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”

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.  


    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.  


Rebecca and The Idea of History

The young Daphne du Maurier

The young Daphne du Maurier

During our vacation, Mrs Acilius and I read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.  At the same time, I was reading R. G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History.  These two books were both written in the mid-1930s by English authors; otherwise, they seemed to have nothing in common at all.  Rebecca was a popular novel, intended for a mass audience; The Idea of History is a rather austere work of philosophy, which its author never even attempted to publish.  It was found among Collingwood’s papers after his death, and brought to his publishers’ attention by his friends.  We wanted to read Rebecca because we had seen Hitchcock’s movie and were curious about some themes hinted at there; I’d been meaning to read The Idea of History for several years.  They just happened to turn up on our reading lists at the same time.  

I was surprised to find that the two books complement each other rather nicely.  The narrator and main character of Rebecca is a woman who never gives her own name; we know that her husband is named Maxim de Winter, and that Maxim de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca, died suddenly about a year before the story begins.  Rebecca was a powerful personality, and once the second Mrs de Winter arrives at her husband’s estate to start her new life with him she finds that everyone she meets there seems to be obsessed with her predecessor.  Having spent her life up to the moment when she married Maxim in a modest station, the second Mrs de Winter had already been intimidated by Maxim’s great wealth and prestige.  She was also keenly aware of the fact that she had none of the skills required to manage Maxim’s immense household.  The second Mrs de Winter hides from the servants and comes to feel that the contrast between her own homely self and Rebecca’s great brilliance must be a painful disappointment to everyone.  To escape from her fears and find her place in her new home, the second Mrs de Winter must come to understand her husband’s relationship with his late wife. 

The challenge facing the second Mrs de Winter was one that Collingwood would have diagnosed as a task for historianship.  Collingwood sees a great deal of historianship in everyday life.  To quote from the 1968 Oxford University Press paperback I read (hereafter I’ll just call this book “Collingwood”):

If we look out over the sea and perceive a ship, and five minutes later look again and perceive it in a different place, we find ourselves obliged to imagine it as having occupied intermediate positions when we were not looking.  That is already an example of historical thinking… (Collingwood 241)