nikki moore

the history of what…

In what is philosophy? on April 5, 2009 at 10:16 pm

it might be a question of form.  

of what is in-form,


the question is: what is philosophy?  

i read it daily.  i have books of it lined up on my shelf.  but when pressed to think of how to present it to new readers, how to teach it to undergraduate students, how could i be so shocked to find out that it is only what it is and cannot be what it is not?

the problem, for me, began as follows: in thinking through a potential undergraduate syllabus, i started looking for women.  i found the token essays in the more recent anthologies (usually simone de beauvoir and helene cixous) but started wondering about the women who wrote during the suffragist movement, and then the men who wrote during the american civil war, and the people who have long written about class struggle.  the more i looked for these people the more deeply they disappeared and the further they disappeared the more disheartened i became.

in frustration, as usual, i intellectualized the problem and leaned on my mentors:  i thought about ronell and derrida, about the margins of philosophy, about discourses on inclusion and exclusion.

and then, in doing so, i realized my mistake.

in 1954 Heidegger wrote an essay titled ‘what is called thinking’… where he left philosophy, the history of metaphysical thought, behind for a different pursuit.  perhaps part of what heidegger recognized is that philosophy is a narrow history of a very particular sort of questioning.  it is not the ‘love of wisdom’ it’s name purports: it is the history of posing and answering a very narrow set of questions, beginning in a very particular time and place. and while this specificity doesn’t excuse philosophy for all that it ignored and silenced, it is clearly part of what has lead to all the late modernist and post-modernist’s disciplinary death cries.  as the field of philosophers expanded, philosophy as it was known necessarily burst at the seams with new, needful infusions.  it brought ‘theory’ in its wake, it opened to include not only race, class and gender theory, but also literature, psychoanalysis, music, art, science and media discourses…

today, standing in the middle of this outpouring, i, unthinkingly, looked around in search of texts to teach, open and explain the worlds of theory that are whirling past me.  struck by the fecundity of my time i was shocked to look back and see the dearth philosophy had traversed.  and at this funny juncture, the question again stands: 

what is philosophy?  

is it a history of a particular questioning?  is it a narrow misrepresentation of a broader history of thought?  is it a dominating dialogue, a power play that established what could and could not be known, thought, understood?  is it a tradition, a trust, even a belief that is now fading?  

or is even this an outmoded way of thinking about philosophy, when people like Badiou and Zizek, reacting to the breadth we’re all witnessing, are tightening down in both new and old ways, calling for philosophy’s return and revival?

what is philosophy?

what is philosophy?

  1. I’m more comfortable with Theory, as a term, than I am with Philosophy. I think I understand why Zizek likes it, too, because Philosophy inevitably rehabilitates Christianity, which is essential to his own personal politics (he’s a big Aristide fan, for example).

    I think that for people truly interested in the Mind, neuroscience and cognitive studies are the real way to go. Theory (or Philosophy) will emerge in its wake.

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