Siemek on Transcendental Social Philosophy

[Fragment of lecture from 1994]


In the beginning, I owe you some kind of an introduction in order to provide a general idea of what these lectures shall treat of.
Most of all, what needs to be explained – from the very start – is the title of these lectures. After all, many people may find the notion of transcendental social philosophy a little bit odd. At first glance, the term seems to contain a certain contradictio in adiecto: it appears that one can do philosophy which is either social or transcendental. The adjective “transcendental” has typically been used, at least since Kant, to refer to a horizon and scope of such philosophical queries that abstract from all frameworks, aspects, and determinants of thinking, including the “social” ones, in order to reach the most general (“a priori”) groundwork and conditions of the possibility of human knowledge in its “pure” claims of veracity.
However, this contradiction seems to be the case only at first glance. First of all, let us not forget that even in Kant the “transcendental” philosophical approach consists in philosophy uncovering the primary structures and acts of the generation of knowledge, which create a web of necessary and generally valid forms of human experience as a whole – these forms are constitutive of (in the sense that they enable and thus “precede”) the relation of compatibility and codependence that holds between the entirety of the experienced objects and the “categorial” system of concepts that sets the rules of understanding and cognition of objects as objects.

In the 20th century philosophy, this classical understanding of “transcendentalism” has undergone significant modifications that have clearly been heading in a certain specific direction. Already on the brink of our century, and then in its first half, there appeared various interpretations of transcendentalism, which put a spotlight on the very aprioricity of human experience being historically and socioculturally determinate. (Neo-Kantianism – Windelband, Max Adler, Cassirer, Husserl, and to some extent early Heidegger). In contrast, the most recent attempts to philosophically rehabilitate and revitalize the term rest on the interpretation of “transcendentalism” from the point of view of the philosophy of language – mostly semantic but also, more and more often, a pragmatic interpretation. By treating the old Kantian a priori as a kind of pre-understanding of the world rooted in the fundamental linguisticality of human experience, thus emphasizing its symbolic and communicational nature and structure, these attempts shift the whole area of transcendental thinking into the immediate vicinity of what can be broadly understood as the sphere of “that which is social”.
However, it is equally important to focus on the meaning of the second notion: “social philosophy”. Without a doubt, nowadays we can speak of two completely different ways of understanding social philosophy. One of these – let us call it the traditional or the “weak” understanding – dominates the entire main stream of modern philosophy up till Hegel. According to this first understanding, social philosophy refers to a specific “branch” of philosophy in general – a “branch” that coexists with other “branches” of philosophy or other “philosophies of something” (such as the philosophy of culture, philosophy of art, philosophy of history, etc.) and shares with them the same inferior status of being only a partial and thus always secondary and subordinate periphery of Philosophicality proper, meaning Philosophicality which is “core” and “pure”. What follows from this understanding is that the whole sphere of “that which is social” is only one of many subjects to which Philosophicality can be applied, but in itself this sphere remains outside, as something incidental and alien. In itself, “that which is social” is non-philosophical in nature.
As we can see, this traditional understanding of social philosophy assumes in advance a certain specific conception not only of “that which is social”, but also – and most importantly – of philosophicality. What we see here is the monumental and venerable facade of the classical European philosophy, which has been projecting an image of itself as a disinterested and pure quest for the absolute Truth. The core of this quest – or the central point of this “genuine philosophy” – is constituted by such “most primary” (and at the same time “final” and “eternal”) inquiries as the questions about “Being” in general, “Knowledge” in general, and the “Human Being” in general, and these questions are posed by the corresponding “branches” of classical philosophy: metaphysics, theory of cognition, philosophical anthropology. Having ready answers to these most general and “most philosophical” questions is necessary before deciding to descend from the heights of the “pure” philosophicality in order to use the illumination brought from above – as in Plato’s cave – to shine some light on other phenomena and facts from the human life, which are extraphilosophical and thus have little significance on their own – for example, in our case, the phenomenon of social coexistence and cooperation between human beings. The traditional understanding of social philosophy as a “branch” is thus inextricably linked to the similarly traditional understanding of philosophy in general as a “facade”. Each of the these terms directs us to the other and makes sense only as a part of the closely intertwined duo of terms.
