Philosophers: “long on promise, short on performance”

The first few paragraphs of Jose Benardete’s 1964 book, Infinity: An Essay in Metaphysics, seems rather apropos these days:

EVER since Hume and Kant, and now with Wittgenstein, the credentials of the metaphysician have been subjected to the severest scrutiny, and found wanting. One is almost tempted to liken the metaphysical ascent to the fabulous Indian rope-trick, one end suspended in midair, the other lost in the clouds. Houdini is reported to have said that, though he had often met people who had met people who had seen the Indian rope-trick, despite all his extensive inquiries he had never succeeded in meeting anyone who had seen the Indian rope-trick.


Benardete continues:

Yet the metaphysical impulse is not readily quenched. If it is checked in one direction, it is liable to break out in another. Abandoned by reason, it may invite the sponsorship of irrationality itself, as we have unhappily seen in our own time. Philosophy in its original sense was understood to be a kind of tropism whereby the finest flower of the intellect was oriented toward the. cosmos; it was the opening of a great window onto the universe. It is that very directedness of man’s reason ordered toward the cosmological horizon that I should wish to recover in this fairly extcmive sheaf of metaphysical reflections. How melancholy today to find the lovers of reason content with what Kant styled critical, and what is currently termed analytical, philosophy, and to find metaphysics-by default-embraced in large measure by the devotees ofobscurantism and mystification. If I confess to feeling almost alone in my endeavor to restore the credit of rationalistic metaphysics, I am not unaware of the many latent sympathies that my investigations are likely to awaken, some from sceptical, others from ‘critical’ or even analytical, slumbers. 


But I must not promise too much. Philosophers, past and present alike, have invariably been prone to be long on promises and short on performance. Priding themselves on their ‘solutions’, they are in fact remembered and cherished for the problems which they raised. Their ‘solutions’, above all, have proved to be-for us-problems. I know ofscarcely one philosopher (Socrates always excepted) who ever raised a problem as aIn·oblem. I mean terminally as a problem, not merely by way of entry into his theme. Thus Zeno himself never viewed his paradoxes as problems; he advanced them only as proofs calculated to establish the impossibility or unintelligibility of motion. There have been dogmatic and there have been sceptical, but there have been no problematic philosophers. More precisely, there have been no problematic philosophers eo nomine, though in fact none has succeeded in being anything else. They have lacked self-knowledge. They have failed to understand the true dignity of their achievements. For the problematic character of philosophy, certainly of all philosophy up to the present, need not be altogether a misfortune. It is the happy suggestion of Leo Strauss that Plato understood the eternal Ideas to be the great range of problems that preside over man’s deepest reflections and that it is in being open to those problems, as problems, that he acquires Socratic ignorance, which is the same as Socratic wisdom.


3 thoughts on “Philosophers: “long on promise, short on performance”

    • Thanks for the reference. I enjoyed this:

      “Rosen is comically represented in Strauss’s discussion of Hippodamus in The City And Man.”

      Any idea about the source for these accounts? It looks like the writer was a student of Strauss at some point.

  1. Plato must have been a great educator. He habitually raises problems for later discussion in the shade of the olive trees. Answers, if any, are only forthcoming by recitation of relevant passages from related dialogues. Are there answers there? Only there, so far.

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