“Philosophy as critical theory” by Kai Nielsen

The metaphilosophical views of Kai Nielsen are similar to what Jürgen Habermas argues for in the essay Philosophy as Stand in and Interpreter (see review here). Their suggestion for the future of philosophy appears much the same. Some parts of the article by Nielsen I found interesting, for example the quotes under headline “The fault of the traditional philosophers”. In general, Habermas appears more sophisticated and interesting to me though.
Nielsen argues that we “should transform philosophy into some form of critical social theory”. I think that one cannot expect to persuade traditional philosophers to stop doing traditional philosophy by arguments. It is more important to actually show the way. People don’t learn from what you say, people learn from what you (with success) do.

Both Nielsen and Habermas speaks of that philosophy should be empirical. This I’ll write more about later on!

Selected quotes from Philosophy as critical theory by Kai Nielsen.

I shall be concerned […] with the normative and critical task of characterizing how I think philosophy should deeply transform itself. [—] My claim is (1) that the major traditions supported by the profession are exhausted and (2) that even so, philosophy need not just close up shop but can and should transform itself. [—] We can and should transform philosophy into some form of critical social theory with an emancipatory intent.

Defining foundationalism
Foundationalism is a philosophical account which seeks to isolate, by some kind of philosophical method, a set of basic beliefs which are foundational to all the rest of the things that we may justifiably claim to know or reasonably believe. Classical foundationalism holds that the only properly basic beliefs are those that are self-evident, incorrigible reports of experience or are evident to the senses. On such an account, other beliefs can be rationally held only if they are supported either deductively or inductively by such properly basic beliefs. Aside from anything else, for reasons purely internal to the framework, such a classical form of foundationalism would appear at least to be self-refuting for the very proposition asserting what classical foundationalism is, is, on the one hand, neither self-evident, evident to the senses or an incorrigible report of experience nor, on the other, deducible from such propositions or inductively justified by them. In fine, classical foundationalism hoists itself by its own petard.

The fault of traditional (foundational/metaphysic) philosophers
Our very intellectual integrity requires that we must strive for and practice such clarity when we philosophize. Yet this metaphor still gives the philosopher the illusion of having an expertise and a technique that she does not have.

when we look at the matter carefully we will come to see that there are in reality no such powerful analytical techniques that the philosopher can deploy to solve either the problems of philosophers or for that matter the problems of life

The broad opposion to foundationalism
Opposition to […] various voices of foundationalism comes not only from the classical pragmatists and from Wittgenstein, Wisdom and Waismann, it has emerged, as well, internally to analytic philosophy itself, from the pragmatization of positivism in Quine, Goodman and Sellars and from the work of such (comparatively speaking) younger generation analytical philosophers as Putnam and Davidson, to say nothing of such apostates to the analytical tradition as Rorty, Taylor and Maclntyre. On the Continental side, in a different way and in a different idiom, the rejection has been as thorough. In France I refer to Merleau Ponty, Lyotard, Foucault and Derrida and in Germany, to Heidegger, Gadamer, Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas, Wellmer and Blumberg.

Nielsen’s suggestion for the future of philosophy
I want to suggest that there may be a way that philosophy might transform itself in a way that would answer to our unschooled reflective hopes. It would involve (a) giving up all pretensions to autonomy and instead interlocking philosophy fully with the human sciences and (b) taking the resolution of the problems of human life to be very centrally a part of philosophy’s reason for being.
Taking this folk conception of philosophy as our benchmark, I want to see if something serving the same ends and with the same overall rationale, but more rigorous, more argument-based and more discipline oriented, could be articulated and then developed. I shall call it philosophy-as-critical-theory.
What I am advocating in advocating philosophy-as-critical-theory is a holistic social theory which is at once a descriptive-explanatory social theory, an interpretive social theory and a normative critique. Departing radically from the philosophical tradition, it will be an empirical theory.

Philosophy as critical theory, Kai Nielsen 1987


About Dandre

Former student of philosophy, maths and literature. Now studying master program in sociology. Some thinkers of central interest include Ludwig Wittgenstein, C. G. Jung and Pierre Bourdieu.
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One Response to “Philosophy as critical theory” by Kai Nielsen

  1. Pingback: Pierre Bourideu, philosophy and empirics | Recollecting Philosophy

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