Welcome on the bus!

Welcome on the bus!

The movement—why not think of it that way?—should be broad, inclusive, and welcoming.  It should be global, local, and vital.  It should be informal at heart and in attitude, although parts of it, or some participants, may periodically embrace a formal mechanism or tactic in order to help accomplish shared aims.  But there aren’t, and won’t be, any membership cards or dues!

It should embrace and include western, eastern, southern, and northern approaches to and flavors of philosophy.  After all, last I checked, the Earth involves west, east, south, and north.  We share a planet, and we’re all “in this” together.

But what, then, motivates the movement?  What (mere) words attempt to reflect it?

The answers to these questions can be put many different ways.  Each one of us may have her or his own way of expressing them.  For the most part, they should be reasonably apparent to anyone who has been reading this series and thinking about the world’s challenges and opportunities.  But I’ll put them one way, in my own style, perhaps clumsily but “good enough”, as follows:

The movement involves those who think that philosophy should be relevant to life and should, with a very high and active aim, aim to improve life at all levels—personal, social, local, regional, continental, and global.  The movement involves those who aim at truth, and value the quest for truth and knowledge, and even more so understanding, but who also see all of these as components of and pathways to wisdom, and who want to apply wisdom to life.  The movement involves those who understand that wisdom and its fruits are realized and enjoyed in life and through life.

Perhaps more concretely, I’ve expressed my understanding of the “defining views of the Global Circle”—or, speaking more broadly and inclusively, of the movement—in an early post in this series, titled ‘Life-aims and Aimlessness’, in the form of five points.  (For convenience, I’ve included the five points from that post at the end of this one, below.)  And, I’ve also expressed the vital aspect and dimensions of the movement in an earlier post, titled ‘Vital Philosophy and Global Philosophy’.  And, I’ve expressed the context of the challenge in another post, titled ‘Alien Observations’.

If you understand and find agreement with those three posts, even if you might (and probably would) express the points they make with your own emphases and style, then you’re part of the movement, and on the bus.  You don’t need a ticket or a card.  You don’t need to sign up.  I think it’s fair to say that all, or almost all, styles are welcome.

Indeed, even if you don’t much like the vital philosophy nomenclature, or if the contextualizing ‘Alien Observations’ post doesn’t grab you, you are still on the bus, of course, if you reasonably agree with the five points in the ‘Life-aims and Aimlessness’ post (repeated below), realizing again that there are many different ways to put those points, and this particular way is just one of the many.

Please reread those points, and consider whether you agree with them.  (And please let me know if you think I’ve gotten something substantially wrong, or missed something crucial.)

Moving on …

The movement, although informal at heart (and entirely voluntary, of course!), will involve various kinds and degrees of cooperation and action to advance commonly held aims.  The movement will help move us towards worthwhile and meaningful ends.  Remember Einstein’s observation:  “Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem, in my opinion, to characterize our age.”

The movement will, necessarily, often value and make use of so-called insufficiently theorized agreements, both informally and formally.  The movement values mutually beneficial actions.  The movement will strive to recognize where there are agreements (across and among diverse philosophies and philosophers) in crucial areas relevant to the conditions of life and lives on Earth, and will encourage and perhaps even facilitate cooperative and mutually beneficial actions to try to improve them, that is, life and lives on Earth.  The movement will hopefully be wise in recognizing when a disagreement over “truth” or “logic” gets in the way of living well together, and will hopefully help to find ways where living wisdom can be achieved even as disagreements over “truth” continue to exist.  You get the idea.

(Again, it is important to keep in mind that I’m using the term ‘movement’ as an informal shorthand.  Things need to move, to improve.  In using the term, however, I don’t mean to imply a group of people with T-shirts and slogans, membership cards, and the like.  Instead, I am talking here about an informal, wide, diverse assortment of people who care about the same crucial things and who care about improving the conditions of life, and lives, on Earth in the here and now and in the future.)

In another shorthand way, which must be understood in the full context of his own work, it could be said that the bus we’re talking about is the one “from knowledge to wisdom,” as Nick puts it.  But again, each person will have her or his way of putting it.  It’s not so very important how you would write the banner on the bus, or what colors you’d paint it, or whether you’d prefer to visualize a bus or an orchestra or an assortment of positive good ideas spreading their way through the darkness and fog.  Instead, what’s more important is whether you consider yourself to be on it, very loosely speaking.

