The Failures of Philosophy: A Historical Essay, by Stephen Gaukroger

Jane O’Grady grapples with an ambitious attempt to rethink the development of philosophy from the ancient Greeks until today

February 4, 2021
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“What is philosophy?” This, inevitably, is one of the many questions philosophers philosophise about. But they tend to assume, writes philosopher Stephen Gaukroger, that what they consider philosophical questions are “perennial” and embody perennial concerns – as if philosophy had an identity that surmounted all particular schools of philosophy, as if it were an enquiry into every other type of enquiry, including philosophy itself.

Yet the fact that philosophy is seen as “the canonical form of reflection on the world” is, argues Gaukroger, only a historical accident, and due to the development of a particular type of thought. Rather than a single philosophical enterprise or heritage, there is a discontinuous plurality of “specific projects”, each of which was inspired and shaped by “extra-philosophical aims” but then failed to meet them and was therefore abandoned. This brought what had hitherto counted as philosophy to an end – until a fresh project with different aims and demands arose out of changed social and cultural circumstances.

“What is it that we want out of philosophy?” is Gaukroger’s guiding question as he chronologically outlines some of these projects. Thus Descartes, apparently, only moved from “natural philosophy” (science) to philosophy proper because of his desire, prompted by Galileo’s persecution, to defend heliocentric cosmology; and he modelled his view of perception on the optics of the newly discovered telescope.

Here, it might be asked whether Gaukroger (emeritus professor of the history of philosophy at the University of Sydney) is doing anything significantly different from other historians of philosophy who examine cultural, religious and political influences on it. But such influences are usually considered external, distinct from philosophy itself. Gaukroger is trying to do something much subtler, so subtle as to sometimes be baffling, although always scholarly and intriguing.

At the outset, he challenges the standard idea that Western philosophy began when, in the 6th century BC, Thales pronounced that water is the arche (basic principle) underlying everything else. That, says Gaukroger, is Aristotle’s interpretation of Thales, who in fact was simply “reaffirming a commonplace view”, the myth that the ocean was the cosmic origin.

Although it is unclear how important this contention is, Gaukroger’s account of the first of philosophy’s “failures” is indeed significant. The earliest thinkers to call themselves philosophers, he writes, were Greeks in the 4th century BC. They were pledged, as Chinese and Indian philosophers still are, to giving an account of the good life and how to live it. What they inherited from pre-classical thought was the concept of metis (“cunning” or “ingenuity” in tackling, and often reversing, the natural course of events) – a “first-order cognitive engagement with the world” similar to the Chinese shi of the same period (although shi focused on military strategy). With Socrates and Plato, however, metis was gradually discarded. The debate in Plato’s early dialogues over whether virtue is techne (a partly cognitive skill) or episteme (knowledge) was eventually, in the later ones, settled in favour of episteme understood as purely intellectual understanding. Philosophy had adopted a detached “panoramic” view, seeking to discover the essences that underlie change – Plato’s eternal immaterial forms, Aristotle’s substance.

But, asks Gaukroger, does reflection on morality necessarily issue in moral behaviour? Such reflection was, anyway, for Plato, purely the province of philosophers who, after long years of study, were nearer to knowing the forms and the Form of the Good that imbued them, and were thereby uniquely fitted to govern the state. Was it, then, only philosophers who were capable of virtue? What does knowing the Form of the Good amount to? The “abstraction” philosophy had developed “caused it to be disengaged from the very behaviour that it [had] set out to describe and evaluate”, claims Gaukroger. The famous Socratic elenchus, the deductive reasoning so well honed in Plato’s dialogues, was conducive to skilful argument but not to moral practice.

According to Gaukroger, Aristotle, Stoicism and Epicureanism also, in different ways, failed at the task for which classical philosophy was originally designed: discovering how we should live. Christianity, however, purported to answer that question in a non-philosophical way. Instead of confining moral understanding to the intellect, it tackled the diversity, specificity and complexity of moral judgements in daily life. It gave emotion, illuminated in Greek drama but neglected in Plato’s ethics, a central place in the moral life – often a negative one, of course – but whereas the Stoics had considered emotions an obstruction to the good life, for Christians they were, ideally, a spur to virtue. Ancient philosophy, which St Augustine claimed was “Christianity minus the sacraments”, was partly incorporated into Christianity, its techniques used in tackling, and justifying, abstruse theological points.

