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.

February 26, 2013admin 14 Comments »
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14 Responses to this entry

  • spandrell Says:

    We should call this man to Shanghai for drinks.

    You two talk, I’ll take notes.


    admin Reply:

    His site is here. (It’s called ‘Platonia’ …)
    Definitely looks interesting.


    spandrell Reply:

    I had enough trouble understanding the (very to the point) interview. On Platonia I’ll wait until you make an abridged post about it.


    Posted on February 26th, 2013 at 11:45 am Reply | Quote
  • insignificant Says:

    Are we going to see the second part of this or it’s one of your typical posts with the eternal promise of a sequel yet to come? We don’t have time to wait all night long!


    admin Reply:

    It’s a long night.


    Posted on May 15th, 2013 at 12:58 am Reply | Quote
  • northanger Says:

    Houdini is reported to have said that, though he had often met people who had met people who had seen the Indian rope-trick, despite all his extensive inquiries he had never succeeded in meeting anyone who had seen the Indian rope-trick.

    Philosophers: “long on promise, short on performance”


    Posted on May 15th, 2013 at 2:35 am Reply | Quote
  • Matt Olver Says:

    Kantianism can’t think of Time-in-itself, but can Heidegger? I think Heidegger’s ontology and discussions of technology tie perfectly into the Dark Enlightenment and Neoreaction. Your discussion of philosophical mysticism in this post is very pre-Socratic and very reminiscent of Heidegger. Time-in-itself is always a human construct. I’m just taking a wild hunch but is it true that your PhD was on Heidegger, Nick? Can we expect a multiple part series at some point? I’m very much looking forward to your concluding thoughts in this series of posts on this topic and how they assemble themselves in the Dark Enlightenment.


    admin Reply:

    Congratulations on a level of insight verging on telepathy. To get confessional: I haven’t read a word of Heidegger for 20 years, but there’s been some distinct gnawing — something worming its way out. Some battering against the Question of Being does, indeed, seem overdue. This was already on the ‘to do’ list, but you’ve shunted it forward several notches.


    Matt Olver Reply:

    I’ll take that remark on the bump in priority as a great honor.


    admin Reply:

    I’d reply that “the honor is mine” — but I can’t work out whether that’s polite or self-aggrandizing.

    Posted on July 4th, 2013 at 1:48 pm Reply | Quote
  • Alrenous Says:

    Philosophy is to natural language as mathematics is to numbers. Both are simply names for applied logic.

    Time is best investigated using mathematical language. It is the independent variable.

    As it happens, physics is a system of equations, and to fit those equations together properly, it is necessary that the equations are strictly functions. Functions require an independent variable. We experience it as time.

    Come to think, this may be a consequence of the law of identity. For a thing to be itself, it can’t have more than one set of properties.


    Posted on July 5th, 2013 at 5:50 pm Reply | Quote
  • fotrkd Says:

    Good is better than perfect (Regina Spektor, Man of a Thousand Faces) [Ideally to be played whilst reading]

    Jorge Luis Borges viewed Mark Twain as “one of the really great writers”, despite being or because he was “rather unaware of the fact”. He muses:

    But perhaps in order to write a really great book, you must be rather unaware of the fact.

    Bearing in mind Borges (to his frustration) never wrote anything longer than a long short story, and that he is a truly great writer, the concept of ‘really great book’ needs some unpacking (somewhere), but of more interest for now is the distinction Borges goes on to make between writing and cheap imitation:

    You can slave away at it and change every adjective to some other adjective, but perhaps you can write better if you leave the mistakes. I remember what Bernard Shaw said, that as to style, a writer has as much style as his conviction will give him and not more. Shaw thought that the idea of a game of style was quite nonsensical, quite meaningless. He thought of Bunyan, for example, as a great writer because he was convinced of what he was saying. If a writer disbelieves what he is writing, then he can hardly expect his readers to believe it. In this country [Argentina], though, there is a tendency to regard any kind of writing—especially the writing of poetry—as a game of style. I have known many poets here who have written well—very fine stuff—with delicate moods and so on—but if you talk with them, the only thing they tell you is smutty stories or they speak of politics in the way that everybody does, so that really their writing turns out to be kind of sideshow. They had learned writing in the way that a man might learn to play chess or to play bridge. They were not really poets or writers at all. It was a trick they had learned, and they had learned it thoroughly. They had the whole thing at their finger ends. But most of them—except four or five, I should say—seemed to think of life as having nothing poetic or mysterious about it. They take things for granted. They know that when they have to write, then, well, they have to suddenly become rather sad or ironic.

    In his autobiography (Words), Sartre modestly confesses to being able to imitate most (all?) of the French classical authors from a young age. The films of Lynch (especially when viewed under the appropriate conditions) are masterpieces of cinematography precisely (though not just) because they near-seamlessly shift in their imitation of different genres, often within the same scene, with magical effect. Imitation is not anathema to creativity, but it is a tool to be employed toward a greater end rather than the end in itself.

    When I was flailing around on the floor of a [backwater town] apartment, trying (and failing) to pass my MA, I discovered that I’d forgotten how to write. Completely. It would take an hour to write a sentence (and it still wasn’t ‘right’). The mistake – my mistake – was to view this as a problem rather than having the epiphany it was trying to induce. It’s not uncommon, so I’m told, for MAs and PhDs in particular to throw or wipe you out of the system completely. Mark Fisher talks of “PhD work” that “bullies one into the idea that you can’t say anything about any subject until you’ve read every possible authority on it.” But the reality that was trying to make itself manifest was that I’d never been able to write (a few – very few – drunken words aside). Ever. This – now – isn’t good. But it is better. Which is a start. That’s the point of Bukowski. Bukowski is the literary equivalent of excrement. But it’s real shit. None of your stylised, imitation shit. What’s the point of imitation? There isn’t any. So stop (I did, involuntarily).

    Galileo, with a point which is also well made by the author of The Philosophy of Teaching, ties the notion of writing as here discussed in with its twin – thought:

    The only people who oppose this point of view are a few rigid defenders of philosophical minutiae. These people, as far as I can see, have been brought up and nourished from the very start of their education in this opinion, namely that philosophy is and can be nothing other than continuous study of such texts of Aristotle as can be immediately collected in great numbers from different sources and stuck together to resolve whatever problem is posed. They never want to raise their eyes from these pages as though this great book of the world was not written by nature to be read by others apart from Aristotle, and as though his eyes could see for the whole of posterity after him… (Galileo, The Assayer)

    We may individually never think as far as Aristotle, but we can still embark on the same adventure. I’d not done that before.

    It was like flicking a switch. He erupted in an outburst of shouts and wild, theatrical gesticulations, waving his arms in the air as he cried: At last, at fucking last, Jesus fucking Christ, at last … It was stunning, stupefying. My first impulse was to search for some kind of question, for additional information, but fortunately I suppressed it. Instead I began to think, and it was then that I realized that I hadn’t even been trying before. To think, I mean. It hadn’t even occurred to me to think, at all. That was already to cross a line, seeing that stupid unreflective obstinacy, which I had been. I still remember the moment – the instant – vividly, perfectly…(Duzsl)


    Matt Olver Reply:

    Cheers, fotrkd. This was great. I appreciated the name drops, especially Lynch. Thanks for the song share.


    Posted on July 7th, 2013 at 7:32 pm Reply | Quote
  • O Que é Filosofia? (Parte 1) – Outlandish Says:

    […] Original. […]

    Posted on March 17th, 2017 at 5:37 pm Reply | Quote

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