Welcome!

And Be Well,

Jeff Huggins

 

Excerpts, including the five points, from the earlier post, ‘Life-aims and Aimlessness’:

“The Defining Views of the Global Circle can be expressed roughly as follows:

  1. The aim of philosophy has, must have, and should have something substantial to do with human flourishing and sustainability as well as the flourishing and sustainability of things upon which human flourishing and sustainability depend—importantly, the environment and non-human life.  If this, broadly and charitably understood, isn’t the overarching and comprehensive aim of philosophy, it is at the very least a crucial part of that aim.
  2.  This aim is only satisfied to the degree that the world actually becomes a better place (to be and to live) and human lives are improved, in ways broadly consistent with the aim.  The aim is not satisfied merely if philosophy (as an academic discipline) flourishes even as the conditions of humankind, non-human life, and the environment deteriorate or even stagnate in their present conditions.
  3.  The aim is always “in process” and subject to improved understanding, different and better ways of expressing it, and continual improvement.  That said, because of the nature of the aim, not to mention the nature of life itself, it is not the sort of aim that one must or should “perfect” before beginning to put it into serious practice.  Indeed, it is likely that the aim can never be considered “final” and “precise”, especially as expressed in words; and it is also likely that there are myriad different ways of expressing the aim, in whole or in part.  Thus, the aim is a bit like living life; one must do it and apply it, to the best of one’s ability, even as one learns more about it and refines it.  Understanding, expressing, improving upon, and applying the aim are parallel and interrelated processes.
  4.  Furthermore, many of us see these views as crucial in helping to inform, inspire, and improve upon the aims, scope, and practice of academic philosophy, that is, the teaching and practice of philosophy in academia.  We believe that the practice of academic philosophy, and of universities themselves (academia more broadly), should play a much more direct and active role in aiming to improve the human condition as suggested by these aims.  We believe that a revitalization of philosophy in academia should, among other things, aim at a revitalization of academia itself, both aimed at making philosophy and academia more directly relevant to helping the world realize (in all senses) what is of value in life, sustainably.  We believe that the pursuit and activation of wisdom, in real life and society at large, should take on a much higher priority in both philosophy and academia, and that the pursuit of knowledge should be understood as part of, and as a means to, this higher priority.  (See for example Nicholas Maxwell’s ‘From Knowledge to Wisdom’.)
  5.  The broad group of philosophers and other humans who hold these views, or something very close to them, desire to be inclusive, not exclusive.  We invite sharing of all sorts, participation of all sorts, and flavors of all sorts.  Our intention includes both understanding and practice, aimed at making substantial real progress according to these views.

 

This is all another way of saying that the aim of philosophy necessarily includes human flourishing and sustainability as well as the flourishing and sustainability of those things—other life, the biosphere, the environment—upon which human flourishing depends; and, that this aim is only satisfied to the degree that actual human flourishing and sustainability and etc. are enhanced in the real world.  In contrast, it is not satisfied if ever-increasing knowledge simply stays within people’s minds as they pursue even more knowledge, or if knowledge is put to use, foolishly, in unwise ways more so than in wise ways.”

 

Philosophy, philosophers, and cooperation

Philosophy, philosophers, and cooperation    

As I mentioned in the previous post, no single person or small number of people acting as individuals can accomplish what needs to be accomplished.  Much greater cooperation and much more action are both called for, if philosophy is to demonstrate wisdom and not just publish disagreements about it!

The human species—Homo sapiens—is a social species, and humans are social beings.  In my own writings, I often use the phrase ‘conscious, informed, and responsible human sociality’.  I discuss, among other things, the helpfulness of this phrase, what we can learn from it, and some of the most basic characteristics and parameters of what we should understand to constitute conscious, informed, and responsible human sociality.   I also discuss the moral/ethical “solution space” shaped by seven foundational considerations based on what we understand about ourselves and about the world in which we live.  (See some of my materials listed and linked here: http://www.obligationsofreason.com/Additional_Material.html )

In any case, regarding cooperation, many of the more moral manifestations of human sociality involve various types and degrees of cooperation, of course.  These range from cooperating to have and raise children; cooperating to gather, grow, or hunt food; cooperating to build shelters; cooperating to accomplish major projects or enable immense institutions; to simply cooperating by refraining from doing a wide range of things in order to allow each other to live without being harmed by each other.

