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  • The Literary Modernist Assault on Philosophy
  • Michael Lackey

In a recent essay, Richard Rorty makes an insightful distinction between two views of the concept in order to distinguish analytic from conversational philosophy. Rorty defines traditional and analytic philosophy's orientation toward knowledge in terms of "an overarching ahistorical framework of human existence that philosophers should try to describe with greater and greater accuracy."1 Implicit in this view is the belief that there exists a mind-independent Concept that is what it is whether humans perceive it or not. Moreover, this Concept is best suited to represent the world's essence or nature. Therefore, the task of the philosopher is "to pin down" this invariable and universally valid Concept so that he or she can represent reality. Starting with Hegel, however, concepts were treated "like persons—never quite the same twice, always developing, always maturing" ("ACP," p. 21). This is, according to Rorty, the conversational philosopher's view of the "concept." Instead of being an immutable, mind-independent reality, it is a human-constructed semiotic force that evolves in relation to specific communities of language users. The idea of getting a concept right, therefore, is simply incoherent.

This distinction between an immutable and evolving concept is certainly a valuable way of understanding some crucial developments in philosophy, but Rorty's use of it to characterize non-analytic philosophy as conversational instead of Continental philosophy is certainly an executive decision on his part. And yet, Rorty is not alone in making such an executive declaration about philosophy, for many early twentieth-century writers also examined this shift to a view of the concept as an ever-evolving and ever-shifting force of meaning, but instead of reconfiguring [End Page 50] and redefining philosophy in light of this shift, they proclaimed the discipline dead. What I want to do in this short essay is to identify a tension in the writings of early twentieth-century writers on the topic of philosophy and to initiate a dialogue that would take more seriously the crisis in philosophy that led to the split between the analytic and Continental traditions.2


"The appartement of the Boulevard des Philosophes presented the dreary signs of impending abandonment. It looked desolate and as if already empty to my eyes."3

In the Western intellectual tradition, philosophy has been defined as a discipline that makes use of rigorous forms of logic in order to apprehend an overarching ahistorical truth, which is embodied in either an Ideal Form or a universal concept. Given the superior nature of philosophy's intellectual tools and primary object of desire, it has been dubbed a "nonempirical super science,"4 a disciplinary touchstone used to determine the quality and value of all other systems of knowledge.5 According to this view, a discipline has legitimacy and worth insofar as it contributes to, approximates, or yields philosophical knowledge. Philosophy certainly dominated the Western intellectual tradition from Plato to the end of the nineteenth century, but by 1899, Bertrand Russell was suggesting that philosophy was on the verge of losing its title as the Monarch of knowledge and truth: "Philosophy, by the slow victories of its own offspring, has been forced to forgo, one by one, its high pretensions."6 Friedrich Nietzsche's genealogical method certainly did much to undermine philosophy's credibility, for in exposing the way concepts evolve in relation to an individual community's ideological needs and desires, Nietzsche implicitly identified the philosopher's non-normative, mind-independent truth as the seething product of an overheated imagination.7

Deeply concerned about the radical subversion of philosophy was T. E. Hulme, the modernist aesthetician who understood the threat that the anthropomorphic turn in knowledge posed to Truth. For Hulme, should the intellectual world accept the view that truth is a human construction instead of a pre-given Idea, all conceptual systems would be nothing more than a Weltanschauung. To save universal Truth and objective Reality, therefore, modernist intellectuals have only one option: to purge philosophy of "anthropomorphism" so that they could [End Page 51] re-establish an "objective basis" for knowledge, a basis that does "not in the least depend on the human mind." Once...


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