Philosophy is Not Fiction

I’ve met a number of intelligent people who think philosophy is always something historically bound and socially constructed and nothing more. They’ll say that philosophy is always really a theology, or always myth, bound to its historical origin and expressive of its originating circumstances and possessing no real claim to universality except what it can win for itself through conquest or propaganda. This view is actually not rare among conservative religious people, as surprising as that should seem.

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The goal seems to be to pull reason down from its lofty, universalizing pretensions, and to show that we can never escape our particularity. Affirming our particularity is of course a valuable thing, but it doesn’t have to come at the expense of philosophy’s rightful domain of evaluating the timeless, transhistorical questions.

Now, I’m not saying that religion or mythology are themselves always fictional, or that they don’t have a claim to universal validity (although a false religion could hardly claim to be more than a pleasant or useful fiction). What I am saying is that in my view, if everything is just competing religions, then there is no access to truth. In that case, all belief becomes fideistic and unable to appeal to any justification above itself or outside itself, which means that all belief becomes arbitrary. Historically, philosophy has been seen as something different. Its unique domain allows it, at its best, to look at particular claims and compare them impartially, and evaluate them.

Why, then, would anybody want to believe that philosophy should be treated as just another historical ideological sort of force, on a level field competing with countless other such forces?

I think there are a couple possible reasons, based on my experience. As we might fairly expect, they’re not all that philosophical.

For one thing, philosophy is exceedingly difficult to engage with well on its own terms, but is easily laid low when held to standards that are alien to it. We can defeat philosophy by this means, anytime we like, though our victory will always be meaningless. This victory will be a constant temptation for those who don’t have sufficient philosophical training to engage fairmindedly with the philosophical tradition (even though many will mistakenly feel that they have more than enough philosophical training to rest comfortably in their conclusions). It’s an easy view to slip into, because most audience members or conversation partners will likewise be lacking in such training, especially in our day, and unable to correct it.

I don’t mean to be rude or to “win” by being uncharitable here. I would say that most of us who study the philosophical tradition have an inadequate grasp of it. It takes years, or really decades, to begin to have a comprehensive sense of the alternatives and arguments that are available there in all their richness, and I suspect that many of us who make it our life’s work will still reach the end of our lives not having succeeded as well as we hoped to.

Those who have chosen to belittle philosophy show themselves to have two extra handicaps when it comes to understanding philosophy: They have made a decision to interpret philosophy in a way that is explicitly contrary to philosophy’s historic self-presentation, and they have showed how little motivation there is for them to do the arduous work of understanding philosophy. This is not unkind to say, I think, but only realistic and fair.

Furthermore, another reason why we may want to think that all philosophy is basically just religion dressed up is that then we religious people can feel good about ourselves and don’t need to be defensive before the tribunal of philosophical reason. This feels like it makes for a fairer fight against irreligious people. “You say my beliefs are based on faith, yeah, well, turns out yours are too!”

This mistaken effort treats philosophy as if it is somehow interchangeable with atheism or irreligiosity. The idea that there could be a realm of knowledge not determined by some kind of faith from the ground up is threatening, in that light. It means that the atheists might be right when they say religion is unnecessary! If we can get rid of that dangerous epistemological space called philosophy, then unavoidably the religious people will be right and the irreligious wrong, and so of course that’s attractive to some to be able to affirm.

However, I actually think this motivation fails to appreciate a legitimate intermediate position that can be held — that there is something outside of faith to which we can appeal, and also that the great majority of irreligious people hold their beliefs for reasons that have more to do with faith and tradition and prejudice than with anything resembling rationality. We could entertain that possibility without having to reject philosophy’s autonomy before we ever begin. It is entirely possible to hold that philosophy is something other than a religious tradition, and at the same time also to insist that philosophy, properly understood, affirms the best arguments for God and the need for religion. Indeed, this is precisely what the great majority of important theologians and philosophers through history have taught.

I think there’s also sometimes an aesthetic consideration motivating this view of philosophy. Some people are just attracted to the vision of a world full of visions, of a world filled with competing faiths where everything that’s not a faith is really just faith in disguise — faith acting in bad faith, perhaps. And I have to admit, I do feel the attraction myself as well, though in the end I reject it.

And lastly, it may also be that people are misled by an obvious fact that can be twisted to an unreasonable conclusion. The truth is, every philosopher is indeed historically bound, speaking in a particular language and responding to a particular historical situation. Now, it would of course be very clearly a fallacy to try and say that this means the philosopher has, for this reason, no access to transhistorical truth … but that won’t stop people from trying.

There are two major and obvious problems with this whole approach to philosophy.

First, we have to ask from what vantage point it is possible to make such an absolute and universal pronouncement about the nature of philosophy. The pronouncement purports to be something quasi-philosophical, but of course it cannot be a philosophical position, or it would straightaway invalidate itself. So then it must be something held by faith. And if there are people who claim that fideism is everything simply because they believe very strongly that it is, then I suppose all we can really do is point out the circular nature of their conclusions and, if they do not see a problem, leave them to it.

Secondly, if it is true that all philosophical thought is ultimately only religious doctrine in disguise, then there is no way to judge between differing viewpoints.

I believe that in one sense we cannot escape our particularity. The material circumstances of our lifetime will always characterize our thoughts and speech in ways that are inescapable.

In another sense, though, we certainly can escape our particularity, through our particularity. It makes me think of Thomas Aquinas’s account of knowing, in which every particular leads us to the universal, so that every particular triangle, for instance, opens up for us the universality of triangularity. For St Thomas, we can never fully leave behind our particularity, since we cannot relate to the universal apart from particulars, but at the same time particularity cannot ever be the whole for a human. Particularity is always accompanied by universality, because of what it means for us to be human, and that is itself what makes philosophy possible.

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