Two ways to take the axiom “whether you deny philosophy or not…”

Aristotle usually gets the credit for first noticing that whether one denies philosophy or not, they must philosophize. The first way of understanding the axiom is as showing a certain necessity of philosophy: we can’t call it useless without using it; we can’t call it pointless without conceding its points; we can’t claim it’s unknowable except in virtue of having some idea of what we’re talking about. When we take the axiom in this way, we are inclined to see everyone as a certain philosopher, or at least capax philosophiae– disposed to philosophy.

But an old thomist pointed out to me that there is a darker side to the axiom: after all, it begins by saying “whether you deny philosophy…”. In other words it says that the denial of philosophy is a sort of philosophy. The axiom forces us to divide the very thing we call philosophy into two camps of thinkers: the philosophers and the anti-philosophers. This is, of course, the sort of positive value judgment that makes all modern people break out into hives- regardless of who and what they value.

Hives or not, though, the force of the axiom still haunts us. We can politely refuse to acknowledge any thinker as an anti-philosopher, but this in itself constitutes a philosophical opinion. This kind of polite refusal, which can persent itself as a kind of prudence or charity or some other angel of light is in fact one of the more insipid perversions of charity, and it deserves to be pulled at the root.

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