What passes for ‘Philosophy’ today is logic acting as the handmaiden of various uprooted sciences that are utterly lacking in the capacity for self-reflection. The various empirical sciences have disintegrated from out of Philosophy, to the point where Philosophy as a distinct discipline has been misconstrued as an analysis of linguistic meaning and of the propositions used in various specialized sciences. This is a fundamental betrayal of the purpose of Philosophy and of what it means to be a “philosopher,” namely a lover of Wisdom. There is a sense in which this is synonymous with a general crisis in academia. The first “academy” was founded by Plato, although the schools of the Pythagorean Order – of which Plato was a member – could to an extent be seen as predecessors to the Platonic Academy.
This process has taken place over the past couple of hundred years. Descartes, Galileo, and Newton were all referred to as “philosophers”, and they described themselves as such. It is only in the 1800s that Physics first breaks away from Philosophy and defines itself as a distinct field. This was really an insult leveled by certain philosophers against others. The word Physics goes back to the word for “Nature” in Greek, namely phusis. By defining themselves as “physicists”, these philosophers, who had adopted materialism and mechanistic reductionism, were trying to say to the other philosophers: we are the only ones who really have a handle on what Nature is – the rest of you are trading in mere opinions and speculation.
The first of the sciences to distinguish itself from Philosophy was Physics, in the early 1800s. Then, subsequently, Biology was established as a distinct discipline. The last of the branches of Philosophy to differentiate itself as an empirical science was Psychology, sometime in the late 19th century or early 20th century. This has been a catastrophe, especially because it has not exclusively involved the natural sciences. It is also the case that what we refer to as Political Science was a branch of Philosophy until the 20th century. Political Science is just uprooted Political Philosophy, and Plato and Aristotle were “political scientists” to refer to their thought on justice, law, and social organization anachronistically.
Now it may be the case that in order to make striking discoveries about Nature, and attendant breakthroughs in technological development, a more focused realm of problems needs to be demarcated and a certain paradigm or framework of knowledge must be assumed. Without that, it is not possible to frame hypotheses and test theories. Despite Thomas Kuhn’s insistence that pre-modern ‘science’ or “natural philosophy” was not yet paradigmatic in its structure, classical thinkers like Aristotle did recognize this need for focus and framework insofar as they drew a distinction between episteme and noesis.
Episteme is the acquisition and classification of knowledge, whereas noesis is higher intellectual contemplation of abstract concepts and fundamental principles. In the time of Aristotle, specialized researchers were operating within the domain of episteme – they were epistemologists (albeit not in the contemporary sense of that word). These are the kinds of technicians and analysts that we would now consider experimental scientists and even empiricists within the realm of sociological and political science. Those whose efforts were restricted to such endeavors would not, however, have been considered philosophers. They worked under philosophers and within the higher intellectual horizon scoped out by philosophers, who alone are capable of noesis. That is not to say that a philosopher could not also engage in epistemic work. Aristotle did dissections of biological organisms in his laboratory, and he also ran political science think tanks. He had people in these think tanks, writing the constitutions of various Greek city states on contract (and off the record). Not all of these employees would have been considered philosophers. In fact, almost none of them would have been.
What we have lost today is that type of intellectual activity that is synthetic and has the capacity to encompass what have been differentiated as all of the fields of scientific inquiry. Regaining this, also means calling into question the framework in terms of which various types of scientific research take place. Overspecialization within what is left of Philosophy has prevented academic institutions from cultivating philosophers. Being a philosopher ought never to be confused with being employed as a Professor of Philosophy, one whose work is circumscribed within the boundaries of only one or another branch of ‘the discipline’, as if Philosophy were analogous to the sciences that were uprooted from it, which are each highly specialized in their internal disciplinary structure. The branches of Philosophy are Ontology (or Metaphysics), Epistemology, Ethics, Politics, and Aesthetics. Genuine philosophers are like well-rooted tree trunks who think across all of these branching dimensions in an organic and integral way.
Ontology is a study of the logic of being, a contemplation of nature, including human nature, with a view to understanding the fundamental principles of the cosmos. Ontology was once widely referred to as “Metaphysics”, simply because there were works of Aristotle that, once all of his writings (or the notes of his students) had been catalogued, could not be classified as Physics, so that this remainder of works dealing with the most fundamental and abstract subjects was called ta meta ta physica or “what’s left after Physics. It is only later that the term developed the mysterious sense that it still has within occult and esoteric circles.
