A conversation with Stephen Mulhall
Isle of the Dead (1883) Arnold Böcklin
Anthony Morgan: You position yourself within a framework called post-Kantian philosophy. Why is it post-Kantian rather than, say, post-Cartesian, given Descartes’ monumental influence on modern philosophy?
Mulhall: When I use that label I’m picking out a vast historical terrain. I suppose it’s another way to describe all those aspects of modern philosophical work that don’t count as analytic or don’t count as fully-fledged parts of philosophy from the point of view of the Anglo-American traditions. So it’s not really a single thing, it’s partly defined by negation (all the stuff that analytic philosophy doesn’t take seriously), and in that sense it really picks out a lot of different traditions that interact with one another in all sorts of complicated ways. What the label brings out, and I think to this extent it’s accurate, is that Kant was a pivotal figure in the history of modern European philosophy in a way that Descartes wasn’t.
Kant was inherited by analytic philosophy, by Anglo-American, Anglophone traditions in philosophy, and there are a number of very significant commentators on Kant’s work within this tradition, all of whom take Kant to be a serious philosopher, someone who deals with absolutely fundamental problems that any serious analytic philosopher ought to be taking seriously. So he’s a present figure on the Anglophone side of this putative division between analytic and continental philosophy. But the most immediate ways in which Kant was taken up as a philosopher were through the German idealists: Fichte, Schelling, Hegel. And then you get into Marx and a whole range of other 19th and 20th century figures, all of whom take Kant to be an equally serious figure but they inherit him in a completely different way to the Anglophone tradition. So there’s a sense in which Kant, unlike Descartes, is a point where what was previously a fundamentally single tradition in modern philosophy splits, although this is something you see more clearly in retrospect than you would have at the time, and if anything the immediate Kantian inheritance was in Germany rather than England or America.
Looking at it from the contemporary point of view, if you are an analytic Anglophone philosopher you are going to think that Kant is a serious figure in the history of philosophy, but you’re going to think that the people in France and Germany who inherited him in their own way were, in effect, at that point going off the rails. So there’s a Kant for Anglophone philosophy, and there’s a Kant for those who are interested in French and German philosophy. For both of them he’s a serious figure in the history of the subject, but they see someone different when they look back at him. And you couldn’t say that about Descartes – there’s no sense in which the immediate post-Cartesian response to Descartes bifurcated in that kind of way. Whereas I think if most people tried to tell a story nowadays about what continental philosophy is, they would track it back to Kant, and it’s the German idealist reaction to Kant and everything that the followed in reaction to that idealism that they would think of as the origin of what gets called continental philosophy.
Let’s turn now to Heidegger as he has a fascinating and ambiguous relationship with Kant and the transcendental tradition.
One thing that’s worth making clear is that Heidegger’s lifetime’s work is absolutely vast and extremely heterogeneous. The early phase, the phase of his work that culminated in Being and Time which was published in the late 1920s, is in a certain way relatively self-sufficient and much more clearly relatable to Kantian themes, and also to Cartesian themes. In the context of Being and Time Heidegger has, in a certain way, much bigger fish to fry than Kant did in The Critique of Pure Reason, which is the primary reference point here.
Heidegger was clear from the outset that the issue that really interested him was what he called the question of being, and the question of the meaning of being. And that was something he always understood to be in a certain way the most general and the most fundamental question there could be, but anyone who picks up Being and Time and reads it will find that it almost entirely consists of an analysis of a specific kind of being, the kind that Heidegger called Dasein, by which he means to pick out the kind of being that you and I have, the distinctively human kind of being (although not necessarily restricted to members of the human species). So it would be very easy, and would not be wrong, to think about Being and Time as a systematic attempt to give a story about what it is to be a human being. Heidegger spends a lot of time talking about what’s involved in the capacity of the human being to engage with, to encounter, to understand, comprehend and investigate the real, independently existing world. And to that extent the central problematic of Being and Time is plainly continuous with topic of the Critique of Pure Reason.
