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Why Philosophy needs Science and Science needs Philosophy


Philosophy of Existence,  1938

At the turn of the century, philosophy was for the most part conceived as one science among others. It was a field of academic study, and was approached by young people as an educational possibility. Sparkling lectures offered vast surveys of its history, its doctrines, problems and systems. Vague feelings of a freedom devoid of content (because rarely effective in actual life) combined with a faith in the progress of philosophical knowledge. The thinker "advanced further" and was convinced that with each step he stood at the summit of knowledge attained up to that time.

This philosophy, however, seemed to lack self-confidence. The boundless respect of the age for the exact empirical sciences made them the great exemplar. Philosophy wanted to regain its lost reputation before the judgment seat of the sciences by means of equal exactness. To be sure, all objects of inquiry had been parcelled out to the special sciences. But philosophy wanted to legitimize itself alongside of them by making the whole into a scientific object; the whole of knowledge, for example, by means of epistemology (since the fact of science in general was after all not the object of any particular science); the whole of the universe by means of a metaphysics constructed by analogy with scientific theories, and with their aid; the totality of human ideals by means of a doctrine of universally valid values. These seemed to be objects that did not belong to any special science and yet ought to be open to investigation by scientific methods. Nevertheless, the basic tenor of all this thinking was ambiguous. For it was at once scientific-objective moral-normative. Men could think they were establishing a harmonious union between the "needs of the mind" and the "results of the sciences". Finally, they could say that they merely wanted objectively to understand the possible world-views and values, and yet again could claim at the same time to be giving the one true world-view: the scientific.

Young people in those days were bound to experience a deep disillusionment. This was not what they had thought philosophy was all about. The passion for a life­ grounding philosophy made them reject this scientific philosophy which was impressive in its methodological rigor and its demands for arduous thought, and thus at least of educational value, but was basically too innocuous, too easily satisfied, too blind to reality. Demanding reality, they rejected empty abstractions that, for all their systematic orderliness yet seemed like children's games; they rejected proofs that proved nothing despite great ostentation. There were some who took the hint implicit in the hidden self-condemnation of this philosophy which took its own measure from the empirical sciences; they pursued the empirical sciences themselves; they abandoned this philosophy, perhaps believing in another philosophy that they did not yet know.

What enthusiasm gripped those students at that time who left philosophy after a few semesters and went into the natural sciences, history and the other research sciences! Here were realities. Here the will to know could find satisfaction: what startling, alarming and yet again hope-inspiring facts of nature, of human existence, of society, and of historical events! What Liebig had written in 1840 about the study of philosophy was still true: "I too have lived through this period, so rich in words and ideas and so poor in true knowledge and genuine research, and it has cost me two precious years of my life.”

But when the sciences were taken up as though they themselves already contained true philosophy, that is, when they were supposed to give what had been sought to no avail in philosophy, typical errors became possible. Men wanted a science that would tell them what goals to pursue in life – an evaluating science. They deduced from science the right ways of conduct, and pretended to know by means of science what in fact were articles of faith­ – albeit about things immanent in this world. Or, conversely, they despaired of science because it did not yield what is important in life and, worse, because scientific reflection seemed to paralyze life. Thus attitudes wavered between a superstitious faith in science that makes an absolute starting point out of presumed results, and an antagonism to science that rejects it as meaningless and attacks it as destructive. But these aberrations were only incidental. In fact, powers arose in the sciences themselves that defeated both aberrations, in that knowledge, as knowledge purified itself.

For, when in the sciences too much was asserted for which there was no proof, when comprehensive theories were all too confidently put forward as absolute knowledge of reality, when too much was accepted as self-evident without examination (for example, the basic idea of nature as a mechanism, or many question-begging theories such as the doctrine that the necessity of historical events can be known, and so on), bad philosophy reappeared in the sciences in even worse form. But ­– and this was magnificent and exalting – criticism still existed and was still at work in science itself: not the endless round of philosophical polemic that never leads to any agreement, but the effective, step-by-step criticism that determines the truth for everyone. This criticism destroyed illusions in order to grasp the really knowable in greater purity.

Also, there were great scientific events that broke through all dogmatism. At the turn of the century, with the discovery of radioactivity and the beginnings of quantum theory, began the intellectual relativising of the rigid shell of the mechanistic view of nature. There began the development which has continued to this day, of ideas of discovery that no longer led into the cul-de-sac of a nature existing and known in itself. The earlier alternative, of either assuming that we know the reality of nature in itself, or else believing that we operate with mere fictions in order to be able to describe natural phenomena in the simplest way, collapsed. Precisely by breaking through every absolute, one was in touch with every reality open to investigation. 


Such scientific experiences demonstrated the possibility of possessing a wholly determined and concrete knowledge at any given time, as well as the impossibility of finding in science what had been expected in vain from the philosophy of that time. Those who had searched in science for the basis of their own lives, for a guide to their actions, or for being itself, were bound to be disappointed. The way to philosophy had to be found once again.

Our contemporary philosophizing is conditioned by this experience with science. The route from the disillusionment with decayed philosophy to the real sciences, and from these again to authentic philosophy, is such that it must have a decisive role in shaping the kind of philosophizing that is possible today. Therefore, before giving a rough sketch of the way back to philosophy, we must define the far from unambiguous relation between present-day philosophizing and science.

