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Stephen Mulhall, 'Philosophy, the University and the Politics of Culture', The Grahame Lock

Stephen Mulhall is a Professor of Philosophy, and a Tutorial Fellow of New College, Oxford. He was previously a Prize Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and a Reader in Philosophy at the University of Essex.

Philosophy, the University and the Politics of Culture

The Grahame Lock Memorial Lecture

Philosophers never find it easy to explain what it is that they think they’re doing – to answer the question ‘what is philosophy?’ In part, that’s because we don’t in fact agree on what the right answer to that question is: on the contrary, engaging with and disputing about it is a fundamental part of what we do as philosophers. But that fact in itself gives us the beginnings of an answer to the question: for it seems to distinguish philosophy from the other academic disciplines with which it shares (or jostles for) space in the modern university. Physicists may occasionally undergo revolutions in their understanding of their subject-matter, and of how best to investigate it; historians may sometimes descend into internecine warfare over the appropriateness of certain methodologies in comprehending some aspect of the past; but in no subject other than philosophy is the basic nature of the subject itself (and so the core self-understanding of its practitioners) perennially not only open to question but actively in question.

For most of the twentieth century, philosophy’s self-questioning tendency found its most obvious expression in the English-speaking academic world in the assumption that there was a clear-cut choice to be made between two fundamentally different approaches to the subject, the ‘analytic’ and the ‘Continental’, with most philosophy departments in that world choosing to identify themselves as ‘analytic’. This, despite the fact that even the labels used to articulate this division raise suspicions about its intelligibility, let alone its usefulness. For they define one side in terms of allegiance to a certain method (that of the analysis of language), and the other in terms of a geographical location; Bernard Williams once compared it to an attempt to divide cars into front-wheel drive and Japanese. Moreover, since many of the most influential members of the ‘analytic’ tradition came from Continental Europe, and some philosophy departments in both North America and the United Kingdom stubbornly retained an allegiance to ‘Continental’ ways of doing things, defining that allegiance geographically is profoundly misleading.

Nevertheless, the idea that there is or was such a thing as the analytic tradition in philosophy, and that it was unified methodologically, has more going for it. Simplifying ruthlessly, we might say that analytic philosophy began at the end of the nineteenth century in Cambridge, when Frege’s and Russell’s revolutionary developments in logical theory were then applied (with the help of G.E. Moore and the early Wittgenstein) to the field of philosophy, and purported to demonstrate that a clear understanding of the logical structure of language and thought revealed that many of the perennial problems of philosophy (to which its metaphysical theorising was a response) were based on a misunderstanding of our means of representation. Its second phase was inaugurated when the Vienna Circle transformed the ideas contained in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus into the tenets of ‘logical positivism’, many of whose advocates fled from Europe to America in the 1930s, thereby embedding their version of analytic philosophy into this new cultural context, just as Wittgenstein began to criticise the presuppositions of the Tractatus and develop a wholly new way of engaging in philosophical investigations (thereby inaugurating analytic philosophy’s third phase). On this later view, the confusions characteristic of philosophy could be clarified by means of a careful description of the overt grammatical structures of our ordinary practices of employing words, an approach that seemed to dovetail with that of J.L. Austin in Oxford, and brought about the brief hegemony of what became known as ‘ordinary language philosophy’. Its dominance was ultimately ended by the importation from America (in the 1960s and 1970s) of arguments and ideas associated with Quine and Davidson, ideas that were themselves both developments of and critical reactions to the earlier American importation of logical positivism, and that put in question any attempt sharply to distinguish the normative structure of language from its empirical content – a distinction without which it appeared that neither logical positivism nor ordinary language philosophy could continue to defend its methods. And at this point, analytic philosophy began to fragment into an increasingly heterogeneous array of often-conflicting projects.

The story of analytic philosophy can be narrated at this level of generality, because it makes sense to regard it as a distinctive school or movement – a collective enterprise held together by shared (or at least overlapping) commitments to certain methods and doctrines which developed over time within recognizable limits. However, an analogous story cannot be told of ‘Continental’ philosophy, because that label was used to denote all the major philosophical schools or movements that held sway on the continent of Europe (primarily in Germany and France) from the death of Kant to the present day. It thus includes German Idealism (especially Hegel), Marxism, Nietzschean genealogy (including Foucault), Existentialism (from Kierkegaard to Sartre and Camus), Phenomenology (from Husserl to Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty), Critical Theory (especially the work of Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas), Deconstruction (Derrida), and so on. Analytic philosophy could usefully be compared with any one of these schools or movements, each of which is held together by certain shared commitments; but it makes no sense to compare it with all of them – as if there were some set of commitments that every one of them shared, or some particular ‘Continental’ philosopher who could go proxy for all.

