Which philosophy is dead?

Analytic philosophy may be limited, shortsighted, and seeking to enslave the discipline to the hard sciences.

Steven Hawking
Prof Stephen Hawking recently claimed that philosophy was dead because it failed to keep up with science [EPA]

At a recent Google Zeitgeist conference, Stephen Hawking boldly pronounced that “philosophy is dead”.

It is dead, he thinks, because philosophy is passé. Hawking believes philosophy is like a guy who shows up at a cocktail party just after the guests have left. Why would one of the most intelligent humans alive say such a provocative thing? His reasons are obvious: “Philosophers,” Hawking says, “have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.”

According to Hawking, the conversation about the truth of the world rests in the hands of elite physics professors funded by multinational corporations and national governments. Should we believe this pronouncement just because it comes from an eminence such as Hawking? Could it be that some categorical mistake has been committed by the likes of Hawking who, in our opinion, mistakes philosophy for theology?

The debate over the death of philosophy begun by Hawking not only rests on wrong premises, but also searches for an inadequate solution. First, philosophy is still taught in universities, and second, philosophers continue to write books that disagree on the meaning of our existential relation with the world. We submit that a more precise question needs to be addressed: Which philosophy is dead?

The question over the death of philosophy is certainly not new. In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant posited ideas such as “categories of the mind” and “transcendental apperception” that were themselves beyond philosophical interrogation, while last century saw Martin Heidegger arguing that philosophy ended with its dissolution into different disciplines (aesthetics, ethics, logics) and into particular sciences (physics, psychology, biology), and ignoring those fundamental questions that determine our lives.

 Talk to Al Jazeera – Slavoj Zizek

More recently, the late Richard Rorty and the French theorist Alain Badiou proclaimed the death of philosophy. In his book Infinite Thought, Badiou defines the school of analytic philosophy. He writes that the orientation of analytic philosophy, which began with Ludwig Wittgenstein and Rudolf Carnap in what became known as the “Vienna Circle”, possesses a desire to establish a rigid demarcation between utterances that have meaning from those that do not.

In this way, analytic philosophy sets up the standard for what is legitimate to say and what is nonsensical. Thus, Badiou concludes that this philosophy does not seek truth, but is rather a very limiting endeavour: namely, analysing “the logical and grammatical analysis of utterances” and of language as such. The task of analytic philosophy is not about the creation of ideas but a policing of the rule of linguistic meaning. This is why Badiou argues that ultimately, analytic philosophy is therapeutic, because it cures us “of the illusions and aberrations of language that divide us, by isolating what has no meaning, and by returning to rules which are transparent to all”.

Following Rorty and Badiou, we tend to agree with Hawking’s criticisms as they pertain to analytic philosophers, who are stuck on the act of policing a rule of linguistic meaning – as if the “symbolic order”, as Lacan would put it, represents all possibilities of constructing meaning. These are the ones who still today turn philosophy into a slave to the hard sciences, especially physics. But analytic philosophers are enslaved to their own methods, which ignore humans’ existential and spontaneous creative powers of thought – the very cornerstone of philosophy since its inception.

Those who believe philosophy must keep up with science will have to declare its death if philosophers, as Hawking said, fail to keep up with the latest scientific developments.

But on this measure, even the most celebrated scientist can’t possibly keep up with all the latest developments across the vast contours of scientific enterprises. So it seems absurd to us to hold philosophers to such an extravagant standard that scientists themselves couldn’t possibly maintain. The real question here might be: What is it about the anal-retentiveness inherent in analytic philosophy that submits to standards that necessarily lead to its own impotence and even death?

We just need to be bold enough to use all the resources philosophy provides, some of which we are only now coming to understand.

For the essence of analytic philosophy focuses on meaning at the expense of openness to different and surprising truth-conditions that may appear beyond an assumed analytic structure, stipulating what philosophy can do or cannot do.

In this respect, analytic philosophy is passe because its method is too conservative to transgress the presuppositions on which it is based. This is not only why analytic philosophy is “anal” (in the Freudian anal-retentive sense), but its conservative nature binds it to a method that has already died, as Hawking rightly states.

If a person behaved like the vast majority of analytic philosophy does in our time, they would be diagnosed with having a death wish and imposture syndrome, by enslaving itself to a scientific elitism. In this respect, the Trojan horse of philosophy might just be analytic philosophy snuck into the city of Troy, which today has become ever-shrinking conservative philosophy departments in universities. Students in these universities are not only forced to read summaries rather than the great classics texts from the history of philosophy, but are trained, like scientists, to write articles instead of books.

By contrast, as we have argued in our previous post, philosophy is too valuable and dynamic to fall prey to this imposture syndrome. Philosophy must remain committed to the logic of democracy, in which analytic clarity is a necessary aspect – but not to the point of self-mutilation, which turns philosophers into conservative police officers defending science and other potentially non-democratic agendas at the cost of marginalising creativity, political action, and social critique.

Which philosophy is dead? We submit that any method found within philosophy such as analytics, which purports to speak for the entire field, is too shortsighted, limiting, and conservative for philosophy in general.

But we believe philosophy may provide us with an escape-hatch from the gulag of neoliberalism and other totalitarian regimes, leading us into a future committed to freedom, democracy, and the celebration of differences.

In this respect, philosophy is a humble stick of revolutionary dynamite. We just need to be bold enough to use all the resources philosophy provides, some of which we are only now coming to understand. In this sense, “democratic” philosophy is not dead but very much alive and well.

Creston Davis is Professor of Philosophy at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences in Skopje, Macdeonia. He is the coauthor (with John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek) of Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology; coeditor (with John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek) of Theology and the Political: The New Debate; editor of John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? and author of Ghostly Icons.

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009), and, most recently, Hermeneutic Communism (2011, coauthored with G. Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press.