A Year in Philosophy


According to A.J. Ayer, the history of philosophy, in the hands of ‘the old men’ who ran Oxford philosophy before the war, consisted in ‘repeating what Plato had said’.The annual lecture series at London’s Royal Insitute of Philosophy, in 2014-15, was a more open-minded enterprise. Though The History of Philosophy was not chronological, Heidegger was a good place to start.  Heidegger claimed to have overcome a metaphysical tradition that since Socrates had imposed an abstract coherence on an immanent reality. That Nietzschean overcoming created the need for his awkward new language of present participle happenings. But this is my view.

Joseph Schear’s lecture reminded us of the connection between Heideggerian Dasein, the being here of each and every one of us, commonly held but individually felt, and the subjectivity at the heart of German Idealism.

(For Continental Philosophy of course German Idealism was its beginning, and so even today that tradition is less burdened by Plato directly.)

What was German Idealism? Simply, (and again these are my glosses), if you were Schelling you held that it was intuition gave access to ‘higher’ truth. If you were Hegel truths emerged through the self-determination of individuals to overcome limitation in themselves. What always strikes me is that German Idealism was as much psychologically and theologically driven as it was motivated by problems in the history of philosophy. There was an underlying preoccupation with happiness, inherited through the huge personality of Goethe and the themes of his correspondence with Schiller. This dazzling relationship ensured that German (and thus Continental) philosophy would always retain a relationship to literature. In the German case philosophy was especially close to lyric poetry. The theologian in Heidegger, and even the poetic dabbler, enjoyed that rich heritage while trying to move on from subjectivity.

I’m writing here of my own ‘year in philosophy’ but you can find Schear’s lecture, and all the lectures in the series which prompted me to sort out my thoughts, as podcasts on the RIP website. They are a fantastic resource.

Heidegger accepted and accentuated Kant’s finite characterization of human knowledge while in good Idealist fashion he continued to pursue happiness as a kind of spritually-informed well-being. Through his key notions of anxiety, boredom and resolute being Heidegger stressed our own finitude, and thus the finitude of the worlds we build, as the great moral challenge to philosophy. How, by what explanations, can we live with it?  Schear presented Heidegger as an existentialist. But the impression he left on this listener was, somewhat misleadingly, of Heidegger as an epistemologist; a lot more Sartrean, one might say, than he actually was. The lecture confirmed for me Heidegger’s affinity with German Protestant thinking (despite his Catholic origins) and helped to situate his work alongside the knowledge questions pursued by contemporary neo-Kantianism (which he disdained).


Heidegger saw the history of Western philosophy as a mistake: a matter of reason pursuing  abstractions in defiance of the true nature of our being here. The tendency of Socrates was made so much worse by the translation of the Greeks into Latin.

Contemporaneously with Heidegger Wittgenstein also contemplated the history of philosophy as a catalogue of philosophers’ mistakes. Their very language led them astray, either creating problems that didn’t exist or obscuring problems that did.

Rupert Read however took a postmodern approach to Philosophical Investigations  by parsing its epigraph as an attack on ‘development’ in the modern world. This was a Wittgenstein who abhorred the property developer and the road-builder, did not believe in the bankers’ shibboleth of ‘growth’ and voted Green. Nothing wrong with that, but was it about Wittgenstein’s place in the history of philosophy? Rather there were some implicit assertions about the nature of philosophy (and the humanities) in general: that their texts are never definitive, that their historicity is optional, that they exist to be put to rhetorical use in new contexts. (Again, do watch the original lecture on the RIP website: this is only my verdict.)


Just as we were settling in to the idea that there had been a remarkable revolution in philosophy with these two great thinkers (and which I do believe), A.A. Long, with his talk  on Plotinus , ‘the last ancient Greek philosopher’, was the first of several reminders that Plato might still be with us and worth answering. The witty question was what is matter, or what is the matter with matter, if you were the ‘neo-Platonic’ Plotinus. Long suggested that contemporary scientific discourse, so self-assuredly materialist, and so influential on philosophy in all its branches, but especially in cognitive science and the life of the mind, remains puzzling short of answers.

