We will rigorously observe the laws, but only the ones we make up as we go

This issue of The Nation includes a review of a recent exhibition of photographs by Miroslav Tichý .  Tichý was a reclusive man whose major body of work consists of photographs he took without the consent, or in many cases the knowledge, of the women he was photographing.  This project might have been tolerable if Tichý had confined himself to views available in the public spaces of his hometown, Kyjov in the Czech Republic.  This, however, he did not do.  Tichý’s favorite subject was a woman’s exposed backside.  Since these are rarely seen in public spaces, Tichý seems to have made a habit of trespassing into the homes of the women of Kyjov to catch them as they came and went to the bath, changed clothes, etc.  The Nation‘s reviewer takes stern exception not only to Tichý’s activities, but also to the exhibit, protesting that the museum has presented the photographs without fully explaining how Tichý came to capture those images of those particular women.  The reviewer surmises that this was done in hopes that patrons would not ask that question, that they would behave as though the women of Kyjov were Tichý’s to do with as he liked. 

While Tichý’s treatment of his neighbors showed no regard for the laws of Czechoslovakia or for those of common decency, he did invent certain laws for himself and followed them rigorously in his work.  To quote a few remarks from the review to this effect:

If we disregard the few remarks about his original intentions that Tichy made some forty years after the fact–most of which are self-deprecating and puncture meaningfulness whenever it seems to bubble up–his work routine appears remarkably disciplined, even rigorous, and indifferent to the claims of his subjects…

And:

A few rare shots record glances cast directly at the photographer–the women generally not looking pleased. They seem to have had a hunch about where they stood in this transaction. “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed,” Susan Sontag wrote. “It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge–and, therefore, like power.” This dynamic may explain why backsides so predominate in Tichy’s oeuvre: besides having a clear preference for the angle, he probably found it easier to photograph women when they weren’t facing him…

And:

In other words, nearly all of Tichy’s photographs bypass what has been, from the medium’s first decades, central to its nature: a moment of recognition. We generally expect photographs of people to record a glance, however fleeting, between the person behind the camera and whoever is in front of it; in a random lineup of major twentieth-century photographs, you could probably identify who took many of them by the expressions on their subjects’ faces… In most of his photographs, it’s the absence of exchange that grants the subjects distinction and dignity–an autonomy that, by the same stroke, Tichy denies by taking their picture without their consent.

Tichý’s habit of following laws he invented for himself and disregarding those that might protect other people from his abuse links this review to a piece on The Nation‘s website about the Obama administration’s recently revealed decision to order the assassination of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki.  While most prominent members of the Democratic Party have deferred to Mr O’s judgment in this matter, Congressman Dennis Kucinich has spoken out against this order in particular and against the use of assassination as a tactic in the USA’s antiterrorism efforts generally:

“In the real world, things don’t work out quite so neatly as they seem to in the heads of the CIA,” says Kucinich. “There’s always the possibility of blowback, which could endanger high-ranking US officials. There’s the inevitable licensing of rogue groups that comes about from policies that are not strictly controlled and that get sloppy–so you have zero accountability. And that’s not even to get into an over-arching issue of the morality of assassination policies, which are extra-constitutional, extra-judicial. It’s very dangerous from every possible perspective.”

He added: “The assassination policies vitiate the presumption of innocence and the government then becomes the investigator, policeman, prosecutor, judge, jury, executioner all in one. That raises the greatest questions with respect to our constitution and our democratic way of life.”

Kucinich says the case of al-Awlaki is an attempt to make “a short-cut around the Constitution,” saying, “Short-cuts often belie the deep and underlying questions around which nations rise and fall. We are really putting our nation in jeopardy by pursuing this kind of policy.”

