Thesis Eleven without steroids: standalone philosophical analysis

‘Philosophical analysis’ here means a combination of conceptual, logical and linguistic tools [1].

‘Standalone’ means we’re going to assume that the only sentence we know from this particular thinker and from that particular text is this:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, is to change it.

Anonymous author, unknown date

We don’t even know the name of this philosopher and we don’t know when exactly this sentence has been written or published. No extra historical insights will be used from the past, expect well that it was written sometimes in the past, so only our current world situation factors into the interpretation directly. Brace yourself for an isolated analytical philosophy incident [2]. 

Wait a sec, we know something else attached to this sentence as part of the standalone package, is that it was originally written in German as:

Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt darauf an, sie zu verändern.

Anonymous author, unknown date

We give this sentence a go with a simple analytical toolkit. We try to understand this sentence or get a bit closer to what might it mean by rephrasing it using the tools of philosophical analysis.

Linguistic preparation: listen to the semicolon

‘Semicolons have two functions: First, they are used to separate items in lists when one or more of those items has internal commas.  As such, they function more or less like commas on steroids.

In their second function, however, they are more like periods because they connect two independent clauses.’

According to GW

We build our analysis informed by these two functions of the semicolon.

Semicolons as commas on steroids, list separators

According to this version:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways so far, the philosophers should change the world from now on (as well).

Now list separators can theoretically introduce members of a set, and the members of a set can be anything put next to each other, neutrally and independently and as separate and discernible entities.

However if we are to take this sentence seriously as some kind of a philosophical statement or part argument, which is our main background commitment, then assuming all it does is to put together apples and oranges in a basket is not going to suffice.

So what might be a connection between the 2 parts, why are they handled as 2 members of the same set? What is the conceptual angle here, that makes the 2 components show up as part of one sentence?

One interpretation is that the sentence is trying to say something about philosophers engaging themselves in philosophical activity, or something about philosophy as a focused and even professionalised activity in the first place.

For this interpretation, we need to take the subject of the second component to be the ‘philosophers’ of the first component. So we start from the fist component and propagate the information in it to the second.

Also it is best to assume that the author who wrote this sentence identifies as at least a part time philosopher himself. This way we read the sentence, the second component, as a sort of auto-representation.

Another possible interpretation starts with the ‘world’ and focusing on the sentence being mainly about the world somehow and various ways to access this ‘world’. This interpretation starts from the second component, focusing on changing the world, and connects back to the first component, where world is explicitly mentioned as the subject or study of a theoretical activity.

These 2 interpretations don’t substantially contradict each other as both can be fitted into a general category of how philosophers are dealing with the world, and, on the flip side, how the world is dealing with philosophers.  See our closing remark on Google Translate on how the latter can be another interpretative path. Nevertheless unless suggested otherwise, these readings converge.

Let’s take a look at the 2 components.

Upon closer inspection the 2 different expressions separated by the semicolon look very much like different kind of expressions, the first component being a statement, a declarative unit, the second component being a strong recommendation, an imperative or normative unit.

The first, descriptive part describes the only, exclusive job of philosophers so far: coming up with different world interpretations. Now these world interpretations can take many forms, as long as they are theoretical, not practical activities. They could be theoretical narratives, or closed systems of natural philosophy or just particular explanations on particular world situations. We don’t know, and we should not really care here, cause then we lose our standalone-ess quick. [3]

The second component highlights the world as something to be changed by some human agents.

Now why do I think the second component is an imperative?

The original German expression: ‘es kommt darauf an’ is using the complex verb ‘darauf ankommen’ and this is the synonym of ‘ankommen auf’, which means ‘wichtig sein’ which is really ‘important’.

Now if something is ‘important’ to do as this seems to be the case here, then it looks like it ‘should’ be done and this strong recommendation of this activity to be executed is a normatively modal ‘should’. [4]

In terms of logical clues concerning the structure of the sentence: Nothing suggests in this structure that there is an either/or so an exclusive XOR operator hidden somewhere in or around the semicolon. This is a clue since it restricts the scope of interpretation and avoids contrasting the 2 parts too sharply with each other.

Another logical clue is that due to the different propositional nature of 2 components, descriptive and normative, a logical operator cannot be placed between them. The semicolon as a comma act as a logical separator here, but this cannot be interpreted as a logical ‘and’ binary operator that can be interpreted as assigning a truth value of the composite statement based on the truth values of the 2 components.

The semicolon as ‘comma as a list separator’ interpretation is a good start, so far it has helped us to understand the scope of the sentence and look into the separate components. But this interpretation falls short of explaining why the 2 members of the same list should be arranged into the same sentence, like they are part of the very same thought or argument. And if we are talking about an argument here, where the latter component is a conclusion obviously, then where are the other premises? To fill out the gaps in an argument we need to consider further premises, that come in between the first component as a premise, and the last one as a conclusion. In short, we need the semicolon to be morphed into a period, to give space for other independent thoughts. 

Semicolon as period to separate independent thoughts

The proposed solution and a corresponding argument:

The philosophers so far have only interpreted the world in various ways. It’s time for philosophers, to change the world (as well).

The corresponding argument:

  1. (Loose Definition) The world here is the spatiotemporal entity that is within the scope of humanity’s modifying agency, including humanity. To put it bluntly: The world we care about here is the world we can change at all.
  2. (Loose Definition) A philosophical interpretation of the world is a theoretical activity that provides explanations for the particular features of the world. It is based on common or scientific explanations of the world.
  3. (Tautology, but needed to show symmetry and trajectory, see last section) If it is based on common or scientific explanations, philosophers have to be non-philosophers or more than just philosophers too to come up with philosophical interpretation. 
  4. (Descriptive, empirical, temporal, past (present perfect) tense) The philosophers so far have only interpreted the world in various ways.
  5. (Descriptive, definitive) Interpretations (philosophies) of the world by themselves cannot change the world.
  6. (Modal possibility) Philosophical interpretations of the (social and natural) world ‘contain’ recipes or prescriptions on how to change the world. These interpretations can be brought to life in reality through acting upon or implementing these prescriptions. 
  7. (Normative and temporal diagnosis) There’s something wrong with the (social and/or natural) world. There’s a situation. There’s a bug in the system. There’s room for improvement.
  8. (Normative and temporal prescription) The world needs a change. The world needs to be fixed. The world needs to be transformed.

