The Tragedy of Philosophy

A reasonable expectation of moral philosophy would be that it should identify the good and then characterize it in such a way that doing good is irresistible, or at least desirable. A reasonable expectation of epistemology would be that it should say what knowledge is and then propose an effective method for achieving it. A reasonable expectation of aesthetics would be that it should explain what beauty is and then provide a recipe for producing it. So it may have seemed at the dawn of the subject: goodness, truth, and beauty should be susceptible to this kind of insight.  The model would be geometry—specifying the possible geometrical forms and then providing proofs of various theorems about them. Thus we achieve clarity and completeness about our chosen subject matter—perspicuity, understanding. But it is fair to report that those reasonable expectations, those ideals and aspirations, have not been achieved—not at the beginning and not now. There is intractable controversy over what moral goodness is, and its motivational force remains obscure and undemonstrated. Why we should be moral is still not clear, and moral reasons seem to clash with other motivating reasons. Theories of knowledge are still wanting, and no systematic method for producing knowledge has yet been devised. Skepticism remains potent, inference is fallible, the senses may deceive us, and we don’t even have a convincing account of what knowledge is. Aesthetics is still struggling to define beauty, even to decide whether it is subjective or objective, and no recipe for producing beautiful objects has yet been proposed. The expectations in all three areas have been dashed or diminished or withdrawn altogether. Philosophy has not lived up to its initial promise, unlike geometry. And it is not for want of trying or because of insufficient talent: goodness, truth, and beauty have simply resisted our best efforts. We hoped for great things concerning important matters, but our hopes have not been fulfilled. This is why I say that philosophy is a tragic subject: its history is a long, drawn-out tragedy. It is not without high points, to be sure, but the hope of indisputable progress in achieving the goals I set out has not been fulfilled. In retrospect, the goals may seem excessive, even utterly unrealistic, but they were reasonable at the outset and it can only appear tragic that they have not been achieved.

In moral philosophy, the failure is especially grievous, because it is obviously a matter of grave importance that human beings should strive for the good. That way the evils of the world may be cured (many of them). But the difficulty of identifying the good, combined with the weak motivational force of moral reasons, have prevented the good from being universally realized. It is not as if some clever moral philosopher has discovered that being good is identical with possessing money and property (!), where these motives already have a stronghold on the human psyche. Altruism and maximizing general utility are not powerful motivating forces for most human beings, and attempts to demonstrate the logical inescapability of moral rules (Kant) have not been met with general acceptance (ditto the felicific calculus). Moral philosophy has not achieved the goal of a wholesale reshaping of human action in a moral direction, despite its early aspirations. Likewise, the goal of completing human knowledge by following an infallible procedure open to anybody has not met with success: not Descartes’ method of doubt, not strict empiricism, not logical deduction, not cleaving to ordinary language, not phenomenology, not mimicking science. There is no single method by following which we will acquire all the knowledge there is to acquire. Epistemology has not succeeded in its grandest aim—to put human knowledge on a firm (and complete) foundation. Error is always possible, skepticism threatens, and inference is shaky. And aesthetics has not delivered either: there is no set of rules the following of which will infallibly yield objects of beauty. There are no “laws of form” that define beauty and no special training that will reliably produce great artists. In all three areas we have psychological faculties that can be brought to bear, but they don’t amount to what we might reasonably have expected—methods, algorithms, effective procedures. I take it this is obvious; what is less obvious is the pall it casts over the subject. Imagine the first philosophers clarifying their interest in goodness, truth, and beauty, then seeking to develop theories that will achieve their promotion; but then as time wears on this result starts to seem increasingly remote, producing a sense of disappointment and futility. The subject begins to strike them as tragic, with all sorts of psychological mechanisms invoked to ward off the awful truth: they will never match the example of the geometers! We still have no practically effective theory of goodness, no infallible route to truth, and no surefire scheme for creating beauty. We, therefore, cannot advertise philosophy as a set of learnable techniques for making the world a better place, producing knowledge, and maximizing beauty. The reason this is tragic is that these are highly desirable goals, and it is not obvious ahead of time that they cannot be achieved; indeed, there may still be people who think they can be achieved. It would be wonderful if they were achieved (especially the first), but it seems increasingly unlikely that they ever will be.