Epistemology concerns the theory of knowledge, in other words, what it means for something to be knowledge rather than mere opinion. This question was the starting point for Philosophy in classical Greek society around the time of Socrates. In his dialogues, Plato depicts Socrates as someone who is constantly challenging decision making on the basis of mere opinion, whether those decisions concern political life, what is considered ethical, what are held to be sacred ideals, and so forth. Plato uses a dramatization of the martyred Socrates to protest the fact that anyone and everyone thinks that they are qualified to pass judgment on these questions. Epistemology goes all the way back to Plato’s attempt to demarcate knowledge as distinct from opinion, or truth as distinct from semblance.
Ethics is the contemplation and development of various conceptions of the “good.” This is not necessarily a moralistic “good” contrasted with “evil”, but the good conceived of as the end or purpose that action aims at achieving. One ethical question could be whether such an end justifies the means that are employed to attain it, or whether there are means, which no matter what end they succeed at actualizing, are inherently unethical. The word “ethics” comes from ethos in Greek, which means character in the sense of constitution – both what one is made of (as in testing one’s mettle), and also the ideals, values, attitudes, and habits that are the basis for the constitution, not just of an individual, but potentially of an entire society that aims to inculcate and reinforce this ethos in the persons reared by that society.
This brings us to Politics. Ideally, one’s political philosophy should be grounded on one’s understanding of ethics, which in turn reflects certain epistemological and ontological orientations. It is here that Philosophy cannot conceal how dangerous it is, as immediately became evident when mobs set fire to the Sicilian school of Pythagoras, who some say died of the burns sustained in that inferno, before the same kind of mob sentenced Socrates to death for threatening the unquestioned beliefs and prejudices that held together the democratic society of Athens. Plato was almost martyred in Syracuse, where he tried to reform the regime, and even Aristotle chose self-exile to spare the Athenians from having the blood of another Socrates on their hands. It is a basic claim of Philosophy in any proper sense of the word, that unreflective beliefs and unquestioned customs can never justify the kind of authority over life and property that is legitimated by the legal system of any political order. This is a claim made against every form of tyranny, whether it is tyranny of a single ruler (a monarch or dictator), an oligarchical group of tyrants (including theocrats), and also the tyranny of the unthinking majority over the thoughtful minority of individuals – which prevails in any and every democracy.
Finally, we have Aesthetics or the contemplation of the Beautiful and inquiry into the nature of Beauty. I present it here as an afterthought only because that is how Aesthetics is often treated by people in academic Philosophy, who have no understanding of its centrality to philosophical thought. Beginning with Plato, Aesthetics has been no less important to fundamental thinking than any of the other branches of Philosophy. It could be argued, albeit controversially, that Aristotle’s Ethics emerges from out of his Aesthetics, so that what defines excellence or “virtue” (arête) for him is based on his conception of what is “beautiful” (kalon).
Whether or not Aristotle actually thought this, it could be argued that the ethical life can only be properly comprehended on the basis of aesthetic judgment. The way one weaves the fabric of one’s ethos or cultivates one’s character requires aesthetic discernment. Nietzsche explicitly takes this view, deriving the other dimensions of his thought from a profound engagement with the psycho-biological forces and existential perspectives expressed in music, theater, architecture, sculpture, painting, and literature. Heidegger comes to think that only the poetic, in the broadest and deepest sense of the essence of aesthetic creation, will be able to save us from the de-humanizing instrumental totalitarianism of modern technology. Aesthetics is not “merely subjective” as compared to some putatively more objective Ontology or Epistemology, and it has implications for Ethics and Politics that are potentially revolutionary. Changes in the conception of what Justice is are usually aesthetic in origin.
The fundamental purpose and calling of a philosopher is to be able to contemplate Truth, Beauty, and Justice in an integral fashion as one seeks greater wisdom and understanding. Any philosopher needs to be someone who is seeking enlightenment or some higher spiritual state, but not everyone seeking a higher spiritual state, and not everyone who sets himself up as a sage who can offer others a path to enlightenment, is legitimately describable as a philosopher. This is another way in which we can discern the difference between a scientist and a natural philosopher or a mere political theorist and a political philosopher – let alone between a real philosopher and the guru of a cult.
