Philosophies of the Secret Garden

1 January 2012


Previously I have quoted one of my favorite passages from Nietzsche’s Geneaology of Morals, where Nietzsche compared his philosophical efforts to tending a secret garden:

…out of my answers there grew new questions, inquiries, conjectures, probabilities — until at length I had a country of my own, a soil of my own, an entire discrete, thriving, flourishing world, like a secret garden the existence of which no one suspected. –Oh how fortunate we are, we men of knowledge, provided only that we know now to keep silent long enough!

Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, translated by Walter Kaufmann, Preface, section 3

What Nietzsche describes is characteristic of a certain approach to philosophy, but certainly not of all philosophy — and it is equally applicable to science and other forms of intellectual activity. In fact, we can illuminate this Nietzschean perspective with Kuhn’s distinction between normal and revolutionary science.

As there is normal and revolutionary science, so too there is normal and revolutionary philosophy. P. F. Strawson’s distinction between revisionary and descriptive metaphysics overlaps this Kuhnian distinction: revisionary metaphysics is largely revolutionary philosophy, though there are limits to the extent to which descriptive metaphysics can be identified with normal philosophy. However, I won’t further pursue this comparison at this time.

Probably the bulk of philosophy and science can be divided between normal and revolutionary efforts, but the distinction is not exhaustive. There is science and philosophy that is not exactly “normal” and not precisely “revolutionary,” but different — definitely different. Such philosophies neither normal nor revolutionary might be called philosophies of the secret garden, to invoke the image employed by Nietzsche for his own philosophical efforts.

Nietzsche in his highly individualistic philosophical work was not doing normal philosophy — he was not engaged in an elaboration of the “same old, same old”; he was doing something most definitely new, and perhaps also revolutionary. But Nietzsche was neither a leader nor a follower in a revolutionary movement. He thought alone and worked alone, so this this philosophical revolution (if it was a revolution) was a revolution of one, and his philosophical effort was largely solitary. This kept his secret garden secret, not from Nietzsche’s failure to proselytize — although I’m sure Nietzsche would have hated the very idea of proselytizing a philosophy — but from the lack of interest on the part of other philosophers.

Most philosophical contemporaries of Nietzsche would have been uninterested in his work because it did not belong to any identifiable philosophical research program. Nietzsche’s research program was his own, his own secret garden, undertaken for an intrinsic interest in the ideas themselves, and not in order to engage in spectacular and pointed criticisms of his contemporaries (like Schopenhauer lecturing at the same hour as Hegel).

If you aren’t engaged in the same research program as other philosophers or scientists, or engaged in the criticism or refutation of the research programs of other philosophers or scientists, then you may well be speaking an incomprehensible (because incommensurable) dialect. And if what you are saying is incomprehensible, it is no wonder that others don’t listen. Even if they listened, they wouldn’t understand.

Between normal science and revolutionary science, between normal philosophy and revolutionary philosophy, there lie other sciences and other philosophies. There are, in a sense, deviant sciences and deviant philosophies. They are deviant research programs, and as such they represent non-conforming theories such as described in Eugene Wigner’s famous essay, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” (which I previously quoted in Scientific Flair). In this essay Wigner tells how F. Werner approached him and asked him a question:

“…someone came to me and expressed his bewilderment with the fact that we make a rather narrow selection when choosing the data on which we test our theories. ‘How do we know that, if we made a theory which focuses its attention on phenomena we disregard and disregards some of the phenomena now commanding our attention, that we could not build another theory which has little in common with the present one but which, nevertheless, explains just as many phenomena as the present theory?’ It has to be admitted that we have no definite evidence that there is no such theory.”

There is no definite evidence that there are no such theories because in fact there are many such theories, but in so far as such theories exemplify deviant research programs, they can be difficult to recognize as legitimate theories because they don’t answer the questions expected of theories, asking different questions instead.

The influence of Nietzsche today shows how such deviant theories can become mainstream theories. Frege is another good example.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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