Philosophy: A History of Failure

by Jeroen Bouterse

Three times have we started doing philosophy, and three times has the enterprise come to a somewhat embarrassing end, being supplanted by other activities while failing anyway to deliver whatever goods it had promised. Each of those three times corresponds to a part of Stephen Gaukroger’s recent book The Failures of Philosophy, which I will be discussing here. In each of these three times, philosophy’s program was different: in Antiquity, it tied itself to the pursuit of the good life; after its revival in the European middle ages it obtained a status as the guardian of a fundamental science in the form of metaphysics; and when this metaphysical project disintegrated, it reinvented itself as the author of a meta-scientific theory of everything, eventually latching on to science in a last attempt at relevance.

Indeed, this means that the last serious attempt to revive philosophy faded out many decades ago. Unlike David Hume, who figures in this book as one of only a few thinkers in the Western canon who saw and confronted directly the problems inherent in the ambitions of philosophy, Gaukroger does not regard himself as writing in a “philosophic age”. Nobody now looks at philosophers as having something interesting to contribute, the way we look at scientists (although Gaukroger has a thing or two to say about them, too). For all intents and purposes, we live in a post-philosophical era, though ending his book on a Picardy third, Gaukroger does not completely reject the idea that there are things to be salvaged.

Gaukroger defines philosophy as second-order enquiry. This unites its three separate incarnations, which otherwise have much less in common than is usually believed. This definition elegantly serves both to demarcate philosophical from non-philosophical thought, and to find a common cause for its decay: in each case, its demise was not accidental, but related to the very limits of second-order inquiry. The notion of second-order activity, of course, relies on some idea of first-order enquiry: philosophy is abstracting from something, and the object of its second-order interest is different in each case.

In Antiquity, Gaukroger’s conceptual angle is the distinction between mētis and epistēmē – cleverness and knowledge. The pre-philosophical notion, of ingenuity or cunning, while clearly involving a dimension of understanding or reason, remains close to the affairs of the world. Zeus owes his position as king of the gods to “always being one step ahead”, says Gaukroger, and the horizontal metaphor is telling: mētis has no ambitions to aim higher or delve deeper than the events. Thales of Miletus, in claiming that everything begins with water, is often taken to be the first philosopher, but Thales is a practical man, says Gaukroger; he does not seem to think of this general truth about things as providing a deeper level of understanding. He is not in the second-order business.

Reasoning becomes philosophy when it starts directing itself at a different level; when it poses a structure behind the world of change (as Heraclitus does), or in place of it (as Parmenides does). Crucially, this move is applied to morality. Plato in particular, worried about the pluralism of the sophists and the open-endedness of moral discourse, deconstructs traditional virtues such as courage and moderation and seeks virtue on another level. He suggests that conventional virtues are worthless if they are not beholden to goodness defined abstractly as an idea.

Gaukroger points out that this leads to an impoverished view of morality, that fails to engage with the complexities of life in the way that Greek tragedy does. Although Plato is not only the first but also the most extreme thinker when it comes to moving morality wholly to the realm of the intellect, later thinkers never quite figure out precisely how to bring philosophy’s promise to supply a general understanding of the world in line with attempts to reason about everyday ethics. Aristotle, less aloof and definitely more open than Plato to the idea that there is more than one good thing, still believes that contemplation must be the highest good precisely because it is of no service in practice.

In short, ancient philosophers are interested in ethics – indeed, the notion that philosophy can structure your whole life is central to the Hellenistic schools  – but they struggle to integrate the abstract, intellectualized insights that give philosophy its privileged standing with a sufficiently rich view of life. Even Epicureans and Stoics expect little more than the negative goal not to be crushed by the slings and arrows of fortune. Apart from this observation, it did not become completely clear to me where Gaukroger perceives these two schools to be defective, but his case is at any rate a comparative one: the thing that ancient philosophy is trying to do are things that Christianity will turn out to do better, at the small cost of being something other than philosophy. Especially in late Antiquity, Hellenistic philosophy evolves into a hyper-abstract Neo-platonic synthesis, a meta-philosophy desperate for extra-philosophical content and practically begging to be incorporated by a theology. Only proper, then, when Augustine reinterprets ancient philosophy as being basically Christianity minus the sacraments (82).

