Global philosophy: What philosophy ought to be? – MAXWELL (ARF)

MAXWELL, N. Global philosophy: What philosophy ought to be? Exeter. UK: Imprint Academic, Societas – Essays in Political & Cultural Criticism, 2014. Resenha de: CHOKR, Nader N. Aufklärung – Revista de Filosofia, João Pessoa, v.2, n.1, p. 175­-186, jan./jun., 2016.

In his recent book, Nicholas Maxwell revisits for the most part ideas, arguments, and positions he has been defending quite forcefully for the past 40 years or so. These include his conceptions of what philosophy ought to be, about the nature of science and its progress­making features, how to best construe empiricism and rationality, his take on the history and philosophy of science, on philosophy and the history of philosophy, the nature of (academic) inquiry, and finally, his position about the role of education and the university more generally in view of his rather pessimistic yet compellingly realistic diagnosis of the problems and challenges confronting our world at this point in our history.

And the question that comes immediately to mind is this: Why is Maxwell repeating himself over and over, in a desperate attempt to convey what he deems to be an urgent message, given the alarming and worrisome state of affairs currently prevailing in the world as we know it today? The obvious answer is, as he himself laments occasionally in his work, that he has so far failed to get the attention of the academic and philosophical community that he believes his work deserves. It behooves us therefore to inquire in a more focused manner into the possible reasons for such a failure in getting the recognition and support of the academic community. Are his ideas and proposals wrong or untenable and must therefore be rejected? Are they unoriginal and uncontroversial, and therefore not deserving of further attention? Or is the philosophical and academic community at fault in some ways for failing to recognize the validity and relevance of his ideas and proposals?

More generally, why do the ideas and proposals of some philosophers fail to gather the expected focus and attention in a timely manner, even though they are right and valid in so many respects? Does philosophy (in its institutional incarnation in the modern era) always come late to the party, so to speak? If the Owl of Minerva (philosophy) only takes its flight at dusk, as many philosophers have come to believe after Hegel, what are we to make of a new philosophy that claims instead that the Owl of Minerva must take its flight at dawn?

From the start, I must confess that when I first looked into Maxwell’s work, I was inclined (possibly like some of his readers) to think that his ideas may be more accepted and widespread than he seems to be realizing. Perhaps even part of conventional wisdom and common­sense. Progressively however, I began to see the qualitatively distinctive features of his proposal. He sets out, it now seems to me, an early­rising and forward­looking proposal about how humans can best save themselves from themselves, encapsulated in his call for a paradigm­shift in (academic) inquiry from knowledge to wisdom (1984, 2007). I hope merely to convey this reading to some extent in the brief compass of this review. Establishing its correctness in a definitive and conclusive manner is obviously beyond the present scope.

The five essays collected in the present volume are intended (once more) as an invitation to abandon our established and entrenched conceptions and transform our institutions of learning from primary school to university so that they devote themselves to helping us all create and bring about a better and wiser world. Because they have all been published previously in different contexts, they inevitably and unfortunately contain far too many repetitions which can be distracting and even appear annoyingly preachy. For this reason, and by virtue of my application of the principle of charity to interpretation (Davidson), my review proceeds in a slightly different way than usual conventions require. I single out a crucial thread in Maxwell’s work which enables me to give a fair and accurate account of the main point in each essay (even if at times short), while hopefully laying the ground through and through for an overall critical evaluation of his work, especially with regards to the question raised earlier.

In due course, I consider a number of objections that could be made against Maxwell having to do with (1) his idealism, (2) his scientism, (3) the ‘disciplinary matrix’ of his work, and (4) the form and style of his writings, the idiosyncrasies of his philosophical temperament, as opposed to the content and substance of the work. I also examine (5) the apparently unfashionable characteristics of his project, and (6) the clash or dissonance between its politically radical dimension prima facie and its more sober or analytical formulation, as further possible hypotheses. Finally, I consider briefly (7) the often posthumous character of philosophical vindication, and (8) the possibly paradoxical nature of Maxwell’s project.

