Philosophy as Bildung

In a recent post, I claimed that we ought to defend a form of philosophical humanism. By this, I meant that we should confront a certain embarrassment concerning the human. One variety of such embarrassment is expressed in strident naturalism about philosophical explanation. Naturalisms of this sort seek to shift the locus of philosophical explanation, whether ontological or justificatory, to something more fundamental than the considerations given in everyday practices of explanation. For example, here I have in mind efforts to bring cognitive science to bear on moral psychology. Within many such debates, the ‘folk psychology’ possessed by normal agents is contrasted with the results of the modern psychological sciences, laden with the outcome of brain scans and other neurological research. The suggestion is that philosophy of mind ought to take off from these cutting edge results, which present us with the most accurate accounts of the mind available, rather than the messy self-understanding of ordinary agents which, although useful in practical situations, is often shot with delusions, simplification and convenient fictions. My reservations are not primarily directed at the cognitive sciences per se (and certainly not all forms of naturalism), only the thought that philosophical explanation must start from this point instead of the more familiar understanding of ourselves expressed in ordinary discourse. This is the conviction that, when it comes to philosophy, what we say when we chat with our friends, say, or the way that Sophocles characterises shame, leaves nothing out. In part, this conviction is founded upon a different way of approaching the tasks of philosophy.

If philosophy is to provide us with a maximally coherent account of how the world is, being a handmaiden to the sciences which works upon the more abstract and conceptual difficulties which they throw up, then the idea that it ought to accept the same reductive and naturalistic approach to explanation is much more palatable. That sort of activity may very well be a precondition of achieving the invaluable insights provided by science. Yet, I don’t think that attempts to reframe in this context traditional philosophical problems, concerning knowledge or practical deliberation, for example, are at all illuminating. This is because these problems are, predominantly, troubling in a different way to scientific problems. Once again, Wittgenstein expresses this idea well. In a heading of the ‘Big Typescript’, he writes: “DIFFICULTY OF PHILOSOPHY NOT THE INTELLECTUAL DIFFICULTY OF THE SCIENCES, BUT THE DIFFICULTY OF A CHANGE OF ATTITUDE. RESISTANCES OF THE WILL MUST BE OVERCOME.” He then goes to say, “Work on philosophy is – as work in architecture frequently is – actually more of a //a kind of// work on oneself. On one’s own conception. On the way one sees things. (And what one demands of them.)” (PO: 162-3) Without wanting to overgeneralise from these remarks, I think we can see within them a kind of schematic for philosophy. I shall now go on to say a little about how I propose we should think about philosophy, or at least one its central currents, and which connects this Wittgensteinian view with some which may seem like natural adversaries to it.

What might it mean to say that work on philosophy is work on oneself? Helpful here is a German term, important for understanding post-Kantian idealism, namely, Bildung. It can be translated variously as education, nurture, development, formation or culture. Such elasticity of meanings might serve to shroud rather than reveal the idea it seeks to capture though. In the Hegelian usage which I prefer, it can be taken to name a process of self-cultivation through which, in a struggle to understand who they are, someone achieves a more liberated mode of relating to themselves and therewith the world as a whole. This need not imply anything spooky is going on, nor that some imposing idealist apparatus is called upon. Instead, we might consider the sort of thing that happens in a Bildungsroman; the independence of maturity is achieved through the resolution of conflicts over the protagonist’s self-identity. Thought of in this way, we can contrast Bildung, qua self-directed process, with other ways of being developed or formed. As Allen Wood puts it, “the entire process of Bildung is fundamentally an inner or self-directed activity, never merely a process of conditioning through environmental stimuli, or the accumulation of information presented by experience.” (‘Hegel on Education’, p.4)

It is with this sort of understanding of Bildung in mind that I suggest we take up Wittgenstein’s idea that work on philosophy is work on oneself. Philosophy, practiced aright, does not seek to give us theories built upon our experience of the world (though it by no means operates independently of such experience), but nor does it counsel simply following the inclinations which we form just as inhabitants of the natural world. Instead, at least for the most part, it is about achieving a certain practical orientation towards ourselves, our fellows and the rest of the world. This practical orientation consists in both intellectual and affective sensitivity, and so it might be said to concern a way (or our ways) of seeing. Again, we might say that philosophy, so conceived, is irreducibly aesthetic, insofar as we adopt a broad understanding of the aesthetic. So characterised, the conception of philosophy I have outlined may seem either hopelessly broad and vague or intolerably strange and idiosyncratic. To make it more determinate, I shall point to two examples of what I take to be philosophy practiced in this vein. I’ve chosen to pick out Hegel and Nussbaum, though it may equally have been Aristotle, Adorno, Wittgenstein, McDowell, Anscombe or Marx.

