Mario Bunge, Philosophy in Crisis: The Need for Reconstruction, 2001.

Crisis and Reconstruction in Philosophy

. . .


I submit that current philosophy suffers from the following ten ailments.

(1) Excessive professionalization. In the old times philosophy was a calling: it only attracted amateurs enamored of general problems and bold if often vague or even wacky ideas. From Kant on, philosophy has become one more profession. (Science has suffered the same process since the end of World War II.) Technical competence, and the attendant caution, often replace passion. The philosophy chairs have become so numerous that many of them are held by persons with neither avocation nor vision. Worse, since employment and promotion depend on publication, far too many philosophical productions are potboilers, hence boring or irritating. The profession has thus been filled with functionaries that are neither advancing philosophy nor transmitting an enthusiasm they lack, and without which no great enterprise can be undertaken.

(2) Confusion between philosophizing and chronicling. Doubtless, a knowledge of the past of his discipline is more important to a philosopher than to a scientist or a technologist. Whereas the latter are unlikely to consult any papers published twenty years earlier, philosophers are bound to consult books written twenty centuries ago. This is because many important philosophical problems have ancient roots and are still open. The history of philosophy is therefore a guide that sometimes inspires new ideas, and at other times spares the repetition of old mistakes. This is why it is regrettable that so many contemporary philosophers, under the influence of linguistic philosophy, hermeneutics, phenomenology, or existentialism, are disconnected from the past. This severance is just as pernicious as taking the history of philosophy, a valuable tool, for a goal. After all, the historian of philosophy studies original philosophers, not fellow historians. Yet, most doctoral dissertations in philosophy deal with other philosophers' opinions rather than with philosophical problems of current interest. The historicist distortion is such that the most popular philosophical dictionaries of the day -- unlike the classical ones such as Lalande's -- look more like cemeteries than workshops: they include biographies of long-forgotten philosophers, and discuss concepts and theories that are useless to tackle the philosophical problematics posed by contemporary developments in mathematics, science, technology, or society at large.

(3) Mistaking obscurity for profundity. Deep thought is hard to understand, but it can be grasped with some effort. In philosophy, obscure writing is sometimes just a cloak to pass off platitude or nonsense for depth. This is how Heidegger won his reputation as a deep thinker: by writing such sentences as "Time is the ripening of temporality." Had he not been a German professor and the star pupil of another professor famous for his hermetism -- namely Husserl -- Heidegger might have been taken for a madman or an impostor.

(4) Obsession with language. No doubt, philosophers must be careful with words. But they share this responsibility with all other intellectuals, whether they be journalists or mathematicians, lawyers or demographers. Only poets can afford to write about lucky winds or drunken ships. Besides, it is one thing to write correctly and another to turn language into the central theme of philosophy -- without, however, paying any attention to the experts, namely linguists. Philosophers are not equipped to find out how certain words are used in a given linguistic community: this is a task for field linguists and anthropologists. Nor should they decree that grammar rules over content. Authentic philosophers work on ontological, epistemological, semantical, or ethical problems.

Certainly, philosophers can be interested in the general concept of a language, but only as one of many general ideas, on a par with those of matter, chance, life, mind, knowledge, morals, culture, or history. If they restrict their attention to language, they are bound to irritate linguists and bore everyone else. In this way they will enrich neither linguistics nor philosophy. Nor has the "linguistic turn" in social studies -- inspired by Dilthey, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the deconstructionists -- resulted in any new social findings. It could not have done so because social facts are not texts or discourses: they lack syntactic, semantic, and phonological properties. Moreover, the linguistic approach does not even help analyze social documents such as economic statistics and legal codes because they refer to extralinguistic facts. In sum, glossocentrism is mistaken and barren. But it is easy, since it only requires familiarity with one language. This explains its popularity.

(5) Idealism. Although idealism is one of the dominant academic philosophies, it is just as exhausted as Marxism: it has produced no new ideas in recent times. Objective idealism, from Plato to Leibniz, and from Bolzano to Frege, is only viable in the philosophy of mathematics -- and even so on condition that live mathematicians and active mathematical communities are overlooked. All the other disciplines, whether scientific or technological, are tacitly materialist since they deal with concrete objects. (Recall chapter 3.) True, the hermeneutic thesis that social facts are "texts or like texts" has been well received in the shantytowns that surround the social sciences. But it is barren because it neither describes nor explains any social facts and, a fortiori, it cannot guide social-policy making. (Recall chapter 5.)

