Why Philosophy Dies

To say philosophy is at an end, first one must define it.  Then one notes, there is no generally agreed upon definition.  ‘Philosophy’ could be defined in many different ways that initially seem to have, about equal value as definitions.  Thought of in terms of a history of ideas in a literature called, ‘philosophy,’ then Philosophy does not die.  No one has ever claimed, the discipline of Philosophy is at an end.  Instead, what is offered, is that perhaps nothing more can be added to it, apart from more history.

The history must be of something, and not merely of more history, but then can we have more of this ‘something’?

This takes us back to our question of definitions.  What is philosophy, if not history?  It seems to often be more than history.  When Descartes says, ‘I think, therefore I am,’ it is not history, though it is philosophy.  It is a claim, in part of a quest to say how reality ultimately is, one that hits upon the questions most vital for us as humans, such as how to achieve salvation.

This seems to suggest, philosophy will at the least continue as ‘theology.’  However, when philosophers discuss the end of philosophy, also they often mean, theology is over.  For example, it might be suggested, ‘God died.’  So, merely because rational theology is a part of philosophy, it does not mean, philosophy continues.  Then also the same is true, if one counts theology in general, as part of philosophy.  The problem then is that it is not clear, we any longer affirm or deny, theological propositions, except as part of a situation of tradition, where all that is affirmed, is in fact a ‘history,’ i.e. an historical system.  Do we any longer, try to ‘resolve’ theology disputes – except perhaps to argue, side A is more ‘traditional’ than side B?  Is it just a question of what is traditional or historical?  Then too, does this question perhaps, fail to lead to any new cogitation in its own right, beyond establishing what it is, that has previously been affirmed?

There are of course, competing schools of thought.  For example, one school says, the basis for morality, lies in doing what is ‘commanded’ by a higher power who is in a position to make it worth one’s while, to follow the commands.  Kant and Mill, while seeming to be broadly in keeping with this way of thinking, nonetheless at times suggest, another approach, that there is somehow a direct force to ‘Reason’ even apart from a higher being or Law of Karma. This approach appears nonsensical to me, yet some at least pretend to defend it, or at least, offer it as a worthy possibility.  –Then too there are obviously competing schools regarding, how to interpret the divine or ‘karmic’ will, but as I say, much of this debate seems to be about simply affirming, some given historical approach over the others.

Personal philosophizing goes on, but if individuals do not offer to others their reasons for being, e.g., Catholic rather than Hindu, philosophy does not go on through this purely personal activity.

Then too it may be that the reason giving, is too simple, to count as new philosophy. ‘This is what appeals to me.’  ‘This is what strikes me as true.’  Etc.  I do not say, these are people’s main reasons, as I do not know what goes on in everyone’s mind.  Yet still this kind of thing is very often what student will offer to others as their reasons.

In the past, matters were different.  An example might be, John Locke.  Locke not only gives us an argument for belief in God, but he tries to argue, belief in God implies a need to respect property rights.  So, according to Locke, there is a God and therefore there are human rights.  This is no longer mere Anglican religion; it is a kind of attempted settling of theological disputes.  Yet the world of philosophy has responded to all of this, essentially with an ‘well, so you say, but I think otherwise.’  What Locke argues is interesting, but then there are both agnostic replies, and also theistic replies which ask, ‘how do we know, God has not set up some humans over others, as Locke denies?’  And then I think the matter is mostly dropped.  There are some alternatives we record as ‘historians,’ but in terms of actually ‘deciding’ what is the proper choice here – what would that mean, unless one simply refers to, a purely personal decision, i.e. a hidden one?

Obviously, additional arguments could be given pro or con, yet the general tendency is always to suggest, Locke’s case is not established.  Then – much more than this – there is a tendency, to just not try to establish such propositions as those with which Locke dealt.  One notes various possibilities, and their implications, but how any of this is any different from a very thorough historical investigation, is not clear to me.  There is the possibility of naturalistic egoism and the possibility of (metaphysical) human rights, and there are questions as to how the two approaches, converge and do not converge.  A good history of philosophy, ought to deal with all these issues and questions.  Yet still it is quite another matter to say, which approach is correct.  Someone like Locke thought to do this, yet increasingly – that is not the way.  We may ask a student, for a writing exercise, for a matter of promoting good ‘process’ and good ‘ways of thinking,’ to take a side, but philosophy itself more and more, merely offers history.  …Perhaps a philosopher takes an historical side, but then not necessarily, with much argument being offered.  Matters remain at the ‘historical’ level.

