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For a long time I had to think about what philosophy actually is as a field of study. I know the familiar definitions, but those are just salespitches. They do not answer the questions about exactly what its methods are, what really matters, what you can and may do with philosophy? In this paper, I will present philosophy as a field in which new systems of meanings are created – I will call these ‘discourses’ – that should enable us to think more clearly about what is true and what is good. To properly use such a discourse, it is important that it is not seen as a stand-alone ‘thing’, but as a benchmark for our thinking and action.
Philosophy is the science of the non-empirical, or the science of the things that are not there. Or rather, because there are not many things, it is about things that are not tangible, but we can talk and think about as if they were tangible things.
For instance: concepts, logic, causality, values. Things that are essential to human thinking and acting, that make us what we are, while at the same time these are items that we cannot feel, see, hear, smell or taste and cannot test, validate or falsify.
The science of things that are not there is the science of meanings that we assign to the world around us. But in doing so philosophers create new meanings: after all, the attempt to understand non-empirical reality produces new non-empirical things. Philosophy is a hall of mirrors with reflections of reflections, in which it is never clear what is metaphor and what is reflection. Here, I will attempt to provide some clarification.
If you want to understand what meanings do and where they come from, you have to be outside of mainstream philosophy and go to sociologists, or French philosophers who have meaningful things to say, but do it in such an unfathomable way that nobody really understands what they are talking about.
To begin with, we can look at what the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure called a ‘structure’: a system of meanings that brings order to the world, that gives people direction to their actions, that makes collaboration possible.
With such structures you can choose from numerous alternative names and approaches. Like those of Max Weber’s ‘selbstssponnenes Bedeutungsgewebe’, people are then animals who weave a ‘web of meanings’. This quote of Weber also became famous through Clifford Geertz’s book The interpretation of cultures. The fathers of social constructivism John Berger and Thomas Luckmann speak of a ‘symbolic universe’, in which many small events become part of a meaningful whole.
Such approaches and denominations are based on the assumption that a group of people who are part of the same culture understand the world in the same way. In short, a culture consists of those people who have the same structure with which all different impressions, events, interpretations can be aggregated to a higher level of meaning, so that it becomes possible to experience the world as cohesive.
You could say that this is a social version of Plato’s cave. As known, the parable of Plato is that, in the reality we are experiencing, we do not see the essence of the phenomena, but only a reflection of their true nature, just as cave dwellers only see the shadows of reality outside the cave, without seeing that reality itself. According to Plato there is a realm of ideas, a world next to this world where things really are what they are. We also do that with a structure, we create a conceptual reality that seems more real to us than the reality of the real world.
It seems doubtful that such a conceptual reality exists independently of our thinking, and also the ubiquity of coherence is questionable. You could say, in the words of Jürgen Habermas, that such a conceptual meaning system exists ‘counter-factually’: it is an assumption that allows individuals and groups to act in coordinated and purposefully. People act as if there is a coherent whole of meanings.
From this counter-factual assumption, a process of giving meaning takes place. Within a culture, phenomena are interpreted by assigning words and meanings to them. Socialization means that an individual learns to use words and meanings like the rest of the group does.
You could explain the desired coherence by following the structuralist sociologist Claude Levi-Strauss based on the ‘binary’ way in which meanings are assigned within a culture: wrong versus good, dark versus light, man versus woman, child versus adult, we versus them opposite, clean versus dirt. A meaning never stands on its own, but is always based on relationships with a wider range of meanings. Every empirical phenomenon that you see, name and describe is positioned against the background of other phenomena.
It therefore does not seem to be correct to grant a system of meanings an ontological status, which is done by some structuralist sociologists. Such a structure or system is a reconstruction that you make as a researcher helping you describe the behavior of people within a culture. Structures are created – a new thing comes into being: something that exists, something that can be described, interpreted and classified as an isolated phenomenon.
However, the coherence that is assumed in everyday life also seems to be pursued by scholars. The platonic ideal of a conceptual reality that is more real than real reality seems to reappear in this endeavor.
It seems to me that cultures are represented as more impenetrable than they actually are. In fact, any assumed coherence must be met with skepticism. After all, if you understand a culture as a group of people who share a certain coherent system of meanings, then a culture does not have to be large or absolute at all. You just need two people, for example two lovers who have their own routines and know exactly how each other acts, at least as long as they are together. If you take them apart and put each in a different setting, at work or the sports club, they will act differently, because then they will be in a different culture. In short, in my opinion, a culture is a flexible concept in which people switch from one culture to another, without realizing it.
We usually relate cultures to groups that are much larger and have a much longer history. We may have the idea that that culture represents a coherent system of meanings, which bring about a reality that seems more real than empirical reality, but ultimately it isn’t. Meanings change, cultures are malleable, people can ‘move’ to another culture. All of this goes without a problem, because the counter-factual idea of a cohesive culture cannot be put to the test: that cohesion does not exist anyway, but is merely an imaginary point of departure.
Back to the philosophers. These are not so much concerned with describing things that concern others, as sociologists do, instead philosophers do what philosophers prefer to do: they mainly talk about themselves and about the systems of meanings they have created.
I call those systems of meaning, the pieces of the philosophers’ structure, discourses. For philosophers, it’s not about the concepts that explain things, like a structure that explains how people understand the world; it’s about explaining the concepts themselves. They develop new systems of meaning to ensure that understanding itself can be understood.
This sounds very meta and very vague, but in first instance it is about simple questions such as: how do we know what is true and how do we know what is good if the only things we have are meanings that differ per culture? Can we develop a new, artificial structure that will allow us to get closer to the truth or that will enable us to determine what is good from a moral point of view?