As for subjective idealism, from Berkeley to Kant, and from Mach to Goodman, it only inheres in some action theories and in the social studies centered on subjective probabilities and utilities. This approach is unscientific because it involves no empirical tests. Nor is it deep because, in ignoring material things and processes, such as natural resources and work, it does not help understand what happens around us. To understand or alter reality, whether natural, social, or mixed, we must start by assuming that it is concrete rather than a subjective experience. We must also adopt a realist epistemology, one helping explore both reality and the ways to alter it. Focusing on inner life can only lead to some forms of art.

(6) Exaggerate attention to miniproblems and fashionable academic games. Examples: Possible worlds metaphysics, the grue paradox, Newcomb's problem, and asking whether Plato would retain his name in alternative worlds. Why kill time thinking of a handful of artificial miniproblems when knowledge and action pose so many authentic and urgent problems? For example, why do not moral philosophers devote more attention to the problems affecting billions of people -- such as those of poverty and unemployment -- than to those that touch only a few, such as those of abortion and euthanasia? Just because religionists are more upset by the latter than by the former?

(7) Insubstantial formalism and formless insubstantiality. William James famously classed philosophers into tough-minded and tender-minded. Regrettably, nowadays the tough-minded, if skillful in the handling of formal tools, seldom tackle bulky problems. They usually work under the delusion that logic suffices to reveal the secrets of the universe -- something that actually only science can do. By contrast, some of the tender-minded brave tough problems but without making use of formal tools. The result of combining hard methods with bland problems is triviality. That of combining soft methods with tough problems is disappointment. And handling bland problems with soft methods, in the manner of the linguistic (Wittgensteinian) philosophers, only elicits yawns.

Formal tools serve not only to clarify concepts but also to debunk any number of foggy received ideas. Let us examine two cases: the utilitarian maxim and Pareto's optimality condition. The former, proposed by Helvetius, copied by Priestley, and adopted by Bentham, is "the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people." To examine this idea, imagine the total available happiness to be like a pie to be divided among n people in equal slices of size h, where this is the slice angle in radians. Since the size of the whole pie is 2π, the budget constraint is nh ≤ 2π. Obviously, an increase in n entails a decrease in h and conversely. Hence n and h cannot be maximized at the same time. In sum, the nice-sounding utilitarian maxim is absurd.

Pareto's optimality, widely used in ethics as well as in economics, is the condition of a society in which "no one can be made better off without someone else being made worse off." However, any distribution, whether equitable or not, satisfies this condition. Indeed, consider the simplest case, of a total quantity c of goods to be divided among two people. If x and y are the quantities assigned to the first and the second person respectively, they are subject to the condition "x + y = c." Obviously, any increase in x entails a decrease in y and conversely. (That is, Δx = - Δy.) Thus, Pareto's condition is satisfied regardless of the amounts x and y. In short, Pareto's optimality has nothing to do with either economic efficiency or fairness: it is just empty.

(8) Fragmentarism and aphorism. We have paid dearly for the failure of the "grand" philosophical systems, such as those of Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, Wolff, Kant, Hegel, or Lotze. The price has been diffidence for any attempts to build philosophical systems, and the concomitant preference for the brief essay or even the aphorism. Nowadays the expression esprit de systeme is used in a pejorative sense. But this diffidence is as unreasonable as it would be to mistrust physics or engineering because sometimes they fail. What is wrong is not to systematize (organize) ideas, but to cling dogmatically to this or that product of such effort. It is wrong because all things and all ideas come in systems.

We ought to systematize ideas because stray ideas are unintelligible; because we need logical consistency; because deductive power is desirable; and because the world is not a pile of unrelated facts but a system of interrelated things and processes. In context, every idea drags other ideas. For example, every concept of truth involves the concepts of proposition and meaning. Second example: Relativistic physics has taught us that the notion of time must be treated in combination with the ideas of space, matter, and event. Third: The idea of human action relates the concepts of person, intention, value, goal, norm, outcome, social environment, and circumstance. In short, we need systems of ideas in all fields of learning and all walks of life, because the world is a system, our knowledge another system, and living involves interacting with systems. Why should philosophy be the exception? Just because the puny and ephemeral is easier than the great and durable?

