The Business of Philosophers

Rajan Sien Aggarwal


What is the business of Philosophy today? Exploring this topic today is Rajan Sien Aggarwal, who revisits Deleuze and Guattari's renowned work "what is philosophy?".

This is Aggarwal's first ever publication, and we think it's a wonderful opening to a new becoming. In revisiting this topic, there is an attempt to establish an ontological argument relevant to their next works.  —A!kira

The phrase “business of philosophers” was used by Heidegger to mock a tradition of western philosophy that has forgotten the most fundamental problem it was supposed to solve, the question of Being (Macquarrie and Heidegger 1978; p.23-24). This is an incredible predicament, considering Aristotle defines metaphysics as a study of “being qua being”, and the very thing that allows for any being to exist as being seems like a foundational problem for metaphysics. So if philosophy can forget, at least according to Heidegger, its core motivation, its most inviolable seeking, mustn’t we ask a more fundamental question, lest we forget this too: what is the business of philosophers and is it even necessary? Should the question of Being even occupy a human mind, for instance? Should Dasein not just ignore it and revel in its ontic existence?
           Deleuze and Guattari wrote that the question “what is philosophy?” comes upon a philosopher near the end of his years. Perhaps we should ask this question right at the beginning, and to ask that question–no one but Deleuze would agree to this the most–is to really ask what is the function of philosophy? Are philosophers really present just to interrogate reality and our knowledge of it? Does the cartesian demon really haunt them so much that they devote their lives in fighting this hypothetical entity? It doesn’t seem to occupy most people’s minds after all. A painter is able to paint, a worker is able to build and everyone can go to work the next day without thinking about philosophical problems. Is the unexamined life really that bad? Some would say that philosophy creates the foundation for the legitimacy of sciences, but most scientists never appreciate that, simply because their outlook could simply be pragmatic: science works and we know it, and it’s been reliable ever since we started putting it to use. Or is the primary purpose of philosophy, then, limited to building a moral framework? If that is the case, is interrogating reality in this sense, in the sense of metaphysics, really necessary? Already in a roundtable in 1994, Derrida had noticed the threat philosophy is observing against itself in the industrial society (Derrida, 1994, p5). This situation has only gotten worse since then, and we must answer this question concretely.

The barren lands of the unconditioned

Let us suspend that question for a bit, and go back to Heidegger. What Heidegger stages in the first few pages of Sein und Zeit, is an explication of a paradox of sorts. Not only are we completely in the dark about Being, but even when we ask the question ‘what is Being?’, we seem to do that with an implicit understanding of Being.

“...we keep within an understanding of the ‘is’, though we are unable to fix conceptionally what that ‘is’ signifies. …But this vague average understanding of Being is still a Fact”
(Macquarrie and Heidegger 1978, Pg 25)

How is it that we can have this “vague” understanding of Being and still not know anything about it? The crucial phrase Heidegger offers us here is “to fix conceptionally”, indicating that we do not really have a concept of Being. For Heidegger, it’s simply because we cannot articulate an answer to the question ‘What is Being?’, we cannot beyond our ‘vague average understanding’ of it. On the face of it, this looks like a simple Socratic question of the form ‘What is X?’, but it has proven to be quite challenging for philosophers, even for someone like Aristotle.

Let’s look at what’s commonly referred to as the Porphyry's tree and how it helps define things in Aristotelian metaphysics. At any level in the middle of the tree, a genus can be divided into several sub-genera with the help of differentia. For example, those Bodies which are Animate are Living. Here “Bodies” refers to a genus that is being filtered by the differentia “Animate” into creating a sub-genera “Living Bodies”. At the lowermost level of this tree, we can find a set which includes individuals of the same type, known as species, which cannot be further divided by differentia–they are conceptually the same. Humans are therefore animals coupled with the differentia of being rational. At the top of the tree, however, there are several categories like Substance, Quantity, Quality etc which would spawn their own corresponding trees once we begin specifying them further. The genus Animal is therefore achieved by repeatedly adding several differentia to the category of Substance. Aristotle in this way could answer, for instance, what is a human being (a rational animal) or even define an animal (living beings with perception), or any other genera or species for that matter. When it comes to Being, however, he wouldn’t be able to define it, because it’s neither a genus nor a species. It is obvious why it cannot be a species, since it’s common to all things, but it also cannot be the uppermost Genus (which would seem intuitive at first), because a Genus cannot be divided by something that’s included in it (differentia, which divides a genus into smaller genera or species, cannot be included in the genus, because that would make differentia a redundant addition). Therefore, we find that if we list out all the entities or beings in this framework, we would not have one gigantic all-encompassing tree, but we would have as many trees as there are categories, as Being is not able to umbrella the several categories. Even differentia is, and if Being is posited as the uppermost genus, nothing can divide it because nothing can be outside Being.

