Like an Atmosphere:
by Emanuele Coccia
Philosophy as a Climate of Knowledge
The emergence of philosophy has not been a single, definitive historical event. Rather than a discipline notable for its purpose or method, or for questions and objectives universal across space and time, philosophy is a sort of atmospheric condition, arising suddenly—everywhere and at all times. It can hold sway over human knowledge for a certain period, but also abruptly vanish, often for reasons unknown, just as mild spring weather or a storm can dissipate at a moment’s notice.
In this sense the notion of a progressive or even nonlinear history of thought is, like the existence of an archive, a canon, or a patrimony of philosophical works or texts, illusory. There is only a meteorology of thought in the original, Aristotelian sense of a science concerned with the long list of phenomena “that are natural” but whose “order is less perfect than that of the first elements of bodies,” with “winds and earthquakes,” “with the falling of thunderbolts and with whirlwinds and fire-winds.”
“Philosophical” ideas and concepts are not specific bits of knowledge to be compounded with other forms of knowledge or ideas but, rather, a sort of movement that calls into play the very element of reason and knowledge, a certain climate, an unstable yet powerful configuration of current knowledge—just as wind, clouds, and rain are not elements added to those existing in the world but just their contingent modification, or the manifestation of their power and influence over us. Just as a certain temperature, a certain light, or any new arrangement of natural elements can change the look of a place and determine its inhabitability, any philosophical event will modify the arrangement of knowledge and learning of a historical context, and thus radically change its mode of existence.
We start, then, with an obvious epistemological point: philosophy is atmospheric because the truth always exists in the form of an atmosphere. Only in mixing with all of the other elements does anything find its identity: atmosphere is truer than essence. Inversely, if philosophy prefers atmosphere to essence, it is because atmosphere is the totality of elements in its extreme form. In this sense the atmospheric nature of philosophical knowledge manifests especially in its form, and in the impossibility of reducing it to a body of knowledge defined by a specific objective, method, or style, to the exclusion of others.
If, then, it is impossible to reduce philosophy to a specific objective, to a “homogeneous” and univocal field of inquiry, the reason is that philosophy is everywhere. Far from opposing other forms of knowledge—physics, literature, computer science, art—it coincides with the limits of the knowable and the nameable. Nothing is innately philosophical, and any object—even one that does not and could never exist—can and should be subject to philosophy.
In the same way, it is strictly impossible to discern the slightest stylistic continuity from one philosophical book to another. Throughout its history philosophy has resorted to all available literary genres—from novel to poem, treatise to aphorism, tale to mathematical formula. By custom, then, any symbolical form is ipso facto philosophical, and no such form may claim a greater capacity to attain the truth; no writing style is more apt for philosophy than any other. The contemporary academic fetish for the uncertain Volapük of the footnoted essay has, from this point of view, no grounds for being. A film, sculpture, or pop song can be just as intensely philosophical as a geological treatise—the Critique of Pure Reason, or an adage uttered with the faux nonchalance of a dandy.
It is impossible, finally, to distill a single method. The sole method is an extremely intense love of learning, a savage, raw, undisciplined passion for knowledge in all its forms and for all its purposes. Philosophy is knowledge under the sign of Eros, the coarsest and most undisciplined of all the gods. It can never be a discipline. It is, on the contrary, the affirmation that human knowledge can abide no discipline, no moral, no epistemology. This is why no idea could ever be found in an archive: philosophy embodies the rift in all tradition; the clinamen within every discipline that allows a specific body of knowledge to become a paradigm, to serve as an example. It is the counter-ideal to the Socratic atopia: philosophical thought is not nowhere but everywhere. Like an atmosphere.
EMANUELE COCCIA started off as a scholar of 13th-century philosophy. A philosopher, writer, and Associate Professor at the Ècole des Hautes Ètudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, he now devotes a large part of his work to life in contemporary culture. He is notably the author, in English, of The Sensible Life (Fordham University Press, 2016).