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                       MODES OF INQUIRY: PHILOSOPHY

                                       Saranindra Nath Tagore
                                       Department of Philosophy


The disciplinary matrix of the university houses a multitude of epistemic tools. I mean by this term, epistemic
tool, clearly marked conceptual strategies deployed for the sole purpose of harvesting knowledge. The usage is
plural because the university, a system of pluralized disciplinary formations, makes use of different kinds of such
tools. The concern with describing the intersecting horizons that map the functional nature of these tools may be
understood on at least two fronts: first, there is a recognition that the use of multiple epistemic tools may lead to
the development of new disciplinary paradigms; and secondly, the survey of identity and difference across the
methodological terrains of knowledge acquisition can provide one with a better bird’s eye grasp of the present
state of knowledge. The articulation of both these themes requires the theorization of the nature of inquiry in its
heterogeneous setting. Philosophy, as a discipline, has an important role to play in this project. In these reflections
I will limn certain features of the philosophical space, i.e. the conceptual terrain where philosophical inquiry takes
place. In the process of profiling this space, I hope to clarify he nature of the philosopher’ s task and the nature of
the problems she encounters. Also, I will be arguing implicitly that the philosophical space has an essential
multi-disciplinary function.

An interesting element of self-reflexivity is implied in the question of what is philosophy or what is it that the
philosopher does. While the question concerning the nature of physics is not a question for physics, the issue of
what is philosophy remains reflexively a philosophical question. This self-reflexive trajectory of philosophical
thinking that interrogates itself may be a good place to begin in hermeneutically disclosing the nature of
philosophical inquiry. In the first instance, philosophical inquiry brings under critical scrutiny the system of
assumptions that lie beneath all conceptual systems. There are two sorts of assumptions that may be
distinguished. First a theory within a discipline may make a certain assumption that may very well be theorizable
from within the ambits of that field of study. For instance the constancy of c in physical theory is an assumption
that has direct conceptual bearing on physics and its ramifications are perfectly contained within the posture of
relativity theory. However, there are deeper assumptions that uphold the structure of the discipline itself; these
assumptions fall outside the domain of the discipline and at the same time makes the discipline possible.
Moreover, these are hermeneutically open assumptions, and this openness is a reality precisely because the
structure of the discipline is unable to bring it to closure. Physics, for instance, in attempting to understand the
structure of the material world must have ontological commitment toward the external world. The ontology of the
external world is a founding assumption of physics; however, the critical clarification of the assumption cannot be
effected by physics. Indeed, the question of the external world, upon reflection, emerges as an issue of supreme
puzzlement.1 What evidence can we appeal to in order to justify my belief in the external world? This question,
along with other such queries, lies beneath the structure of physics. This founding level may be properly called the
level of philosophical inquiry.

Physics was discussed as an example that allows one to arrive at a more general characterization of the space on
which philosophical inquiry leaves its inscriptions. This space was characterized earlier as an area where the
system of assumptions that lie beneath all conceptual systems are brought under critical scrutiny. Such conceptual
systems may have disciplinary formations, or they may carve out webs of belief either collectively or individually
held. These registries of beliefs also have their founding assumptions. Thus the Roman Catholic believes in God,
the Hindu and the Buddhist have a commitment to reincarnation, the Marxist posits a materialist conception of
historical movement, and the Chomskyan is committed to innate ideas. These examples have one feature in
common: each of them is necessary to the integrity of the conceptual structure of the whole system (they are
necessary though not sufficient conditions for the whole system). In one sense, like the physicist’s belief in the
external world, each of the claims is internal to the system. One of the beliefs that the Roman Catholic has is a
belief in God. However, the Roman Catholic qua Roman Catholic is not in a position to critically scrutinize the
issue of God, just as for the physicist qua physicist the external world as an ontological issue does not emerge. In
this second sense, each of the beliefs listed above are external (lie beneath) the system. In other words, the
justification of these beliefs occurs in the philosophical space.