The Ancients had argued that four elements underlay matter: Earth, Fire, Air and Water. For Plato ultimate matter, whatever that was, was a precondition for the existence of determinate objects. For Aristotle pure potential underlay the proliferation of realia. Plotinus stated his own case with Plato (Timeus 51a) in mind. He said that ‘matter acquires qualities not from itself but from the giver of shape and size’ (Ennead II 4.8) and that ‘the soul…immediately thrusts upon [matter] the forms of things, from distress at the indefiniteness’ (Ennead II.4.10). For matter is a non-entity, and that is what is wrong with it. Long observed that Plotinus anticipated the famous view of Bishop Berkeley that no mind-independent material world exists.

In the wit and sophistication of the thought it has generated, mind-matter is a fabulous topic for the history of philosophy. Kant and Hegel were distinctive mind-first Idealists, their Idealism distantly related to Plato, although in Hegel ‘distress at indefiniteness’ was also very much in evidence.

Then came, in reaction to Hegel, the German materialists. Who was, or wasn’t a materialist, and whether that materialism was crude or vulgar or worth noticing, still bothers interpreters of Feuerbach and Marx now. Nietzsche was heavily influenced by Feuerbach’s anti-Christian opposition to some make-believe, ethereal other world, kinder than this our material existence here and now. Feuerbach stressed the material needs of human beings, much as Marx did. The gods and the abstractions did not fill a man’s belly.

Freud looks like a materialist to those who (still) only see his psychoanalytic theory in terms of bodily hydraulics. And yet if ever a twentieth-century thinker was after a new kind of underlying immaterial substance – libido suffused with memory – to explain our human existence it was Freud. So in the history of philosophy you see at the very time of Heidegger and Wittgenstein an imaginative mythology of the human creeping back, which can neither be proved or disproved, even though it claims to be science. What is the matter with the distinctly human? Well it doesn’t seem to be a matter of matter alone, and yet how can you explain those complex yearnings if you are not religious? Freud began to talk of metaphilosophy, in which philosophy too became a symptom of the powerful and often disturbed human imagination.

For Heidegger who absorbed all of Kant, Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche, it was the old dualism passed on from Plato to Plotinus through Christian doctrine to Descartes that had to be rejected, though not at the cost of a spiritually meaningful life. He found what he needed in a philosophy of how we use a world that in its very givenness seems adapted to us, as we have the capacity to adapt to it. What is present at hand in the existence into which we are thrown becomes satisfyingly ready-to-hand in our use of it. In this mixture of accident and belonging we make our worlds and can accept their finitude. There is of course a great deal of theology in this modern and still relevant philosophical answer.

Through his probing of the misleading ways in which language glosses over the real reality of entities, Wittgenstein has been judged as close to Heidegger in purpose. That purpose was and is to show the ‘groundlessness of grounds’ i.e to deny underlying substances, including underlying matter, while not seeing that ungroundedness as cause for human despair. But Wittgenstein is open to radically different interpretations, including the communtiarian and the pragmatic. He often crosses my path, and I know I will never come to terms with him.

I mentioned just now that German Idealism was strongly motivated by a mixture of psychology and theology, with some elusive spiritual happiness as its ultimate goal, and I presume that’s why I’ve made my philosophical home there. The consequences of Plotinus’s distress at all that ‘indefiniteness’ of matter, without some form given to it by the human soul, prompted lengthy consideration of negativity in Hegel and anxiety and boredom in Heidegger. Sartre, that extensive reader of the Germans, staged the soul’s distress in his novel Nausea (1937), while ridiculing it. There, in Sartre, was another twentieth-century revolution in philosophy, rejecting contemplation of  what is in favour of praxis, or the Marxist idea of philosophy being bound to change the world, not just sit around reflecting upon it. That whole body of materialist activism in fact introduced another radically different idea of ‘happiness’ in solidarity, which I hope to write about one day.

For Hegel individuals who attempt any intellectual sophistication through self-reflection have to pass through a ‘dark night of the soul’, pure negation, before they can reconnect with a world existing beyond themselves. If you are an individualist, as I am, you may still feel consumed by this problem of orienting your own soul. Heidegger writes, seemingly puzzlingly, but in the light of this tradition with blazing obviousness, of the Nothingness which ‘noths’.  Even in the nothing there is always something poised to happen. And so there is a way of getting over the distress of non-being, and our human ungroundedness. It’s enough that we are here, as creatures uniquely capable of reflecting on our finitude.

Long, who took us through Plotinus’s key terms of hyle (matter) and hypokeimenon (object of our contemplation) and eidos (form), seemed reluctant to be reminded of the recurrence of all these terms in Heidegger’s ontology.