Mr O doesn’t really seem all that different from Miroslav Tichý, nor does the Democratic Party’s acquiescence in its titular leader’s practice of “targeted killings” seem all that different from the museum’s attempt to gloss over the more troubling aspects of Tichý’s method.  In each case, a man marketed as new and fresh, an outsider who challenges a repressive status quo, imitates some of the most repressive practices of that status quo.  As the outsider artist Tichy emulates the Czechoslovakian secret police’s practice of intruding on citizens and photographing them without their consent, perpetuating this practice even after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, so the “outsider candidate” Mr O becomes a president who perpetuates Bush and Cheney’s most bloodthirsty policies.

Less chilling than the lecherous Tichý and of course far less chilling than the homicidal Obama administration was Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti (1909-2003.)  Onetti was, technically speaking, a political novelist; his work was sufficiently engagé that Uruguay’s ham-fisted dictator Juan María Bordaberry thought him worth imprisoning in 1974.  If the description of Onetti’s work in this issue’s essay is accurate, however, Onetti can hardly have represented a direct threat to Bordaberry’s regime.   His approach was so esoteric that the thought his novels might be published seemed self-evidently absurd to Onetti’s friends.  The rules Onetti followed as he composed his work were so different from those known elsewhere in literature that readers had to grope through the most disparate extremes of twentieth century prose to find parallels to them.  Eccentric as his methods may have been, Onetti’s influence on Latin American writers of the generation after him has been widespread and intense.

A deal with the devil

Afghan boy dancing

Citizens of the United States of America and other countries that have armies stationed in Afghanistan may wonder what sort of Afghans have made themselves allies of the forces operating in our names.   An article by Kelly Beaucar Vlahos on antiwar.com sheds a great deal of light on this question.  Vlahos quotes Patrick Cockburn’s remark that “one reason Afghan villagers prefer to deal with the Taliban rather than the government security forces is that the latter have a habit of seizing their sons at checkpoints and sodomizing them.”  There’s a great deal more to it than that, unfortunately.  On 20 April, PBS’ documentary series Frontline will be airing a report called “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan” which should bring this situation to broader notice in the States. 

The portrait Vlahos and others paint suggests that the USA and the other foreign armies are in such a weak position in Afghanistan that they could not remain there if they did not have the support of men who make a lifestyle of enslaving and raping children.  If true, that is not only a reason to call for an end to the occupation of Afghanistan, but also a reason to discard the notion of “humanitarian military intervention.”  Whatever evils we may begin a war intending to stop are likely to be dwarfed by the evils we will have to promote in order to succeed in that war.

What is the best way to avoid disappointment?

The web edition carries the text of a speech in which philosopher Judith Butler praised the majority of the Student Senate at the University of California’s Berkeley campus who last month voted to stop investing in General Electric and United Technologies because of their role in the occupation of Gaza.  Professor Butler argues that, while there is no single Jewish voice and no single Jewish position on any issue, this vote is in keeping with the finest elements of the ethical tradition she learned as a Jewish child:

So if someone says that it offends “the Jews” to oppose the occupation, then you have to consider how many Jews are already against the occupation, and whether you want to be with them or against them. If someone says that “Jews” have one voice on this matter, you might consider whether there is something wrong with imagining Jews as a single force, with one view, undivided. It is not true. The sponsors of Monday evening’s round table at Hillel made sure not to include voices with which they disagree. And even now, as demonstrations in Israel increase in number and volume against the illegal seizure of Palestinian lands, we see a burgeoning coalition of those who seek to oppose unjust military rule, the illegal confiscation of lands, and who hold to the norms of international law even when nations refuse to honor those norms.

