A Short Piece

The Myth of “System Builders”

Who exactly are these philosophers always building grand systems?

Photo by Luca Baggio

I am skeptical that many if any of the best philosophers were in the business of “systems building” — I sometimes wonder if that is a generality that doesn’t really apply. Maybe it does to the Analytical Philosophers like Fichte, an effort which Gödel ended, and perhaps some of the theologians like Aquinas, but I question the label even regarding Aquinas. Is the Suma Theologica really a system, or is it a collection of premises that result from various sized chains of deductions? Does every section of Aquinas rely on the next? Or could part of the Suma be wrong and the rest remain standing? Can we really call something a “philosophical system” if every part isn’t dependent on every other part? In my mind at least, a “system” is something that must all stand together or fall together, or else I’m not sure what the word means. And I do think that’s generally what most people think about “systems.”

Alright, to be charitable, I don’t deny that surely there are some thinkers out there in the business of trying to construct a vast “system,” but I don’t think it’s nearly as many thinkers as we believe (and metaphors matter). Frankly, again, I’m not even sure about the function of the word “system”: it just feels like a term we use to describe anything “vast.” But how a thinker is “vast” matters, because if we believe the work of a thinker is “all stacked on top of one another” like a great tower, then we’re likely to think there’s not much to gain from the thinker, because the probability of every conclusion being correct is so low. Believing philosophers are in the business of constructing “towers” versus “explore vast ranges,” we’ll likely feel “intellectually justified” to ignore the philosophers, based on the simple fact that nobody is always right, and if philosophers must be right all the time for their projects to stand, their projects likely crumble. Like a Jenga tower, it’s inevitable that the game eventually ends.

What about Plato? Didn’t he build a “Platonic system?” Well, maybe The Republic has a “system” feel to it, but I don’t know if the word “system” is correct. It’s more “all-inclusive” or “vast,” meaning that Plato tries to cover all the major topics that would need to be addressed to establish a new socioeconomic order. But Book II of Plato could be wrong and Book V could remain valid — again, I stress, a project doesn’t strike me as a “system” unless each part must stand for every other part to stand. Maybe my understanding of “system” is wrong here, but I think this distinction must be made so that we can establish meaningful differences between “all inclusive projects” versus “systems.” Once we make that clarification, it stops seeming like every philosopher was in the business of “building a system” (even Hegel), which might not seem like a big deal, but it actually entails significant implications for what we think philosophers are in the business of doing.¹

Philosophers tend to write about many different subjects: Davide Hume, for example, glides with ease between studying causality, stable identity, to then addressing the role of commerce is “civilizing” people and “growing sentiment.” But is Hume “building a system?” Hardly. Yes, his views on “sentiment” inform his views on ethics and commerce, but that doesn’t mean all the conclusions rely on the accuracy of the other conclusions. Perhaps the range of topics that Hume covers makes it seem like he’s making a “system,” but “range” and “system” are not similes. Perhaps we could say all of Hume’s positions have a “similar taste” or have “Humean characteristics,” and perhaps because Hume is wrong about x, which appears in many of his ideas, then many of his ideas are wrong regarding the parts of them that are reliant on x, in the same way that the mathematician who uses y formula regarding z and c problem may get both z and c wrong because y was misapplied. But does that mean the mathematician was in the business of building a “system.” No — the thinker just used the wrong tool.

Philosophers often have “vast ranges” across which they use “similar tools” (which can create “patterns of thought”), but that is very different from thinking philosophers are constructing towers in which every brick has to be rightly and exactly laid or the whole tower comes crashing down. Frankly, if philosophers were in the business of constructing towers, I myself would likely not spend much time reading them: that metaphor in mind, disregarding philosophers as “probably wrong” is rational. Do you see why metaphors matter? They shape what makes sense.²

Reading philosophers, I’ve just never seen these “systems” that supposedly are lurking everywhere: “systematic philosophy” is much rarer than some people make it out to be. Even the term “systematic” is problematic, for by it I could mean “carefully moving from one deduction to the next,” or I could mean “constructing a vast intellectual edifice.” But, here again, metaphors matter: are philosophers “systematically careful” like an explorer who is careful to pay attention to the terrain across which he walks (he watches “each step after the other”), or are philosophers “systematically careful” like a builder constructing a tower? Following the first metaphor, the terrain across which the explorer walks doesn’t “crumble into pieces and vanish” if the explorer misses a step and falls down into a sinkhole: she falls and might have to spend a lot of time scaling her way back up onto the flat land, but the land doesn’t collapse or vanish. In other words, if philosophers are “exploring uncharted territories”:

1. The subjects of philosophical inquires are there in the world: they aren’t fantasies and exist like and with nature.

2. Philosophical efforts will be more “experimental” and full of “trials and errors.”

3. Philosophical subjects don’t derive their existence from philosophers: they exist and philosophers just discover them.

4. Philosophers don’t have to be right all the time: even if philosophers misinterpret the landscape, misread their map, etc., the territory will still be “there.”

5. The subjects of philosophers will likely greatly exceed the scope of their works, as whatever an explorer maps or photographs will only be a small percent of all there was to experience on the trip (smalls, sounds, etc.). This suggests that future explorers could venture further.