The traditional branches of philosophy—epistemology, metaphysics, ethics—address foundational issues that,
above and beyond their own disciplinary importance, are germane to the philosophical space of other disciplines I
was discussing earlier. Let us consider an issue from the philosophy of economics to illustrate this claim. Utility
theory in microeconomics constructs indifference maps to illuminate the nature of consumer preference. The
negative slope of the indifference curve is determined by the cardinal assumption that is packed into the definition
of the Rational Economic Person: more is preferred to less. Amartya Sen has argued that the assumption ought
not to be treated as a tautology as economic theory is prone to do because doing so would be to ignore the
normative dimensions of the claim.2 Now the question of whether a normative claim can be positivized by treating
it as a tautology is an issue that is important for the possibility of microeconomic theory but is not a problem that
economics qua economics can broach. It is an issue that would have to confront the discourses that have their
proper home in ethical theory—discourses concerning the nature of moral and economic rationality, theory of
psychological egoism etc. Here is an example of an intrinsically important piece of philosophical (ethical)
theorizing that is directly germane to the assumption-structure of another discipline. Of course, it needs
emphasizing, that the claim is not that the philosopher and her students housed in the philosophy department alone
can tackle these problems; the point rather is that though these issues arise in a particular discipline, their
discursive structure is anchored in the philosophical space. Philosophers are trained to locate and theorize such
issues, but there are many instances of researchers and thinkers in other disciplines who contribute to the
philosophical dimensions of their disciplines. Sen was trained as an economist but, given his brilliant
contributions in the philosophical dimensions of economics, he held a dual appointment in the Departments of
Philosophy and Economics at Harvard. To take another example in order to deepen the point, Einstein’s deep
dissatisfaction with quantum uncertainty turned on a philosophical commitment to a version of Spinozistic
determinism that drove him to say that his God was Spinoza’s God.

Now the more generalized description of the philosophical space can be formulated. Basal assumptions that make
possible the erection of a conceptual structure inhabit the philosophical space. The space itself, however, has its
own conceptual architecture. In other words, the philosopher builds theories about the basal assumptions. Thus
there are complexes of theories concerning the nature of the external world. These philosophical theories proper
are constructed on the philosophical space that I attempted to disclose above. Now the self–reflexivity involved in
the philosophical project can be limned.         Philosophical theories themselves are mounted on conceptual
assumptions; however, the critical scrutiny of these assumptions, given our earlier formulation, is itself contained
within (and does not lie beneath) the philosophical project. Consequently, while the nature of science is not an
issue for science qua science, the nature of philosophy is an issue for philosophy qua philosophy. The
philosophical space, unlike other disciplinary spaces, is self-reflexive.

The self reflexivity criterion of the philosophical space profiles the foundational nature of the philosophical
disciplines. The self-reflexivity criterion posits that there is no conceptual space beneath the philosophical space.
The philosophical space lies beneath the other disciplinary spaces. Thus the philosophical space is the
foundational space.

