Philosophy and its moods

These excerpts from Ken McIntyre’s essay Philosophy and its moods:

Oakeshott’s insistence on the dispositional skepticism of philosophical activity leads to his rejection of both the importance of authority in philosophy and the relevance of philosophy to practical life. He writes that philosophy “recognizes neither ‘authorities’ nor ‘established doctrines,’” because such institutions present themselves as conclusions to be interrogated rather than as dogma to be accepted and deployed (EM, 347). Philosophy as an activity requires neither the reverence of the postulant nor the conversation of mankind deference of the exegete. Ironically, ignorance, in its literal sense, is irrelevant to philosophical activity, because, for the philosopher, the conclusions of other philosophers are invitations to further reflection. But the impetus toward a philosophical disposition need not arise because of an engagement with a philosophical tradition but can emerge from almost any encounter with the given world. The interrogation of the conditions of various given worlds of understanding, like the questioning of the arguments and conclusions of other philosophers, renders both the activity and conclusions of philosophy irrelevant to the successful navigation of such given worlds. Oakeshott insists that “philosophy is without any direct bearing upon the practical conduct of life, and . . . it has certainly never offered its true followers anything which could be mistaken for a gospel” (1).12 Indeed, philosophy is an escape from the normal requirements of getting and spending, and it requires a severe discipline to remain committed to such a useless (i.e., nonutilitarian) activity.

For Oakeshott “there is no vita contemplativa; there are only moments of contemplative activity abstracted and rescued from the flow of curiosity and contrivance. Poetry [like philosophy] is a sort of truancy, a dream within the dream of life” (RP, 541). This is true not only of poetry and philosophy, however. Neither historical inquiry nor scientific explanation is necessary for the continuation of human life, either, and both can be considered, like philosophy and poetry, to be momentary escapes from the “deadliness of doing.”

The philosopher is not engaged in the attempt to reach an understanding of the world that is in itself unconditional or presuppositionless but is instead unconditionally committed to understanding the general conditionality of all understanding or experience. The philosopher, or theorist, maintains an attitude of sceptical dissatisfaction with understanding because it always rests on conditions that can be further explored. The results of such in an engagement in philosophical reflection (i.e., theories or philosophies) are inherently provisional, or, as Oakeshott puts it, they “are interim triumphs of temerity over scruple”. And, of course, they lose their concrete character when they are detached from the activity that produced them and transformed into sets of doctrines or dogmas.


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