(Normative but empirically enriched) Conclusion: It’s time for philosophers to change (update/modify/fix) the world according to their interpretations (philosophies) of the world.

Corollary: Philosophers have to be non-philosophers or more than just philosophers while acting as the agents of world-transformative change. 

How can philosophical interpretations be brought to life: an example

The argument above has the granularity of illuminating the original phrasing of Thesis Eleven, however it lacks sufficient granularity to demonstrate the crucial concept of how philosophical interpretations can be ‘brought to life’ or ‘implemented’ in reality through prescriptions implicit in them. So we need to dig a little deeper conceptually to deliver that content.

According to 2. Definition A philosophical interpretation of a world or a relevant part of the world needs to rely on previous common knowledge or accepted scientific knowledge. 

Let’s offer an example, and you can decide how imaginary, actual or hypothetical it is.

Let’s say that multiple people at the same time in different parts of the world realise that human biological aging is entirely malleable and that science-intensive healthy longevity technologies can be developed throughout the next decades that will break the maximum longevity barrier and keep us healthy to the significantly stretched out very end. Then some of these people working as scientists, entrepreneurs, public advocacy folks realise/decide that this particular idea to change the world through developing and introducing Open Healthspan technologies into it needs a philosophical ‘basis’, theorisation and conceptualisation. So some of these already committed folks, the philosophically inclined and trained amongst them, go and hash out these philosophical issues, that are very numerous since the change introduced by developing and providing such a technology supposedly goes very deep into the fabric of world and human condition. These philosophical investigations uncover new and powerful arguments to support the cause and also some to think of it more critically. The new arguments serve a political purpose in the political arena, they are used both to attract mainstream audience to sign up for the cause and to deal with political adversaries. If the philosophy is granular enough and the possibility is built upon a big enough scientific probability and technological feasibility the prescriptions showing the route to reality can be extracted from it. For instance, actual clinical trials around aging can be informed and ensured by these arguments.

Are philosophical interpretations necessary or sufficient to change the world?

Are these philosophical interpretations necessary for championing a particular idea and changing the world? Yes and no. Depends on what you mean by philosophical interpretation. According to Definition 2 they are based on common or scientific explanations of the world. So technically they can be based on common explanations using only a commonly known vocabulary. And any kind of actualisation will involve conceptualisation of the world-changing idea candidate and argumentation for it, that can be called philosophical. So you got the yes.

But the answer is no if only scientific explanations are allowed to serve the backend of the philosophical frontend. Cause then, the common ideas turn into reality without scientific and philosophical guarantees. This is an interesting thought, but we included both common and scientific into Definition 2 and this way exclude further investigation into this direction.

Are these philosophical interpretations sufficient for championing a particular idea and changing the world? 

No. Philosophy alone can never trigger world transforming changes, but philosophers can, as long as they are not just philosophers. For most changes the ammunition fuelling the change is provided by science and technology and social engineering. Scientists and technologists build the tools and business people and politicians act as vehicles in delivering them.

The trajectory of meaningful philosophical activity: non-philosophy -> philosophy -> non-philosophy 

Thesis Eleven provides a great opportunity to illustrate the default dynamics or cycle of meaningful philosophical activity, usually not emphasised by academic philosophers but encountered by the philosophically sensitive. The questions and problems posed initially take the form of non-philosophical, common or scientific questions and the explanations are provided by common sense or science explanations, so this pre-philosophical phase is what I call non-philosophy or less-than-philosophy or before-philosophy, if you like. Then the questions and problems and explanations progress into and take on philosophical forms. The world-transformative prescriptions precipitated from this philosophical phase trigger mature non-philosophical activity in the form of more scientific research or technological and engineering solutions or social engineering attempts. I call this after-philosophical stage again non-philosophy or after-philosophy or more-than-philosophy. 

This might be just one complete cycle in the life of an individual and can be repeated over and over again.  

With this I conclude the current standalone philosophical analysis of Thesis Eleven, a sentence for all of us hiding a historical philosophical thought, still accessible today, but differently than back then and also without real teeth.

There’s lot more that can be said here but I just add philosophical puzzle for the reader who’d like to do some further interpretation. Let me introduce you to Google Translate as a Philosopher and Their Interpretation of Thesis Eleven:


[1] This analysis clearly started as a joke, but at the end it ended up not being funny.

[2] One reason for ‘standalone’, ‘ahistorical’ analysis is to avoid or minimise comments motivated by heavy or nasty ideological baggage, pro or contra. Just focus on the philosophy, like your life depends on it.

[3] For instance, does a commentary of a philosopher of another philosopher’s work qualify as a world interpretation?

[4] A tiny little violation of our standalone analysis citing probably one of the first serious treatment of Thesis Eleven and the text it is coming from. Briefly, in many versions of Thesis Eleven out there there is a ‘but‘ or ‘however’ in the second component as in ‘the point, is, however to change it.‘ translated from German original ‘es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern.’ Indeed the lack of a contrasting ‘aber’, understood not as a binary ‘and’ operator, but as an amplifier, provides another missing brick for our ‘no-opposition’ interpretation. Here’s a screenshot from that essay from another anonymous author. 🙂