So far the discussion has focused on the attempt at extracting the topology of the philosophical space in terms of
problems in particular disciplines. Now the discussion has to be broadened somewhat. The philosophical space
may be conceptualized in terms of common issues that are presupposed by the disciplinary matrix in its totality.
For purposes of illustration, Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, considered for various reasons to be the
founding text of modern philosophy, serves as a good strategic choice. It is commonplace, but true nonetheless, to
note that Descartes, in the thresholds of philosophical modernity, shifted the emphasis of philosophical
investigations from questions about reality (metaphysics) to questions about knowledge (epistemology). The
interrogation of knowledge at its deepest level marks the Cartesian project: what can I know that is apodictic,
beyond the shadows of all possible doubts? Descartes wished to build a system of philosophy deductively based
on that certainty, and in so doing he hoped to develop a presuppositionless philosophy. The question of
knowledge and its relationship to certitude clearly belongs to the philosophical space outlined earlier. No
discipline qua that discipline can ask this question from within the terrains of its own disciplinary space. It is a
question, however, that is presupposed not by a unique discipline but by all knowledge producing fields of
inquiry.    It is well known that Descartes adopted the phenomenologically weighted method of bringing all
judgements including elementary arithmetical judgements under doubt in order to derive the conclusion that there
is no possible world where the ontology of the doubter can be doubted. The trajectory of these conceptual moves
on the part of Descartes is wholly contained within the philosophical space—a space that is foundational to the
epistemic structure of all disciplines. A particular move, like that of Descartes’, may not be foundationally
important to the disciplinary matrix; but the space in which the move is made has the foundational significance.
A few words here, in the way of further disclosing facets of the philosophical space, ought to be mentioned about
the way in which the term “foundational” is being used. Foundationalism has an ill repute (in some cases
deservedly) in a good portion of the current philosophical literature. Richard Rorty’s assault on Anglo-American
epistemology, and the postmodern (specifically Lyotardian) attack on the meta narratives of modernity invoke a
sense of the foundational that in its singularizing and legitimating stance erases the grammar of plurality. 3 Thus
Rorty argues against the Cartesian-representational view of the mind and champions a version of Deweyan
pragmatism, and Lyotard defines the postmodern condition as being incredulous toward the grand recit of
modernity that would include a string of legitimating programs such as Hegel’s philosophy of history, Husserlian
phenomenology, or the Marxian conception of politics. The notion of foundationalism as it relates to the
philosophical space invoked earlier retains its resonance upon the aftermath of such attacks. The sense of the
foundational as it is being used in the present context does not summon the function of legitimation or
justification. Rather, first, the description of foundation gives shape to a space that is populated by problems that
are generated within a disciplinary space but cannot be discussed within that space; and secondly, one registers the
more expansive claim that the space contains a clutch of issues that cannot be discussed in any other disciplinary
space. Such a foundational space, in the present account, is the philosophical space. The description of this space
as foundational treats as tangential the much known attacks on foundationalism common in the current
“post-philosophical” literature.

At this juncture, in the hermeneutic of the philosophical space, it will be fruitful to distinguish between the
normative and the descriptive disjuncts of the philosophical space. Most of the post-philosophical attacks on the
notion of philosophy as a foundational discipline are mounted on a normative platform. Richard Rorty, for
instance, in championing edifying as opposed to systematic philosophy, claims that the edifying visions of a
Dewey, a Heidegger or a Wittgenstein poked fun at the classic picture of human beings, the picture which contains
systematic philosophy, the search for universal commensuration in a final vocabulary. In a similar vein, Lyotard’s
postmodern stand of incredulity toward the grand narratives of modernity, a stance in which Protagorean sophistry
is privileged over Platonic dialectic, signals a deep dissatisfaction toward the thesis that philosophy ought to be the
final arbiter of all conceptual projects. These moves toward a post philosophical narrative enterprise harbors a
deep normative drive. Considerable moral weight is understandably given to the need for conserving plurality;
philosophy seen as foundational in its drive toward universal commensuration is taken to be a threat to the free
play of plurality; therefore, it is a normative trope that is ultimately used to destabilize the foundationality of the
(modern) philosophical project. Thus Richard Rorty can write that the only point on which I would insist is that
philosophers’ moral concern should be with continuing the conversation of the West, rather than with insisting
upon a place for the traditional problems of modern philosophy within that conversation. It is clear that the earlier
description of the philosophical space as lying beneath the disciplinary matrix invokes the foundational, and thus
challenges the post philosophical strategies.

The traditional problems of philosophy are of course deleted from the postphilosophical geography. However,
though their reminder that aspiration toward universal commensuration is hegemonic in substance is deeply
worthy of our attention, like pulling out the proverbial rabbit from the hat, all these postisms are too quick in their
dismissal of the philosophical space. Philosophy qua modern philosophy (a construct of post-philosophy) serves
a legitimating function. However, if the function of legitimation is deployed on the philosophical space, it is
equally true that a critique of that function of valorizing fragmentation over commensuration and unification is
also anchored in that very space. In other words, the Rortian or the Lyotardian calls for the dismantling of
philosophy of the legitimating variety cannot translate into a critique of philosophy qua philosophy. This is so for
two reasons: first, the debate centers on meta-philosophical issues that due to the self-reflexivity property of
philosophy belongs to the philosophical space; and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, philosophical
debates typically resist closure. Thus the open-ended life of a philosophical debate, including the debate over the
closure of philosophy, remains an issue in the philosophical space even after the intermittent calls for it’s
dismantling have been sounded.

