ON THE MEANING OF THE QUESTION ‘WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?’
author: Ventseslav Kulov
title: Conceptions of Philosophy.
Sofia: Self-published, 2009, pp.159.
Probably every teacher of philosophy will have felt somewhat awkward when having to explain to different audiences what their science is really about. There are different ways of getting out of this situation, depending on the skills of the teachers and the expectations of the audience. Some will not miss the opportunity to note, somewhat sentimentally, that philosophy is the mother of all sciences but will shy away from an answer by saying that philosophy itself is not exactly an ‘exact’ science. If, however, that is true, then an even more awkward question arises: Does anyone really need an inexact science and how come it figures alongside all other exact disciplines in a modern university? Some smart students (usually not students of philosophy) will ask that question.
Ventseslav Kulov’s book explores the question of the essence of philosophy in a way that is both profound and highly readable. Kulov’s style is so clear and uncluttered that I have no doubt his book will be a joy for anyone who loves straightforward questions and straightforward, unambiguous answers. The logical precision, overall style and, not least, the succinctness of the book allow one to define it not only as highly readable but also, most generally, as analytic. The problem, the author’s thesis and its validity and consequences are formulated at the very beginning. The book is in fact a demonstration and elucidation of the author’s thesis with the help of a skillfully constructed context that serves both as an argument and illustration.
Kulov’s thesis is that philosophy does not have a definite essence. This becomes clear to the reader from the very first page, where the motto is a thought of Karl Popper from The Logic of Scientific Discovery: ‘There is no such thing as an essence of philosophy.’ If there is no such thing as an essence of philosophy, then we cannot speak of a philosophy but of many different philosophies, some of which have nothing in common. The only thing they have in common is the name ‘philosophy’, but it does not have a common meaning. Hence, any discourse on philosophy is necessarily guided by some presupposed conception of philosophy which is determined by a specific historical and cultural context. Kulov’s book is like a guide through time which shows us how the different conceptions of philosophy were formed and changed. The consistency of his approach is truly remarkable. One of the major merits of this book is its clear logical framework. Kulov is fascinated with logic and this is evidenced both by his lecture courses at the University of National and World Economy in Sofia and by his excellent textbook of logic published in 2008. To formulate the main problem and his thesis as clearly as possible, he makes a number of terminological and methodological points concerning the character of nominal and real definitions, natural and artificial classes, etc. Kulov is never tempted to speak of philosophy in essentialist terms, even though the frequent use of the common name ‘philosophy’ in different contexts leaves the reader with the impression that he is nevertheless speaking of different variants of one and the same thing. Kulov defines his thesis as ‘metaphilosophical pluralism’ and stresses that, in substance, it can neither be disproved nor proved unequivocally. It can only be elucidated in a meaningful way and that is why the author views his book as an ‘extensive elucidation’. It is also important that neither can the opposite thesis, ‘metaphilosophical monism’ –according to which there is some unique essence underlying the name ‘philosophy’ – be disproved or verified.
The elucidation begins, of course, with the emergence of the word in ancient Greece and the establishment of the classical, traditional conception of philosophy. The author analyzes the use of the term from Pythagoras and Plato to Aristotle and Epicurus to Bacon and Descartes. The defining characteristic of the traditional conception of philosophy is that philosophy is conceived of as theory. Here Kulov shifts his analysis from the conception of philosophy to that of theory. Here, too, the logic of the exposition is textbook-like: the author gives a definition of ‘theory’ and points out its main characteristics (abstraction and systematicity), types, etc. This emphasis on the specificity of theories is not accidental, for the traditional conception of philosophy changed precisely upon the emergence of a new type of theories: scientific theories. It is precisely the emergence of science that led to the revision of the traditional conception of philosophy. The exposition continues in the same analytic vein: Kulov defines the conception of science and notes its main characteristics (science is a theory that is simultaneously synthetic, explanatory, and empirical). Here the emphasis is on the empirical character of scientific theories. Special attention is paid to the specific features that distinguish scientific theories from all other theories. The author notes some classical tenets of the philosophy of science: those regarding the origin, concordance and verifiability of theories in practice, the inductive and hypothetical-deductive method, refutability and scientific predictions. Kulov notes that the ever more distinct difference between empirical and non-empirical theories will ultimately lead to the elimination of the word ‘philosophy’ from the natural sciences and, hence, to the need of a new conception of philosophy.
Hegel is the philosopher who transformed the traditional conception of philosophy and created a new one, where philosophy is understood as thinking of thinking itself, as knowledge of knowledge. Hence philosophy is either logic, i.e. knowledge of thinking as such, or knowledge of thinking in a particular sphere, i.e. philosophy of… (science, law, history, etc.). Parallel with that, Hegel paid great attention to the history of philosophy, which he conceived of not as a historical but as a philosophical discipline. Knowledge of the historical development of philosophy is in fact knowledge of philosophy itself. This conception was very influential after Hegel, and it is understandable that Kulov devotes a special chapter to it in his book. Here, too, Hegel’s complex thought is presented by the author in a crystal-clear way. Here is one short sentence as an example. It refers to Hegel’s understanding of philosophy: ‘Expressed in a normal language, it is seductively simple: philosophy is metaknowledge (knowledge of knowledge)’ (p. 87).
After Hegel, revisions of the conception of philosophy became something normal. All of them, however, have one thing in common: measuring philosophy against science. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there appeared different points of view about the different disciplines that are part of philosophy. Kulov makes an extensive review, pointing out, among all points of view, Wilhelm Windelband’s analysis from the end of the nineteenth century as the most accurate and exhaustive one. According to Windelband, it is impossible to find a generic feature or a specific difference peculiar to a general conception of philosophy. According to Kulov, Windelband’s understanding has no ‘reasonable alternative’.
Kulov’s analysis then moves on to the twentieth century, where the attempts of individual philosophers to define the different conceptions of philosophy are again noted. One moment stands out here. Kulov examines in detail the views of the Bulgarian philosopher Dimitar Mihalchev, doing so again in context, not in isolation. In this way, he makes a connection between Mihalchev’s view that ‘scientific’ philosophy’ is possible and similar views of contemporary philosophers such as P.F. Strawson. An impressive demonstration of the main thesis in the book is done through a final review of the views of Oswald Külpe, Robert John Grote Mayor, John Wisdom, and Roger Scruton. Each one of those authors has tried to enumerate and generalize, within an exhaustive scheme, the different possible answers to the question ‘What is philosophy?’ These answers are articulated as ‘points of view’, ‘visions’, ‘models’ and ‘standard views’ of philosophy. Kulov analyzes and compares the different points of view, and what stands out as particularly noteworthy at the end is their relativism which supports the main thesis of the book.
Although it brilliantly demonstrates the thesis that philosophy has no essence and that it is a word with different meanings and uses, Kulov’s book has no probative value. The author himself admits this repeatedly in his book. The problem is that even in his analysis, Kulov follows a largely historically determined tradition that has its classical representatives and texts. Although they differ greatly from each other, they are nevertheless recognized as part of the philosophical tradition which is inevitably thought of as being one, be it within ‘blurred boundaries’. If we accept that Kulov’s thesis is true, then we will have to answer the question: By what rule have people identified, for centuries on end, radically different philosophies and conceptions of philosophy as belonging to one tradition which they call by one name? Kulov partly tries to answer this question in the final remarks. According to him, we are all captive to language. Language dominates thought and it has created a mental stereotype that makes us think of philosophy in the same way as we speak of philosophy: in the singular.
- Iassen Zahariev
- Ventseslav Kulov – Conceptions of Philosophy