So it’s unsurprising that these ‘Continental’ philosophers never identified themselves as such (even if their stubborn Anglophone defenders were sometimes forced to); rather like the idea of a ‘Continental breakfast’, that of ‘Continental’ philosophy is one used primarily by those outside the cultures to which it primarily applies. It is, in fact, essentially an invention of analytic philosophers, and applies to anything and everything in the post-Kantian philosophical scene that is not analytic philosophy. And it’s true that many ‘Continental’ philosophers did (in various ways) reject commitments central to the analytic tradition – by questioning the priority of logical analysis, by pursuing avowedly metaphysical (and so purportedly meaningless) projects or at least taking them seriously enough to engage in critical dialogue with them (and so presenting the history of the subject as an essential context for its current work), or by aligning philosophy more with the humanities and social theory than with the natural sciences.

In that sense, there is a minimal (although essentially negative) descriptive content to the idea of ‘Continental’ philosophy. But it was never really a purely descriptive category; anyone who grew up within the philosophical culture that deployed it knew that it was a term of disapprobation, and at the limit a term of abuse. For it tended to be assumed (not entirely without justification, or at least provocation, in some cases) that ‘Continental’ philosophers not only did not do philosophy the right way, they did it in such a way as to threaten the very integrity of the subject. Their querying of the significance of logical theory was taken as a rejection of rational standards, and their willingness to speak metaphysically was taken as a willing embrace of obfuscation and nonsense. ‘Continental’ philosophy was thus a kind of anti-philosophy, what Plato would have called ‘sophistry’;1 the choice between analytic and Continental traditions was one in which both the essence and the existence of philosophy as such was held to be at issue, in just the way that the poets and the sophists threatened to extinguish the subject at its inception, or more precisely to prevent it coming into existence at all.

One way in which ‘Continental’ philosophers flaunted their threatening difference was in their tendency to take more seriously than their analytic colleagues the following question: ‘Why is there something (anything, anything at all) rather than nothing?’ I want to suggest that we might make further progress with the issue of philosophy’s distinctive nature by considering a variation on that canonical query: ‘Why is there something called ‘philosophy’ rather than nothing?’ What difference would it make if there were no such activity – no departments of philosophy in universities, and no recognition in the wider culture of the bare possibility (never mind the value) of doing what inhabitants of such departments (and of course, many others outwith that institutional context) spend their time doing?

My first full-time job as a philosopher was at the University of Essex, which has always been able to find room for both Anglo-American and Continental European philosophical traditions to thrive in conversation with one another. Some of you will know that one of its many idiosyncrasies at its founding was that it contained no philosophy department. It did contain philosophers: it was just that, rather than corralling them into one corridor, they were dispersed throughout all the other departments that made up the university, or at least as many of them as budgets and the interests of individual philosophers permitted. The experiment was short-lived: by the time I arrived, the philosophers had long since re-established themselves as one amongst an array of other departmentally-defined intellectual enterprises, complete with their own common room and coffee machine, in and around which they could finally talk to people who really understood them.

Although it would be interesting to explore the reasons for this rapid re-configuration, and the comparative costs and benefits of both institutional arrangements, I am presently more interested in the fact that the initial configuration was regarded as so much as possible. Surely no other subject would even imagine that its practitioners could or should become so closely affiliated with the practitioners of other subjects – at the limit, of any other subject whatever. It’s one thing to think that economists and historians might sometimes have interesting things to say to one another, or that even biologists and literary critics might occasionally find common ground; it’s quite another to think that any other subject whatever could be helped in its own endeavours by the presence of a philosophically-trained interlocutor (however much she might simultaneously yearn to speak to other philosophers).

These two distinctive features of philosophy as a subject are plainly connected. At the very least, one of the difficulties in defining the distinctive nature of philosophy derives from the fact that philosophy departments are likely to contain people who define themselves as doing ‘philosophy of x’, where the ‘x’ is not only filled in differently in each case, but might refer to any of the other disciplines practised in other university departments (‘physics’, ‘literature’, ‘economics’, ‘psychology’), or to aspects of ordinary human life in which other departments might also have an interest (‘politics’, ‘morality’ ‘language’, ‘logic’). If we want to get a clearer picture of what would go missing if there were nothing called ‘philosophy’, we need to understand this Janus-faced aspect of our subject – the way in which its internal dispositions and its external environments open onto or mirror one another. If I knew how to speak Leibnizian, I might characterize the effect as monadic – as if philosophy were something whose diverse unity is also a microcosm of the university in which it sits, and so of the broader culture in which that institution is embedded (or tolerated). Instead, I want to develop these ideas further by putting some ideas of Heidegger in conversation with some derived from Wittgenstein, and thereby show that at least one of philosophy’s contemporary disagreements about its own nature (as embodied in the still-significant conviction of abyssal differences between analytic and continental philosophy) might be overcomeable.