One of the criteria for determining who the authentic philosophers have been throughout the past 2,500 years is whether their thought elaborates original, and perhaps even revolutionary, ideas with respect to Truth, Beauty, and Justice. These individuals have to be thinking across all of what have been defined above as the various subdivisions of Philosophy, and their thought has to yield new concepts in all of these dimensions. As Gilles Deleuze put it, a concept is an idea that leads to discoveries and organizes knowledge but in a way that is different from a scientific proposition. Scientific propositions, such as certain chemical formulas or the equations used to express the theory of relativity, or even more complex theoretical formulations such as the theory of evolution by natural selection, are compound structures that can be analyzed – or broken apart – into more elementary propositions and independent variables. Philosophical concepts resist such logical analysis. They do have discernable elements, but these constitute any conceptual idea in an integral manner that is comparable to the elements of a work of art.
This also means that nothing can be added to the constitutive elements of a philosophical concept without destroying it (which is not to say that there cannot be indefinitely many new examples of the concept’s relevance). Concepts such as Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” or Nietzsche’s “Will to Power” have an “endoconsistency” or internally coherent completeness. Furthermore, any properly philosophical concept is also related to other such concepts as one concentration of intensity is to another on a single “plane of consistency” as Deleuze calls it. For example, the “Categorical Imperative” is on the same plane as the “Unity of Apperception” in Kant’s phenomenology of consciousness and his “Cosmopolitan” political theory, just as the “Will to Power” is an ideational intensity on the same plane as Nietzsche’s “Superman” and the “slave morality” that he rejects. Deleuze describes the “plane of consistency” as the planar surface of a sieve that cuts through experiential Chaos in order to map out a meaningful world in one way or another. Whether already existing ideas are being intuited and “discovered” for the first time, as Plato might have believed, or whether the philosopher is an inventor of ideas as Nietzsche thought, in any case setting forth ideas that can organize knowledge in new ways is the task of any real philosopher.
The revolutionary activity of a philosopher is to discover, or to invent, concepts that were hitherto unthinkable, and to thereby bring about revolutions both in the sciences and in the political sphere. Philosophical concepts are the wellspring of all scientific revolutions, and political revolutions are also rooted in the elaboration of new concepts. The careers of hundreds of people are invested in the survival of a particular scientific paradigm. These paradigms, for example the Cartesian paradigm, are based on philosophical concepts such as Descartes’ concept of res extensa (a mathematically-analyzable extended substance). Whether it is threatening the careers of scientists who have established methodologies for their research, or whether it is the perhaps more significant threat to an established socio-political system on account of new philosophical concepts such as “Natural Right” (developed by Immanuel Kant, Marquis de Condorcet, Thomas Paine, etc.), which grounded both the American and French Revolutions, in any case the discovery of philosophical concepts is a revolutionary activity.
Since the epoch of Heidegger, the last of the great philosophers, there has been a bifurcation between the postmodern Continental European tradition of philosophy and an Anglo-American Analytic ‘school’ (one cannot call the latter a tradition, because it radically rejects the idea of tradition). Both postmodern Continental ‘Philosophy’ and contemporary Analytic ‘Philosophy’ are in some way post-philosophical because they have, each in their own ways, rejected the very idea of Philosophy and the core duty of a philosopher.
The purveyors of postmodern Continental thought do not understand that just because one is intent on carrying out a “deconstruction” of the tradition, does not mean that one has to abandon the calling of a philosopher. After all, the concept of “deconstruction” is one of the concepts developed by Martin Heidegger on the same plane of consistency as others of his concepts such as the “finitude of being”, “worldhood”, “authenticity”, “Enframing”, and the “World Picture Age.” There is a way of deconstructing the history of ontology, as Heidegger put it, that could serve to revitalize the philosophical tradition and take it in a new direction. Unfortunately, that is not what has been done by the majority of so-called thinkers of the “postmodern” persuasion. This includes Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, and others. No positive project of constructively re-orientating science, politics, and art emerges from out of their putatively ‘philosophical’ writings.
The case may be different with the Continental “postmodernism” of Gilles Deleuze, who in retrospect appears to have been the seminal thinker of contemporary Accelerationism. Still, one is left to wonder whether the elements in Deleuze’s extremely convoluted and gratuitously cryptic writing that lent themselves to Accelerationism (in contemporary techno-science, socio-politics, and aesthetics) are unique to Deleuze or whether he owes them entirely to Nietzsche, Bergson, and Heidegger. All of these great philosophers were subjects of extensive exegetical texts written by Deleuze. Those notions of Deleuze that are most ‘original’ have had the least impact.