This constitutes the first failure of philosophy: its search for a unified and intellectualized understanding of the good life was always going to be incomplete, and Christianity’s success finally supersedes it completely. But skip to the eleventh-to-thirteenth century, and things look a little different. European expansion confronts Latin Christianity with another (Islamic) revealed theology, leading theologians to reflect upon the ‘natural’, revelation-independent credentials of their beliefs. “Here”, reads Gaukroger’s snarkiest one-liner in this book, “arises something probably unique in the history of philosophy: a genuine need for philosophy.” (89)

A need for Aristotle, to be specific: scholastic thinkers are quick to notice that concepts in Aristotle’s newly translated texts can help a lot to clarify mysterious theological concepts of which Christianity has plenty. Others are equally quick to notice that an independent philosophy constitutes a threat in a whole number of manners. The basis for a compromise is drafted by Albertus Magnus, who identifies separate realms for ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ truths and their investigation. Thomas Aquinas builds on this, proposing that metaphysics mediate between what are now largely independent enterprises of natural philosophy and Christian revealed doctrine.

By embracing this settlement, the Church accepts both that natural philosophy can largely go its own way, and that Christianity has a stake in its results. This has major implications for the Christian religion in centuries to come. For one, it will lead to some rather tense situations, since several thinkers (such as Pomponazzi) follow Aristotle’s naturalistic tendencies where they lead, undermining philosophical support for key doctrines such as the immortality of the soul. In the sixteenth century, the French philosopher Marin Mersenne decides that there are problems at the heart of Aristotle’s theory of matter that lead to such heterodox conclusions, and he counters with a metaphysics in which matter is completely inert.

A similarly ‘mechanistic’ system is developed by Descartes, at a moment where the reconciliation of natural and religious claims has become particularly urgent because of the Church’s condemnation of Copernicanism. Descartes’ system is important especially because of its epistemology. Not even so much its radical doubt, but its representationalist implications: in Cartesian epistemology, perception is modelled after optical instruments such as telescopes, and much is made of the conclusion that our mind becomes aware not of things, but of representations of things. (On the grand scale, we may contrast this with Aristotelian theories of perception, in which something in the perceiver actually takes on the same form as the thing perceived.) This, says Gaukroger, separates the inner from the outer world, and leads to a model of knowledge itself that is modelled on scientific enquiry: the mind, where input from the world is turned into knowledge, is not really a part of the world that it knows. All knowledge becomes a matter of detached reason, and in a sense a second-order affair.

A gap opens between the manifest image and the scientific image, between natural philosophy and common sense. John Locke provides an attempt to close this gap, one for which Gaukroger has a lot of sympathy. Locke ties knowledge more immediately to sensation, and when French Enlightenment thinkers interpret his thought, a broad notion of ‘sensibility’ develops as an alternative to Descartes’ systematic, philosophical approach. Sensibilité is very ‘first-order’: it is something that physicians and anatomists can trace in the body; at the same time, it is a concept with moral and social connotations – we have moral sentiments, too. Sensibility places the perceiver back into the world, and refuses to isolate cognitive from other relations with this world; affective states are back in the picture, not as a distraction but as constitutive of understanding.

The success of sensibility leads to a rethinking of the status of reason. Hume famously calls reason the slave of the passions. More broadly, Gaukroger reads him as saying that the second-order perspective on the world that the philosophical concept of reason leads us to can ultimately not be reconciled with the everyday world. To Gaukroger, this insight in the limits of philosophical activity makes Hume a much more important thinker than he has been given credit for, having been domesticated by later readers as a common skeptic. Hume likes critical reflection, but he also shows that there is nothing privileged about philosophy as an instrument of it.

Apart from Hume’s devastating criticism, the 18th century also witnesses important encroachments by science on terrains previously monopolized by philosophy and religion: building on the notion of sensibility, French medicine has tools at its disposal too powerful to direct only at the human body, and it starts occupying itself with questions about the human mind and social organization as well. In Germany in particular, the persona of the ‘school philosopher’ comes under attack, as someone whose personal growth has been stunted rather than encouraged by the anti-social, ivory-tower inclinations inherent in his very academic pursuits.

Philosophy is failing again. Attacks such as these don’t always eschew the term philosophy, but they line up to undermine it qua second-order activity: they show the inherent limits of philosophical reason, the existence of alternatives to it, and its undesirable aspects. What is more, they are not wrong: reading Gaukroger’s narrative, you get a strong feeling that as far as he is concerned, philosophy had this one coming, too. He even suggests, possibly overstating his case for once, that this 18th-century onslaught “marks a collapse and replacement of philosophy on a par with that of the fifth century” (168).

Then Kant appears on the scene to save the day, by carving out in the form of ‘critical’ rather than dogmatic philosophy a safe space for reason. It becomes reason’s responsibility to understand, not things, but reason itself, including its own limits. Traditionally philosophical areas such as morality and religion turn out to fall strictly outside the limits of theoretical reason, but Kant cannot leave them alone, and his transcendental enquiry still allows for a priori claims about God or moral precepts. On the face of it, these appear to be rather continuous with the metaphysical ambitions of his predecessors, but reason, rather than claiming to determine external truths about these things, now seeks instead to establish the conditions of our experience of them.

