It’s often asked what role philosophers have to play in our world and its problems today (as if in the past the answer was clearer!). This is the same question as “what is the use of philosophy”, insofar as today roles are seemingly reducible to uses and functions. Philosophers here are caught in a bind – if the use and function of some area of philosophical thought were made crystal clear, then we would be looking at a new empirical discipline. It’s an old story, natural philosophy becoming physics once its methods and objects are sufficiently formalized, psychology under Freud becoming a scientific rather than Kantian term. Hence the ever recurring question: yes, but what role do philosophers play?
But perhaps this vision is flawed as an answer – that philosophers must toil to package some new area of non-philosophical research in order to be useful and have some function… Perhaps there is a use and function for thoroughly philosophical activity, that needn’t chain itself to an empirical enterprise to realize its utility. If there were candidates for such an activity, chief among them would be critique.
It is in critique that thought unmoors itself from both the empirical and the normative (conceived under the image of the moral). It is not the expression of dissatisfaction with how things stand, as estimated against a vision of how things ought to be, because this implies that philosophers are in possession of an image or an idea of a “way out”, which, as it is all too painfully obvious, is not the case. Either way, philosophy, always irritated with arguments by authority, is unlikely to envision itself to be the ultimate authority when it comes to the way we ought to live. When philosophers criticise, it is in innocence, not in the name of something “higher”, and neither as something “higher”; it is not as a guru, a prophet or a priest that it criticises, but as a child that is incapable of grasping, why one “ought” to do things that way and not another. The child that is asking its parents, why they “have” to spend all day at a job they don’t like instead of spending it with them is posing a problem that is explosive enough to start a revolution. Granted, just as the child’s persistence is quickly dealt with (even though the uneasy feeling that such questions arouse might be difficult to shake off), the philosophers’ bickering very rarely leads to people joining the streets. And it is also clear that behind the face of innocence, philosophers hide their teeth (be it just the grin of irony). But it is also true that it is in the unwillingness to legitimise its existence, to answer to the question, what it is for, that philosophy unleashes all its strength. Its child-like belief is that existence, as existence, is not to be held accountable to anyone. Its critique, then, questions the legitimacy of all those who ask, what it is for, what its use is, because such questions demand of those who are interpolated to legitimise their existence before those who reign over the current order of things. And this is just something it cannot do.