Take Hegel to begin with. What we find in the Phenomenology is an analysis of a procession of forms of consciousness and forms of the world which are outgrowths of ordinary ways of looking at the world. The use (or embodiment) of the fundamental logical categories of particularity, universality and individuality within these forms shows them to be unstable, since none of them can overcome the difficulties of reconciling subject and object. Hegel’s aim is to lead us along a ‘pathway of despair’ (and therefore an intellectually and emotionally transformative narrative) which shows us how to recognise and begin to avoid these instabilities. The result is absolute knowing; not a megalomaniacal claim to comprehensive or divine knowledge, but a standpoint — a place from where to see the world — from where we can overcome the gulf between subject and object, as previously expressed as problems bridging mind and world, intention and action, inner and outer, and so on. Thus, the groundwork is laid for the task of re-cognising the phenomena previously encountered in our ordinary ways of seeing the world, critically reappraising and adjusting these ways of seeing such that we can come to an unalienated or homely (heimlich) relation to our world. Ultimately, for Hegel, philosophy is concerned with examining the concept, understanding the rational basis of things, and this redounds upon the rational being doing the examining, setting them free from the mere positivity of phenomena — being brutely confronted with them in their contingency, rather than grasping how they do and indeed must relate to oneself. But first one must learn how to look at the world rationally, where this is a long and difficult process fraught with as many practical and affective problems as cognitive ones, and which does not issue in a theory of everything but a mode of facing the world: not simply a set of propositions, but a practical way to confront it.

Nussbaum’s work is altogether more modest and it is undertaken in a rather different spirit. Nevertheless, there are important similarities which I would like to try and draw out. Again, there is a kind of aesthetic thread to be picked up — one that consists in cultivating a variety of perception, not in any empiricist or intuitionist sense but rather as a sensitivity to the world which takes the form of a kind of practical knowledge or phronesis. We see this method deployed brilliantly in The Fragility of Goodness. In it, Nussbaum undertakes a forensic analysis of the details of Greek philosophy and tragedy which she brings to bear upon questions of moral luck, tragic conflict and practical deliberation. What makes the book so great as philosophy, rather than simply historical scholarship, is how it manages to draw so much sustenance from the literature it considers whilst putting its ideas to work in providing vivid ‘reminders’ and ‘objects of comparison’ (to resort to Wittgesteinian terminology) with which to illuminate our ethical lives. Its approach to literature is deeply philosophical; and conversely too, with its philosophical proclivities being similarly literary. This is another example of what I have been calling philosophical humanism: a confidence in the narratives we tell about ourselves and what matters to us. Of course, we need (and ought) not take all these stories at face value, but an underlying trust in our ability to capture the fundamentals of life in the mainstays of human activity is on display here. Art, whether individually or collectively, can be contextualised and historicised, subjected to evolutionary adaptionist explanation, Ideologiekritik, and so on, but none of these things can explain it away as a whole such that it loses its respectability as a philosophical resource. Artistic activity retains its legitimacy as a tool for providing genuine, first-rate knowledge of truths about value, the mind, action, emotion — about human life in general — and insofar as it does, we must again question the rush to those reductionist accounts predicated upon an uneasiness with the merely human.

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12 thoughts on “Philosophy as Bildung

  1. An afterthought though. Might your phrase ‘work on oneself’ be a little misleading? I say that because I’m sure you’d want to capture the element of inter-subjectivity in both Geist and Bildung. It is after all others or an other who is/are the typical prompt of an individual’s change in viewpoint. Of course one often reads alone, but even reading is an inter-subjective business, interaction with the words of others sedimented in tradition. I like to think Wittgenstein (of the Phil Inv at least) would agree with this too.

