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Is that all there is?

People of a certain age will recognize in the title of this entry the refrain of a Peggy Lee tune that made the charts in ’69. It’s occasioned by a remark (in Swedish) about an earlier entry here on how philosophy gets done. I described “normal” philosophy as consisting in more-or-less standard Problems, Arguments, Examples, and so forth. My Swedish is shaky (even though my mormor and morfar spoke it). But the gist of the entry from Filosofikarummet is the Peggy Lee question. Is that all there is to philosophy?
Historically the answer is no. Philosophy has had, from Plato and the Sophists onward, two aspects.The philosopher constructs arguments; the philosopher seeks wisdom. The first aspect, when it predominates, yields a style of philosophy which is an exhibition of cleverness, of technical prowess combined with expert knowledge of some range of Problems & Arguments & so forth. The second, on the other hand, when it predominates, tends in the direction of platitude.
Kant says of art that it requires genius but does not progress. The “limits of art” were attained long ago. Today’s genius can aspire only to equal the Ancients; they cannot be surpassed. The scientist, on the other hand, builds methodically upon the results of his or her predecessors. Doing so requires only talent, not genius;
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but in the sciences the new supersedes the old, which need not be studied henceforth except by historians. Wisdom resembles art; “technical” philosophy resembles science.
Kant’s distinction is more suggestive than accurate (). As applied to philosophy, it is at best a starting point for thinking about notions of progress and about the ends that make technical philosophy worth doing. Kant’s own work illustrates the difficulty of distinguishing the pursuit of wisdom from technical philosophy. His apparatus of newly coined and newly repurposed terms, the structuring of his works into Analytics and Dialectics, the application of the Categories, which especially in The critique of judgment looks forced and pedantic, the restatement of standard Arguments (as in the Antinomies)—all this is emblematically technical. Kant’s work is for that reason teachable, eminently suited to stimulate commentary and criticism: a vehicle for professional philosophy. But it also conveys a hard-won wisdom, especially in his moral philosophy, about what it is to be serious in determining what duty demands of us, and in making ourselves capable of acting from duty, avoiding the traps of self-deception and servitude that are laid for us by the desire to please ourselves and others ().
Wisdom and technical philosophy are not at odds, no more than beauty and what Kant calls the “academic element” in art. In any discipline, there is (as Kant says of the arts) an “academic” element. When it predominates the discipline becomes a mere shell, a lifeless husk—a host of metaphorical contrasts suggest themselves here. Even mathematicians distinguish between the “technical” and the “conceptual”, or, more contentiously, between mere formalism or axiom-twiddling and work that exhibits insight ().
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In the “normal” practice of a discipline, the practitioner elaborates and fulfils the genial contribution of his or her predecessors. This is, by comparison with the work of genius, secondary—“imitative” in the favorable sense of that word. But it need not be an abandonment of the pursuit of wisdom or insight.
On the contrary: just as for Bach, the most technical devices of fugue could be put at the service of the highest aims of his art, so too Thomas and Suárez put the arid forms of Scholastic disputation, Leibniz and Wittgenstein the skeletal discourse of logic, at the service of the pursuit of wisdom. The technical is a check, a bridle on “intuition”. Without it one risks not only platitude, but the ratification of prejudice. Technique need not only be restrictive (as in Schopenhauer; English). It can be generative, as in Bach, Oulipo, the combinatorics of Ramon Llull, the Renaissance doctrine of commonplaces, the divisions of Plato’s Sophist. Writing a lipogram (), a tautogram (check out the example in Dutch), or for that matter a sonnet or a Scholastic disputation (if you’re not presently in the habit of doing so) disables some of your stock responses, your private clichés. You’re at once confined and liberated.
This is self-legislation. The next step up from following rules is choosing rules and binding oneself to them. It is a step away from Normal philosophy, but not necessarily from technical philosophy. I realize that this sounds like Kant. Kant thought, however, that reason yields just one set of rules; what you “choose” is to be rational, to reach the limits of human autonomy. In the arts there is no reason to think that taste will admit but one set of rules. But in philosophy? I had a colleague once who said, half-joking, that he was looking for God’s own method in science. You must be a monotheist, I said. He was. If we did happen upon God’s own method, and were certain we had done so, then philosophy would become entirely Normal, but it could still be a pursuit of wisdom. Unless you think wisdom is inherently unmethodical. I don’t. But I doubt that we have access to God’s own method. We are stuck with polytheism.
() Kant is neglecting the kind of progress in the arts that occurred, for example, after the introduction of perspective in the Renaissance: one can speak in that case of an increase in mastery at least. He also overestimates the extent to which Newton (his example), in developing his natural philosophy, exhibited not only talent (which is governed by rules and pre-existing models) but genius. As we would say, there is no algorithm by which to arrive at the Principia, even granting all that came before.
() The Critiques, especially the first, became exemplars of turgid, jargon-ridden, Teutonic prose. But Kant was quite capable of turning out a memorable aphorism, like the one from which Crooked Timber takes its name. Writing replete with terms of art, with therefores and hences and consequentlys, has as its motivation the desire to be univocal, to articulate all the steps in an argument and to make their relations clear; this is characteristic of technical philosophy. The aphorism, on the other hand, is a form characteristic of wisdom-literature. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg is an interesting case, both scientist and aphorist. He “transformed scientific experimentation into a writing method for getting new insights into human life, intellect and the soul” (Teichman 232).
Jürgen Teichman. “Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: Experimental Physics from the Spirit of Aphorism”, in Nuova Voltiana 5 (2003) 230–243. Teichman is citing the view of
Albrecht Schöne. Aufklärung aus dem Geist der Experimentalphysik: Lichtenbergsche Konjunktive, 3rd. ed., Beck, 1993 · 3406090877. Teichman also cites, as a critic of Schöne,
Smail Rapic. Erkenntnis und Sprachgebrauch. Lichtenberg und der Englische Empirismus. Wallstein Verlag, 1999. (Lichtenberg-Studien 8) · 3892443319.
() For the views of a predominantly “conceptual” mathematician, see the recent pair of articles on Alexandre Grothendieck in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society:
Allyn Jackson, “Comme Appelé du Néant--As If Summoned from the Void: The Life of Alexandre Grothendieck ”. Notices of the AMS 51, no. 9 (Oct 2004) and no. 10 (Nov 2004). (Access requires establishing a web account, which is free.)
See also
Colin McLarty. “The rising sea: Grothendieck on simplicity and generality I”, at the Grothendieck Circle (Leila Schneps).
() Georges Perec is the champion lipogrammatist. His novel La Disparition (Gallimard, 1969) eschews the letter E. See Alpha Bêta, Georges Perec, Le Bazar (which includes a extract in which Perec retells Moby Dick), etc., etc. Perec later made amends to the letter E by writing Les revenentes. He also wrote a very long palindrome (1247 words). For another Oulipian constraint, see my Autoacronyms page.

LinkApril 2, 2005 in History of Philosophy · Philosophy of Philosophy