Is philosophy just making us maladjusted?

A basic fact which we have to accept is that philosophy – no matter what the tradition – is predicated upon being at a distance from society. Philosophy is investigation, interrogation, and even if we don’t follow a Platonic notion of the world as sheathed in illusion, philosophy is not simple acceptance of the way things are. The point of contention here becomes whether this distance is more often than not adversarial as a seeming matter of principle as well as course. As noted, interrogation and investigation entails being at a remove from matters, and eventually opposition to a situation may follow a critique. I am questioning whether there is something about the way we philosophize – while reading, writing, or talking to other philosophically-inclined types – that rhetorically sets us up to be at a dangerous remove from society, state, our fellow citizens.

Dangerous here, because I am unfashionably democratic in my fundamental political convictions. I follow the somewhat idealized notion of the wisdom of crowds, before giving in to the demonized notion of the idiotic mob as the governing metaphor of political life. Or at least I try. The danger here is that being at the remove necessary to our job or activity as philosophers, that we continually arrogate an elite position of a Sauron-like eye of truth, staring unblinkingly at the folly of each successive wave of humanity crashing against the rocks of brute social reality. Yet with this there is precious little “there but the grace of whatever go I”, as humility is not really built in to the model of philosophizing. We have a scholarly covering of ass, whereby footnotes do our fighting for us. But the risk of open engagement (not necessarily combat) is left to vain peacocks like Bernard Henri Levy, or  neurotic cases of logorrhoea crossed with intellectual public flashing as with Žižek. There is the occasional article by a “serious” (though usually emeritus) philosopher, and Onora O’Neill had an excellent article in the FT a few months back. More of that please.

From the above, it would seem that I am asking for more public engagement from philosophers, but this is not so. Jesus, it’s not so. There is something about being in the position of near-divine power held by lecturers over a couple of years, with undergraduates reliant upon them for knowledge and academic security. It changes them, man. One begins to learn the rhetoric of the guild, one holds oneself differently. One has to learn the subtle art of saying as little as possible in front of undergrads or subordinate post-grads, or junior department colleagues…so that one can swoop on whatever errors are commited, and then ascend on the thermals of your triumph to the lofty heights of your academic superiority. Such displays are tiresome, but inevitable. Again, my constant refrain is that there is a basic unwillingness to risk an intellectual engagement in a situation where there will be a misunderstanding. This misunderstanding could be produced by a disparity in knowledge, years of study, ideological standpoint, epistemological presuppositions, ontological commitments, or whatever else. But they are rarely a case of a gap in intellectual ability…sometimes, however, it is implied that there is a stupidity wall preventing communication. It’s usually their fault.

Again, however, I have but danced around the issue. What is it that I want to say? Here goes: the implications of our activity as philosophers in sociological terms, in terms of approach (how we go about solving problems) and content (what we choose to talk about, and the selective excisions we make from reality) places us in a position which is rhetorically untenable. With each abstraction of a problem that we make, in order to engage with it in terms whereby it is made intelligible to us and our philosophical practices, we translate it out of reality. It ceases to be a problem, and becomes a game. Neither those on the inside of this philosophical activity, doing it, nor those on the outside watching, actually realise this. There is a fundamental inability to communicate what is happening. They hear the shrill tones of experts who have forgotten to talk to civilians, and we ask ourselves (tellingly) why we aren’t allowed to take over this bloody mess and fix it.

I believe the challenge is a rhetorical one, and also one of attitude. The notion of problems (from the analytic perspective), or of interrogation and critique (long distant from Kant’s usage of the term) are basically oppositional. There is resistance for the sake of resistance in many of the popular attitudes of philosophers. The notion of looking at things the way they are and considering them accordingly are the focus of cries of a trahison des clercs. Consider in this light the unjust neglect accorded to Hannah Arendt‘s theory of action (which dealt with the world as given, and proceeded from that) or to the monumental achievement in Hans-Georg Gadamer‘s Truth and Method and philosophical hermeneutics. Both of these philosophers had a perspective which I find instinctively compelling and convincing, namely that we look to reality as we see it, and from that we may come to theory. It is an Aristotelian perspective, and the assumption goes that this leads to a dull scholasticism, or philosophy for school-teachers, the devising of lists and categories. On the contrary, from my experience suggests that reality is the source of the most alien theories, far beyond anything our usually restricted experience might allow us to imagine. Truth here is definitely stranger than fiction, and method.

