It can be hard to remember these days that not much more than half a century ago, philosophy was something you read about in general-interest magazines and the better grade of newspapers. Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was an international celebrity; the posthumous publication of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Le Phenomenon Humaine (the English translation, predictably, was titled The Phenomenon of Man) got significant flurries of media coverage; Random House’s Vintage Books label brought out cheap mass-market paperback editions of major philosophical writings from Plato straight through to Nietzsche and beyond, and made money off them.
Though philosophy was never really part of the cultural mainstream, it had the same kind of following as avant-garde jazz, say, or science fiction. At any reasonably large cocktail party you had a pretty fair chance of meeting someone who was into it, and if you knew where to look in any big city—or any college town with pretensions to intellectual culture, for that matter—you could find at least one bar or bookstore or all-night coffee joint where the philosophy geeks hung out, and talked earnestly into the small hours about Kant or Kierkegaard. What’s more, that level of interest in the subject had been pretty standard in the Western world for a very long time.
We’ve come a long way since then, and not in a particularly useful direction. These days, if you hear somebody talk about philosophy in the media, it’s probably a scientific materialist like Neil deGrasse Tyson ranting about how all philosophy is nonsense. The occasional work of philosophical exegesis still gets a page or two in the New York Review of Books now and then, but popular interest in the subject has vanished, and more than vanished: the sort of truculent ignorance about philosophy displayed by Tyson and his many equivalents has become just as common among the chattering classes as a feigned interest in the subject was a half century in the past.
Like most human events, the decline of philosophy in modern times was overdetermined; like the victim in the murder-mystery paperback who was shot, strangled, stabbed, poisoned, whacked over the head with a lead pipe, and then shoved off a bridge to drown, there were more causes of death than the situation actually required. Part of the problem, certainly, was the explosive expansion of the academic industry in the US and elsewhere in the second half of the twentieth century. In an era when every state teacher’s college aspired to become a university and every state university dreamed of rivaling the Ivy League, a philosophy department was an essential status symbol. The resulting expansion of the field was not necessarily matched by an equivalent increase in genuine philosophers, but it was certainly followed by the transformation of university-employed philosophy professors into a professional caste which, as such castes generally do, defended its status by adopting an impenetrable jargon and ignoring or rebuffing attempts at participation from outside its increasingly airtight circle.
Another factor was the rise of the sort of belligerent scientific materialism exemplified, as noted earlier, by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Scientific inquiry itself is philosophically neutral—it’s possible to practice science from just about any philosophical standpoint you care to name—but the claim at the heart of scientific materialism, the dogmatic insistence that those things that can be investigated using scientific methods and explained by current scientific theory are the only things that can possibly exist, depends on arbitrary metaphysical postulates that were comprehensively disproved by philosophers more than two centuries ago. (We’ll get to those postulates and their problems later on.) Thus the ascendancy of scientific materialism in educated culture pretty much mandated the dismissal of philosophy.
There were plenty of other factors as well, most of them having no more to do with philosophy as such than the ones just cited. Philosophy itself, though, bears some of the responsibility for its own decline. Starting in the seventeenth century and reaching a crisis point in the nineteenth, western philosophy came to a parting of the ways—one that the philosophical traditions of other cultures reached long before it, with similar consequences—and by and large, philosophers and their audiences alike chose a route that led to its present eclipse. That choice isn’t irreparable, and there’s much to be gained by reversing it, but it’s going to take a fair amount of hard intellectual effort and a willingness to abandon some highly popular shibboleths to work back to the mistake that was made, and undo it.
To help make sense of what follows, a concrete metaphor might be useful. If you’re in a place where there are windows nearby, especially if the windows aren’t particularly clean, go look out through a window at the view beyond it. Then, after you’ve done this for a minute or so, change your focus and look at the window rather than through it, so that you see the slight color of the glass and whatever dust or dirt is clinging to it. Repeat the process a few times, until you’re clear on the shift I mean: looking through the window, you see the world; looking at the window, you see the medium through which you see the world—and you might just discover that some of what you thought at first glance was out there in the world was actually on the window glass the whole time.
That, in effect, was the great change that shook western philosophy to its foundations beginning in the seventeenth century. Up to that point, most philosophers in the western world started from a set of unexamined presuppositions about what was true, and used the tools of reasoning and evidence to proceed from those presuppositions to a more or less complete account of the world. They were into what philosophers call metaphysics: reasoned inquiry into the basic principles of existence. That’s the focus of every philosophical tradition in its early years, before the confusing results of metaphysical inquiry refocus attention from “What exists?” to “How do we know what exists?” Metaphysics then gives way to epistemology: reasoned inquiry into what human beings are capable of knowing.
