Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit:
Philosophy’s ‘Starting Point’

David H. DeGrood

PERIODICALLY, philosophers have had the feeling that somehow the entire weight of the traditional categories, doctrines, and problems should either be completely abandoned, permanently or temporarily, or else thoroughly redefined and reclarified. Though the ancient Skeptics (Pyrrho, Arcesilaus, Carneades, Philo of Larissa) perhaps have the right to claim "first fruits" in this domain of placing all things in critical suspension, it was to René Descartes in the late Renaissance that a great opportunity existed to undercut the vast wasteland of theological superstition and presumption. The "light of natural reason" was to inherit the power to determine belief, replacing the symphony of emotional and intellectual chaos pervading the age of "Reformation." In an atmosphere where religion was worth burning one's neighbor over, to alter slightly Montaigne's famous phrase, it was seen to be advisable by Descartes—who had "doubted everything"—to remove himself to a safer land. His procedure, methodical doubting, is familiar, involving putting aside beliefs of which any doubt could be entertained. Since it is true that "from nothing, nothing comes," there would have literally been no Cartesian philosophy, unless something resisted the doubt. What had been smuggled [1] into the doubting procedure to begin with, the "I doubt" (dubito), or its semantic implication, "I think" (cogito); was to be the pole-star among all the innumerable dubitables (including empirical facts). [23/24]

Fast and furiously, Descartes passed by logical scandal to some thoroughly scholastic conclusions; [*] for example, that a variation of the Ontological Argument of Anselm could be validated—thus giving him a metaphysical and eminent Ego, namely God, to solve his solipsistic dilemma, to resolve his doubts about the certitude of mathematics, and to grant sensory experience a degree of veridicity. In Cartesianism there is a mixture of defiance towards scholastic teleology and dogmatism and of seeming sycophancy towards those who rejected the concrete systematic doubting of the Copernican-Galilean science, a discipline about to undermine the Mediaeval ideology. Descartes' metaphysical dualism placated to some extent the conservative churchmen by placing the soul beyond scientific controversy. We can say, at least almost beyond scientific controversy. Descartes could not resist having the outlines of a complete system. Philosophers too abhor a vacuum! Descartes, therefore, proceeded to speculate on the possible function of the pineal gland, a gland he thought might serve as an intermediary (notice that the linking mechanism is corporeal) between the two disparate realms of the extended (res extensa) and the thinking (res cogitans). Granting the reactionaries the sop of their own special, though enigmatic, realm of the soul, Descartes set out to construct a detailed mechanistic world view, extending from physics to physiology. What it was that proved so eminently fruitful to humanity as a result of Descartes' work was not his method of doubting but the "geometrical method," that is, the hypothetical deductive reasoning of the revolutionary science of his time.

Though Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and David Hume also allowed doubting to overthrow much of Mediaeval ideology, they did not necessarily begin with the cogito; in fact, Hume tried to undercut even that. [2] What these British philosophers did was to make liberal use of Ockham's Razor. They were moving in the direction of restricting knowledge‑claims not necessarily to apodictic truth but to verifiable belief.

Both Bacon and Descartes saw that fruitfulness in philosophizing [24/25] depended on the founding of a new method. Bacon saw systematic experimentation, leading to control over nature, as the key to scientific knowledge. From Bacon stems that tradition of philosophy which, in principle, begins in the midst of things, in medias res. This tradition does not seek an indubitable, incorrigible, presuppositionless “starting point” for philosophy. Rather, it sees the function of philosophy not in a priori declarations but in solving the problems of men, that is, in mastering nature and strengthening rationality in the lives of men. Examples of this "mid‑stream," Baconian approach can certainly be found in more recent philosophy. Just after World War II in 1946, John Dewey in his paper, "The Problems of Men and the Present State of Philosophy," commented pointedly on the continuing tradition in modern philosophy of attempting to find some incorruptible starting point for thought, of attempting to “solve” the so‑called "problem of knowledge":

". . . Practical problems that are so deeply human as to be the moral issues of the present time have increased their range and their intensity. They cover practically every aspect of contemporary life. . . . But during the very period in which this has occurred, philosophy, for the most part, has relegated them to a place that is subordinate and accessory to an alleged problem of knowledge. At the same time actual knowing and the application of science in life by inventions and technological arts have been going on at such a rate that the alleged problem of its foundations and possibility of knowledge are of but remote professional concern. The net result of neglect with issues that are urgent and of preoccupation with issues that are remote from active human concern explains the popular discredit into which philosophy has progressively fallen. This disrepute is in turn a decided factor in determining its role in the world." [3]

Philosophy has been caught in the compartmentalization of modern advanced industrialism. There is a pervasive tendency to find strict dichotomies between theory and practice, between fact and value, philosophy and politics, administrator and educator, and so forth.

