After the ‘System’:
Philosophy in the Age of the Sciences

by Gyorgy Markus


This present situation of philosophy is the product of a process of decomposition. This latter made untenable its earlier dominant cultural form—from the XVIIth to the late XIXth centuries—which still kept philosophy proper in an articulated unity with the only emerging modern theoretical sciences (known at that time by the name of philosophia naturalis). The idea of the system constituted this cultural form. For the notion of the system is not to be identified with a definite form of literary exposition, indeed it cannot be reduced to some particular type of logical structure as an "internal" form either. In fact, in the history of post‑Renaissance philosophy one encounters several system‑types differing from one another even with respect to their ultimate principles of construction. In this regard one can clearly distinguish the axiomatic‑deductive, the genetic, the transcendental and the dialectical systems. What unifies them is not some abstract identity of their logical cast, but the essential similarity of the way they conceive the role and function of philosophy = science in the totality of human life. And this, in its turn, determines what normative expectations should be, at least ideally, satisfied by such cultural accomplishments, that is it defines the manner in which their meaning and claim to truth is to be comprehended, and therefore also the way they can, or ought to be evaluated and criticized.


Here, of course, I can only in the most cursory way mention even the most essential constituents of this idea of the system understood as a cultural form. I would like, however, to make a short reference at least to three important aspects of it.

a. In its full conceptual realisation the idea of system first of all implies that philosophy = science is, in its manner of being, a chain of cognitions which in some way are objectified (and thereby made in principle accessible to everyone). This view seems to be so natural for us that we easily can miss its radical novelty: its break with the classical Greek conception of philosophia as episteme (the Latin scientia)—a conception which even thinkers of the early modem age took largely for granted. For in its original understanding episteme meant an acquired, but lasting and firm mental aptitude or habitus undivorceable from the total personality of the individual—a disposition of the soul to insight into truths of the highest type, truths of strictly universal and necessary character regarding the "causes" of the phenomena. Accordingly such knowledge was regarded also as adequately transmissible only in the educative process of the formation of an intellectual and moral character, from person to person. (Incidentally, this explains also the general hostility towards writing characteristic of the classics of Greek philosophy.) The idea of the system destroys this "personalistic" understanding of the socially most esteemed form of knowledge which claimed to be an end in itself. It divorces philosophy—further regarded as a value in itself—from its direct impact upon the life of its practitioners (or recipients), from its personality‑forming, illuminative influence, and thereby creates the conceptual preconditions within the framework of which the modern conception of the autonomy of cultural accomplishments first becomes intelligible.

b. According to those cultural norms and expectations which were implied in the idea of the system, the thus‑objectified body of knowledge ought to constitute such a coherent meaning‑formation which possesses a purely immanent sense, that is, which is understandable and evaluable strictly in and by itself. Thus such knowledge is not only accessible for everyone, but also in principle can be rationally evaluated by everyone with respect to its claim to truth and significance. Philosophy = science understood as system presented its claim to universal truth as the principle of an "epistemic democratism". In this way it not only broke away from the elitism characteristic of the classical conceptions of episteme, but it also essentially transformed the basic epistemological requirements and presuppositions associated with its concept. It partly radicalized them, partly gave to them (in a curious opposition to the above described tendency towards depersonalisation) a subjectivist turn.

In its classical understanding philosophy is not only episteme theoretike, but equally episteme apodeiktike: it represents the knowledge of necessary and universal truths based upon proof, acquired strictly through logical demonstration. This is perhaps the single most important feature of this view deeply influencing the whole subsequent intellectual evolution of the Western inheritance of Greek philosophy: the radical decontextualisation of the form of knowledge to which the highest spiritual value is ascribed. For this implied that the value of such knowledge is completely independent of its source (both from its relation to the tradition and from the authority or charisma of the person announcing it), from the way and form of its formulation and communication (from their poetically evocative or rhetorically persuasive character), further from the direct utilisability of its content. Its significance is based solely on the particular character of its truth‑value which is guaranteed by the way it can be acquired: through an unambiguously delineated, invariant and interpersonal procedure, through syllogistic inference, the pure form of which had been first clearly recognized and fixed by classical Greek thought. In this way logos had been radically demarcated from mythos and epos; from metis, the cunning reason so important, especially in political conduct; from eikos, the probable relegated to rhetorics; from the forms of practical know‑how, the techne; and equally from the description and systematisation of what is observable on the basis of the similarity of its constituents, from empeiria and historia. It was just this narrowing down, this radical and clear delimitation of the extent of the legitimate and legitimating cognitive grounds which conferred a specific direction upon the admitted discourses concerning the thus‑constituted cultural form—they have been unambiguously restricted to discussions of, and judgments upon, its demonstrative grounding, they acquired the form of strictly epistemic critique. In this way classical antiquity first created the concept of scientificity.