  • The Fundamental Question

Heidegger’s Being and Time begins with a quotation from Plato’s Sophist (244a):

‘For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression ‘being’. We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.’

‘Do we in our time have an answer to the question of what we really mean by the word ‘being’? Not at all. So it is fitting that we should raise anew the question of the meaning of Being. But are we nowadays even perplexed at our inability to understand the expression ‘Being’? Not at all. So first of all we must reawaken an understanding for the meaning of this question. Our aim in the following treatise is to work out the question of the meaning of Being, and to do so concretely.’ (BT, foreword).

Such a concentrated deployment of (even bombardment by) the term ‘Being’ may seem to encapsulate the obfuscatory metaphysical over-confidence for which Continental philosophy is (in)famous. But Heidegger is actually beginning from the assumption that we don’t really grasp what that word means: he will be happy if, by the end of his long book, he succeeds in usefully articulating the question of Being’s meaning (never mind giving it an answer).

Nevertheless, he is able to say something about the sense in which he will be provisionally deploying it: ‘In the question which we are to work out, what is asked about is Being – that which determines entities as entities, that on the basis of which entities are already understood… The Being of entities ‘is’ not itself an entity… Being is always the Being of an entity’ (BT, 1.25-6; 2.29).

The Kantian shape of these remarks, the internal relation they posit between the conditions for the possibility of objects and the conditions for the possibility of grasping objects, may make Heidegger’s project seem less starkly alien to analytic concerns. For him, ‘Being’ is neither an object nor a property or attribute of objects, but that which determines any and every object as an object, which means determining it as an object of a particular kind or nature (hence necessarily equipped with properties of a particular kind or nature), and as really existing as opposed to not being there; to be a particular kind of thing, that thing must be, and nothing can be without being something in particular. Hence, Being is met with always and only as the Being of an entity; but by the same token it is necessarily encountered whenever one encounters anything (‘Whenever one cognises anything or makes an assertion, whenever one comports oneself towards entities, even towards oneself, some use is made of ‘Being’ … ‘The sky is blue’, ‘I am merry’ and the like’ [BT, 1.23]). And most importantly for my purposes, Heidegger believes that the various different ways in which entities disclose themselves to us are interwoven with one another – that they display what he cites Aristotle as calling a unity of analogy, or a categorical interconnectedness.

Heidegger thinks of any systematic body of knowledge of a particular domain of entities (what he labels an ontic science - biology, history, physics) as the result of our making an issue of our implicit everyday understanding of a given range of the world we inhabit. We rigorously thematize it with a view to systematically interrogating it, and develop thereby a body of knowledge which may surpass or even subvert our initial understanding, but which is made possible by it and which is no less open to further questioning. In particular, it takes for granted certain basic ways in which the ontic science structures its own area of study – conceptual and methodological resources which can themselves be thematized and interrogated (when, for example, a philosopher of science inquires into the validity of inductive reasoning, or a philosopher of art queries the objectivity of ‘beauty’). Such inquiries concern the conditions for the possibility of such intellectual inquiry, what Heidegger calls the ontological presuppositions of ontic inquiry; and whether one inquires into them as a practitioner of the discipline or as a philosopher, the subject-matter could not be within the purview of a purely intra-disciplinary inquiry (which would necessarily presuppose what is being put in question). It is the business of philosophy.

These presuppositions constitute what Heidegger (following Husserl) calls a regional ontology; every region of ontic knowledge presupposes one, and thus invites this kind of questioning. And the results of that questioning naturally provoke further inquiry themselves: for if each regional ontology enhances our understanding of whatever the corresponding ontic science reveals to us by subjecting its presuppositions to productive questioning, whatever is presupposed in the acquisition of that enhanced understanding must surely also be capable of being put in question, and to equally productive effect.

Given that each ontic region discloses an ontology, the relations between the various regional ontologies inevitably become an issue in this further inquiry. On the one hand, each ontology will differ from others, as each ontic region has its own distinctive nature. But on the other, each region may open up onto cognate regions (as chemistry might shed light on biology, or as Heidegger thinks theology has deformed anthropology, psychology and biology [BT 10]), thus revealing that its ontology bears upon those others; and of course each regional ontology is an ontology - each performs the same determinative function with respect to its region (determines the Being of a certain range or domain of beings), even if differently in each case. How, then, is this synthesis – this plaiting or interweaving - of categorical diversity and categorical unity to be understood? What is it for beings to be?