In the current view, then, the foundationality of the philosophical space is not nourished by the modernist trope of
legitimation; rather philosophy, in this reading is foundational because of the infinity of its layers, ie. the argument
for its displacement itself is philosophically charged. This view has repercussions for the task at hand that calls for
a hermeneutic disclosure of the philosophical space. Even if the postmodern attack on legitimating narratives of
modernity are accepted, our view concerning the philosophical space will not be disturbed. The rendering of the
philosophical space may mutate but the case will continue to stand that the space lies beneath the disciplinary
matrix, and further the space is constituted by an infinity of layers by which is meant that philosophy has the
property of self-interrogation and auto-critique.
The metaphilosophical picture that is being drawn here does not negate the Rortian view that philosophy
cannot/ought not be the final arbiter of all conceptual projects. Indeed, the characteristics of the philosophical
space so far adumbrated are quite consistent with Rorty’s version of anti-foundationalism. Philosophy can
delineate a foundational space in two distinct ways. First, one can take the view that the philosopher draws up the
agenda of the disciplinary matrix by relying on philosophical reflections concerning the nature of knowledge.
Preferably, though, philosophy receives its agenda from the disciplinary matrix by taking up issues that rise in a
particular discipline but cannot be resolved by that discipline. The normativity of preference structures, for
instance, brilliantly limned by Sen, is an issue that is raised within economics; but the issue is debated in the
philosophical space as it falls outside the referential domain of economic theory. The debate in turn considers
other philosophical theories and perhaps germane theories developed in other disciplinary spaces. Such a view of
the philosophical space does not claim that philosophy is the final arbiter of all conceptual projects. Thus the
relationship between the philosophical space and the other disciplines is not rigidly structured but mutates as the
disciplinary problematics historically shift. The philosophical space remains foundational but in the second sense
where, given philosophy’s reflexive nature, no conceptual space lies beneath it, and further because it takes up
issues that arise in other disciplines but is unresolvable by those disciplines.

The philosophical space thus far has been profiled in relation to other disciplines. The legitimate question that can
now be asked concerns inquiry that is “purely” philosophical in nature untouched by the conceptual movements in
other disciplines. In other words, is there any area in the philosophical space that does not concern itself with one
or more of the disciplines? This question requires a two-fold response that will further illuminate the nature of the
philosophical space. A nest of philosophical problems may be located that relate the discipline to a set of other
disciplines rather than to a single discipline. These problems, unlike the example of the normativity of preference
structures that is related to economics, operate at a higher level of generality. Let us take the example of Hume’s
account of causality. The attack on causality seen as necessary connection first launched by Hume called into
question the property of universality professed by Newtonian laws. Kant’s famous response to Hume, in part was
a complex attempt at rescuing the universality of causal laws from the Humean onslaught. Now, clearly these
debates concerning the nature of causality is germane to not one specific discipline but has relevance for all
disciplines that traffic in the notion of causal laws. The philosophical literature on the notion of causation is
‘pure” in the sense that its etiology cannot be pinned down within the parameters of a particular discipline even
though in the case of Hume the issue surely assumed significance because of developments in classical physics.

