Friday, March 26, 2010

On Páll Skúlason: The Roles of the Philosopher

On Páll Skúlason: The Roles of the Philosopher

In the course of eleven years, the well-known Icelandic philosopher (famous could be a humiliating word when applied to a philosopher and rather ironic when applied to an Icelander –thank goodness in most cases fame still remains a posthumous gift for most of us, non-Hollywood-esque characters) Páll Skúlason worked on a brief and yet drafted and unpublished paper about the roles of the philosopher in the cradle of public life. Anyone would wonder why would anyone spend over a decade musing about it and why hasn´t this person published a 10-volume encyclopedia on the roles of the philosopher, something much needed everywhere ranging from academic halls at prestigious universities to conversations with cab drivers and authors of best-sellers such as “Plato instead of Prozac” and “Philosophies of Sport”; the age of bio-politics has been defiantly declared and all the disciplines and sciences excommunicated by the earlier ambitions of the modern world have returned with unexpected zeal to take due revenge, so that we witness in the most simple everyday acts the hard-to-ignore come back of philosophy, politics and religion to occupy the place of a contemporary goddess once known as “the social sphere” upon which the greatest inventions since the French Revolution were founded –social security benefits, the university system and indirect democracy available to all, and so well-humored this democracy girl turned out to be that it didn´t hesitate to girdle herself with uniforms and rifles in order to go all over the world to establish democracies and along the way, to sell Big Macs. So that democracy was appointed to finish the job of Inquisitions and Crusaders, but in a much nicer way, promising freedom in this same life rather than in an uncertain mystery-ridden next one. Skúlason is perhaps not the only loonie speaking about the role of philosophers and philosophy; it´s been common talk since the great age of European Nationalisms. The Archimedean Point that Kafka once mentioned (“He was permitted to find it only under the condition that he would use it against himself”) was fully realized in the heroic history of Western philosophy –It spent nearly two millennia trying to persuade men out of the deceive of religion and infantile superstitions, only in order to be firmly accused and sentenced to oblivion. Verdict: Unscientific, irrational, metaphysical and Christian. To be sure this is quite a lot for a fighter of freedom.

Modern and postmodern authors (both those who confessed and those who denied the charges and those who were dead long enough to be indifferent) have argued lots about the role of philosophy and philosophers but the conclusions have been utterly disappointing for most of the learnt men of the times because the mother of all sciences (although I would argue that it is religion and its political needs, and not philosophy what founded what is of most practical use for the world –philosophers would be definitely ok with rotting inside a barrel next to a port with a sheet of paper and an ink pen, or I mean, philosophers before the age of the welfare states and the grants religion). The accusation that philosophers have filed against this most respectable science are now a common place and are more than often in the mouths of the dilettantes that would happily accept them in order to avoid the long years of taxing philosophical and scientific training that the profession of philosopher demanded before the age of Structuralism and Post-structuralism. Nowadays it is enough to learn a little Greek and to read some French authors in order to become a philosopher, reason that discouraged me from pursuing this lonely academic path and brought me to the much safer world of Germanic philologies and literatures. The faculties of Catholic theology (at least in the most traditional countries like Spain, Italy and Austria) have retained some of the medieval rigor of their medieval predecessors not without cynically avoiding well-funded charges of heresy and atheism. Our philosophers, professional philosophers not without the irony felt by Kant, have remained skeptical and passive and gracefully avoided the question; Richard Rorty claimed that the only thing left for philosophers to do is to actually hear each other in discourse, to share ideas, to exchange opinions. A friend of mine, Viennese philosopher then said to me once that the whole rationale behind philosophy today was nothing but a critique of modern life –this one I´m particularly fond of. Then there´re other things who variegate in all different directions, from saving the world to praising the ultimate art work of Western man at Ground Zero.

Professor Skúlason discusses three related theses about the possible roles of the philosopher in public life: (1) He tries to make sense of the world; (2) he tries to educate people to appreciate true values; and (3) he criticizes his own time in light of ideals of practical reason. I agree wholeheartedly with Skúlason´s personal belief that the task of philosophy is to knowingly strive for the impossible –a simplified phrasing of what Heidegger would call the province of Being and Truth, but without the unnecessary complications. What he might be saying here is not only that the task of philosophy is impossible but also that it yields no results. To do philosophy is to think things through and even though it screams out loud a certain modernist rhyme, its voice also hearkens to the very beginnings of philosophy, to a philosophical curiosity that preceded Socrates and that is more correctly identified with Adam and Job –Walter Benjamin wanted something like this in his project to restore a concept of experience previous to Kant and equivalent to the colorful and complex world presented by metaphysics, yet not all that coherent withal. I agree less with his second hunch –according to Skúlason we live in a human world characterized by a desperate need for the practice of philosophy, a world characterized by a metaphysical vacuum. In my view in so far as the metaphysical vacuum remains no philosophy will be ever able to fill the gap and the tortured history of the capitalist economies bears a most loyal witness to this. I wouldn´t say that the practice of philosophy is absolutely necessary for life as it is for instance in the cunning development of the sciences, in so far as we can live in an everyday world without religion we can do without philosophy, but these assumption of what-would-if are strictly methodological.