Though Maxwell discusses a broad and diverse range of issues and topics, there is, he claims in the preface, one common underlying theme, and that is education (vii). For Maxwell, ‘education ought to be devoted, much more than it is, to the exploration of real­life, open problems; it ought not to be restricted to learning up solutions to already solved problems – especially if nothing is said about the problems that provoked the solutions in the first place’ (vii). [This is consistent, as we shall see, withhis main argument about inquiry].

Given the widely acknowledged and growing yawning­gap between education,as it is currently dispensed (for the most part), and the real­world, it is hard to see howone could object to such a view. Maxwell is urging a reduction or an elimination of thisgap. Furthermore, he is recommending that greater emphasis be placed as early aspossible on learning how to engage in cooperatively rational and imaginativeexplorations of such real­life, open problems.

In Chapter 1, he points out that ‘even five­year olds could begin to learn how todo this’ (vii) through appropriately designed and tailored philosophy seminars in whichthe use of ‘play’ as an effective pedagogical device is demonstrated. Maxwell iscertainly not the first or only philosopher to make a case for the pedagogical use of‘play’ in education or even in ‘philosophy for children’ (see Lipman’s project, Institutefor the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, 1974). But perhaps taken in thecontext of his wider claim about academic inquiry, it becomes qualitatively distinctive.He writes:

[A]cademic inquiry ought to be the outcome of all our efforts to discover what isof value in existence and toshare our discoveries with others. At its mostimportant and fundamental, inquiry is the thinking we engage inas we live,as we strive to realize what is of value to us in our life. All of us ought both tocontribute to andlearn from interpersonal public inquiry. This two­waytraffic of teaching and learning ought to start at theoutset, when we firstattend school (2).

What is often not appreciated enough, in his view, is ‘the central and unifyingrole of philosophy in all of education’ (3). Pursued as the cooperative, imaginative andrational exploration of fundamental problems of living, it could much more readilyserve to ‘bridge the gulf between science and art, science and the humanities’ (3).

One may be tempted to object at this point that hardly anyone in academia or inthe humanities would reject such a call to build bridges between disciplines, or even hisview about the central and unifying role of philosophy. This objection would bepremature however, and possibly unsustainable given that he puts forward as we shallsee a different conception of science, philosophy, and inquiry more generally.

In Chapter 2, Maxwell turns to what is perhaps one of his most important andlongstanding contentions: the fundamental failure of academic philosophy to properlyconceive its main task. According to him:

The proper task of philosophy is to keep alive awareness of what our mostfundamental, important, urgentproblems are, what our best attempts are at solvingthem and, if possible, what needs to be done to improvethese attempts (11).

In his view, academic philosophy has failed disastrously to even conceive of itstask in these terms. And the consequence is that it has not made any serious attempt toensure that universities are devoted to tackling ‘global’ problems –in the double senseof the term i.e., ‘global’ intellectually, and ‘global’ in the sense of concerning the futureof Earth and humanity.

Maxwell also claims that academic philosophy has failed to focus as it should onour most fundamental problem of all, encompassing all others:

How can our human world – and the world of sentient life more generally –imbued with the experiential, consciousness, free will, meaning, and value,exist and best flourish embedded as it is in the physical universe? (13, 41, 48, 157-­8).

This is, according to Maxwell, both our fundamental intellectual problem andour fundamental problem of living.

In Chapter 3, he goes to show how one could begin to address this problem, in asimulation­letter to an applicant for a new Liberal Studies Course. The fundamentalcharacter of the open, unsolved problem provides the opportunity to examine andexplore a broad range of issues and related problems:

What does physics tell us about the universe and ourselves? How do we accountfor everything physics leaves out? How can living brains be conscious? Ifeverything occurs in accordance with physical law, what becomes of free will?How does Darwin’s theory of evolution contribute to the solution of thefundamental problem? What is the history of thought about this problem? What isof most value associated with human life? What kind of civilized world shouldwe seek to help create? Why is the fundamental problem not a part of standardeducation in schools and universities? What are the most serious global problemsconfronting humanity? Can humanity learn to make progress towards as good aworld as possible? (47-­48).

