What is Philosophy? (Part 1)
The agenda of Outside in is to cajole the new reaction into philosophical exertion. So what is philosophy? The crudest answer to this question is probably the most robust.
Philosophy is any culture’s pole of maximum abstraction, or intrinsically experimental intelligence, expressing the liberation of cognitive capabilities from immediate practical application, and their testing against ‘ultimate’ problems at the horizon of understanding. Historically, it is a distinctive cultural enterprise — and only later an institution — roughly 2,500 years old, and tightly entangled at its origin with the ‘mystical’ or problematic aspect of pagan religions. It was within this primordial matrix that it encountered its most basic and enduring challenge: the edge of time (its nature, limits, and ‘outside’, of which much more later). The earliest philosophers were cognitively self-disciplined — and thus, comparatively, socially unconstrained — pagan mystics, consistently enthralled by the enigma of time.
It is usually a mistake to get hung up on words, forgetting their function as sheer indices (‘names’) that simply mark things, before they richly describe them. Personal names typically have meanings, but it is rare to allow this to distract from their function as names, or pointers, which make more reference than sense. ‘Philosophy’ is no exception. That it ‘means’ the love of wisdom is an irrelevance compared to what it designates, which is something that was happening — before it had a name — in ancient Greece (and perhaps, by plausible extension, China, India, and even Egypt). What philosophy ‘is’ cannot be deduced via linguistic analysis, however subtle this may be.
Plato summarized and institutionalized (Western) philosophy, drawing the edge of time in the doctrine of Ideas (ἰδέαι). Time was conceived as the domain of the inessential, within which things appeared, whilst only hinting at their truth. “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato,”
A. N. Whitehead famously remarked (in his aptly entitled Process and Reality). Yet, because the Idea of time necessarily eluded the Platonic philosophy, the endeavor remained unresolved in its fundamentals.
The thinking of Aristotle, which dominated the Christian pre-modernity, drove primordial philosophy further into eclipse. His derivation of time from change and — more promisingly — number opened the path to later technical advances, but at the cost of making the enigma of time unintelligible, and even invisible. The problem was relegated to theology, and thus to the topic of the temporal and eternal, which was cluttered with extraneous doctrinal elements (creation, incarnation, the inconsistent tangle of the three ‘omni-‘s), making it ill-suited to rigorous investigation.
Primordial philosophy was not reactivated in the West until the late 18th century, under the name ‘transcendental’ critique, in the work of Immanuel Kant. The Kantian critical philosophy limits the scope of understanding to the world of possible experience, always already structured by forms of apprehension (conceptual and sensible), producing objects. The confusion of objects with their forms of apprehension, or ‘conditions of possibility’, he argues, is the root of all philosophical error (for instance — and most pertinently — the ‘metaphysical’ attempt to comprehend time as some thing, rather than as a structure or framework of appearance). Unlike Plato’s forms or ideas, Kant’s forms are applied, and thus ‘immanent’ to experience. They are accessible, though ‘transcendental’, rather than inaccessibly ‘transcendent’.
Time, or ‘the form of inner sense’, is the capstone of Kant’s system, organizing the integration of concepts with sensations, and thus describing the boundaries of the world (of possible experience). Beyond it lie eternally inaccessible ‘noumenal’ tracts — problematically thinkable, but never experienced — inhabited by things-in-themselves. The edge of time, therefore, is the horizon of the world.
In the early 20th century, cosmological physics was returned to the edge of time, and the question: what ‘came before’ the Big Bang? For cosmology no less than for transcendental philosophy — or even speculative theology — this ‘before’ could not be precedence (in time), but only (non-spatial) outsideness, beyond singularity. It indicated a timeless non-place cryptically adjacent to time, and even inherent to it. The carefully demystified time of natural science, calculable, measurable, and continuous, now pointed beyond itself, re-activated at the edges.
Just as Platonism cannot think the Idea of time, Kantianism cannot think Time-in-itself. These conceptions are foreclosed by the very systems of philosophy that provoke them. Yet all those who find themselves immediately tempted to dismiss Kant on naturalistic grounds — the overwhelming majority of contemporary moderns, no doubt — tacitly evoke exactly this notion. If time is released from its constriction within transcendental idealism, where it is nothing beyond what it is for us, then it cannot but be ‘something’ in itself. It is scarcely imaginable that a cosmological physicist could doubt this for a moment, and the path of science cannot long be refused.
Time-in-itself, therefore, is now the sole and singular problem of primordial philosophy, where the edge of time runs. It decides what is philosophy, and what philosophy cannot but be. What remains besides is either subordinate in principle, or mere distraction. Institutions will insist upon their authority to answer this question, but ultimately they have none. It is the problem — the edge of time — that has its way.