(9) Detachment from the intellectual engines of modern civilization. These engines are science, technology, and ideology. Detachment from them expedites wild and anachronistic speculation. Examples: The philosophies of mind that ignore the very existence of cognitive neuroscience; the philosophies of language that ignore that language is primarily a tool of cognition and social action; the action theories that ignore the most important types of action, namely work and social interaction, as well as the disciplines that deal with action, such as management science and political science; the philosophies of history that ignore the systemic, realist, and materialist approach of the Annales school.

(10) Ivory tower. Most philosophers live in the proverbial tower. They do not care to know what goes on in other departments or in the society that feeds them. They only read other philosophers and write exclusively for colleagues. They behave as if they were theologians or pure mathematicians. Consequently, their work is seldom of interest to those who work in other fields. Fortunately there are exceptions, namely, the epistemologists who try to understand technology, and the ethicians who tackle such real social issues as overpopulation, environmental degradation, poverty, oppression, and war. But, of course, by definition of "exception" there are few such philosophers. Most contemporary philosophers have neither their feet on the ground nor their eyes fixed on the stars.

So much for a diagnosis of the ailments of contemporary philosophy. Every one of them ought to suffice sending the dear old lady to the emergency wing. All ten necessitate sending her to the intensive care unit. The adequate treatment of the patient is obvious: A transfusion of new and tough problems whose solution would advance knowledge; intensive exercises in conceptual rigor resulting in the elimination of pseudophilosophical toxics; selected morsels of mathematics, science, and technology; training in the detection and inactiva-tion of ideological minefields; and renewal of contacts with the best philosophical tradition. Unless the patient follows this treatment, or a similar one, it will die of hunger and boredom. If this were to happen, its place would be taken by amateur philosophers, which would not be tragic because the best among them would eventually discipline themselves. After all, none of the fathers of philosophy held a philosophy chair, or even a doctorate in philosophy.


Whoever wishes to wake up the philosophers who dream of possible (or rather impossible) worlds, converse only with the dead, or play academic games can do either of two things. One is to raise hell, the other is to undertake the reconstruction of philosophy -- knowing that, though unending, this task is not necessarily Sisyphean. I expect and fear to have accomplished the first task in the preceding pages. Now I proceed to listing some of the options at the disposal of whoever wishes to reconstruct philosophy. They will be listed alphabetically. However, the features in question are interrelated. For example, a closed philosophy, one that owes nothing to the rest of knowledge, is born behind the times; and an anachronistic philosophy is as useless as tedious.

Authentic / fake. Whoever writes hermetic texts like Heidegger's Sein und Zeit perpetrates a philosophical imposture. He incurs the same sin as someone who, writing clearly, tackles pseudoproblems or digresses without contributing anything new, as is the case with Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. Authentic philosophizing contributes new knowledge, however modest. One can do so in many ways: by restating old problems in a more adequate manner, pointing out new problems, inventing ideas, analyzing concepts or theories, exhibiting previously unnoticed relations, etc.

Clear / obscure. Obscurity is an indicator of incompetence, confusion, or imposture. If we wish competence and authenticity, let us follow Descartes's injunction: let us try to craft clear and distinct ideas -- neither obscure nor confused ones. There are two recipes to attain clarity: To analyze with the requisite formal tools, and to systematize -- that is, to find or posit relations with other ideas. In sum, let us attempt to do exact and systematic philosophy.

Critical / dogmatic. Original philosophizing is not repetition but opening to question or attempting to solve problems, new or old, on one's own. Nor is it to restrict oneself to criticizing ideas: Criticism is a means to eliminate error, not to invent new ideas. Besides, there are two kinds of criticism: destructive and constructive. The former is unavoidable when the object of criticism has no redeeming features -- as are the cases of pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy. But when the object of criticism is mistaken in some regard but not wrong-headed, constructive criticism is called for -- that is, a criticism that aims at repairing instead of demolishing. This is the type of criticism characteristic of moderate or tactical skepticism, in contradistinction to radical or systematic skepticism. (See chapter 7.) Regrettably, though standard in mathematics and science, constructive criticism is seldom practiced by philosophers.