The course as conceived would be run as a seminar, driven for the most part bystudents’ questions and proposals, with the teacher in the role of a facilitator or mentor.It would invite a sustained questioning of our current conceptions of education and itsgoals, science and its aim, as well as empiricism and rationality.

If, by philosophy, one means either (a) exploration and investigation offundamental problems or (b) explorations or investigations of the aims, methods, tools,and techniques of diverse worthwhile but problematic or unconventional endeavors – aswell as the philosophy of these endeavors, then in some real sense, students would bedoing philosophy, and not just talking about philosophy and past philosophers, andinterpreting the commentaries of commentaries, or commenting the interpretations ofinterpretations (64). But, according to Maxwell, academic philosophy today, on thewhole, neglects scandalously to do either of these things, (a) or (b), in a clear andstraightforward manner.

Suppose, to paint a picture in broad strokes, one could categorize some of themain proposals about the main task of philosophy as defending either one of thefollowing positions: (1) Philosophy consists essentially in ‘creating new concepts andconceptual persona’ [French continental philosophy, e.g., Deleuze & Guattari (1994)].(2) Philosophy consists essentially in the ‘analysis of concepts’ [Anglo­Americananalytic philosophy]. Then one could argue that Maxwell’s conception does not fall ineither category: neither (1) nor (2) is strictly speaking and effectively doing either (a) or(b), even though Maxwell can’t obviously avoid creating and analyzing concepts, as hepursues (a) and (b), and his primary focus on solving real­life, open problems.Obviously, proponents of both (1) and (2) could object that they too are interested in theend in bringing to bear their respective approach on the solutions of problems. Butunlike Maxwell, they arguably seem to subordinate the latter to something else, deemedmore important. In contrast Maxwell considers the latter as the primary task of philosophy.

Besides, while analytic philosophy is increasingly specialized and dominated byesoteric and arcane discussions of technical puzzles and language games (not just inWittgenstein’s sense) accessible to the initiated few, continental philosophyis, for itspart, far too prone to speculative flights, jargon­filled obscurantism and mystification,anti­rationalism, anti­scientific or anti­scientistic proclivities. In some sense, one could argue that they are both ‘forms of anti­philosophy’ (64). What the theoretical andspeculative approaches to philosophy often neglect are the vital, existential, andpractical dimensions of living.

In fact, if Maxwell’s conception has any affinities, it seems to be with the branchof contemporary philosophy that in recent decades has come to be known as ‘appliedphilosophy’ (in some of its incarnations). Such an approach is primarily concerned withbringing to bear on a wide range of contemporary problems and issues all the tools andinsights of philosophy broadly conceived in a non­doctrinaire fashion. After an initialbad reputation, such a field of inquiry has now come to be recognized and accepted forits contributions. It may have even contributed to the rehabilitation of the practicalrelevance of philosophy in the world today.

Concerning Maxwell’s formulation of what he deems to be the single mostfundamental problem confronting us, as self­conscious, evolved creatures in a physicaluniverse, what could one possibly object? Unless one is more receptive to theological,metaphysical or pataphysical speculations about ‘who and what we are’, and whatconstitutes our predicament as humans­in­the­world, one must concur. In fact he is notthe only philosopher to have discussed it (Whitehead), or who thinks so (far too manyto list here). As for its being fundamental, from which a slew of other problems can bederived, it should be obvious, especially if we situate ourselves, as I presume Maxwelldoes, within the current scientific, biological­evolutionary framework that is ours today.Such a framework is admittedly defeasible and subject to possible corrections, and evenoutright subversions, but it is arguably the best we have so far. His originality, if any,lies perhaps in the claim that it ought to be placed at the center of (academic)philosophy’s preoccupations.

In Chapter 4, he considers what he believes went wrong with the History andPhilosophy of Science (HPS) as well as Science and Technology Studies (STS), underthe misguided influences of various postmodernist trends, represented among others bythe ‘Strong Programme’ and ‘Social Constructivism’. Countering the often excessiveand untenable relativistic, subjectivist and anti­rational interpretations and conclusionsof proponents laboring under these trends, Maxwell seeks to correct the widespreadmisrepresentations of science and its basic aim (i.e., truthper se, factual truth andappeal to evidence, according to the standard conception of empiricism) and to promotea broader and richer conception of science and its basic aim (i.e., truth presupposed tobe unified or explanatory), one that puts in practice an aims­oriented empiricism andrationality, that is at once more objective and capable of making progress in itsapprehension of the real world (or parts thereof). He even seeks to find a way togeneralize over the progress­making features of science (its aims, methods, tools, andtechniques) to the entire social field and human world.