In the fuller awareness of the intellectual and spiritual traditions that preceded the modern mind with its empty-shelled contingency philosophy and religion still hold a domineering power over the most fundamental human ideas in history. Here we aren´t concerned merely with practical and philosophy but also with the public sphere, with why philosophy should go “public”. The answer of Skúlason is that anyone engaged in philosophy is trying to say something about the world that is of universal value and that should concern every thinking being (and I add that it should also bother every thoughtless person) and thinking beings are participative entities in the public domain –with the pragmatic undertones of the American political tradition. Philosophy in the classical age began as a public discourse and still political philosophy clings onto this actual public discourse as the true nature of politics and truth, but to be sure we spoke about a place and time much previous to the replacements of communities by selves and even community selves, surrogate beings –being demand the actuality of the whole structure, from natural philosophy to aesthetic theory. Moreover, the technological possibilities of today´s world have made us aware that the tissue of modern everyday life created by technology and by alternative and virtual realities do not hold the meaning of life in itself and no matter how perplexing these realities are, we have to draw back from them to an extent sufficiently radical as to practice the older irony of philosophy and avoid its current scientific seriousness. Philosophy definitely must be in the position to ask questions more radical than those of the liberal political systems and of the new idols and religions of the commoners. It might eventually lead to the ever desired suspension of judgment, but it is a position spiritually safer than that of the modern content that technology provides, turning metaphysics upside down. The truths of philosophy shouldn´t be limited to any academic discipline or science, but they must hold this so promised universal value in itself and out of itself, to use Hegelian terminology, because what is truth if not a promise to deliver human content? Here perhaps it wouldn’t be mere wantonness to demand from the public to actually read the letters of Saint Paul.

And Saint Paul instead of Socrates because I think the Socratic figures indulges in too much of a virtuoso performance and his wisdom seems an old fashioned garment for our age, that is all too riddled with supposedly ancient wisdoms that were trying to supposedly save the world and that led to what wasn’t supposedly but actually and in every hue of reality, a totalitarian system and it still does, there’re more examples than fingers in the hand, alas! From just about every place that Modernity has wanted to recruit for its divine plan of emancipating the earth from the old gods. Socrates as a moral philosopher is a major failure and this is why he matters so much, he started from the assumption that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong and together with Aristotle, Spinoza and everybody else he went on to prove this thesis rationally and completely failed, that failure is called moral and political philosophy, well, at least until Hobbes, who well knew it would be more fruitful to read the Bible and avoid politics when flattering with the forbidden woman. This is why we study Socrates over and over, because let’s face the truth, as a teacher of philosophy, we can’t delude young students into actually thinking that we it is better to take a leap of faith here than to actually engage in an intellectually fruitful and practically futile argument. Because Skúlason, not unlike other philosophers of our age still follows Socrates, we can both admire and despise him. Gladly Skúlason never attained the peace of mind of the condemned Socrates in the moment of his death neither has Skúlason been sentenced to death for misleading the young people with wrong teachings; gladly the young people of today teach themselves all the wrong teachings.

The public philosophers of today who makes sense of the world publicly might be as well mistaken by fools and interviewed in prime time TV shows, because philosophy no matter how important, in not tangible, and thus coherently unreachable and impossible as a task and as a truth whichsoever. Philosophy does appear publicly and without the philosopher everytime that a question concerning scientific knowledge is actually posed, and it is this quest for understanding the world what has shaped common sense and not as most people think, the common everyday wisdom that however practical for life, has a lot less import in the development of the Western mind than impractical and unreadable German philosophers. Thank goodness Fichte is not a best-seller today, because then intellectuals wouldn´t be permitted to watch soap operas. But I have already divested all sense of virtue from philosophy, ever since philosophies of history, every person can be as perfect as himself could ever be but no one could be today perfect in the Aristotelian sense. The best public appearance philosophy could make is actually to encourage people, young people to think for themselves, but I think not at the expense of the world. Pornography, videogames and shopping malls should stay where they are, it is the only guarantee of European peace treaties! Philosophy indeed at this point does teach about choices, and philosophy is one of these choices, but to be clear, there´re no free entrance at this point. Humans are free to seek whatever they want, and philosophy or even truth, is only one among many possible contingent choices. Lastly, I don´t think philosophy should ever become a surrogate Prozac for bankrupt investors. There are still gyms and whores and cocaine, please. Philosophy should never stop criticizing society, even in the most utopian forms of social arrangements, philosophy must always look the other way, see the other grass, be the other man. It is precisely this attitude (and beyond any wisdoms) what makes the life of thinking people bearable and actually not that unhappy to be sure.

Not that philosophy hasn´t contributed seriously to mankind, but it must contribute as an outsider, because it is something just too massively heavy to be taken seriously by anyone, unless he is an astrophysicist dating a philosopher. When it gets serious is when it protects us against ideology, even at the risk of anarchy. Philosophy never abandons the utopian ideal and this is precisely why it remains such a harsh critic of human life in any of its forms. If anything, philosophy has a great dream, it is to unravel the mysteries of the human mind, and because it is a dream and philosophy knows it, it awakes calmly to the turbulent events of any historical momentum. Just to fold back again in and out, on and on.

No comments: