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Structure and Being

A Theoretical Framework for a Systematic Philosophy Lorenz B. Puntel, translated by and in collaboration with Alan White
  • Copyright: 2008
  • Dimensions: 6 x 9
  • Page Count: 528 pages
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-03373-0
  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-271-03374-7

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Introduction

The systematic philosophy presented in this book has arisen from two insights, formulable as two theses, resulting from a long and intensive occupation with the fundamental philosophical conceptions from history and of the present. The first thesis is that, in terms of its intention, self-understanding, and accomplishments, the theoretical enterprise that for over two thousand years has been designated “philosophy” is fundamentally a form of knowledge with a comprehensive or universal character. The second thesis is that contemporary philosophy – and quite particularly so-called analytic philosophy – today does scarcely any justice to this universal character of philosophy, in that it exhibits, virtually exclusively, a fragmentary character that is conditioned by various distinct factors.

[1] To designate the comprehensive character of philosophy, modernity introduces the term “system,” which then develops a significant history. For reasons presented at the end of this Introduction, this term is used in this book, if at all, only marginally, and certainly not as the proper designation of the philosophy here presented. That designation is instead “systematic philosophy” (and, more specifically, “structural-systematic philosophy”).

To be emphasized at the outset is that contemporary philosophy uses the term “systematic” in two distinct senses – or, more precisely, that the term currently has both a central signification and a secondary one. In its central philosophical signification, “systematic” designates a conception of philosophy distinguished by two characteristics: the completeness of its scope, in terms of its subject matter, and its concern with articulating the interconnections among all its various thematic components. Neither this completeness nor this interconnectedness is, as a rule, taken in an absolute sense. Thus, it is not meant that all the details relevant to a philosophical subject matter or domain and all of the interconnections among those details are explicitly presented. What is meant is instead that what this book calls the unrestricted universe of discourse is understood and articulated at least in its global structuration.

According to the secondary signification of “systematic” in contemporary philosophy, the term is the counterpart to “(purely) historical”: a “systematic” treatment of a topic, a “systematic” view, etc., is one that is not historically oriented. This secondary signification is not of primary importance for this book; here, the chief signification is intended except in cases where either the context or explicit notation indicates the relevance of the secondary signification.

Throughout most of its long history, philosophy has attributed to itself a comprehensive character, even if that character has taken various distinct forms. In the golden age of antiquity, for example, philosophy is more or less identified with scientific knowledge as a whole,1 in the Middle Ages it is primarily understood as taking the form of a Summa, and in modernity it develops, increasingly, as a system; this development leads to the duality of Rationalism and Empiricism, which itself then leads to Kant’s historical attempt to overcome the duality between these two schools of thought by developing a new form of philosophical system, albeit a radically limited one. Kant’s critical enterprise has, as a consequence that only appears to be paradoxical, the development of the highest and most daring variants of philosophy as comprehensive; these are the philosophical systems that come to be grouped under the designation “German Idealism.” It is anything other than a historical accident that the collapse of these systems, particularly Hegel’s, coincides, in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the impressively self-conscious rise, in the arenas both of theory and of experimentation, of the natural sciences and with the beginnings both of contemporary mathematical logic and of what later becomes known as analytic philosophy.

An additional, later line of separation is to be noted; this is between analytic philosophy and various other schools of thought that have developed, some of which persist, with varying degrees of vivacity, into the present. Those other schools of thought include Husserlian phenomenology, the philosophy of life, hermeneutics, and Heidegger’s philosophy of being. The comprehensive character of philosophy – earlier brought into question only rarely and never fundamentally – remains present in these schools of thought, albeit only in a somewhat paradoxical manner. It is present explicitly in a manner that is virtually exclusively negative (i.e., as rejection), but implicitly in one that is astonishingly positive: the attempt has been and continues to be made to relativize precisely this (traditionally) comprehensive character in various ways, by means of the development of some kind of meta conception of it. This is exemplarily the case in the hermeneutic philosophy developed especially by Hans-Georg Gadamer: of central importance to this school of thought is the comprehensive context of the history of interpretation, within which attempts are made to situate the various philosophies that claim to be comprehensive. Heidegger, above all, presses such a meta conception to the greatest extreme in that he attempts to develop a thinking that understands itself as explicitly superior to all preceding philosophies, and thereby claims to have a character yet more radically comprehensive than any of those others.2

