MV#15: What is philosophy? — Simon Critchley

From what human need does philosophy emerge? And where can it lead us?

Simon Critchley is Hans Jonas professor of Philosophy at the New School in New York, and a scholar of Heidegger, Pessoa, Football (Liverpool FC), humour. He crosses over between analytic and continental traditions and freely draws on quotes from Hume and British pop bands.

Simon argues that philosophy begins in disappointment, not wonder. But it does not end there, its goals can be wisdom, knowledge, enlightenment, and freedom. Its concerns can be yet more varied: it can work as a tool for developing scientific theories, for exposing ideology, or for tracing the underpinnings of language and experience. Anywhere where other fields fear to tread, that’s where philosophers step in.

Since recording with Simon, one question has kept turning over in my head: how important is context to the understanding of philosophical ideas? An issue we discussed towards the end of the interview and did not quite have sufficient time to loop around as many times as I would have liked.

On the one hand, I believe in such things as facts and truth. I believe that science and some philosophical reasoning can deliver us these — although I recognize that belief cannot be justified beyond doubt. It is an act of faith. However, certain types of things, for example, facts concerning the laws of physics, I take to be impervious to our attitudes and human concerns. Why we believe them, and why we even look for them, are valid sociological and phenomenological questions. Yet the evidence for these facts can be produced usefully without any reference to historical context and the facts themselves do not depend on human factors.

In this way, to the question of whether the sun existed before humans — the subject of a heated discussion between Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Georges Bataille and A J Ayer in a Parisian bar — my answer is yes.

And yet.

There are questions that philosophy asks about issues that have no basis in fact. Impossible objects.

I recently asked ChatGPT to produce some predictions about the future for a project I am working on (What Year is Now? A Hallucinatory Horological Mapping). There are some obvious errors with the below — the tercentenary of the first interdimensional travel falling in 2307 would imply we first made that leap back in 2007. I suppose that’s possible if the dimension in question is time.

More interesting is what is predicted for 2306:

2306: Interdimensional exploration reveals the nature of existence itself


I do not think that will happen. I don’t think it can. Determining the nature of existence is a question we cannot solve, even though there is value in turning it over, the value is not to get to an answer. It’s a means justify the ends (and btw there are no ends) sort of question.

For questions like this, and more particularly questions about the meaning of existence, context is important. Consider also questions in ethics and meta-ethics. There are no truths to be had here, and what is right for society — perhaps even the right way of thinking for society — will depend on that society. For example, in times of high uncertainty, where predictions are costly and inaccurate (perhaps this moment?) we might have reasons to consider virtue ethics over consequentialist frameworks.

Does it matter that I write this on Sunday morning, in 2023, in a stony city, that the sun — prehistoric or not — is hidden by several layers of cloud? It’s not for me to say.

Some links


(00:00) Intro
(3:00) Beginning of conversation: disappointment as the start of the journey
(7:55) Punk & Philosophy
(11:20) Trauma and tabula rasa
(12:30) Not making it in a band, becoming a philosopher
(19:30) Wittgenstein as a bridge between analytic and continental philosophy
(21:50) Mill and the origin of the label “continental philosophy”
(24:30) Philosophy has a duty to be part of culture
(28:00) The difficulty with philosophy being an academic tradition
(29:30) The Stone
(32:30) Football as a phenomenon for study that invites people in to philosophy
(35:00) Philosophy as pre-theoretic & Pessoa’s Ultimatum
(39:00) Will analytic philosophy run out for road and be subsumed into science?
(41:00) Two lines of human imagination
(42:00) Should philosophy ever be a single honours subject, or should it always aid other realms of thought?
(43:00) Philosophy as pre-science
(44:30) Phenomenology as reflection on the lived world
(47:00) Alberto Caeiro (Pessoa) and anti-poetry
(48:50) The saying of ordinary things to fascinate angels
(54:00) Impossible objects will keep philosophers busy
(57:00) The task of philosophy as deflationary, as not making progress
(1:00:00) Should philosophy of physics be part of physics?
(1:04:30) Context: What can’t I read Descartes like I’m talking to your right now?
(1:06:00) Is context colour or is it inseparable from ideas?
(1:15:30) Rorty: Continental philosophy as proper names vs problems in analytic philsophy
(1:19:20) Trying to walk the line between two traditions of philosophy
(1:20:00) Obscurantism vs scientism
(1:23:00) Permission to think on their own, to expose ideology
(1:26:00) The internet has been good for philosophy
(1:26:30) Audio as a new platform or agora for philosophy

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