Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Philosophy Ex Nihilo vs. Intertextual Philosophy

How original can a philosopher's philosophy be? If it were utterly original (with no links to any previous philosophy), then perhaps it wouldn't be philosophy at all.

Take the “radicals” in the analytic tradition.

Eliminative materialists and Quinians, for example, needed to share some kind of a philosophical language with their contemporaries (as well as with the tradition) otherwise their chosen language would have been inscrutable.

Perhaps in another world there could be another philosophy that's totally alien to our own. However, now we can ask:

Why is it philosophy at all if it shares nothing with our philosophies – that is, if it's truly alien?

Schopenhauer once asked the following question (to paraphrase):

      Why do philosophers never step outside books [“texts”]?

Schopenhauer was very critical of the parasitical nature (as he saw it) of much philosophy - i.e. the philosopher's reliance on other philosophers' texts. This was a philosophical point about what some Continental philosophers have called “intertextuality”. Thus if Schopenhauer had spoken in contemporary terms, he might have said that intertextual webs trap many of us (philosophically speaking).

Derrida might have said, in response, that Schopenhauer was fooling himself if he really thought that he'd personally escaped all webs - or snares - of intertextuality. We're all trapped in them. As the deconstructivist car mechanic said to John Searle, "there's nothing outside the text”.

What would a philosophical a priori (as it were) be like? A philosophy untouched by other philosophies (that is, other texts)? Take Bryan Magee's account of his own ex nihilo philosophising:

Until I went to university it never entered my head to associate any of these [philosophical] questions with the word 'philosophy'…I discovered that this is what they were…I had grown up a natural Kantian…I discovered…that I had been immersed in philosophical problems all my life.” [1997]

What a strange passage. Magee's not claiming to be "outside language"; though he is claiming to have been outside philosophy. He was claiming that we have a kind of quasi-Chomskian Philosophising Faculty which we're all born with. Though if he wasn't claiming that about a universal philosophising faculty, then he must have been making a claim about himself and himself alone. That claim must be that he was somehow genetically programmed to philosophise in the particular manner in which he did in fact philosophise.

If the first option is taken (the quasi-Chomskian philosophising faculty), then many - if not all - young children (throughout the world) would be asking the same questions that Magee asked when he was a young child. Many children do indeed ask certain philosophical questions. So which questions and problems was Magee talking about?

As he put it, questions and problems that he later realised were Kantian, Schopenhauerian, Leibnizian and Wittgensteinian in nature. If that's the case, then why weren't Kantian and Leibnizian, - never mind Wittgensteinian - problems raised years before the birth of these particular philosophers? If these questions and problems are so natural (Magee claimed to be a "natural Kantian"), why are they certainly not asked in other cultures in our own time (unless they come into contact with Western philosophy)? There may indeed well be certain philosophical givens (Thomas Nagel believes this to be the case); though they certainly aren't, say, Wittgensteinian givens. Any givens uncovered by empirical research tend to be more theological, mystical or spiritual in aspect; rather than strictly speaking philosophical.

It's of course possible that Magee was an incredible genius who not only came to Kantian questions and problems without the help of Kant; but also to Leibnizian and Wittgensteinian problems and questions without their help! (He did, however, rather modestly claim that he didn't find "solutions for them".)

In the end it will be an empirical study which will determine whether Kantian, Leibnizian, etc. problems and questions are really part of the philosophical a priori. From my own knowledge and philosophical reflections, I suspect that they aren't.

Intertextual Philosophy

So where did Kant's Kantian problems and questions come from?They came largely from other philosophers. Where did Leibniz’s Leibnizian problems come from? Ditto.

Kant wouldn't have been a Kantian, unlike Magee, without the problem of the impasse between Rationalism and Empiricism (as well as the scepticism of Hume). Schopenhauer wouldn't have been a Schopenhauerian (again, unlike Magee) without Kant and the work of the German Idealists before him (amongst other things).

Thus perhaps Magee simply felt inclined (when he got older) to squeeze his own childhood questions and problems into, say, a Kantian hole.

Schopenhauer saw himself in the way in which Magee saw himself. He saw himself as a kind of aprioristic philosopher. He didn't only take a position on the a priori within philosophy; but also an a priori position towards philosophy itself. He thought that the best way to do philosophy isn't to read – too many? - philosophical texts. (Wittgenstein also claimed this.)

Yet in his early life Schopenhauer confessed to being more or less obsessed with Kant. Thus Schopenhauer simply took an independent position on philosophy after the fact. He was like a car driver with an extra large petrol tank who fills it up to the brim and then claims to his fellow car drivers that his car doesn't need (much) petrol. Of course Schopenhauer effectively lived off his memories of other philosophers' texts.

As for intertextuality as it applies to other philosophers.

Take William G. Lycan’s paper ‘The Continuity of Levels of Nature’. It includes fifty-two references to other philosophers’ texts. Jaegwon Kim’s ‘Supervenience as a Philosophical Concept’ has fifty-one such references. On the other hand, Geoffrey Bennington’s paper, ‘Derrida’, has three references to texts by other philosophers (other than those by Derrida himself).

When a student of analytic philosophy or a philosopher of mind thinks about the nature of mind, all he primarily does is read and think about what, for example, Jerry Fodor and Dan Dennett have said about the nature of mind. Thus he may be caught in Fodor's or Dennett’s intertextual trap. (Though it’s unlikely that any philosopher of mind would rely on just two philosophers of mind.) All his responses, reactions and commentaries on the nature of mind will be largely intertextual in nature.

Thus when students study philosophy at university, it seems that reading texts often seems far more important than, well, thinking and reasoning. Though this can be deemed a very aprioristic and therefore naive position.

On the other hand, many philosophers (or wannabe philosophers) would like to flatter themselves with the view that their philosophical views have occurred ex nihilo. True ex nihilo philosophical thought may be as unlikely as ex nihilo mental volition or origination. As I said, there may be some cognitive givens; though whether or not they are truly philosophical is open to debate. They certainly aren't Kantian or Wittgensteinian givens.

Where would the novice aprioristic philosopher get his concepts and tools from? He wouldn’t have the vocabulary to philosophise with in the first place. He wouldn’t even feel the need to ask philosophical questions without the spur of preceding philosophy.

As Derrida put it [1967] in a slightly difference context (as well as to paraphrase):

The apriorist philosopher would still think or speak Greek.

Derrida himself - despite his deconstructions! - admitted to being a “Jew-Greek”. He said that he lived in a “house” which had been built for him by (religious) Jews and philosophical Greeks.


Derrida, Jacques. (1967/1978) 'Violence and Metaphysics'
Kim, Jaegwon. (1990) 'Supervenience as a Philosophical Concept'
Lycan, William G. (1987) 'The Continuity of Levels of Nature'
Magee, Bryan. (1997) Confessions of a Philosopher
Schopenhauer, Arthur. (1851) 'On Thinking for Oneself'


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