The problem is that in our time this intertwinement itself is apparently no longer the case. Anyhow, one of its constituents – the more important one – seems to be irrevocably gone. The whole pure and soaring facade of the classical philosophical thought has already lost not only its spectacular shine, but also its integrity – and this has happened to such an extent that what becomes more and more visible through the numerous scratches and cracks in the facade is the previously hidden (because lacking in purity and shine) courtyard of philosophical knowledge and truth. It is noteworthy that the philosophy of history, culture, language, which were all previously situated at the peripheries, were the first to leave this courtyard and move vigorously towards the centre of “pure” philosophicality. Nowadays, the remains of the venerable facade are no more than an object of monument conservation; the maintenance of the interior, on the other hand, is up to the “courtyards”. Due to the fact that the building as a whole is no longer habitable, it needs to be thoroughly rebuilt or even built anew, keeping the beautiful facade just for show – a trick undoubtedly mastered by the contemporary monument conservation experts.
For this reason, what we need to do from the very beginning is to look for a new understanding of our object – social philosophy. It is clear that this new understanding shall also derive from the “courtyard” of traditional philosophicality. Its initial outline should already be quite clearly visible from what has been said so far. After all, the three “peripheries” (history, culture, and language), which have recently moved so vigorously towards the very “centre” of philosophical thinking and discourse, all ultimately belong to the area most broadly understood as that which is social. Moreover, the first attempt at demarcating the boundaries and exploring the topography of this area in all its range ought to be considered as the most important task of the new “philosophy of the courtyards”. Hopefully, putting solid effort into this task will also make it possible for us to properly reconstruct and renovate the “facade” itself.
In the beginning (in the “foreword”), the significant content of this new – strong, new-fashioned, or transcendental – understanding of social philosophy, which I intend to investigate and elaborate on in the discussion below, can be defined solely in a negative way: as the reverse side or the “rear” of the old, traditional understanding of social philosophy. This is because the new content is revealed only through a structural transformation, or we might even say a “reversal”, of the whole relation between that which is philosophical and that which is social – such transformation which causes both sides of the relation to switch their places and their functions within the relation. When understood in a traditional way, “social philosophy” was invariably considered to be a subordinate and secondary activity of the primary – already set and complete –Philosophy reflecting on the facts and phenomena of the social reality of human life, which in themselves were deemed completely non-philosophical. The idea behind the new understanding of social philosophy, however, would be to recognize and acknowledge how the inherently social nature of a human being, which determines the form of the human life and experience of the world, speaks through the structures of sense and rationality, created by and at the same time constitutive of a human being – including, or even most of all, such structures which are the most general and the “purest”, meaning those that define the proper sphere of a genuinely philosophical mind. From this perspective, there is a change concerning not only the range, but also the content of that which is social: it ceases to be merely one of the many subordinate “branches” of possible research and application of philosophical thought; on the contrary, it becomes the horizon and the central area, which gives rise to and enables the appearance of the whole philosophically significant thematic field of human thinking and action. In short, our new understanding would imply that the task of doing philosophy can only be undertaken seriously when philosophy itself is understood primarily and from the very beginning as social philosophy.
It is this new and strong understanding of social philosophy that we shall call transcendental and assume to be the basis of our reasoning. However, before this understanding – of which so far only an initial and abstract sketch has been provided –becomes gradually filled with some real content, we should explain in more detail the first step in which we have assumed in advance – “a priori”, we might say – this way of understanding social philosophy instead of the other one. Evidently, this step might be questioned as chosen arbitrarily. And, indeed, it is: straight away, we have decided in favor of a certain way of understanding, and we have given it unequivocal priority over another one. Moreover, there is no compelling justification for this primary choice, which constitutes a decision taken in advance. In this sense, it is, indeed, an act which is arbitrary and random.

Translated from Polish by Joanna Iwanowska
© Copyright by Wirginia Siemek