Why I won't join your club
On the quest for truth and the misplaced expectations of philosophy's output
A.: We have been through this before and I know you are not an academic, but I have to try at least one last time: do you want to join our philosophy club?
B.: I rejected it last time, but must have forgotten why. It was months ago. Probably it was because I did not see the point of it. Perhaps I misunderstood you. What does this club do?
A.: It brings together academics and experts from this region’s universities and leading think tanks. We read each other’s papers, hold discussions, organise symposia… You will get the chance to meet new people, make connections, talk about your real interests. If anything, you will have a good time.
B.: Ah yes, now I remember! I recently read one of those papers. My understanding is that to get a PhD you must make an original contribution to our stock of knowledge. To do so, the author was re-reading some ancient philosopher in light of the latest findings in science as well as what currently finds currency in professional philosophy circles.
A.: Interesting! How did you find it?
B.: I quit reading after the second or third page. To be more precise, I quit after encountering the 20th word with an “-ism” suffix.
A.: That’s a pity. Did you find it boring?
B.: It felt to me as an internal debate held by some fringe group I have no connection to. I don’t do philosophy to compare the views of different authors. That is a scholarly activity. It has its purpose, yet it is not for me. Contributing to some stock of knowledge sounds like a laudable pursuit, though I have no notion of what it entails. I simply philosophise to satisfy my need for it. It is a form of a expression. If my hands were more nimble I would play the guitar instead or produce landscape paintings. But I was born that way, so I must do what I can. The gist is that you should not take me too seriously. I already forgot what I wrote about two weeks ago: there is no attempt to be consistent, no ambition to produce yet another “-ism” or become a scholarch in a brand new school of thought.
A.: Maybe that particular paper was not dedicated to a topic of your interest. Philosophy is a broad field, after all. It is normal to focus on what you like. At the club we cater to everyone.
B.: Say I discover a paper that piques my interest. What does the club add to my experience of reading it?
A.: Nothing whatsoever. It merely provides a platform for finding such works and for connecting with their authors.
B.: Suppose I do join you. What does the club try to achieve? Is it to make philosophers sociable, to improve their career prospects, maybe find them a date? Or does it have a loftier goal?
A.: When you bring people together, lots of opportunities open up. Though our stated mission is to make progress in philosophy.
B.: Progress in philosophy? What do philosophers care about the most? What is the end of philosophy?
A.: The truth. Philosophers want to reveal or at least approximate the truth.
B.: What is the truth?
A.: That is the key question!
B.: So philosophers search for the truth but cannot even define it properly?
A.: It is why we need to sit down and agree on the fundamentals. Then we can build up from there. Currently everyone has their own views. We cannot proceed without consensus.
B.: You are my friend. I must speak my mind and tell you why I have zero interest in attending your club’s gatherings. It all starts with philosophy’s quest for the truth. Philosophers should have learnt by now that they can only define the truth negatively by using all the faculties at their disposal to rule out what feels wrong. Though the problem is that one cannot be certain of their attempts at disproving falsehoods because there is no benchmark with which to assess individual propositions. To know what the criterion is, to be certain about it, is to have found a particular aspect of the truth. But to claim as much is a positive proposition, which itself is subject to falsification.
A.: You just outlined the core issue. No wonder then that philosophy cannot give us any tangible results.
B.: What results do you expect? There are no results in the sense of reaching a terminus to a given research programme. I think of the philosopher as an antipode to hubris, to human’s propensity to step outside their limits and inflict harm on their own or on others. The philosopher reminds people that their designs and stratagems, their bold claims on wisdom and virtue, their delusions of grandeur, are far more fragile and ephemeral than they think. Life is like the reverie of a goddess. One moment you are walking, suddenly you collapse on the floor: the end.
A.: I was thinking that philosophy could help us do things better, like improve how we do science…
B.: Some professors of philosophy would definitely like to assume that kind of role: to issue instructions to other experts about how they should conduct themselves. To me that is not what philosophy is about, for how can one tell others in sincerity what is the right course of action when they themselves understand that the truth remains elusive? I can’t teach the Stephen Hawkings of this world, those who think that philosophy is dead, how to approach scientific problems. That would be presumptuous and ultimately false. All I can contribute is a friendly reminder that their pride, inflated self-importance and sense of accomplishment, are not peculiar to them. Others have also entertained those fancies. They were all proven to be mistaken in one way or another. Again, this is all about acting as a check against cockiness.