However, Aristotle returns to the question of Being in Metaphysics Z, and claims, now, that the question of Being can be equated with the question of Substance (he makes Substance primary to all other categories). “‘What is being?’ is just the question ‘What is substance?’”(Z.7, 1028b3). But how does he define a substance? Aristotle is very clear on this in Categories, because it starkly separates him from Plato: “every substance is thought to indicate a this” (3b10). For Aristotle, therefore, Platonic Forms are not a substance because they’re only a such. And so in the Z book, he is going to create two conditions for something to be a substance: a substance must be separable (can exist independently) and be a this.

On this criteria, he will first reject matter as a candidate for being a substance. Matter, after all, is pure potentiality (bricks can turn into this house or that house). Substance, however, has to adhere to the principle of non-contradiction, i.e, it has to be actual. Any thing for Aristotle, is a result of putting matter into a such-and-such configuration (a form). All things, therefore, are a composite of matter and a form, and all things have the potential to come into existence. But there must be, for him, a primary substance, that is non-composite, which is ‘neither generated nor destroyed’. This primary substance comes very close to Being, because it is what results in the composition of any thing. Therefore, what makes a human being a human being, for Aristotle, is its primary substance, which is not matter, but a form: a species-form. We can now follow Aristotle easily to his theology. If this primary substance creates composites, then it’s a mover, and this mover must itself be made possible by another mover in turn which causes it. Of course, to stop the infinite regress, he will finally posit an unmoved mover: the unconditioned mover or the prime mover.

Now we can perhaps answer the above question: why conceptualizing Being is such an enigma. It is simply because Thought requires an unconditioned to be placed behind all the concepts it thinks, and this unconditioned conditions the genesis of every other concept. But the concept of the unconditioned would remain diabolically unachievable for us. 

Kant and the unconditioned as transcendental

We might as well, upon this realization, admit that Kant did nothing wrong. Was he not, then, absolutely correct and wise in establishing boundaries by explicating the limits of thought in the manner that he did? The Transcendental Self, the noumenal world, all the faculties, were simply the unconditioned, and they must remain as such, shielded from a critique. Isn’t Kant’s method the only method philosophy should be adopting? If we are honest enough to admit that the unconditioned is never going to be conceptualized, because it will inevitably show itself lurking behind any system of thought, must we not do philosophy in the Transcendental way? We must follow Kant in his tactics completely: he delineates his domain problem very well–he wants to see how synthetic a priori judgements are possible–and then looks for all the unconditioned things that condition this possibility. That is, for every possible judgment, what are the conditions we must presuppose, for it to be possible at all. But he would forbid us, then, to inquire into these conditions themselves, because they must be a part of the unconditioned.

But if our experience is conditioned by these unconditional faculties, then Kant must also make a huge wager. He has to accept that we do not know the world as it is, but only after the conditions of space, time and Concepts of Understanding have been applied to it. In saying this, however, Thought has already realized a world as it is in itself. We have come upon another unconditioned, perhaps Kant’s most scandalizing concept, the famous thing-in-itself. Every philosopher has tried to battle with this concept; it was worse than the Cartesian devil. At least Descartes would aim to defeat this devil, by rationality obtained from God, but Kant leaves us with no weaponry at all, as he has put our reason itself in shackles. In the criticism Jacobi aims at Kant, one can observe the angst the concept of thing-in-itself causes:

“Without the presupposition [of the “thing in itself,”] I was unable to enter into [Kant’s] system, but with it I was unable to stay within it” (Krebs, Remmel, and Remmel 2001)

Kant would happily agree with the first half of that statement (in fact he added a section in his B edition of CPR to prove just that), but would contend that the second wager has to be made. “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith” (Kant 1998, Pg 117). Reason will ponder and try to step out into the concept of thing-in-itself, but it must be stopped in its footing. If philosophy cannot pretend to be ‘self-evident’ like geometry or empirical sciences, then it must accept this predicament.

