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  • Competence in Compensating for Incompetence:Odo Marquard on Philosophy
  • Benjamin De Mesel

"at a chinese executioners' competition, the story goes, the second of two finalists found himself in an uncomfortable predicament. His opponent had just completed an exquisitely precise and unmatchable beheading, which he now had to outdo. The suspense was overwhelming. With his keen-edged sword, the second executioner performed his stroke. However, the head of the victim failed to drop, and the delinquent, to all appearances untouched, gave the executioner a surprised and questioning look. To which the executioner's response was: 'Just nod, please'" (Marquard, Farewell to Matters 22). In his provocative article "Competence in Compensating for Incompetence?" (Farewell to Matters 22–37), the contemporary German philosopher Odo Marquard compares philosophy to a head that has been chopped off. But the head has not yet fallen.

Marquard sees the history of philosophy as a process in which its competence has been slowly decreasing. "At first, philosophy was competent in everything; then it was competent in some things; today, philosophy is competent for one thing only—namely, to acknowledge its own incompetence" (Farewell to Matters 24). How did it come that far? According to Marquard, philosophy has lost its competence because it repeatedly failed to meet high hopes. "In the course of its laborious and vexed career, philosophy was faced with at least three critical challenges, which left it overextended and, ultimately, spent and exhausted" (Farewell to Matters 24).1 The first challenge, the soteriological challenge, demanded of philosophy that it lead to salvation for humankind. Philosophy was not up to the challenge and lost its supposed salvational competence to Christianity. The second, technological, challenge, demanded of philosophy that it lead to utility for humankind. But as the exact sciences outstripped philosophy, it again became apparent that philosophy was not up to the challenge. Finally, the political challenge [End Page 50] demanded of philosophy that it lead to justice and happiness. Philosophy lost this challenge, too; it was outstripped by political practice.

Salvation, utility, justice, and happiness are no longer to be expected from philosophy. What is left to expect? Wisdom? Maybe, says Marquard, but philosophy never enjoyed a monopoly on competence in this domain. "For in giving voice to that wisdom, the poets, at least, were always the rivals of the philosophers. Thus even the special character is threatened that is granted to philosophy when it is defined as the ripe wisdom of those who are not yet old—as the simulation of experience of life for, and by, those who do not yet have any" (Farewell to Matters 25). When it comes to wisdom, philosophy is replaceable. It seems to be left with no distinctive competence at all. It has lost the constant struggle for competence to more competent competitors. Philosophy is dead tired of fighting; its fate is nearly sealed.

And if that is the way things stand, then what is left for philosophy is: absolutely nothing—that is, pure, unadulterated, naked incompetence, as well as, to cite Socrates, only a single little trifling something, an admittedly very un-Socratic trifle that, rather than making philosophy somewhat less problematic, on the contrary makes it 100 percent problematic; and I should like to name this item, in view of the radical incompetence that philosophy has arrived at: it is philosophy's competence in compensating for incompetence.

(Marquard, Farewell to Matters 28)

In this article, I will develop an understanding of this "competence in compensating for incompetence" (Inkompetenzkompensationskompetenz). I will work out two interpretations of Marquard's most famous term and use them as stepping stones to clarify and evaluate Marquard's evolving metaphilosophical views. Both interpretations start from the assumption that philosophy has become incompetent, in the sense that it can no longer be expected to lead to salvation, utility, justice, or happiness. The central question is: "If philosophy is incompetent, how then can it live with its incompetence?"

1. Philosophy's Flight into Dogmatism or Skepticism

1.1 Competence and Compensation

The neologism Inkompetenzkompensationskompetenz confronts us with a logical problem. If philosophy is incompetent, how can it compensate for this incompetence by competence? Is it not contradictory to be competent (x) and incompetent (not x...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6489
Print ISSN
1930-7365
Pages
pp. 50-71
Launched on MUSE
2018-06-15
Open Access
No
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