What Philosophers Do

Adam Schaff

The editors of the present anthology have asked us to discuss the nature and the goals of philosophy. This writer prefers to approach the topic indirectly by asking what it is that philosophers do, or perhaps more precisely, what it is that they should do. In this writer's opinion this approach will bring us closer to our goal.

The first impulse would be to point to persons who engage in philosophy professionally, in an institutionalized manner, and to their activities within the appropriate institutions, such as universities and research institutes, which employ them qua philosophers.

Such an approach would certainly be correct, but a little reflection reveals that it does not help us explain what philosophy is. Superficial observations of the activities of those who aspire to the name of 'philosopher' can only strengthen our conviction that the variety of their doings, and sometimes even the incompatibility of such doings and opinions, is so great it is often difficult to comprehend why they all bear the same name. The question concerning what is common to all those varied activities and what can be extrapolated as the common subject matter and goal of what is termed 'philosophizing' thus reappears—just as a result of those observations which have been suggested as an ersatz answer to the question posed at the beginning. The motley impressions evoked by observing the variety of their activities apparently give rise to the search for some common characteristic they might share. This is why the answer must be in depth and must strive to extrapolate that which is common to the activities of those various people who are called 'philosophers', regardless of any other differences between them.

Perhaps the simplest solution would be to do what is done when we wish to single out the various disciplines within the specialized (or "positive," to use the traditional terminology) sciences. When we single out various disciplines, we use as the criterion the distinct nature of the subject matter, and usually the distinct nature of research methods. (The term 'subject matter' covers not only objects but also their various aspects and properties, relations between them, etc.) What then is the distinct subject matter of the reflections which we term 'philosophical', and what are the distinct methods of such reflections?

We disregard here—although it should certainly be acknowledged—the opinion of all those who reject the above reasoning because they refuse to admit that philosophy belongs in the sphere of science. By treating philosophy as being in the 'sphere of science', in the broad sense of the latter term, we make a certain choice. We adopt a certain attitude which will affect our further reasoning and must therefore be mentioned explicitly. Although we defend this attitude, we do not at the same time claim that philosophy can be separated from other disciplines on the basis of subject matter in the same way in which we proceed to single out specialized disciplines by defining their respective subject matters as, for instance, we do in the case of physics or medicine. If philosophy is to be treated as a distinct branch of science (so that those who are active in that field may be termed 'philosophers'), then it must have its own subject matter. Yet it does not follow therefrom that the distinct nature of its subject matter must be reflected in any specific set of material objects as, for example, all material bodies in the case of physics and all human organisms in the case of medicine; or in any specific aspects or properties of such objects. (Note that the various branches of medicine, which have the status of distinct disciplines, all have the totality of human organisms as the subject matter of research, but each discipline is concerned with one part or property of the human body, as is the case with anatomy, cardiology, gastrology, etc.) That which distinguishes the activities of philosophers from those of representatives of other disciplines reduces to what philosophers do and how they do it.

The what which accounts for the difference between the pursuit of philosophy, on one hand, and research in, e.g., chemistry or psychology, on the other, consists above all in the level of generality of those statements which we consider to be specifically philosophical in nature. It is true that every science generalizes and formulates laws that cover a class of elements, but philosophical statements are still more general in nature, since they formulate laws that cover all phenomena. [1] This is not done by any specialized discipline, even if, as is the case with gravitation theory, the discipline claims its laws to be maximally general in nature. Also, philosophical statements are on the metatheoretical level as compared with the various branches of science or studies of facts. In this connection it is not necessary that such philosophical statements develop as reflections on a given discipline as it were externally (i.e., whether they are formulated by philosophers who do not themselves professionally engage in the pursuit of a given branch of science) or internally (i.e., as methodological or metatheoretical reflections by representatives of that specialized discipline who feel the need of broader generalizations, as is typically the case of the philosophy of biology, the philosophy of physics, etc.).

Since no branch of science (or everyday thinking either) can do without such concepts as truth and falsehood, cause and effect, necessity and chance, none can do without its specific philosophy. As has been mentioned above, the source of such reflections is unimportant. Thus they may issue from professional philosophers or from philosophizing representatives of the specialized discipline in question (as is recently the case of the biologist Jacques Monod, author of Le Hasard et la Nécessité). This fact, among other things, has suggested the idea, common as the various forms of analytic philosophy, that the task of philosophy consists in an analysis of the language of science and is confined to such an analysis—which obviously greatly restricts the concept of philosophy.