Readers and listeners will judge for themselves. It is certainly a factor in the history of philosophy that Heidegger is now so vilified and/or passively avoided, that the whole history of the subject risks becoming distorted. As a writer who has concerned herself with Heidegger over the past decade I’ve noticed his reputation being progressively destroyed by the spread  of a moralistic cultural climate aimed at the extirpation of Absolute Evil. The story of Heidegger’s reputation strikes me as a philosophical version of Star Wars. As they rubbish Heidegger the powers of good who are the professors of philosophy continue to fight the totalitarian/Nazi forces of evil that as enemies shaped the US post-war ethos. Heidegger was a nasty type, certainly, stained by his overlong association with the Nazi Party, for which see Hugo Ott’s Martin Heidegger A Political Biography. But he wasn’t a Nazi philosopher, and in the history of the subject he had a great deal to say. His influence is anyway everywhere, unacknowledged.


The Spinoza specialist Susan James reminded us not inappositely of the dangers of doing ‘the history of philosophy’. Human beings are naturally passionate and partisan. They will shape the history of philosophy to their own ends. Nothing wrong with that. Ideology reflects how we relate to the world. It’s part of how we use the world. But if the history of philosophy is to be regarded as a science then ideology can’t be part of it. (See inter alia Susan James ‘Spinoza and Materialism’ in Current Continental Theory and Modern Philosophy (2004) ed Stephen Hartley Daniel). This of course makes philosophy an extremely difficult and perhaps impossible exercise, with the constant need to strip away the personal. We can only see what true philosophy might be like; we can’t do it.


Sarah Broadie reminded us that in the Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle insisted on the highest virtue of the life of the mind, and let’s say, of the ultimate value of at least trying to resemble Spinoza’s ideal. ‘A life centred on the activity of sophia is the highest or most perfect form of the happy human life,’ said Aristotle, and in a famous contrast with the political life, ‘The life of a virtuous and successful politician is for him a most happy one: but most happy “in the second degree”.’ (X 1178a 9-10)

If I understood her correctly she wanted to argue that the distinction between intellectual and practical activity was not so hard and fast, but if this was the case wasn’t she succumbing to the ideological pressures of the present day, just what Spinoza warned against? I wasn’t convinced Aristotle’s sense of degree could be taken away from him. Yet his distinction did point up another important revolution in philosophy, this time in ethics, since the beginning of the last century. The way out of Aristotle’s harsh dichotomy is to insist that there is more than one form of the good. Broadie showed us how British philosophers had liberalized (my term) the idea of the good. The crucial move came in 1930, when W.D. Ross’s The Right and the Good (1930) argued for a plurality of moral requirements and intrinsic goods. Bernard Williams was a more recent liberalizer, arguing for a complex ethics as against a deontological morality that had the force of a monotheistic religion.

Can we make connections across different branches of philosophy? What Heidegger did for ontology, one might say, these philosophers set out to achieve for moral philosophy, namely to prise it out from under the influence of a persistent Western religious metaphysics, according to which God created the world and thus gave it meaning. Deontological morality issued from Plato originally, but shaped Western lives through Christianity. Neither Ross nor Williams took the utilitarian path to modernizing ethics. But in the context Broadie set them we could see all the more clearly the upheaval their pluralism represented.


As a historian of ideas I would add a short chapter here, on the story of elitism in philosophy running in parallel to Aristotle’s idea of philosophical contemplation being the most virtuous activity for a human being. In one respect Sarah Broadie addressed a sociological phenomenon cum moral problem that began to beset philosophy in the early nineteenth century when some commentators perceived philosophical activity negatively, and against the spirit of Aristotle, as elitist. The charge of elitism covered a range of wrong attitudes from the impractical to the socially unconcerned and disengaged. The elitist Plato had coveted the brilliant few as Guardians of a society in which Truth was carefully policed. The elitist German Romantics had exulted in intuitive genius as the rare chance for a few individuals to experience truth for themselves. Against this a social democratic line of thinking exemplified by the poet Heinrich Heine in his On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany insisted that the philosophers of the old Grand School abandon the preserves of the mind for the concerns of society at large. That witty 1834 work, anticipating huge changes in the attitude to philosophy yet to come, asked for middle-class radical political engagement in place of the pursuit of Aristotelian intellectual virtue. It foresaw the interventions of both Marx and Sartre.

