Philosophy in the 21st century

  • By Prof. J. N. Mohanty
  • August 2007

Courtesy and Copyright Prabuddha Bharata

PHILOSOPHICAL thinking is an exercise of freedom of thinking, and so its course cannot be predicted.  But like all freedom, it can unfold only within a contexture laid down by the preceding generations.  When we think of what shape philosophy can take in the new century, we have to begin with the formations already laid down in the preceding one. These existing formations prescribe the problems for the new generations from amongst which we have to choose our formations in view of our changing needs, the changing historical conditions, new scientific knowledge, fresh artistic experiments, and novel socio-political ideas. Let me begin with a brief overview of where philosophy stood at the beginning of the new century.

Twentieth-century Philosophy
The most significant general outcome of the twentieth century, as far as philosophy is concerned is a widespread realization that philosophy is a global discipline and not merely a Western one.  The nineteenth century had brought to the Western consciousness an exaggerated self-awareness accomplished and consolidated in the works of Hegel that philosophy was the culmination of the western self-consciousness, and that the Indian, the Chinese, and the African spirit did not reach the heights of conceptual thinking that philosophy demanded.  This Hegelian judgment, articulated in 1807 in The Phenomenology of the Spirit, continues to exert its powerful hold on Western thought.  In the thirties of the twentieth century, Edmund Husserl, in an influential lecture, affirmed that “Western philosophy” was a tautologous notion, just as “non-Western philosophy was a self-contradictory idea, and talked about the ‘Europeanization of the earth’. Husserl’s protégé Martin Heidegger affirmed a similar thesis, with the redeeming feature that for him oriental thinking of a high order, a non-objective thinking whose day had come with the ‘destruction of Western metaphysics’. Various social, political and philosophical undercurrents led in the last decades of the century to the subjugation of the Hegel-Husserl prejudice, and the spectacular rise of interest in global philosophy, in ‘Philosophy, East and West’. Using the occasion of various lectures, I have emphasized the need for a renewed that is, revised, account of the history of consciousness----- a revision of Hegel’s 1807 Phenomenology.  But this is a task still to be undertaken.

Although ‘global philosophy’ is being talked about few of its proponents have taken steps to actualize it. There is a certain contradiction in the idea---- if that is how ‘global philosophy is to be understood ----- of a system to be subscribed to around the world, for any such system would amount to being a dogmatic one much like Marxism was in the communist world and would no more deserve to be called a genuinely free exercise in thinking.  Authentic global philosophy has to be a ‘global conversation’ demanding from its participants a genuine ‘give and take’, and not merely taking part in global conferences. In the light of this global demand on philosophy, we can return to more specific concerns as they have emerged.

Fundamental Concepts and concerns
As I look back at twentieth-century philosophy, I find two major concepts and two major dimensions: these two criss-cross and overlap.  The two concepts - each generating both a method and a substantive field - are language and consciousness. Linguistic philosophy and consciousness-philosophies are the major methodologically and thematically differentiated possibilities realized in the past century. The two dimensions I have in mind are the theoretical and the practical, which were separated in Western thought ever since Aristotle. The separation was reaffirmed by Kant, but was finally sought to be overcome by Hegel and Marx. All philosophical problems were reduced to problems of language by Wittgenstein and other succeeding logical positivists and analytic philosophers. Likewise, all philosophical problems were reduced to questions about consciousness by Husserl. Just as the former group of philosophers studied, in great detail, the syntax, semantics, and pragmatics of language, Husserl and the phenomenologist likewise researched the structure of consciousness- its intentionality, temporality, and intersubjectivity in particular.  Results of these researches are amongst the more enduring accomplishments of philosophy.

By the end of the century it was becoming increasingly clear that the mutual opposition, even animosity between these major philosophical schools needed to reject in favour of cooperation. Language and consciousness implied each other, between them a common field was being demarcated by the ‘language of consciousnesses and by consciousness of speech. But a field of enquiry that emerged jointly from both may be defined by the two inter-involving concepts of intentionality and meaning. Both language and consciousness are about the world, and both refer to the world through a layer of meanings generated through a process that is historical (new meanings are built on old ones), and are intersubjectively available. Philosophy of culture is now possible on this basis.  Culture may be defined as sedimented meanings. Being intersubjective, social and historical, consciousness and its formations may be called ‘spirit’ (Geist). Hegel seems pre-eminently relevant now. The Hegelian Geist seems to comprehend the opposition between language and consciousness. Exactly two-hundred years after the appearance of Hegel’s Phenomenlogy of the Spirit, we in 2007 are in a situation when its relevance is more pertinent than ever before. It also promises to comprehend the opposition between the theoretical and the practical.

Theory and Practice
Never before were thinking people yearning more for a practical realization of pure theoretical thinking. Young people in the US as well as in Europe ask philosophers of what practical use their theories are. What bearing do they have on such questions as peace and ecology? The concern is not so much about how to apply theory to practical life, a question which we do not understand very well, but this: Is there a mode of philosophical thinking which by itself carries practical implications?

