JUSTICE: Philosophy must be essentially practical

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, Volume I, “Program,” section VI.

§ VI. — That philosophy must be essentially practical.

We would be gravely mistaken if we imagined that philosophy, because it defined itself as the Search for the [22] reason of things, has no other end than to make us discover that reason, and that its object is exclusively speculative. Already, by showing that these conditions are those of common sense, its certainty the same for all, its highest conceptions of the same form and quality as its most elementary propositions, we have had occasion to recall its eminently positive character, its egalitarian spirit. And its democratic and anti-mystical tendencies. It is philosophy, we have said, which made the French Revolution, by deducing from its own pure essence the principle of civil and political equality. Then, we have confirmed that premise by destroying at the foundations all the pretentions of transcendence, and proving that in fact and in right there is nothing for the mind apart from observation, consequently nothing which ordinary mortals can claim by virtue of simple good sense.

Logic, which is to say philosophy itself, demands more.

In ordinary life, which is that of the immense majority and which forms three-quarters of philosophy, the knowledge of things has value only insofar as it is useful; and nature, our great schoolmistress, has been of the opinion, in giving intelligence as the light of our actions and the instrument of our felicity.

Philosophy, in a word, is essentially utilitarian, no matter what has been said: to make of it an exercise of pure curiosity us to sacrifice it. In that regard, universal testimony has judged without appeal. The people, eminently practical, asked what all that philosophy would serve, and the way to make use of it: and as one responded to them, with Schelling, that philosophy exist by itself and for itself; that it would be an injury to its dignity if one sought a use for it, the people have mocked the philosophers, and everyone has done as the people. Philosophy for philosophy’s sake is as idea which would never enter into a sane mind. A similar pretension might appear excusable among philosophers who seek the reason of things in the inneity of genius, or among the illuminated in communication with the spirits. But since it has been proven that all that transcendence is only a calabash, and that the philosopher has been declared subject to common [23] sense, the servant, like everyone, of practical and empirical reason, it is very necessary for philosophy to humanize itself, and that it should be democratic and social, or else never be anything. Now, what is more utilitarian than democracy?

Religion, which certainly had a very different birth than democracy, ne le prenait from so high with our poor humanity. It has made itself all things to all people; it has been given to us, by grace from on high, to raise us from sin and misery, to teach us our duties and our rights, to give us a rule of conduct, to enlighten us on our origin and our destiny, and to prepare for us an eternal happiness. Religion responded, in its way, on all the questions that consciences and our hearts could address to it. It gave us rules for the conduct of our interests; it did not even disdain to explicate for us the beginnings of the world, the principle of things, the epoch of creation, the age of the human race, etc. It only left outside its teaching, and did not deliver to our arguments, the things of which the knowledge was not of an immediate usefulness to our moral perfection and to our eternal salvation.

Will philosophy do less than religion? It has taken it upon itself to destroy these venerable beliefs: could it have had in us any other mission than to fill the void?

To pose the question in this way is to answer it. No, philosophy cannot be reduced to a kaleidoscope of the mind in its practical application; its purpose is to serve us, and if the critique of religion that it allows is fair, the service that falls to it close to us, in the place of religion, is determined in advance by that very critique. To the old dogma philosophy must substitute a new doctrine, with the only difference the first was of faith and was imposed by authority, while the second must be of science, and impose itself by demonstration.

Under the empire of religion, man found everything simple by relating it to the word of God; on the strength of that guarantee, it rested in full security. Now that, [24] thanks to philosophical reason, the supposed divine word has become doubtful, and the celestial guarantee itself subject to caution, what remains, except that man finds in himself the rule of his actions and the guarantee of his judgments? This is what the ancient philosophers had understood very well, and that they sought so long, under the name of criterion of certainty.

Thus the aim of philosophy is to teach man to think for himself, to reason methodically, to make exact ideas of thing, to formulate truth in regular judgments, all in order to direct his life, to merit by his conduct the esteem of his fellows and himself, and to insure, with the peace of heart, well-being of the body and security of mind.

The criterion of philosophy, deduced from its practical utility, is thus in some sense double: relative to the reason of things, that it is important for us to understand such as it is in itself, and relative to our proper reason, which is the law of our perfection and our happiness.