As far as the Anglo-American Analytic academics are concerned, they have attempted to reduce Philosophy to a kind of logical analysis that can, at best, be a handmaiden to the empirical sciences. In so doing, they have relinquished the responsibility to challenge extant scientific paradigms, including paradigmatic structures in social and political science. This is, in effect, the failure to exercise the noetic function of the authentic philosopher. Again, noesis is a capacity to think in terms of abstract principles and develop new fundamental frameworks for knowledge – rather than working within a pre-existing framework and carrying out specialized research on that basis. The relationship of Analytic so-called ‘Philosophy’ (which predominates in the English speaking world) to the sciences is devoid of the noetic thinking that could catalyze political and scientific revolutions.
The Analytics wound up in this situation by rejecting what was most promising in the formative phase of Continental Philosophy, namely the phenomenological method pioneered by Edmund Husserl and forwarded by Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jean-Paul Sartre. In some ways, Husserl was preceded in this by Henri Bergson. In short, phenomenology calls us to attend to the phenomena evident in existence by noticing those delineations of the structure of our experience, which are so fundamental that they underpin different frameworks of knowledge and persist through transitions between these frameworks. In other words, phenomenology requires us to be able to bracket any assumptions or presumptions that are based on even tacit commitment to one or another paradigm, before proceeding with an analysis of perception, the experience of time, and other deep structures of our existence. When he first made phenomenology explicit in the early twentieth century, Husserl was essentially highlighting an approach to life that had already been implicitly characteristic of the best philosophers from Heraclitus onwards.
There is no Philosophy without the phenomenological mindset, which is why those analytics who explicitly rejected Phenomenology never became philosophers worthy of the name. The one analytic thinker who was a genuine philosopher, and a genius at that, unwittingly parallels and reinvents many aspects of the thought of Heidegger and Bergson, namely Ludwig Wittgenstein, especially in his later Philosophical Investigations and his deconstructive remarks On Certainty, which dynamited his own earlier Tractatus that epitomized the analytic reduction of Philosophy to Logic.
Much of the history of Philosophy is coextensive with the history of Western intellectual life, and we here in the West are facing a grave civilizational crisis. That crisis can be most perspicaciously perceived in the phenomenon of the disintegration of Philosophy. It is a microcosm for the disintegration and implosion of Western Civilization as a whole. The question of whether our civilization survives and can undergo another Renaissance is to some extent the same as the question of whether Philosophy has any future.
In the late years of the declining Roman Empire, we saw a proliferation of philosophical schools – the Epicurean school, the Stoic school, the Neo-Platonic school, and so forth. These were academic institutions which taught Philosophy but they hardly ever produced any actual philosophers. We are, at the very least, in a comparable situation today. This is very troubling, because in the Roman case, the decline of Philosophy was a canary in the coal mine for the collapse of the Empire that followed, a collapse that on the spiritual level consisted of Christianity filling the sociological vacuum opened up by the atrophy of serious philosophical thought amongst the intellectual elite of Roman society. After the collapse of Classical Rome into the Middle Ages, it took hundreds of years for Philosophy to be resurrected by the likes of Giordano Bruno and only at the cost of horrendous persecution and even martyrdom. In the Medieval period, the center of Philosophy moved from Europe to Iran and India, where philosophers like Avicenna and Abhinavagupta kept the light alive until rich enough rogues like the Medici clan were ready to challenge the established order of Europe.
There is something disturbingly medieval about the scholasticism of contemporary Continental ‘Philosophy’ and the abstruse word games of Analytic ‘Philosophy’ in our epoch. If sometime soon incendiary ideas do not set the twin spires of this Cathedral on fire, a plunge into a new dark age is entirely possible. Before we reach the technological Singularity, we could see something like the destruction of Alexandria. Within Philosophy itself, this collapse would take the form of a retreat into Traditionalism.
Traditionalists have a view of wisdom as perennial. Traditionalism or the so-called ‘Perennial Philosophy’ is based on this idea of Sophia Perennis or “Eternal Wisdom.” Perennialists believe in an eternal, unchanging storehouse of truths, which, once it is unlocked by any given sage, can simply be dispensed to the followers of that sage, through their diligent apprenticeship and study under him as his disciples. The most recent major thinker who held such a view of (what he wrongly considered to be) ‘Philosophy’ was Julius Evola, the greatest expositor of Traditionalism in the Modern Age – the age that he called for “aristocrats of the soul” to revolt against. The problem with Evola, or his predecessor, René Guénon, who are in a line that goes back to Iranian thinkers such as Al-Farabi and Al-Biruni, is that they do not want to recognize that discoveries are being made in the course of history or that philosophers have a burden to challenge established truths. They thereby close themselves off to the possibility of revolutions both in the structure of knowledge and also in socio-political systems.