This is the meaning of the question of being, the question of the meaning of ‘being’: it is what Heidegger calls the question of fundamental ontology. And I am suggesting that its emergence as a question is not an arbitrary ‘Continental’ imposition on an otherwise perfectly rational and exhaustive cultural economy of knowledge, in which each legitimate ontic region or body of knowledge naturally incubates its own regional ontological discipline, and nothing else (a dispensation perfectly reflected in the initial institutional dispersion of philosophers at the University of Essex). For if the mere existence of a diverse array of ontic regions naturally engenders a diverse array of regional ontologies, that array of regional ontologies will as naturally engender the question of fundamental ontology, and for exactly the same reason – the natural tendency of human comprehension to thematise and question itself.

Fundamental ontology is not, therefore, an inquiry into some domain that is essentially distinct from (say, foundational in relation to) regional ontological inquiry – as if Being as such had a domain of its own in addition to the domains of regional ontology, as if we could directly contemplate Being as opposed to one of its regions. On the contrary, since Being is always the Being of some entity or other, then the question of fundamental ontology must always take regional ontologies and their inter-relations as its concern; and anyone who pursues a regional ontological inquiry without reflecting upon how, if at all, its deliverances and presuppositions relate to those of other such inquiries is simply failing to pursue that inquiry rigorously. Fundamental ontology is regional ontology radicalized, or fully realized; it is not an alternative or supplement to regional ontological inquiry, but a manner of relating oneself to it.

Establishing that relation - recognizing the legitimacy of the question of fundamental ontology – definitely does not require that we accept the legitimacy or even the availability of a single, specific answer to it: for example, to one particular mapping of any given regional ontology’s relations with any other ( or even to the idea of there being a single mapping), and so to a single exhaustive taxonomy of the various ways in which things may be, or to a specification of some feature (or some set of features) that all existent beings must exemplify or instantiate insofar as they exist. Some philosophers have thought it possible to give such a specification, and have disagreed about what that specification should be; others have denied that any such specification is available or conceivable. Some have argued that work in certain ontological regions should be constrained by results established in others, whilst disagreeing with one another about which regional ontology should constrain and which should be constrained; others have argued against any, even provisional, assignments of relative priority; and others still have denied the existence of any significant relations between any such regions.

Taking seriously the question of fundamental ontology does not require us to adjudicate between these disagreements, or to deny that they may persist beyond any adjudication, thereby betraying a fundamental mutual incomprehension. The point is rather to thematize the sheer fact of their existence – the fact that it is so much as possible to have such intelligible discussions about whether and how the various regional ontologies relate to one another. For the reality of such debates, whatever their termini, makes manifest a horizon of intelligibility within which they are conducted - a determinable and endlessly-redetermined categorial field of diversity-in-unity or unified diversity to which the articulation (more precisely, the sheer articulability, the simple comprehensibility) of the question of fundamental ontology bears witness.

On this understanding of the matter, doing philosophy properly means conducting regional ontological inquiries in a way which acknowledges (as opposed to either repressing or prematurely fixing) their multiply situated or contextual nature. But this can’t simply mean acknowledging the way in which one such inquiry relates to other regional ontological inquiries. For that inevitably involves acknowledging the way in which the ontic science from which that regional ontology arises relates to other ontic sciences (or might so relate or fails to), which in turn involves acknowledging how the pre-theoretical understanding of things (from which that science arises) relates to other aspects of that understanding (or fails to). Every one of these nodes or elements – be it a branch of philosophy, a means of acquiring knowledge or a mode of practical activity - is what it is by virtue of its actual and possible relations to all of the others; so a proper grasp of any requires acknowledging that relatedness as an undismissable issue, something about which questions can always be posed and inquiries pursued.

Call this Heidegger’s context principle: its implications are widely ramifying, but for present purposes, two are pertinent. The first points us further within philosophy: for this principle registers the fact that there is something inherently questionable about the ways in which we make sense of any and every particular kind of thing. Once we are struck by the fact that we seem to be capable of making sense of whatever we encounter, then that too (the validity, the diversity and the inter-relatedness of the ways in which things make sense) is something of which we can attempt to make sense (to thematize, to put in question, and so – we hope – to grasp more fully). Suppose we follow my colleague Adrian Moore in defining ‘metaphysics’ as ‘the attempt to make sense of the sense that we make of things’; then Heidegger’s analysis makes sense of the peculiar way in which ‘metaphysics’ oscillates within philosophy between picking out one branch of the subject, and being another way of characterizing the business of philosophy as such.

By contrast, the second implication of Heidegger’s context principle points us outward, from philosophy to its environment or enabling conditions. Given that philosophy is parasitic upon the existence of ontic sciences, then insofar as its regional ontological inquiries hang together with one another, so must the ontic sciences from which those inquiries take their bearing. Their results hang together internally (making it possible to form coherent bodies of knowledge, as opposed to accumulations of purely local data) and externally (insofar as the understanding they systematize has a possible bearing upon other such forms of understanding – whether by complementing, qualifying, challenging or otherwise putting it in question). And for Heidegger, if the ontic sciences (and the pre-theoretical understanding that engenders them) did not manifest this kind of unity-in-diversity, then to precisely that extent the idea that they are ways of disclosing a reality that holds independently of our ways of grasping it would lack any substance.