In its most advanced stage of substantive paralysis, philosophy loses its function as the synthesis of the results of the sciences; it delivers itself from ethics, politics, and history. The American and British 'linguistic" schools look to philosophy as a therapy for [25/26] the bewitchment of the mind by our language. One of the founders of this way of doing philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein, manages to convey the neat way in which the problems of philosophy are solved or dissolved: "The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem." [4] Philosophies are generated from "cramp" and "bewitchment"; we overcome these by investigating the logic of "our language." But what might happen to the "lucky few" who might get a "complete cure" from philosophy? The answer is, as Ernest Gellner has pointed out, [5] to artificially induce a cramp to be cast out later. This way of interpreting the role of philosophy could not stand in more marked contrast than it does to Marx's words in his last proposition in his "Theses on Feuerbach": "The philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it." [6] Like Dewey, Marx continued the Baconian tradition, despite important differences in emphasis and interpretation.

The starting point of the Marxist theory of history does not look to the certainties of intuition or even the bedrock certainty of a Cartesian God; its commencement sets forth premises by which man's historical achievements can be understood, just as Darwin's theory of Natural Selection lays down premises by which the origin of species may be discovered. In their treatise, The German Ideology, Marx and Engels explain:

. . . “We do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life process.”

As against the misty Idealisms of the past, they say:

"Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. In the first method of approach the starting point is consciousness taken as the living individual; in the second it is [26/27] the real, living individuals themselves, as they are in actual life, and consciousness is considered solely as their consciousness." [7]

Starting points such as the above may be unsatisfactory for those philosophers who demand that premises have the upper limit of mathematical probability; but to those who are more interested in examining and testing consequences than they are in searching endlessly for unexceptional axioms whose truth is guaranteed in all possible worlds, such initial assumptions unlock the enigmas of economics, politics, law, religion, and philosophy itself.

Moreover, if one of the criteria of a sound philosophy is that it be able not only to account genetically for itself, but also that it be self‑corrective, then it is difficult to imagine any historical variety of Idealism, subjectivistic, objectivistic, or positivistic, being sound. If we take Ralph Barton Perry's compressed definition of naturalism, it is plain that scientific philosophy or materialism, whatever word one wishes to use, not only can genetically account for itself through the techniques developed by social science, but as greater knowledge of the cosmos is revealed by the positive sciences, revisions within the naturalistic framework are cordially welcomed. As Perry declares, “By naturalism is meant the philosophical generalization of science—the application of the theories of science to the problems of philosophy.” [8]

Speaking of the criterion above of judging the various competing philosophies, that is, the criterion that a philosophy should be able to account for itself genetically through its principles; a slight reservation in the case of Dewey's work must be made. It is not that Dewey's principles could not serve to meet this criterion, rather it is that Dewey himself seemed to want to exempt himself from the obvious reflexive nature of his socio‑historical judgments. The reader is urged to judge this for himself in the reading of the apparently coy manner, if not of the ignominious manner, in which his exchange with Bertrand Russell was carried on in 1939. Russell said quite wisely:

"Dr. Dewey [Dewey hated the title “Doctor”] has an outlook which, where it is distinctive, [**] is in harmony with the age of [27/28] industrialism and collective enterprise. It is natural that his strongest appeal should be to Americans, and also that he should be almost equally appreciated by the progressive elements in countries like China and Mexico." . . . [9]

Russell added an honorific comparison of Dewey to Jeremy Bentham.

Dewey's response showed a blindness to the significance of Russell's point, and certainly Dewey would not have accepted a response similar to his own that others might have given him after being sociologically analyzed by Dewey. [10] Though it is important to see how Dewey's interpretation of his own philosophy is limited, it does not follow from this that his peculiar narrowness on this point vitiates his philosophical perspective. The target of scientific philosophers is, as it has been historically, the particular variety of idealism contemporarily in vogue.