It is not surprising that philosophers have to have such discourses. There is no way to falsify philosophical statements – which, in the end, are statements about non-existent things. What remains is the confrontation between claims and counterclaims, so that ultimately a coherent complex of ideas, arguments and insights arises. A complex that seems to be independent of the philosophers who have contributed to it. A structure, a thing that can itself become the subject of reflection and discussion. Then it becomes meta-meta and twice as vague.
For clarity it may be necessary to look at the mother of all philosophical discourses: that of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment as we now speak of it is the time that began with the groundbreaking insights of Descartes, Newton and Spinoza about the power of reason, the operation of nature, and the importance of political freedom. In 1691 the notion of the ‘Aufklärung des Verstandes’ was first mentioned: the clarification of the mind.
Not everyone was happy with that. In a pamphlet from 1783, Johann Friedrich Zöllner asked the question in a footnote: “Was ist Aufklärung?”, or what is this clarification, this enlightenment thing, because he did not find that clear at all.
Enter Immanuel Kant. In 1784 he wrote the essay An answer to the question: what is enlightenment? Some quotes:
“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.”
“Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding!”
“Nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters.”
“If it is now asked, “Do we presently live in an enlightened age?” the answer is, ‘No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.’”
A number of things stand out here. First of all, Kant brings the different enlightenment directions together under the motto of Sapere Aude. But it is not just about thinking, no, it is about thinking in public so that an interaction of arguments and insights can arise that makes it possible to achieve more freedom and wisdom. Kant actually introduces the method of a discourse here, while at the same time introducing the discourse of the enlightenment. But the latter was probably unintended, his pamphlet seems to be mainly a reaction to Zöllner’s arrogance.
I write enlightenment here with a small letter (in German, of course, it has a capital letter, like all nouns) and I would prefer to continue to talk about clarification. Only a century after Kant’s text, enlightenment only becomes Enlightenment – then it became a concept that began to lead its own life, with the connotations that we still know today.
A discourse is a thing. A structure that is disjointed from the participants in the discourse itself, with the effect that philosophical movements and theories seem to be less manmade than they actually are. Even more than that, such a discourse is often given human traits. We speak of intentions, goals, actions and reactions. For example, when it comes to political ideas, it is not strange to find sentences that begin as follows: ‘The purpose of liberalism is …’; ‘The true nature of pragmatism …’; ‘The underlying idea of existentialism is that …’; ‘According to utilitarianism …’ Few who wonder whether it is not strange that a branch of philosophy can think and intend such things.
Kant himself wouldn’t fall in that trap. He may have turned enlightenment into a thing in itself (pun intended), but it is a discursive benchmark on the basis of which people can organize their thinking and actions. If the ‘enlightenment’ tells that individuals must think for themselves, it means that people can tell themselves to what extent they meet the requirements of the enlightenment.
When it comes to assigning human traits to a discourse, Platonism seems to recur. The discourse is seen as a ‘more real’ reality, where philosophers have the task to unravel what exactly this more real reality is. But where it is up to sociologists to discover a structure, you this is not the same for philosophers. After all, they make a discourse, they discover very little.
When talking about structures, the assumed coherence was an important point. The question was whether this cohesion should also be pursued in the reconstruction of a structure. A discourse is not reconstructed, but constructed; it is therefore somewhat odd to assume coherence, instead it is an objective that can be pursued or a criterion for determining the quality of a discourse. That also seems to be the core of the discussion between Zöllner and Kant. While Zöllner states that everyone is talking about enlightenment, Kant creates the desired coherence, with which a discourse becomes a kind of ‘suitcase’ that is filled with a number of items, all sorts of concepts and ideas, so that you easily can pick them up and take them with you.
Forced attempts to impose coherence on a discourse lead to distortions. On the one hand, the assumption of coherence entails the danger of ‘discursive corruption’ – of which I talked about earlier. Thinking and action is then based on a discourse that is misunderstood.
On the other hand, numerous discourses are made into straw men that are used to undermine their credibility. A common victim is the social constructivist approach that I described above.
The social constructivist premise that all systems of meaning are developed through social interaction implies that a hierarchy cannot simply be retrieved, because the criteria about what is better are also derived from such a manmade meaning system. This often leads to the accusation that social-constructivism is a form of relativism that sees science as no more than an opinion and regards every culture as equal to each other. Then the step is easily made to blame social-constructivism for fake news or the condoning of female circumcision (admittedly, there are social-constructivists who give ample cause for this).
But that is not what a social constructivist discourse implies. The fact that there is no system of meaning that exists independently from human interaction, implying that there is no such thing as objective knowledge, does not mean that all knowledge is equivalent. Instead, this position forces you to think about the value of scientific knowledge and the criteria that we must use to test the quality of knowledge. Nor does it mean that values such as freedom and equality are just as legitimate as the values of oppression and deprivation. No, it is important to think critically about what freedom and equality mean within a certain culture and what inequalities and inequalities may be present below the surface.
The value of a good discourse is not a conceptual structure that is massive and coherent enough to lead his own life. It has to be a discourse that compels reflection, further thinking and discussion. Coherence is not a characteristic that can be assumed, but it needs to be a goal. After all, the more coherent a discourse, the sharper it focuses the discussion of the participants on it.
Berger, J. & Luckmann, Th. (1966). The social construction of reality. A treatise in the sociology of knowledge: Penguin.
Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Basic Books.
Habermas J. (2014) Truth and justification: John Wiley & Sons.
Kant, I. (1784), Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklarung? https://www.rosalux.de/fileadmin/rls_uploads/pdfs/159_kant.pdf
Levi-Strauss, C. (1955). The structural study of myth. The journal of American Folklore 68: 428-444. https://people.ucsc.edu/~ktellez/levi-strauss.pdf