Taking Nothing for Granted: Presuppositions and the Methodology of European Philosophy

May 28, 2021
Department of Philosophy, University of Aberdeen

Aberdeen AB24 3UB
United Kingdom


  • British Society for the History of Philosophy
  • Scots Philosophical Association


University of Aberdeen

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This is a one-day, online research seminar examining the role that presuppositions play in the methodology of European philosophy. The seminar is free and open to all and will take place on Microsoft Teams. If you would like to attend the event, then please register by emailing Ed Thornton (edward.thornton@abdn.ac.uk).

 This event has been supported by The British Society for the History of Philosophy and The Scots Philosophical Association.


There is perhaps no activity that typifies philosophy more than the attempt to do away with one’s presuppositions. To think philosophically is often characterised as the act of not taking anything for granted, critically reflecting on the norms of one’s culture, and allowing oneself to think freely, ultimately untethered by what is presupposed in social discourse.

This drive towards presuppositionlessness is buried deep in the European philosophical tradition and forms an underlying concern for thinkers working in both the ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ branches of the discipline. It is central to the Socratic method, to Descartes’ radical doubt, to both Kant and Hegel’s transcendental logic and to Husserl’s phenomenological reductions.  It is part of the nomenclature of contemporary continental philosophy, for example in linguistic ‘deconstruction’, and is also central to contemporary debates in analytic epistemology, for example in Wittgenstein’s assessment of the role of ‘hinge’ propositions in the foundations of knowledge, and in Collingwood’s analysis of metaphysics as the practice of uncovering the ‘absolute’ presuppositions of any science.

 This workshop will bring together a group of contemporary philosophers working in different branches of the European philosophical tradition to consider the nature of philosophical presuppositions, and the conditions that these presuppositions set on philosophical thought.

Schedule – Friday 28th May

 9:00 – 10:00

Deleuze and Guattari, Presuppositions, and the Limits of Dialogue

Ed Thornton (University of Aberdeen)

In what I hope will be a fitting opening for the seminar, this paper will examine the relationship between philosophical presuppositions on the one hand and the possibility of genuine philosophical dialogue on the other. The majority of the paper will involve a close reading of Deleuze and Guattari’s account of philosophical presuppositions, as it is presented in their final collaboration, What is Philosophy?

Perhaps controversially, I will begin by defending Deleuze and Guattari’s claim that all philosophical thinking requires the presupposition of an ‘image of thought’ or a ‘plane of immanence’, and that this renders all philosophical debate unproductive at best and impossible at worst. However, through an examination of the distinction that Deleuze and Guattari draw between ‘presupposing’ and ‘instituting’ such an ‘image of thought’, I hope to argue for the possibility of another mode of philosophical conversation that is not based on debate, and which does not suffer from the same problem of being undermined by its presuppositions. My hope is that this presentation will lead us to discuss what we are really doing when we philosophise, and how our understanding of this act might affect the way we research, discuss, and teach philosophical material.

10:15 – 11:15

To Inquire Hopefully: Peirce on Hope as a Presupposition of Inquiry

Robert Stern (University of Sheffield)

It is widely accepted that Peirce came to treat hope as fundamental to inquiry. This paper will distinguish two ways of arguing for the centrality of hope: (1) inquiry rests on certain key assumptions or presuppositions (for example, that our ways of thinking are attuned to reality), and these assumptions have the nature of hopes, not beliefs; (2) to inquire is to aim at certain goods that one can only hope to obtain. I will argue that the first approach is not sufficient to vindicate hopes as central to inquiry, as assumptions differ from hopes and lack their motivational force; but I will argue that there are good Peircean reasons to defend the second approach, so that despite the difficulties with (1), it is possible to adopt (2) instead in order to defend Peirce’s position. I will also suggest that while Peirce did not always mark the difference between assumptions and hopes, (2) is perfectly consistent with Peirce’s general approach to these matters, and thus that when it comes to Peirce’s pragmatic conception of truth, the role that hope plays is more than that of an assumption.