Heidegger’s interpretation of Kant–or some might even call it an appropriation–leads us to see what Kant failed to see in his own philosophy. Kant’s folly was the dualism he established: the dualism of phenomena as appearance and the noumena as the thing-in-itself, while Heidegger would claim that appearance and thing-in-itself are the same being (Hahmann 2021). These are not two-worlds, but the same world we are a part of. We, too, exist immanently within it as there is nothing else, no transcendence, no God, no heavenly world. Note that this is how all philosophers of immanance, including Spinoza and Hegel, have been able to get rid of the subject-object separation, which is unmissable in Kant (albeit it also allows him to give non-deterministic value to the subject). It’s the limitation of human cognition, however, that is finite–restricted by certain faculties–because of which we are barred from grasping this unconditioned directly. An infinite cognition’s Intuition, would have the ability to grasp the thing-in-itself, and their experience will not be determined according to space and time and concepts of Understanding. In fact the division of Understanding and Intuition, doesn’t even exist for this infinite cognition. We, humans, are receptive, but for them, beings would be conjured up in the act of intuition itself.

But let’s see what Kant has really done in his work. He has taken a given, which are all the possible kinds of judgements, and has derived several unconditioned faculties. But in doing so, he has created the faculties in the image of the given! In fact, looking at it this way, he has never really escaped Hume at all, because he is still an empiricist in a way. For example, the category of causality in the B Deduction is clearly based on the premise that in our given experience we can only experience relations of objects as such. It’s no wonder that his categories would so perfectly correspond to our experience of things, because they are derived from its form. Kant’s problem is not that he has established an unconditioned, rather, his problem is the opposite of that, that his unconditioned is not truly unconditioned! Kant has made those things unconditioned that are determined in some way or the other, that too by himself in his own philosophy! The unconditioned must exist, but we cannot conceptualize it in the image of the given, it should be determination-less.

Now we can say where Kant erred: if there is an unconditioned lying beneath all of us, humans are determining (albeit in their limited capacity) it as much as they are being determined by it. He does not need to create two separate worlds: one with deterministic causality and the other with freedom for creation. The act of determination is itself a creative act. We interpret this unconditioned to suit our needs. The faculties of understanding are just as much a techne as Plato’s Maieutic was (even Plato realizes that the maieutic is the limit of knowledge in Theaetetus). We can always externalize it and use it, but we cannot forget that there’s no externalization in an immanent world of Being, where creation of such a techne has occurred through us and within us. The unconditioned creates, it is unconditioned creativity. And humans, which are themselves a part of this unconditioned, create categories and concepts of determination to cognize the world as it suits them. This was the genius of Nietzsche, who inverts the primacy of truth and value. As he notes, Kant would never fulfill his own philosophy’s radical potential. In Nietzsche’s philosophy, the distinction of idealism and material has collapsed into the realization that universe is unconditioned, and we are a limited part of it, and to exist in this universe, to move with its flow, we create concepts from our limited point-of-view;concepts that are necessarily going to be limited, as Kant has shown us correctly.

The endless bounty of the unconditioned

It would be undeniably ignorant, in a discussion where concepts of immanence and human finitude prevail, to not turn to Spinoza, as he reigns on this space rightfully. Spinoza sets up a God, who is truly immanent and describes how different modes living within it come together into new relations to form new modes. Our bodies, our minds and all entities are found within a single substance of God as modes. But these bodies do not exist independently, but are the result of a network of relations amongst each other. Our human body, for example, is a result of all the environmental factors–the air we breath, the food we eat and even the bacteria our gut houses–that create the body as we know it. This is not to say that our body is a result of these factors in a temporal manner, but that it exists through these relations: the body itself is held together in these relations. We are even aware of these relations, as all external bodies leave an imprint on us. The idea we have of our body is nothing but the imprint of these relations, and as more bodies interact with us the more imprints we have. This is why from time to time we feel sad, angry and joyous: all these are the imprints or ‘affects’ external bodies make on us. The condition of being human is that we are in a sea of good and bad relations. In fact, we are sustained by them and exist as such.

The idea of these imprints on our body forms the first form of knowledge in Spinozist epistemology. Unfortunately, these imprints have more to do with our nature than the nature of the external bodies (E2P16), why Spinoza would call it the inadequate form of knowledge, but we must move towards the second form of knowledge, the adequate form of knowledge, which would help us understand the world through all the common notions our body shares with the external world. This would be for him the task of philosophy in general: to promote a thinking that leads us to better understanding of the bodies around us and the bodies we inhabit, and the bodies that are us. But why must we do that in the first place? Herein lies the real brilliance of Spinoza: why he would perfectly answer the question we have been asking so far; for he is too naive to name his work ‘Metaphysics’ or ‘Ontology’ or even ‘Theology’. Instead he chose the most erudite word for his corpus, ‘Ethics’.

