Philosophical Events



Philosophical Events



There are many types of event: physical, chemical, astronomical, biological, psychological, social, economic, historical, cultural. Each type of event has its own science or field of study, so that disciplines are identified via types of event. In general, these disciplines describe, predict, and explain the events that form their subject matter. Naturally, this involves dealing with certain types of object in which the events participate—material bodies, molecules, stars, organisms, psychological subjects, social groups, economic institutions, historical figures, cultures. So the sciences all deal with characteristic types of events and their associated objects, as their names suggest. They are event-specific. But philosophy is not like this: it has no class of events to call its own. There are no philosophical events that form the subject matter of philosophy; the very phrase “philosophical event” is an oxymoron. What would it even be for an event to be philosophical? Of course, there are such events as philosophical conferences or philosophical publishing events (“It was a philosophical event when Philosophical Investigations was published in 1953”), but these are not what philosophy is about. It might be said that philosophy is about other kinds of event and object, those dealt with in the sciences—physical, psychological, biological, etc. It is about what other subjects are about, while having no subject matter to call its own. While physics, say, is about physical things, philosophy is not about philosophical things—a class of distinctively philosophical entities. It may postulate philosophical entities—platonic forms, immaterial spirits, Fregean truth-values, Meinongian subsistent beings—but it isn’t about a certain class of events and objects recognized to exist in the world. There are no specifically philosophical events whose nature it strives to discover.

To the cynical this may suggest a lack of legitimate subject matter—philosophy is about nothing![1] The sciences are about things we can point to and identify, but philosophy has the null subject matter—it is just hot air devoid of any real anchor. Not only does it make no progress; it has no object of investigation on which progress could be made. Indeed, that is why it makes no progress—it isn’t about anything. But this dismissive attitude is far too quick: for philosophy isn’t alone in lacking a specific ontology of events on which to work. There are no logical events or moral events or mathematical events either. Does that mean that logic, morality, and mathematics have no legitimate subject matter? Not a specific type of event, to be sure, but does that exhaust the possibilities? Logic is about logical relations, morality is about right and wrong, mathematics is about mathematical truth: it is just that these subject matters are not event-like. There is no such thing as a number turning even or a moral value coming into existence or a logical entailment being derailed. What these subjects are about is a controversial question, but we are not required to suppose that they must be about events or about nothing—maybe they are about structures or properties or concepts or facts. Events happen, but not everything real is a happening. Philosophy belongs with these subjects in being about no distinctive class of events, but that doesn’t prevent it from being about structures or properties or concepts or facts. In fact, I believe that philosophy is about logical reality, and logic is not directed at events either.[2]

A more positive response to the recognition that philosophy is not about philosophical events is that this provides a neat way to define the nature of philosophy. It belongs to that class of intellectual inquiries that do not deal with events; it is not event-directed. Sometimes it is said that philosophy is about thought, or again about language, but on one interpretation this cannot be true: it cannot be about episodes of thought, or episodes of language, or else it would be about a particular class of events—as psychology is. It cannot be about mental acts or speech acts, since acts are events. It could be about the structure or content of thought or language, but not their occurrence—not concrete happenings. This conception is partly prompted by a desire to find something solidly empirical for philosophy to be about, but that is precisely the wrong move: it tries to assimilate philosophy to the empirical sciences that traffic in concrete events. That is the exact opposite of what philosophy does. If philosophy were about events of ordinary linguistic usage, then there would be philosophical events; but there are no philosophical events, so philosophy can’t be about that. There are events of ordinary linguistic usage, but they are the subject matter of other disciplines—linguistics, sociology—not philosophy as such. This is like supposing that morality is about events of moral (or immoral) action, but it is not about such events—rather, it is about the rules and principles that should guide action. Morality is not concerned with the description, prediction, and explanation of actions deemed moral or immoral—that is a matter for the psychology of behavior. Maybe speech acts could provide useful data for philosophy, but they are not its proper subject matter in the way that physical events are the proper subject matter of physics or speech behavior is the proper subject matter of psycholinguistics. The same is true for mathematical acts and the proper subject matter of mathematics—mathematics is not about events of doing mathematics. This is why there are no mathematical events, though there are events with a mathematical subject matter (e.g. actual calculations).

