On 2 visions of philosophy

The following is a commentary on David E. Cooper, “Visions of Philosophy,” Conceptions of Philosophy, ed. Anthony O’Hear, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. pp. 1-14. Due to copyright restrictions, I can’t include a copy of the paper below. As insufficient recompense, I offer running commentary. The latter tracks the sections in Cooper’s paper but also meanders, following many asides. Where appropriate, I quote from Cooper, but mostly I don’t.


Like the late ancient scholar Pierre Hadot and influenced by Edward Craig (see, for instance, his great book The Mind of God and the Works of Man), David E. Cooper argues that there are 2 basic visions of philosophy: a theoretical vision and a practical vision. The theoretical vision is oriented toward the True, the practical vision toward the Good. He writes,

the [most] basic divide [in the history of philosophy] is between the two visions of philosophy as, respectively, theory or speculation orientated towards Truth, and vital practice orientated towards the Good, towards Life.

I agree with Cooper and with my friend Hadot that, in the modern world, the theoretical dispensation has overtaken the practical dispensation. Logic, linguistic analysis, and scientific naturalism have become the predominant image of the philosophical endeavor while philosophy as a way of life has receded far into the background.  Hadot traces this overturning of the practical by the theoretical back to the end of scholasticism (see his What is Ancient Philosophy? See also my “On the Need for Speculative Philosophy Today,” Cosmos and History, forthcoming 2012) and up to the rise of the Humboltian university, putting particular emphasis on the instrumental role played by the modern research university in securing the theoretical vision. The theoretical vision has become so deeply entrenched that when laypersons’ talk about philosophy their talk is entirely of the form:

-Philosophy only takes you round in circles. (I discuss some of these conceptions here.)

-Philosophy is just talk about talk. (What is a game? What do we mean by love?)

-Philosophy, just because it is Theory, must therefore be “applied.” Applied ethics, applied bioethics, prescriptive thus and so…. (So, some individuals have mistakenly taken to calling me an “applied philosopher” or a “practical philosopher.” Sometimes I hear “philosophical therapist.” The name of art, “philosophical counselor,” strikes me as being one word too many. Like “friendly friend” or “guidely guide.”)

-Philosophy is a nice diversion from practical affairs, but it can never have any relevance on how we go about our lives. (One would expect to hear “actually” or “anyway,” the interlocutor turning us back toward the mundane.)

-Philosophy is the activity that professionals in universities perform with each other. And they don’t do much. (Here, I mostly agree about the bit about professionalism, not about the orientation of philosophy.)

-“Therapists,” “self-help gurus,” “psychiatrists,” and “life coaches” must be the professionals we go see in order to figure things out. (Or, it is assumed, the philosopher must be one of these. One of these kind.)

-Medical doctors treat our bodies, psychologists treat the stuff that goes on in our heads. And, it is erroneously assumed, the mind is the thing that exists in the head. (When we think about thinking, we imagine thinking being the kind of activity that goes in the head. I don’t think so.)

All of these thoughts–mine, not Cooper’s–are in keeping with the theoretical vision that Cooper limns. But supposing the theoretical vision is not the correct vision of the philosophical adventure, then what? Let’s walk with Cooper through Section II.


In Section II, Cooper mounts his defense of the practical vision. There are a few things going on at this juncture. One is that Cooper wants to show how the practical vision entails that the way of being in the world must come first. Words about words come second. Theoretical discourse, springing from a particular context, comes as a result of a life need. For example: “I can’t understand what you mean by ‘ambition.’ Can you explain?” Analysis of the concept of “ambition” is at home in the context of the stroll. We’re in the midst of an inquiry, and we’re talking about “ambition” because we’ve gotten stuck. In this native setting (picture us stopping to catch our breath), theoretical discourse would be appropriate.

But then Cooper, like Hadot, doesn’t want to say that Truth doesn’t matter. So he needs to make room in his practical vision for Truth. And this he does by claiming that a way of life orientated toward the Good would have a deep concern with what is True. But–to put this in Hadotian language–the True would be “put in the service of” the Good. Hadot was keen to point out how metaphysics and logic were “put in the service of” ethics. We mean to understand how things are (metaphysics) and how thinking works (logic) in order to see how we can be put back in touch with life (ethics). In my view, the value of Truth is that it puts us back in touch with the world. Truth is being at home.

There’s one other concern that Cooper has. It’s with the quibble all this amounts to and can’t avoid cultishness. If a way of life must come first, then how do we make room for doubting, inquiry, and the experience of holding on a tic? How can we sidestep the claim of occultism? Well, inquiry is a hughly important activity in a philosophical way of life. Inquiry is its vital force. Hadot says that theoretical discourse matters but, again, so long as it’s in the service of living a way of life. We could also say: Truth would be that which shows forth in the radiant face of the guide. And Truth, in virtue of its radiant embodiment, would also be what my conversation partners live out and therefore seek to help others live out. Truth is plentiful, or plenitude itself. Truth is giving. So, a philosophical life oriented toward the Good needn’t entail occultism. Just the opposite.

