What is a Work of Philosophy?
1. By “philosophy” (aka “real philosophy”), I mean synoptic, systematic, rational reflection on the individual and collective human condition, and on the thoroughly nonideal natural and social world in which human and other conscious animals live, move, and have their being.
1.1 But the primary aim of real philosophy is to change one’s own life, with a further, ultimate aim of changing the world through free, existentially authentic, morally-principled action, hence all philosophy is liberationist and rationally rebellious, with radical ethical, religious, and political aims, or what I call, collectively, radical enlightenment.[i]
1.2 Real philosophy in this sense fully includes the knowledge yielded by the natural and formal sciences; but real philosophy also goes significantly beneath and beyond the exact sciences, and non-reductively incorporates aesthetic, artistic, affective/emotional, ethical/moral, and, more generally, personal and practical insights that cannot be adequately captured or explained by the sciences.
1.3 By “a work,” I mean any freely chosen product of human activity, whether an object (material or intentional), or a performance.
1.4 So works of philosophy are freely chosen products of the human activity of real philosophy, whether an object (material or intentional), or a performance.
2. In the Critique of the Power of Judgment, Kant says that there are “aesthetic idea[s],” by which he means,
[a] representation of the imagination that occasions much thinking though without it being possible for any determinate thought, i.e., concept, to be adequate to it, which, consequently, no language fully attains or can make intelligible…, [and] [o]ne readily sees that it is the counterpart (pendant) of an idea of reason, which is, conversely, a concept to which no intuition (representation of the imagination) can be adequate. (CPJ 5: 314)
2.1 In other words, an aesthetic idea is a non-empirical, metaphysical representation, like an “idea of pure reason,” but also non-discursive and non-conceptual, hence linguistically inexpressible by means of concepts, propositions, or Fregean “thoughts,” precisely to the extent that it is a product of human sensible imagination.
3. Kant himself does not make this point, but I think that the doctrine of aesthetic ideas has profound meta-philosophical implications: philosophy need not necessarily be theoretically expressed.
3.1 Correspondingly, I think that there is a fundamental distinction between
(i) works of philosophy (aka “philosophical works”) and
(ii) philosophical theories,
such that the category of “philosophical works” is essentially wider and more inclusive than the category of philosophical theories—and more generally, philosophical theorizing is only one way of creating and presenting philosophy, as important as it is.
4. The aim of philosophical theories is to provide philosophical explanations that lead to essential, synoptic insights about the rational human condition, guided by the norms of propositional truth and logical consistency, by means of conceptual construction and conceptual reasoning.
4.1 A similarly open-minded conception of philosophical theorizing, in the tradition of connective conceptual analysis, was developed by Robert Nozick in his influential book, Philosophical Explanations.[ii]
4.2 But I think that Nozick’s conception is still too much in the grip of the deeply wrongheaded, scientistic idea that all philosophy must be modeled on natural science, mathematics, or logic.
5. In my view, the aim of philosophical works, as such, is to present insights about the rational human condition and the thoroughly nonideal natural and social world around us, with synoptic scope, and a priori/necessary character, tracking categorical normativity and our highest values, as I said above, with the primary aim of changing one’s own life, and the ultimate aim of changing the world, hence expressing radical enlightenment.
5.1 But this can be achieved even without concepts, propositions, arguments, or theories, in an essentially non-conceptual way, by presenting imagery, pictures, structures, etc., that have strictly universal and strongly modal implications, and categorically normative force.
5.2 These essentially non-conceptual insights could also be called “truths,” if we use the term “truth” sufficiently broadly—as in “the truth shall set you free.”
5.3 My basic point is that philosophy should be as much aimed at being inspiring and visionary, as it is at being argumentative and explanatory.
6. Pivoting on that basic point, here is a proposal for five disjunctively necessary, individually minimally sufficient, and collectively fully sufficient criteria for something W—where W is a work, that is, as per 1.1, any freely chosen product of human activity, whether an object (material or intentional), or a performance—to count as “a work of philosophy”:
(i) W provides a philosophical theory or a visionary worldview (or both),
(ii) W negatively or positively engages with earlier or contemporary philosophical ideas,
(iii) W expresses and follows a philosophical method,
(iv) W contains an explicit or implicit “philosophy of philosophy,” a metaphilosophy,
(v) W deals with some topic or topics germane to the rational human condition, within a maximally broad range of issues, encompassing epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, history, culture, society, politics, aesthetics, art, formal and natural science, religion, and so-on.[iii]
7. Given how I defined the term “a work,” by my use of the term “works” in the phrase “works of philosophy,” I mean something as broad as its use in “works of art.”
7.1 So there is no assumption or presupposition whatsoever here that works of philosophy must be written or spoken texts, although obviously many or most works of philosophy have been and are written or spoken texts.
8. Correspondingly, I want to put forward two extremely important metaphilosophical theses that conform to this conception of works of philosophy.
(i) the thesis of presentational hylomorphism in works of philosophy (PHWP), and
(ii) the thesis of presentational polymorphism in works of philosophy (PPWP).
8.1 PHWP says:
There is an essential connection, and in particular, an essential complementarity, between the presentational form (morphê) of philosophical works and their philosophical content (hyle).