    Tangentially, this is why Habermas is surely wrong to see Hegel’s Absolute Knowing as having fallen back on a model of the individual mind and to have lost the achievements of Geist construed inter-subjectively. Absolute Knowing is, after all, internally related to mutual recognition, i.e. the free interaction of human beings beyond a condition of alienation.

  2. Yes, this seems right. I have no particular attachment to the phrase ‘work on oneself’, especially if it is taken to exclude dialogical, traditional, cultural or environmental pressures as the impetus to philosophical development. In fact, this extends to thought in general, which is always a matter of both the spontaneous activity of agents and their receptivity to the non-subjective conditions which they find themselves in; and sociality obviously has an integral role here. The intersubjectivity of Geist points to the unavoidable influence that others have in prompting individuals to cognitive-cum-emotional activity and in shaping the horizons within which such activity takes place. Philosophy is, of course, no exception to this.

  3. I was wondering what you made of a thought that’s been floating around here recently. I suspect that you might agree, and I think I do too. In the context of discussions of ‘experimental philosophy’ people often say that, for example, experiments that point to the effects of the environment on intuitions should lead to scepticism about those judgments. But as these cases are set up the problems alleged will apply to all judgments. So we get a kind of global scepticism. This looks like a reductio of the experimentalist’s position.

    If I read your post right you have a different sort of reason for rejecting some sorts of experimental philosophy, because it’s anti-humanist. But this other line of thought looks like it’s coming from a similar motivation.

  4. With respect to experimental philosophy, I am keen to resist the sort of debunking move you outline here, whereby the context-sensitivity of people’s response to some philosophical issue (e.g. how they interpret the principle of alternative possibilities) is meant to undermine the putative authority which their judgements have. Not all experimental philosophers are guilty of this move, but it can sometimes seem like a suspiciously scientistic model of philosophy is in play here, where ‘intuitions’ get treated as a sort of data set whose accuracy is being tested against a neutral standard, provided by scientific method.

    (Incidently, Aaron gave a paper on Wednesday about epistemic self-trust, and in discussion he raised a very similar global scepticism problem as you do for attempts to use experimental philosophy to undermine our confidence in our own faculties. In fact, Hegel gives a similar argument in the introduction to the Phenomenology too, against the putatively Kantian idea that we cannot trust our cognitive and perceptual faculties until we have given a prior critique of them.)

    If something like this is the strategy employed, it strikes me as wrongheaded. This is because I think we should recognise a kind of primacy of the practical here, understood as a presumption that our normal epistemic standards are appropriate (say, in action-explanation or ethics) and which interpretation of what we do should work around. This presumption will be defeasable but it does not make sense, I think, to comprehensively override it from the outside.

    This is a bit murky, so perhaps an analogy will help. Davidson talks about the constitutive ideal of rationality with respect to explanation of human activity. One of the upshots of this idea is his famous anti-sceptical argument that the majority of our beliefs must be true, since interpretation takes place on the basis of a principle of charity. For it to make sense to ascribe beliefs to someone, including ourselves, requires us to rationalise their behaviour, whereby it is a condition of this sense-making process that we assign truth-values in such a way that (many) more beliefs come out as true than false. This is not just a requirement of understanding people, or supposing that they are good reasoners, but is a condition of behaviour qualifying as expressing belief at all.

    My grip on Davidson isn’t great, and of course there is plenty more going on in his argument, along with lots of assumptions to do with content and externalism, and so on. Nevertheless, I think that some sort of analogy can be made with his train of thought and what I am after. He too treats what we do as the starting point, moving from an understanding of our behaviour to an understanding of its significance, where this is only on the basis of considerations which would rationalise this behaviour: interpretation is always-already laden with a presumption towards normativity (getting things right). The key idea I am trying to get at is that our activities are, in the first instance, rightly treated here in a kind of sui-generis manner. To make sense of them as purposeful they must first have a coherence among themselves, and only then can they relate to the rest of the world. But once they do have this internal coherence, they cannot systematically fail to latch onto the world; their coherence and correspondence are mutually implicating.

