Concerning the method used in the following reflec-
tions, I have followed to some extent the common
approach employed for several centuries by the uni-
versities of medieval Christendom. As can be seen in
any articulus of the great Summar, their structure would
first pose, in as precise a formulation as possible, a ques-
tion for discussion, together with a proposed answer,
or at least with a hint of a possible answer. But then
the one posing the question would keep silent for the
time being, turning himself into a listener to learn the
positions and objections of his opponents. More pre-
cisely, he himself, the questioner, would quote these
opposing voices in the most concise and persuasive man-
ner. Really a very demanding and difficult but also ex-
tremely convincing approach. For there would not
remain any doubt that the subject matter in question
could be seen from different angles, and therefore was
by nature controversial-by nature: not only because
the matter itself presented different objective aspects,
but also because of the specific approach on the part
of each searcher for knowledge, each questioning sub-
ject, who should not at all be understood as an individ-
ual, as one person, but as the many, and even more
accurately, as all mankind. The methodology itself,
therefore, brought home forcefully that the search for
truth is a common human endeavor, taking place by "What is it all about?"! The one saying this is neither
its very nature in dialogue and discussion, also in contro- naIve nor trying to make things romantically simple;
versy, and possibly perhaps in a controversy that could he is one of the founders of modern mathematical logic,
never be resolved, that would never arrive at some defi- one whose eminence as a philosopher rests not least
nitive and satisfying answer-such as would happen on the fact that eventually he debunked and denounced
when dealing with a specifically philosophical topic. all claims of an alleged "exact human knowledge" as
Our topic-or to spell it out right away, our thesis- self-illusion.2 Whatever else, his description of philoso-
reads as follows: to engage in philosophy means to reflect phy should be seen as reflecting the realistic, unimpas-
on the totality ofthinL~s we encounter, in view of their ultimate
sioned attitude of the researcher and scientist who is
reasons; and philosophy, thus understood, is a meaningfUl, allergic to all "verbal haziness".
even necessary endeavor, with which man, the spiritual bein<~, At this point the .first opposing voice is heard. Obvi-
cannot dispense. ously-so the argument might go-this definition means
Two things are thus asserted here, and so objections to imply that philosophy is not really a "doctrine" deal-
might be expected to aim at these two different as- ing with a clearly circumscribed subject matter, or is
pects as well. For one, this definition of philosophy it? In all other instances, when the question is: What
proposed here could be declared wrong; or else, it is psychology? (What is sociology? What is physics?),
could be maintained that to engage in philosophy as the answer always begins with these words: "Psychol-
described here would be, if not meaningless, at least ogy (or any other discipline) is the doctrine of. ... "
pointless. Yet here, are we told that engaging in philosophy would
But first we should explain more specifically what mean to ask questions, to discuss a question, or to "re-
our thesis implies. At first sight, it may appear somewhat flect" on something? Either the formulation is not meant
"general", perhaps even quite vague and much too in- to be precise, or-
nocuous. As regards "general"-well, it is supposed to Here I would interrupt my opponent, solely for
be such, this is the intention. That it is not vague will his information, with this observation: No, it is not
become clear as we proceed. And far from being innocu- a mere tentative and unrefined formulation, as it were;
ous, it would be considered an act of sabotage, and on the contrary, it means exactly what it says; engaging
rightly so, if we were to proclaim it only a few hundred in philosophy means indeed asking questions, reflecting
kilometers to the east of here [in Communist Eastern on questions, and ultimately facing one single question
Europe]. The meaning of our thesis all but coincides only.
with a statement made by Alfred North Whitehead dur- But does this question not find an answer? Does not
ing a public symposium at Harvard University on the all this questioning at least search for an answer?
occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday, a statement that I "Philosophy asks the simple question: what is it all about?" A. N.
certainly was spontaneous but hardly unreflected, Whitehead, "Remarks", in Philosophical Review 46 (1937): 17H.
namely, that philosophy consists in the simple question, 2 More about this on page 87.
Of course it does! Otherwise it would not be true all experience". 5 The high time of philosophical self-
questioning at all! Still, if such an answer is understood confidence, indeed, is by now entirely a thing of the
as imparting knowledge that satisfies and eliminates the past; still, it is good to remember how lofty a claim
question, and therefore takes away the very reason to was cultivated and put forward then.
ask the question, then we certainly have to say that The second potential objection centers on something
philosophy's question does not find an answer. entirely different. Doubt has to be voiced, so goes the
If so, how then can the conclusion be avoided that argument, regarding the subject matter with which phi-
philosophy and engaging in philosophy might be en- losophy allegedly is dealing. For one, what is the precise
deavors with scant justification, to put it mildly, endeav- meaning of "the totality of things"?
ors that have nothing to do, at the least, with science, As an answer I would repeat my own formulation,
or even with the search for knowledge and truth? "the totality of things we encounter".