IN ORDER FOR THE WORLD TO MATTER TO YOU IN ANY PARTICULAR WAY IT MUST BE SHOWING UP AS HAVING A SIGNIFICANCE OF SOME KIND
So if Kant’s looking for conditions of possibility for objective empirical knowledge about reality, Heidegger’s looking for the conditions of possibility for the fact that reality shows up at all?
Yes, you’re right. Part of what Heidegger thinks is limiting or limited in the Critique of Pure Reason is that it’s explicitly about the possibility of theoretical knowledge. It’s focusing on the human subject as a ‘cognizer’ of the world as opposed to an agent in that world, someone who has goals and purposes, and who pursues them. That’s something that Kant also treats, but he treats it in the second Critique which is focused on moral matters. Part of the problem that Heidegger saw in the focus of The Critique of Pure Reason is that he thought that a proper story about knowledge was actually inseparable from a broader conception of the human subject as essentially inhabiting or dwelling in the real world: not just present in it but engaged with it practically. So the story he tells in Being and Time, and one of the respects in which he tries to expand upon the Kantian conception of the matter is to contextualise the possibility of knowledge. More specifically, Heidegger says that knowledge is a deficient mode of being-in-the-world, where being-in-the-world is his general characterisation of Dasein’s way of existing.
By deficient, he means something like derivative?
Yes, he doesn’t mean that it’s fundamentally flawed or lacking in any particular way, he means that what happens when we think about knowledge in the kind of way that Kant seems to, as a sort of theoretical enterprise, or the way in which Descartes seems to when he imagines his meditator just sitting in the study looking at a ball of wax on his palm, is that you’re contemplating some independently existing object. And Heidegger is perfectly happy to admit that this is one of the ways in which we engage with reality, but he thinks about it as a kind of holding back from what one might think of as a more common and more full-blooded practical engagement with things. So Division One, the first half of Being and Time, pivots around a distinction Heidegger draws between objects understood as present-to-hand, the self-sufficient objects of theoretical cognition, and objects understood as ready-to-hand or handy, available for practical activities of various kinds. And on the face of it he thinks that you will achieve a better understanding of the real nature of your relation to present-at-hand objects if you don’t start there and then tell a story about practical activity as a kind of supplement to theoretical engagement, but actually do the reverse, starting with practical activity.
So the practical precedes more theoretical questions about empirical knowledge?
Well, one of the difficulties is what you mean by ‘precede’. It could just be a chronological precedence, in other words you might think that as a matter of human history there would have been a lot of human beings just practically engaging with the world long before anyone stood back from it and started questioning why bits of stone work well as tools, and then studying its properties. So reflection in that sense is uncontroversially a belated phenomenon in relation to practical engagement, but that’s not really what Heidegger’s interested in. It’s not even that he wants to emphasise the fact that most of us still spend most of the time just getting on with things and doing things rather than stepping back and reflecting on the nature of the objects we’re doing things with. Because that would be a kind of empirical point, a matter of fact about human life, and Heidegger really isn’t interested in that level of analysis, any more than Kant was.
Kant’s not interested in what an accurate theory of any bit of reality is – what he’s interested in is how it’s so much as possible for us to build such a theory, what has to be true of the subject and what has to be true of objects in order for that kind of theoretical grasp of them to be possible. And Heidegger in that respect is interested in exactly the same thing. So in my view, the point about him starting with practical engagement is not that he wants to say that it is more fundamental than theoretical knowledge, but rather that if you look at modes of practical engagement it’s in a certain way easier for you to see what conditions the possibility of both practical engagement with the world and theoretical knowledge of it. After all, he does say that both of them are modes of being-in-the-world. So in his analysis of practical engagement, what he’s fundamentally trying to bring out are what he calls the structure of worldhood without which it would not be possible to treat objects as pieces of equipment in relation to a practical goal, but also to show that those very same structures are conditions for the possibility of knowledge.