Close reading shows that Marx even rewrote key paragraphs of Heine’s activist programme so that philosophy in its new socially concerned guise should not bother to engage bourgeois intellectuals but put itself on the immediate agenda of the revolutionary proletariat. (See  Raphael Hörmann Writing the Revolution: German and English Radical Literature, 1819-1848/49 pp. 185-87) Now one can see how and where praxis enters the sphere of moral philosophy as a direct challenge to the old intellectualism. And one can reflect on Heidegger’s alternative version of praxis: the rural, peasant life, as opposed to that of the Marxist proletariat.

The figure of the inspired philosopher with unique and mysterious access to truth, ironically cast in stone by Rodin in 1902 as ‘The Thinker’, was already an ideal from the past by that date. Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism.Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy (1908, published 1909) saw any philosopher who opened up a distinction between mind and world, which was to say between possible subjective and objective orders of things, as simply a defender of the bourgeois way of life. So philosophy as a critical force was immobilized by the new coercive proletarianism, except when it entered the service of official ideology. Marxist-Leninism was a return to metaphysical monism with a vengeance, though posing as ‘dialectical materialism’. In this totalized enforced reality philosophers who still genuinely practised philosophy were no longer welcome. The totalitarian state treated them like Plato imagined in his ideal republic he would have to treat the poets: to exterminate or banish them.


Cheryl Misak’s lecture on Cambridge Pragmatism was one of the most informative and best organised of the RIP 2014/15 series, reminding us of the distinctive North American contribution to philosophy of the last 150 years. Do watch it. I won’t say more about it, only to volunteer the connections that came to mind.

Pragmatism is another way of saying you don’t like Plato. It’s about what works, what is effective in securing a good life, rather than what is ‘true’. I wanted to hear more of Wittgenstein here. Meanwhile it was worth remembering that pragmatism’s North American practitioners rebelled against transcendentalism just as Nietzsche was passionately campaigning for philosophy not to exclude the body as a locus of truth and happiness. The battle against the Platonic inheritance through Christian metaphysics over the last hundred and fifty years opened up on many different fronts.


Within the academic practice of philosophy Michael Beaney on the Analytical Revolution brought us back to the great shift of effort that Wittgenstein urged, but which was above all the work of Frege and Russell, to undo the hold of metaphysical nonsense. A new set of concepts opened up a new set of questions concerning meaning, reference and so on, as philosophy became preoccupied with language, and especially its own use of it. I would say only Derrida brought that new passion to a halt, by ridiculing it. (See his attack on John Searle in Limited Inc. 1977) Or because he felt some of that old distress of Plotinus at a material world without meaning.

Derrida has often been seen as a kind of mystic behind his postmodern strutting. Meanwhile Beaney told us of a criticism of Frege. Frege noted that by asking what is true of concepts we leave open what is true of reality. He was called a Platonist for his very question!

Revolutions in philosophy are not easy to sustain.


Hume was decidely not a Platonist, and because of that found considerable favour through several generations of analytic philosophers, starting perhaps with A.J. Ayer. Still the problem with Hume is what he means by reason. The mechanical concept he seems to have in mind so sets him apart from nature that he is inclined to give up reason entirely in favour of something very close to Nietzsche’s body (as the home of instinct and emotion).

Hume and Nietzsche are an interesting conjunction. Here were two philosophers functioning not only a century apart,  in entirely different countries, with a substantially different social heritage, who nevertheless had something powerful and elusive in common, namely their hostility to reason as an institutionalized social force. The great philosopher who came between them was Kant, and it would be a wonderful book which teased out their three-way positions. Perhaps it has already been written.

Hume naturalized reason. He tried to disentangled philosophy from the throttle of abstraction after suffering a nervous breakdown, and he was always aware of the emptiness ‘reason’ could bring. Kant restored it as a limited power, given to us a priori in the very nature of our human minds. But out of that legacy the Idealists once again maximized the potency of the Idea over all else. Once again to disentangle the practice of philosophy from the power of abstraction  twentieth-century Continental philosophy would relive as a political emergency after 1945. First in Soviet Russia and then in Nazi Germany totalitarianism borrowed the concept of absolute reason for its own uses. I’ve written about this in Motherland A Philosophical History of Russia (2004) and in 2016 I’ll be working on the German story. During the rise of Nazism it didn’t help that the vast majority of philosophers and almost the entire educated class were still under the influence of Aristotle, convinced that reason was an abstract pursuit, superior to politics.


