When the dust of the heated discussions sets, there seems to be one aspect in the question of what philosophy can do that all sides agree on: It is able to inform other areas of life, society or sciences, as a means of enrichment. Learning the different logical fallacies by heart, it is said, will enhance the level of political discourse and solve the problem of populism; extracting systematicity from the scientists’ specialized insights will present us with a unitary image of Nature and the World. Thomas Aquinas famously called philosophy the maiden of theology, and it seems to be this status of eternal maiden that, even in the eyes of its fiercest sceptics, philosophy — at least! — will never lose.
But if philosophy truly is a maiden, she can only be a very twisted one; instead of arranging the house according to the masters’ needs, she disrupts their poised busyness, moves around furniture for no apparent reason, and hassles the inhabitants with inappropriate demands. She not only entices the forces of common sense, so homey in their dealings, towards systematicity, but confronts them with something, to echo the disruptive humor of Monty Python, completely different. It seems that this process of informing, in the end, is not as harmonic as the critics of philosophy would like it to be.
The common sense partakes in an array of activities: classifying, identifying, learning, discussing, deliberating, situating itself within a certain culture and context, where norms and habits arise. All these activities permeate our daily lives, from the simplest tasks to the professional and political spheres; and they are all based on assumptions that might as well turn out to be wrong. Sure, this is the clichéd image of philosophy, as the eternal doubter and inquirer, but it seems that this role is only approved, as long as it is used to affirm the usual course of things — if only with a bit more self-reflexion and security. Descartes reassures us in the beginning of the Meditations that even if we lose our firm ground for a second due to the radicality of the skeptical method, our trusted instructor will bring us safely back to land. In the absence of such an appeasement, when philosophy not only brings us back to where we started, but is suddenly commencing to sketch out alternative routes, claiming that well-worn paths are dead ends, that even the ground below our feet is shaky at best —it seems like philosophy is forgetting its place.
But is things having “their place” not just as much of a problem if we ask ourselves, who it is that is assigning places in the first place? What exactly is happening, when certain groups of people claim ancient languages as their own? Is shouting out that people no longer care about truth and ringing in the age of so-called post-truth not in itself a distortion of what is actually the issue here? Is the banishment of ‘literariness’ to a specific aesthetic field not the reduction of an experience that is just as ambivalent and rich as the works of art? Will the simple assumption of an external world with singular substances really result in an unproblematic concept of space? And are we not doing something to the things and phenomena we classify so nonchalantly? And, last but not least, is there not a lot more going on when we are learning? Maybe, in the end, it is not our maiden that is acting all crazy, but our own furnishing, all of our acting as if we’re the lords of the house, having “jam to-morrow and jam yesterday — but never jam to-day”. Philosophy as the maiden in… a madhouse?