Oddly enough, even freedom involves cooperation.  Many folks have made the point, of course; here is one way of putting it, from Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom:

Men’s freedoms can conflict, and when they do, one man’s freedom must be limited to preserve another’s—as a Supreme Court Justice once put it, “My freedom to move my fist must be limited by the proximity of your chin.”

That said, much more active kinds and degrees of cooperation will be needed in philosophy, in academia, and ultimately in society if we are to recognize and remedy the false assumptions, faulty reasoning, and destructive paradigms upon which many of our present ways (especially having to do with economics and our economies) are based.  Surely most philosophers recognize this!  If academic philosophy is to approach being actual Philosophy—if it is to live up to its claim or anywhere near it—then academic philosophers, as a matter of emphasis and frequency, will need to rise way above the typically competitive quest to find “truth” to embrace a more cooperative mission to actually bring wisdom to life, meant in the way that phrase has been used within the Global Circle.  Of course, I am not talking about either/or.  Instead, I am talking about emphases, degrees, and what we might call a hierarchy of priorities.

(Readers who have been reading this series from the beginning, or who have read Nick’s work, or who have read related comments here or on the Global Circle e-mail list, will understand what I mean, so I won’t repeat here what has already been written.)

Yet I will say this:  The quest for “truth” and knowledge among philosophers tends to be a very competitive and argumentative quest, in which one person tries to convince the other, and in which neither party is satisfied unless someone (typically the other person) is won over.  This is, in part anyhow, because most philosophers would agree that there must be one “truth”, at least in the case of things like how the universe came to be, who killed President Kennedy and why, and the whole myriad of other such things.  Two people who believe opposing “truths” about such things can’t both be right.  So competition ensues.

But of course we also need to live together, as well as with everyone else in the room, and in the world.  And, if future human generations are important (in our various philosophies) and other species are important (in our various philosophies), then we’ll also need to find ways to protect the future for them, or at least to not undermine the future for them.  So cooperation is called for.

While the eager quest for truth may not seem to require a whole lot of active cooperation, other than the sort involved in building upon the prior work of others, and not throwing things at them at conferences, the task of actually bringing wisdom to life and helping “the world” achieve higher degrees of wisdom, and consequently enjoy the fruits of wisdom, will undoubtedly require much more of it.  Much, much more of it!

So, can philosophers cooperate to that degree, with each other and with others?  Aren’t the ability and willingness to cooperate, regarding crucial matters, when the stakes are sky high, important components of wisdom?  How can philosophers claim to love wisdom if they aren’t interested and willing to cooperate regarding crucial matters when the stakes are high?  These are just things to think about.

In the final few posts in this series, I’ll get much more concrete.  Then, I’ll wrap up with ‘The ground we stand on’ and a few afterthoughts.

Thanks for your consideration!

Be Well,

Jeff Huggins

 

Actions speak louder than papers

Actions speak louder than papers 

Numerous “philosophies” claim to be the soundest, the closest to reflecting truth, or at least better than all the others—Philosophy A, Philosophy B, Phil C, Phil D, and so forth.  And perhaps each of them comes in myriad variations—A1, A2, A3, B1, B2, B3, B3i, B3ii, B3iii, and etc.

What to make of them all?  What to do (presently) in light of all of them?

Allow me to pose that second question again, in a way that highlights two important aspects of the question:

What to do in light of all of them?

Something for us philosophers to consider is this:  Even as we continue to explore and debate our various differences in a (most likely never-ending) quest for and disagreement about truth, shouldn’t we do what it takes to make sure that we understand our most reasonable and basic agreements—those things about which we share some common ground or at least shared aims (not to mention common stakes)—especially when those areas have to do with the most pressing problems of humankind, even if taking shared actions, that is, even if active cooperation, is based on so-called insufficiently theorized agreements?

Philosophies A, B, C, D, and so forth may share a view that it would be “a very good thing”, and something that would be “the right thing to try to accomplish”—put this any way you like, depending on what your philosophy might be—for humankind to still be alive one thousand years from now, living in more “sustainable” ways commensurate with a finite planet, ideally in ways in which people are healthy, living meaningful lives, experiencing fairness and justice, and so forth (also of course in a healthy interdependence and harmony with nature)?  Numerous philosophies and their myriad internal variations might share some basic aims such as this, but in many cases for somewhat different reasons, or even for very different reasons.  This gives rise to the possibility, and indeed wisdom, of so-called insufficiently theorized agreements:  let’s keep the boat afloat, shall we, even if we can’t all agree precisely on the reasons why?!