What I learned as a Jewish kid in my synagogue–which was no bastion of radicalism–was that it was imperative to speak out against social injustice. I was told to have the courage to speak out, and to speak strongly, even when people accuse you of breaking with the common understanding, even when they threaten to censor you or punish you. The worst injustice, I learned, was to remain silent in the face of criminal injustice. And this tradition of Jewish social ethics was crucial to the fights against Nazism, fascism and every form of discrimination, and it became especially important in the fight to establish the rights of refugees after the Second World War. Of course, there are no strict analogies between the Second World War and the contemporary situation, and there are no strict analogies between South Africa and Israel, but there are general frameworks for thinking about co-habitation, the right to live free of external military aggression, the rights of refugees, and these form the basis of many international laws that Jews and non-Jews have sought to embrace in order to live in a more just world, one that is more just not just for one nation or for another, but for all populations, regardless of nationality and citizenship. If some of us hope that Israel will comply with international law, it is precisely so that one people can live among other peoples in peace and in freedom. It does not de-legitimate Israel to ask for its compliance with international law. Indeed, compliance with international law is the best way to gain legitimacy, respect and an enduring place among the peoples of the world.

I suspect that the high hopes Professor Butler seems to place in “compliance with international law” are bound to be disappointed.  Indeed, her evocation of the ethical traditions of Judaism recalls an earlier generation of well-meaning Zionists, who hoped that a people who had so often been the victims of nationalism in its most extreme forms would draw on those ethical traditions to create a new, consistently humane form of nationalism.  If that hope has been disappointed, surely it is because nationalism itself is inhuman, because to be a nationalist is to take social relationships people pretend to have with those they have never met and to try to make those impersonal relationships do the work of personal bonds between kinsmen, neighbors, and friends.  The cover story in this week’s issue of the print magazine, about the shoddy medical treatment military veterans receive upon returning to the hyper-nationalistic USA, shows how shallow these relationships are, and how little even people who embody the most cherished fantasies and symbols of nationalism can expect from the people who cheer them on in the abstract.  If a modern bureaucratic state based on nationalism is doomed to be an instrument of brutality, surely a modern bureaucratic state based on internationalism could only be worse. 

Be that as it may, no world-state seems to be in the offing, nor does any existing nation-state seem at all likely to subordinate its own interests to an internationalist ideology any time soon.  So perhaps such an ideology might at times be useful as a counterpoint to the excesses of nationalism, in situations where kinship groups and neighborhoods have been too drained of life to put any real curbs on the state.    

Paul Buhle discusses his part in efforts to build an antiwar coalition of right-wing “paleoconservatives” and left-wing anti-imperialists.  Buhle acknowledges that he and many other lefties once persuaded themselves that the election of Barack Obama would represent a dramatic improvement  in US policy.  He and they are now suffering a disappointment in Mr O that the paleocons avoided. 

A review of Perry Anderson’s new book on the European Union dwells on Anderson’s disappointment in that institution.  In the late 90s Anderson looked at the European Union and saw in it something like what Paul Buhle would see a decade later when looking at then-Senator Obama, an emerging force that might unleash a pent-up demand for social democracy and peaceful internationalism.  Both Anderson and Buhle seem to be more than a little bit envious of old-fashioned conservatives who would never have formed such hopes in the first place. 

Columnist Gary Younge declares that Britons facing the UK’s upcoming General Election would like to get rid of the Labour Party, but that they are increasingly disappointed to find that the opposition Tories have nothing to offer.  The Tories (or as I affectionately dub them, the Conservative and Unionist Party of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) offer a “less xenophobic agenda” than previously, apparently in an attempt to reach out to voters who have black friends; the only clear result of this reduction in displays of xenophobia is the likelihood of a “sharp rise in votes for the extreme right.”  Meanwhile, the Tories back all of Labour’s least popular policies, and fail to leaven them with even the lip service to economic egalitarianism that has kept most of Labour’s core supporters in the fold in recent years.

Stanley Fish, Jurgen Habermas, and the Future of Rationality

In last night’s posting on his New York Times blog, Stanley Fish* wrote that the philosopher/social theorist Jürgen Habermas no longer believes that people can build a world of peaceful coexistence simply by reasoning together, but that the future belongs to those traditions that can bridge the gap between faith and reason.  Fish quotes Habermas and adds a comment:

Jurgen Habermas

“Among the modern societies, only those that are able to introduce into the secular domain the essential contents of their religious traditions which point beyond the merely human realm will also be able to rescue the substance of the human.”