Can we talk a bit about moods as these would seem to be one of the central structures or transcendental elements in Being and Time. In your own work you reject the idea that moods are simply subjective distortions, and argue instead that they are genuinely cognitive achievements.
It’s not so much that Heidegger wants to say that moods are fundamentally cognitive, as that he wants to say that human modes of inhabitation of the world, the structure of being-in-the-world (to use the vocabulary I’ve already been using), are always structured by a certain kind of understanding and a certain kind of affectivity. So he tells a story according to which understanding is a kind of active, projective capacity of Dasein, but he wants to argue that there’s no such thing as that kind of projective capacity that doesn’t also come with a more receptive aspect and structure to it. So the point about moods is that they are what you might call empirical manifestations of a more ontological structure, which is that of being attuned to the world that you’re acting in and comprehending.
Heidegger is saying that moods show the respect in which the world is always manifest to us as mattering in a certain way to us, so we always find ourselves in a situation in which certain things are salient, certain things are fading into the background, in which we have certain concerns and interests that permeate our mode of response to that world, and indeed without that kind of attunement to the world the possibility of projective understanding wouldn’t itself be coherent. And of course it works the other way round. So the thought is more that there is no such thing as a mode of understanding that doesn’t also involve a mode of attunement, and vice versa, because in order for the world to matter to you in any particular way it must be showing up as having a significance of some kind.
So one way you might think about this relationship between attunement and understanding is that there is a kind of ambiguity or dual aspect in the notion of things having a meaning. One way of taking the notion of meaning is as something to do with sense or intelligibility, and that takes you towards the idea of understanding; but ‘meaning’ also evokes something like meaningfulness or significance, the fact that something matters to you in a certain way, and that aspect takes you more towards the idea of attunement. And the claim Heidegger is making is that the way in which we inhabit the world always has both of those aspects to it, so in terms of the history of philosophy he is opposing the idea that you can draw a sharp conceptual distinction between the cognitive and the affective, between reason and the passions, if you like. On the model of someone like Hume, we have these two essentially distinct faculties – when it’s action, passion is what drives you, when it’s knowledge, reason’s in the driving seat, but they’re really completely distinct from one another. So then you have a problem of getting them to engage with one another.
What Heidegger is saying in effect is that if you really look closely at how this works, what you’ll see is that they’re internally related, that they’re just two faces or aspects of an essentially unitary mode of being: we couldn’t have understanding without moods, and we couldn’t have moods without understanding.
WE ARE DEPENDENT FOR KNOWLEDGE ON SOMETHING THAT IS GIVEN TO US, SOMETHING THAT WE CANNOT PROVIDE OUT OF OUR OWN RESOURCES, AND THIS SHOW THE LIMITS NOT JUST OF OUR AUTONOMY BUT ALSO THE LIMITS OF KNOW
The link between moods and mattering is interesting, as Heidegger is famous for his analysis of angst, a mood in which our normal taken-for-granted sense of things mattering or being meaningful is profoundly ruptured.
There’s quite a complicated story here. In Division One of Being and Time the particular mood of angst is taken to be really important, and Heidegger tries to clarify what he means by angst by contrasting it with fear. Fear is something that Heidegger claims is object-directed, so when you’re afraid you’re always afraid of something in particular, so it might be a dog, a human being, or some natural phenomenon that looks like it might cause you a problem. And precisely because it’s object-directed, the sort of affective response that you have to it is equally structured and specific, so if you see a rabid dog you’ll look for the nearest tree to jump up; if it’s a different kind of threat you’ll respond in a different kind of way. And that’s a good example of the way in which moods structure and shape situations you’re in so there are always certain channels of action that become immediately salient and certain other ones that drop away.