But for the most part, modern academic philosophy does not really work this way, presently.  Academic philosophers are rewarded for noting differences—many of them nuanced or “intricate”—debating them, arguing in favor of their particular resolutions and truths, and ideally convincing the others and winning the argument.  Much of this is done in papers and at conferences.  Meanwhile the world turns and humankind continues on its present (mainstream) pathway, a pathway based on false assumptions, flawed reasoning, and a few harmful and ultimately destructive paradigms, none of which are being cooperatively and actively confronted by the bulk of the philosophical community.

I’m sure I don’t have to describe the problem in any greater detail.  Most of us should find it easy to recognize, if a bit harder to admit.  And, if we think about it carefully, we can also understand the implications, or the consequences of the problem.  If you are busy with someone playing a game of chess, and arguing about its nature and rules, and trying to “win”, and not paying attention to much else, as you sit in a canoe headed towards a waterfall, and as many other people are in their canoes and even flailing in the water headed towards the waterfall, you may well end up where you are headed, perhaps without even recognizing it until it’s too late.  The problem is even worse if the river-towards-a-waterfall we’re in is of our own creation, based on false assumptions, faulty reasoning, and harmful paradigms that the chess players should be actively pointing out and correcting, pronto!

Indeed, didn’t the Greeks have a word that reasonably describes the play that we seem to be playing out today: a tragedy.

Switching to a related point, one having to do with the way humans are, and the way we receive and digest information, we have this: “Actions speak louder than words.”  We all know what this means and doesn’t mean, so I won’t try to detail the point here.  But words fall flat, and credibility is lost, and audiences are unmoved, if those words aren’t accompanied by actions.

Presently, philosophy (actually, academic philosophy) seems mainly to involve writing and publishing papers and books, and attending conferences, mainly having to do with discussing and debating the disagreements.  But what about the agreements?  And what about the shared or approximately shared aims having to do with life and its continuation?  And what about the shared aim of identifying false assumptions, faulty reasoning, and damaging and ultimately self-defeating paradigms?  And why not start with those false assumptions, faulty reasoning, and damaging paradigms upon which our modern “river-headed-towards-the-waterfall” is based?  Why not practice walking well?

Much is at stake.  I won’t mention the huge and important things at stake—they should be obvious, and words can’t do them justice—but I will mention this, that philosophy’s own credibility is at stake, partly because many people equate modern academic philosophy with Philosophy.  But either way, we can at the very least say that academic philosophy’s credibility is at stake, if not already mostly squandered.  The only way it can be substantially resuscitated and reinvigorated is if philosophy becomes vital—in several senses—and if, in being vital, it actually plays a vital role in (I’ll use the shorthand) improving the world and lives in the world.

Some philosophers throughout history have demonstrated active philosophy in vital and influential ways, or at least have tried very hard to do so.  Bertrand Russell seems a very good example.  There are not many examples, however, from modern academic philosophy.  Philosophy needs many more!  And, of course, cooperation is key, a vital tool.  No single person or small number of individuals acting as individuals can accomplish what needs to be accomplished.  Much greater cooperation and much more action are both called for, if philosophy is to demonstrate wisdom and not just publish disagreements about it!

In ending this particular post, I’ll mention a small assortment of materials—in this case, mostly short video clips—that provide various thought-provoking comments about, or examples of, philosophy and action, along with a couple other things that are somehow related and just for fun.  So here goes …

The first is a great interview clip (from the BBC, I think) of Bertrand Russell discussing a range of things, including his activism and what he would tell future generations.  Stick with this to the end: the best parts are in the middle and at the end.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7I9pgqiLo0

 

The second item is this, an excerpt from a piece by Wendell Berry, titled ‘Compromise, Hell!’ and published in the November/December, 2004 issue of Orion magazine:

(Berry writes this about Americans, but it might just as well have been written about many modern humans, so to speak.)

“We Americans are not usually thought to be a submissive people, but of course we are. Why else would we allow our country to be destroyed? Why else would we be rewarding its destroyers? Why else would we all—by proxies we have given to greedy corporations and corrupt politicians—be participating in its destruction? Most of us are still too sane to piss in our own cistern, but we allow others to do so and we reward them for it. We reward them so well, in fact, that those who piss in our cistern are wealthier than the rest of us.