First, the limits of science become clear. They may be briefly indicated:

a) Scientific cognition of things is not cognition of being. Scientific cognition is particular, concerned with determinate objects, not with being itself. The philosophical relevance of science, therefore, is that, precisely by means of knowledge, it produces the most decisive knowledge of our lack of knowledge, namely our lack of knowledge of what being itself is. 

b) Scientific cognition can provide no goals whatever for life. It establishes no valid values. Therefore it cannot lead. By its clarity and decisiveness it points to another source of our lives.

c) Science can give no answer to the question of its own meaning. The existence of science rests upon impulses for which there is no scientific proof that they are true and legitimate.

At the same time as the limits of science became clear, the positive significance and indispensability of science for philosophy also became clear.

First, science, having in recent centuries achieved methodological and critical purification (although this had rarely been fully realized by scientists), offered for the first time, by its contrast with philosophy, the possibility of recognizing and overcoming the muddy confusion of philosophy and science.

The road of science is indispensable for philosophy, since only a knowledge of that road prevents philosophizing from again making unsound and subjective claims to factual knowledge that really belongs to methodologically exact research.

Conversely, philosophical clarity is indispensable to the life and purity of genuine science. Without philosophy, science does not understand itself, and even scientific investigators, though for a time capable of extending specialized knowledge by building on foundations laid by the great scientists, abandon science completely as soon as they are without the counsel of philosophy.

If on the one hand philosophy and science are impossible without each other, and on the other hand the muddy confusion can no longer endure, the present task is to establish their true unity following their separation. Philosophizing can neither be identical with nor opposed to scientific thought.

Second, only the sciences, which engage in research and thereby produce compelling knowledge of objects, bring us face to face with the factual content of appearances. Only the sciences teach me to know clearly the way things are. If the philosopher had no current knowledge of the sciences, he would remain without clear knowledge of the world, like a blind man.

Third, philosophizing that is a pursuit of truth rather than enthusiasm must incorporate the scientific attitude or approach. The scientific attitude is characterized by a continual discrimination of its compelling knowledge­ – between knowledge accompanied on the one hand by knowledge of the methods that have led to it, and, on the other hand, knowledge accompanied by knowledge of the limits of its validity. The scientific attitude further requires that the scientist be prepared to entertain every criticism of his assertions. For the scientist, criticism is a vital necessity. He cannot be questioned enough in order to test his insights. The genuine scientist profits even from unjustified criticism. If he shrinks from criticism he has no genuine will to know. – Loss of the scientific attitude and approach is loss also of truthfulness in philosophizing. –

Everything works together to bind philosophy to science. Philosophy deals with the sciences in such a way that their own meaning is brought out and set forth. By remaining in living touch with the sciences philosophy dissolves the dogmatism (that unclear pseudo-philoso­phy) which tends to spring up in them again and again.

Above all, however, philosophy becomes the conscious witness for the scientific endeavor against the enemies of science. To live philosophically is inseparable from the attitude of mind that will affirm science without reservations.

Together with this clarification of the limits and the meaning of science, there emerged the independence of philosophy's origin. Only as each premature assertion was exposed to the sharp light of criticism in the bright realm of science, did men become aware of that independence, and the one primordial philosophy begin to speak again through its great representatives. It was as if long familiar texts had returned from oblivion to the light of day, and as if men learned only now to read them truly, with new eyes. Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Nicolas of Cusa, Anselm, Plotinus, Plato, and a few others became so freshly relevant that one experienced the truth of Schelling's remark that philosophy is an "open secret." One may know texts, and be able to trace their thought constructions with precision – and yet not understand them.

From this origin we may learn something no science teaches us. For philosophy cannot arise from scientific ways of thinking and scientific knowledge alone. Philosophy demands a different thinking, a thinking that, in knowing, reminds me, awakens me, brings me to myself, transforms me.

But the new discovery of philosophy's origin in the old tradition immediately demonstrated the impossibility of finding the true philosophy ready-made in the past.

The old philosophy in its past forms cannot be ours. Although we see the historical starting point of our philosophizing in the old philosophy, and develop our own thinking by studying it because only in dialogue with it can we gain clarity, philosophical thinking is nevertheless always original and must express itself historically under new conditions in every age.

Most striking among the new conditions is the development of the pure sciences we have just discussed. Philosophy can no longer be both naive and truthful. The naive union of philosophy and science was an incomparably forceful and in its cultural situation true cipher. But to­ day such a union is possible only as a muddy confusion that must be radically overcome. As both science and philosophy come to understand themselves, awareness is enhanced. Philosophy, together with science, must create the philosophical thinking that stems from an origin other than science.

Present-day philosophy may, therefore, understand the sublime greatness of the pre-Socratics, but while it derives irreplaceable incentives from them, it cannot follow them. Nor can it any longer remain in the deep naïveté of the questions of its childhood. In order to preserve the depth which children for the most part likewise lose as they mature, philosophy must find paths of inquiry and verification that lie within reality as it is conceived today in all its manifestations. This reality, however, can in no instance be genuine and wholly present without science. 

K. Jaspers, Philosophy of Existence (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971), pp. 5-13.