“Every honest philosophy is self-destructive” (Wittgenstein)


Meaningful language games are necessarily incomplete, deficient, flawed in some sense. Lack of comprehensiveness and perfection is the unavoidable price that has to be paid for the boundless scope of play. The truth about ourselves and our place in the world is buried in profound contradictions and cannot be expressed in explicit, unambiguous terms. Truth can only take place within a faith.

From being to becoming

Philosophy, the love of wisdom, is in essence thought about thought. The ambition of this self-referential ‘science of sciences’ has always been to present a consistent and unassailable picture of the world and of life, based on first principles. In view of what has been said above (The quest for truth), the continual frustration of these hopes should hardly come as a surprise. It is all too easy for philosophical and metaphysical expositions to degenerate into empty language games, disconnected from reality. Even at best, they largely reflect the existential prejudices of the particular thinker in a subtle or abstruse idiom.

Ludwig Wittgenstein had shown, rather convincingly, that every honest philosophy must be self-destructive. Rational thought cannot measure itself without recourse to some subtle self-deception. Driven out of this fool’s paradise, post-Wittgensteinian philosophy had to lower its sights and gradually eschewed all value judgments as well as metaphysics. The self-mate situation has driven philosophers to put ordinary language, the very medium of thought, under scrutiny and forced them to investigate a few very instructive dead ends.

The history of philosophy is a tale of human fallacies, subsequently exposed by later generations. We have now finally come to understand the limits of language and philosophy, i.e. of explicit, analytical thinking. Since classical times a supreme repose, harmony and balance, had been a self-evident attribute of all basic truths. Alfred North Whitehead’s panentheistic process philosophy takes the opposite track in its strictly dynamic approach. God is boith imminent and transcendent, both part of and external to the world.

In his Process and Reality (1929) Whitehead arrived at a consistent and radically dynamic metaphysics. The world is not a being but a becoming; at every moment it is created anew, although in accordance with statistically immutable rules. The basic idea is that that change is the only reality. The world is not a being but a becoming: all substantives dissolve into verbs. The relative stability of our universe is conditional on a multitude of exactly coordinated replays, self-repeating resonances whose life spans though very long are not unlimited.

The philosophy of science

The philosophy of science displays a welter of incompatible if not contradictory opinions. In brief: the logical positivists strive for self-verifying objectivity and consequently for total value-freedom. Popper and Lakatos recommend a combination of falsifiable rationalism and self-critical pluralism while Kuhn and Feyerabend represent different degrees of value relativism. Marxism and its offshoots, on the other hand, seem to have fallen victim to serious self-immunization in their Utopian search for ‘scientifically correct’ values.

The reach of scientific thought is limited. Even our everyday communication requires a broader frame of reference. Practical utility has always been the guide in evaluating alternative modes of action. Pragmatism is the branch of philosophy, which relates truth and reality to utility – fruitfulness, functionality and success. The inventor and philosopher Buckminster Fuller (1895–1993) declared that the mark of real knowledge is that it helps to construct a better machine. (GvH 2008)

Pragmatism is an ‘American’ philosophy. The great names are Charles S. Peirce (1839–1914), William James, John Dewey (1859–1952) and Willard Quine (1908–2000). They held that every philosophy should be perceived as an empirically conditioned thought construct which is open to verification or falsification through human experience. Pragmatism is rooted in the theory of evolution and mathematical logic, spiced with a dose of fallibilism – nothing is completely certain but one can always move closer to the truth. Quine maintains that “the philosophy of science is philosophy enough”. (GvH 2008)

For European philosophers, the disparagement of deductive and speculative thinking has been hard to digest. The contamination of the pure abstractions of philosophy with plain empiricism has been a stumbling block. The contrast between American can do mentality and European intellectual self-sufficiency reappears in philosophy. Fortunately there are bridge-builders, for instance Hans Joas, who in Die Kreativitet des Handelns(1992) and Die Entstehung der Werte(1997)* stands out as a European pragmatist.

Pragmatism must, just like democracy, be filled with a deeper meaning; otherwise we cannot cope with our moral challenges. The strength and weakness of pragmatism is that contentious and emotionally loaded questions of principle are set aside. This is good thought economy but man is not for long content with his daily livelihood, even if supplemented with round-the-clock entertainment. We are searching for a role in a greater context, we are longing for a secure footing with a better overview and a deeper understanding.

The value of philosophy

Ever since Socrates (469–399 BC) the philosophers have excelled at speculating on the nature of morality and truth. The great ambition has always been to derive, from first principles, a rational morality or rather a more abstract category called ethics. The problem is that impeccable logic tends to deteriorate into a circular argument. Proof of the hypothesis is covertly included in the basic assumptions. Alternatively one ends up with empty tautologies that go nowhere. This is not to say that classical philosophy is lacking in penetrating thought and noble conclusions. But in reality the conclusions first came across as self-evident. Only then did philosophers employ subtle reasoning to deduce the desired inferences from crystal clear assumptions.

The realistic goal for authentic metaphysical and philosophical thought is not to achieve true knowledge but to reduce confusion. We may be able to hone our values on these mental grindstones, but we can never derive anything from such artifacts. Philosophy does not create but reflects the prevailing value system. Not philosophy but the mother tongue is the true science of sciences, the universal instrument of thought.