Under his conception, as I understand it, science (no differently than philosophy)would more readily be prepared to acknowledge, disclose, and critically evaluate theassumptions that it may be making implicitly or explicitly (e.g., metaphysical,epistemological, social, cultural, and even political assumptions) about its aims andmethods. In addition, it would be committed to applying consistently what he calls the‘four elementary rules of reason’:

(1) Articulate, and try to improve the articulation of, the basic problem to besolved.

(2) Propose and critically assess possible solutions.

(3) If the basic problem we are trying to solve proves to be especially difficult tosolve, specialize. Break the problem up into subordinate problems. Tackle analogous,easier to solve problems in an attempt to work gradually towards the solution to the basic problem.

(4) But if do specialize in this way, make sure specialized and basic problemsolving stay in touch with one another, so each influences the other (99­101).Furthermore, such a conception of science would arguably make adistinction between ‘constitutive and progress­making features’ and‘contextual and possibly obstacle­generating factors.’First, one must getclear on the progress­making features of science (aims and methods). Second, one mustcorrectly generalize these features so that they are potentially applicable to anyworthwhile, problematic human endeavor. Third, the correctly generalized progress­making features must be extended to the entire social and human world.

In Maxwell’s view, in order to get to step one, one needs to adopt an aim­oriented empiricism (AOE), and in order to get to step two, we need to generalize AOEso that it can be applicable in a potentially fruitful way to any problematic, yetworthwhile human endeavor, and not just science. In this way, we would also endorse arationality that helps to improve aims especially when they are problematic. Thisiswhat he calls aims­oriented rationality (AOR). Finally, in order to get to stepthree, weneed to apply AOR, arrived at by generalizing AOE, i.e., the progress­making featuresof science, to all other worthwhile, problematic human endeavors, besides science (104­5, 120­124, 164­175).

All of these features would enable inquiry (into the natural or social & humanworld) to acquire a self­corrective mechanism, a kind of positive feedback loop,through which obstacles and contextual factors can be identified and neutralized,failures can be turned into successes and successes into even greater achievements, andthereby achieve in the long run relative yet substantial progress.

It is in this context that one could perhaps best understand Maxwell’s call for aparadigm shift in inquiry –namely, from the established and dominant knowledge­inquiry pervasive in Universities around the world since the 18thcentury to a new andmore enlightened wisdom­inquiry. Obviously, such a shift has yet to take root andspread widely in the academic world, even though there are here and there hopefulclusters with such a focus (see for example Sternberg, 2001; Ferrari and Potworowski,2008 ̧ Mengel, 2010; Wisdom Initiative at University College London, Maxwell’s owninstitutional affiliation). Maxwell’s proposal could have benefitted over the years fromacknowledgement of and interaction with the works of like­minded scholars around theacademic world, and beyond.

While we may all readily grasp what is meant by knowledge­inquiry, this maynot be so with regards to wisdom­inquiry. Here is how Maxwell characterizes the contrast:

Knowledge­inquiry has two quite distinct fundamental aims: the intellectual aimof knowledge, and the social or humanitarian aim of helping to promote humanwelfare. There is a sense in which wisdom­inquiry fuses these together in the onebasic aim of seeking and promoting wisdom – wisdom being the capacity, andperhaps the active desire, to realize what is of value in life, for oneself and forothers; wisdom thus including knowledge and technological know­how but muchelse besides (103).