Thus the specific domain of philosophy consists of those general theoretical and metatheoretical statements which go beyond the framework of any specialized science and thus form or contribute to the formation of our Weltanschauung. But, as has been mentioned above, the differentia specifica of philosophy cannot be reduced to the issue of the universal and/or metatheoretical nature of philosophical statements. There is more to this task: its what must be linked with its how. The question here is how we arrive at those most general statements of a philosophical nature when we have a definite body of knowledge provided by the specialized disciplines. In other words, the question is that of the deducibility (or nondeducibility) of philosophical statements from the existing body of positive knowledge provided by the specialized disciplines at a given stage of their development.

I am afraid that I will now say something which young philosophers will find shocking: philosophical statements are usually not arrived at in a way that complies with the requirements of the specialized disciplines. Whenever a philosophical issue or a branch of philosophy, following the general development of science, attains that degree of precision which complies with the requirements of the specialized sciences, then that issue or branch loses its philosophical nature. Moreover, that branch of philosophy which deals with the issue becomes a separate discipline or an integral part of a specialized science. The expected shock for young philosophers to which I allude would probably be due to the fact that the above statement could be interpreted as the declaration that philosophy is speculative in nature and hence scientific philosophy is essentially impossible. Now that would be an erroneous impression, for the reader will find below that I agree with the postulate that philosophy is to be pursued in a scientific manner, that agreement being accompanied by an appropriate explanation. Nonetheless, philosophical statements usually are not formulated as a result of a procedure dictated by the rigor which is characteristic of specialized sciences. Thus nothing more has been said than that philosophical statements are arrived at as a result of a different procedure—one which is not identical with the procedure dictated by the rigor which is characteristic of specialized sciences. Nevertheless the procedure of philosophy does not thereby become counterscientific in the sense of being speculative, or at least it need not become such. The procedures valid in specialized sciences may be classed as deductive and inductive. In the case of the former, we adopt a set of axioms and a set of transformation rules, which provide the foundation of strict reasoning in which each step follows rigorously and univocally from the preceding one. This yields a model of precision which is specific to the deductive disciplines and which can be imitated in any hypothetical deductive system. Of course a philosophical system also can be constructed in this way if we adopt a certain hypothesis as the set of axioms. However, it can easily be noted that the precision of philosophical systems so constructed is merely apparent, because of the difficulty related to the substantiation of the choice of a given hypothesis as the set of axioms of the calculus. This is why this procedure may be eliminated from our considerations.

The other procedure is associated with those sciences in which laws are formulated through generalization of data obtained by observations and experiments. The rigors and requirements vary according to the subject matter of research, but one element is common to the whole class of those disciplines: as they can never attain the absolute precision of the deductive sciences, they must indicate the methods of verification or refutation of their statements so that these may attain the status of scientific statements.

Now philosophical statements usually are generalizations which do not lend themselves to such a procedure. Hence no crucial experiment can be devised to verify or to refute such statements. (When this becomes possible following the development of science, then such statements cease to be philosophical.) Thus it is possible to defend statements which not only differ from one another, but even stand for outright opposite attitudes. The final stage of a discussion of them consists in formulating difference of opinions and not in proving that the opponent's opinions are erroneous, since such a proof is not possible. This fact accounts for the "eternal nature" of the fundamental problems in philosophy, and of the philosophical schools which advance their own solutions of those problems. Such schools in the course of history often change their respective terminologies and phraseologies, but they stick to their essential viewpoints. This fact also accounts for the conviction, common among many philosophers, that philosophy reduces to its own history.

Thus when a comparison is drawn with statements of the specialized disciplines, the position of philosophical statements is in a sense weaker. Are, then, such statements needed at all in science? Yes, they are, as far as a Weltanschauung is needed, or as far as general heuristic hypotheses are needed, such hypotheses being in the last analysis a hinterland of various scientific inquiries, even if those who make such inquiries do not realize that they are so needed. This is so because the Messrs. Jourdains, who are astonished to learn that they talk in prose, abound not only among people in the street, who realize neither that they philosophize nor what are the far‑reaching philosophical implications of such casual but well‑understood statements as "This is true," "This is false," "That was the cause of the accident," "It was by chance that I returned home," etc. For they are to be found also among those representatives of natural and social science who believe that they refer to "pure" facts without any philosophical admixtures, and who fail to realize how much that construct which is "fact" and allegedly free from philosophical contaminations is burdened with philosophy. Engels used to say about the positivistically minded natural scientists of his time who were vigorously dissociating themselves from philosophy that their attitude resulted not in any liberation from philosophy, which is impossible, but in falling victims to the worst kind of philosophy, namely eclectic conglomerations of high school philosophy and current opinions, which are adopted by these philosophers without being recognized for what they really are. If philosophy is an inseparable comrade‑in‑arms of all scientific pursuits (which, obviously, greatly increases the importance of philosophy), then it is better to adopt a philosophical position consciously and with an expert knowledge of it than to succumb to it spontaneously, which makes it impossible to identify and to select appropriate opinions.