It is the multiple bearings of each such mode of inquiry on other such modes that gives substance to the thought that each mode gets a purchase on some aspect of things as they really are; for they make manifest that and how the purchase that each offers hangs together with (that is, is intelligible to, and can itself render intelligible) the purchase offered by other such modes. Hence, to show that and how these inquiries relate to one another just is to show that genuine comprehension is attainable by their means – that each can claim to articulate a way of distinguishing reality from illusion, a way of getting at the truth of things; and to show that each really is a way of getting to grips with reality just is to show that there is a multi-faceted reality with which we might intelligibly get to grips.

In short: to think of the question of the meaning of Being as a genuine question is to think of our ontic sciences and their pretheoretical antecedents as genuine modes of understanding – as ways of disclosing how things really are; it is to think of them as discursive articulations that are also articulations of reality.

  • Games, Speech and Conversation

If I pushed that line of thought a little further, we could travel back far beyond Kant’s distinctively modern conception of thought’s relation to reality, back in fact to the origins of the discipline, where Plato’s Socrates presents philosophy as necessarily engaged in mortal combat with the Sophists, and their reduction of human discursive understanding to a screen behind which individuals struggle for power. This perspective might also explain why medieval philosophy took such an interest in the perfections (‘wisdom’, ‘love’) and the transcendentals (‘being’, ‘one’, ‘true’, ‘good’, ‘beauty’), and thereby in the ways in which both reality and our understanding of it exhibit an analogical unity. And that perception might in turn illuminate the governing structure of Kant’s Critical project (with its sequential concern for truth, goodness and beauty), and even that of the co-founding text of the analytic tradition, the Tractatus (in which being, unity, truth and value are organizing concerns). But I want to turn now to a comparison between Heidegger and the later Wittgenstein. More specifically, I’m interested in how Wittgenstein’s signature concepts of a language-game and a form of life seem to rhyme or chime with Heidegger’s fundamental question.

On the one hand, there is the Wittgenstein who tells us that ‘when philosophers use a word… one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language-game which is its original home/in the language in which it is at home?’ (PI, 116) This Wittgenstein is forever reminding us of the differences between the uses to which we put apparently similar words – ‘pains’ and ‘pins’, or ‘five’, ‘red’ and ‘apple’: he regards philosophers as prone to conflate such differences, to which the proper therapeutic response is to recall us to them. Call this the moment at which he stresses the categorical diversity of our speech and thought. On the other hand, there is the Wittgenstein who tells us that ‘to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life’ (PI, 19); this Wittgenstein seems eager to stress the way in which things hang together, to emphasize what Heidegger might call the categorical unity of our discursive understanding, and of our existence. Is this an internal conflict or contradiction in Wittgenstein’s world view – indicating his inability to settle on a single, coherent position? I think it is better understood as making manifest his perception of our form of life with language as exhibiting categorical unity-in-diversity, and so as needing to be defended against both occlusions of its diversity and occlusions of its unity.

Wittgenstein’s student and friend Rush Rhees develops this latter possibility by arguing that if we emphasize the concept of a language-game without bearing in mind the concept of a form of life, and so conceive of words as governed by the rules for their use in the manner of pieces in board-games, then we could not account for the fact that they form the medium of conversational exchanges.2 For understanding how to converse – how to follow the development of a conversation, to make a pertinent or telling contribution to it, to re-direct its focus, to acknowledge the relevance of another’s contribution without agreeing with it, to recognize when it has reached a dead-end or when a little further persistence will bring it to an illuminating resting-place – understanding all this is not something that can be reduced to the application of a body of rules, or fruitfully compared with learning how to make moves in a game. This kind of understanding is essentially responsive both to the subject-matter of the conversation and to the individual contributions of those participating in it; but moves in chess do not have a subject-matter, and could not give expression to what they bring to a game from their experience outside it. If being able to speak involves being able to converse, then it cannot be just a matter of making rule-governed linguistic moves, or of doing things with words.

But Rhees also uses the trope of a ‘conversation’ as an analogy for the unity of language as a whole: he says that the various different forms of human discourse and practice relate to one another in the way that various contributions to a conversation relate to one another. The unity of language is the unity of a dialogue; the various modes of human discourse about things interlock intelligibly with one another, and the sense that each makes is both constituted by and constitutes the sense of these interconnections.