It might also help to know how Maxwell defined ‘wisdom’ when he firstintroduced his ‘great idea’ (118) in 1984:

[Wisdom is] is the desire, the active endeavor, and the capacity to discover andachieve what is desirable and of value in life, both for oneself and for others.Wisdom includes knowledge and understanding but goes beyond them in also including: the desire, and active striving for what is of value, the ability to seewhat is of value, actually and potentially, in the circumstances of life, the abilityto experience value, the capacity to use and develop knowledge, technology andunderstanding as needed for the realization of value. Wisdom, like knowledge,can be conceived of, not only in personal terms, but also in institutional or socialterms. We can thus interpret [wisdom­inquiry] as asserting: the basic task ofrational inquiry is to help us develop wiser ways of living, wiser institutions,customs and social relations, a wiser world (118, 1984: 66; 2007: 79).

One may think, as I have initially, that the use of the term ‘wisdom’ tocharacterize what should be of primary concern in inquiry in his view diminishessomehow the novelty, or radical nature of his proposal as it evokes readily varioustraditional conceptions and connotations associated with the term itself. It is perhapsbest to take his construal as a re­definition of the term for our times.

In order to motivate and justify his call, Maxwell revisits a crucial turning­pointin the history of Modern Philosophy, and that is, the so­called Enlightenment in the 18thcentury, especially the French variety. According to Maxwell,les philosopheshad amagnificent and correct idea: it should be possible to learn from the progress­makingfeatures of science and acquire actionable knowledge about how to make socialprogress and bring about a better and more enlightened world. However, they made aserious and consequential mistake in the implication they drew from their brilliant idea.Rather than ascertaining and confirming the progress­making features (aims, methods& methodologies, protocols, tools, and techniques) of science and seeking to generalizethem over the entire social field and human world, they mistakenly assumed that thetask incumbent upon them was ‘to develop the social sciences alongside the naturalsciences’. And of course, it is this assumption which has been institutionalizedandentrenched within a knowledge­inquiry paradigm throughout the 19thand 20th centuries, up until the present.

A properly construed genealogical history of this period could probably providethe grey­on­grey, fine­grained details and multifactorial reconstruction of how arguablythis process unfolded. And admittedly, there may be room here for competing and evenclashing perspectives. But it seems plausible to assume, as Maxwell does, that anopportunity was crucially missed by the Enlightenment philosophers, that we must seekto re­capture now more than ever, and that is, the opportunity to embrace wisdom­inquiry – instead of knowledge­inquiry as we have done for the past couple ofcenturies. One in which ‘our capacity and active desire to seek and promote what is ofvalue in (or to) life, for oneself and others’ (103) becomes the main driving­force ofinquiry, now conceived very broadly as social inquiry, in that ‘it is intellectually morefundamental than natural science itself’ (102).

In Chapter 5, titled ‘Arguing for Wisdom in the University’, Maxwell undertakes‘an intellectual autobiography’ (108) in which he seeks to tell the story of how he cameto argue for ‘such a vast, wildly ambitious intellectual revolution’ (108), namely, thatwe urgently need to bring about a revolution in academia so that the basic task ofinquiry becomes to seek and promote wisdom, rather than knowledge.

I have always found such an exercise to be very tricky and treacherous, indeed:how could or should one talk about oneself, in what language, and to what degree ofintimate disclosure? How self­conscious could or should one be? How self­critical ornot? How self­aggrandizing could or should one be? How much self­deprecating humorto engage in or not? How could or should one strike a balance between all suchconsiderations? Etc.

Regardless of his success or failure in these regards, I have found his reconstruction of his intellectual odyssey (from ‘genius child’ to ‘emeritus professor’)as he sees it from his current vantage point to be illuminating in many respects, if onlyas a window into the mind of a philosopher (peering into himself) assiduously andstubbornly pursuing his quest and inquiry into the human predicament. I cannevertheless understand those who might feel irked or bothered for some reason by hisnarcissistic and self­aggrandizing tendencies tempered by self­deprecating humor.Maxwell concludes his account by stating what he finally realized:

Every branch and aspect of academic inquiry needs to change () if it is to be whatit is supposed to be: rationally organized and devoted to helping humanity achievewhat is of value in life. I was then confronted by five revolutions (that needed tohappen before my program could become a reality). First, a revolution in thephilosophy of science, from standard to aim­oriented empiricism. Second, arevolution in science itself, so that it comes to put aim­oriented empiricismexplicitly into scientific practice. Third, a revolution in social inquiry and thehumanities, so that they come to give intellectual priority to problems of living,themselves put aim­oriented rationality into practice and take, as a basic, long­term task, to help humanity feed aim­oriented rationality into the social world.Fourth, a revolution in academia as a whole, so that it takes up its proper task ofhelping humanity realize what is of value in life. And fifth, the revolution thatreally matters: transforming the human world so that it puts cooperative problem­solving rationality and aim­oriented rationality into practice in life, so that wemay all realize what is of value as we live insofar as this is possible (171­2, additions in parentheses).

