It’s neither comfortable nor easy to say out loud that the Emperor has no clothes on. That’s why a young child had to do it.
Nor is it easy or comfortable to point out elephants on tables. That’s why there are so many smelly rooms and crushed tables around.
As I wrote in my last post, the first steps in any revolution are these: First, revolutionize—in a positive sense—one’s own thinking. As Albert Einstein observed, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” Second, find each other.
Find each other—and then find others too. This is where the “Knock Knock” comes in.
Many of the first steps in this revolution should involve, will need to involve, and will involve walking down the hall and also to other buildings on campus and talking with fellow philosophers, fellow academics, and fellow concerned citizens.
Alas, this is the sort of thing that’s very, very difficult and uncomfortable for many philosophers to do. But we should, must, and hopefully will do it.
The greatest allies of the status quo are our conventional comfort zones. This fact is obvious if you think about it. So, if we recognize an important need to alter the status quo, to help humankind and the biosphere, the first thing we’ll need to do is rise above our comfort zones. It’s simple logic.
Yes, but it’s logic that calls for real actions that are often uncomfortable, especially at first. This is what is meant by ‘an inconvenient truth.’
As we have already seen, Winston Churchill 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.” (Actually, it was Lewis Lapham who wrote this in his Introduction to McLuhan’s Understanding Media.) Someone could equally well have said: We shape our conventions, and thereafter our conventions shape us. They tend to constrain us too. Yet our present situation is such that some of our most habituated modern conventions are unsustainable, harmful, and could possibly even do us in. So we’ll have to shake them off and replace them, preferably sooner rather than later.
Within this larger context, we philosophers should also ask this: Are the conventions that define and constrain modern academic philosophy genuinely wise? How can they be, if they artificially constrain philosophy from playing an active, substantial, and effective role in bringing about a much wiser world?
The Roman historian Tacitus observed, “A shocking crime was committed on the unscrupulous initiative of few individuals, with the blessing of more, and amid the passive acquiescence of all.” How is it possible that so very many people are often passively acquiescent in the obvious presence of shocking crimes and unscrupulous initiatives? Well, for one thing, people just don’t want to talk about them. So emperors parade nude and elephants occupy tables. See no evil, hear no evil. You know the stories.
Another impediment to positive action in philosophy is our tendency to often over-think things—basically, nearly anything that can help us avoid action.
In Hamlet, William Shakespeare wrote, and had Hamlet speak,
“And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.”
Here, of course, Hamlet was pondering a very difficult choice involving what would have been a very final action. The choice that philosophers face is, while vitally important, much less difficult, or at least should be. To knock on my fellow philosopher’s door, or not to knock, that is the question. To appeal to the department head, or not to appeal, that is the question. To actively engage with the Economics Department, or not to actively engage, that is the question. To get involved with Occupy or with the climate movement, or not to get involved, that is the question. To actively cooperate with other philosophers in vital missions to improve the world—even if such cooperation is sometimes based on insufficiently theorized agreements (because all of our beliefs about truth are not perfectly identical yet)—or not to actively cooperate, that is the question. These are the questions, and others like them. What will it be?
This is the final post in the main body of this series on Vital Philosophy. I’ll add two more posts, as an Afterword: ‘The ground we stand on’, and ‘Vital Philosophy revisited’.
As always, thanks for your consideration.
Be Well, Jeff Huggins