For every mode, such as ours, its essence lies in realizing (making existent) new relations that increase its potential to persevere in its being. This he terms as conatus. We must search for relations that help us preserve this conatus, and deny the destructive relations that human bodies are prone to enter. Therefore, conatus allows itself to be able to create new relations by making new relations; this operation is endlessly creative because the potential to persevere in one’s being is the same as the potential to create new relations, which allows us to create more relations, and so on and so forth. The potential for joy is infinite for Spinoza, as it is the increase in our potential that gives us joy. So the reason why we must understand the world, through adequate knowledge, is to understand which relations are good for us (increase our potential) and which are bad for us (decrease our potential). Philosophy is a wholly ethical enterprise that brings us joy.

“Since reason demands nothing contrary to Nature, it demands that everyone love himself, seek his own advantage, what is really useful to him, want what will really lead a man to greater perfection, and absolutely, that everyone should strive to preserve his own being as far as he can.” (E4P18)

For Spinoza, too, just like Nietzsche, reason is in the service of our conatus. But Spinoza would also cry that we know not what our bodies can do! Philosophers have thought about Thought so much that they have forgotten what Thought must operate in service of: our bodies. By our bodies, he doesn’t just mean the biological body, but the social body, the environmental body, and the psychological body, all bodies that we interact with in all facets of our existence, bodies that affect us, singular or composite. But all these bodies prevail in and within the Universe that Spinoza would call God or Nature, and all these bodies are understood by concepts that we create. Deleuze and Guattari hit the nail on the head when they described the task of philosophy as ‘creation of concepts’ in ‘What is Philosophy?’. The creation of concepts, is therefore, an ethical task and that is exactly what philosophy is.

And so we can return to our theme and answer our question in a preliminary form. The Universe is unconditioned. This Universe just is. Heidegger’s Being is actually the endless Becoming of this Universe. It is not the world as we know it, it is the transcendental condition of the world. One has to marvel at the genius with which Nietzsche really conjured up his philosophy, because existence is indeed innocent and has no inherent values. It keeps on creating new relations, and we want to be a part of it, dwell in it, connect to its flows so we can fulfill our conatus. We can only ‘revel in our ontic existence’ if we can become a part of its becoming.

But because the Universe is unconditioned, it also means it is apathetic to us. And this is why we need philosophy, to create concepts that teach us how to inhabit it and become its part. We can destroy our environment and our climate and the Universe will not shed a tear, because it’s creative nonetheless. Destruction of our species is just as much a new relation for the Universe as its evolution. But we need to learn how to preserve our being, and this is why we create concepts. The tree of Porphyry, the concepts of Kant, and the maieutic of Plato are all the concepts we have created to do just that. But as the Universe forms new relations, or to put it simply, as the world changes, we need to create more and more concepts. Dispose the concepts that do not work anymore in our favor and craft those that do. This is the business of philosophers. In a way, it’s just a manifestation of the infinitude of the Universe, as these concepts are not just simple creations, but creations that allow for more creations.

The preliminary considerations in the task of creation of concepts

As we go beyond Kant, we recognize that the nature of the unconditioned has to be a completely undetermined chaos. Deleuze would go as far as to say in Difference and Repetition, that it’s the difference-in-itself, free from the forms of Identity, that would enable us to do a transcendental philosophy. For him, the conceptualisation of genesis of Thought as such can only be delineated once we stop trying to impose identity in the unconditioned transcendental field, which is anthropological in nature. Hence, Deleuze does point towards a concept of Being, in the spirit of Heidegger, but if Heidegger is looking for Being through the concept of Ontological Difference, Deleuze remarks that the Difference itself is the Being, in the form of continuous Becoming. Therefore, recognizing the truly unconditioned, and therefore embracing the truly chaotic nature of the Universe in its utmost purity is the first consideration in the task of creation of concepts in order to avoid doxa.