Needless to say, Maxwell’s proposal is wildly ambitious and idealistic, ashe ishimself ready to admit. It is hard enough bringing about one revolution, let alone five(comprising disciplinary, institutional, social and political revolutions). Besides, apartfrom specifying some of the necessary conditions for such revolutions, he does not fullyarticulate the practical guidelines we could follow to make them happen. As a result,one may fail to see how Maxwell believes that they can be achieved in practice andwhat we should actually do in order to facilitate their realization. In short, Maxwelldoes not seem to give us much advice about how these revolutions can actually beachieved in real life and how we should go about restructuring the university andresearch in order to accomplish his objectives. Perhaps the best place to look for suchdetails would be the Wisdom Initiative implemented under his leadership at UniversityCollege London, his alma mater.

But that a program is idealistic and ambitious (and even still highly unspecified)does not entail that it is not desirable and to be desired, does it? In fact, it may wellbebased on very cogent and compelling analyses and solid arguments, which make it notonly tenable and desirable but correct and relevant.

What philosophical program, worthits salt, is not more or less idealistic, seeking to bring about what should be, ratherthanperpetuating what is? It is more often than not a multi­generational, collective andcollaborative effort that is required to bridge or close the gap between the latter and theformer.What other possible objection could one readily make to Maxwell’s proposal?Obviously, one could argue that Maxwell is somehow committed to some kind of‘scientism’ (i.e., the assumption or belief that science and only science (and itsprogress­making features, properly identified, assessed and generalized) can provide uswith the best possible explanations and problem­solving tools required to bring about abetter world. Maxwell would, I believe, bite the bullet in this regard, and admit to someform of scientism, as long as it is understood that his proposal countenances a much broader and corrected conception of science than the one commonly held. It is, let’srecall, underwritten by aims­oriented empiricism and rationality, properly inscribedwithin wisdom­inquiry, in which there would not be much of a distinction left betweenscience and philosophy (as in the ‘natural philosophy’ of yesteryears), and naturalscience is itself subsumed under a broader and much more encompassing social inquiry.

Maxwell is not however committed to a naïve form of scientism. He recognizesthat most if not all of our global problems have come about in large part because wehave been able through the extensive application of science and technology over thepast couple of centuries to pursue goals with great success that seem highly desirable inthe short term, but quite disastrous in the long term. It is for this reason that he thinks‘we urgently need to learn how to improve our aims and methods in life, at personal,social, institutional, and global levels’ (61­2). And for that, he argues, we need a newconception of rationality – aims­oriented rationality – specifically designed tofacilitatethe improvement of problematic aims and the progressive resolution of problemsassociated with partly good, partly bad aims at all levels, in all human endeavors(62).

Suppose that one believes, as Simon Critchley recently put it in an essay with acatchy title “There is no Theory of Everything” (2015) that there is a fundamental andirreducible gap between nature and society, that while the former lends itself toexplanations, the latter may not, and may only require descriptions, clarifications, orelucidations, and furthermore that the mistake, for which “scientism” is the name, is thebelief that the gap can or should be filled. He also characterizes it as a risk, i.e., thebelief that natural science can explain everything, right down to the detail of oursubjective and social lives. All we would need then is a better form of science, amorecomplete theory, a theory of everything. He concludes however that there is no theoryof everything, nor should there be. Critchley adds that one huge problem with scientismis that it invites, as an almost allergic reaction, the total rejection of science, and oftenleads to obscurantism (e.g., among climate change deniers, flat­earthers, and religiousfundamentalists). We need not however run into the arms of scientism in order toconfront the challenge of obscurantism, he argues. Yet surprisingly, he seems to viewthe task of philosophy as merely consisting in “scratching our itches,” over and overagain, to paraphrase Wittgenstein. “Philosophy, he writes, scratches at the various itcheswe have, not in order that we might find some cure for what ails us, but in order toscratch in the right place and begin to understand why we engage in such apparentlyirritating activity.” Further, he adds: “What we need are multifarious descriptions ofmany things, further descriptions of phenomena that change the aspect under whichthey are seen, that light them up and let us see them anew.”