Obviously, there are exceptions, e.g. there is a kind of debate as to whether rule or act utilitarianism, is the better approach.  There is a debate as to whether ‘materialism’ or ‘idealism’ is better.  Etc.  Yet not only is there a tendency to see these debates, as involving false dichotomies, then also there are questions of sincerity present. And of interest.  Two sides debate, but, e.g., if one is not a utilitarian in the first place, how is one going to care whether the utilitarian ‘ought’ to follow a rule approach as opposed to an act one?  …No, the real debates seem to be about, who is ‘interesting’ or ‘insightful.’  ‘I do not say Hegel is right, but he is “insightful” and you are wrong to dismiss his approach as obscurantist.’  Etc.  It is the talk of historians, it would seem.

Locke argues, there are human rights, Hegel, that God is a certain way, etc., yet who any longer does this?  Individuals must have their thoughts, yet in the main, they keep these to themselves, or else select, rather than, e.g. Hegelianism, something such as the Westminster Confession.  Then with a document like this, there seems to be a strong urge, to ‘keep one’s options open,’ to appear neither too liberal nor too conservative, much like a lawyer who thinks someday, he might be considered to be a judge.  Perhaps one will become a pastor oneself – or run for office?  Or – more likely – just change one’s mind….  Better not to say too much now.  (Or perhaps ‘people’ are listening?  Men from ‘the bureaus’?)

Certainly, taking a stance that is more liberal or less, on confessional documents, seems a philosophical act.  It is just a question of how deep is the reasoning given, in connection with this stance taking.  Then also there are issues of irrationalism present.  Do many simply decide based on feeling, that which does not seem a good candidate, to be decided through feeling alone?  If reasoning is shallow or irrational, we may see little added to ‘philosophy.’


We begin with some philosophical points regarding definition and who it is who truly philosophises, but soon the discussion is also heavily sociological in character.  Rather than merely describe, what is to be counted philosophy, we point out, it is not being done, except as ‘history.’  There is then the question of sociological laws.  Why is it not being done?

Then also a ‘philosophical’ point shows itself:  if it merely that people choose not be philosophers, this does not mean, philosophy is not possible.  New foundational beliefs can always be given.  It may be a simple matter of the will to exert oneself.  Are people simply lazy?

Yet, I do not think that is it.  That is a possible sociological explanation, but there are others.  Indeed, there is a question present, regarding whether the causes of ‘cessation’ are inherent to the field of Philosophy, or external to it.  Is it just, e.g., Philosophy soon exhausts the interesting questions, once freedom of speech comes to the fore, or is it more that something external is at work, e.g. lead in the water, lowering IQ’s? Etc.

An elegant answer would be to suggest, Philosophy transforms the world so as to somehow make itself, irrelevant.  Internal and external intertwine.  On the other hand, what is more factually accurate, may very well be the stance, there are simply many causes operating here, some internal, some external….


Obviously, there is much more to the story.  At the least, one would have to trace the connection of the rise of Reason, to the loss of authority experienced by traditional religion.  Philosophy slowly strangles its Muse, Religion….  But does not much religious authority, persist?  So, there are then other problems, within the religious realm itself, where we see a kind of ossification of positions, an end to new ‘streams’ of Christianity, apart from the rather late-blossoming Mormon movement.

I do not think it is a very simple question, why does philosophy ‘die’?  With this factor of religious ossification, the matter becomes complex.  There could be a new prophet, but then there is not.  Or else somehow, the prophets no longer connect with the world at large.  Jeremiah spoke, Jesus spoke, Luther spoke – and the world listened.  To what degree the world has been able to hear, Joseph Smith is less clear, and then many other ‘prophets’ I am sure, simply languish in obscurity.  Or perhaps died in some Soviet or SS cell?

Soviet thinking, but then also a mainstream of American thinking – perhaps merely as paralleling movements in France, Spain, etc. – emphasise ‘science’ over prophecy, technology over noumena.  Does this explain the shifts in religious consciousness?  We can at least see, there are at least two factors here, this shift, and then particular elements associated with it, such as growing secularism.  It is not easy to say, what is cause, and what is effect.  No doubt, secularism pushes limits on the religious consciousness, and the new limits of the religious consciousness, feed secularism.  And then, moreover, there could further be a third factor present here….  Or many more.

Imagination is needed to create new foundational beliefs, in a system, that will engage people.  The ‘people’ may be too dumb…. Or too barbaric.  Or imagination may simply be stolen.  Those are good questions.  In any case, if philosophy dies, it dies at least as much from problems with the audience as from problems with ‘the philosopher.’

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