The second consideration has to do with what constraints do we start creating concepts? After all, a completely chaotic Universe of endless becoming can hardly give us any markers to assist us in creating anything of value, since we cannot make heads or tails of its multiplicity and plentitude. Concepts are invoked when a particular question is asked, and humanity has to answer it, or rather is forced to answer it. The inventions and limitations of a philosopher are founded upon the questions they try to answer which serve as their motivation. As an example, Kant focuses on a particular question, the question of how synthetic a priori judgements are possible, in order to escape skepticism of Hume. This allows him to start a Copernican revolution, but also demands from him that the method of formation of the Transcendental faculties be done in the image of the empirically given, violating our first consideration. But if some consider Kant as the biggest philosopher of all time, it’s precisely because he makes us aware of a vital imperative while doing philosophy: that we must select our questions wisely. In fact, he will show in the Transcendental Dialectic that not all questions deserve our respect, and there are false problems that surround us. A book about spirituality or a self-help book is rife with these and this is what separates philosophy from other forms of non-fiction writing; with its critical approach philosophy has the ability to understand which questions are meaningless and which deserve our attention, from which we can begin to create concepts. Questions like ‘Why is there something rather than nothing’, ‘Would we be better off without technology’ etc can distract us from the questions that need answering like ‘How does a subject emerge from the unconditioned chaos?’ or ‘What constitutes the ethical use of technology?’. When Marx remarks in the Capital Vol1, that the expression value of labor is as ‘imaginary as the value of the earth’, he is doing philosophy par excellence. And it is also precisely in this sense that Nietzsche would say that the objective of philosophy is to shame stupidity, because some questions are genuinely stupid, and philosophy exposes them as such.

The third consideration would be the most controversial one: to learn how questions are raised from the chaos of the unconditioned, a pedagogy of creation of concepts. Do these concepts and the questions corresponding to them chance upon us like a Badiouian Event? For Lacanians, most famously Zizek, the Real serves as the unconditioned which penetrates the Symbolic (where concepts of Thought reside) only at the behest of a singular Event. But because this Real cannot be symbolized, we must wait for it. We can only point in its direction vaguely in the contradictions present in the Symbolic. On the other side Deleuze and Guattari, equipped with the concept of machines and desiring-production, would try to describe this Real in its flows and creation of assemblages in ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia’, an approach Zizek would repeatedly criticize.

If the unconditioned must remain truly undetermined, it must surely lie outside thought. But can something truly lie outside of thought? Aren’t the conditions of genesis of Thought realized simply in retrospect after the Event? In fact, even the unconditioned, one may argue, is only posited in retrospect, once the critique of Thought has reached its inevitable conclusion. If every Event is singular, then to create a concept of creation of concepts is surely unfaithful to its singularity. But it would be a mistake to think like that because every concept is necessarily created from singularities; in fact, such is the essence of concepts in general. To call this impossible is to call every concept to be illegitimate. If the unconditioned is the genetic Being of every concept we possess, then for the sake of immanence we must have no trouble in describing how Events that lead us to the creation of concepts themselves arise from it (unless we argue that concepts are created from somewhere transcendent). In fact, the unconditioned has shown us that every concept that does exist has arisen from its multiplicity of singularities. And if this is the case, the singular Events and its conditions can be studied using concepts. Our concepts do, indeed, allow us to study the nature of flows, and thus the flow (the perpetual forging of new relations) of the unconditioned that genetically determines a concept should not be beyond us. Humans create concepts from singular events all the time. Does a sportsman not learn how to space his strides, even though every step is concrete and singular, in a continuous flow of a sprint? Does a driver not learn how to manage his car in every singular situation of traffic? Before these concepts were applied, they were developed through practice and experimentation. We must merely study, what are the ‘common notions’ of these singular activities that turn something into an Event, that is, we must wrest from them what makes them special enough to engender Thought. The taste of every sip of water must be different, but it’s hardly anything to think about or to even notice. But at what point does the water taste so strange, that it forces us to think that perhaps something may be wrong with our plumbing. Philosophy must not just be retrospective, but pedagogical and creative and it must describe how creation of concepts is possible from the depths of the unconditioned: a genetic approach to the thinking of Thought.


Macquarrie, John, and Martin Heidegger. 1978. Being and Time. Translated by Edward Robinson and John Macquarrie. N.p.: Blackwell

Derrida, Jacques. 1997. Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida. Edited by John D. Caputo. N.p.: Fordham University Press.

Kant, Immanuel. 1998. Critique of pure reason. Edited by Allen W. Wood and Paul Guyer. Translated by Allen W. Wood and Paul Guyer. N.p.: Cambridge University Press.

Hahmann, Andree. 2021. “Heidegger on ‘Thing in Itself’ and ‘Appearance’: A Promising Interpretation of Kant?” The Court of Reason. 10.1515/9783110701357-124.

Krebs, Sophia V., A. Remmel, and P. Remmel. 2001. “Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.