[ Read: Notes on Science and Scientism (2021-04-28) ]
A.: This puzzles me. On the one hand you suggest that philosophy has a role to play as a social service of some sort, yet on the other I get the feeling that you are not particularly enthusiastic about the whole enterprise. Do you think there is something missing? Could it be that the study of philosophical themes is in vain? Why do all leading universities have philosophy departments then?
B.: Well, in our country and many others around the globe higher education is a lucrative industry with strong ties to big business and other centres of power. Why it does certain things is not strictly about some selfless commitment to the service of an ideal of scientific enlightenment or whatnot. We have reached a point of heightened prejudice where one’s titles and certificates matter more than what they actually say. Ex officio wisdom is nothing new, though now it has become a commodity where students are encouraged or forced by immense social pressure and the structural demands of the workplace to assume odious debt burdens in pursuit of a degree; a degree that will get them a bullshit job that will ultimately barely service interest payments. To join a university is fast becoming a bondage to the creditor: a Faustian bargain. But I digress, as the point is whether the study of philosophy is in vain. One could ask what isn’t, though I understand your club thinks that at least its presence is worthwhile. Let us grant that some things are worthy in their own right and are so absolutely. The thing is that philosophy cannot be one’s primary or only interest in learning. You must live your life in full and do philosophy to help you remain anchored in the actuality of your being, which is one of uncertainty. We learn about uncertainty not through intense philosophical work, but by everyday experience.
A.: What is wrong with specialising in philosophy?
B.: The same that is typically bad with every other over-specialisation: you view the world through the narrow lenses of that field, you are indoctrinated in its thinking, you are alienated from your self as you try to become that which is considered canonical among your peers. Then your social life is aligned with that role-playing, which inevitably reinvigorates the cycle of indoctrination. You pick sides and become team “idealism”, “realism”, or whatever “-ism” is trendy or whichever has persuaded you to join its ranks. I find that neither interesting nor fecund. I would rather assess an argument on its own merits than by reference to some overarching framework or tacit authority. You can waste your time trying to solve thought experiments, like those which ask you to imagine you are just a mind. I assume there is something exciting about finding answers to those tricky questions. Though my take would be to take a step back, relax, and just admit that you are an actual animal and all those years as a fully fledged human have already conditioned you to act and think in certain ways. You are a corporeal entity, with both reason and emotions, with organs that contribute to different types of experiences. An experience is something you know, because you have already been through it multiple times. Same for intuitions which extend that which has already been rendered clear by the senses. How can I imagine I am something non-human when half way through the supposed experiment my body tells me that it needs water, my legs feel numb after many hours of sitting on the chair, and so on? I am constantly reminded of the absurdity of the proposition. There is more to life than philosophy. Don’t let it trick you into thinking that by becoming a philosopher you are joining some special class reserved for intelligent people. Those who are truly smart understand that smartness is not a function of their preoccupation.
A.: Is not reason the defining characteristic of humankind?
B.: I don’t know. Have you ever met such a human?
A.: Yes, people can be reasonable.
B.: No, not like that. I am interested in the “defining characteristic”. Philosophers will have you believe that you are a fraction of human or that you have a standalone presence of some sort that is distinct from the rest of totality: an exalted being governed by reason, the chimera of the homo economicus, a decontextualised individual with unchecked free will, and so on depending on the “-ism”. What a culture takes for granted at the fundamental level, be it property rights, the idea of “natural” law (a contradiction in terms), the binary of reward and punishment, anthropocentrism, and anything else typically is the work of some philosopher who forgot to point to the fact of their pervasive uncertainty. The philosopher must be aware that others are listening and must assume responsibility in the same way the physician must commit to do no harm on their patient who trusts them with their life.
A.: How do we escape from those conventional truths?