8.2 “Content” here is cognitive-semantic content, but this content can be
either (i) conceptual,
or (ii) essentially non-conceptual,
and also it can be
either (iii) theoretical content
or (iv) non-theoretical content, including, aesthetic/artistic, affective/emotive, pragmatic, moral, political, or religious content.
8.3 Also, (i) and (ii) cross-cut with (iii) and (iv).
8.4 Hence there can be conceptual content that is either theoretical or non-theoretical, and there can be essentially non-conceptual content that is either theoretical or non-theoretical.
9. The first thing that PHWP implies, is the intimate connection between truly creative, ground-breaking works of philosophy, and truly creative, original forms of literary and spoken philosophical expression.
9.1 Thus Socrates created philosophical works entirely by conversation; Plato did it by writing dialogues; Aristotle did it by presenting (it seems) nothing but lectures; Descartes wrote meditations; Locke and Hume wrote treatises; Kant wrote the Critiques; Kierkegaard wrote strange pseudonymous books; Nietzsche wrote poetry and aphorisms; Wittgenstein wrote the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations, both of them completely original, completely different, and equally uncategorizable; and so on.
9.2 The second thing that PHWP implies is that since all works of written and spoken philosophy are essentially connected to their literary style and expressive vehicles, then it is a mistake to impose a needlessly restrictive stylistic and expressive straight-jacket on works of philosophy, e.g., the standard professional “journal essay,” “200+ page book,” and “philosophy talk.”
9.3 And a third thing that PHWP implies is that since the standard view of philosophical content in the analytic tradition—whether as logical analysis, linguistic analysis, conceptual analysis, analytic metaphysics, or scientific naturalism—is that the content of philosophy is exclusively conceptual and theoretical, then recognizing the essential non-conceptuality and non-theoreticality of philosophical content, completely opens up the way we should be thinking about works of philosophy, in three ways.
9.4 First, all written and spoken philosophy is in fact shot through with imagery, poetry, rhetorical devices, and speech-acts of various kinds.
9.5 Second, philosophy need not necessarily be presented (exclusively) in written or spoken form. There could be works of philosophy that are cinematic, diagrammed or drawn, painted, photographed, musical (instrumental or voiced), sculpted, performed like dances or plays, etc., etc., and perhaps above all, mixed works combining written or spoken forms of presentation and one or more non-linguistic forms or vehicles.
9.6 Third, if philosophical content is as apt to be essentially non-conceptual or non-theoretical as it is to be conceptual or theoretical, then there are vast realms of philosophical meaning that very few philosophers, even the most brilliant and great ones, have ever even attempted to explore.
10. Therefore, in full view of PHWP, we also have PPWP:
Philosophy can be expressed in any presentational format whatsoever, provided it satisfies PHWP.
11. If this is all correct, then PHWP and PPWP collectively imply that philosophers, for all their historical, recent, and contemporary activity, their mountains of publications, their hundreds of thousands (millions?) of “talks,” etc., etc.,
(i) have, thus far in the history of philosophy, only scratched or touched on the outermost surface and potential of what philosophical works can be and do (that’s the positive, exciting thought), and
(ii) as card-carrying contemporary professional academic philosophers, they’re systematically strangling, killing, banning, hiding, and/or suppressing indefinitely many actual or really possible works of philosophy, possibly even to the point that, later in the 21st century, if things go on in the same way as they do now, real philosophy will simply die, and so-called “philosophy” will survive only in a permanent, professional academic zombie-condition, the endless night of the philosophical living dead (that’s the negative, apocalyptic thought).
12. Now thus far, in the 21st century, presentationally polymorphous experiments by philosophers have been restricted to popularizations of philosophical ideas, or teaching aids, for example,
12.1 But PPWP and PPWP are referring to original philosophy created in non-standard presentational formats.
13. To take just one example amongst indefinitely many presentationally polymorphous possibilities, real philosophers might try making more Philosoflicks–
14. In any case, in full view of what I’ve argued, real philosophers should be freely deploying and acting on PHWP and PPWP alike, in order to resist and subvert contemporary professional academic philosophy with all their might, like there’s no tomorrow.
[i] On radical enlightenment, see “What (The Hell) Is Enlightenment?” This radical enlightenment conception of the primary and ultimate aims of real philosophy overlaps in some interesting ways with Kristie Dotson’s conception of “a culture of praxis” in philosophy, as formulated in her well-known essay, “How Is This Paper Philosophy?,” Comparative Philosophy 3 (2012): 3-29. But there are two important differences.
First, I think that Dotson’s multiculturalist political perspective is still too narrow, and needs to be radically broadened to the perspective of cosmopolitan social anarchism.
And second, for the most part, Dotson unquestioningly accepts the assumption that philosophy belongs inside the professional academy, whereas I think that philosophy’s second Copernican Revolution will not happen until we realize that philosophy is really possible only outside the professional academy, as I’ve argued in “Philosophy’s Second Copernican Revolution.”
[ii] See R. Nozick, Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981).
[iii] I’m grateful to Otto Paans for proposing this basic list of criteria in e-mail discussion.