Philosophy as Surgery

 

 

Philosophy as Surgery

 

The other day I was discussing a medical matter with my son, who is a surgeon, and he remarked, “I would take a knife to it”. The remark stuck with me and I began wondering if philosophy bears any analogy to surgery. Do we in philosophy ever “take a knife to it”, i.e. just cut it out, excise it, or slice into it? Pills and medicines have their uses, antibiotics can be effective, but is it sometimes necessary to put it to the knife? When something is incurable isn’t it sometimes best to just remove it surgically? Surgical metaphors abound in philosophy: we “dissect” an argument, offer “incisive” objections, “cut through” the bullshit, take a “scalpel” to someone’s position, and dismantle an argument with “surgical precision”. Wittgenstein spoke of philosophy as “therapy”, but isn’t surgery also a type of therapy—just of a more brutal and bloody type? A surgeon is a well-meaning butcher—but isn’t a philosopher at least sometimes a type of butcher? For a philosopher is also in the business of promoting human wellbeing by means that would otherwise appear violent. This is not always the philosopher’s modus operandi, of course, but isn’t it one tool in the philosopher’s toolbox? Sometimes things are just so contaminated, so thoroughly fucked-up, that you have to take a knife to them and get it over with.[1]

            Wasn’t that the attitude of the positivists towards metaphysics? Metaphysics is so diseased (they thought), so riddled with pathology, that the only thing to do is amputate it. It’s no use tinkering with it, recommending this or that timid remedy; you just have to get rid of it once and for all. You eliminate it as you eliminate a diseased limb. Maybe some healthy tissue will have to go too, but surgery is not a precise science: the body as a whole will be so much healthier with the bad tissue removed. That was the position of the positivists: it wasn’t just a matter of intellectual error but of actual nonsense—disease of the intellect. The verification principle was the surgical tool that would effect this necessary amputation. Much the same could be said of the aspirations of the ordinary language philosophers—to remove whole swathes of traditional philosophical tissue. Rehabilitation was not the point. Wittgenstein was as much a surgeon as a therapist (as was J.L. Austin): he wanted to remove large parts of the traditional philosophical body. Ryle subjected Cartesian dualism to large-scale surgery—the complete excision of the ghost in the machine. Quine too wished to excise big chunks of traditional philosophy, like so many carbuncles or cancerous growths (meaning, sense data). The plan, in each case, was to remove whatever led to intellectual trouble—to take a knife to it. You don’t try to solve the problem but simply cut out what leads to it.

            Perhaps Nietzsche is the finest example of the tendency I have in mind. According to him, conventional morality is so contaminated by the Christian religion as to be beyond repair: a diseased mode of thought has infected the moral sense to such a degree that surgical removal is the only solution. Greek morality was not similarly contaminated, but Western morality was so steeped in Christianity that it needed complete amputation. Even the vocabulary of morality reflects this contamination (Schopenhauer had a similar view), with its talk of “commands”, “imperatives”, “duties”, and “ought”. At any rate, if we interpret Nietzsche this way, we can naturally conceive of his position on the surgical analogy: the idea of infection from an alien source that can only be remedied by complete removal (save perhaps a healthy stump). One might think that in our own age the idea of truth is in so much danger of infection from pathogens (relativism, post-modernism, etc.) that it too might be in need of surgical removal. How much more talk of “my truth” can the concept of truth take? The very idea of truth as opposed to opinion is in imminent danger of collapse, as people jostle for political power—each of us proudly bearing our own “truth”. When a word gets so debased that it no longer means what it is supposed to mean the option of surgical removal becomes real. One part of discourse can become pathological and infect another part, leaving no alternative but the knife. When words start to become meaningless the scalpel beckons. Hasn’t this already happened with words rooted in the institution of monarchy—what do “king” and “queen” really mean anymore? Such words have a tendency to vanish into quotation marks. In philosophy this fate has befallen such words as “vital spirit”, “ether”, “quiddity”, “life force”, “sense data”, “soul”, etc.—words that traded on certain kinds of outmoded theory. The word “essence” was viewed for a while as also in need of excision, but it turned out to be not as diseased as had been supposed. The word “materialism” has long been begging for the knife, but hangs on by the skin of its teeth for ideological reasons. In any case, the philosophical surgeon’s work is never done. Socrates conducted his marketplace surgeries and the tradition has continued to this day. The philosopher still needs the mindset of the surgeon, at least some of the time.

[1] One might facetiously suggest that the philosopher already has a name: brain surgeon. The philosopher certainly has his or her sights set on the operations of the human brain. Sometimes bits of the brain have to be removed (the bits housing philosophical pathologies).

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