Though the older forms of Idealism seem to have suffocated with the steady success of science, and science has steadfastly remained realistic in its view of the relation of consciousness, [***] newer forms of Idealism, just as potentially injurious to the growth of man's knowledge, have appeared. Existentialism sees science as either falsifying or trivial with regard to actual human experience. [11] Generic pronouncement, uncontrolled metaphysical speculation, and viewing the world through the most morbid of emotions serve as catalysis for an academic irrationalism unmatched in history (Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Marcel, Sartre, Jaspers, Unamuno, et al.). Similarly, Husserlian phenomenology, entirely fruitful as a complementary method to the objective methods of the positive sciences, conceived as the portal to a complete philosophy of experience attempts to found all theoretical disciplines upon the basis of Transcendental Idealism. Husserl reverts to a Cartesian framework in terms of philosophy's starting point, though it must be added that Husserl's rigorous reductions, [28/29] exacting care at description, and his categorial apparatus are vastly more complicated than those of Descartes' Meditations. Like Descartes, Husserl looks back to Augustine for "inner truth"; [12] but unlike Descartes, Husserl never leaves the inside of the looking glass. Unlike Descartes' descent into the empirical world to perfect a mechanistic cosmology, Husserl remains a philosophical narcissist. The student of philosophy might ask if the phenomenological philosophy could possibly live up to the criterion of a sound philosophy sketched above when we are told by Husserl:

. . . "In regard to transcendental‑phenomenological Idealism, I have nothing whatsoever to take back, . . . now as ever I hold every form of current philosophical realism to be in principle absurd, as no less every idealism to which in its own arguments that realism stands contrasted . . . . Over against the thinking, rich in presuppositions, which has as its premises the world, science, and sundry understandings bearing on method. . . . a radical form of . . . autonomy . . . is here active, in which every form of datum given in advance, and all Being taken for granted, is set out as invalid." . . . [13]

If Husserl would not have taken for granted the conceivability of essences, in other words, if he would have actually done without presuppositions, there would never have been a phenomenological philosophy. Again, from nothing, nothing can come. Unlike phenomenology and existentialism, scientific philosophy explores every avenue of possible knowing, subjecting claims to "insight" into the nature of various levels of reality to test by critical experience. Naturalism or materialism is open textured, and it does not try to protect itself from scientific revolutions or from the implications of scientific knowledge concerning man's place in the cosmos, even when it becomes necessary to offset man's exaggerated self‑importance in the scheme of things, a self‑importance inherited from pre-scientific eras. [29/30]

For the naturalist, logic continues to be, as Russell has phrased it, the "essence of philosophy." Logic is the general tool of inquiry, in Aristotle's sense. That does not mean that the modern naturalist exclusively conceives of logic as formal deductive logic (as Russell does). Quite the contrary, the philosophical investigator sees even logic as corrected and modified by the needs of experimental inquiry. Inquiries may require a formal, postulational approach, or they may require generalizations from experimental data (inductive inquiry), or they may make necessary a dialectical approach (historical patterns, tense social situations, and certain aspects of thinking itself). Ordinarily and for the most part, logic will be the critical control of inquiry by various orders of concepts (deductive, inductive, and dialectical forms); and only rarely will the experimental situation thrust upon us the necessity of conceiving of different orders of logical concepts. The important thing to bear in mind, however, is that the logical concepts and categories are not in a "realm" of their own and sui generis; they reflect the structure of the world and the degree of imaginative ingenuity (in the case of fictive concepts) present in man at a given point in history. [14] Conceiving logic in its broadest sense as methodology, [15] is also the task of the philosopher to clarify the basic concepts required for intelligent action and scientific understanding.

In opposition to the uncontrolled philosophical speculations dominant in their youth, which were often anti‑scientific and idealistic, philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore in effect overreacted by starting a tradition where careful analytic thought and severely restricted claims became ends in themselves, rather than controlled starting points of investigation. This type of myopia tended throughout this century of "analysis" (especially in Anglo‑America) to separate the philosopher from the terminus of analysis, that is, to keep him from applying concepts to the various levels of [30/31] concrete experience and its problems [****] The "analytic" philosopher has a predilection to avoid committing himself (qua philosopher should we say?) on political, economic, and religious issues, to “clarify” these issues, while abstaining from the fray. Nevertheless, clarification of basic concepts is a necessary condition of philosophizing; it is one of the aspects of "beginning" a philosophical inquiry without which nihil fit.

