Tagged: academic philosophy

Philosophy Is an Activity – What That Means

I use to say that philosopy is philosophizing or doing philosophy, an that this is an activity. I know, of course, that people do not understand me when I say such things. Therefore today I want to explain this issue which is central for me.

Maybe you will ask: “But aren’t all things that are done by human beings human activities? Philosophy is obviously done by human beings – so what else can it be than a human activity?”

Well, no. I will explain the difference to you.

Academic philosophers do say things like: “The questions of epistemology (which is a branch of philosophy) are: Can we really know anything? What is knowledge? … [and so on]”

This clearly indicates that academic philosophers do not share my idea that philosophy is an activity. If philosophy was an activity, there would be for example us two, you and me, philosophizing. We would then ask each other: “What are you interested in?” And what we would answer then, those are our philosophical questions.

Do you understand the difference? If philosophy was an activity, there would be no “questions of epistemology” or “questions of philosophy” because the discussion would not be about epistemology, or ethics or philosophy, it would be about us.

Seeing philosophy as an activity means that we reappropriate our questions. Those questions might be so called philosophical questions, but they might es well be mathematical questions, biological or musical ones. What makes them to be philosophical questions is not that they belong to philosophy but what we do with them, the special treatment we give them.

What does this special treatment consist in? Here again we can find orientation in the idea that philosophy is an activity. Academic philosophers (who do not understand that philosophy is an activity) will say that a philosophic dispute is about who is right. This is false. Philosophical discussions between two or more persons is not about who has the right answer to the question, but about helping the others and oneself to come to a decision about what one really thinks about the question discussed.

The aim of philosophy is not truth (itself), but it is a decision about what one thinks about a specific question. This decision is a deed, it has do be done, accomplished. This is the reason why philosophy cannot in any sense be theoretical, it is always practical. Philosophizing you are “manipulating” yourself, trying to achieve new convictions and leave old ones behind yourself. The topic of your philosophizing might be theoretical or practical, if you achieve the goal to change your own opinion you have done something. This is why philosophy is eminently practical.

There is one more example that shows very well that academic philosophers do not understand philosophy as an activity. If you read papers in philosophy journals you will often come about expressions like “realists” or “anti-realists”, “contextualists”, “invariantists”, “non-reductionists”, and so on. What are they doing here? They invent names for every possible opinion one could hold about a specific question, and then they situate these opinions in the form of positions in some kind of imaginary landscape or continuum. This landscape or continuum is nothing else than the topic itself. The result will be that knowing something about a specific philosophical proeblem in the academic sense will mean to possess knowledge about all possible intellectual positions that exist in this specific theoretical field.

In short, academic philosophers are analysts of positions. They want to find out why something is, or has become, like it is. They do not want to change anything or do anything, they just want to see how things are.

But if you, like myself, embrace the idea that philosophy is an activity the task is a different one. There might be “realists” and “anti-realists” and so on, but you will have to decide yourself for one position because you are just one person. If you want to decide yourself for two positions, you have to make clear if this is possible at all for just one person. Maybe it is possible in some cases, in others it will not be possible. So, for example in ethics for academic philosophers it suffices to know that there are utilitarianists and kantians and virtue ethicists, and so on. It suffices because they do not want to do anything. But if you are a philosopher for whom philosophy is action your task is to find out whether you, yourself, decide to be a utilitarianist a kantian, a virtue ethicist or something else.

And this is because, philosophizing for you will mean to do something, to make up your mind. You will ask yourself: “Did I accomplish something philosophizing today? Did I arrive at some point? If I haven not arrived anywhere, my philosophical work of today was of no use.”

Did I make myself clear about why not all human activities are activities? (Some of them just try to figure out where we are and have no aim to get us anywhere.)



Report on the 36th International Wittgenstein Symposium

Conference Center Kirchberg

The 36th International Wittgenstein Symposium took place in Kirchberg/Wechsel, Lower Austria, 11-17 August 2013. It was organized by Daniele Moyal-Sharrock, Volker A. Munz, and Annalisa Coliva. This year’s topic was “Mind, Language, and Action”.

The Wittgenstein Symposium is a large symposium, 11 plenary talks and 174 talks in sections were offered. Every day, from Monday to Friday, one had to choose between 36 talks in the 6 sections. That means that one was able to listen at the most to 6 of them, missing the other 30.

The participants of the Symposium were accomodated in Kirchberg and other small villages nearby (Raach, Trattenbach, St. Corona, Ödenhof, Unternberg). Free shuttle busses were available for them to go to the congress center, the primary school of Kirchberg, in the mornings and back to their rooms in the evenings at 20:30 p.m or 23:00 p.m.

There were two groups of very different level of importance at the Wittgenstein Symposium. The important participants were the invited speakers; their talks were plenary talks (1 hour, 30 min for discussion) in the morning, and their talks were published in a hardcover book by the editorial De Gruyter (before that by the editorial Ontos). Participants, who had submitted papers to the symposium, were not so important. Their talks (30 min, 10 min for discussion) took place in the sections and were published in a voluminous brochure, soft cover, format A4.

In another analysis, the participants of the Wittgenstein Symposium can be divided into 3 groups:

a) Wittgensteinian scholars – they tend to come back every year, many years in a row;

b) invited specialists on the topic of this year’s symposium;

c) students and young graduates who need the attendance at an international conference in philosophy for their PhD study programs or for their CVs.

The talks at the Wittgenstein Symposium, in most cases, have the same structure: the positions of two philosophers, e.g. Anscombe and Wittgenstein, are presented and afterwards one of them is defended against the other. The speaker may also argue that both of them are false, and that a third philosopher is right in what he or she stated on that topic.

It may happen that a listener of a talk is indifferent to both of the presented philosophical positions. In this case the speaker will give no clue as to why he/she thinks that these positions are important or in which framework or conception they are relevant.

The question heard most often in the breaks between the talks was: “What are you working on?” Possible answers to that question were: “theory of action”, “enactivism”, “intentional actions”, “joined actions”, “propositional attitudes”, “language acquisition”, and so on. The word “working” in the question “What are you working on?” seemed to point to the fact that the result of this work would be an diploma or PhD thesis, or a paper, published in an international journal of philosophy, but not an answer to a question the philosopher is interested in, personally.

By attending a symposium like the Wittgenstein Symposium in Kirchberg one can arrive at the conclusion that a basic human capability has become lost: the capability of a person to tell others about an issue, because she is interested in it; the capability of communicating one’s interests to others.

After listening to the talks at the Wittgenstein Symposiums and to the private discussions during lunch time and in the evenings, I experienced the strong impression that there was not possible meaning of a philosophical stance other than that of deciding upon who is right about a specific question, Wittgenstein or Anscombe, Davidson or Putnam. I felt that there was no other interest in a philosophical problem than that one of making a PhD thesis or a published paper out of it.

These assertions have to be understood in a strong sense: There was no other interest that could be thought of in such situations; there was no other interest in those problems that could be imagined existing anywhere. The phrase “I am interested in …”, meaning that there is some motivation in myself which directs my attention to one question or the other, seemed to be absurd after the Wittgenstein Symposium.