The question of course is what does Habermas mean by “introduce”? How exactly is the cooperation between secular reason and faith to be managed? Habermas attempted to answer that question in the course of a dialogue with four Jesuit academics who met with him in Munich in 2007. The proceedings have now been published in Ciaran Cronin’s English translation (they appeared in German in 2008) under the title “An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-secular Age.”

*Whom some of you know as “Stanley Sturgeon,” as is explained on page 8 of this document 

The American Conservative, May 2010

Can left-wing opponents of the American Empire join with right-wing defenders of the Old Republic to build an effective antiwar movement in the USA?  Fourteen authors, including leftists like Paul Buhle and Matthew Yglesias and rightists like Paul Gottfried and John Lukacs, consider the question.     

The cover image, representing a face-off between Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu, is a bit of an absurdity.  These two men disagree on certain issues and cannot afford to ignore one another, but they are neither adversaries in world affairs nor equal in international influence.  This absurdity strikes me as out of place.  The American Conservative‘s  line about Israel/ Palestine seems simply to be that the USA should moderate its support of Israel; some of the magazine’s contributors might go so far as to advocate a policy of complete neutrality between Israel and its Arab antagonists, while others would recommend that the USA continue its substantive support of Israel, but would counsel American officials to tone down some of their more overheated Zionist preachments.  Most contributors are located somewhere between these viewpoints.  That range of opinion hardly qualifies the magazine as extremist, yet the cover image and article titles such as “Normalizing Relations” (about Mr O’s willingness “to take on America’s most influential ally”), “Out From the Shadows” (in which we are told that the American-Israel Political Action Committee now “confronts its worst fear: daylight,”) and “Can We Avoid Israel’s War?” (about US-Iran relations)suggest the overwrought tone that we expect from the fringes of the debate. 

The issue includes a reprint of a story by the late Louis Auchincloss, “America First,” originally published in Auchincloss’ collection Skinny Island.  Set in 1941, it tells the story of Elaine Wagstaff, a rich old American lady who was driven from her adopted home in Paris when the Germans overran France and moved in with her grown daughter Suzanne in New York.  Elaine’s friends are ardent advocates of US intervention to aid Britain in its fight against the Third Reich; Suzanne’s social circle are equally ardent in their opposition to such intervention.  At first, Elaine goes along with her daughter and joins the America First Committee, an organization which did in fact exist and which was at its peak the largest antiwar group the USA has ever seen (including such members as Auchincloss’ kinsman Gore Vidal.)  Elaine finds the America Firsters so uncouth compared to her Francophile friends that she eventually finds she cannot tolerate their company.  Elaine turns away from Suzanne and Suzanne’s friends, returning to her old circle and their interventionist views. 

The fascinating thing about this story is how little the characters’ political allegiances have to do with any of the ostensible reasons people usually give to justify them.  None of them really cares very much about who rules Europe or what happens to the people who live there.  Suzanne recoils from her son-in-law’s antisemitism, not because she cares at all about the fate of Europe’s Jews, but because in her circles antisemitism “was ‘hick’: one could not be bigoted and ‘top-drawer.'”  Nor does any character show a very clear idea of what the national interest of the United States might require.  Each character has devised a little drama in his or her head in which s/he plays the leading role and each of the others is assigned a supporting part.  Elaine’s fascination with France has been a bitter disappointment to Suzanne; Suzanne’s staid absorption in American high society has been a disappointment to Elaine.  Suzanne has scripted a drama in which Elaine will make a lifetime of disappointments up to her by playing a supporting role.  Politics is to her merely the stage on which this drama will play out.  Conversely, Elaine is attached to her old friends and to their shared fantasy of a life in the upper reaches of French society.  When she chooses interventionism, she is in fact choosing them and that fantasy.  Through most of the story The last line of the story is It is an ugly story, in a way, but one that rings true.    

