According to José A Benardete, philosophy can (also) be “an investigation of utopian concepts that transcend the empirical” (Infinity: An Essay in Metaphysics, 1964: 285). Now even most of our metaphysicians today do not durst to write so boldly; this is a radical break with the authority of SCIENCE (which knows one religion: the authority of the empirical). The enterprise is not, however, anti-scientific; for Benardete ontology and natural science are conversation partners (although with a reference to Hamlet, Benaderdete also observes that "in the absence of practical wisdom, [physical] theory itself may be pressed into the service of folly." (225)) Now a utopian concept belongs literally to no-place. It is beyond measure. But it does not mean it does not belong to this world. (Think of Spinozistic "eternal truths"--i.e., things that can't be negated; it is no surprise, then, that Benardete invokes Sponoza at the end of Infinity and in an old JPhil piece wishes to make room for the investigation of "invariants that preside over, and constitute, the eternal order.") Is there more to be said about philosophy's task according to Benardete? (And as I observed in an earlier post about Benardete's work this is not far removed from what Jeff Bell and I have advocated in a different key.)
Yes, there is.
According to Benardete philosophy can create a “common ground between the life-world of the Hyperboreans and our human life-world, and it is precisely this common ground which performs the double role of transcending each particular life-world and also of providing the substratum internal to each life-world in turn.” (Benardete 1964: 218; this is not the place to explore Benardete's surprising debts to Heidegger.) In context the Hyperboreans are extremely powerful folk (undoubtedly from the mythical North) who flourish in extreme cold (and lack colour-words in their language). (I return to these figures below.) I offer five observations about what Benardete is up to:
- Anticipating Deleuze, Benardete presupposes a multiplicity of particular life-worlds.
- It is philosophy's task to create concepts that create common ground between life-worlds. But the common ground need not efface the particular life-worlds--on the contrary, the common ground solidifies each life-world (by providing it a substratum).
- The common ground is provided by a framework that can be assented to, in principle, by all rational beings.
- Mathematical science provides a good proxy for the ontology to be found in this common ground. To a first approximation it is even the content of this common ground. But crucially, Benardette denies that science can do the whole job of providing such common ground. Benardete offers two reservations: first, not unlike Schlick (who goes unmentioned), Benardete insists on existence of experience distinct from science (224).
- Second, in each life-world concepts must be used for an end: “our whole approach presupposes a teleological account of concepts and, a fortiori, a teleological account of man as the user of concept” (Benardete 1964: 224) And (appealing to Leibniz and Ryle) Benardete insists that science cannot provide our ends to us.
So, philosophy must create concepts that simultaneously do justice to the absolute (and, thus, create common ground between those from no-place up north and us), and that are action-guiding in our lives. Again, this is very close to Jeff Bell's Deleuze.
Nevertheless, let me conclude with a final, brief further hint: another philosopher, Nietzsche, also invoked the Hyperboreans. He uses it as a metaphor for the cold philosopher that rejects Christian pity/sympathy (recall my blogging about the Nietzsche vs Mill debate over sympathy in "Dismal Science" vs "Gay Science" controversy). So, we could also read Benardete as suggesting that philosophy's task is is to create concepts that create common ground between the a-Christian, Nietzschean philosopher and ordinary life without fusing them (and allowing each form of life to have its own action guiding principles, etc). It would be fruitful to read Benardete's life work in this light, and Deleuze, too.
FURTHER UPDATE HINT: As Wikipedia reminds me, the Hyperboreans are also alluded to in in Dante's Divine Comedy (and we know it also inspired Nietzsche). On the last page of Benardete's book, we find "If metaphysics is a form of ὕϐρις, then we have been justly punished for our presumption. Happily, there is a comic as well as a tragic form of ὕϐρις and there is not only low, there is also high, even divine, comedy." There are suggestive remarks here.