Heidegger thinks that angst is importantly different from that because it is object-less – there isn’t any particular feature or aspect of the situation in which you find yourself that is provoking the angst; or if something specific is provoking it, what it provokes exceeds the object that is occasioning it. So what the feeling of angst is supposed to reveal is that, in a certain sense, there is a bigger question which lies behind the specific sorts of meaningfulness and mattering that you encounter when you feel fear or boredom or hatred, or whatever it might be. And the bigger question really is: what’s the meaning of existence? Not just what’s the meaning of the situation I’m in, but more what’s the significance of the fact I’m always situated, that there’s always some structure of meaning that’s informing my existence, and yet that structure of meaning doesn’t itself seem to be beyond question or objectively grounded or authorised by anything beyond my mode of grasping it or making sense of it.
This sense of the fragility of the structure of meaning does not seem to be present in Kant’s philosophy.
This goes back to the earlier point that in Kant’s critical philosophy, the architecture of it separates out the issue of practical agency and that kind of significance to the Second Critique, whereas the First Critique is exclusively concerned with cognition. Once he’s built that separation into the structure of his theory, then the idea of meaning as mattering and the loss of that kind of significance doesn’t even arise in the context of the theoretical philosophy, and when it does arise in the context of the practical philosophy, there’s the question of how ethical significance relates to God. But one thing that Heidegger certainly isn’t in a position to invoke at this point, even as a postulate of practical reason, is a belief in the existence of God. And I think this is a point in Heidegger’s analysis where he makes contact with what someone like Nietzsche would call the problem of nihilism: the idea that in a culture where faith in God is a great deal more dubious and crumbling than it was in Kant’s day, the question of meaning in the sense of mattering becomes much more pressing, because of the absence of what people take to be a theological narrative where meaning is authorised by the fact that God is the creator of everything and whatever he says goes and that gives you an objectively authoritative sense for your life.
Lacking that framework, structures of meaning seem to be on the one hand absolutely ineradicable and fundamental to our existence, but they also seem to be fundamentally rooted in us, rather than in some wholly external reality. And then the question of what authority those structures of meaning might exercise becomes impossible to avoid but at the same time impossible to answer satisfactorily, because if in the end one way or the other it’s me individually or us collectively who establish and maintain these structures of meaning, then it sounds as if really they’re subjective, and that means that we could choose to restructure them or we could lose faith in them, and then what?
But actually with respect to angst, that’s not Heidegger’s primary reason for talking about it. In Division One, the reason for talking about angst is that when you are in a condition of angst, he thinks that your own nature becomes much more transparent to you as a whole, that you stop focusing on the particular situation that you’re in and you just come to an apprehension of yourself as situated, and therefore as in some way responsible for the kind of existence you’re leading and indeed the fact that you’re continuing to lead it as opposed to ending it.
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)
This idea of meaning not being objectively grounded or guaranteed opens up questions concerning finitude, which is one of the most controversial elements of Kant’s legacy, with the poet Kleist famously committing suicide in part due to the despair induced by Kant apparently erecting an insurmountable barrier separating us from the thing-in-itself. Finitude is a central topic that you address in your work, so I was hoping you could say a few things about it.
You’re right that there’s a certain kind of Kantian ancestry to this, because one of the ways in which one could try to summarise the Critique of Pure Reason is by saying that Kant tells a story about knowledge which is an attempt to acknowledge the finitude of the human knower. And that finds expression in the fact that Kant says that while we have a spontaneous faculty for understanding it’s completely useless unless it receives a manifold of intuition upon which it can work, upon which it can engage and activate its synthetic capacity. So he talks about intuitions without concepts being blind, but concepts without intuitions being empty. So you need both: you need the capacity to organise, but you need something to be given to you to organise, and human beings are essentially split or doubled in that particular way. So the acknowledgement of finitude comes in the fact that something has to be given or received by the knower before genuine knowledge can be achieved.
So what would infinite intuition look like?