“How do we submit? By not being radical enough. Or by not being thorough enough, which is the same thing.”

I found myself enjoying that last point:  “How do we submit?  By not being radical enough.  Or by not being thorough enough, which is the same thing.”  It’s worth reading twice.

(The full article can be found here: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/147/ )

The next item is this neat little TED clip about leadership, or rather about how to start a movement:

http://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_how_to_start_a_movement.html

 

The next clip simply illustrates some famous activism in the San Francisco Bay Area, my home area, in particular Mario Savio’s impassioned “free speech movement” speech at Berkeley in the early 1960s.  By including this speech, I’m not suggesting that Savio is doing philosophy as he speaks, of course, nor am I saying that all academic philosophers must or should express themselves in this way, of course.  There are many other ways to be energetically passionate and active, of course, but there are even many more ways to be dispassionate, inactive, and inert.  Let’s face it, all human beings spend much more time, in the overall scheme of things, dead than alive.  (So let’s use our time wisely.)  So, in any case, here is one example of someone being passionate in one way regarding an important issue of his times:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tcx9BJRadfw

 

Next, for those who haven’t already seen them, please watch two short episodes from Monty Python’s “Fliegender Zirkus” (1972), these made specifically for the German audience, titled Internationale Philosophie and Closing Minutes—Philosophie Grand Final.  I should think that most philosophers will get a great chuckle out of these, and they do contain an important element of truth.  Something to think about!  Don’t miss them!

Finally, for those who enjoy 1960s music and events and the ideals and hope they represented, here are a couple of great video clips:  The first is Joni Mitchell at Big Sur, California, in the late 1960s playing ‘Woodstock’, which she wrote.  (I include this as inspiration, perhaps, for the Boomer generation that still has some time to make a positive difference.):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6IDoxi9QsE

 

The second is Joni Mitchell with a few other notables playing the great song ‘Get Together’, at the same event at Big Sur:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62mAYkHrM2Y

My next post in the series will be titled ‘Philosophy, philosophers, and cooperation’.

Thanks for your consideration, and Be Well,

Jeff Huggins

 

Better Basis of Thinking

I know this has been shared on some mailing lists, but not so far on The Global Circle so far as I can tell – it’s a worthwhile read, so I’m posting the link here.

Towards a New Philosophical Foundation for Physics

It highlights how our received wisdom of the nature of 3D space could be the cause of much unexplained weirdness at the root of modern physics, with examples. It doesn’t claim to solve those puzzles, but emphasises how alternative ways of thinking might produce less paradoxical physics.

Challenging the Anthropocene

Dear members of the Global Circle:

I am attaching a link to a pdf essay by Eileen Crist that I believe is excellently written and that expresses a viewpoint that reflects very closely my own ethical stance on the present trajectory of “the human enterprise”: http://environmentalhumanities.org/arch/vol3/3.7.pdf

My only significant disagreement with her is that I think it is good that this extreme expression of unbalanced yang in our culture has named itself, and can now be made the target of extensive interrogation and ultimately reversal.

Would anyone like to argue in favor of, or give a few Hoo-wahs in self-stroking support for, what is being named, in the discourses Crist anaylzes, “the Anthropocene”?

“Modern Philosophy”—as often practiced?

“Modern Philosophy”—as often practiced?    

Welcome to the ninth post in my series on Vital Philosophy.

The mood of this post is a bit more modest, mellow, and melancholy.

Rather than write things in a style that might imply a systemic problem, “on average,” in the emphases of institutionalized academic philosophy—albeit with notable exceptions, of course—I will speculate about some tendencies and characteristics that seem, to me, to weave in and out of substantial chunks of academic philosophy, the way it seems to often be practiced.  Another way of putting this is that these are tendencies that, if we aren’t careful, can (and in my view do) diminish philosophy’s ability to have a substantial, timely, positive impact on the real world—i.e., that real world out there that we don’t yet “know” but do hopefully love!

So here goes, stated in terms of tendencies and paradigms that we should be aware of and watch out for, so they don’t diminish philosophy’s potentially positive potency.

(You can think of these as characteristics, states, attitudes, or tendencies that influence, sometimes permeate, and often constrain the effectiveness of philosophy.)

