will become increasingly defensive regarding their “relative” status as uncovered by those who ‘continually’ create a distraction in their view by raising philosophical questions. I think we see this in the recent attempts by some scientists to banish philosophy — to banish thinking (!) — once and for all. Isn’t it a great irony that some prominent scientists today are becoming in certain crucial respects dogmatists and thus enemies of thought?

It is thus vitally important for philosophers to give appropriate respect to the achievements of modern sciences and systems but not thereby to disown their own unique calling to deeply question the assumptions underlying modern views no matter how seemingly final.

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