As far as I can see, philosophy is the only tragic subject in this sense. In fact, part of philosophy is not tragic, namely logic: this subject achieves its aim of guaranteeing valid reasoning (at least within a limited domain). And other subjects—physics, chemistry, biology, history, psychology, etc.—can reasonably claim to have met, or be meeting, their goals. There is not the same shortfall between goals and methods, aspirations and achievements. If you enroll in a university course designed to teach these subjects, you will leave with a mastery of techniques that yield the result you desire—knowledge of various kinds. But if you enroll in a philosophy program, you will not leave knowing how to make the world morally perfect, or how to acquire knowledge infallibly, or how to make beautiful objects at will. Indeed, such achievements will not even be offered to you, because that would be false advertising. But that is what philosophy ideally is, and what it might have promised to be to its early practitioners. I don’t mean that philosophy is not worth studying—quite the contrary—but I do mean that it is in a certain sense a failed discipline, one that does not live up to what we might hope of it. It has ambitions it cannot fulfill, limitations it cannot surmount. Perhaps these limitations are intrinsic to it, perhaps it was wrong to have such high hopes of the subject; but it is hard to deny that philosophers have had these hopes and tried to overcome those limitations. Intellectual honesty requires us to accept philosophy’s tragic status: this will give us a clearer conception of what we are doing and may even help with the inevitable frustrations of the subject. After all, the world is a tragic place, but that doesn’t (and shouldn’t) prevent us from living in it and doing the best we can; philosophy likewise falls short of a natural ideal and our best policy is to recognize that and do what we can within its limitations. It might also serve to mitigate the disillusionment people often feel when they realize that philosophy is not able to achieve what they hoped it will: it is not an effective method (in the logical sense) for achieving our highest ideals in morality, epistemology, and aesthetics. It is not a kind of agriculture of the sublime. This is why skepticism, moral nihilism, and aesthetic relativism survive in it—because philosophy has not found irrefutable methods for acquiring knowledge, bringing about the good, and producing beauty. We want to achieve those things, and philosophy is the subject that will do it if any can, but in fact it tragically fails to achieve them. That is just how things have turned out, however it may have seemed to early philosophers. Maybe there is virtue in persisting with the aim of overcoming the tragic state of philosophy, but it is well to accept that this is how things stand in the subject. There is no shame in tragedy; there may even be nobility in it.[1]


[1] Should we be sad about the tragic state of philosophy? That is a difficult question: should we be sad that there are probably parts of space to which we will never travel? Recognizing one’s limitations and living within them is not necessarily a cause for lamentation; on the other hand, it would have been nice to perfect human (and animal) life, vouchsafe knowledge, and beautify the world.

9 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Given logic is an area where philosophy (together with mathematics) has been succesful, what can we learn about the preconditions and drivers of the development of modern symbolic logic? (It didn’t happen in a vacuum.) If one was specifically to consider the problem of suffering minimisation (rather than morality and well-being maxisimation more broadly), what preconditions would be required for philosophy to make meaningful progress there? Presumably developments in psychology, and possibly neuroscience, may be required; but also some insights into the relationship between the individual and society (where Marx left off, let’s say) must be required. With technologies developing rapidly, with global and ‘what about our grandchildren’ questions no longer being able to be ignored, perhaps this century will be the time philosophy will have the requisite material and demand to fashion something useful in this arena Something is required to facilitate the dance between science, policy and religion (still practiced by the vast majority of humanity). You’re right in echoing Dirty Harry’s quote about limitations. There are two well known quotes from JFK’s father. I’d suggest one of them (hopefully not both) is relevant.

  2. says:

    True enough—despair of philosophy need not necessarily follow upon a recognition of its tragedy. Even if philosophy yields no positive knowledge, a philosopher (Hume comes to mind) might yet find epistemological (even a kind of aesthetic) solace in exploration of the Reasons why philosophical problems are (often times) insoluble/intractable. He might, however, return to tragedy upon realizing that philosophy could never Exhaustively explore and catalogue such Reasons. There ought the matter to end .But we “agriculturists of the Sublime” are ever hopeful that in the discovery (or concoction) of a compelling Proof of Incompleteness, final recourse to solace is as of yet undenied. —-I’m trying my best at self-parody here. Charles Churchill, the great 18th century satirist, used sarcastically to refer to Dr. Johnson as, “Pomposo”.

  3. Elliott
    Elliott says:

    Thank you, Colin. You make a good point about the importance of philosophers being aware of what previous philosophers have said.

    What are some examples of what you would regard as philosophical knowledge? I’m not referring to self-evident propositions (e.g., those of logic, etc.) but to substantive philosophical theses about, say, free will, the nature of time, epistemic justification, the correct theory of normative ethics, etc.

  4. Colin McGinn
    Colin McGinn says:

    Obvious examples would be the particular-universal distinction, the use-mention distinction, the type-token distinction, the is-ought distinction, the supervenience-identity distinction, the quantifier-name distinction, the absolute-relative distinction, the necessary-contingent distinction, the knowledge-belief distinction, and many others. Some putative examples are more controversial, but I think utilitarianism taught us the importance of well-being to morality, Grice’s work on conversational implicature is solid knowledge, rationalism taught us that some knowledge is innate, etc.

  5. Elliott
    Elliott says:

    I agree about the distinctions. But I was thinking about the many controversial topics of philosophy that haven’t been resolved despite centuries of attention from the best minds.

    You mentioned rationalism. I’m a rationalist in the sense that I believe that some knowledge is innate. Perhaps we agree here. It seems to me beyond reasonable doubt, or nearly so, that at the very least, human beings are born with a knowledge of difference and sameness (i.e., identity and non-identity). Without this knowledge, it’s hard to see how we could learn anything about the world.

    And yet I hesitate to say that we know (precisely speaking) that rationalism is true. Of course, it depends on what knowledge is — which is another controversial topic.

    In any case, I appreciate your time and your work in philosophy.

  6. Colin McGinn
    Colin McGinn says:

    Here I must cite my own writings, Problems in Philosophy and Inborn Knowledge, in which mystery and knowledge commingle. I believe both in the power of reason and its limitations. I don’t think knowledge is actually that hard to obtain, properly understood, though certainty is another matter (I have several papers on this blog about skepticism).


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  1. […] matter). McGinn himself seems to accept something close to this view, given his insightful comments here. Is it fair to emphasize knowledge, as McGinn does, if knowledge is so difficult to obtain in […]

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