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Sunday, 26 August 2018

The Return of Radical Philosophy

I had a partner once who teased me whenever I informed her that I had worked something out in my own head. She had a sharp ear for pleonasm and so I made attempts to avoid being teased. Yesterday I discovered that the journal Radical Philosophy has been resurrected. The old one was started up in the early 1970s and ran to two hundred issues before shutting up shop; the reincarnation is on issue number two. This morning in the shower - and nearly fifty years after contributing to the first issue of the original Radical Philosophy -  I had the thought (in my own head), Isn’t the expression radical philosophy a pleonasm?

All philosophy tries to get to the root/s of things, to get beyond repetition of conventional wisdom,  reliance on unchallenged assumptions, polite acquiescence in received ideas. That does not entail that philosophical conclusions must end up being sceptical in character. You may dig down to the roots and discover that they are very strong and hold up the tree very well. Your task then becomes that of re-familiarising others with that fact, of getting them to look afresh at what has become so familiar as to become too much taken for granted. Take a look, give that root a big kick and you will find that it hurts you more than it hurts the root. (Apologies to Dr Johnson).

In any case, to confine philosophy to just sceptical and non-sceptical versions is a very limiting way of thinking. Raymond Geuss titles a recent book (the only one of his I have read) Changing The Subject and broadly speaking argues that philosophers repeatedly change the state of the question. It’s a commonplace in the philosophy of science at least since Thomas Kuhn’s work (1950s – 1960s) that when a scientific revolution occurs, it’s not just a theory which changes. It is the questions asked, the bits of the world which seem in need of study, the definition of the subject itself. Geuss is casting the history of philosophy as having a similar dynamic. But in the case of both science and philosophy, that does not exclude the claim that they aim at truth.

There is “philosophical” art and literature which also tries to dig down to the roots, either to refresh our understanding of our world or to persuade us that we would be better off if we shifted ourselves into a different world. Wordsworth seeks to refresh; Shklovsky and Brecht seek to shift, seek to tap into a sense that "something's missing". 

On the internet the other day I came across a Marxist writer describing me as a “one-time radical”. I smiled and retorted in my own head, You’ve probably been banging the same drum for decades. I’m sure it’s very comforting. But there’s a world out there which changes all the time and it’s quite important that we dig in the new places, not just the old familiar ones. The old songs are comforting but philosophy has never been a comfort zone.

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