Classical Greek philosophy, however, did not consistently carry out, to its ultimate end this decontextualisation of knowledge. Episteme meant demonstrated knowledge, but the principles universally characterizing the mode of being of all kinds of beings, the principles which as the highest premises make the whole procedure of inference possible at all, were not regarded (at least in the paradigmatic Aristotelian conception) as belonging to the thus‑constituted sphere of competence of philosophic episteme. They pertain to other faculties of the soul, to nous and sophia, intellection and wisdom. Their insights are legitimated by the principle of consensus gentium et philosophorum, ultimately by the essentially concordant opinion of those whom "everyman" regards as the most competent and the most wise. Thus classical antiquity could comprehend philosophy only in the context of a shared culture, within the framework of, and relative to, a common tradition and form of life. And it is this context which makes intelligible and legitimates the very way it frames its question and the ultimate answers it gives to them. It was this fact which also allowed it to reconcile philosophy's claim to universal validity with its pronounced exclusivity.

The postulates of meaning‑immanence and epistemic democratism, however, cannot be reconciled with any admission of a factual context‑dependence of knowledge: they demand it to be without any external presuppositions whatsoever. The system ensures this by interconnecting the idea of objective logical grounds with that of subjective certainty, thereby liquidating the epistemic dualism of the ultimate principles of intellection and the demonstrated truths of episteme, "science" proper.

The starting points, the highest premises of the system (in whatever way they be defined) are given in an intuitive self‑evidence which excludes even the possibility of doubt. To arrive at such evidences demands genuine intellectual labour, the cleansing of the mind of all its accumulated biases and prejudices; but in principle they are equally available for, discernible by, everyone. These self‑evidences constitute the unshakable foundation of all knowledge. Its expansion, the construction and elaboration of the system consists in the total or partial, step‑by‑step transfer of this evidence through the construction of newer and newer truths from the ultimate ones. This is made possible by the method: some complex procedure usually not reducible to syllogistic inference alone, but again thought of as a public and interpersonally controllable one. The intellectual building blocks of this method are characterized in terms of such elementary mental operations as every normal person is able to perform. The significance of philosophy science in this way shifts from the apprehension and contemplation of personality‑shaping truths to the production of ever new truths built upon a secure and ever‑expanding foundation. Therefore the system is both closed and open at once. Closed, because the fixedness of its foundations and of the method from the very beginning predetermines the reach of its discourse and the way it can reach its objects. Open, because the value of the method consists in its productivity, in its capacity to make new, ever more particular phenomena intelligible and explainable from the pre‑given standpoint of the system.

c. All this, however, simultaneously means the inevitable collapse of the way in which the role of philosophia was conceived and its value legitimated in the classical tradition. In the perception of this latter the ultimate significance of its insight into universal and necessary truths consisted in the fact that such knowledge by its nature relates to that, and to only that, which is unchanging and eternal. Its comprehension therefore elevates the soul above the accidentalities and insecurities that rule the world of everyday experience and opinion, it fosters a spiritual attitude emancipated from the power of tyche, from the surrender to what simply happens to us. Precisely for this reason philosophia is not some body of knowledge to be learned, but a praxis, the highest form of meaningful and happy, salutary life, bios theoretikos. In this respect, as to its ultimate end—if one disregards the all important point how it envisages to realizing this end—classical Greek philosophy is closer to the great religions of salvation than to modern science.

The idea of the system disrupts this direct coincidence of theory and praxis, of intellectual apprehension and the good life. It further upholds as a normative requirement the strictly necessitarian character of all scientific truths. Due to its commitment to certainty it even enhances the dogmatism of the classical conception of knowledge. But it no longer seeks what is universal and necessary above the sphere of the changing, accidental individual phenomena, beyond the realm of transient practical needs and interests. Rather, it now locates the universal precisely in what remains constant and the same in the change of the phenomena, in the invariant regularities of their causal interactions, in their “laws”. The discovery of such hidden causal mechanisms then makes it possible for us to gain control over their possible effects, to increasingly acquire power and dominion over nature, the ultimate material and object of all our activities. Instead of a "philosophical" way of life based on the intellectual contemplation of the eternal cosmic rationality and accessible only to a few elect, philosophy now aims at, and finds its legitimation in, the active collective rationalisation of the conditions of life.

