The Limits of Philosophy

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

The Limits of Philosophy


"Truth but No Consequences: Why Philosophy Doesn't Matter" by Stanley Fish, in Critical Inquiry (Spring 2003), The University of Chicago Press, Journals Division, P.O. Box 37005, Chicago, Ill. 60637.

Philosophy can matter. It can clarify ambiguity or encourage altruism or help people understand why they might like a particular painting. And it can be used to create and criticize wide-reaching theories about truth and reality and human nature. But, Fish argues, one's most "philosophical," or abstract, beliefs about Being, say, or Time do not influence, and indeed have nothing to do with, one's behavior and choices in life: "Whatever theory of troth you might espouse will be irrelevant to your position on the truth of a particular matter." Your position will depend, rather, on "your sense of where the evidence lies ... the authorities you trust, the archives you trust." That is to say, when trying to prove a point about something real, you can refer to mundane facts, such as experimental data or ethnographies, but not (or at least not successfully) to philosophical maxims, such as "observations are subjective" or "love conquers all." Maxims--that is, generalities--are notoriously impossible to disprove, for they can always be reinterpreted. And even when they're correct, they still don't explain anything; they merely gloss what's already true. But regardless of your metaphysical view of historical agency, the Civil War ended in 1865.

The point made by Fish, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a prominent Milton scholar and cultural critic, is much more than methodological. He shows the impossibility of what he calls the "normative project of the Enlightenment," the attempt to use philosophy's supposedly unique powers, first, to abstract from everyday life to a universal, impartial perspective; then, free from cultural or historical distraction, to decide from that perspective how best to go about things; and, finally, to apply those lessons to everyday life. …

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