Philosophy cannot simply ignore or abstract from the tradition – its tradition – because that would be tantamount to a kind of self-denial and thus to self-destruction. But attendance to its own history can be and in fact is concretized in various ways. Thus, philosophy can simply restrict its concern to the history of philosophy or indeed identify itself with this concern. But it can also go to the opposite extreme; it does so if it turns completely and explicitly against the entire history of philosophy. Even a simple ignoring of the history of philosophy is a particular way of denying that history any positive significance, and indeed, in a certain respect, the most radical way of doing so. The spectrum of possibilities between these two extremes is quite extensive. It can, however, be established that the most productive new initiatives in philosophy are those that develop on the basis of appropriately balanced attention to the history of philosophy.

In opposition to the schools of thought just introduced, analytic philosophy develops along significantly more modest lines. Fundamentally (and almost exclusively), it has always been systematic in the secondary sense; as is shown below, it continues to be so. Whether it has been or is systematic in the chief sense is a completely separate question that is addressed shortly below. The “systematic” – in the sense of “not (purely) historical” – character of analytic philosophy, starting from its beginnings, has as one of its consequences the fact that it has neglected and often indeed simply ignored the grand philosophical tradition. Much could be said about this neglect, but a general remark suffices here: analytic philosophers are at present increasingly concerned not only with the history of analytic philosophy but also with the entire history of philosophy.

[2] The question whether contemporary philosophy is systematic in the chief sense is answered in the negative by the second thesis articulated in the opening paragraph of this Introduction. This thesis has a global character and cannot be defended in detail here; nevertheless, some further specifications are possible and also requisite. For this, it is necessary to distinguish between non-analytic (so-called “continental”) and analytic philosophy. As far as non-analytic philosophy since the end of World War II is concerned, the following may be noted globally: to the extent that this philosophy has a distinctly theoretical character, it is concerned essentially with ever new interpretations and reinterpretations of traditional philosophical texts, and not with systematic philosophy in the second of the senses introduced above (“systematic” as “non-historically oriented”).3 Works that are systematic in the chief sense of “systematic” and thus in continuity with the continental tradition of philosophy are scarcely to be found.

The thesis introduced above that analytic philosophy has a solely fragmentary character requires more extensive explanation and specification. In a lecture presented in 1975 (1977/1978), Michael Dummett treats the question posed in his title: “Can Analytic Philosophy Be Systematic, and Ought It to Be?” His answer is illuminating in some respects but not in all. Dummett does not directly pose the question whether analytic philosophy up to and including 1975 is systematic; he does, however, treat this question indirectly, although even then not comprehensively. He distinguishes between two meanings of “systematic”

<ext>In one sense, a philosophical investigation is systematic if it is intended to issue in an articulated theory, such as is constituted by any of the great philosophical ‘systems’ advanced in the past by philosophers like Spinoza or Kant. In the other sense, a philosophical investigation is systematic if it proceeds according to generally agreed methods of enquiry, and its results are generally accepted or rejected according to commonly agreed criteria. These two senses ... are independent of one another. (455)

[5] Dummett contends that to the extent that the philosophy of the past – pre-Fregean philosophy – is systematic, it is systematic only in the first sense, not in the second. As far as analytic philosophy is concerned, Dummett appears to hold that to the extent that it is systematic up to 1975, it is so only in the second sense. Dummett restricts this “to the extent” in two ways. He deems such philosophers as Gilbert Ryle, John Austin, and the later Wittgenstein to be explicitly non-systematic in both of his senses. With respect to other analytic philosophers, above all Rudolf Carnap, W. V. O. Quine, and Nelson Goodman, he maintains that it would be absurd to pose to them the question whether analytic philosophy can be systematic; he appears to consider these thinkers to be systematic in both of his senses.

Dummett defends the thesis that “at least in the philosophy of language, philosophy ought henceforward to be systematic in both senses” (455). In part for this reason, he deems Frege to be “the fountain-head of analytical philosophy” (440) and to be the central figure in the entire history of this now-dominant philosophical movement. He maintains “that philosophy failed, throughout most of its long history, to achieve a systematic methodology” (456–57). An explanation is required, he contends, for “how it comes about that philosophy, although as ancient as any other subject and a great deal more ancient than most, should have remained for so long ‘in its early stages’” (457), but he provides no such explanation in the essay under consideration. Instead of offering one, he reasons as follows: “The ‘early stages’ of any discipline are, presumably, to be characterised as those in which its practitioners have not yet attained a clear view of its subject-matter and its goals.” He adds that philosophy has “only just very recently struggled out of its early stage into maturity: the turning-point was the work of Frege, but the widespread realisation of the significance of that work has had to wait for half a century after his death, and, at that, is still confined only to the analytical school.”