Such an objection can obviously be raised from several What does "encounter something" mean? And fur-
angles. Those intent on empirical knowledge will, above ther, who encounters?
all, talk in this manner-those who want to remain The answer to the latter question is easy: we speak,
close to what is tangibly real and who reject any consid- of course, about those things we, as human beings,
eration going beyond that. But there are also those who encounter. "To encounter" something means this:
see themselves as taking a genuinely philosophical posi- within my mental horizon something turns up in such
tion but affirm the same thing; I am thinking of those a manner as to stand in my way, as "to resist". True,
who propose a "scientific philosophy" and claim that in a strict sense, there cannot be anything within my
the philosopher even in his proper field can and must horizon that would not also be in my way. I can indeed
follow the principles of the exact sciences. And then, imagine something, I can produce a fantasy; but its
too, the representatives of the great speculative philo- unreal character shows precisely in its lack of resistance,
sophical systems of the early nineteenth century could its lack of standing in my way-unless I am sick. To
not accept the thesis of philosophy as inquiry-neither repeat, then: I "encounter" something, means, I come
Schelling, who calls philosophy "the science ... of the upon it, I meet with it, I find it there; it stands against
eternal and primal forms of all things";3 nor Hegel, who me as ob-iectum, an object. I might be able to ignore
sees philosophy as "knowing the absolute";4 nor Fichte, it, change it, misinterpret it for a while, maybe because
who states that "philosophy anticipates the totality of of a certain simplifying "theory" or a preconceived
ideology of mine. In the long run, however, such an
3 Friedrich Schelling, lectures on the methodology of academic object will assert itself, unless I simply turn away from
studies (1802), Studium Generale, cd. Hermann Glockner, vol. 15
it; it will make its presence felt, it will disturb me,
(Stuttgart: Kroner's Pocket Editions, 1954), 70.
4 Georg Hegel, fragment of a letter to H. F. W. Hinrichs, summer
make me think, "hook" me; it will be in the way.
1819, Briefe VOIl und an Hegel, cd. Johannes Hoffmeister, vol. 2 (Ham- SJohann Fichte, Erste Eilllcitulll in dic WiSscllschajislellrc, cd. Fritz
burg, 1953), 216. Mcdicus (Leipzig, 1944), 3 I.
An interjection: philosophy, therefore, would limit perceived and on the surface, some hidden source and
itself to dealing with what is encountered as objective reason, a depth not easily plumbed, a reality "behind"
reality, and not with the encountering subject? the mere facts. Precisely this dimension constitutes the
Answer: of course, the subject as well is part of the aim of the philosopher's question. He investigates the
totality encountered. I myself stand in the way of my ultimate, the "real" meaning-not of this or that but
own reflective gaze as a given and assertive reality; which of all that is.
means, as a reality that I, who perceive and interpret, And this, indeed, is impossible if not altogether non-
definitely have to take into account, provided I am pur- sensical, contends the opposition; on this specifically
suing truth. Even should I be convinced that my self the objection is focused. Yet the request for some reasons
includes realities never to be encountered by my own for this finds two different answers. One answer declares
perception, such distinctive traits of the subject would the fundamental meaning of the world to be outside
also be a given, something "objective", as it were, which our perceptive powers; the other denies such fundamen-
stands in the way and cannot be ignored nor altered. tals altogether.
And then, indeed, nothing needs to be said about the With the first answer an appeal is made to our intellec-
peculiar opinion that the philosopher ought to turn his tual discipline. In Hans Reichenbach's programmatic
attention away from all that surrounds him: "You do book, Aufitil:R der wissenschafilichen Philosophie ["The
not reflect on anything outside, but solely on you Rise of Scientific Philosophy"], we read: "The philoso-
yourself.,,6 On the contrary, true philosophy deals with pher seems incapable of controlling his craving for
everything that is given, within as well as without. knowledge."7 But is this not, we may say, an entirely
All right, then, the opposing voice insists, we have appropriate observation? Our longing for knowledge is
this clarified; but what is the supposed meaning of the indeed beyond our control. Is this not what Plato had in
question, "What is it all about?" Is this not a rather impre- mind when he compared the philosopher to a lover? The
cise formulation, more colloquial than scientific? What philosopher, too, is "beside himself" because he is
is this question, in essence, aiming at? moved to the core by the mirandum, the wonder of this
First, I would caution not to underestimate people's world. We can agree wholeheartedly. What bedevils
everyday way of speaking, neither its precision, nor this insight, however, is the fact that Plato praises what
its rich content, nor its importance. Many an "exegesis the "scientific philosophy" rejects and disqualifies with-
of common expressions" has yielded amazing results. out feeling the need for further arguments: it shows a
So is anybody who in view of this or that asks, "What lack of discipline even to talk about things beyond our
is it all about?", obviously presuming that the outward understanding!
appearance of something, accessible to all, is not yet The second answer, which accepts as real only what
"all of it". Rather, there might be more to it, not readily
7 Hans Reichenbach, AI!filie.~ der wissenselrafiliehen Philosophie (Ber-
6Ibid., 6. lin, 110 date lI953]), 36.
can be observed, expresses, of course, the unquestioned edge. Each science formulates one particular aspect; it
core position of every positivism. The "realism" of or- studies only one tiny slice of reality but does so with
thodox Marxism asserts the very same thing. Friedrich extreme precision.