It should be clear by now that Maxwell would take issue vehemently with such aconception of philosophy and its primary task, not to mention the dubious and certainlyquestionable assumptions made by Critchley in his tirade against a particular (straw­man) construal of scientism, beginning obviously with the underlying conception of‘science’ at work in his remarks which is radically different from Maxwell’s. It is alsoworth pointing out that the irreducible gap discussed by Critchley is one big assumptionfor which more argumentation is required, and that Maxwell, as a matter of fact,discusses at length (in reference to “our single most fundamental problem”). In Maxwell’s conception, ‘science’ could yield explanations (causal or probabilistic, andotherwise, say, functional, teleological explanations) as well as descriptions,clarifications, and elucidations, and thereby lead to different forms and degrees ofvalidation or rather falsification. Furthermore it would be subsumed along withphilosophy, as mentioned earlier, under a broader and richer conception of inquiry, i.e., wisdom-­inquiry. It need not however be a complete theory, a theory of everything, asCritchley presumes. Those who reject science totally, rather than constructively andcritically on specific problems and issues, do so at their own risks and perils,obscurantism being the least of them of all. Those who embrace science in any formblindly, irrationally, and uncritically also do so at their own risks and perils, scientismbeing the least of them.

What other reasons could one possibly give or consider for why Maxwell’sviews and proposals has so far failed to get the attention and recognition they deserve?Suppose for the sake of argument that one can draw meaningfully a distinction betweenform and content, i.e., between (1) the manner in which Maxwell presents his ideas anddefends his views, his writing style and rhetorical flourishes, and all thoseidiosyncrasies having to do with the ‘philosophical temperament’ of the author and (2)the actual substance of his statements and arguments, i.e., the proposals he is actuallyputting forth and defending. Can we make the case that one or the other is to be blamedfor the relative of lack of attention and recognition of his work?

So, for example, can we plausibly argue, as some of his critics have done onoccasions, that his narcissistic and self­centered tendencies, albeit tempered by hints ofself­deprecating humor (Chapter 5), or his disposition to make absolutist andcategorical judgments, especially when criticizing and dismissing other philosophers’views (Chapters 3, 4 & 5) help to explain why his work did not have the “explosiveimpact” he had hoped and expected in the philosophical and academic community atlarge? I doubt it. First of all, it is our job to be able to sort out the wheat from the chaff,and to disregard or put aside those elements that may distract and prevent us fromgrasping and appreciating the core­substance of the work. Besides, these tendencies anddispositions seem to have characterized more or less acutely the so­called philosophicaltemperament over the ages. What philosopher of any weight and importance does notseem to think that his or her work constitutes a crucial hinge in the history of thought,delineating thereby a before and after?

I am more inclined to consider a number of other hypotheses, focusing on thecontent, his ideas and proposals, as to why his work has so far not met with the kind ofreception and recognition it deserves. Given the radical and unfashionablecharacteristics of Maxwell’s propositions and views, it is not surprising that they haverun against various trends and fashions in philosophy (dominant schools of thought andmovements, as well as institutional elevations of some approaches over others inphilosophy). In this case, they have run counter to the established Anglo­Americananalytic approach, whose focus on the arcane, esoteric and technical analysis ofconcepts has all but rendered it useless in the eyes of Maxwell. They have also runcounter to the establisheddoxain history and philosophy of Science, to thepostmodernist trends which had come to dominate the field of Science & TechnologyStudies, as well as the various approaches in Continental (French) philosophy whichhad taken certain quarters of academia by storm (e.g., Phenomenology, Hermeneutics,Structuralism, Post­structuralism, Deconstructionism, Archeology of Knowledge,Genealogy of Power/Knowledge, Critical Theory, Neo­Marxism, Speculative Realism,Dialectical Materialism, Hedonism, etc.).