Let us agree then that philosophy cannot be dismissed. But does this mean that we are resigned to the fact that our thinking includes counterscientific speculations? No, because, as has been said above, although philosophical generalizations are arrived at in a different manner than are those in the specialized disciplines, this results in their being different in nature, but it need not result in their being counterscientific. The point is that in the case of those generalizations which, by their very nature, skip over certain stages in the processes of generalization that are necessary for a hypothetical (and always hypothetical only) Weltanschauung, the labels 'scientific' and 'nonscientific' must be used differently than in the case of the specialized disciplines. A philosophy which is not in conflict with scientific statements (i.e., statements of the specialized disciplines), and which strives to generalize them in accordance with the general laws of logic and methodology, can aspire to a scientific status. The demarcation line between scientific philosophies and nonscientific philosophies is not drawn very sharply, but it is clear enough to allow for a distinction which is important for all those who want to include philosophy in a unified scientific image of the world, and who are not willing to adopt the doctrine of two truths—a doctrine which imposes a sui generis split personality on those who adopt it (although it cannot be denied that the strange doctrine of two truths is being adopted by scientists who are eminent experts in their respective fields).

This answers the question concerning what philosophers do by pointing to the peculiar nature of philosophical statements, both with respect to the kind of generalization they are and with respect to the way of arriving at such generalization as compared with the specialized disciplines. Since what has been said above may prove shocking and distressing to the various lovers of philosophy, let it be said once again that this opinion results from the standpoint I have adopted on the question, and as such it is my personal opinion that shares the fortunes and misfortunes of all philosophical statements: it can be rejected by the adoption of a different philosophical standpoint. This takes us to the second sphere of problems which must be raised if the question about the nature and the goals of philosophy is to be answered.

Observation of the activities of philosophers, which we earlier characterized as an ersatz approach to the main question, shows beyond doubt that their activities are differentiated based both on their fields of interest and on the schools of thought which determine their standpoints, and hence also based on the answers to the question discussed here. Their activities are somehow interconnected (in particular, membership in a given school often determines the field of one's philosophical interests), but the relation is certainly not one‑to‑one.

Let us begin with the differentiation of fields of interest, since this is the simpler matter. The fact that one philosopher specializes in the history of philosophy while another specializes in epistemology, that some of them spend their lives studying ethics while others concentrate on aesthetics, the philosophy of language, or the methodology of natural science, is trivial and can be explained above all by psychological factors. The problem becomes more complicated when one's links with a certain philosophical school result in one's claiming that only certain philosophical interests make sense, whereas all others should be dismissed as meaningless. Thus, for instance, the Vienna Circle positivists were convinced that the analysis of the language of science was the only legitimate subject matter of all philosophizing, and they therefore rejected as meaningless all the traditional problems of philosophy. (This, however, did not prevent them from engaging in an immanent empiricism that inevitably led them to the metaphysics of subjective idealism.) Likewise, though in a somewhat different way, some representatives of philosophical anthropology assert that the problems of man are the only problems which the philosophers may study, whereas the methodology of natural science should be the chasse gardée of natural scientists and should be barred to philosophers. Now all such bans do not make sense and, in fact, are broken in practice. As has been said at the outset, all analyses of a specified type are philosophical in nature, and all fields of study are open in that respect.

The differentiation of philosophers according to membership in different schools of philosophical thought is, however, a more important matter. One and the same issue may be offered various and even mutually incompatible solutions. Moreover, if we assume that the the views of representatives of the various schools are logically consistent, we can only comprehend the differences in the points of departure and in the assumptions adopted, without being able to prove which school is right (with the proviso that, obviously, one is always right on the strength of one's own assumptions). These facts result in a striking situation which, however, is understandable in view of the nature of philosophical reasoning which I have previously described.

But this yields significant conclusions, with which beginners in philosophical thinking, especially, should become familiar (although more experienced philosophers also may derive some profit from recalling them). Since the issue at stake is always tinged with the personal opinions of a given philosopher, and especially since these contributions to the anthology are to some extent personal declarations of philosophical faith, I will refer to my own case. Being a Marxist by conviction, I am—as far as my philosophical opinions are concerned—a member of the Marxist school of philosophy. What does this mean?

