Around the beginning of the 20th century, the intellectual landscape changed radically and forever. The old view, let’s say, presumed the intelligibility of a God’s eye perspective: a vision of Things as They Are, or Things as They Really Are (if that helps). Moreover, according to this view, humans can gain that vision, or at least approximate it, through history, science, and philosophy. It requires only the Victorian virtues of discipline and patience. But along came Einstein, who of course did not entirely repudiate a God’s eye perspective, but reduced its scope so dramatically that it became one reachable by us only through mathematical tricks (and this was only amplified by quantum mechanics). Along came deeper and more sympathetic explorations of non-western, “primitive” cultures, whose ontology and metaphysics was incommensurable with our own. Along came Nietzsche with Freud in his wake, undermining our confidence in our own thoughts and theories, given the psychological viper’s nest from which they issue.
(I’m setting aside the political and economic upheavals for now, though obviously they can’t be ignored. The new visions were made possible by colonialism, industrialization, and kleptocratic parliamentarianism; in treating the new visions, we are looking at symptoms of deeper social transformations. But anyway….)
Artists responded with cubism, music of alternative scales, paradigm-challenging architectures, and novels lacking omniscient narrators. Their works aimed at bringing all of us into conversation with the new reality, or new realities, and our own complicities in them. Historians and scientists soon realized their jobs had become a whole lot harder, for now they had to consider not just what they found in archives and in nature, but also the baggage they were carrying with them into their inquiries – presuppositions, expectations, and values. But philosophers for the most part found two ways of sidestepping the revolution. Some of them retreated deep into The Subjective, construing their free association of ideas as unimpeachable revelations from an inner oracle. Others exiled themselves into the Land of Logical Forms, where there never is any change. Either way, philosophers disengaged with the 20th century, and the legacies of those departures haunt their houses to this day.
Obviously, philosophers could have taken other paths. They probably could not have followed in a path parallel to those of the historians and scientists, because Wittgenstein was profoundly right in observing that philosophy does not have its own subject matter. There is not some special set of facts philosophers discover through special methodologies. They can join forces with historians and scientists, of course; but then they are simply historians and scientists, though on the more theoretical end of the spectrum of practitioners – and there is nothing wrong with this. Philosophers might boast of a special ability to clarify empirical findings and think through the logics of disciplines, but in truth this is not a special ability. It’s just clear thinking, which is always in short supply, but always in some measure of supply everywhere; philosophers are not the sole suppliers.
But here is an idea: what if philosophers followed the artists? What would that mean? It’s never safe to offer a universal pronouncement of what art is all about, but it’s not clearly wrong to say that artists try to provoke us to think about the human experience in new ways without telling us what to think. (I’ve lifted this from Maya Lin, who lifted it from Kant.) Philosophers, by temperament, like to tell us exactly what to think. But this need not be so. If they armed themselves with a more informed vision of their discipline’s own limitations, together with an appreciation for the revolution described above, they might content themselves in starting new discussions rather than in trying to end old ones.
The philosopher as artist is not providing poems or paintings. They are producing new visions, or new orientations in the cognitive landscape. There isn’t really a way to argue “here’s the right way of seeing things”; each new vision should be judged on the basis of how it intrigues us, how it opens up new possibilities for us, and how deeply it challenges our preconceptions. All these qualities are what we expect great works of art to do. Philosophers paint with concepts. Reason is necessarily involved, in the way that the logics of composition and logics of technique are inextricably part of an artist’s creation. We require philosophical works to make sense, but they must make sense to us, with our sensibilities, and not win over the sympathies of some disembodied observer.
It is an interesting possibility, and highlights just how different philosophy is (or rather should be). As with scientific theory, there is a concern to provide a well-grounded perspective that coheres with empirical discoveries. But philosophical theories are radically under-determined by scientific discovery, just as the compositions of paintings are underdetermined by the chemistry of pigments. As with literature and the arts, there is a concern to speak to the subjective dimensions of human experience. But philosophy always tries to provide some sort of judgment and direction, and does not rest content with reflecting that subjectivity. It’s preachy in a way art isn’t (or tries not to be). One might characterise this style of philosophy as an open-ended attempt to illuminate who we are, where we are, and where we might go from here.