In combating the unverified, and often unverifiable, beliefs of the Middle Ages and ancient superstition, the empiricist tradition of Locke, Hume, and others made the theory of knowledge the prime starting point of philosophy. While philosophers such as Locke and Hume were enormously impressed by the Newtonian system of physics, and despite the fact that they attempted to set up a kind of "Newtonian system of psychology," [16] their analysis of "experience" and "knowledge" ultimately failed to avoid skeptical conclusions of a far‑reaching kind. [*****] Hume could not only ultimately doubt the existential sufficiency of the external world, but he even failed to discover descriptively the ego which was reaching such skeptical conclusions. "Epistemological idealism," seemed to be the only consistent result of this atomistic type of analysis, the type of analysis also reflecting the rising social individualism of the age.

The "empiricist" begins with "uninterpreted" sensa as alone veridical, and he finds that everything else must be validated, if at all possible, by an extrapolative leap from those incorrigible sensa. He never really gets beyond these sensa, except by postulating “logical constructions”; hence he must ultimately undercut the work [31/32]

of other empiricists, working scientists. [17] The philosophical or epistemological empiricist fails to work with a fruitful general theory of reality which will reflexively illuminate his own sense‑data, which will bring him out of his solipsistic "world." Whatever restrictions may be imposed by the "epistemological empiricist" on himself, the observer will always be able to notice how the scientific world view of the day supplies much of the content of his epistemological speculation. Since the hypotheses of science will be present anyway, they should be set down explicitly for intersubjective criticism. In other words, a "metaphysic" should be allowed a cooperative role in developing a fruitful epistemology. The metaphysic or the epistemology may be found to need modification or rejection in the course of inquiry. [******] There is no reason that the investigator cannot critically modify or reject initial "raw" or unclarified data. What the philosopher should remember is that scientific results are really not often "undermined" by him, nor can the ideas of the positive sciences be "suspended" from his philosophical system. As Hans Reichenbach noted in this connection, "philosophical systems, at best, have reflected the stage of scientific knowledge of their day. . . ." [18] This seems an inescapable fact, a fact not to be bemoaned incidentally, but one which requires tentativeness in philosophizing. [19]

Aside from the material fallacy which epistemologizing philosophers make who believe that they can generate a system free of scientific content, there is another fallacy to consider. That fallacy is that science has now advanced so much that philosophers must now surrender wholly their constructive role in the history of thought. This frame of mind is correctly identified with positivists such as  [32/33] Reichenbach. In the second part of the statement cited immediately above, be states about philosophical systems, ". . . they have not contributed to the development of science." [20] What does this imply for the philosopher currently? It implies a wholly passive role in analyzing scientific concepts and results. Constructive work towards new knowledge is seen as useless. This type of attitude, if taken seriously, would, in effect, emasculate philosophy. It is quite felicitous that Democritus, Aristotle, Bacon, Comte, Hegel, Marx, James, and Dewey did not adopt this passive attitude. Perhaps this passive attitude itself fits in better with a society in which individuals have little or no role in shaping their destinies, little or no power in directing their energies and technology.

Needless to say the exclusive reliance on metaphysical analysis may result in never bringing philosophy down to earth. Concepts such as "paratranscendence" (Oskar Becker), "nothingness" (Kierkegaard and Heidegger), and "God" are notorious examples of metaphysics "unhampered" by critical standards of investigation, that is, uncontrolled by logic and epistemology. Such pathological appendages to various traditions in philosophy are linked to the inability of men at this point in history to satisfy their real needs.

For specialized studies, philosophers may take whatever starting points they like; their results will be critically weighed in terms of the developing sciences and the standards of logic. If a systematic, complete view is put forward, it must not only live up to the standards indicated above, but it must also be able to account for itself. If this manner of judging philosophies is rejected, we are entitled to remind the rejector that there is no presuppositionless way of philosophizing; "from nothing, nothing comes."

Given the present state of historical development, a new period of constructive philosophical work is sorely needed. If the philosopher's task is now to help to change the world, he must be able to interpret it correctly.


*  This is often the case with radicals in philosophy who try to begin completely "anew." With Descartes much of his philosophical set of premises smacks of La Flèche. A recent "radical innovator," Martin Heidegger, for all his "originality," is also not that far removed from his Roman Catholic, scholastic training.