This is where the contrast with God comes in, because the alternative to a story about knowledge as finite would be the idea of someone who doesn’t require something to be given from outside in order to achieve knowledge. Now, it’s a moot point whether or not Kant does think that is a genuine possibility, whether he thinks he can make sense of it as a mode of knowledge, but he does offer non-human alternatives as part of his attempt to make clear by contrast what’s finite about human knowledge. And interestingly, going back to the post-Kantian phrase which you mentioned earlier, one of the ways in which some people understand the tradition of German idealism is as an attempt to overcome the dissatisfaction of the kind that Kleist expressed in this dispensation.
Because what Kant says in effect is that we are dependent for knowledge on something that is given to us, something that we cannot provide out of our own resources, and this shows the limits not just of our autonomy but also the limits of knowledge. It means that anything that cannot be conveyed to us through intuition cannot be a possible object of knowledge. Now obviously that would include God, it would include anything that lies beyond the limits of possible experience. And if genuine knowledge requires intuition, then there is no possibility of using our conceptual capacities to get a genuine substantial grip on anything that transcends the realm of intuition. So Kant is saying that if you do a proper critique of reason, what you’ll see is that it has limits and that you have to respect them, and that a great deal of confusion has been sown in the history of philosophy by thinking you can transcend them and start talking about things that might or might not be the case beyond the limits of possible experience. And as you work your way through German idealism and get to Hegel, a familiar, if not uncontroversial, story about that process is that the German idealists are basically looking for ways of overcoming those limitations that Kant imposes.
You refer both to limits and limitations, but in your work you emphasise that these are not to be understood as interchangeable terms. Please can you say something about this?
If we think about it in those Kantian or post-Kantian terms I was talking about, one way of hearing what Kant is saying when he talks of the limits of possible experience, is to feel that you’ve just been deprived of something: here is this possibility of transcendent knowledge and Kant is telling us it’s prohibited – you can’t have it. Now, if you hear that as saying that there really is something out there to be known but you can’t know it, then that’s going to sound like not just a disappointment but a deprivation, like someone’s just built a fence. One way of understanding that is as saying that there is something that could be done here, but you can’t do it. And then you immediately feel that you’ve been prohibited from something.
But the other way of hearing what Kant was saying is there is no such thing as a transcendent field of knowledge – there aren’t objects there that someone who isn’t conditioned by our limits could conceivably know; we can’t make any sense of a possible object of knowledge that transcends the limits of possible experience. That’s not a coherent possibility, but a fantasy. It’s something whose senselessness reveals itself if we reflect sufficiently carefully on what knowledge is and what an object of knowledge is.
If you hear it that way you’re not being deprived of anything, you’re not being prohibited from doing anything because something that can’t conceivably be done isn’t something you can be prevented from doing. So when Kant maps out the limits of possible knowledge you can hear that as him just saying that this is what knowledge is, and anything knowable you can know. So he’s not depriving you of anything, he’s just saying that this is what knowing is and this is as far as it goes. The limits of possible knowledge are co-extensive with all that there is to know. So if you tell the story with a certain kind of accent, it feels as if what we’re dealing with here are limitations as if being merely human prevents us from doing something that God might do. The idea of a limitation presupposes something beyond that at least it makes sense to talk about or imagine being an object of knowledge, whereas if you think about them as limits what you’re basically saying is that there isn’t a beyond.
PHILOSOPHY IS CONSTITUTED OUT OF AN OSCILLATION BETWEEN AN IMPULSE TO GET TOWARDS THIS GOD'S EYE VIEW AND THE REALISATION THAT IT'S NOT JUST THAT YOU CAN'T DO IT, BUT THAT THERE MAY BE NO SUCH THING TO BE DONE
But it seems to be something we can’t shake off, this feeling of limitation or inadequacy. And this is something you address in your work, this sense that we’re always trying to push against these limits that have been set.
Yes, that’s something that Heidegger’s interested in, Nietzsche’s interested in, Wittgenstein’s interested in – the feeling that no matter how many times you convince yourself philosophically that these are limits and not limitations, you end up beating your head against them.