But–one conversation partner asked while we were reading Cooper’s essay together–don’t historians of philosophy at least take the practical vision seriously?

Actually, modern philosophy starts from the theoretical vision. Worse still, many (but not all) who write from within the university then read back into the ancient world disputations about, e.g., metaphysics, logic, or whatever, as if they were depicting stand-alone theoretical visions. Or they examine Aquinas’s Summa as if the 5 proofs of God were detachable theoretical arguments, worthy of examination unto themselves and outside of their native soil. In reality, Aquinas’s proofs are ways to God, and they were meant to make a Christian way of life more intelligible, not to be stand-alone arguments for God’s existence. For him, rationality was in harmony with faith, the ways being buttresses for a faith already held.

So, under the theoretical dispensation, we’re getting a 2-fold mutilation: first, the modern university as a ‘dwelling place’ for and perpetuation of the theoretical vision (skeptical? You can check out the profiles, e.g., of the faculty members in the NYU Philosophy Department); second, the backcasting of this theoretical vision into the ancient world, treating these texts as if they were simply proffering competing theoretical visions. (Care to be a Neoplatonist or a Scholastic?)


There is a further problem: namely, the problem of skepticism. If philosophy is fully embodied in the theoretical vision and if Truth is the desideratum, then the philosopher’s chief task is to defeat the skeptic. Certain Truth must triumph over skeptical doubt.

So what’s happened is (1) the theoretical vision has won out and (2) analytic philosophy, profferring a theoretical vision, has cozied up to science as the discourse of Truth. Then at least since Descartes, it’s been regard as being of the first importance (3) to defeat the skeptic in order to pin down certain Truth.

And supposing this picture weren’t the right one? But if we can put aside (1-3), then we needn’t worry so much about skepticism. We’d be in a way of life, e.g., that radiated and in which we felt whole. The Good…


So here, in Section IV especially, is where Cooper and I touch hands and lips. Romeo and Juliet. Cooper’s leitmotiv in his book World Philosophies is that the experience of estrangement is the point of departure for philosophical reflection. The metaphysical experience is that the world is not a home. In “Visions of Philosophy” and in his splendid book, The Measure of Things, he speaks of answerability as the key to overcoming estrangement and nihilism. To be answerable to that which is not human is to be put in touch with the world.

Cooper advances a doctrine of mystery in his Measure of Things book, a doctrine which is supposed to make my life answerable to the ineffable (without making that idea sound overly spooky or too precious or theological or whatever). In this essay, he writes,

The ‘measure’ intended here is one of our lives as a whole, and certainly not simply, or mainly, of the accuracy of our beliefs. While it may be impossible finally to isolate the components of belief, feeling, purpose and action in our lives, the initial focus in the search for measure is liable to be upon purpose and action. For the ‘metaphysical horror’, as Leszek Kolakowski calls it, that impels the quest for something to which our lives our answerable is the dark thought that it just doesn’t matter what we do and aim at, that nothing we seek and achieve is worth more than anything else we might have sought or achieved had life gone differently.

My conversation partner wrote “nihilism.” Nihilism exactly. Cooper is not pleased with Kolokowski’s conclusion and means to have an intimation of mystery do the work of amends-making.

An aside: the other endpoint of nihilism that was of special concern to Nietzsche was to be found in the figure of the Last Man. After the Death of God, the Last Man lives only for the here and now, only for moderate hedonic pleasure, and forgets the question of existence entirely. The Last Man ceases to be a ‘dramatic figure,’ a ‘figure of interest,’ becoming boring and trivial and diminutive. Not seeing that his life must be answerable to something outside himself, The Last Man fills his life with trivia. Welcome to the desert of modern culture, a culture of sports, entertainment, and leisure…

Cooper once more:

The upshot of these reflections on philosophy as grounded in concerns about alienation and answerability is that philosophy is indeed orientated towards the Good. For if this vision is cogent then, to put the matter in a somewhat Daoist idiom, philosophy’s enterprise is the dual one of a search for a sense of our integration with the way of things and a quest to find, within the way of things, a measure of our lives. Differently expressed, it is the endeavour to overcome alienation and to become liberated from the ‘horrible’ thought that lives are answerable to nothing beyond themselves.

So the endgames of nihilism are either Horror or Boredom. We, you and I, can do better. Cooper thinks so too.


In Section V, Cooper can’t make out why the modern epistemological debate between idealism and realism could be so trenchant unless they were actually about the metaphysical question of estrangement. By my lights, what this topic brings to the fore is Max Webber’s thesis that the modern world has become “disenchanted.”