This is already implicit in the ways in which individual speakers converse. Imagine two builders discussing a construction problem: they will bring to bear not only an understanding of construction techniques, but also of the economic and political contexts within which they are working (which option is cheaper, and how much additional expense matters), the kind of building under construction (a house, a church, a factory), and thereby an understanding of the particular activities that go on in such a building, and their relation to other activities in the culture more generally, and so on. The conversation is about this building project, but it will draw upon the participants’ understanding of the bearing of a variety of other domains and concerns upon it; and without a grasp of those interlocking considerations, the conversation would lose its grip on its subject-matter.

As we have already seen, this interweaving of the various aspects or dimensions of human social life is also exemplified at the disciplinary level of culture, at which particular domains of human inquiry and activity are rendered systematic and reflective. On the one hand, especially since the Enlightenment and its concern for the autonomy of both individuals and cultural spheres, we have tended to think of the domains of politics, morality, religion, art, history, physics, astronomy and so on as essentially distinct, possessed of a particular internal logic and purpose that separates them from even cognate domains, and that might itself be the subject of systematic study. On the other hand, whenever we try to make sense of a particular phenomenon (say, global deforestation, or the provision of health services), we find that any of these disciplines may contribute to that project.

Any such topic will have its historical, political, moral, technological and scientific, social and cultural aspects and implications, and so can only be properly understood by seeing how each of these aspects and implications bear upon the others; and this means that it forms a fit subject for conversation between those well-versed in a variety of forms of human inquiry – between historians, scientists, political theorists, sociologists, literary critics, and others. Each participant will bring her own particular understanding and expertise to the conversation; but each can learn from what the others bring, and may even alter her understanding of her own enterprise as a result; so each also learns that the others are capable of making a significant contribution to better understanding the subject-matter of the conversation.

This is another expression of that to which Heidegger’s context principle tries to draw our attention; it is the individually-mediated cultural analogue of what Rhees calls the kind of understanding that is capable of growth – of a deepening that finds expression in one’s ability to see how things hang together: the various modes of human understanding of our life in the world, the various aspects of that life itself, and the world in which it is conducted. The reality that bears upon and is engaged by the forms of human life in the world manifests a dialogical unity, with each of its aspects having an intelligible bearing on the others. This is why Rhees claims that language makes sense insofar as living makes sense.

But if these various forms of human discourse manifest a dialogical unity, then so must the various forms of distinctively philosophical discourse; if our life with language, and so language itself, have a dialogical unity, then so must the aspect of our (life with) language that takes that life as its distinctive concern. Conversely, if one holds that philosophical discourse has no dialogical unity, that amounts to saying that its subject-matter has no such unity; it amounts to assuming that language, and hence our life with language, do not manifest any interlocking intelligibility of the kind that might be a possible object of the sort of understanding that can grow and deepen (or fail to). To adapt Rhees’s words: if living makes sense, and hence language makes sense, then so must philosophy; and if philosophy does not have this kind of sense, then neither will language, or the human form of life with language. So expressed, this claim might remind us of the cultural institutions which reflect this vision of philosophy’s cultural significance (or fail to).

  • The Politics of the University

In modern Western European culture, the exemplary institutional expression of the dialogical unity of reality, our knowledge of it and our way of living is the university. The point of bringing a representative variety of ontic enterprises (by which I mean sciences, social sciences, humanities and arts) under one roof is not simply to reduce overheads, or to maximize one’s array of productive research links with industry, or even to corral socially disruptive intellectuals; it is to create a context which embeds and embodies a vision of (the contributors to) each branch of human knowledge as conversing with one another. Each department certainly pursues its own ways of acquiring knowledge under its own direction; but each does so in a context which makes it as easy as possible for its members to encounter, learn from and put in question the findings and queries of members of any other department. Certain institutional arrangements may make this kind of intercourse more natural than others – and here, the model of a collegiate university may have a particular value, since each college’s self-governing membership amounts to a microcosm on a humane social scale of the university’s aspiration to intellectual diversity-in-unity. But that is only one way of aspiring to facilitate this ideal of mutual conversibility in the face of explosively expanding bodies of knowledge, not to mention financial, political and cultural pressures.

One university department will, then, be of particular importance to the university’s raison d’etre so understood; and that is its department of philosophy. Its internal articulation reflects as broadly as possible the internal articulation of the university as a whole; and its inherent tendency to put in question the intelligibility of the relations between its branches – to reflect upon the significance of the fact that they are the internal articulations of a single subject – means that it is uniquely committed to bearing witness to the dialogical diversity-in-unity of human knowledge and of the reality it aspires to grasp. Philosophy itself is not an ontic science: it is rather the subject which aims to comprehend and question the very possibility of an ontic science, the subject for which the intelligibility of that possibility (the possibility of knowing something, anything, as it really is) is an issue, an inherently questionable matter. Philosophy is the subject for whom that possibility matters because it is a way of posing the question of its own nature – the question of whether its own continued existence matters, or matters any longer.

