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.
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:
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:
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.):
The second is Joni Mitchell with a few other notables playing the great song ‘Get Together’, at the same event at Big Sur:
My next post in the series will be titled ‘Philosophy, philosophers, and cooperation’.
Thanks for your consideration, and Be Well,