  1. “Philosophy” as an extreme example of individualism and even self-centeredness.  In a world that seems to be calling out for more cooperation and applied wisdom, philosophy as practiced can sometimes become more of a stubborn and heated intellectual competition in the perpetual quest for “truth” in which one person must try to convince others, and either succeed or not succeed—either win or lose—in the bargain.  It may seem as though many philosophers claim to love wisdom, but instead exclusively pursue “truth”.
  2. “Philosophy” as game-playing.  Sometimes philosophy can seem like or actually become game-playing.  One might as well be playing chess or Monopoly.  It can become alienated from—or alienate itself from—the real world.  Obscurantism and overdone intricacy are characterizations that sometimes apply.
  3. “Philosophy” as a narrow, exclusive and closed-in community.  The gated community.  The echo chamber.  And so forth.  Academic philosophy might become, and perhaps already is, the consummate example of professionalization, specialties, and divisions of labor.
  4. “Philosophy” as unintended but effective deference to the world, to the status quo, and to science and technology.  Intellectually speaking, philosophers don’t like to defer to anything, and we probably don’t think we do.  But practically speaking, in effect, we do.  Mainly, many academic philosophers publish papers and attend conferences that don’t gain substantial traction in terms of having an impact on the main mechanisms and gears of society, and that often don’t even aim to gain such traction.  Also, there is a common sentiment that treats philosophy as consolation.  In a disturbed and foolish human world, we can sneak away and invite philosophy to console us.  To be clear, to console is one of philosophy’s roles, but hopefully not the main one.

 

To the degree that some or all of these tendencies are “more active than they ought to be,” academic philosophy undermines its own relevance and credibility.  It puts itself on a track heading towards irrelevance.

(Of course, these are matters of degree, and there are important exceptions.  But I think we should be aware of these tendencies and where they might lead to.)

Consider:

Philosophers should be the people least likely to buy into and submit to a narrow division of labor, especially one that is taken, in effect, to absolve specialists of their general human responsibilities.  “With wisdom comes responsibility.”  “Great things are expected from those to whom great wisdom is given.”  And so forth.

And, philosophers should be the people least likely to confuse genuine wisdom with boatloads of knowledge or with supposed knowledge, and the least likely to confuse inaction in the face of societal harms with responsible morality.

So, what can academic philosophy do to move from being one of the least relevant (as commonly perceived) disciplines to being the most relevant in terms of actual positive impact?

Certainly, no actual individual philosophers are sleepwalking.  You’re not.  I’m not.  She’s not.  But isn’t there a sort of systemic institutionalized somnambulance that somehow constrains the profession or at least constrains the impact academic philosophy is likely to have on society, if it remains content to continue in the present mode?

With this, I’ll end this part of the series that may have become, to some, a somewhat tiresome critique.  Good news: The next posts in the series will be positive, solution-oriented, and active.   And, as I’ve mentioned before, I will include, near the end of the series, a key post in the spirit of philosophy, titled ‘The ground we stand on.’

Thanks for your consideration.

Be Well,

Jeff Huggins

Screened Out?

Screened Out? 

What if the “selective mechanism” and bases of selection that govern which ideas and paradigms are embraced by society—and which aren’t—are shaped and enforced by the very social constructions and institutions most in need of reform?  Put another way, what if the gatekeeper understands, full well, who and what butters his bread?  In such situation, the selective mechanism screens out the very facts, ideas, and paradigm shifts that would correct and ideally reform the faulty assumptions, bad ideas, and unhealthy institutions most in need of change.

“Ye shall not pass!”, the selective mechanism—the gatekeeper—says to the corrected assumptions, better ideas, and institutional reforms we need most.  And thus they are thrown out, kept to the intricate books, ignored, or otherwise neutered.

This is the situation in which we find ourselves, largely by our own human creation.

The ideas and paradigms that gain traction in “modern society” are those with which someone can “create value” according to the prevailing concept of value—financial and materialistic value; the accumulation of capital; growth for growth’s sake.  Other ideas and paradigms can’t manage to get through, can’t gain traction.  They don’t offer the sorts of currencies that the financial-material market recognizes and wants.  Indeed, in truth, the most needed ideas are those that would threaten the validity and prevalence—indeed, that would expose the invalidity and undermine the prevalence—of the financial-material values; and thus those ideas in particular are stamped out or allowed to live only in benign intricate books and published papers.  Considered from the perspective of a compass that genuinely points North, the prevailing gatekeeper’s rule is actually “Out with the good, in with the bad.”  (Note 1)

The notion that Saint Peter guards the Pearly Gates of Heaven, or the notion that you might be able to achieve nirvana after living many lifetimes, these don’t have much relevance to whether you can eat, own your own home, see a doctor when necessary, or send your children to college.  Your boss and your banker are the folks that matter.