And of course, sometimes philosophy finds that its own continued existence does not matter to anyone else. In Britain over my academic career, for example, whenever the government has significantly reconfigured university funding, many universities have responded by cutting or closing their philosophy departments (usually as a matter of managerial fiat, but sometimes as a result of the apparent inability of other university departments to see why the department of philosophy – with its peculiar limitations on raising external funding or establishing fruitful links with industry – deserves its place at the academic table). They thereby demonstrate their inability to see the point of philosophy in the context of a university, and so their inability to see the point of their own existence as universities; and in refusing to contest these responses, the British government and the people it represents demonstrate their own inability to see the point of either philosophy or universities in and for the wider culture. And what are we to say of a culture that no longer sees any point in raising the question of whether its own particular formation, its internal articulations of intelligibility, have any point – whether it continues to makes sense to inhabit the cultural forms through which its inhabitants are currently formed?

But philosophers shouldn’t deny their own responsibility for this fate. For how many philosophy departments currently reflect in their internal structures a sense of the vital significance of the question of fundamental ontology? How far do our departments make room for raising the question of how their various activities relate to each other, as opposed to being an assemblage of self-sufficient enterprises, or a domain within which the relative importance of various branches of the subject are fixed, effectively put beyond question by an inherited consensus (call it a syllabus)? If, on reflection, we cannot confidently say that our own ways of living as philosophers reflect the conviction that the question of whether philosophy makes sense is of such importance, then we should not heap all the blame for our present cultural irrelevance on either universities or governments, as if our fate could only have been forced upon us from without.

  • Finitude, Analogy and Theology

I couldn’t consistently conclude this discussion without acknowledging various ways in which the significance I have been assigning our discipline – in the university, and in the broader culture – might put itself in question.

Precisely because I have tried to capture the sense in which philosophy can be said to be rightly and intelligibly interested in everything, in all that is, I may have created the impression that the philosopher must be occupying a position above or beyond all that is – a kind of God’s eye view on Creation from without (how else could she take it in as a whole?). But philosophy does and must occupy a position within the domain that it aspires to take in as if from the outside. Just as philosophy’s claim to be the university department which uniquely aspires to acknowledge the articulated unity of the university as a whole must cohere with the fact that it is also just one more department within that whole, so philosophy’s claim to be the singular point within the culture at which its articulated unity is acknowledged must cohere with the fact that it is simultaneously one node in that culture. Even if it is rightly described as the mode of discourse whose subject-matter is the various forms of human discourse, this description merely confirms that philosophy is also, and necessarily, one more mode of discourse.

It follows that philosophy’s various ways of putting other intellectual disciplines in question can themselves be put in question from the perspectives afforded by those disciplines. Practitioners of any ontic science can question the accuracy of a philosopher’s characterization of their founding presuppositions; they might claim for themselves a field of inquiry that philosophers have long regarded as their own; they can even argue that philosophy can claim to be intellectually respectable only insofar as it regards itself as continuous with some ontic science or other.

I don’t find this last claim convincing; but some of my colleagues do, and I can make sense of their sense of conviction. But one can surely acknowledge the way other intellectual disciplines might have a bearing on philosophy and its concerns without conceiving of this as a matter of usurpation or reduction. One might, for example, think that aspects of the phenomenon that philosophy grapples with under the name of scepticism are engaged with in literature under the name of tragedy; or one might hope to learn something about philosophy’s apparent aspiration to find a God’s-eye view of reality and culture by drawing upon the lessons of psychoanalysis or theology; or one might be brought by historians and sociologists to appreciate the cultural specificity of the terms in which philosophy understands any of its concerns, and so understands itself.

Such possibilities of inter-disciplinary dialogue cannot be rejected by any philosopher who recognizes the pertinence to her enterprise of the question of fundamental ontology; for that precisely depends upon acknowledging that a culture hangs together only insofar as any of its thematized modes of understanding can in principle intelligibly and fruitfully be engaged in dialogue by any other. Whether it will in fact be fruitful, or even mutually intelligible, can only be proven through its concrete working-out from case to case; but its bare possibility is surely something that anything worth calling philosophy is obliged (on pain of self-subversion) to acknowledge.

What this moment of humility in my analysis really registers is the fact that any philosophical work is necessarily situated or conditioned by its place in the broader economy of a culture; and that directs us towards the more general point that philosophy is and must be thorough-goingly conditioned or situated insofar as it is (in effect) one step in the reflexive unfolding of the distinctively human mode of comprehending the world.