Deep / shallow. All good philosophies are radical: that is, they look for the roots of things and the presuppositions (tacit assumptions) behind the explicit assumptions. For example, the radical philosopher does not bother to criticize this or that detail of a probabilistic theory of meaning or truth. Instead, he attacks the very idea that it is possible to attribute probabilities to propositions; he does not call "indeterministic" the probabilistic theories but makes room for them in a broadened concept of determinism as lawfulness; he does not spend time with special models of rational choice but attacks their presupposition that it is possible to assign a probability to any event. The radical philosopher rejects phenomenalism -- whether Kantian or positivist -- because phenomena (appearances) are mere manifestations, to some observer, of processes inaccessible to the senses. He criticizes value-theoretical absolutism for overlooking local and subjective values just as strongly as he criticizes value-theoretical relativism for overlooking such objective and universal values as life, solidarity, peace, reason, and truth. And he rejects ethical deontologism for ignoring rights, and utilitarianism for underrating duties. The radical philosopher is not distracted by details but is a generalist: he looks for patterns in all fields -- or at least he does not discourage such a search.

Enlightened / obscurantist. Enlightened philosophers honor the Enlightenment even while criticizing its limitations, whereas obscurantists follow in the footsteps of the Romantic Counter-Enlightenment. The enlightened philosophies are naturalistic, humanistic, rationalist, empiricist, or both, pro-science, and progressive.

Interesting / boring. There is no stronger deterrent of intellectual work than boredom. Philosophizing should be as exhilarating and pleasant an experience as falling in love. Doing philosophy is exciting when it involves tackling new problems or seeing old problems in a novel way. And studying philosophy is a pleasant task when something new is learned in the process: something that elucidates an idea, solves an open problem, stimulates the imagination, or awakens a new intellectual restlessness. Doing philosophy without ever having the aha! or the eureka! experiences is just doing one more chore.

Materialism / idealism. An idealist philosophy is of course one that posits the autonomous existence of ideas. Idealism is inconsistent with the factual (or empirical) sciences and the technologies, all of which study, design, or alter concrete things -- which are changeable rather than unalterable. Hence, a philosophy that matches science and technology must be materialist -- though not vulgar (e.g., physicalist) but emergentist, since many concrete things, such as organisms, social systems, and artifacts have supraphysical (emergent) properties. Materialism denies neither the existence of ideas (in brains) nor the importance of some of them. It only involves regarding ideas as brain processes or as "embodied" in artifacts. To be sure, when analyzing the logical or semantical properties of an idea we feign that it exists independently of biological or social contingencies. This fiction is convenient, even necessary, in mathematics and elsewhere. But it is inadmissible in any ontology that claims to be consistent with science and technology.

Noble / vile. Any doctrine that degrades the human condition and discourages attempts at enhancing human dignity deserves being called vile. Examples: racism and the dogmas of original sin, predestination, and the noble lie; Freud's dogma that infancy is destiny: that no one can fully recover from infantile traumas; the theses that poverty is the punishment for sins incurred in an earlier life, or the price for inferior genetic endowment; that humans are only sophisticated automata; that individuals are like leaves swept by the hurricane of history; that social progress is impossible: that "the poor will always be with us"; that we live mainly to die (Heidegger's Sein zum Tode); that the masses are herds that deserve being led by inscrutable and unaccountable supermen; that the truth is or ought to be accessible only to a social elite; that reason is useless or pernicious; and that we need two morals: one for the rulers and another for the ruled. By contrast, a noble philosophy is one that helps improve the human condition. It does so by promoting research, rational debate, grounded valuation, generous action, good will, liberty, equality, and solidarity.

Open / closed. A philosophy can be either open or closed to the world and to the rest of knowledge. If closed, it commits the sin of willful ignorance. A philosophy can also be open or closed in another sense: according as it be conceived of as a philosophia perennis or as an ongoing research program, always ready to correct errors, tackle new problems, incorporate new views, or shift focus. If one remembers that the cemetery of ideas is full of perennial philosophies, one will prefer a philosophy open in both senses, that is, welcoming and on the go.