This has to lead to a suggestion for a possible approach, and it is this. Opposition is not constructive, though it is good for the ego and for the possible professional kudos it may accumulate for us in our own little corner of a field. It might be more helpful, and edifying to think of our philosophical activity as troubleshooting: we bring arguments into more coherent and robust forms. Would it be possible to philsophize, I am asking, in a tone which does not mimic that of internet commenters? I do not ask this with only recent additions to the billboard of philosophical stars, or grad students, or whatever in mind – John Searle for me is a prime example of this unwillingness to engage with those he disagrees with in a tone other than that of a resentful drag queen past her prime. We observe of the internet commenter that they would never talk like that in real life (ha! I wish…). Ditto the focus and occasionally the tone of philosophical and theoretical texts would be unsustainable in a meatspace context. One of my undergraduate professors, and thesis supervisor, in lectures sounded as though he had been interrupted while throwing the rattle out of his pram. In person, this tone was muted to a considerable extent, yet it is to be found in his writings. Again, the hazards of taking on the performative aspects of philosophy.

I am not talking about the spieling off of reams of stats or references, I mean the conversational engagement that might come about between colleagues and friends in an engaged, if social environment. Yes, it sounds like a terribly middle-class form of doing philosophy, and yet, beyond all self-loathing accusations of mauvaise foi, is that really so abominable?! I recognise that such an idealistic and self-serving definition of philosophy tees me up for much ridicule. So be it. I know that most of this ridicule would probable take place in the presence of wine, whiskey, or craft beer though, so I assume that’s round one to me… If we bring back this element of philosophy as an activity that takes place in the open, if we make ourselves approachable by this approach, then I believe that though the returns would be reduced for us as professional practitioners, the overall benefits to those who would not usually talk about philosophy would be much greater.

Of course, there are questions and areas which are within the realm of “expertise” and thus not open all unless they expend the requisite time and effort to familiarize themselves with an area. Among ourselves, and especially during the undergraduate period, the tone of embattled opposition that comes all too often from practitioners of theory and philosophy needs to be replaced with something that has a function other than riling people up for the sake of it. Dropping this tone in favour of one which allows for passionate engagement and response rather than opposition and reaction would raise philosophy in both esteem and effect. Then we might manage to step beyond the either/or of Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach, and finally make it a both/and. We can both interpret the world, and change it by this interpretation.

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2 thoughts on “Is philosophy just making us maladjusted?

  1. Great post. One aspect that I think you are missing here is that the conflict between philosophy and democracy can be traced back to the trial of Socrates and Plato, although this honoring of contemplation over action seems implicit in philosophy itself, and can be found in other traditions both non-Western and religious.

    It is the vita contemplativa of the philosphers versus the vita activa of political man. I am not sure such a conflict is actually resolvable or that any attempt to solve it, such as Plato’s Republic, will not result in the detriment of both philosophy and politics.

  2. Thank you for that! I had that in mind to an extent, but was somewhat wary of bringing it up. Part of my caution finds its (unthought) source in what you make explicit, namely that whether any resolution is actually possible. What I wonder as part of this is whether we can set out as a starting point that the vita activa and the vita contemplativa are undertaking two different functions. The problem is that while we can talk about both, how the thinker thinks action, and how the “actor” thinks action will always let the stress fall differently. Our approaches from the outset have different if not indeed divergent emphases. Maybe the best I can hope for is that we can express this unbridgeable gulf in new ways.

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