On the other hand, if philosophers are “building towers”:

1. The subjects of philosophical inquires are created: they aren’t “found” but “made,” greatly increasing the chance that philosophical subjects “aren’t real” but instead are “manmade.” We don’t find “towers” in nature.

2. Philosophical efforts must be “precise” and “well planned ahead of time.”

3. Philosophical subjects derive their existence from philosophers: their existence is circular insomuch as they exist because philosophers looks for them and philosophers look for them because they exist.

4. A philosophical mistake would collapse the philosophical effort: as a single mistake by an engineer could put at risk an entire construction project, so the same would follow for philosophical work.

5. The subjects of philosophers “will” be what they construct: the subjects will be no vaster than what is created; they will be contained. This suggests that future philosophers should mostly “memorize.”

The metaphoric lens through which we understand philosophers completely transforms the probability (to us) that philosophical efforts will yield results that justify the effort of reading philosophy. If I am right that very few philosophers are actually in the business of “system building,” that most are actually more like explorers trying to chart an unknown territory, then we metaphorically understand philosophers in a way that puts them in the exact wrong light.³ We are understanding explorers as builders, and though the findings of explorers are likely more reliable than not (even if incomplete), we end up assuming philosophical conclusions are wrong because we understand them through a metaphor that makes it “rational” to conclude philosophical conclusions are probably wrong. Hence, we absolve ourselves the need to study philosophy while believing the move is intellectually noble.

To close, again, I don’t deny there is some truth to the language of “system” regarding philosophical projects: Hume is certainly putting together a “system of thought,” and there are numerous premises in the work of Quentin Meillassoux (for example) that all indeed “work together” to generate various conclusions. My concern is that we’ve “overstressed” the metaphor of “system” to the point where we associate all philosophers as “building something,” which makes it easy to associate “philosophy” with “making castles in the air” (Kierkegaard). This is a terrible mistake, for there are plenty of philosophers who participate in an entirely different enterprise: the phenomenologists, for example, are paying attention and journaling what they see.

To introduce a final metaphor, I understand philosophy to primarily be the process of figuring out the conditions necessary for a rainbow to appear, and then putting ourselves in the middle of those conditions to in fact see a rainbow. It is to pay attention to the fact that rain is needed, a little sunlight, and that we also must be standing outside looking to the East instead of the West: that is philosophy, that is putting myself in the middle of the right conditions.

For me, philosophy is primarily an effort to grasp the right conditions which make possible a certain kind of apprehension (to allude to “The Philosophy of Glimpses”) or to realize and “bring about” a certain goal (like justice, goodness, or freedom). If this is the case, philosophy is also extremely practical, because how we apprehend the world directly shapes and influences how we practice our lives in it. Personally, I have never encountered a great philosopher who didn’t understand that philosophy was about searching and “mapping out” more than building something — the myth of “system building” has blinded us even to the books we read in front of us.

Philosophy is not the process of constructing a rainbow but finding one.
Efforts to build rainbows leave our hands empty.

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Notes

¹I think Dr. Cadell Last, a tremendous Hegel scholar, put it best when he wrote that Hegel ‘allows you to stop trying to be the master systematizer; absolute knowing is the opposite of this master-system impulse (also the meaning behind Hegel’s “cunning of reason”). / Phenomenology of Spirit is grounded in a perception loop of sense-immediacy and systemic understanding, [we] cannot get out of […] and it moves to higher and higher orders (openness to the other).’

²Please note that I’m a strong believer that metaphors shape our thinking far more than any of us like to admit. If we don’t take the time to “own” our metaphors, our thinking will still be shaped by them. Additionally, as discussed elsewhere, if thought is best found in the space between “thinking” and “perceiving” — ideas and experiences — then metaphors are an important blend, for they are images based on things that we perceive which “stand in” as representatives of thought. Additionally, they “bind” the thought and help direct it, because the ideas which circulate “around” the metaphor must follow the logic of how the “thing” actually works in the world.

For example, if I say, “education is water,” then education can “flow” but not “float,” because water doesn’t “float.” Water “flows,” and so in calling “education water,” my thought is naturally led to thinking of education as “flowing.” The metaphor gives me direction: if I don’t know where to go in my philosophizing on education, I can just ask myself, “What does water do?” Suddenly, I can think about how water evaporates, condensates, and precipitates; I can think about water is necessary for life; and so on. And suddenly new thoughts about education arise and motivate my thinking.

Can metaphors deceive me? Easily, thus the danger of a good metaphor: sometimes, they work so well for helping me think about education that I can forget the fact education “maps” onto water doesn’t mean that what I’m arguing about education is therefore right. Relative to a purely “mental model,” education may map onto water without fail, but once applied to the world, the model could instantly fall apart. This is also important to keep in mind, but it’s equally as important to realize that metaphors can also help my thinking from flying off into a realm of abstraction nobody understands. Metaphors “bind” thought, and though they risk making “bad thoughts” seem better than they actually are, I think the same risk appears if we don’t use metaphors at all: we don’t tend to keep up with our metaphors as well as we think.

³This isn’t to say there aren’t any “very long chains of deductions” in philosophical works, but a “long chain of deductions” (which we have grounds for being suspicious of) is very different from a “vast towering system.” Still, I generally do agree that it’s best to avoid “long chains of deductions” in favor of shorter ones, seeing as “some series of deductions” is ultimately unavoidable.

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