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.
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.