In this context, could a more likely explanation for the relative neglect ofMaxwell’s work be due to the institutional inertia and entrenched (disciplinary)conservatism of the academic world and the philosophical community in particular? Is it possible that too many bad habits of thought and entrenched prejudices prevent mostacademics and philosophers from escaping the very coordinates of the frameworks andsets of assumptions under which they labor, making it difficult for them to appreciate the bold and innovative character of his proposals? Is it possible that, before we canlearn how to do what Maxwell proposes, we may have to engage first and as aprecondition in some fair amount of unlearning, so as to throw off our conceptual and theoretical shackles, so to speak? If this were to be case, then his proposal wouldcertainly qualify as original and controversial. The readers would have to decide forthemselves on these questions.

Could the ‘disciplinary matrix’ within which Maxwell’s articulated anddeveloped his views and proposals also serve to explain at least in part why his workhas so far failed to get across? As we know, his views and proposals are squarelysituated within the History and Philosophy of Science at the intersection with Science &Technologies Studies. Both of these fields are characterized by a specialized technicaljargon in addition to the already challenging philosophical one. This may arguablymake Maxwell’s views difficult to access and perhaps impenetrable, or in any case helpto explain his failure to reach a larger audience or readership –even within the fieldofphilosophy. But such considerations are hardly convincing given that his writings arefor the most part straightforward and clear, rigorous and pedagogical when need be.They should therefore be accessible to anyone (moderately educated and literate) whowishes to read through them and ponder their merits for themselves.

Perhaps a more compelling explanation can be found in the clash or dissonancebetween the politically radical dimension of his proposals and their more sober andanalytical formulations due to his original ‘disciplinary matrix.’ Can this factorcondemn his work to a posthumous recognition, as is unfortunately often the case in philosophy? Ideas may be recognized as true and valid, relevant and worthwhile, butacting on them (to turn them into reality) is beyond what can be countenanced by thecurrent system in place. Perhaps we are here confronted with a paradox in that hisfailure may be due to his success: his ideas and proposals are in fact more widelyaccepted (at least in principle, theoretically) than he seems to realize. Are we more Maxwellian than we think we are?

Whatever the case may be in the final analysis, Maxwell’s latest book as wellasin his work for the past 40 years (see detailed bibliography, 180­4) are certainly relevantto our efforts in successfully confronting and solving some of the major(global/glocal/local) problems afflicting our world. And philosophy, properly re­construed and re­constructed, has a crucial role to play in bringing about the necessarychanges in the university, in education more generally, in society, and in the world atlarge.


CIOFFI, F. (1998) Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

CRITCHLEY, S. (2015) ‘There is no theory of everything’. The Stone (New York Times), September12, 2015.

DELEUZE, G. And F. Guattari (1994) What is philosophy?London: Verso Books.

FERRARI, M. And G. Potworowski (2008) Teaching for wisdom: Cross­cultural perspectives onfostering wisdom. Springer: Science & Business Media, Philosophy.

LIPMAN, M. (1974). Harry Stottlemeier’s discovery. New Jersey: Institute for the Advancement ofPhilosophy for Children.

LONGINO, H. (1990) Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry.NJ: Princeton University Press.

MAXWELL, N. (1984) From knowledge to wisdom: A revolution in the aims and methods of science. Oxford: Blackwell.

MAXWELL, N. (2007) From knowledge to wisdom: A revolution for science and the humanities(Expanded 2ndEd). London: Pentire Press.

MENGEL, T. (2010) ‘Learning that matters – Discovery of meaning and development of wisdom inundergraduate education’.Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching(CELT), Vol. III,pp.119­123.

STERNBERG, R.J. (2001). ‘Why schools should teach for wisdom: The balance theory of wisdom ineducational settings’.Educational Psychologist 36(4): 227­245.

Nader N. Chokr

Acessar publicação original


Deixe um Comentário

Você precisa fazer login para publicar um comentário.