What a philosopher is not

Three brief encounters: 1) Concerning my work in philosophy, I was recently asked if I learned about “meditation and that kind of thing”. 2) If this confusion over what philosophy is to those outside the university should seem surprising, consider the fact that the column in the NY Times devoted to exposing the public to philosophy is called “The Stone”. 3) A seller on Amazon (GRACEANDPROVISIONS) advertises a used copy of a technical book on modality with the “warning” that the book “contains false doctrine and will come with a free truthful Bible tract” (in caps). Interestingly, on casual perusal, no other book in this seller’s catalogue (including The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche and The Chinese Way in Religion) is accompanied by this comment.

While an explanation of the last of these oddities would be apposite (and much appreciated), the philosopher’s onus cannot be explanation if for no other reason than that explanation presupposes criteria of understanding that are either unavailable for those to whom it would apply or are those that in this case would require the very explanation of what is not understood. History has shown beyond redemption that the price for justification is the very existence of philosophy. The philosopher is not the defender of reason (since those for whom such defense is necessary are those from whom it is) nor its advocate (what would be gained from convincing the faithful that philosophy contains no “doctrine”)?

There are many ways to renounce the philosophical imperative. Among the most perilous—yet the most naïve—of these reproduces the activity of philosophy as a leisure (schole): a bourgeois endeavor for young people who have nothing better to do or for the disenchanted and socially awkward. The onus of the philosopher is not to explain what philosophy is but to advance what philosophy can do. The only philosophy to survive the present barbarism shall be that which refuses to believe that this—the melancholy, solicitude, and enjoyment of experience—is sufficient.

Parmenides in the Night

What are the desiderata for a critical philosophy? Reference to its object cannot be separated from the contingency of subjective experience, which manifests in the need or the demand for criticism in “destruction”. Destruction, however, is not merely negative and could only be so if we considered the dialectical character of criticism a method. The relation of criticism to its object—or, more precisely, to the world of critique—then becomes a problem of indirect signification or distance, i.e., the continuous separation of criticism (and thought) from its object—the non-identity of thinking with its object (and, ultimately, to itself). Hence the “negativity” of dialectics consists in its resistance to identity-thinking (whose preconditions include the affirmation of a world according to the reification of categories). The task of criticism subsequently becomes an aesthetics (or perhaps an ethics) of subjectification—i.e., what are the forms of experience through which non-identity appears such that we can “give an account of ourselves”?

But: is this the only model of dialectical criticism? In Kant, the non-identity of subject and object is rigorously maintained, dialectically, in discourse through the mediation of language. What if, on the other hand, we could speak of a “dialectics of the idea” (idea as neither intentional nor reflective)? The idea as structure and not object—hence not quite an “objective idealism” but an “ideal idealism” in which we refuse the notion that the idea of the idea is an idea (Plato, Parmenides). If form is the principle of being, the idea secures the relation of being to thought with the consequence that the idea of an idea is simply representation.