The portion of the philosophical space that is most independent of other disciplinary spaces is ethics considered to
be one of the traditional branches of philosophy. Ethical theories exclusively consider the questions about the
moral dimensions of the human experience. The question here is not how the world is but on how the world ought
to be. Moral theoretic claims can be broadly divided into two camps: theoretical claims and applied claims. The
former builds a conceptual architecture that attempts to justify a particular moral posture toward the world and
actions; the latter takes up a moral theory and attempts to resolve concrete issues that are socially generated.
Utilitarianism, classically developed by Bentham and Mill, is an example of a moral theory that argues for the
position that the moral dimension of an action lies in the consequences of the action; and further, the moral
analysis of the action must summon the famous utility principle that valorizes the greatest happiness for the
greatest number.4 Deontological theory, principally developed by Kant, on the other hand, argues for a view of
moral worth that shuns the utility calculus, and calls into presence the intrinsic value of respect for the moral
law.5 The arguments and counter arguments between these two philosophical positions, that have done so much
in illuminating the contours of the moral experience, operate at the level of theoretical claims. The applied areas
of ethics emerge when socially formed concrete problems emerge. Judith Jarvis Thompson’s deontologically
based argument in favour of the moral permissibility of abortion even if the fetus is a person, or Peter Singer’s
utilitarian arguments defending the moral obligation of vegetarianism are instances of the application of a
theoretical model to socially formed problems. These applied issues are open problems, and the literature
debating these issues is anchored in the applied ethical region of the philosophical space. The concepts of
theoretical and applied ethics are still not completely unrelated to the other disciplines. It can be argued, though,
that moral reasoning has a grounding role to play in some other disciplines. For instance, the foundations of law
are inextricably bound with the rersources provided by ethical reflection. In other words, a legal argument must
take into account the precepts of a moral theory because legislation is justified in terms of a vision concerning
what ought to be the case, and the gap that exists between that ought and what is the case. Further, given that legal
arguments function within the domain of socially formed problems, applied ethical reasoning is also important for
the discursive structures of law.


The structures of the relationship between philosophy and economics on the one hand and philosophy and law on
the other are different. Pointing out this difference will add to the further understanding of the philosophical
space. In the first case, for the example used, the issue concerning the normativity of preference structures
emerged within economics, and was then received by philosophy as a problematic within its own domain. In the
second case, moral theories are developed purely within the philosophical space and then used implicitly or
explicitly in legal reasoning.6    Thus even in the case of ethics there is a deep relationship between the
philosophical space and the other disciplinary spaces. However, the relationship is structured differently from the
cases discussed earlier.

The illumination of the philosophical space assumes further complexity when it is recognized that the history of
philosophy is not singular but multiple. In other words, philosophical traditions, containing sedimented theories
and problems, developed independently in different civilizations. These histories share the label of philosophy, in
spite of the existence of radical divergencies across traditions, because they share certain common concerns. For
instance, the metaphysical question concerning the fundamental constituent of reality is shared by the Indian,
Chinese, and Western traditions. The Parmenidean One, the Upanishadic Brahman, and the Taoist Tao are
variegated responses, at the beginnings of their respective traditions, to this primeval metaphysical question.
Each of these traditions in fundamental ways shaped the contours of their respective civilization.

Now the question that needs to be asked concerns the way in which the multiplicity of philosophical histories
texture the philosophical space being interpreted here. Is there one philosophical space that incorporates the
different traditions, or are there multiple philosophical spaces corresponding to the different histories? At this
juncture, two views concerning multiple philosophical histories need to be discussed. The first view belongs to an
Eurocentric tradition and suggests that the philosophical attitude is uniquely Western because only in the Greeks
reflection was exclusively invested with the economy of theory whereas the other traditions mixed theory with
extra-theoretic interest.7 The other equally problematic view suggests that the different traditions are
incommensurate fragments, and thus no generalized name like “philosophy” can range over the multiplicity. 8 In
terms of current culture-theoretic vocabulary, the former view is hegemonic and modernist, whereas the latter has
a postmodern pedigree. Interestingly, though issuing from diametrically opposite directions, both these positions
problematize the possibility of the category of non-European (Indian or Chinese, et.al.) philosophies. This debate
is crucial in answering the question of whether the philosophical space is singular or multiple. Both these
positions would singularize the philosophical space because for different reasons the philosophical space for them
is uniquely of European construction.