More to the point, it might be wondered how this fact about philosophy relates to the traditional idea that philosophy is an a priori science (like logic and mathematics—or even morality under some interpretations). It relates closely, but the ideas are not identical. The a priori claim is epistemological; the event claim is ontological or semantic. To say that philosophy is an a priori discipline is to say that the knowledge it produces is gained independently of experience (as the phrase goes); to say that philosophy is not about philosophical events is to make an ontological or semantic claim concerning the type of reality with which philosophy is occupied. Putting both claims together, we could say that philosophy is a priori precisely because it is not about events, that being the mark of the a posteriori. In any case, the claims are different, though related. Perhaps if there were philosophical events (whatever that might mean) philosophy would not be a priori, since those events would interact with our senses to produce philosophical knowledge; but the very oddity of that supposition shows how bizarre it is to think that there are philosophical events. In this sense it is quite wrong to hold that philosophy is “continuous with science”, as if philosophy has the same general shape as science but brings its own subject matter. We can say that biology is continuous with physics and chemistry, but in that sense philosophy is not continuous with those disciplines—as if it were concerned with a special more rarified type of event. The same can be said of logic, morality, and mathematics—none of these are “continuous with science” if that means they share science’s general preoccupation with events. Obviously, this is connected to the fact that the sciences seek causal explanations, events being the stuff of causation, but these non-event disciplines are not in that line of business. We canreasonably claim that philosophy is continuous with logic, morality, and mathematics, since all these disciplines are dedicated to aspects of reality that go beyond events; and indeed the affinity is generally recognized.

Being a priori and being concerned with something other than events are connected characteristics, but the latter is fundamental. When philosophy concerns itself with events of the ordinary type, as with the question of the relation between mental events and physical events, it is not concerned with some proprietary type of philosophical event; it is concerned with the nature of the relation between the two ordinary types of event—that is its proper subject matter. This is why the subject matter of philosophy includes all types of event but not a specific type of event peculiar to it.[3] According to one tradition, philosophy is concerned exclusively with concepts, understood abstractly, and this well captures the sense in which it is not the study of a certain type of event. The obvious fact that there are no philosophical events dramatizes the point that philosophy is not as other sciences. We could say that it is a “formal science”, but it is more illuminating to say that it has no event-like subject matter. As remarked, I think that its subject matter is logical reality, and that is far removed from the world of passing events and perishable happenings. Trying to reconfigure philosophy so that it resembles the event orientation of the sciences only leads to distortion, confusion, and cynicism.



[1] Like Seinfeld, a show about nothing, which was quite philosophical. At least astrology is about something!

[2] See my “Philosophy Defined” and Truth By Analysis. According to this conception of science and philosophy, the science of events could be completed without any philosophical problem being resolved: all events could be described, predicted, and explained without making a start on the problems of philosophy. This shows that science will never take the place of philosophy.

[3] It would be wrong to suppose that philosophy is identical with the union of all event-directed sciences, since that would simply make it a very inclusive empirical science. In order to study philosophy one would need to master all the sciences and no more.

3 replies
  1. says:

    I dig the phrase, “perishable happenings”. All sorts of points to quibble with about this Post—logic, math, and morality aside. So quibble I will. Philosophy is the art of conjecture about which one knows not.

  2. says:

    I’ve been reading and re-reading this Post for a while. I think it’s quite substantial, for so airy a topic. So, philosophy is about logical reality? I’m tempted to subscribe to this definition .Logic, however, tells us only about logic .’ Tis a worthy subject, true—what deductively follows from what, often-times unexpectedly. But premises are premises, and they’re all man-made, just like the disposition, innate or otherwise, that drive’s us , deductively , inductively, or sometimes even abductively, to accept the abject reality of empirical existence.


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