B.: There is no single way to go about it. Sometimes you just stumble across an article that is critical of an institution and you start unravelling the whole apparatus. Other times it may be because of a profound experience where, for example, you walk up a mountain top, perhaps by serendipity or the guidance of Demeter (Earth Mother) or whatever you want to bring up as an explanation. While at that altitude, you are in awe at the sheer scale and interconnectedness of the world. You realise how grand life is far beyond your comprehension, even by staring into the otherwise limited horizon. Those trees around you, the bees, the grass, the clouds, the rock you stand on, the orbit of the moon and the position of the Sun, and a seemingly infinite array of mutually dependent factors are all preconditions for your existence and continuous presence. At which point you admit to be yet another tiny piece in this system of systems of systems of emergent realities that we call the cosmos. And then you can’t help but laugh out loud at how preposterous the concept of a human-centred universe is.
A.: Is reason overrated then?
B.: Reason is the faculty we employ to add order to our impressions and extend their application. It has its purpose and should be rated appropriately. Though reason is not a substitute for everything that is human. Unless your career hinges on forwarding such an agenda. As Michelle Gurevich says in Kiss “Let’s kiss and see what happens”. No amount of thinking will ever give you the experience of a kiss or indeed of anything never encountered before. Each one can be unique. No book or library will suffice. And no reductive exercise will help either, such as by simplifying the human being as nothing but biochemistry, for that ignores the emergent reality of the conscious experience, the actuality of the supersystem of subsystems of biochemistry understood as human.
[ Read: On Discipline (2021-05-07) ]
A.: Interesting that you bring up Michelle Gurevich! All those songs are wonderfully honest and insightful. I have been listening to them ever since you shared them with me: No One Answer, Party Girl, Almost Shared a Lifetime, Show Me The Face, Lovers are Strangers, Blue Eyes Unchanged, First Six Months of Love, Life Is Coming Back to Me… I could go on. Beautiful! Your point then is that the philosopher must perform their social function towards philosophy itself, otherwise an exaggerated opinion about the human condition might lead us down the wrong path. Right?
B.: Indeed, that is my point. Alluding to a singer and songwriter is no coincidence. One can learn so much from a single song, including the recognition that their field of interest is not necessarily superior to all the rest. When you are exposed to art, when you walk in the forest, whenever you let go of pretences in intimate relationships, you discover something about your self, the human kind, the world around you. As for philosophy, we must keep things in perspective. The philosopher does not have all the answers. Philosophy is a disposition towards knowledge and learning which basically comes down to remaining open to the possibility of being proven wrong and being elated about such a prospect for it emancipates you from the powerful grip of a falsehood. To my mind, the philosopher reminds people that they can be mistaken in their beliefs and that they are mere mortals.
A.: Could philosophy then be considered a kind of therapy?
B.: Perhaps, though likening it to what physicians do might give the wrong impression. Philosophy is one of the many fields of endeavour that can help you avoid excesses in life. Why would we think that a philosopher is more truthful than an artist or a scientist? That aside, the “therapy” you are alluding to is an escape from dogma. When you understand that you do not really know all that much, and when you realise the immanence of uncertainty, you stop worrying about appearances. Just like Socrates, you know that you do not know, even though others in your milieu are making a luxurious living out of essential lies about their abilities.
A.: What does it mean to avoid excesses? Where do we draw the line?
B.: Just as with the concept of “truth”, we can only imagine it as a negative space that is delineated from what we do recognise. When you witness someone boasting about their power, you cannot help but hint at their fragility. Diogenis of Sinope (the Cynic) did just that when Alexander, the so-called “Great”, confronted him. The aspiring hegemon of the Earth asked the philosopher what did he want from the sovereign, to which Diogenis replied in splendid Cynical fashion: to enlighten him or, in other words, to not blot out the light as Alexander was standing between him and the Sun. The intent is to remind the despot not to bring darkness upon humanity. There is nothing great about Alexanders. Ruling the world will not make you superhuman. You still are an ordinary Alexander with the same needs for sustenance as everybody else, the same fears and insecurities, the same hopes and desires. Why should your empire control access to a common resource, when we can just live without its mediation? What makes you special, you fool!?
