Graham Priest On What Philosophy Is

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.


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At first sight, I don't find it's profound at all. Moreover, I've the feeling it's autoreferential. Critique needs an object to examine critically. Yet what does philosophy examine critically? If we suppose it's previous philosophies, hence philosophy would be defined as the critique of the critique of the critique, etc.

Sounds as if Mr. Priest's brief (a chapter - not a book) "Aha" moment was uncharacteristically disingenious.

You're missing exactly nothing: "Philisophy is critique" is just another empty phrase describing a moribund discipline. Professional philisophy can best be described by the "problems" it addresses (which tend to be ancient, irrellevant, and unsolvable by design) and the techniques it uses (mostly deduction and unscientific speculation). I was about a third of the way through my graduate program when I realized these key facts and found a different career. The most insightful philosopher on Philisophy (and much else) is Rorty. After reading Rorty's "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature," I quit my program.

I think philosophy has from the start been about Being. In practical terms this is to say philosophy deals with bedrock 'categories' such as truth, justice, beauty etc. 40 years ago language was deemed to be 'bedrock' and much philosophy was about language. Nowadays consciousness is deemed bedrock and philosophy of mind is a huge area of philosophical research. Unless one is dealing with Being what Plato and Socrates were getting at 2500 years ago what one is doing is other than philosophy. The immediate response to this is that philosophy then amounts to mere vaporous musings but I think for example the work of John Rawls though it deals with a bedrock 'category', Justice is far from vaporous. Graham mistakes philsophy for punditry, Noninstapunditry, but a punditry nevertheless.

You might be right about Priest and "philosophy as critique"; what I can't fathom is your comment about Deleuze and Guattari's "creating concepts" ideas being turned into something profound. Maybe they do this somewhere else (I doubt it), but their flagship paper on this point struck me as pathetic - pompous posturing based on philosophical analysis so poor we wouldn't accept it even from undergraduates, at least at in any serious philosophy department.

I personally think philosophy is more like A never ending desire to be baffled and to seek answers. If anything, Im sure that : Philosophy is critique is NOT a maxim, cogito, axiom or in any way self-evident. Its perfectly possible to come to a new realization without having to defeat a previous statement. I cant say much since I havent read the book. But from what you say, it seems like another boring discussion. Build up around a system of arguments that in the end collapses under its lack of rational.

I would, of course, need to read the article -- but it sounds like Priest might be doing the 'analytic' philosophy thing and looking for an equivalent to philosophy that covers all the instances of what are called philosophy (cf. Frege's definition of 'number'). In this case, his point needn't be profound -- as long as it is right. And note that, if it is right, then Fergus' criticism of philosophy can't carry much weight -- because philosophy wouldn't be a 'result' of a process at all (and we often think of science, I would put forth, as being somehow validated by its results) but just a process that can be applied anywhere and to anything.

By Alex Leibowitz (not verified) on 03 Aug 2006 #permalink