By the 5th century, philosophy, already Christianised, had, in Gaukroger’s view, been “replaced”. Fraught disputes such as that over transubstantiation, however, increasingly revealed “the need for philosophy” – as a discipline separate from theology, not merely a tool to supply its rationales. Although meeting resistance, therefore, “an autonomous form of philosophy re-emerged” from the 13th century onwards.

Gaukroger’s accounts of subsequent “failures of philosophy” are insufficiently clear-cut, and less convincing. In the 18th century, he says, philosophy was unable to “associate or align reason and sensibility” but, thanks to thinkers such as David Hume, sensibility and emotion trumped reason, not only in ethics but also in epistemology, while philosophy was gradually naturalised, treating us as merely physical beings. Yes, but surely Hume’s use of reason itself to dismantle reason, and his dexterous, self-contradictory scepticism, were recognisably within the discipline of his philosophical forebears? So, too, despite what Gaukroger says, was Kant: while lamenting that philosophy had gone astray, he took up its baton from Hume.

Philosophy’s most recent debacle, according to Gaukroger, was to transfer its “totalizing aspirations” to science. Taking science as its model, “philosophy is now a shadow of its former self”. But his regret surely assumes that until the 20th century, philosophy had a transhistorical identity that he elsewhere denies. Otherwise, what could this “self” be? Gaukroger seems to acknowledge a distinctive way of tackling the issues of which “philosophy” at any one time consists, and that may constitute an identity of some sort. Yet his aim, apparently, was to analyse the way philosophical techniques are necessarily tailored to the particular “philosophy” they inhabit and have been designed for. Isn’t he guilty of the very fault he diagnoses – seeing past “philosophies” through the lens of his own? Today’s philosophers anachronistically struggle to find the strict consistency demanded by analytic philosophy in places where it was not intended; past philosophies are interpreted, even rejigged, so as to fit current notions of logical rigour and semantic precision. In so far as he himself does this, Gaukroger could say that is inevitable. Perhaps, like Hume, he knowingly, even deliberately, makes himself subject to the very constraints that he claims other philosophers are unaware of. Ultimately, for him, too, “philosophy has no ‘outside’”. He thus proves his own argument by disproving it.

The Failures of Philosophy is paradoxical and sometimes hard going but always fascinating. Whether or not he succeeds in establishing either his thesis or even quite what it is, Gaukroger offers extraordinary insights and throws new light on philosophy and its past.

Jane O’Grady is a co-founder of the London School of Philosophy and taught philosophy of psychology at City, University of London. She is the author of Enlightenment Philosophy in a Nutshell (2019).

The Failures of Philosophy: A Historical Essay
By Stephen Gaukroger
Princeton University Press, 316pp, £30.00
ISBN 9780691207506
Published 3 November 2020

The author

Stephen Gaukroger, emeritus professor of the history of philosophy and the history of science at the University of Sydney, was born in Oldham, Lancashire and spent his childhood there. He studied philosophy at what is now Birkbeck, University of London and went on to a PhD at the University of Cambridge. He served as a research fellow at Clare Hall and then the University of Melbourne before moving to Sydney in 1981.

For the past 20 years, says Gaukroger, he has worked on a four-part study of “the emergence of a scientific culture in the West”; the final volume, Civilization and the Culture of Science: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1795-1935, was published in 2020. He then planned “a through-composed history of philosophy, one that traced a continuous story rather than simply listing the achievements of philosophers in chronological order. But in pursuing this and exploring in some depth the point of philosophical enquiry, it became clear that there was no continuous story to tell, but rather a series of exercises with different goals, which they [philosophers] ultimately failed to achieve.”

So what kinds of lessons for philosophers would Gaukroger draw from the argument of The Failures of Philosophy?

Rather than seeing the discipline as “some universal form of wholly abstract thought”, he replies, we should accept that it “comprises culturally specific modes of engaging with the world which have their own unique difficulties, weaknesses and achievements. At the same time, the book highlights how engaging with some questions philosophically has been inappropriate and fruitless.

“One of the most important lessons was already drawn by Hume: philosophy is indispensable if we are to subject the things we believe to critical reflection, but at the same time, we need to exercise judgement on its capacities since it is a resource that can fall out of control and become self-perpetuating, leading us up blind alleys.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: If at first you don’t succeed, think again

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