Engels called it a "philosophical whim" to speak of a Does this not amount to confirming-so 1 would
hidden foundation of all reality. 8 The most direct formu- retort-what had been disputed in the first place: that
lation is found in the positivist manifesto, Wissensehafi- no individual science formally poses the question that
liehe Weltauffissung ["The Scientific World View"], of defines the identity of philosophy, namely, the question
the early Vienna Circle: "What is, is on the surface; regarding the world as a totality, "What is it all about?"
everything is accessible to human perception."9 Thus True, in a certain sense we may admit, with Karl Jaspers,
it is nonsensical so much as to search for a "root" of that philosophy is "not legitimated by any object"; 11
all things or for their "ultimate reasons". In short, that nothing, as it were, has been left over for it-unless
mysterious object of philosophy is nonexistent. Only one is willing to call the totality of all objects itself an
the objects of science are real; they are, in a strict sense object. This in turn depends to some extent on the
and without exception, the objects of physics. 10 kind of definitions one chooses.
This now provides the cue for a third objection, ex- And yet, this third objection does point to a real
pressed as follows: the only possibility of perceiving problem that is all but unsolvable. The philosopher,
the totality of all that is given consists in the collaboration on the one hand, indeed does not envision some "differ-
among the particular sciences. This collaboration, with ent" reality; he looks at everything given in experience,
the purpose of shedding light on all reality, has in fact just as does any scientist engaged in research. And even
been going on for thousands of years, without the ex- though, unlike the scientist, he ponders and questions
press proclamation of such a lofty intent. The individual what is given as to its ultimate reasons, he must never
scientist, seriously and objectively concentrating on his disregard, of course, the insights gained on the matter
proper field, sees himself as just one specific component at hand by the appropriate sciences. Anyone who sets
in the overall and global process of searching for knowl- out, for example, to discuss the philosophical question
as to the "essence" of all matter will certainly depend
8 Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach und der Ausgang der klassischen
on the discoveries of nuclear physics. Still, on the other
deutschen Philosophie (Berlin, 1946), 17f. When the Philosophical Insti-
hand, it seems undeniable there exists a certain dimension
tute of the Academy of the Sciences in the USSR published its "Pro-
gram of a Comprehensive Course in Dialectical and Historical of all reality, precisely the dimension the philosopher
Materialism", in 1948, it dedicated an entire paragraph to this idea, is concentrating on, about which the empirical sciences
an idea also quoted by Lenin. Cf. I. M. Bochenski Der sowjetrussische have little or nothing to say-so that philosophy, in
dialektische Materialismus (Bern and Munich, 19S0), 9S.
this respect, remains quite independent from the sciences
9 Wissenschafiliche Weltauffassung. Der Wiener Kreis (Vienna, 1929),
10 Cf. Rudolf Carnap, "Die physikalische Sprache als Universal- 11 KarlJaspcrs, Philosophie, 2nd ed. (Berlin, Giittingen, Hcidelbcrg,
sprache der Wissenschaft", Erkenntnis 2 (1931): 463, 46S. 1948), 272.
and their eventual progress. Moreover even, the subject immersion in practicalities all the way to a deliberate
matter of its quest may possibly become all the more setting of an absolute standard of usefulness in the most
immense and unfathomable, the more the scientific ex- general sense, the standard of the bonum utile, of
ploration of the world advances. "Surrounded by the "bread"-a position only a small step away from the
precipitous progress of the sciences", 12so remarked Wil- categorical indifference toward truth itself. On the one
helm Dilthey around the year 1900, we are nevertheless end of the scale stands the man of common active life,
"more at a loss than in any other era" when confronted interested in facts, not in theory; on the other end, the
with "the one, obscure, terrifying subject matter of all wielder of power, who aggressively rejects all "useless"
philosophy".13 insights-and who, for example, would look at a philos-
The fourth objection to be considered now comes from ophy not "useful" for the fostering of political action
the world of practicalities and activities. No theoretical and judge it only worthy of liquidation.
difficulties proper are voiced in it, and on a theoretical
level it is not too impressive. Its importance lies in its
power to define a person's life. It could be summed
up as follows: philosophy, as reflection on the ultimate
meaning of all that is, may indeed be possible, perhaps
even quite interesting and fascinating; still, not only
does it not serve any purpose, it even hampers the daily
care for life's necessities. It is, therefore, nonsensical,
and above all: counterproductive.
The effect of this "argument" in our contemporary
world-a world ever more decisively sliding toward a
situation where the notion of work reigns absolute (ei-
ther dominated by the dictatorial tyranny of central plan-
ning, or by the overwhelming psychological fixation
on the ideal of efficiency)-the effect, I believe, is so
pervasive that one can all but conclude it determines
the situation of contemporary philosophy much more
than does philosophy's genuine quest and proper object.
There certainly exist different degrees of rejection. Their
span reaches, on one end, from an uncritical, unreflective
12 Wilhelm Dilthey, Gesammelte Sehrifien, vol. 8 (Leipzig and Berlin,