Sunday, 12 November 2017

Should a Philosophical System Have a Name?

The major philosophers in history— Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Descartes, Hume, Locke, Kant and Hegel—have not given a name to their philosophy.

The trend of philosophers giving a name to their philosophical system is less than two hundred years old—it took off in the 19th century and became a widespread phenomenon in the 20th century when almost every popular philosopher and his sidekick were bestowing a name to their system.

Auguste Comte coined the name “Altruism” for his philosophy in the 1850s. C. S. Peirce used the word “Pragmatism” for the first time in the 1870s. Later on Pragmatism was developed into a philosophical system by William James and John Dewey. In the 1920s and 1930s, the philosophical system of “Logical Positivism” was developed through the efforts of philosophers like Moritz Schlick, Hans Reichenbach, Kurt Grelling, Walter Dubislav, Karl Menger, Kurt Gödel, and a few others.

In the early 20th century, there was the rise of the “Analytic Tradition” of philosophy due to the efforts of Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, G. E. Moore, Gottlob Frege, and the Logical Positivist philosophers. Søren Kierkegaard, who is generally regarded as the first Existentialist philosopher did his work in the 19th century, but Existentialism became popular in the 20th century when Jean-Paul Sartre appropriated the term “Existentialism” to describe his own ideas.

The fiction writer Ayn Rand started using the term “Objectivism” in the 1960s to describe her philosophy of reason and individualism. In the 1980s, Jacques Derrida coined the term “Deconstructivism” to describe his postmodernist ideas of art and culture.

The most important quality of these 19th and 20th century philosophies, which have a unique name, is that they evoke the feeling of cultism. Auguste Comte had initially conceived Altruism as a spiritual movement—he even planned to build churches to propagate the altruist doctrine. Pragmatism under James and Dewey had a cult like atmosphere. In Logical Positivism and the Analytic Tradition the key philosophers were treated like some kind of omniscient God.

In the heydays of Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre was treated as an intellectual pope of the world whose every word must be regarded as the gospel truth. Ayn Rand’s Objectivism has been charged by several intellectuals of having a cult like environment in which the top Objectivist philosophers are deified. Jacques Derrida’s Deconstructivism has worsened the problem of cultism in the postmodernist movement.

The question that I ask in the title of this article is: "Should a Philosophical System Have a Name?"

My answer is that it is wrong to give a name to a philosophical system. A philosopher has the copyright to the books and essays he writes and the lectures that he delivers, and that is enough to safeguard the integrity of his work and his legacy. The philosophy that distills out of his works, is in essence, his way of describing man’s place in the world—it does not need a name. If a philosopher gives a name to his philosophy, he is essentially starting a cult.

4 comments:

Ilene Skeen said...

I think you are right! I think this is an amazing and perceptive idea.

Anoop Verma said...

Ilene, I think philosophy is just philosophy--it does not need a name. If a philosopher tries to name his system, then he will have to define its contours and eventually nominate people who will be its guardians and that all will invariably lead to the deterioration of the philosophical system into a cult. This is has happened with all the philosophies which came up in the 21st century.

Liam Thornback said...

"The most important quality of these 19th and 20th century philosophies, which have a unique name, is that they evoke the feeling of cultism."

You can't make a connection between a philosophy having a name and being "cult like", no matter how many cherry picked modern examples you want to throw in the same lot as Objectivism. There are many reasons why an intellectual's ideas may be subsumed under one name, some of which are legitimate and even necessary.

The best explanation for the phenomenon your trying to describe, if we assume it even exists, is that philosophers after the 18th century (cultists or not) felt the need to differentiate their ideas from the growing number of other intellectuals of the time. Philosophy, at least good philosophy, is integrated. So the most logical way to distinguish an idea is as a integrated whole, not as a unintegrated collection of aphorisms.

Aristotle was the father of logic and among the greatest philosophers who ever lived, and yet he never gave a name to his philosophy. Not because he didn't want to be labeled as a cultist (the concept didn't even exist in his time), but because he had no need to. Anyone in Aristotle's time could have seen clearly how Aristotle's metaphysics lead to a very different epistemology than Plato, without being sold "Aristotelianism" as a package. An intelligent person could easily do all the integrating themselves, given enough information.

As for Objectivism, that would not work for several reasons. The most important reason being just how radically different it is from the mainstream assumptions everyone today holds. A person, even an honest one, could not be expected to integrate ideas so radically different from what they're familiar without someone showing them the integrated whole first.

"If a philosopher gives a name to his philosophy, he is essentially starting a cult."

I could only imagine a conversation between you and Rand....

Rand: "Okay so here are my ideas and the reasons for accepting them"

Verma: "Okay, I'm with you so far..."

Rand: "Okay, so to help you understand how these ideas come together as an integrated whole, I've subsumed them under one name. That name is 'Objectivism'"

Verma: "Woah now, I'm not here to join a cult!"

I'll leave you to consider one more fact, most of the destructive ideas and cults in human history have been unnamed. From philosophers like Plato and Kant to pure killers like the reverend Jim Jones and Charles Manson, there are countless examples of unnamed, unintegrated and/or inconsistent ideas leading (indirectly or directly) to death and destruction.

In fact, even if you consider the worst of the so-called integrated systems like Nazism and Communism, you will find that their failure was not in simply having a name and being integrated (as if thats a sin), but in being evasively integrated (i.e. integrated without sufficient reference to reality). Misintegration does not in anyway invalidate integration (or proper labels for that matter).

Anoop Verma said...

Liam: in the 19th century and the 20th century there has been an *exponential* rise in "named" philosophies. Never before in the entire history of humanity so many philosophers or groups of philosophers have come up with unique names for the philosophical systems that they have developed.

I think the trend for naming one's philosophy took off in the 19th and 20th century because there was vast improvement in the systems of printing books and communication. Philosophers could easily get their books published and they could communicate with each other. They could also travel around to meet with each other frequently.

There was also improvement in the funding that the academic philosophers get through book publications or academic grants. This led to an exponential rise in the number of named philosophies. But the exercise of naming one's philosophy has ensured that these philosophies became a cult of some kind.