**  Nota bene!

***  Roy Wood Sellars' term "mentation" is a more appropriate one admittedly. It puts "consciousness" within the skin, and sees consciousness as an instrument of social life and culture.

****  Russell, it can be said, did not restrict himself to analysis solely, nor could he endorse such artificial restrictions as the logical positivists and the “analytic movement” placed upon itself. Russell has continually applied clarity of thought, even when oversimplified and incorrect, to political ends, and he has made periodic excursions into "metaphysics."

*****  The use to which Lockean doctrines were put in France by Diderot, Helvétius, and d'Holbach launched a revolutionary tradition. That is because a general materialist theory of reality operated along with the epistemological system. With Hume, epistemologogy is allowed to undermine ontology; hence epistemology was allowed to weaken rather than strengthen the unity of theory and practice.

******  For those to whom the term "metaphysics" is anathema, they may substitute the phrase "general theory of reality" or "results of the positive sciences taken as a systematic whole." Even the positivist, Herbert Feigl, allows some types of "meaningful" metaphysics. See his "Logical Empiricism," pp. 11‑13. In Readings in Philosophical Analysis (New York: Appleton‑Century‑Crofts, 1949).

1  See the excellent observations on this by Arnold Berleant, "On the Circularity of the Cogito," pp. 431‑433. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, XXVI, #3, March, 1966.

2  See David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Bk. I, Part IV, "Of Personal Identity" & Bk. III, Appendix.

3  John Dewey, Problems of Men (New York: Philosophical Library, 1946), p. 7.

4  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico‑Philosophicus, 6.521 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961).

5  See Ernest Gellner, Words and Things: A Critical Account of Linguistic Philosophy and a Study in Ideology (Boston: Beacon, 1960), pp. 185, 246‑247. Gellner's work of criticizing this philosophical school has also now been ably supplemented by Maurice Cornforth's profound study, Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1965).

6  In Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy (New York: International Publishers, 1941), p. 84.

7  Contained in Lewis S. Feuer (ed.); Marx and Engels, Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy (New York: Anchor, 1959), pp. 247‑248.

8  Ralph Barton Perry, Present Philosophical Tendencies (New York: Braziller, 1955), p. 45.

9  Bertrand Russell, "Dewey's New Logic." Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of John Dewey (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1939), p. 137.

10  Cf. Dewey's rejoinder, Schilpp ed., op. cit., pp. 526‑527.

11  For an examination of the social roots of this malaise, see Auguste Cornu, "Bergsonianism and Existentialism," pp. 151‑168. In Marvin Farber, ed., Philosophic Thought in France and the United States (Buffalo: University of Buffalo, 1950). (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1968.)

12  Cf. Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, trans. Dorion Cairns (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1960), pp. 156‑157.

13  Edmund Husserl, "Author's Preface to the English Edition," Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, tr. W. R. Boyce Gibson (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1958), p. 19. For Husserl's detailed and quite assumptive polemic against naturalistic philosophy, see his "Philosophy as Rigorous Science." Contained in Husserl, Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy, ed. & tr. by Lauer (New York: Harper 1965), especially pp. 71‑122.

14  Cf. V. J. McGill and W. T. Parry, "The Unity of Opposites: A Dialectical Principle," pp. 418‑444, especially pp. 439‑442. Science and Society, vol. XII, #4, Fall, 1948.

15  Cf. Dewey's usage and arguments for the identity of logic and methodology in his Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1960), ch. 1, The Problem of Logical Subject‑Matter," pp. 1‑22.

16  For an illuminating analysis of that development, see John Herman Randall, Jr., The Making of the Modern Mind, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin, 1954), pp 261‑271, 308‑318.

17  This point is wisely brought out by Lenin in his Materialism and Empirio‑Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, ch. 2, see. 4, pp. 185-194, especially p. 190. Selected Works, vol. XI (New York: International Publishers, 1943).

18  Hans Reichenbach, The Rise of Scientific Philosophy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), p. 117.

19  For a striking example of how quickly scientific‑philosophical syntheses can be dated, see my Haeckel's Theory of the Unity of Nature (Boston: Christopher, 1965).

20  Reichenbach, ibid.

SOURCE: DeGrood, David H. “Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit: Philosophy's 'Starting Point',” in Radical Currents in Contemporary Philosophy, edited by David H. DeGrood, Dale Riepe, & John Somerville (St. Louis: W. H. Green, 1971), pp. 23-33.

Note: Footnotes have been reorganized into endnotes.

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