Realist / fantastic. A realist philosophy is one that tackles "real" problems rather than artificial ones; that adopts the epistemological realism inherent in the factual sciences and the technologies; and that subjects its theses to "reality checks." It is fantastic if it plays with ingenious but insubstantial problems, ignores all the relevant findings in other departments, and spins untestable or utterly false fantasies about the world, knowledge, or action.

Systemic / fragmentary. A philosophy can be systemic in either of two senses: in constituting a coherent whole, or in regarding everything as either a system or a component of one. And a philosophy may be fragmentary in similar ways: in being a heap of disconnected theses or arguments, or in failing to see the forest for the trees. Of course, it is not mandatory to opt for either style. There have been brilliant fragmentarians and dismal systemists. The important thing is to do some good philosophy. However, to paraphrase Baltasar Gracian, good philosophy, if systemic, is twice as good. As mentioned earlier, the reasons for such preference are internal consistency, deductive power, and matching the systemicity of both the world and human knowledge.

Topical / anachronistic. The philosophers who do not renew their problematics or their information lag behind. In so doing they become obstacles to progress because they deviate the attention from topical problems and recent findings. Caution: To be up-to-date is not the same as to imitate what is fashionable in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Oxford, or Paris. To be up-to-date means to be informed about contemporary physics when speculating about being or becoming, space or time, causation or chance; about chemistry, biochemistry, and cellular biology when thinking about emergence or self-organization; about cognitive neuroscience when doing philosophy of mind; about neurolinguistics, sociolinguistics, and historical linguistics when working on the philosophy of language; about economic sociology and history when analyzing social applications of game theory, and so on. In short, a topical philosophy is original to some extent rather than mimetic, and in touch with other fields of inquiry rather than isolated.

Useful / useless. A philosophy is useful if it helps nonphilosophers notice or state new problems; design viable strategies to investigate them; elucidate general ideas by analyzing or interrelating them; debate rationally the merits and flaws of rival approaches or doctrines; detect impostures, in particular pseudophilosophies and pseudosciences; or analyze and evaluate moral norms. By contrast, a useless philosophy detects no interesting new problems and fails to suggest any solutions to old problems. Let me hasten to add that I am not proposing that we always search for immediate applications. Utilitarianism, whether in the humanities, basic sciences, or the arts, clips the wings of imagination and only yields short-lived articles. In those fields we ought to look for long-run usefulness. This is the product of the features listed above: Authenticity, clarity, criticism, depth, enlightenment, interest, materialism, nobility, openness, realism, systemism, and topicality.

The preceding covers another two dichotomies: tender-minded/tough-minded, and lumpers/splitters. It appears that most tender-minded philosophers are lumpers rather than splitters, but this is because they confuse ideas rather than because they bridge them. Good philosophers split what is complex, and lump what belong together: they are analysts as well as synthesizers. The reason is simply that they deal with systems rather than with isolated items. And they split or lump, as the case requires, because they wish to understand. All good philosophy brings some enlightenment.

There may be further alternatives to reconstruct philosophy -- or for allowing it to disintegrate even further. However, the ones listed above may suffice to craft projects of either maintenance or reconstruction rather than demolition.


Philosophy is rather stagnant. All the philosophical schools -- in particular Aristotelianism, Thomism, Kantianism, Hegelianism, dialectical materialism, positivism, pragmatism, intuitionism, phenomenology, and linguistic philosophy -- are in ruins. No new broad and deep philosophies have been proposed in recent times, and none of the extant ideas has been of much help to understand the sea changes that have signed the twentieth century. If we wish philosophy to become again a knowledge of knowledge, a midwife of science, a judge of values, and a beacon for action, we must try and reconstruct it. We must rethink it not only correctly but also on a large scale. And we must never settle for the so-called weak thinking and the concomitant crippled writing characteristic of postmodernity, which is a betrayal of twenty-five centuries of efforts to crawl out of the cave.

We should face this great task the way the architects of the great medieval cathedrals proceeded, namely using some fragments of ruins as well as inventing new ideas. This is an endeavor for generations of curious, fearless, and industrious philosophers willing to listen to people in other departments and even in the street. At the entrance of this construction site let us hang a sign saying "Building under permanent reconstruction." This should dissuade the professionals without avocation, while attracting the lovers of original philosophizing.