Tuesday, March 13, 2012


In his piece in the New York Times, Colin McGinn is probably not being entirely serious. Nor am I being entirely serious in responding to it. I do so mainly because I agree with the underlying idea that there is a sense in which philosophy is "ontics".

What I want to stress is that his proposal is as odd as one in which, say, Jerome Rothenberg might propose to stop calling it "poetry" and call it "ethnics" instead. Here, too, I'd sort of agree. All poetry is about "the people", the broader culture of "the subject", just as philosophy is about the underlying nature of "the thing" and "the object". We can approach any poem in terms of its ethnography, implicit or explicit, just as we can approach any philosophy in terms of its ontology.

Strangely, I'm even with him on an implication of his argument that he might not endorse, namely, that "ethics" isn't really a philosophical activity (it is, properly speaking, a poetic one). Let alone political philosophy! I'd banish both. But not by changing the name.

What I object to is the idea that philosophy is more like a science than an art.

I'm curious to know what McGinn does to study "being" that gets him completely around the need to engage with culture.

Also, in the book which is perhaps most clearly “about reality”, i.e., the Tractatus, which begins with the famous sentence, “The world is everything that is the case,” Wittgenstein says (at 4.111) “Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences … Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity.” (I.e., it is not a “body of knowledge” but a style of analysis.)

In my view philosophy is more like poetry than science. That’s also just one view, of course. And perhaps I’d be a happier philosopher if people like McGinn stopped calling what he does by the same name. But when I undertake to “write concepts down” (just like a poet undertakes to write emotions down), when I strive for the (non-)authority of the “perfect immanence of the presentation” (as Kierkegaard put it) of my philosophical remarks, whose only aim is to present (and not represent) a concept or set of concepts, I am not doing anything that anyone would or should call science. I am practicing an art. But this does not* make me one of "those practical sages ... that tell people how best to live". I help people think.

Perhaps better than the Rothenberg analogy: McGinn’s proposal is a bit like a proposal to rename poetry in the early 20th Century “imagics” or (!) “imagery”, just because the members of a particular movement, Imagism, at a particular time focused on a particular virtue of their particular style.

*The "not" was added on March 15, 2012, at 8:25.

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