Rather than limits and limitations, you tend to talk about the finite and its relationship to the infinite. The way I understand your conception of this relationship is that the infinite is something like a veil or shadow behind our finite experience, and you generally describe it with terms like nullity, negation, and nothingness. But what can a philosopher do with that or say about that?
Well, it has to do with whether you think about this idea of that which is beyond the finite as a positive or negative notion. In the field of religion, there is something called negative theology where the argument, very roughly speaking, is that we can’t possibly get a positive grasp of God’s nature as He’s transcendent, but what we can do is ward off misunderstandings, and further specify this void by saying what God is not. When you say that God is omnipotent, that sounds like a positive characterisation of His nature but it can also be read simply as you saying that it never makes sense to say of God that he didn’t do something because he couldn’t do it; you’re just excluding that possibility. That isn’t a positive characterisation of God.
You can think about finitude in the same kind of way – that what makes us finite is certain kinds of negative qualification, or more specifically that we stand in relation to something that we can only specify in negative terms. And in the context of Heidegger, this becomes much clearer in the Second Division of Being and Time: not so much the way angst shows up in the First Division which we’ve already talked about, but the way it is related in the Second Division first of all to death and then more generally to a range of notions which Heidegger finds himself repeatedly having to characterise in terms of a relation to negation or nullity or nothingness.
If we take death as an example, Heidegger makes a claim at the beginning of Division Two that being-in-the-world is being-towards-death. A lot of commentators on this bit of Heidegger think that what he wants to do is to provide an alternative positive account of what it means that human beings die, whereas in my view what he’s actually trying to do is to get us to see that what’s specifically angst-inducing about death is that we have no idea what it means for us to die, for us to be dead. We can make sense of the possibility of dying and we can make sense of the possibility of other people being dead (in other words no longer existing in our world or our lives) but what we can’t make any sense of is the idea that we will be dead. If you look at death from the first-person point of view, there’s no possibility of you getting what Heidegger would call a phenomenological grasp of what that signifies because it’s not a possible mode of existence for you. We can make sense of the possibility of being a premier league footballer or being a policeman or being a surgeon because we could in principle realise those possibilities in human existence, but death is not just a very peculiar kind of existential possibility, because when you’re dead there’s no you around to live it out, to project that possibility.
And given that on Heidegger’s methodology we can only grasp things insofar as they present themselves to us as they are in themselves, then death is essentially ungraspable – we have no means of making sense of it. And that’s what induces angst, or ought to induce angst. So, what we encounter when we think about the fact that we will all necessarily die – this aspect of our finitude – is actually the point at which our ability to make sense of ourselves runs out: it is essentially beyond us.
So this is a deepening of what you might call Kant’s finitude of intuition.
Or perhaps his intuition of finitude. Kant sounds this note in the register of knowledge in the context of the First Critique, and what Heidegger is doing is broadening it. He is asking about what is involved in the kind of comprehending relation you have to yourself. If you really want to take in your own nature as a unity then you can’t avoid the fact that your life comes to an end – that it’s finite rather than infinite (whatever that means), and the most obvious salient way in which that finitude shows up for us is that we all die, that we are all mortal. But what does that mean? So at one level Heidegger is contesting a lot of familiar interpretations which he thinks are just wrong, for example he doesn’t think it means that our life only lasts for a certain finite period. And at another level he wants to say that the truth about being mortal is that every moment of your life could be the last, and that if people thought about it that way they would have a completely different sense of its significance.
But in my view there’s then a second step, which is to say that even when you say that every moment could be your last you don’t really know what you mean because that idea of the moment being your last carries with it the idea: no more you. But what does that mean? How’s it possible for you to make sense of that possibility existentially (in his jargon)? And I think it’s fundamental for him that we can’t make sense of it. And what shows up there in my view is the idea that all of the particular ways in which we make sense of ourselves and our lives and hence of the world which we inhabit emerge from and are conditioned by a necessary relationship we have to that which essentially lies beyond our capacity to make sense.
So that brings together the so-called existential side of Being and Time with his broader ontological project of investigating the question of being.
