Great Philosophy: Discovery, Invention, and the Uses of Error

International Journal of Philosophical Studies 22 (3):349-379 (2014)
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In this essay I consider what is meant by the description ‘great’ philosophy and then offer some broadly applicable criteria by which to assess candidate thinkers or works. On the one hand are philosophers in whose case the epithet, even if contested, is not grossly misconceived or merely the product of doctrinal adherence on the part of those who apply it. On the other are those – however gifted, acute, or technically adroit – to whom its application is inappropriate because their work cannot justifiably be held to rise to a level of creative-exploratory thought where the description would have any meaningful purchase. I develop this contrast with reference to Thomas Kuhn’s distinction between ‘revolutionary’ and ‘normal’ science, and also in light of J.L. Austin’s anecdotal remark – à propos Leibniz – that it was the mark of truly great thinkers to make great mistakes, or to risk falling into certain kinds of significant or consequential error. My essay goes on to put the case that great philosophy should be thought of as involving a constant readiness to venture and pursue speculative hypotheses beyond any limits typically imposed by a culture of ‘safe’, well-established, or academically sanctioned debate. At the same time – and just as crucially – it must be conceived as subject to the strictest, most demanding standards of formal assessment, i.e., with respect to basic requirements of logical rigour and conceptual precision. Focusing mainly on the work of Jacques Derrida and Alain Badiou I suggest that these criteria are more often met by philosophers in the broadly ‘continental’ rather than the mainstream ‘analytic’ line of descent. However – as should be clear – the very possibility of meeting them, and of their being jointly met by any one thinker, is itself sufficient indication that this is a false and pernicious dichotomy.



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Citations of this work

The Road toward Something that One does not Know: In Response to Christopher Norris.Arthur Rose - 2014 - International Journal of Philosophical Studies 22 (3):380-384.

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References found in this work

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.Thomas S. Kuhn - 1962 - Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Edited by Ian Hacking.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.Thomas Samuel Kuhn - 1962 - Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Edited by Otto Neurath.
Philosophical Investigations.Ludwig Wittgenstein - 1953 - New York, NY, USA: Wiley-Blackwell. Edited by G. E. M. Anscombe.
Ontological relativity and other essays.Willard Van Orman Quine (ed.) - 1969 - New York: Columbia University Press.
Two Dogmas of Empiricism.W. Quine - 1951 - [Longmans, Green].

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