Perhaps revolutions happen, but are they irreversible? The temptation is to think never quite, in philosophy. Yet you can hear how Hume’s fear of the emptiness of reason oddly complements what Plotinus felt about the emptiness of matter, and the distress that meaninglessness caused both of them. It seems to be a distress that we feel about dualism. We are bodied creatures living in a physical world, yet a spiritually necessary part of our activity in that world is to give it meaning, even if, as Heidegger and Wittgenstein told us, all grounds are ungrounded. We are not dualists but as Kant once said amphibians. We can be happy about that.


With Thomas Acquinas the RIP lectures returned to that long and deep tradition of philosophy closely aligned to theology which I feel is also a reflection of that amphibian nature. God is not what we are. We exist as individuals of one kind, of which there could be more than one member. God subsists as wholly himself. He is his own essence and his own existence. Somehow we have a need to talk about what we are not; about what we can see are the shortcomings of the purely human mind. When we refer to God we are always signifying imperfectly. Words have a way of signifiying only appropriate to creatures. When we use words to point to what we don’t understand that is the origin of theological/philosophical language, which must differ from ordinary language.

For Acquinas qui est is God’s most appropriate name. God is the one who stands open to all, and who causes things to emerge from nothing.

I will have to stop referring to Heidegger, but what was Heidegger’s preoccupation with Sein and Seiendes but a commentary on Acquinas, who in turn was commenting on Aristotle, who in turn responded to Plato? And didn’t Wittgenstein say it, that the way the world is is a mystery that our language can’t get at?

The history of philosophy is nothing if not a great chain.  At each knot on the chain, at each meeting of minds you can see these constant tensions looming, between Plato and Aristotle, between the Ideal and the Natural.


A week after we heard about Acquinas Robert Stern was charged with ignoring the quasi-theological complexity of Hegel in an attempt to see him as an Aristotelian naturalist.


A week later again we heard how John Locke, another British Naturalist, had, long before Ross and Williams, tried to steer the moral project away from over-high expectations of human beings. Catherine Wilson told us that Locke ‘strove for a descriptively adequate, realistic account of human cravings, ambivalence and weakness, one which does not portray reason as sovereign over feeling.’ The project to naturalize morality didn’t quite work, because ‘despite and indeed because of his suspicion that we are hedonistic machines, Locke needs the Christian revelation with its carrot-and stick approach to defining and cultivating virtue.’

Understand the history of philosophy and you can appreciate how the politicians are never going to get it right.

Did Bernard Williams naturalize ethics in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy in 1985? A new generation of ethicists is still debating the text, word for word.


The problem with constantly downgrading our expectations of the human mind, which naturalizing it (through evolutionary theory, not mentioned in our series) seems to amount to, is that we ask less and less of ourselves.

The theologians, including Plato, put us in our lowly place only with regard to a perfect God, or to the Ideal Realm. But they still they encouraged us to aspire to the best possible human ways of being. They felt whatever we called it that we would need the best possible mental discipline, and perhaps a theological imagination, to see past those passions and appetites which Spinoza said committed us to error.

And so I was happy to see this series not only end but culminate in a lecture on Kant’s Third Critique, by Sebastian Gardner.

Kant asked us to accept the limitations of the human mind with regard to rational understanding of the world we live in. The mind can present us with a coherent picture of so many things; but the world is not necessarily like that; for everywhere our minds reflect only their own scope. This needn’t however be cause for despair, because what we are, through our imaginations, is pattern-making creatures. Imagination is about the joy of speculation, and very often its products are beautiful, or they help us to see the world in beautifully ordered ways. In the sphere of imagination it doesn’t matter that our ideas don’t correspond to the way things are.

It’s a given of Continental Philosophy, and was inculcated in me years ago, that the Third Critique, so oddly treated in the anglophone world, and so misleadingly regarded as having as it subject ‘aesthetics’, was in fact the pinnacle of Kant’s achievement. Stretch it far enough and you might begin to see that it includes and explains the whole imaginative force behind that great tradition of Western philosophy (including theology) of which it is more than just a part. The human mind has a feeling for teleological form, and thus for meaning, and thus we can understand all the inventions of centuries of philosophy to keep the distress of meaningless reason and empty matter at bay.

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