In 2010, Stephen Hawking pronounced philosophy dead: “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” But he had not kept up with Martin Heidegger, who already said this in 1964, in “The end of philosophy and the task of thinking”. Philosophy’s dissolution into science, Heidegger says, is a legitimate end. What was begun with questions of being and reality, physics and metaphysics, ends up here. Western philosophy has reached its destination.
“Science” signals a rational, objective methodology of “systematic observation, measurement and experiment, and the formulation, testing and modification of hypotheses”. Heidegger saw this attitude illuminating every area of human life. The fields of psychology, sociology, the arts, economics: everything will be “determined and steered by the new fundamental science which is called cybernetics”. (“Cybernetics” as “the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things”.) “Philosophy turns into the empirical science of man”, writes Heidegger, thus achieving “the triumph of the manipulable arrangement of a scientific-technological world and of the social order proper to this world. The end of philosophy means the beginning of the world civilisation based upon Western European thinking.”
He’s right, of course, never minding the havoc that Western European thinking had already let loose in the world. With all its evident technological and scientific achievement, this new world civilisation has also delivered cascading economic, environmental, political and social crises. All of our institutions of state, political and religious order are now plagued by corruption.
If truth be told, it seems that, under the guise of objectivity and efficiency, our thinking has itself been corrupted, depersonalised and dehumanised. More of the same – more cybernetic technology, more neoliberal capitalism, more social and institutional engineering, more cultural arrogance – will not provide a solution. Only humans can save us now.
Which brings us to Heidegger’s second question: the “task” that is “reserved for thinking at the end of philosophy”. Has this ending exhausted all the possibilities that were present at philosophy’s beginning? Perhaps not. For Heidegger, this question takes a metaphysical form: what is the primordial matter of thinking? For me, it seems an ethical imperative. Running on cybernetic autopilot is simply not good enough. We need to bring our thinking back to the question of what it means to be human. (And this may well be the primordial matter of thinking.)
If we have a duty to think differently, to transform our thinking, how on earth do we do that? It’s a conundrum. But, as Heidegger says, we want only to “awaken a readiness” for “a possibility whose contour remains obscure, whose coming remains uncertain”. It seems to me that we can be guided by our own questions, struggles and desires. It seems that we need to do it together, with each other, carefully, in conversation, in presence, in real life. I think it has to do with the relation of knowledge and wisdom, that “reason of the heart of which reason knows nothing” (Pascal).
For me, this is precisely the work of a philosophical practice at the end of philosophy. To echo Jacques Derrida: “It’s what I both love and try to give birth to.”
This post is based on my chapter “Giving birth to Derrida’s mother: Philosophical practice at the end of philosophy” in Women in Philosophical Counseling: The Anima of Thought into Action, Luisa de Paula and Peter Raabe, eds. (Lanham MD: Lexington Books, forthcoming).