To say that that our comprehension of the world is always capable of putting itself in question is simply another way of saying that human understanding is essentially finite (for only if it were not, if it were absolute or unconditioned, would it be beyond any possible question). Any body of knowledge or understanding has limits; it is always capable of and subject to further refinement (which will sometimes take the form of revolutionary reconceptualisation) or accelerating impoverishment, and it will always be conditioned by presuppositions which can themselves be the subject of inquiry – perhaps within its own precincts, certainly within the precincts of other branches or modes of human inquiry.

If this is generally true of human comprehension, then it must also be true of philosophical understanding; and my way of putting things suggests that philosophy’s distinctive way of being marked by, hence of bearing witness to, our finitude has to do with the fact that its defining aspiration is both undismissable and unfulfillable. If philosophy is an inquiry into the human capacity for comprehending inquiry as such, it amounts to an absolutely purified or intensified exemplar of this aspect of the human way of being (one in which questioning comprehension aspires to be both subject-matter and means, with nothing other than itself involved). But if any such inquiry must itself be questionable, because it is no less subject to condition and limitation than any other exercise of this capacity, it is destined to fall short of its own defining aspiration.

In the end, then, the sheer existence of philosophy makes it manifest that human beings aspire by their very nature to a completeness of understanding that they cannot realize. Philosophy is the place at which finite human understanding endlessly attempts, and as endlessly fails, to take itself in as a whole; it is the site of an ongoing struggle with the question of whether it makes sense even to try making sense of the many and varied ways in which reality does (and does not) make sense to us. That is its way of revealing that we finite beings are subject to the enigmatic desire to transcend their own finitude.

This way of putting things will no doubt raise a large number of questions in your minds, not all of which I am likely to find welcome; but I would welcome the implication that philosophy, so understood, would particularly benefit from further conversation with theology – the only other subject in the university whose practitioners might claim a proprietary interest in the labours of everyone else in the university (given that, in their view, all that is is sustained by, and so speaks of, God’s creative love), not to mention an interest in the idea of a God’s-eye view, or of human finitude and its transgressions. But my time is almost gone: so I shall restrict myself to one final remark about these conversational possibilities.

On one widely-shared understanding of theology, my map of the cultural economy of knowledge would locate it as one particular way of fixing the categorical unity-in-diversity of our sense-making: for it would regard God as the answer to the question of fundamental ontology, presenting Him as the entity who determines all entities as entities, the Being in relation to which all beings acquire existence and significance. Heidegger would call this Being the God of ontotheology; and his philosophy could then pride itself on transcending that answer to its founding question in favour of attending to the horizon against which both it and rival answers acquire such significance as they possess.

Imagine, however, an alternative understanding of theology (along broadly Thomist lines), which aspires to respect God’s transcendence of all that is by emphasizing the ineptness of regarding the Creator of all things as himself a thing, and which defends its ability to say anything whatever about God by exploiting the analogous nature of perfections and transcendentals, with their openness to indefinite ranges of new contexts in which they might find legitimate habitation without succumbing to equivocity. Such a theologian might be struck by the extent to which perfections and transcendentals are deeply woven into the nature of philosophy, at least as I have been interpreting it. Perfections define its proper name and telos (the love of wisdom); its founding figure exemplifies a willingness to interpret his own wisdom as consisting in his knowledge of the extent to which he lacked it, hence its openness to indefinite extension, and so to deepening or impoverishment; and philosophy’s identity as a specific contributor to our form of life depends on the legitimacy of the impulse to attend to the trans-categorical features of language, thought and reality, and so on a particularly robust exploitation of language’s inherent tendency towards cross-categorical projections.

From such a perspective, philosophy’s sheer existence is a projection of the inherently human enterprise of appraising reality from its primary category-specific contexts (the intellectual responsibility of physics, history, psychology and so on) into one in which we appraise the presuppositions which distinguish each category whilst allowing them to have a bearing upon the others; so philosophy’s own claim to respect depends upon the very processes of analogous concept-construction upon which Aquinas’ theology stakes its corresponding claim. If the step from category-specific judgement to the cross- and the trans-categorical is legitimate, however peculiarly analogous it may be, then what exactly is illegitimate about the equally peculiar analogous step from the trans-categorical to the theological?

I don’t say that this question cannot be answered, even answered in a way detrimental to theology’s self-understanding. But unless philosophy is willing to recognize that it can legitimately be asked, then it has not yet fully understood its own nature.

Stephen Mulhall

New College, Oxford

[1] Cf Simon Glendinning, The Idea of Continental Philosophy (University of Edinburgh Press: 2006)

[1] Cf his Wittgenstein and the Possibility of Discourse, ed. D.Z.Phillips (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1998).


For other pieces in memory of Grahame Lock please go here.

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