Dummett takes an additional step by contending, “Only with Frege was the proper object of philosophy finally established” (458); to explain this development, he introduces three factors. First, the goal of philosophy is the analysis of the structure of thought, second, this thought is to be distinguished strictly from the thinking studied by psychology, and third, the only correct method for the analysis of thought is that of the analysis of language. On this basis, Dummett provides his clearest determination of analytic philosophy: “We may characterise analytical philosophy as that which follows Frege in accepting that the philosophy of language is the foundation of the rest of the subject” (441).

Dummett’s reflections well reveal the difficulty encountered with any attempt to describe, generally, what specifically characterizes analytic philosophy; the difficulty is yet clearer if one attempts to answer the question whether analytic philosophy is systematic. As accurate as Dummett’s remarks are in mutual isolation, viewed as a whole they are quite one-sided, short-sighted, and in part even incorrect. His distinction between his two senses in which a given philosophical investigation can be “systematic” – on the one hand, “if it is intended to issue in an articulated theory,” and, on the other, “if it proceeds according to generally accepted methods of enquiry, and its results are generally accepted or rejected according to commonly agreed criteria” (455) – is both one-sided and artificial. As indicated above, however, Dummett identifies such a method in the philosophical legacy of Frege; he deems this method, which involves the analysis of language, the “only proper” one (458).

These contentions are problematic in several respects. A method determined by the sociology of knowledge (“generally accepted, ... commonly agreed ...” [455]) cannot raise the claim of being the “only proper” one; factors of the sociology of knowledge are subject to a volatility far too great to qualify them as a firm basis for evaluating systematic philosophical methods. It cannot, for example, (or can no longer) be said that the method of the analysis of language is currently widely accepted. Dummett says that it is “amazing that, in all its long history, [philosophy] should not yet have established a generally accepted methodology, generally accepted criteria of success, and, therefore, a body of definitively achieved results” (455), and it follows from various of his own theses that his method, the analysis of language, should not only be generally accepted but should (or would) also establish a “body of definitively achieved results.” Talk in philosophy of “definitive results” is, however, extraordinarily problematic. In any case, Dummett’s method has not produced any such results, and again, it cannot be said that his philosophical methodology is generally accepted.

Does it then follow that Dummett’s philosophy lacks a “systematic method”? That would be strange, but then it is likewise strange and even incoherent to ascribe to thinkers of the past “articulated theories” (and in this sense systematicity) while simultaneously denying that they had systematic philosophical methodologies. In addition, if one attributes to the criteria of general agreement and acceptance as central a significance as does Dummett, then it would be only consequent to apply the criteria not only to systematicity as requiring a universal methodology but also to systematicity as “intending to issue in articulated theor[ies].” But then one could no longer contend, as does Dummett, that Spinoza, Kant, and other philosophers develop “articulated theories” and are in this sense “systematic philosophers,” because it is simply a fact that there are no “commonly agreed criteria” in accordance with which their results are “generally accepted or rejected.”

From this arises the more general question: to which philosophies and/or philosophers could one, on the basis of Dummett’s criteria, ascribe systematicity? Dummett appears not to have been aware of this problem that emerges from his thesis. At the end of his essay, he maintains that many philosophers have suffered from the illusion that they have succeeded in overcoming the scandal caused by the lack of a systematic philosophical methodology, explicitly naming such philosophers as Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, and Husserl. He also maintains that the era of systematic philosophy (in both of his senses) begins with Frege. But then he writes (458),

<ext>I have mentioned only a few of many examples of this illusion; for any outsider to philosophy, by far the safest bet would be that I was suffering from a similar illusion in making the claim for Frege. To this I can offer only the banal reply which any prophet has to make to any sceptic: time will tell.

<txf>One should perhaps instead say that the philosopher does well to avoid acting like a prophet. This of course presupposes that the philosopher develops a conception of systematic philosophy that does not simply do away with the history of philosophy and that wholly coherently makes possible an open future for philosophy.