    I fear that I’m rather explaining the unclear by the incomprehensible here. A slightly different tack: I think that there are issues to do with which normative standards are prior here, and which are very delicate. How do we understand people’s activities and discourse surrounding ethics, say? Do we treat them as answerable to the same standards as the hard sciences — as up to the same thing as the chemist or physicist? There is an obvious sense in which we don’t and shouldn’t do this, but the question is how deep the disanalogy goes. What I want to block is the thought that there is something disreputable, incomplete or imprecise about our ordinary talk, and that we would be able to do a better job or make more sense of what we are really up to if we regimented what we say to be more in line with natural scientific standards of justification (including a natural scientific ontology). It is with arguments for this conclusion with which I would want to block the sort of ‘experimental philosophy’-style debunking worries which you raise.

    A minor point comes when you say, “you have a different sort of reason for rejecting some sorts of experimental philosophy, because it’s anti-humanist.” Just so I am not misunderstood here, I should make it clear that my reasons for rejecting this sort of move are not that it is anti-humanist: ‘philosophical humanism’ is just a tag I have given my position (and perhaps not a very good one insofar as it might imply a connection with normal humanism, which it should not). My reasons flow from considerations to do with philosophical explanation (which I have outlined here) as well as the metaphysics of normativity (which I may go on to discuss in the next few weeks and months).

    Sorry if that’s all not very clear…

  5. I’m inclined to think that if what you said is unclear, it’s at least as much Davidson’s fault as it is yours. I have to admit I’ve always had a pretty simple-minded reaction to his argument you cite: Given that any individual belief I have might be false (leaving aside any story that needs to be told about putatively analytic beliefs) then surely all of them might be. It might well be that no rational agent would ever say of me that they were, but that’s no barrier to it being true that they are all false. (Or is that just a caricature of Davidson?) Given that I’d like to avoid the debunking strategy in some other way.

    I think I would be comfortable endorsing some weaker form of what you call humanism, but it might just amount in my case to recognising that the genetic fallacy is indeed a fallacy.

    I’ve just read an illuminating paper by Jonathan Weinberg (‘How to Challenge Intuitions Empirically Without Risking Skepticism’) which argues that while perception and everyday intellectual seemings are to be trusted, because they are corrigibly fallible, philosophical intuition mongering is not, because it’s incorrigibly fallible. Obviously it bears more thought than I’ve so far given to it but I’m pretty attracted to that view.

  6. I’m not sure how much it will help to clarify my point in the post, since I was invoking some of the strategic elements of Davidson rather than his original argument, but I think your response to him is too quick. Precisely what is at issue is whether fallibilism (that any belief of mine may turn out to be false) leaves open the possibility of one sort of scepticism (that all my beliefs may be false).

    The considerations Davidson raises about content build upon Quine’s attacks upon a reified conception of meaning. Thus, they start with assumptions about the inseperability of belief-possesion from the possibility of belief-ascription in an interpretative process, on pain of lapsing into a problematic non-Quinean understanding of meaning. So too, the argument begins from premises concerning a weak holism about intentional contents which entails that they are not to be treated as items radically independent of one another, which again is something argued for previously.

    The picture that Davidson is trying to get away from is one in which ‘no rational agent should say that all the balls pulled out of this bag will be red, but it may be true that they will all be red’ ought to be treated analogously to ‘no rational agent should say that all of Tom’s beliefs are false, but it may be the case that they are all false.’ Once we understand how content must work, we are supposed to see that the two sorts of case are radically distinct. Of course, I haven’t provided the details of the anti-sceptical argument here, or any attempt to sure up its premises, but have suggested that the force of the argument relies upon a prior engagement with a broadly Davidsonian theory of content. That’s where to look if you want to know whether your worries can be allayed.

    As an aside, my own target here is much broader than a few isolated moves in experimental philosophy. You might say that it’s the whole reductive spirit in philosophy — this idea that understanding consists in modelling. That’s great for most scientifc endeavours but I want to suggest that for the most part it is fatal for giving satisfying answers to philosophical questions (as traditionally conceived). Part of the problem though is even rescuing the questions from being framed in ways that presuppose the other sort of answer. I say a little more about this in response to your previous comments in this post, though I realise that this requires far more thought in order to be articulated in a way that might convince someone like yourself.

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