11:30 – 12:30

Presuppositional Analysis and the Role of Conceptual Analysis

Giuseppina D’Oro (Keele University)

What does it mean to presuppose something? Is presupposing something the same as believing it to be true? Do presuppositions have truth-values and, if not, is this a problem? This paper explores Collingwood’s conception of presuppositional analysis and his views of the role of conceptual analysis in metaphysics. It argues that presuppositional analysis is a logical endeavour whose goal is not to uncover what is believed to be the case (at some time and place, by this or that person, or group of people) but what presuppositions are operative when reality is brought under different descriptions. Presuppositional analysis, so understood, is linked to a particular conception of the role and character of philosophical analysis, according to which the goal of philosophical analysis is to account for how radically different descriptions of reality (such as those implied by the action/event distinction) are possible. My goal will be to distinguish between two different conceptions of the task of presuppositional analysis: one according to which the uncovering of presuppositions consists in establishing what is believed to be true at time t, and the other according to which uncovering presuppositions consists in establishing what assumptions are constitutive of certain forms of knowing and argue that the latter, unlike the former, does not collapse into a form of historical relativism. 

13:30 – 14:30

The Presuppositions of Hegel’s Presuppositionless Logic

Stephen Houlgate (University of Warwick)

In this talk I examine Hegel’s claim that the science of logic — the first part of philosophy — must be presuppositionless. I consider in particular what Hegel’s claim means for the beginning of logic (namely, that it should begin with “pure being”), and I also discuss various factors that make such logic necessary (including modern freedom), as well as certain “enabling” conditions that make such logic possible (such as language and an “interest” in learning more about thought and its categories). I argue that these factors and conditions constitute the “presuppositions” of presuppositionless logic, but that they do not predetermine the course of such logic. In that sense they make necessary and possible a logic that is systematically (if not historically) presuppositionless.

14:45 – 15:45

Schelling, Cavell, and the Truth of Skepticism

Antony Bruno (Royal Holloway, University of London)

McDowell endorses Cavell’s view that knowledge is grounded on shared modes of response or ‘attunement’, but says terror at this ground’s radical contingency invites an antinomy whose theses demand—confirming or denying—that knowledge consists in grasping attunement-transcendent necessity. McDowell wrongly assumes we must escape terror, from which Cavell argues we must learn the ‘truth of skepticism’: attunement is a radically contingent ground for which there’s no evidence on pain of category error. Skepticism’s terrifying truth is the antinomy’s solution, not its invitation. Precedent for McDowell’s error is Hegel’s argument for absolutely necessary attunement, which neglects what Schelling calls the ‘merit of skepticism’: no philosophical system has universal validity or enjoys necessary attunement. For Schelling, the skeptic sees it’s antinomous to regard desire for universal validity as satiable or foolish—to confirm or deny attunement’s necessity—since our being attuned to one system is contingent on its ‘subjective value’.

16:00 – 17:00

Spinoza’s Image of Thought: Ratio and the Example of the Fourth Proportional

Beth Lord (University of Aberdeen)

“Man thinks”, states Spinoza, prior to setting out his three kinds of knowledge: imagination, reason, and intuition (Ethics IIA2, IIP40S2). This tripartite division is accompanied by an example that also occurs in his earlier texts, in which the thinker, provided with three numbers, is asked to find a fourth that relates to the third as the second does to the first. Spinoza takes the problem of the fourth proportional, and the various ways of solving it, to illustrate all three kinds of knowledge; later commentators have found it difficult to see how it does.

I will argue that we misinterpret Spinoza if we expect the example to provide a one-to-one illustration of the three kinds of knowledge. Rather, the example of the fourth proportional is, in Deleuze’s terminology, Spinoza’s “image of thought”: the image of what it means to think. Spinoza’s Ethics shows that human thinking is reason (ratio), understood as a proportion (ratio) of inadequate to adequate ideas, which reflect a body that is identified by a ratio of motion and rest. The problem of the fourth proportional is therefore the perfect image of thought, establishing that thinking is not a matter of representation or consensus or natural light, but of finding the right ratio. In the paper I will set out the case for and explore the significance of this presupposition for Spinoza’s philosophy. 

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May 27, 2021, 9:00am BST

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