An article about the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) cites numerous publications over the years that have exposed the SPLC as a racket that does virtually nothing to advance its stated aim of battling white supremacists, but a great deal to enrich its leaders.  There doesn’t seem to be anything new in this piece, but it might be useful to have several exposés all cited in one place.   

Bill Kauffman’s column calls on the people of Idaho to embrace a writer who was born in their state and spent most of his life there, Vardis Fisher (1895-1968.)  Kauffman lists two books by the late Mr Fisher that sound interesting, a novel called Mountain Man and the WPA‘s Guide to Idaho.  He also mentions Fisher’s novelistic history of the world in twelve volumes that “drove away most of his modest readership.”  Acknowledging that Fisher’s defense of free-market capitalism and rebellion against his Mormon upbringing left him “almost a parody of the cantankerous libertarian/ village atheist,” Kauffman argues that he deserves remembering as a placeful man, who stayed in Idaho and devoted himself to the spirit of that place when he might have gone to the metropolis and lived for money and fame.

More Veiled Women

Hijabi Barbie

Years ago, LeFalcon posted a few stray remarks here about women’s dress in Islam.  Last year, Cymast posted a news item about Nicolas Sarkozy’s push to ban the burqa in France.  Months ago, I posted some images of veiled Muslim women.  That’s a rather slim selection of material, and yet every day search terms such as “burqa,” “hijab,” “chador,” “abaya,” and “niqab” send people to this blog.  As a service to those readers, here are some links to images of veiled women.   

  1. Indonesian Women Preparing to Pray. A dynamic study in white and red.
  2. Niqabi Riding an Escalator.   An airport scene.    
  3. Two Women With Soft Drinks. One heavily veiled, the other in Western dress.
  4. Two Women Riding the London Tube.  One in a chador, the other in Western dress.
  5. Veiled Catwalk Model.  The veil looks strange to most Westerners; this shot brings out the strangeness of a custom many of those same Westerners take for granted, the model’s catwalk.   
  6. A Partly Veiled Catwalk Model.  Recognizably Middle Eastern dress, though nothing especially “Islamic” about it
  7. The Outfit is Advertised as “Modest”  The model’s attire is quite modest, but her pose suggests a prostitute waiting for customers.  
  8. Warhol-style Hijabi.   I’m sure she’s somebody famous, but I can’t place her.  The picture appeared with this news story about the play The Hijabi Monologues
  9. Simpsons Character in Hijab.  Apparently sometime after I stopped watching The Simpsons, they introduced some Muslim characters.
  10. Punk Hijabi” She’s very clever, I’d recommend taking a moment to study her outfit. 
  11. On the Internet, No One Knows You’re Wearing a Niqab.  In the USA, the two women in this photo would probably be separated by a sheet of bulletproof glass. 
  12. Her face is covered by the colors of the American flag,  the rest of her is covered by a chador
  13. The Iranian women’s volleyball team in action.  Their opponents seem distracted by their outfits. 
  14. Academic Robes and Face Veil.  I rather wish the angle were wider.  The expression on the face of the graduate behind her makes me suspect there was a sort of contest to see who could be the most modest. 
  15. Women Holding a Sign that Reads “Hijab is My Choice, Not Compulsion”

Also worth a look is a site called “The Hijablog,” fashion commentary addressed to the conservative Muslim woman.

Four bureaucracies

I’ve always been interested in the power of bureaucracy.  The word “bureaucracy” is often used to mean an inefficient organization, but if that’s all bureaucracy really was it would never have become the most pervasive form of social organization in the modern world.  In fact, bureaucracies are the most efficient of organizations.  We become frustrated with them not because they can do nothing right, but because they often seem to do everything except what we need. 

The current issue of The Nation got me thinking about four major bureaucracies in particular: the regime of Nazi Germany; the state of Israel; the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church; and the criminal justice system in the USA.   