This means that since I believe the fundamental principles of Marxist philosophy to be correct (i.e., in my opinion, the best out of all those which are offered by the current schools of philosophy), I try to apply them in my philosophical research, and I try to convince others that those principles are the right ones. This results from my realizing the importance of adopting a definite philosophical standpoint for man's theoretical and practical activities, and hence from my concept of a philosopher's moral responsibility to advocate those views which he deems right. Thus, as I see it, I am a philosopher engaged and inspired by the party spirit—in the sense of being a member of a definite school, a definite party in philosophy. This is, of course, not to be confused with membership in any political party, for these may coincide, but they need not. And they are certainly not identical. This is mentioned here because a Marxist term (in itself not a very accurate rendering of the term which in German and several other languages means something like "partyhood") is involved, and it is often misinterpreted, even by some adherents of Marxism.

Now, following the fundamental theoretical and methodological principles of the school of which I am a member, I strive to make my philosophy scientific: my generalizing philosophical statements should be in agreement with the data provided by the specialized disciplines at a given stage of their development, as has been said; such statements should not be at variance with theorems formulated in the specialized disciplines; and they should generalize such theorems methodologically in the light of the assumptions made.

While declaring my membership in a definite philosophical school and my commitment to specified philosophical conceptions, which aspire to be scientific in nature, I realize that my principles are philosophical, and hence I also realize the difference between them and those principles which are valid in the specialized disciplines. This fact compels me to accept several consequences:

(a) The falsehood of rival doctrines cannot be demonstrated ultimately in the light of the criteria current in the specialized disciplines.

(b) It cannot be denied that, just because of their different viewpoints, rival doctrines may notice problems which remain outside the field of vision of one's school (such facts are confirmed fully by the history of philosophical investigations), so that it is not possible to claim that one's doctrine is the only true one, whereas all rival doctrines are false.

(c) One's philosophy must be an open system, ready to incorporate new questions, if such are raised by the general development of science (the development of scientific philosophy included), and to accept the principle of Cartesian scepticism, which states that all problems, including philosophical ones, must be reconsidered whenever there are sufficient scientific reasons to question the traditional solutions—which is just synonymous with antidogmatism.

The attitude based on the acceptance of these principles might be termed that of toleration, as opposed to the concept of closed philosophical systems. In this writer's opinion the attitude of toleration, interpreted as above, is the foundation of progress in philosophy, and hence it is the attitude which philosophers should strive to develop in young students of philosophy by their activities as teachers. This is one more contribution and a very important contribution to the answer to the question "What is it that philosophers should do?"

The attitude of toleration thus understood is—despite current opinions to the contrary—fully compatible with reasonable engagement and the "party spirit" (in the sense explained above) of philosophy. The fact that it is impossible to demonstrate, by using methods valid in the specialized disciplines, that rival doctrines are erroneous shows only that philosophy differs from those disciplines, which has been accepted at the outset. This fact, however, cannot be used as an argument against the possibility of making choices, of choosing one of the many doctrines which vie with one another. On the contrary, philosophers do make such choices and are then free to evaluate doctrines other than their own, even though they may not use, in such evaluations, the qualifiers 'true' and 'false' in the same senses in which these terms are used in ordinary scientific controversies. This is so because, as has been said earlier, such choices are made on the level of generalizations, with disregard of certain missing links in scientific reasoning. This is also why in such choices social and individual emotional conditioning plays a much greater role than it usually does in the case of specialized disciplines. Yet, from the point of view of its effect on human activities, scientific activities included, this does not reduce the role of philosophy, but on the contrary makes its role even greater. It is from this fact that philosophers derive their conviction not only of the correctness of their opinions but also of the importance of the struggle for the victory of those opinions in the minds of other men. Thus a true philosopher is an active, engaged one. He ought to preserve his engaged attitude, inspired by the "party spirit," when he carries into effect the principles of open philosophy and the attitude of toleration, without which scientific philosophy cannot be pursued. In my opinion, it is one of the teaching duties of the philosopher to shape that sense of moral responsibility, we might say the sense of moral mission, which underlies engaged philosophy. I accept this duty as a Marxist philosopher, but in my opinion this is an issue which concerns all philosophers. This is why I point to this duty in concluding my reflections on what it is that philosophers should do.


1 The historical disciplines do not fit well the picture given for these other areas, but in the present writer's opinion, the assertion that they are entirely idiographic in nature is wrong. [—>main text]

SOURCE: Schaff, Adam. "What Philosophers Do," in The Owl of Minerva: Philosophers on Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1975), Chapter 11, pp. 179-189.

(section of Intellectual Life in Society, Conventional and Unconventional: A Bibliography in Progress)

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

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