But I’m getting off track.   My main interests here have to do with the implications of all this for academic philosophy.

The prevailing selective (screening-out) mechanisms of modern mainstream society are, apparently and understandably, content if ideas that would cause them any distress remain safely in intricate books and published papers.  A few people read them, fewer still champion them, and hardly anyone bothers to fight for them.  This is also to say that ExxonMobil, JPMorgan Chase, Wal-Mart, and even cool Apple, Inc., along with both the Republican and Democrat parties (in the U.S.), are all content if challenges and corrections to their fundamental assumptions and ultimately harmful paradigms remain safely in the books and at the conferences.  Of course, the powers-that-be also love it when the people who claim to love wisdom have actually committed themselves to a perpetual pursuit of intricate knowledge, arguing mainly among themselves as the world turns (and heats up).

For the most part—there are some rare exceptions—modern academic philosophy obliges and plays its assigned and assumed role.  In effect, many modern Socrateses have banished themselves from the public forums that matter most today.  Philosophy Herself must be turning in Her grave.  Look at the world today: How could She not be?

This is all just another way of pointing out the applicability, to academic philosophy, of what Upton Sinclair famously observed:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

Or rather, Sinclair’s point is only half the point I’m trying to make: The other half is that the “salaries” are all determined and paid by the financial-materialistic-growth value system that’s a huge part of the problem.

As a consequence, academic philosophy either avoids the most pressing problems of society—including the false assumptions, faulty reasoning, and flawed paradigms that generate them—or is content to let the corrective knowledge and reasoning remain buried deeply in books and papers, largely unrealized in society itself.  By our actions, we, in effect, have redefined “love of wisdom” to mean the pursuit of book-knowledge, citations, and tenure.

This problem has become institutionalized.  Winston Churchill once observed, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”  Similarly, Marshall McLuhan is said to have said, “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”  (See Notes 2, 3, and 4.)

Indeed, the problem seems to have become so institutionalized that many fish swimming in the bowl can’t see the water or the bowl, or so it seems.  Probably many see it, but don’t talk about it much.

So much for diagnosis.  What about solutions?  It’ll take more than a few people to point out the water and the bowl, to not only write that the Emperor has no clothes, but to do the things necessary to make sure the public begins to understand and begins to remedy the situation.

Here, perhaps, is some good and clarifying news:  The question “What does it mean to be a philosopher?” loses its relevance when we understand the larger picture.  In the overall scheme of things, it’s a Red Herring.  We are humans first, philosophers second.

Even if some of us define ‘to love’ as merely “to pursue”; and even if some of us define ‘wisdom’ as “knowledge”; and even if some of us believe that the so-called modern division of labor means that it’s not our jobs to bother much with the problematic assumptions and self-destructive paradigms upon which our societies are based; we nevertheless can’t reasonably abdicate our responsibilities as aware and intelligent humans.  No fair closing your eyes!  The human world will likely end up where it is headed, if it doesn’t change course.

We philosophers should ask ourselves:

Are we medical doctors, operating on hearts and livers?  Are we psychiatrists, prescribing drugs?  Are we psychologists and therapists, calming nerves and helping people adapt to the way modern things are?  Are we scientists in the narrow sense, and thus largely redundant with the scientific community?  Are we interpreters of scripture?  Are we historians?  Are we merely linguists?

No, no, no, and no!  So, we can quibble about what the phrase ‘love of wisdom’ might mean and the implications of this meaning for the profession—the job we thought we were signing up for—or we can get active and passionate to point out the false assumptions, the bad reasoning, and the faulty paradigms that are most active in our unhealthy, unjust, and unsustainable society.  Until something is actually done about them.

So, the question “What did I sign up for when I began calling myself a philosopher?” is not really the important question.  Instead, the question is more like this, as Bob Dylan put it:  What good am I if I know and don’t do?

(I remind readers of the lyrics to Dylan’s song, What Good Am I? because they are rich and relevant far beyond the single quote I’ve included here.)