The ‘Perennial Philosophy’ or Primordial Tradition espoused by the likes of Huston Smith, Aldous Huxley, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr is derived from a fundamental fallacy (to be fair, Huxley only described Perennialism without ever explicitly endorsing it). The Medieval Iranian thinker Abu Nasr Farabi (Alfarabius) epitomizes this fallacy when he claims that Plato and Aristotle are saying the same thing and that any differences in their ontology or political philosophy are simply questions of stylistic expression or deliberately esoteric writing. The reason that Farabi, or any Traditionalist for that matter, wants to believe this is that he sees uncertainty as being an inherent refutation of somebody’s status as a knowledgeable individual (Persian dâneshmand, Arabic ‘ulem) or as someone possessing wisdom (Persian kheradmand, Arabic aref). They fail to realize that Philosophy is not the possession of Sophia – it is the love of Wisdom!
The Promethean impulse that we associate with bold scientific exploration and discovery is actually the most characteristic feature of Philosophy, which is why both Karl Marx and Martin Heidegger, who disagree on so much else, agreed that Prometheus was the patron deity and true founder of Philosophy. Both Marx and Heidegger recognized that this is what has survived of Philosophy in the sciences. Every true philosopher is, in some sense, a Promethean – although not every Promethean spirit is a philosopher. Some are avant-garde artists, others brilliant inventors, yet others are revolutionary statesmen, or visionary prophets. Like Prometheus, the philosopher – any philosopher worthy of the name – is someone who challenges the established order, who rebelliously rethinks the Cosmos and the Nomos, re-examining what is taken to be ‘natural’ in a way that courts the possibility of upheaval and insurrection. Philosophy is a declaration of war against Olympus. To call it iconoclastic is an understatement. Gautama Buddha also knew that to seek enlightenment means out-thinking the gods. It means being willing, like Socrates, to be executed for impiety and heresy.
Religion is not distinct from Philosophy, nor is it safe from Philosophy. From the days of Zarathustra, Pythagoras, and Plato, to the epoch of Nietzsche, philosophers have inevitably challenged the religious establishment of their time. The religious ideals of any society are not safe from philosophers. This is why Jean-Jacques Rousseau argues that the persecution and execution of Socrates was justified. Rousseau, who is a regressive romantic and defender of democracy, and of the legitimacy of the mob’s “general will”, argued that to the extent that philosophers are tolerated in any society, they should be forced to keep their most controversial views private rather than expressing them in the public sphere. Rousseau rightly recognized that philosophers are, in a way, inherently cosmopolitan. A philosopher is a citizen of the cosmos, and he owes no allegiance that one can take for granted to any political system, to any religious orthodoxy, or for that matter to any scientific paradigm.
Even the Perennialist attempt to bring about peace and harmony between various religions is threatened by the philosopher. Traditionalists define the “world religions” or whatever they consider to be authentic Traditions as refractions of the same Primordial Tradition or Perennial Philosophy. They make the false claim that these religions are all grounded on the same set of fundamental claims and are ultimately different expressions of the same transcendent spiritual Truth. By contrast, the task of a philosopher who has proper discernment is to distinguish between various world religions where they are really claiming and demanding different things, and to challenge all of them while providing Promethean guidance to humanity. Plato already envisioned this as the duty of the philosopher-rulers in his ideal Republic. If there is to be religion, “revealing” it is the prerogative of philosophers – not of rabble-rousing prophets, or at least not prophets who are authorized by one or another god or goddess from atop Olympus rather than by the rightful heirs of Prometheus.
Jason Reza Jorjani, PhD is an Iranian-American philosopher and lifelong native New Yorker. He received his BA and MA at New York University, and completed his doctorate in Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Dr. Jorjani has taught courses on Science, Technology, and Society (STS), the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, and the history of Iran as a full-time faculty member at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Earlier he taught Comparative Religion, Ethics, Political Theory, and the History of Philosophy at the State University of New York. He is a professional member of the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE). He was the Editor-in-Chief of Arktos Media and Co-Founder of the Alt-Right Corporation. Jorjani is the author of seven books, including “Prometheus and Atlas”, which won the 2016 Book Award from the Parapsychological Association (PA).