A.: Okay, take tyranny as a case in point. If philosophers do not know what the truth is, how can they or anyone make a value judgement against tyranny or, indeed, any other form of government or type of social organisation?
B.: We may not know what the absolute best system is, but we can still consider tyranny inadequate for a broad range of likely states of affairs because a single person, or a few of them, cannot possibly design policies that cater to the diverse needs and aspirations of their subjects. Be it by viciousness, ignorance, pride, vanity, they will do more harm than good. They lack insight into the particularities of each case and, depending on how large the scale of operations is, are too disconnected from the quotidian life of people under their rule. As always, this is not a purely philosophical take: we base it on our experience. Indeed, the idea of a “purely philosophical” claim is suspect as it hearkens back to those figments of the imagination that philosophers entertain while carrying out their experiments.
[ Watch: On the nation-state, democracy, and transnationalism (2021-05-29) ]
A.: How do you filter out wrong systems though? What is the criterion?
B.: The same can be said of the proponents of those systems. Why should Alexander rule over the world? What is his justification? We will find that we are in doubt and so we must default to a mode of conduct that minimises the chance of errors with far-reaching implications into areas of activity beyond their particular domain. The likeliness of failure for a single, central node is greater than multiple failures over smaller, distributed nodes, ceteris paribus. We know this not by means of experimentation in vitro, but through everyday experience. You put all the eggs in one basket for the sake of convenience and now you stand to lose everything at once. You engage in monocultural farming to optimise short-term yields and are inevitably eroding the sustainability of the local ecosystem, thus creating much greater perils for the future. Remember that philosophy does not have answers. It is a state of mind about not taking yourself too seriously.
A.: I see. Don’t you think it would be better if those ideas were given a platform so that more people can access them?
B.: Popularity is not a reliable sign of quality. Then we have the substantive aspect of philosophy. Have you ever tried to lead a discussion towards more theoretical themes? People opt to change the subject or lose interest really fast. The philosopher is destined to isolation and self-imposed exile, at least insofar as the act of philosophising is concerned. You should count yourself lucky to ever be in the company of a like-minded person and to also enjoy their presence beyond the narrow confines of a shared interest. Amplifying a signal does not mean it will be heard amid the cacophony of noise.
[ Read: Why I never call you (2021-06-05) ]
A.: So how do you reach out to kindred spirits?
B.: Maybe your club knows better. I don’t try to reach out to anyone. My work is just the result of an internal need or impetus to act.
A.: Why publish it then?
B.: To resist the temptation of curating myself. To make something public is a commitment to stand by its substantive claims. If you are wrong, you will be the first to criticise yourself by means of a new publication that contradicts the previous ones. Others will notice that there is no beautification at play. If I was peddling some school of thought, if I had a niche in mind, then maybe I would be behaving differently. Though I will leave that as an exercise for your club’s members: what would you be doing if you were not who you are? It will fit right in.
A.: I appreciate your honesty. Should the philosopher always be honest?
B.: Honesty towards oneself is part of the philosophical enterprise of remaining open to the possibility of being proven wrong. Though this is not generalisable. Sometimes in life you must pretend not to know to protect others from their destructive propensities.
A.: So you tell them lies?
B.: No, not necessarily. You ask them questions about their approach. Guide them towards realising what their disposition is. Peel off the hardened outermost layers. Let them believe that what you would have suggested at the outset was their own thought all along. It is their struggle to escape from falsehoods. You should not interfere with it, as dogma creates its own self-defence mechanisms to the point where people do not take kindly to criticism and what are perceived as exhortations. Sometimes honesty engenders adverse effects and, in our case, can make the dogma more deeply embedded.
A.: Does this work though? I find that people simply cling on to their preconceived notions.
B.: When that does not produce the desired results, you need to convey the message another way and stand firm. Here is a story that inspired me to do so on a permanent basis. Once I attended a social gathering with a bunch of strangers. Not out of my own volition: it was part of a job. I was normally clean shaven, but it happened on a Sunday evening, so I had remained unshaven since Friday morning. Once I arrived at my destination, someone remarked that I looked like a terrorist, to which I replied that they sound like a moron. Apart from the racist stereotype, I thought this was an opportunity to put people into second thoughts before they even utter a word. So I started growing a full beard ever since: make them a bit uncomfortable, let them challenge their prejudices, allow them to get to terms with that which they consider alien, and ultimately learn something about themselves without ever admitting to it. Help them grow out of their narrow-minded self.
