From what I know of Graham Priest, he’s an interesting philosopher. I read his book on intentionality, Towards Non-Being a few months ago, and enjoyed it, and I read his Introduction to Non-Classical Logic a few years ago, and have recommended it. So when I saw that he had written a paper titled “What is Philosophy?” in a recent issue of the journal Philosophy (sorry, it’s not online anywhere, and Philosophy is woefuly slow in updating its website), I thought I’d check it out.
It was popular in the 20th century to write books with this title, or some variant thereof (I particularly like this one, and these two are good as well). Those books were generally very involved, presenting detailed ideas about what philosophy is, with extended discussions of their own philosophical views and those of others. So, while I didn’t expect that much out of Priest’s article, because it was just a journal article rather than a book-length essay, and Priest is no Ortega y Gasset or Heidegger, I at least expected an interesting, and perhaps even novel approach to philosophy. Instead, I got this: philosophy is critique.
At first I thought to myself, OK, maybe he does something with that. After all, Deleuze and Guattari and Ortega y Gassett presented fairly simple ideas of what philosophy is (creating concepts, all is one, that sort of thing), but managed to make those simple ideas into very profound statements about philosophy, so maybe Priest can do that as well. But no, it’s just critique. It’s “critique unleashed,” in fact — it’s the discipline in which everything is open to question. He gets there by very briefly summarizing the views of Wittgenstein (what happens when “language goes on holiday”) and Derrida, via Rorty (kinds of writing no different from fiction — a literary genre) on what philosophy is, and argues in both cases that the definitions are self-refuting. So we need a better, non self-refuting view, and what we get is “critique.”
I’m writing this because I want to ask everyone out there whether I’m simply missing something. Is “philosophy is critique” insightful or profound in some way that I’m not seeing? Is it anything more than such a vague and abstract definition that you can’t possibly say it’s wrong, even when it looks like people aren’t doing any critiquing but are still doing what looks like philosophy (Priest notes that philosophy has its constructive side, too, but it’s built on the critical side — to paraphrase Nietzche, to create, one must also destory)? Wait, maybe this is a Sokal-esque hoax, and I’m just missing it. If it is, it’s not as funny as Sokal’s, though.