A word on “evolution” and “revolution”

It may be interesting and helpful to think of this loosely in terms of “evolution” or “revolution”.  If the diagnosis presented here is correct, how can we get “from knowledge to wisdom,” as Nick puts it?  Will “evolution” suffice, or will some sort of “revolution” in philosophy and academia likely be necessary?

As most readers will realize, “evolution” occurs in a way that is governed by the relevant selective mechanisms, or pressures, and ultimate basis(es) of selection.  But what if these are determined and implemented by the very “system” that requires reform?  You see the problem.  So, we probably can’t expect real solutions to arise from any process, ideas, or level of effort that would be characterized as evolutionary.  Almost by definition, some sort of revolution—in thinking, in paradigms, in actions, and in persistence—will be required.  It won’t be sufficient for the orchestra playing on the deck of the Titanic to simply add a few violins and a French horn, and to play a little louder.

An admission and apology

Of course, all of these things are easier said than done.  Whether or not the diagnosis is wholly or partly correct, it’s far easier to diagnose something than to address it.  And, admittedly, it’s easier for someone on the sidelines of academic philosophy—who hasn’t actually played the game himself—to shout observations from the sidelines without fear of losing his contract or bonus, so to speak.  I apologize that I’m such a critical cheerleader.  But the stakes are high.  And I might be wrong.  I’m simply offering my view from the sidelines, for your consideration.

Thoughts?

Be Well,

Jeff Huggins

 

Note 1 — An early commenter, Lee Beaumont, put the matter this way:  “To be fair, what is allowed in is whatever feeds the status quo, and revolutionary ideas—ideas that challenge the status quo—are screened out. …  Good = more of what enhances the status quo, bad = all else.  So these become relative terms, depending if you are in power (as a result of the status quo) or out of such power.”  The problem, of course, occurs when the paradigms, institutions, and associated practices that are “in power” as part of the status quo are destructive, unjust, unsustainable, or all three.

Note 2 — As far as I can tell, the latter quote actually comes from Lewis Lapham’s Introduction to McLuhan’s Understanding Media rather than from McLuhan himself, but I don’t know for sure.

Note 3 — Ronnie Hawkins, in a recent post on the Global Circle blog titled (or tagged) Superorganisms (November 4), characterizes the phenomenon of “screening out” as “the way individuals caught up in their institutional roles within superorganisms of various sorts and scales actively work to keep out facts, ideas and insights that would lead people to question and consider changing the organizing paradigm that maintains the currently instantiated superorganismal structure.”  She then continues by noting that some of this works in ways that are “quite conscious” while some works in ways that are “operative below the level of full consciousness,” somewhat instinctively.  I agree.  The only clarification I would add is that, in my view, the phrase “actively work to keep out” should be understood to mean, sometimes, “actively work to keep out,” but sometimes simply “avoid embracing,” in other words, “avoid taking in” (avoid adopting), which may often be an utterly passive phenomenon.  You can put good water in a trough, and you can even lead a horse to it, but you can’t make the horse drink, as the saying goes.  The horse need not “actively work to keep out” the water; the horse may simply not be able to “see” the water, or the horse may consider the water as being distasteful or harmful to its prevailing operative paradigms.  Or, the horse simply may not be thirsty for anything new.

Note 4 — A somewhat related idea, in part at least, comes from Marx:  “The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life.  It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”  (Karl Marx; Preface to A Critique of Political Economy; 1859)  If we consider Churchill’s observation regarding the interrelationships between humans and our buildings, McLuhan’s or Lapham’s observation regarding the interrelationships between humans and our tools, and Marx’s observation regarding the influence of our “mode of production in material life” and our “social existence” on our “consciousness”, we can better understand how the problems I’ve been discussing have become institutionalized and constrain the practice of academic philosophy or, at least, the sorts of ideas that are likely to gain traction in society, and the sorts that aren’t.  In this context, another great lyric from Dylan’s song, What Good Am I? to consider is this:

“If my hands are tied must I not wonder within
Who tied them and why and where must I have been?”

The institutions of academia and academic philosophy, both human-constructed, in turn tie the hands of academic philosophers, or at least truncate the sorts of ideas that can gain traction in the real world.  We’ve constructed our own box around ourselves, and now we seem to be boxed in.  But the box is floating along with the flow of a powerful river, heading into rapids and eventually a waterfall.  We’ll need to break out of the box we’ve constructed, and start paddling hard in a better direction.