A.: I am sorry for what you had to endure.
B.: No worries! When you understand where people are coming from, you do not harbour hard feelings about anything they may say. Here’s another story just to cheer you up and to show you a third approach. A few years ago I was at a shop near a popular pilgrimage site. I was sporting a beard and long hair. Was fairly well dressed that day. Nothing fancy, just not particularly attractive and certainly not flashy or trendy. At some point, I noticed another customer about twice my age looking at me. I did not do anything about it, though I kept my eyes peeled. After seemingly overcoming their internal conflict, they started moving towards my position, with a body language that communicated a mixture of curiosity and hesitation. “Excuse me, dear sir…”. I welcomed them politely as they paused for a moment. “Do you have any connection to holiness?”. I understood they mistook me for a local priest or a monk, so I replied “Perhaps I do. Do they?” while nodding towards the direction of the pilgrimage site. All I got in return was a puzzled and silent face.
A.: One must do whatever it takes, I guess. What do you think is a practical advise to help people be more philosophical in terms of not taking themselves too seriously and trying to be rigorous about questioning their thoughts?
B.: To change their mindset about their perceived helplessness. Every child likes to be spoon-fed but at some point the parent must put an end to it so that the child can assume its own agency. It may seem harsh, but it comes from a place of love. Your task must be to give people resources they could use and to show them how they can be pieced together. Just enough to get them started. Don’t try to spoon-feed them, for that condemns them to their current state, whereas you want them to grow out of it.
A.: This relates to the zeitgeist of doing things quickly and effortlessly. It is practically everywhere. Just the other day, I was searching for tips with which to improve my sourdough bread technique. Most resources would be the clickbait type. Pure garbage!
B.: The causes of such phenomena are likely complex and relate to how society is currently organised, the available technology with its inherent sets of incentives, the underlying system of values, and so on. It goes to show, however, how curiosity alone is not enough. You need commitment to the cause. That is the case with every area of expertise. I am curious about music and painting, but unless I put some serious effort into them, and provided I have the requisite talents, no shortcut will ever take me to the point of being an accomplished artist. Again, this is what the philosopher is trying to say: don’t delude yourself into thinking that you have found a way to bend the rules of life. The procrastinator who expects immediate results by following some supposedly magic formula is committing hubris, for they do not recognise their condition and, thus, their limits. Unless they change their ways, they will suffer.
A.: How do you go about leading a philosophy-inspired lifestyle in an era where success is contingent on the appearance of unflinching certainty?
B.: It is not just the present age. Humans have always pretended to know more than they do. There is no compromise to be had. You let go of the presumption that success matters for doing philosophy. What difference does it make to me if one or a hundred people read this? It still says the same things. Furthermore, when you have an audience and put yourself in the role of preaching to them, you lose the freedom of expression in a substantive sense as you cannot upset them by changing your mind about a given issue. They are not ready for it. This too is a way to communicate a philosophical insight: don’t make any claims on consistency, do not promise coherence, do not even suggest that what you propose is remotely plausible. Put the reader in a position where they have to be reminded not to take things at face value. Those who follow along do it at their own risk.
A.: Still, I can’t let go of the intuition that being appreciated by some people is better than getting no feedback at all. Just imagine joining our club and delivering a presentation on what we have discussed today. You could get a round of applause and then be invited to mingle with people where you can further elaborate on your views.
B.: You conveniently left out the dating part. Regardless, being recognised is always nice. Humans are easily flattered. Though once the lights fade you realise it was all in vain. Recognition or the lack thereof does not affect your experience with philosophy itself. It is its own end, not a means towards becoming popular with some club’s members or the public at-large. This telos is not necessarily significant for humanity, at least not for me, as I pursue it solely out of an inner need.
A.: Okay, let’s leave it at that. I still have to finish my tea. You won’t be joining our club after all…
B.: Actually I changed my mind: I will join you as soon as you achieve progress in philosophy. Good luck with that!