That refocusing happened in Greek philosophy around the fourth century BCE, in Indian philosophy around the tenth century BCE, and in Chinese philosophy a little earlier than in Greece. In each case, philosophers who had been busy constructing elegant explanations of the world on the basis of some set of unexamined cultural assumptions found themselves face to face with hard questions about the validity of those assumptions. In terms of the metaphor suggested above, they were making all kinds of statements about what they saw through the window, and then suddenly realized that the colors they’d attributed to the world were being contributed in part by the window glass and the dust on it, the vast dark shape that seemed to be moving purposefully across the sky was actually a beetle walking on the outside of the window, and so on.
The same refocusing began in the modern world with Rene Descartes, who famously attempted to start his philosophical explorations by doubting everything. That’s a good deal easier said than done, as it happens, and to a modern eye, Descartes’ writings are riddled with unexamined assumptions, but the first attempt had been made and others followed. A trio of epistemologists from the British Isles—John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume—rushed in where Descartes feared to tread, demonstrating that the view from the window had much more to do with the window glass than it did with the world outside. The final step in the process was taken by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who subjected human sensory and rational knowledge to relentless scrutiny and showed that most of what we think of as “out there,” including such apparently hard realities as space and time, are actually artifacts of the processes by which we perceive things.
Look at an object nearby: a coffee cup, let’s say. You experience the cup as something solid and real, outside yourself: seeing it, you know you can reach for it and pick it up; and to the extent that you notice the processes by which you perceive it, you experience these as wholly passive, a transparent window on an objective external reality. That’s normal, and there are good practical reasons why we usually experience the world that way, but it’s not actually what’s going on.
What’s going on is that a thin stream of visual information is flowing into your mind in the form of brief fragmentary glimpses of color and shape. Your mind then assembles these together into the mental image of the coffee cup, using your memories of that and other coffee cups, and a range of other things as well, as a template onto which the glimpses can be arranged. Arthur Schopenhauer, about whom we’ll be talking a great deal as we proceed, gave the process we’re discussing the useful label of “representation;” when you look at the coffee cup, you’re not passively seeing the cup as it exists, you’re actively representing—literally re-presenting—an image of the cup in your mind.
There are certain special situations in which you can watch representation at work. If you’ve ever woken up in an unfamiliar room at night, and had a few seconds pass before the dark unknown shapes around you finally turned into ordinary furniture, you’ve had one of those experiences. Another is provided by the kind of optical illusion that can be seen as two different things. With a little practice, you can flip from one way of seeing the illusion to another, and watch the process of representation as it happens.
What makes the realization just described so challenging is that it’s fairly easy to prove that the cup as we represent it has very little in common with the cup as it exists “out there.” You can prove this by means of science: the cup “out there,” according to the evidence collected painstakingly by physicists, consists of an intricate matrix of quantum probability fields and ripples in space-time, which our senses systematically misperceive as a solid object with a certain color, surface texture, and so on. You can also prove this, as it happens, by sheer sustained introspection—that’s how Indian philosophers got there in the age of the Upanishads—and you can prove it just as well by a sufficiently rigorous logical analysis of the basis of human knowledge, which is what Kant did.
The difficulty here, of course, is that once you’ve figured this out, you’ve basically scuttled any chance at pursuing the kind of metaphysics that’s traditional in the formative period of your philosophical tradition. Kant got this, which is why he titled the most relentless of his analyses Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics; what he meant by this was that anybody who wanted to try to talk about what actually exists had better be prepared to answer some extremely difficult questions first. When philosophical traditions hit their epistemological crises, accordingly, some philosophers accept the hard limits on human knowledge, ditch the metaphysics, and look for something more useful to do—a quest that typically leads to ethics, mysticism, or both. Other philosophers double down on the metaphysics and either try to find some way around the epistemological barrier, or simply ignore it, and this latter option is the one that most Western philosophers after Kant ended up choosing. Where that leads—well, we’ll get to that later on.
For the moment, I want to focus a little more closely on the epistemological crisis itself, because there are certain very common ways to misunderstand it. One of them I remember with a certain amount of discomfort, because I made it myself in my first published book, Paths of Wisdom. This is the sort of argument that sees the sensory organs and the nervous system as the reason for the gap between the reality out there—the “thing in itself” (Ding an Sich), as Kant called it—and the representation as we experience it. It’s superficially very convincing: the eye receives light in certain patterns and turns those into a cascade of electrochemical bursts running up the optic nerve, and the visual centers in the brain then fold, spindle, and mutilate the results into the image we see.
The difficulty? When we look at light, an eye, an optic nerve, a brain, we’re not seeing things in themselves, we’re seeing another set of representations, constructed just as arbitrarily in our minds as any other representation. Nietzsche had fun with this one: “What? and others even go so far as to say that the external world is the work of our organs? But then our body, as a piece of this external world, would be the work of our organs! But then our organs themselves would be—the work of our organs!” That is to say, the body is also a representation—or, more precisely, the body as we perceive it is a representation. It has another aspect, but we’ll get to that in a future post.
