Recently I was asked what my methodology is. This was the second time I’ve been asked this question and I confess that on both occasions it stopped me in my tracks. On both occasions it was at speaking events devoted to disciplines outside of philosophy. I suspect I was being asked a question about whether I deploy quantitative or qualitative research methodologies. However, if this question startled me so much– and I’m still mulling over my reaction on both occasions –then this is because the question situates philosophy in a field of discourse quite foreign to philosophy. The concept of methodology as it was asked for in this context– certainly philosophy has had methodologies such as dialectic, phenomenology, and deconstruction –seems to pertain to the investigation of an object that is empirically given. I realize it’s dangerous to evoke the concept of the given in a philosophical context. Here I don’t have anything particularly profound in mind when I refer to something being empirically given. I just mean that the various empirical disciplines– whether they literary or media studies, anthropology, sociology, chemistry, or biology (note how broadly I’m using the term “empirical” here) –begin from the premise that they have a well defined object of investigation, something that is out there and given, and that the question of methodology is one of how to investigate that object so as to get at its nature, how it is structured, how it behaves, and so on. In the social sciences a quantitative approach proceeds by way of gathering data upon which statistical methods can then be deployed, whereas a qualitative approach would consist in interpreting data within the framework of some sort of theoretical paradigm such as structuralism, actor-network theory, systems theory, and so on.
Matters are quite different in philosophy, for philosophy ideally begins in a state that is uncertain of both its concepts and its object. Philosophy, it might be said, occurs in an uncertain fold between the concept and the object or the ontological and the ontic. Heidegger’s translation of a passage from Plato’s Parmenides admirably describes the philosophical situation:
For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression “being”. We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed. (Being and Time, 1)
In our day to day dealings, we take it that we understand what we mean when we refer to being or say that something is a being. However, when we begin to reflect on what we signify by being, we suddenly find we are perplexed. Where the meaning of being before seemed self-evident, the more we reflect upon it the more obscure it becomes. Moreover, it is not only that the concept of being becomes obscure, but the objects we refer to as beings becomes uncertain as well. Before I was certain that such and such a thing was a being, that I knew what an object is, and so on, but now I’m not so sure. I find that this object that I didn’t before think was a being might, in fact, be a being, while this other being I was sure was a being might not be a being. This is the horror that Euthyphro undergoes in Plato’s dialogue by the same name. Where Euthyphro began with the certainty that he knew what piety or holiness was, the more he engages in dialogue with that monstrous being that is Socrates the more obscure the concept becomes. He flees from the dialogue without a concept of piety nor any longer certain of what beings truly count as pious or holy.
This is the philosophical situation par excellence. Here I don’t mean to suggest that philosophy’s aim is an aporetic situation of uncertainty, only that philosophy problematizes both the concepts through which we relate to the world and our grasp of the objects to which we relate in our various endeavors. Perhaps this point can be clarified with respect to the difference between the discipline of biology and a philosophy of biology. While the two overlap, there is nonetheless a difference. The discipline of biology takes both its concepts and the object of its discipline as given. It is then a question of how to deploy these concepts so as to expand its knowledge of its object. Initially it might be said that philosophy has nothing to add to biology because biology has achieved the status of knowledge, because it has become an episteme. However, a philosophy of biology is not so sure. What philosophy takes as its object as a philosophy of biology is not the object of biology, but rather the concepts of biology.
Put in Heideggerian terms, we could say that a philosophy of biology interrogates the “alethetic field” through which the bios is open as an object that is given to the investigating biologist. This, of course, requires some knowledge of the field of biology and its present state of knowledge. Often philosophers forget that they need to acquaint themselves with the other disciplines they investigate and therefore end up proceeding on the basis of doxa or the prejudices of folk biology. A philosophy of biology must be familiar with the field that it takes as an object. However, it does something quite different than what is done in this discipline. In making the concepts of this alethetic field its object, it tries to bring these concepts before reflective consciousness, to explore their interdependence, to uncover what is unspoken in them, and it perpetually shuttles back and forth between those beings we refer to as living and this space of conceptuality. In doing so, philosophy often discovers something unspoken in these concepts. For example, in the vein of Adorno and the theorists of biopolitics, the philosopher might discover an “unconscious” of this conceptual field that is entirely geared towards the mastery and exploitation of life. In other moments, a philosophy of biology might discover that there are a set of tensions and contradictions that haunt the discourse of biology, or essential phenomena that have been missed, or that the discourse of biology illicitly includes certain beings in the category of life as it currently is deployed or that it excludes beings from the category of life that should be included.
If, then, it’s asked “what is the object of philosophy?”, the answer is probably concepts. Philosophy operates on concepts and discourse. Sometimes it invents concepts as Deleuze and Guattari would have it. At other times it critiques concepts. But in all instances it is operating on concepts. In doing so it doesn’t leave the object of these discourses unchanged, for what is given to a discourse changes as a result of this philosophical encounter. We don’t know how Euthyphro, the great religious leader, changes after the dialogue. Things don’t look promising. However, we can hope that as a result of this problematization of the concept of religion, piety, or holiness the object of his piety undergoes some sort of mutation in his thought and his practice changes.
This is why it’s so difficult to say just what philosophy is and what it is about. Since the 19th century and, not coincidentally, in the shadow of the success of the natural and historical sciences, the discipline of philosophy has undergone a sort of panic, striving to delineate a space that is entirely its own. In one variant this has taken the form of a meditation on its own history. The object of philosophy thereby becomes a sort of preservation of its own tradition. In another variant, this has taken the form of creating a sort of epistemological courtroom, where philosophy serves the juridical function of determining what counts as legitimate knowledge claims in other disciplines. There can be little doubt that philosophy has suffered a loss of nerve and a crisis of identity. Yet if philosophy is without an object that could be delineated a priori, then this is not because it has been usurped by the natural and social sciences, but rather because its object is always other discourses, other fields, and these fields are historically variable.
If, then, it is hopeless to seek a philosophical methodology, then this is because philosophy is a form of thought that precedes anything like the givenness of an object that could then be investigated empirically. It simply is not working at this level, but at the level of an interrogation of discourse or concepts. This, no doubt, is why philosophy perpetually faces two threats: a sort of despair over not having an object that leads the fantasy of founding philosophy as a discipline with its own unique object; but also an ineluctable tendency towards correlationism, anti-realism, and idealism that comes to believe that there’s nothing but concepts and that its concepts the create the world. However, if, from another vantage, it can be said that philosophy has a method, the name of this method would be dialectics. I say this knowing that I will be misunderstood and regret this inscription later. This dialectic is closer to that of Socrates and Plato than that of Hegel and Marx. In saying this, I in no way intend to denigrate Hegel or Marx. Rather, the point is that this isn’t a dialectic of contradictions and sublations, but rather a dialectic that perpetually shuttles between the concept and object in the process of both attempting to bring the concept before reflective consciousness and in the process of critiquing those concepts. If there is a horror of philosophy experienced by both the philosopher and non-philosopher alike, if there’s a specifically philosophical anxiety, then it’s because philosophy perpetually confronts us with the non-understanding we have of a field of conceptuality and its attendant objects haunting what we hitherto thought we understood. Everything becomes a mess, though often good things come of that mess. This dimension of philosophy is not something that necessarily takes place in an academic department– indeed, those academic departments known as philosophy are often the sites where philosophy are least likely to occur –but is instead an event that transpires wherever an alethetic field becomes the object of reflection.