One of the writers whose works have done the most to inform my interest in bureaucracy was Raul Hilberg, the historian of the Holocaust.  An essay about Hilberg in the current issue of The Nation quotes a key sentence from Hilberg’s 1961 book The Destruction of the European Jews: “The destruction of the Jews was an administrative process, and the annihilation of Jewry required the implementation of systematic administrative measures in successive steps.”  Hilberg’s masterwork lays out the operation of this process according to the drastically simplified rationality that makes an impersonal bureaucracy so powerful a form of organization. 

The essayist comments on the chapter of The Destruction of the European Jews that Hilberg devotes to an absurdly harsh diatribe against the Judenräte, the Jewish councils that tried to develop a policy of accommodation with the Nazis.  Keeping in mind that much of the power of the Nazi regime came from the smooth functioning of its bureaucratic apparatus, we can see why the Judenräte were not able to be very helpful to their coreligionists.  The informal, traditional, neighborhood-based influence of the Judenräte was no match for the modern bureaucratic state. 

Being unfair to the Jews of Holocaust-era Europe is not a way to win friends; one of the reasons the essay is titled “A Conscious Pariah” is the criticism his chapter on the Judenräte brought Hilberg.   Something else hat might have made Hilberg a pariah among the left-wingers who write for The Nation was his outspoken Zionism.  The Nation is sometimes described as anti-Israel; I don’t think that’s a fair characterization, but certainly the word “Zionist” does not often appear there as a term of praise.  The magazine is largely written by left-wing Jews from New York, and its coverage of Israel/Palestine is mostly based on reports from left-wing Jews in Tel Aviv.  So its views tend to reflect the Meretz/Peace Now line, and to dismiss arguments as to whether it was a good idea to found Israel as distractions from the peace process.  Someone of Hilberg’s orientation would almost have to be a Zionist, though.  If the only force that can resist a modern bureaucratic state is another modern bureaucratic state, then we not only have to condemn the Judenräte of the 1930s and 1940s as  worse than useless to the Jews targeted by the Third Reich’s policy of extermination, but we must also say that the only thing that could have helped them was a modern bureaucratic state with their interests at heart. 

In the same issue, Katha Pollitt voices her exasperation that the Roman Catholic Church is still treated as a source of moral authority despite the endless cascade of scandals involving bishops who have sheltered pedophile priests from exposure.  Pollitt responds to defensive Catholics who claim that the hierarchy of their church is being singled out by listing other individuals and groups that have been accused of sexually abusing children.  She goes on to say that there is a difference between the Roman church and these others:

The difference is, when other professionals who work with children are caught out, justice takes its course. People are fired. Licenses are lost. Reputations are ruined. Sometimes jail is involved. No human institution is perfect, and it would be foolish to suggest that incidents are always investigated and that abusers who don’t happen to be priests are never protected by colleagues or superiors. Still, it’s probably safe to say that if a principal was accused of overlooking a child molester in his classrooms or recycling him to other schools, nobody would compare his suffering to Christ’s.

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Search terms that brought people to this site on 6 April

I can explain some of these:

burqa  
snake  
indian tennis star sania mirza  
veiled woman  
panther aharoni  
john sloan  
sulla  
a snake  
fetus week 6  
sania mirza  
burqas  
“sania mirza” nude  
atlantic monthly  
victoria fontan  
catholic pedophiles  
the cove  
georgia o keeffe paintings  
gay batman naked  
sania mirza in burka  
banana  
song about tree sheep ukulele  
patterns conway  
ghosts of mars  
crowded store  
the economist obama cover  

 

But not all…

The Baroque Embalmer

I can’t believe that only after hearing the name “Barack Obama” daily for six years did it finally pop into my head this morning that it sounds vaguely similar to “Baroque Embalmer.”  My talent for pointless wordplay must have deserted me in my old age.  The only consolation is that others have also overlooked it.  So a Google search for “Baroque Embalmer” this morning brought up only three hits, only one of which appears to be a reference to Mr O.  The others are just random word strings.

