Copulative Conjunctions & Other Natural Phenomena (“Is Philosophy Dead?”)

Self and World

Last week’s post took its inspiration from an interview Stephen Hawking gave just before the latest Google Zeitgeist conference where he made yet another bold proclamation: “Philosophy is dead.” Perhaps professor of philosophy Justin E. H. Smith was secretly voicing a similar fear in his equally recent New York Times “Flight of Curiosity” op-ed where he bemoaned the lack of curiosity in today’s philosophical academy. Although Smith doesn’t go so far as to say that “the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater,” it is clear that he believes that something substantial which gave birth to philosophy in the first place has been lost thanks to contemporary philosophers’ preference for “sharp distinction[s]” between their style of thinking and that of natural and social scientists (as well as the type of thinking we ordinary folk utilize for everyday tasks and hobbies). [1]

Psychologically, the problem being discussed here is one common not only to philosophy but to much of our way of living in the post-Enlightenment Western world: individually and collectively, our ego-centric Cartesian rationalism has identified with the energies of the spirit and placed them above and before those of the soul (to the extent that we acknowledge the existence of the psyche or soul at all).  Thinking and intellect take precedence over feeling and sensing. The inner world of the mind trumps the outer world of the body and environment. Put mythologically, disembodied Apollonianism rises above and triumphs over embodied Dionysianism here-and-now.

Smith states that whereas philosophy in its earlier form of natural philosophy was concerned with (and curious about) the world around it – the plants and animals, the earth as much as the heavens – today’s philosopher has little time for such “impure” activities; or at the very least he or she is unwilling to view these activities as valuable and relevant to philosophy. Furthermore, to the extent that philosophy undertakes the study of these activities or other fields of study, they do so by utilizing “that succinct preposition, of — as in ‘philosophy of physics,’ ‘philosophy of law’ — which permits philosophy to stand apart, and implicitly above, the mundane objects of its attention.” This is the classic logocentric move of the ego which shirks “impurities” so as to better dissect and even colonize whatever lays within its ken.

Analytical psychologist Russell Arthur Lockhart notes that this problem is not unique to philosophy but also concerns other fields, including the broader one of psychology:

“Psychology seems still too caught up in its own ‘of-ness’: psychology of this or of that. There is considerable significance in [Swiss psychiatrist C.G.] Jung’s using the copulative conjunction ‘and’ in so many of his titles: psychology and religion, psychology and alchemy, archetypes and the collective unconscious, Freud and psychoanalysis. These are not accidental titles. Of tends toward hierarchical understandings and traditions; and tends toward generation of something ‘other.’”[2]

One gets the sense from reading Smith’s op-ed that he longs for the generation of something “other” out of a historical understanding of philosophical traditions. On the surface this may sound somewhat limiting and even incestuous. However, his entire point may just be that earlier traditions of philosophy were bound to fields within the social as well as natural sciences from which philosophy has only in time become separated or, to employ a revealing turn-of-phrase, “out of touch.” A re-thinking of or rather reconnecting to these earlier relationships may generate new ones more appropriate to a postmodern world born not of “of” but of the copulative “and.”  In other words, not hierarchical separation “from” but mutual interpenetration and relatedness “with,” i.e. conjunction.

In short, to the extent that it has not yet done so perhaps philosophy’s new “generation” needs to learn from the conjunctive approach of depth psychology. Not only might this signal the way back to curiosity as Smith wishes, but it may also just be at one and the same time the only way of avoiding Hawking’s ominous pronouncement of death.


Next Monday: James Hillman’s Shift to Soul-Making

[2] Henderson, Robert and Janis. Living with Jung: “Enterviews” with Jungian Analysts. Vol. 1. New Orleans: Spring Journal Books, 2006: 151. Lockhart also discusses copulative conjunctions on page 60 of his book Psyche Speaks: A Jungian Approach to  Self and World, the cover of which is shown above.

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