Let’s say you’re alienated from the world. This happens, in particular, once the natural world gets “disenchanted” (I speak at considerable length about disenchantment in my paper, “Unbounded Naturalism.”) If the metaphysical premise is that the natural world functions solely according to physical laws, then how can Man ‘fit into’ that? Well, I don’t think this is a good Metaphysical Picture of reality, but you get the basic idea. It seems as if we can’t ‘fit’ into that, and then neuroscientists, physicists, and evolutionary biologists try to say, “Well, yes we can” or “Sorry, no we can’t.” The question of free will then becomes “hot” and “intense” as one particular sign of our inability to shoehorn “the human” into “the natural.” Rather than consider free will a topic worthy of consideration, I submit that we back off the topic and ask how we got there. (Answer: disenchantment.)

Be that as it may, there are 2 basic ways that humans can comport themselves toward “the natural.” Either we can make reality “more human” (a simple example: we anthromorphize nature. The tree smiled at me. The building yawned. Boy is this winter biting. Etc.), i.e., ‘more like us,’ OR we can make the human “more natural” (within a disenchanted picture, alas, this means: well, humans are “just carbon” or we’re “just machines” or we’re “just DNA” and so on). In essence, reality is more like us (‘humanism’), or we are more like reality (‘naturalism’).

Cooper thus:

To the first strategy belong the attempts, for example, to depict the world as purposive, or as ‘constituted’ by thought, or as a collection of divine ideas. To the second strategy belong the attempts to establish that, for example, we are purely material beings, or that human freedom and the moral sense are, if not illusions, then reducible to the same nature possessed by everything else that we live alongside. (Dualists, incidentally, do not stand outside the dialectic of alienation. For while they may try to be even-handed in recognizing the irreducible existence of both mind and matter, they are usually anxious to mitigate the alienating effect of the opposition they maintain. They will argue, for instance, that there is divinely established harmony between the two or, as in the case of some Indian schools, that an oppositional engagement with the material world is a precondition for an eventual purification and liberation of the mind.)

OK, so Cooper’s saying–and this is clearer in his Measure book–that ‘humanism’ misses the idea that there’s something more than ‘the human world’ and ‘scientism’ (or whatever) misses the idea that we really do make a human contribution to the world in which we live. But <<BOTH>> can’t answer the problem of nihilism. For that, and here Cooper hops on stage, we’d need something like a way out of both views, something like ‘transcendental absolutism.’ Which would mean:

1.) with humanism, we do contribute conceptions to what we perceive around us;
2.) with naturalism, there is a limit to the contributions we make.
3.) with absolutism, there is something outside of the human contribution.
4.) a sense of mystery: that outside is more ‘shown’ or ‘experienced’ or ‘felt’ in a deep sense rather than ‘articulated’ or ‘formulated’ or pinned down.

The 4th condition is super-important because it allows our lives to be answerable to something beyond themselves without providing a positive doctrine (Christianity, Judaism, etc.). It is more modest, more humble, not about ef’ing the ineffable.


One final word by way of summary.

So what makes this Cooper piece so difficult but also so important is that he’s trying to cover his vision of philosophy in 4000 words. This is something like the culmination of 40-50 years of scholarship. And he’s trying to get us out of the theoretical vision of philosophy that’s held sway for 300 odd years. The end of that theoretical vision is a bunch of people saying that philosophy’s not good for anything, that philosophy hues closely to science, that philosophy doesn’t do anything for you, that it’s only talk about talk, that, at best, it’s “applied” or “prescribed,” and so on.

In modern culture, there is nonetheless a longing to consider how to live. The vacuum opened up by the theoretical vision, the need for our lives to matter in some ‘vitalist’ way, has been filled in by a field of second-rate marketplace competitors: therapy, self-helpism, life coaching, new ageism, guruism, evangelism, and all kind of quakeries. Pretty much misguided and halfhearted. And it’s left people buying up recipes, guidebooks, manuals, quick fixes to life needs, most of which is paint by numbers sort of stuff. 10 keys to… 10 steps for…

What’s worse, the university has perpetuated this theoretical vision of philosophy, professional philosophy has relished in it (famous midcentury line from Harvard philosopher, the grandee W.V.O. Quine, about how scientific philosophy is not particularly well-suited for edification), and American culture, pretty much beholden to a bald pragmatism for which the true = what’s useful, has swallowed it up whole.

We were never more in need of a practical vision than we are now, never more hungry for it, and yet we look around for sages and find Professionals; search in vein for friends and discover Last Men. Schopenhauer once wrote that humans, the only beings who are conscious of themselves as beings, cannot look death in the face. I don’t know about Schopenhauer’s sour pessimism, but the Last Men, content with small things, get very close to that forgetfulness lurking behind forgetfulness, a nether region of boredom. For the Last Men, being without souls, do not sense the winter in their souls, but it is there.