Yes, I think if you work your way through Division Two of Being and Time then he goes back over every aspect of the analysis he provides in Division One, and he shows that if you push it hard enough you will find the same necessity to invoke nothingness or nullity. So you get the idea of being guilty which he defines as being the basis of a nullity; you get the voice of conscience which says ... nothing; and you get a definition of temporality in terms of what he calls ‘ecstases’. That notion literally invokes a kind of standing outside oneself: what it seems to mean is that the essential nature of the present lies in its relation to the future and the past, and the same is true of all three, which means in effect that the nature of each depends on its relationship to that which it is not, so the temporality of Dasein looks like a kind of threefold negation. This is partly why I think that Sartre’s emphasis on nothingness is not a kind of radical alteration in the Heideggerian dispensation, but is making explicit something that is actually there if you look closely enough in Being and Time.
We’ve been talking about limits and limitations, so where do you see the limits of what can be placed or performed under the category of philosophy?
I think philosophy is distinguished from most other subjects by the fact it has a kind of contradictory impulse that is right at the heart of what it does: one is the impulse to adopt a kind of God’s eye view, to feel as if in order to fulfil itself as a subject it has to be capable of taking in everything, making sense of all the things there are to make sense of, and to understand how they relate to one another. And here what you get is the kind of thing that Kierkegaard satirises in the Hegelian philosopher, the idea that you can step outside of your limitations and conditions, and adopt the kind of perspective that God would have, taking in everything as if it were just a great big thing. That impulse is really deeply written into the nature of the subject, and I don’t think it’s removable, but I think it’s paired with an equally fundamental recognition that anything you say and do as a philosopher is itself going to be situated and contextualised, and stand in relationship to an indefinite range of other disciplines – history, physics, linguistics, whatever it might be. And philosophy is constituted out of an oscillation between those two things: an impulse to get towards this God’s eye view and the realisation that it’s not just that you can’t do it, but that there may be no such thing to be done. And that’s the sense in which it seems to me that philosophers’ bumping their heads against the limits is just written into the DNA of doing philosophy.
When I talk about the way in which philosophy might be more productively aligned to literature or the arts more generally, that’s an example of allowing one of those two impulses to predominate and do something fruitful: to recognise that philosophy is one discipline amongst others and it’s engaged in a conversation with those disciplines, and it can learn from them just as much as they can learn from it. So it’s a way of trying to exploit one aspect of that tension that makes up philosophy. But I think that if we ended up doing nothing other than that, adopting what you might call a kind of Rortyan picture of philosophy, then something fundamental would be lost, because there is a sense in which human finitude comes out most fully in running your heads up against those limits, that there’s something fundamentally human about being dissatisfied with being human, and philosophy’s way of registering that is its aspiration to take a step back and make sense of things as a whole. And it may well be that that’s just an indefeasible aspiration.
Certainly the idea of an inward-looking philosophy seems antithetical to the spirit of your work, for example your idea of philosophy as a way of realising conversation.
I think that’s partly because philosophy is in a way a very parasitic kind of enterprise. Most of the materials on which it works in its own distinctive way have to be, in Kantian terms, given to it. Philosophers don’t come up with any genuine knowledge of their own – they’re always interested in what a historian tells them or what a physicist tells them or what a novelist tells them. You have to have something to reflect philosophically on in order to do philosophy – we don’t have an independent body of knowledge or source of insight. So in that sense we’re always dependent on other disciplines, and I think in some moods we don’t like that fact and we’d like to transcend it if we could. So it’s the finitude of philosophy, I guess.
Stephen Mulhall is professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford, specializing in post-Kantian philosophy, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of literature and film. He has published numerous books including The Routledge Guidebook to Heidegger’s Being and Time and On Film.
This interview was originally published in The Kantian Catastophe? Conversations on Finitude and the Limits of Philosophy, edited by Anthony Morgan, published by Bigg Books in 2017, and available for purchase here.