If a unified reason can explore a priori conditions for our experience of basically anything, however, philosophy can remain rather ambitious. Indeed, Gaukroger sees in Kant an attempt to provide a philosophical ‘theory of everything’. Kant’s idealist successors further shore up the case for the unity of philosophical understanding, and fold back into it most everything that Kant had left outside its purview. Together, these attempts constitute “a set of varied efforts to establish the most comprehensive understanding of the world possible” (185) – efforts, that is, to pull off for philosophy what Augustine did for Christianity.

Philosophy is not the only game in town, however. There are scientific ‘theories of everything’ on the market too, such as German scientific materialism, or the encompassing vision that John Stuart Mill provides of moral and scientific reasoning. Philosophy has to cut its losses, and adapt itself to the perceived success of science. It does so by turning itself into philosophy of science (as in late-19th-century Neokantianism) or modelling itself upon scientific enquiry (as in positivism).

Gaukroger considers the idea that science is a unified theoretical enterprise and a model for all cognitive values to be something of a misunderstanding, and his four-part study on Science and the Shaping of Modernity builds up (especially in the last volume, which appeared in 2020 as well) to a historical criticism of this idea. He does not labor the point in The Failures of Philosophy, but of course there is a lot of overlap between the narratives: the same processes that lead to the retreat of philosophy in the 18th century are involved in the formation of the modern understanding of science, for instance. I refer to it here, because it is important to understand that Gaukroger disapproves of philosophy’s cozying up to science the way it does, turning itself into mere meta-theory or leaving to itself only the analysis of language.

Nor, however, does he see those thinkers who try too conspicuously to jump off the scientific-rationalist train as having a convincing alternative on offer. When Heidegger tries to reach back to the world of the pre-Socratics, for instance, he is reaching for something that is not philosophy. This is where Gaukroger leaves us: in a state where philosophy has allowed its aspirations and concepts to be warped by science for a second time (after its regrettable representationalist turn in the 17th century), and paid for it with a cultural irrelevance that is more or less deserved but also unsatisfying.

Gaukroger’s narrative is creative and convincing, extremely dense and elegant at the same time, based on a jaw-dropping breadth and depth of scholarship. I only wish he had given us a little more to go on with regard to the question what philosophy could have looked like if it hadn’t been a failure. Since its limits are, in Gaukroger’s reading, limits inherent to second-order enquiry, it stands to reason that the solution lies not in perfecting the content of philosophy so that it can finally deliver the impossible, but in a self-definition that gives second-order enquiry its proper place.

In that case, however, I do not share Gaukroger’s dark assessment of the current state of the enterprise, or enterprises in the plural. First, there seem to me to have been philosophers in the 20th century whose work manages to be grounded in the world, or at least depart from there and circle back to it regularly, effectively seeking out the distance or abstraction that in Gaukroger accounts constitutes second-order inquiry, but having the modesty not to idealize, metaphysicize or transcendentalize their abstractions. I will name only Richard Rorty, with whom Gaukroger converges in his attack on the pernicious influence of representationalism in philosophy.

Second, if distance metaphors somehow indicate second-order enquiry, such enquiry is not only being performed under the banner of philosophy. A critical evaluation of our cultural values and institutions can be sociologically or historically informed as well as ‘philosophically’ in the narrow sense. History, for instance, checks a lot of boxes in this respect, and history of science is of particular value here. It produces relevant critical perspectives of values and institutions that structure our own life, and it does this by preparing these values and institutions for a different kind of understanding, as the contingent results of historical processes rather than as the self-evident and unquestioned form in which we become aware of them.

I fail to see how this is not a second-order activity, but it is a second-order activity that does not come with the temptations that seem to be at the root of most of the philosophical hubris in Gaukroger’s study: philosophy perceives itself to have mastered a faculty (reason) by which it can vertically remove itself from the historical world. Having pulled itself from the swamp by its own shoelaces, it does not have a way back. History, however, does not come with that sort of pretentiousness. In its best forms, it is a working and relevant form of critical, second-order enquiry. If it does not have the corresponding cultural standing, maybe this goes to show that intellectual endeavor does not always get what it deserves – just as ancient philosophy probably did not deserve everything Christianity did to it.

All this is a rather convoluted way of saying that to my mind, our losses are not as great as they may seem: the fact that we have Stephen Gaukroger’s brilliant studies to read makes up in no small part for the failures of philosophy.


Stephen Gaukroger, The Failures of Philosophy: A Historical Essay. Princeton University Press, 2020.

(Page references may sometimes be off by one, because of my use of the digital edition of the book.)