Another common misunderstanding of the epistemological crisis is to think that it’s saying that your conscious mind assembles the world, and can do so in whatever way it wishes. Not so. Look at the coffee cup again. Can you, by any act of consciousness, make that coffee cup suddenly sprout wings and fly chirping around your computer desk? Of course not. (Those who disagree should be prepared to show their work.) The crucial point here is that representation is neither a conscious activity nor an arbitrary one. Much of it seems to be hardwired, and most of the rest is learned very early in life—each of us spent our first few years learning how to do it, and scientists such as Jean Piaget have chronicled in detail the processes by which children gradually learn how to assemble the world into the specific meaningful shape their culture expects them to get.
By the time you’re an adult, you do that instantly, with no more conscious effort than you’re using right now to extract meaning from the little squiggles on your computer screen we call “letters.” Much of the learning process, in turn, involves finding meaningful correlations between the bits of sensory data and weaving those into your representations—thus you’ve learned that when you get the bits of visual data that normally assemble into a coffee cup, you can reach for it and get the bits of tactile data that normally assemble into the feeling of picking up the cup, followed by certain sensations of movement, followed by certain sensations of taste, temperature, etc. corresponding to drinking the coffee.
That’s why Kant included the “thing in itself” in his account: there really does seem to be something out there that gives rise to the data we assemble into our representations. It’s just that the window we’re looking through might as well be a funhouse mirror: it imposes so much of itself on the data that trickles through it that it’s almost impossible to draw firm conclusions about what’s “out there” from our representations. The most we can do, most of the time, is to see what representations do the best job of allowing us to predict what the next series of fragmentary sensory images will include. That’s what science does, when its practitioners are honest with themselves about its limitations—and it’s possible to do perfectly good science on that basis, by the way.
It’s possible to do quite a lot intellectually on that basis, in fact. From the golden age of ancient Greece straight through to the end of the Renaissance, in fact, a field of scholarship that’s almost completely forgotten today—topics—was an important part of a general education, the kind of thing you studied as a matter of course once you got past grammar school. Topics is the study of those things that can’t be proved logically, but are broadly accepted as more or less true, and so can be used as “places” (in Greek, topoi) on which you can ground a line of argument. The most important of these are the commonplaces (literally, the common places or topoi) that we all use all the time as a basis for our thinking and speaking; in modern terms, we can think of them as “things on which a general consensus exists.” They aren’t truths; they’re useful approximations of truths, things that have been found to work most of the time, things to be set aside only if you have good reason to do so.
Science could have been seen as a way to expand the range of useful topoi. That’s what a scientific experiment does, after all: it answers the question, “If I do this, what happens?” As the results of experiments add up, you end up with a consensus—usually an approximate consensus, because it’s all but unheard of for repetitions of any experiment to get exactly the same result every time, but a consensus nonetheless—that’s accepted by the scientific community as a useful approximation of the truth, and can be set aside only if you have good reason to do so. To a significant extent, that’s the way science is actually practiced—well, when it hasn’t been hopelessly corrupted for economic or political gain—but that’s not the social role that science has come to fill in modern industrial society.
I’ve written here several times already about the trap into which institutional science has backed itself in recent decades, with the enthusiastic assistance of the belligerent scientific materialists mentioned earlier in this post. Public figures in the scientific community routinely like to insist that the current consensus among scientists on any topic must be accepted by the lay public without question, even when scientific opinion has swung around like a weathercock in living memory, and even when unpleasantly detailed evidence of the deliberate falsification of scientific data is tolerably easy to find, especially but not only in the medical and pharmaceutical fields. That insistence isn’t wearing well; nor does it help when scientific materialists insist—as they very often do—that something can’t exist or something else can’t happen, simply because current theory doesn’t happen to provide a mechanism for it.
Too obsessive a fixation on that claim to authority, and the political and financial baggage that comes with it, could very possibly result in the widespread rejection of science across the industrial world in the decades ahead. That’s not yet set in stone, and it’s still possible that scientists who aren’t too deeply enmeshed in the existing order of things could provide a balancing voice, and help see to it that a less doctrinaire understanding of science gets a voice and a public presence.
Doing that, though, would require an attitude we might as well call epistemic modesty: the recognition that the human capacity to know has hard limits, and the unqualified absolute truth about most things is out of our reach. Socrates was called the wisest of the Greeks because he accepted the need for epistemic modesty, and recognized that he didn’t actually know much of anything for certain. That recognition didn’t keep him from being able to get up in the morning and go to work at his day job as a stonecutter, and it needn’t keep the rest of us from doing what we have to do as industrial civilization lurches down the trajectory toward a difficult future.
Taken seriously, though, epistemic modesty requires some serious second thoughts about certain very deeply ingrained presuppositions of the cultures of the West. Some of those second thoughts are fairly easy to reach, but one of the most challenging starts with a seemingly simple question: is there anything we experience that isn’t a representation? In the weeks ahead we’ll track that question all the way to its deeply troubling destination.
Teaser photo credit: Statue of David Hume by Alexander Stoddart on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. By Bandan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29332424