Over the years of studying philosophy, I’ve seen quite a number of classifications that categorize them. I’ve come across an interesting one in Rorty’s seminal Philosophy & the Mirror of Nature, in which he distinguishes systematic and edifying philosophers. The distinction founders on those whose work is constructive and those that are reactive.
In each culture, mainstream thinkers establish a set of practices as the ultimate paradigm that the rest should emulate. In the Western civilization, this paradigm is knowledge. Most of the revolutions within this tradition have largely to do with advancements in cognition (rediscovery of Aristotle, Galilean mechanics, self-conscious historiography in 19th century, Darwinian biology, mathematical logic). A typical philosopher of this tradition will say: look at the amazing results this latest advancement has pulled off! Now let’s force everything else to reconfigure itself according to the newest model! They hope to overwhelm convention and superstition with reinforced rationality and objectivity, and ensure a more accurate ability to represent nature.
However, on the outside of this great clamor stands the anti-establishment thinkers who sneer at the blind optimism of the tradition and dissemble that man’s true essence is to know essences. Rorty names Goethe, Kierkegaard, Santayana, William James, John Dewey, the mature Wittgenstein and the Heidegger post-kehre. No surprise that they’re often accused of cynicism or relativism, given their lack of faith in progress, or specifically about the “latest fad” that a new discipline has finally solved all the problems of knowledge and promise to revolutionize every other human activity. These anti-establishment thinkers are quick to realize that even the latest fad is merely the conformity of the norms of the day, and that “this century’s “superstition” was merely the previous century’s triumph of reason.” (Rorty, p. 367)
Rorty calls the mainstream thinkers “systematic,” & the anti-establishment, “edifying.” The latter are mainly suspicious of systematic philosophy, and the best examples are Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. They refuse to fall back on the easy path that merely deals with the traditional problems of philosophy as a cooperative, progressive discipline. Instead, they’re poking fun at the classic portrait of man in which the systematic thinkers are seeking out universal truths and the “final vocabulary.” (p. 368) The edifying thinkers often point out that words take their meanings from other words, thus, vocabularies gain their privileges from people who use them, as opposed to the assumption that they’re transparent to the “real.”
systematic thinkers construct and wield arguments, whereas great edifying thinkers react and offer satires, parodies, aphorisms. They know all too well that their writings lose its sting once the time they were reacting against has passed by. Great systematic thinkers build for all-time, while great edifying thinkers destroy for the sake of their generation. Systematic philosophers want to walk the secure path of science, while the edifying philosophers want to keep the sense of wonder alive, that something new is right around the corner, that it cannot be truly explained or represented, if barely described.
However, Rorty is quick to point out that this distinction between systematic and edifying thinkers shouldn’t be mistaken for the distinction between the normal thinkers and the revolutionary thinkers. The second distinction actually has Husserl, Russell, the mature Wittgenstein & Heidegger on the same side. Rorty says that both the systematic and the edifying thinkers are revolutionary philosophers – but that they’re two distinct types. One group of revolutionary thinkers ( they establish new schools to continue professional philosophy) assume that the incommensurability of their new vocabulary with the old one to be merely a temporary thing, and that it will be solved once their vocabulary is institutionalized. The other group of revolutionary thinkers are horrified to think that their vocabularies could ever be shrunk down to dry academic language, or that their writings become commensurable with the tradition. Husserl & Russell, as well as Descartes and Kant belong to the former group, while the mature Wittgenstein & Heidegger, as well as Kierkegaard & Nietzsche are in the latter.
This distinction has accounted for why I myself have reservations about the constructive and systematic thinkers who structured philosophy largely on epistemological foundations. Their projects were noble, but only doomed to reinforce the nature of philosophy as a Kantian activity but dressed up in contemporary language. The edifying philosophers on the other hand, instead of continuing this 17th century enlightenment project, tries to edify the reader with alternative concepts that have nothing to do with “truth.”
What about Plato, you may be asking? Which category does he belong? He did dream up the entire thing, the entire project of western philosophy, didn’t he? Well, even Rorty isn’t sure where he belongs. Despite after 2300 years of analysis, commentary, none of us really know which passages in the Dialogues are actually jokes that keeps the puzzle fresh.
I believe the possible solution to this curiosity is not to force Plato in either category, but leave him entirely out of the equation. I’ve blogged on this in the past (here) but it bears repeating: Plato did not have a dogma, and the literary features of his Dialogues were just as important to the interpretation issues. The consequences of that is to stop treating Socrates as Plato’s mouthpiece, as a spokesman that essays forth a Platonic doctrine. That also includes Timaeus, the Eleatic stranger. None of them are representatives that enunciate Plato’s philosophy in a dialog format. Rather, the entire dialogue speaks for Plato. The dialogues are non-dogmatic in that they are philosophically experimental or provisional. The reader is supposed to understand philosophy vicariously, through their debates, how to speak and think philosophically.