The systematic conception presented in this book shares the view that philosophy must ascribe to language a role that is not only important but even indeed fundamental. This view remains, however, relatively uninformative until the senses of “language,” “analysis of language,” and “philosophy of language” are clarified. The two great deficiencies in Dummett’s philosophy of language (which he understands as a “theory of meaning”) are the following: first, he does not consider the question of which language is adequate and therefore requisite for the development of philosophical (or scientific) theories. He contends that the philosophy of language is concerned “with the fundamental outlines of an account of how language functions” (442). But which language? Ordinary (natural) language, or a philosophical language, perhaps yet to be developed? The primary matter at hand is not pure “functionality,” important though that is; of primary importance is instead clarification of the implications of a given language for the treatment of complexes of philosophical problems. Second, Dummett considers the fundamental domain of ontology, if at all, only quite inadequately. Among the most important implications of language however, are its ontological implications.

The conception presented in this book avoids or overcomes these two deficiencies in that it explicitly develops both the concept of a philosophical language and of its basic features and an innovative ontology fundamentally in relation to its semantics. These developments reveal that the semantics and the ontology of philosophical language are fundamentally two sides of one and the same coin. As far as the method of systematic philosophy is concerned, it is in no way reduced to the “analysis of language” or to anything that could be formulated so simply. Instead, it presents a completely thorough philosophical method consisting of four methodological stages (or, for sake of simplicity, four methods). These are: the identification of structures and constitution of minimal or informal theories, the constitution of genuine theories (theories presented in the form appropriate to them as theories), the systematization of the component theories, and the evaluation of the theories with respect to theoretical adequacy and truth status. In philosophical practice, the four methods are virtually never applied comprehensively; they therefore represent an ideal case of a philosophical theory, but one that is not an insignificant abstraction, but instead serves as an important regulative idea with respect to the development of philosophical theories. Taking the complexity of a completely developed philosophical method into consideration, it is possible to gain clarity about the current status of philosophical theories that are either under development or already available.

As far as the fragmentary character of analytic philosophy is concerned, Dummett himself makes clear that from Frege’s “fundamental achievement” – that he managed to “alter our perspective in philosophy” (441) – no developed theory has yet emerged. Frege’s thus remains what can be termed a fragmentary philosophy. The fragmentary character of contemporary analytic philosophy mentioned at the beginning of this Introduction is, however, a different sort of fragmentarity, and one that is far more radical and therefore significantly more important. This is now to be shown with respect to the “analytic method” and to analytically “articulated theories.”

Even the philosophical method known as “generally analytic” can adequately be described only as a fragmentary method, not as a systematic one, because the factors introduced to characterize it are at most necessary, and certainly not sufficient for the systematic characterization of a method. These factors include the following: logical correctness, conceptual clarity, intelligibility, argumentative strength, etc. The listing of such factors in no way provides a systematic understanding and articulation of the factors required by a complete or integrally determined method. In this sense, analytic philosophy on the whole is, as far as methodology is concerned, fragmentary. Only in isolated cases can one find attempts to identify a comprehensive and thus systematic method for philosophy.

An incomparably more important fragmentarity concerns what Dummett terms “articulated theories.” Beyond question, analytic philosophy contains such theories in significant numbers. As a rule, however, these theories treat quite specific topics; articulated, comprehensive theories are not developed, so the relations between the individual theories remain unthematized. A few examples well illustrate this phenomenon. Works on topics in the domain of the philosophy of mind have directly ontological components and implications, but what ontology is presupposed or used by a given theory in the philosophy of mind remains, as a rule, unsaid. If ontological concepts such as “object,” “properties,” etc., are used, it remains wholly unexplained how the corresponding ontology is more precisely to be understood, and there is no consideration of whether that ontology is intelligible and thus acceptable. Something wholly analogous happens with most works concerning theories of truth. Theories of truth that are developed or defended virtually always have implications or presuppositions with respect to “the world,” to “things,” to “facts,” etc., but these ontological factors, at least in the majority of cases, remain utterly unexplained. As a rule, these theories simply presuppose some form of the substance ontology that dates to Aristotle; according to such ontologies, “the world” is the totality of substances (for which analytic works almost always use the term “objects”) that have properties and stand in relations to one another. If a sentence qualifies as true and if thereby some form of “correspondence” to something in the world is assumed, how is this “something” understood? Analytic works do not pose this question and therefore do not answer it. That they do not makes questionable the coherence of the conceptions they present.


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