A Puzzle about Metaphilosophy

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

ApollocutoutEnduring movements in the history of philosophy often owe their influence not to their core doctrines, but rather to the distinctive vision of philosophy they embody. Indeed, one might say of such movements – think of the traditions associated with the Stoics, Descartes, Hegel, the existentialists, and beyond – that they are primarily conceptions of what philosophy is. A conception of what philosophy is – a metaphilosophy – coordinates ideas about philosophical method, the nature of philosophical problems, and the limits of philosophy. In other words, a metaphilosophy tells us not only how to do philosophy, but also what philosophy can do, what we can expect from philosophy. A metaphilosophy hence often distinguishes genuine philosophical problems from pseudo-problems and nonsense; it also typically demarcates genuine philosophical problems from those genuine problems that reside within the purview of some other kind of inquiry, such a natural science, psychology, and history. It is tempting to conclude that although we tend to think of the history of philosophy as a series of debates concerning truth, goodness, knowledge, being, meaning, and beauty, it is actually an ongoing clash among metaphilosophies.

Though tempting, this conclusion should be resisted. This is because it is as yet unclear how metaphilosophical clashes are to be resolved, or even addressed. Which area of inquiry is suited to adjudicate conflicts over what philosophy is? Must there be a meta-metaphilosophy? But then wouldn't we also require a fourth tier to address conflicts at the meta-meta level? Then a fifth, sixth, and seventh? This proliferation of “meta” discourses about philosophy looks well worth avoiding. A further cause for resistance lies in the fact that the very idea of a clash among metaphilosophies is opaque. Why regard, say, the phenomenologist and the ordinary language philosopher as embroiled in a metaphilosophical clash at all? Why not say instead that they are engaged in entirely different enterprises and be done with it? Why posit something over which (philosophy and its proper methods) they are in dispute? The fact that it is not clear how there could be an adjudication of metaphilosophical clashes may be marshalled as a consideration in favor of the idea that opposing schools normally identified as philosophical do not promote different conceptions of philosophy, but instead embrace distinctive concepts that each calls “philosophy,” and so ultimately do not even clash at all, but only speak past each other. It certainly seems to capture what it is like to witness such clashes.

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