The Cat That Is Not There

Ron Aharoni, professor of mathematics at the Israeli Institute of Technology and the subject of the post below, writes us at losthunderlads @ gmail. com to let us know that his book The Cat That Is Not There has been published.  The book is only out in Hebrew so far, but Ron was kind enough to send along an English language summary that begins below.  You can find the whole thing after the “More” tag, including his proposed definition of “philosophy”: “Philosophy studies human thinking, while assuming that the conceptual system studied is identical with the one used for the study. ” 

A definition of “philosophy”
 
Introduction 

This article suggests a definition for the term “philosophy”. It is a summary of a book, “The Cat That is Not There”, published by Magnes Publishing House (Hebrew University Press), 2010. The title comes from a dictum attributed to William James: “A philosopher is a blind man searching in a dark room for a black cat that isn’t there.”  

Why define “philosophy”? 

It is clear why philosophers are interested in the definition of “philosophy”, but why should a layman care? Here is one reason: philosophy is the only field in which you can find problems 2500 years old that are still open, and that despite tremendous efforts no tangible progress has been made towards their solution. You may find this as motivation to try your own luck against the problems. But a more reasonable approach is to try to understand what in the nature of philosophy makes the existence of such problems possible. 

People regard philosophy with a mixture of awe and suspicion. Awe because its problems look deep, suspicion because no concrete insights emerge from philosophical discussions. But nobody, including philosophers, is sure what precisely philosophy is. What is its subject matter? And is it the topic that makes a discussion philosophical, or the way the topic is studied? Philosophy is concerned with human thinking, but human thinking is part of the world – why should its study be different from that of any other subject? The object of a philosophical discussion is always a fata morgana, that disappears when you get closer. If it becomes tangible, it no longer belongs to the realm of philosophy. There is undoubtedly something unique about philosophy, setting it apart from all other branches of knowledge. 

Beyond all this, the definition of “philosophy” is interesting because it bears on the philosophical problems themselves. At least, the definition given in this article does.  

Peculiarities

    Why is the philosophical discussion meaningful, if it destroys everything great, interesting and important? Because what we destroy is nothing but a tower of cards. (Wittgenstein) 

The touchstone of any definition of philosophy should be the ability to explain its many peculiarities. For example, the fact mentioned above, that two and a half millennia of research have not brought any progress on the main problems. As Wittgenstein put it, “Today’s philosophers are not any nearer to understanding reality than Plato. Isn’t it amazing how far Plato advanced?” In other fields robust edifices of knowledge are constructed, one solid layer upon another. Nothing of the sort exists in philosophy. As Wittgenstein’s remark cited above testifies, every construction is accompanied by just as much destruction. Nothing is agreed upon, and the general spirit is that of constant debate. “There is undoubtedly confusion, absurdity and puzzlement in philosophy” (Peter Strawson). More than in any other field, philosophical study usually relates to the sayings of previous researchers rather than to the object of study. All these puzzling characteristics must have a common origin, and more likely than not, one that can be sharply defined.  
 

What kind of problem is “what is philosophy”? 

Let me start by expropriating the problem of “what is philosophy” from the possession of philosophers. It is not a philosophical problem at all. The last statement may sound circular, because it depends on the definition of “philosophy”, but one property of philosophy that is agreed upon by all is that it is not empirical. A problem answerable by observation cannot be philosophical. However, the definition of “philosophy” (like all other definitions) is empirical. Finding it means identifying the conceptual structure that people recognize as “philosophy”. This should be done by scrutinizing philosophical writings, to find their common underlying structure.  

The ease and confidence with which people recognize philosophical problems testify to the sharpness of this structure. This is not to mean that it is easy to discover: the fact that a mechanism (in this case, that of recognizing philosophical discussions) operates well in our minds does not mean we necessarily know how it operates. In this respect, mental mechanisms are not different from physical ones: having a well functioning digestive system does not mean its owner knows how it works.  
 

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