In response to:
Is Philosophy an Art? from the March 25, 2021 issue
To the Editors:
I am grateful to John Gray for recognizing the inordinate ambition of my book Witcraft: nothing less than to overthrow the joyless hegemony of traditional histories of philosophy [NYR, March 25]. Hegel was one of the masters of the tradition, and he spelled out the assumptions behind it two hundred years ago: that genuine philosophical inquiries transcend the idiosyncrasies of individual works and thinkers so as to take their place in an impersonal compendium of philosophical truth. It is the stuff of every mansplainer’s dreams, flattering us with the prospect of surveying the entirety of human thought and dilating on it without end. If I am right, the same pretension to omniscience has inspired all subsequent histories of philosophy, even if their authors—Bertrand Russell, for example—would rather die in a ditch than be caught out in their furtive Hegelianism.
Gray is horrified by my suggestion that we might treat philosophical works not as elements of a system but as “individual works of art.” He warns me against reducing philosophy to “a folly…leading nowhere”; he asks me to trust his judgment as to what has “occupied philosophers since the late fifth century BC” (all of them?); and he assures me that proper philosophers deal not in effete aesthetic indulgence but in “matter of fact” and a muscular “pursuit of truth.” I appreciate his solicitude, but I put it to him that he has swallowed the Hegelian imposture hook, line, and sinker, and that he needs to think again: Does he really want to deny that truth can be at stake in the working of a work of art?
Oxford, United Kingdom