It would be, however, a misleading oversimplification to identify this end solely with an increase in our ability to manipulate natural processes, with the incessant growth of the security and effectivity of sheer survival independent of the meaning of life. The great systems of early modern philosophy regarded power over nature as a fundamentally important, but nevertheless only one aspect of human freedom. They understood it as the expansion of the range of possibilities for the realisation of human ends and values that can consciously be chosen on the basis of their recognized validity. For while the idea of the system destroyed the classical project of an immediate coincidence between rational knowledge and good life, it still intended and attempted to embrace both physics and ethics by, and within, a single, coherent conceptual construction, even in those cases when their relation was conceived as that of opposition. The understanding of the relation of humans—these free and rational beings able to discover the laws of nature and to modify their activity in accord with the knowledge so acquired—to this very causal order, the place of man in nature, such an understanding casts light not only on the conditions of the realisability of human ends, but also on their intrinsic value and rationality. In the systems of German idealism, which already react to the beginning divorce of the "positive" sciences from philosophy, these two tasks became rather clearly distinguished from each other. The empirical sciences (relegated by Hegel to the sphere of Objective Spirit) are to answer the question of Können, of what can be done, while philosophy, in which Absolute Spirit reaches its fulfillment, primarily ought to indicate what should be done, the path to the humanly befitting utilisation of the enlarged scope of activity and choice. Philosophy = science understood as system articulated the grand promise of modernity: to bring, in theory as well as in practice, to an ultimate unity and to fulfill jointly, in harmony, the demands both of self‑preservation and self‑realisation.


It was in the cultural form of the system that early modern philosophy = science achieved its autonomy. First of all, in this form did it become independent from religion and theology, and acquired such an area of the knowable over which it successfully could claim the highest epistemic authority. This cultural form, however, became undone, not least in the result of its own successes: it proved to be in a sense self‑destructive.

For those specific characteristics of the system‑idea which I summarily outlined above, also made possible a radical revision of the concept of scientific rationality. The emphasis laid upon the nature‑transforming function of science allowed it to connect up with technical knowledge, with those "mechanical arts" that earlier were regarded as "servile", and in this way to accept experiment also as a legitimate source of reliable knowledge. Evidence understood as subjective certainty rendered possible the dismantling of that line of demarcation which earlier was drawn between philosophia naturalis as genuine science and the observation based historia naturalis excluded from science proper, since, at least in some interpretations, the data of the senses also satisfy the requirement of self‑evidence. The broad conception of method also made induction acceptable as a scientifically legitimate procedure; and as a result, the probable too could find its way into science. In general, early modern philosophies proved to be capable, while maintaining, and in some respects even radicalizing, the fundamental cognitive features of the classical conception of scientificity, first of all its characterisation as decontextualized knowledge, to overcome to a significant extent its narrowness, rigidity and one‑sidedness so often emphasized as its fatal blemish today. It would seem that precisely the clarity and sharpness of the strictly demarcated logos‑concept conferred upon its tradition such a power and flexibility that permitted it to draw into its orbit much of that through the exclusion of which it had been originally defined.

It is clear that non‑theoretical conditions were primarily responsible for the fact that these conceptual possibilities became indeed actualized. However, when this transformation occurred, then science, more exactly the sciences differentiated in respect of their objects and methods, divorced themselves from philosophy. Each great branch of science was now conceived as possessing its own experiential‑experimental basis and therefore as having no need for a philosophical legitimation of its knowledge‑claims. The concept of scientific rationality embodied in the always‑advancing process of research had no more need to be articulated in terms of the concept of some ultimate philosophical foundation with indubitable self‑evidence. Instead, it could adequately be formulated in terms of graded empirical confirmation relative to the achieved level of knowledge. The processes of professionalisation and specialisation, which were essentially completed by the end of the XIXth century, also provided an institutional framework for this dissociation of the various kinds and branches of knowledge. And when the scientific revolutions of the early XXth century—first of all in the basic and exemplary science of physics—made almost unavoidable the recognition of the fallibilistic character of all scientific knowledge, the very idea of some “philosophical foundation” for science became—at least prima facie—untenable. In this way have gradually come into being the conditions for that antagonism between the sciences and philosophy to which I referred at the beginning of this paper.

SOURCE: Markus, Gyorgy. "After the ‘System’: Philosophy in the Age of the Sciences," in: Science, Politics, and Social Practice: Essays on Marxism and Science, Philosophy of Culture and the Social Sciences: In Honor of Robert S. Cohen, edited by Kostas Gavroglu, John Stachel, Marx W. Wartofsky (Dordrecht; Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995), pp. 139-159. (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science; v. 164) Extract: pp. 144-151.

The Philosophy of Theory and Practice: Selected Bibliography

Philosophy and the Division of Labor: Selected Bibliography

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides
My Writings
| Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Sign Registry View Registry

Uploaded 11 March 2005

site ©1999-2005 Ralph Dumain