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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 14.1 (2000) 7-16

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The Speculative Reconsidered

Vincent Colapietro

In 1867, the first issue of The Journal of Speculative Philosophy (JSP) appeared under the editorship of William T. Harris (1835-1909). In that issue, Harris launched his enterprise with a message "To The Reader" announcing his objectives and aspirations. What Harris announced in the opening issue needs to be seen in light of what he accomplished in this and subsequent ones. Charles Sanders Peirce and Williams James published some of their first articles here. Indeed, one of Peirce's best-known series of papers first appeared in JSP, the one wherein he formulates his critique of Cartesianism ("Some Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man," "Further Consequences of Four Incapacities," and "Grounds of Validity of the Laws of Logic: Further Consequences of Four Incapacities"). Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, G. Stanley Hall, George Sylvester Morris, and others appeared in this forum. In 1893, the Journal ceased publication: the first journal in the United States devoted primarily to philosophical work concluded its notable but brief life.

In 1987, the new series of JSP was inaugurated under the editorship of Carl R. Hausman, Henry W. Johnstone Jr., and Carl G. Vaught. The idea of resurrecting the journal, however, grew out of conversations between Douglas R. Anderson and Carl Hausman; Anderson had studied with Professors Vaught and Hausman at the Pennsylvania State University. At first, Anderson was the managing editor and, in time, one of the editors of this journal. In the first issue of the new series, the editors followed the example of Harris and stated their aims and hopes in a message "To the Reader." Theirs was a robust affirmation of speculative philosophy, although they knew that both the expression and what it designates would not meet with immediate acceptance or even understanding. Thus, they took pains to explain the meaning of their terms and, partly by this means, of their undertaking itself, as Harris himself did, not only in his message [End Page 7] "To The Reader," but also in "The Speculative" (a piece also found in the inaugural issue of the original JSP and reprinted just prior to this essay).

In the end, the first coeditors of the new series identified speculative philosophy in a manner remarkably close to that of Harris: such a philosophy is an ongoing "quest for an unconditioned first principle" (1987, 4). They stressed that it is not only always unfinished, but also no more than tentative in its conclusions. This emphasis allowed them, in their judgment, to include under the rubric of speculative philosophy the names of Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein (both early and late), George Edward Moore, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey alongside of those of Plato, Aristotle, Baruch Spinoza, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

But the quest for an unconditioned first principle, however tentatively it is conducted, is not a philosophical project to which philosophers indentified in the first list (with the possible exception of Peirce) would endorse. The monism and transcendence entailed by the traditional understanding of speculative philosophy would, indeed, be for Russell, Wittgenstein, Dewey, James, Martin Heidegger, and numerous other contemporary philosophers occasions for deep philosophical suspicion. The ultimate objective of speculative philosophy, so understood, would be at once a single and transcendent principle. Plurality, immanence, fragmentation, finitude, and many of the other most salient features of human experience would in effect be subordinated to the primary commitments of first philosophy: unity, transcendence, totality, the infinite, and the unconditioned.

Moreover, metaphors of vision stealthily usurp the authority or power of other metaphors. The founding editors of the new series point out that, "from an etymological point of view, to speculate means to observe, to spy out, or to look carefully at something, where a ray of hope is to be discerned in what we examine" (3). But the optical metaphors implied here are themselves left unseen, thus unexamined. The attempt to link speculative with critical philosophy hence comes up short at the very point speculative philosophers are to exhibit their dialectical method: it stops short of...


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