Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Why Philosophy?

A very interesting piece has just turned up in the New York Times. The photographer Steve Pyke has been photographing philosophers for 20 years. If you follow the link,


you will see some of these philosophers accompanied by a link to an interesting article by Pyke on the rationale for his study of philosophers. Pyke suggests that philosophy has the edge when it comes to the long game, the point being that in terms of collective memory philosophy transcends the particular issues and concerns of their day and reaches a more essential truth; one that lives on throughout generations. For Pyke, philosophers who are largely unknown in an era "... survive longer in collective memory than wealthy nobleman and politicians, or the popular figures of stage, song and stadium." Indeed, the reason Pyke has pursued his project is to contribute to ongoing fame of philosophers, since for him there is a disjunct between 'living recognition and later recognition.'

This is illuminating for the philosopher's thought and projects, as well as the reception it receives. It is often the case, although not always (Hegel or Heidegger for instance), that the philosopher is not appreciated in his time (Nietzsche, Kierkegaard). On some level, this bespeaks a certain humility writ into the continuation of philosophy. Philosophy maybe loses the battle but wins the war. The ideas of a Plato or Hegel continually novelize themselves for newer generations, and in some sense surpass or transcend the negotiations and tawdry compromises of the day. The theme of the undecidability has had much purchase in recent philosophy, on both strands of the analytic and continental divide. Whatever one's opinion on this, I think that Pyke has hit on something very important about the nature of how philosophy works, and in particular how philosophy transcends this undecidabililty in its transmission.

Philosophy is attuned to the vagaries of its culture, it is embedded in the practical life of that culture and what it can achieve; philosophy in many way is the task of making explicit the lived possibilities and concrete reality of a particular time and place. Rather a philosophy which is obscure (in the sense of fame rather than abstraction) than one which presupposes it stands for the ages. The great philosophers stand or fall on this issue, and a lot could be said about what the great thinkers think about this. Even if there is a Nietzsche who calls for philosophizing with the hammer, which is certainly necessary, but always to the extent to which it is attuned to the truth of concrete and historical reality. The humility of philosophy is generated out of the fact that philosophy is not absolute, but most importantly neither is it terminable. The interminable nature of philosophy is its energy and drive. Merleau-Ponty once suggested that the philosophy of the 21st century will limp along. I never quite knew what that might mean, and why Merleau-Ponty saw it as a virtue, but thanks to Pyke’s brief article, I think I can begin to see the point. A philosophy which is visible in its times, or if philosophy is an indicator of recognition or fame, or stands as a philosophy for the ages, then it becomes a very hollow form of philosophy, one that is bereft of the breath and density one requires to gain a sense of its time.

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