We need to avoid two approaches which have already been tried: reducing theory to practice and reducing practice to theory.  The former leads to pragmatism and Marxism: both take truth to be successful practice. The latter is best exemplified by the logic of action - deontic logic and its kind which abounds in contemporary logic. Both fail to satisfy the hunger for a theory which is practically oriented. Here we have other models to emulate; the Chinese the Indian, and the Aristotelian. Can philosophy successfully return to these and practice a theoretical thinking which without sacrificing its theoretical rigour, becomes practically efficacious?

It has to be pointed out that there is no self-evident, obvious, and common measure of practicality. Whether a theory is practically useful or not depends upon the goal being entertained and the value that is determining the ordering of goals, both of which, again, are dependent upon the interpretation one confers on oneself, and on life and its meaning.

Position of Indian Philosophy
In all the aforementioned respects, Indian philosophy has the potentiality of being a source of new ideas in this century.

First of all, throughout its history, right from very ancient times, Indian thinking was polarized between ‘language’ and ‘consciousness’ even as attempts were being made to mediate between them.  For this occasion, I need only recall the contrast between sabdavaita of Bhartrihari (all knowledge is penetrated by language, sabdena anuviddham). The Buddhist view that true perception is non-linguistic and the Hindu theories which distinguish between two stages of knowledge-nirvikalpaka (indeterminate) and savikalpaka (determinate) - sought to mediate between them.

Secondly, when thinking about sabda, one needs to recall its various levels, beginning with the externalized, audible sound (dhvani) and the more and more internalized, inaudible sabda, gradually reaching an identification with the cosmic reality at the root of all things. One needs also to take into account the theory of sphota, which modern Western semantic theory recognized only in its surface aspect as the word-type (as distinguished from the word-token), and the grammarian’s understanding of the rule-governed nature of transformational deep grammar.

Indian thought can boldly encounter the challenge of the Western linguistic (syntactical and semantic) philosophies as also the invitation of transcendental phenomenology to exhibit how mundane entities and the world are constituted in pure consciousness. At the same time, Indian thinking about consciousness has to appropriate from the West lessons about the temporality of consciousness (as reflected in the thoughts of Bergson, James, and Husser) and the historicity of existence (Hegel and Heidegger).

Mundane Philosophy
Linguistic philosophy and consciousness philosophy are both transcendental philosophies.  They advance theories about how the world comes to be constituted. Both language and consciousness in different ways, constitute and present the world.

Besides transcendental philosophy, there is also mundane philosophy, which concerns itself with areas of the world as thematized in the various sciences: physics thematizes physical nature; psychology, human mind, biology; living beings. Accordingly, philosophy of physics, philosophy of mind and philosophy of biology are important parts of philosophy, especially as it developed in the twentieth century. Their importance has grown with the unprecedented development of the sciences and their application in technology.

A dominant trend in all these developments has been one sort of reductionism or another.  Mind is reduced to body, consciousness to neural processes, life to bodily processes of complex organizational sorts and so on. All this is encouraged by the widespread and hitherto unimagined growth of computers, of information science, of neurobiology and cell biology of medicine and surgical technologies. But philosophically, reductionism still remains unsatisfactory especially from the phenomenological point of view. We want to recognize the uniqueness of consciousness and of life as emergent properties in the evolutionary process, all of which are rooted though in material nature. As the physicist Schrodinger once said, the discovery about producing fire by rubbing stones does not establish the origin of fire, it only gives access to how to produce fire within the limited context of home and hearth. Neural processes may be responsible for the emergence of limited human conscious states, but it is quite another thing to claim that consciousness itself is a product of matter.

A much more plausible step is one in which all mundane sciences are reduced to information processing. A philosophical understanding of ‘information’ and its dissemination may be helpful when we understand information beyond the limits of Shannon’s limited theory. This might get tied up with the integration of quantum-mechanics into our world-view.

Let me conclude by emphasizing a branch of mundane philosophy that is of great importance for us as humans living in societies. It is the emergence of the idea of globalization in economics, combined with the realization amongst wealthy nations that widespread poverty around the world needs global co-operation to be eradicated. Free flow of information has helped globalization, but the uneven field of power sometimes accentuates wealth in one area and poverty in another.  Political self-governance is being upset by the power of international companies. Local producers are put under pressure by those from wealthier countries. Local cultures are being threatened to extinction by more powerful cultures from richer countries. A proper balance is needed between the two globalization and localization. Gandhi’s Swadeshi needs to be harmonized with Tagore’s universalism. Just as the distance between communism and capitalism is being shortened by developing a new political philosophy which will transcend both Karl Marx and Adam Smith, so also the new philosophy needs to reconcile the global and the local.

These are some of the challenges to philosophy in the twenty-first century, as I perceive it today.

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