The modern and the postmodern justifications of the singularity of the philosophical space is large developed
without serious attention to works of comparative philosophers. These theorists, working in the intersections of
philosophical histories, have developed a rich narrative that show, pace the modern and the postmodern theses,
that “philosophy” as a name can range over different histories of thought because a clutch of common problems
and issues can be located across traditions. Of course these efforts do not collapse the boundaries of these
traditions because the narrative of comparative identity is respectful of comparative difference, and is sensitive to
the cultural context of thought. The great presocratic philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides posited the rival
metaphysical views that reality is constantly changing and reality is changeless substance respectively. These
fundamentally opposing philosophical theses that visited and revisited in different garbs the whole history of the
Western intellectual program was mirrored without exchange in the great Indian debate between the metaphysics
of Brahman and the metaphysics of Sunyata held by the Vedantists and the Buddhists respectively. The
recognition of these identities is of course not to erase difference. The recognition that in hybrid moments of
history conceptual maps across cultural divides overlap is also to recognize the singularity of the philosophical
space but for very different reasons than those offered by the modern and the postmodern programs. It may be
recalled that the modern and the postmodern programs problematize for different reasons the possibility of
non-European philosophy. If we take the architecture of comparative philosophy seriously, we arrive at a
conception of the philosophical space as singular but inclusive of multiple philosophical histories. In other words,
the multiple philosophical histories are situated in the same philosophical space that we have been discussing.
The culture-sensitivity of these histories does not warrant the fragmentation and subsequent pluralization of the
philosophical space but only shows that this space does not transcend the various contextualizations that cultural
location can impose on reflection including philosophical reflection. Comparative philosophy, as a branch of
philosophy, would belong to the same space though it is invested with the meta-concern of mapping the
overlapping trajectories of the multiple philosophical histories.




Integrating philosophical multiplicity into the singular philosophical space has one immense theoretical
advantage. The integrated view would further enrich the relation between the philosophical space and the other
disciplinary spaces that has been discussed earlier in these remarks. Though there is a paucity of such works even
among the comparativists, one can imagine that philosophical issues received from the other disciplines can be
addressed from the perspective of multiple philosophical histories. The integrated view of the philosophical space
will hopefully move in the direction of rectifying the deep-seated Euro-centered insularity of the Western
philosophical program.

In these reflections, I have attempted to disclose various facets of the philosophical space. In doing so I hope to
have shed light on the nature of philosophical inquiry. It appears that philosophical inquiry is quintessentially an
interdisciplinary inquiry because the issues of philosophy are always conversing with the issues of other
disciplines. I do not suggest that these reflections have disclosed the philosophical space in its entirety. The
attempt at disclosing the philosophical space is itself a philosophical practice, thus ultimate closure of the
disclosing process is not possible.


Notes:
 1 The problem of the external world has a long history in the philosophical discussion. Descartes, for instance,
argued that, given that the senses can deceive, we cannot argue for the existence of the external world on empirical
grounds. Indeed, for Descartes, skepticism toward the external world can be defeated only with the universal
benevolence of God. In other words, God ontologically guarantees the correspondence between perception and
the object of perception. See Meditations on First Philosophy in The Philosophical Works of Descartes Volume I
(Cambridge, 1981), pp.131-199.For a recent variation of the problem see Hillary Putnam, Reason Truth, and
History (New York, 1981), Chapter 1.

 2 See Amartya Sen, “Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory” in Hollis
and Hahn eds., Philosophy and Economic Theory (Oxford, 1982).

 3 See Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, 1979); also see Jean-François Lyotard, The
Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge
(Minneapolis, 1993).

4 See Mill, Utilitarianism (Oxford, 1998);

5 See Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (Indianapolis, 1959); Kant, Critique of
Practical Reason (New York, 1989).

6 This view is explicitly endorsed by one of the pre-eminent contemporary philosopher of law, Ronald Dworkin.
See Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge MA, 1977).

 7 Edmund Husserl, one of the towering figures in modern philosophy famously endorsed this claim in 1935:
“Today we have a plethora of works about Indian Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy, etc., in which these are placed
on a plane with Greek philosophy and are taken as merely different historical forms under one and the same idea
of culture.... But only in the Greeks do we have a universal life-interest in the essentially new form of a purely
theoretical activity...the theoretical attitude has its historical origin in the Greeks” Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of
European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (Evanston, 1970), p.279-280.

8 For an interesting reconstruction and critique of this view see J.N.Mohanty, “Are Indian and Western
Philosophy Radically Different?” In J.N.Mohanty, Essays on Indian Philosophy (Delhi, 1993).

								
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