A principle of guarantee for our ideas;

A rule for our actions;

As a consequence of this double criterion and of the accord of our practical and speculative reason, a synthesis of all our knowledge and a sufficient idea of the economy of the world and of our destiny: this is what philosophy must accomplish.

But where do we find the criterion? As much as philosophy has shown itself powerless to discovery the smallest truth with the aid of metaphysical notions alone, so much it has up to the present been unfortunate to establish a principle which, serving all at once as critical instrument and rule of action, would give in addition the plan scientific and social edifice, and later would enlighten us on the system of the universe.

In that which concerns the rule of judgment, we have been served, lacking an authentic instrument, and we continue to be served by different principles, chosen arbitrarily from among the axioms that we suppose most capables of responding to the wants of philosophy. Such is, for example, the principle of contradiction, by virtue of which yes and no [25] cannot be affirmed simultaneously, and from the same point of view, for a single thing. It is the principle which rules mathematics. But that principle, which at first appears so sure, when we work with definite quantities, has been judged insufficient in regard to the sophists who are themselves prevailed upon to maintain that all is true and all is false, as much in the ontological as in the moral order, since, in the fundamental questions, on which depend the certainty of all the others, one can affirm simultaneously, with an equal probability, the yes and the no… The absence of a higher principle, embracing all the content of the mind, appears to make itself felt up to the highest mathematics, the style, the definitions and the theories of which have been justly criticized, though one cannot, in fact, contest the results. Wearied of struggle, we have thought to say, after Descartes, that the guarantee of our judgments is self-evidence? And what is it that makes that a thing appear self-evident?…

In that which concerns the rule of actions, the philosophers have not even taken the trouble to test anything. All have returned, by some detour, to the religious idea, as if philosophy and theology had exactly this in common, that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. It has even been said, and it is repeated every day, that a little philosophy leads away from religion, but that a lot of philosophy leads back to it, from which it is necessary to conclude that it is not truly the philosopher’s problem. If some adventurers in free thought have abandoned beaten path, they have lost themselves in the mires of egoism.

Finally, as to the unity of the sciences, the distress is still more noticeable. Each philosopher has built his system, leaving it to critique to show that that system was a work of marquetry. It is thus that, according to Thales, water is the principle of all things; according to others, it is fire or air; according to Democritus, it is the atoms. Philosophy, like language, is materialist in its beginnings: but that is not where the danger lies; it will go only too long in the ideal. Later, indeed, one has invoked by turns, as the principle of things, love, numbers and the idea; and philosophy, from [26] abstraction to abstraction, has ended by burning what it first worshiped, adoring the spirit that it had only glimpsed, and falling into a hopeless superstition. It is thus that eclecticism was born, the meaning of which is that there is not a unitary constitution, neither for the world, nor for thought, and that consequently there are only specific, relative certainties, between which the wise must know how to choose, giving, according to the circumstances, satisfaction to all the principles, but not allowing themselves to be mastered by any of them, and reserving always freedom of judgment. Eclecticism, which has been so criticized in our days, has not yet received its true definition: it is polytheism.

In this moment, it is with philosophy as with the public conscience: both are demoralized. Eclecticism in philosophy, just like the doctrinaire position in politics, laissez faire, laissez passer in economics, and free love in the family, is the negation of unity, death.

However, an unresolved problem must not be considered insoluble problem: it is even permitted to believe that we have come closer to the solution the longer we have searched for it. Also, the lack of success of philosophy on this capital questions of the certainty of ideas, of the rule of morals, and of the architectonic of science, has not prevented it from arriving at theories of which the growing generality and the rigorous logic seem a sure pledge of triumph. Why, indeed, if man has the certainty of his existence, would he not have at the same time certainty of his observations? The proposition of Descartes — Je pense, dont je suis, — implies that consequence. Why, if the intelligence of man is capable of connecting two ideas, of forming a dyad, a triad, a tetrad, a series, finally, and if each series leads to his self, why, we ask, will he not aspire to construct the system of the world? He must advance: everything invites us. If philosophy is abandoned, it is the end of the human race.


  1. The coming of the people to philosophy
  2. The definition of philosophy
  3. On the quality of the philosophical mind
  4. The origin of ideas
  5. That metaphysics is within the province of primary instruction
  6. That philosophy must be essentially practical
  7. The character that must be presented by the guarantee of our judgments and the rule of our actions.–Conversion from speculative to practical reason: determination of the criterion. (next)
  8. . . .
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