Against "philosophy"

I suppose that, once upon a time when I was hanging out at coffee-houses, there were people who hung out at those coffee-houses who had "a philosophy." I don't know if it was all the same philosophy, but the philosophies I heard at these coffee-houses appeared more as artifacts of caffeine-intoxication than of anything thoroughly thought out. Of course, all of this philosophy was in coffee-houses which no longer exist, and the coffee-houses which I know do exist are places where either 1) old friends meet to be old friends (and not to talk to anyone else) or 2) interviews are conducted. So perhaps it can be said that "philosophy" as such is now dead, though perhaps it's just that the coffee-houses are out of business for the pandemic, and will come back when the pandemic is over.

At any rate, one sign that "philosophy" might still be alive is in the appearance of articles such as this 2017 one by Leisa Miller, which a Facebook friend of mine posted as a sort of joke. It's kind of fun as a reductio ad absurdum. The title was:

3 Reasons Millennials Should Ditch Karl Marx for Ayn Rand

I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the arguments made in this piece. Let's just say that:

1) "Karl Marx advocates using violence to get what you want" doesn't (and shouldn't) win over people, and there are many such people in the United States today, for whom the main route out of grinding poverty is to join the military

2) "Karl Marx appeals to your emotional indignation" makes no sense in a world in which there is so much to be indignant about -- a world in which placid acceptance of the status quo drives it toward its ultimate doom


3) "Karl Marx wants mankind to rest on its laurels" is just patently untrue.

I think the main aspect of Leisa Miller's piece, the one she shares with "philosophy" in general and my primary argument against her, is that she hasn't really read in any depth that which she declaims. The Marx-Engels Collected Works runs to fifty fat volumes; Miller has read maybe the Communist Manifesto. If you want to understand what's important about Marx, why people like Miller bother with him in the first place, start with Volume 1 of Capital. Of course, THAT Marx is the Marx who wrote a critique of political economy; to understand that means understanding what political economy is.

Most of the devolution that led to nonsensical "philosophy" is a product of the domination of analytic philosophy in the universities, specifically within Departments of Philosophy. The analytic philosophers assumed, from the narrow perspectives of their various schools, that all of the major problems had "been solved" (whatever that means), and that what was left was to play word games. The idea that the word games actually represent something out there in the world (thus explaining the relevance of the games themselves) is, however, shaky at best. Analytic philosophy can be said to have met a dead end in that regard -- this is the sense in which philosophers such as Richard Rorty retain their relevance today. A sentence from a right-now accessing of the Wikipedia entry on Richard Rorty explains the contours of his approach well enough:

Rorty saw the idea of knowledge as a "mirror of nature" as pervasive throughout the history of western philosophy. Against this approach, Rorty advocated for a novel form of American pragmatism (sometimes called neopragmatism)in which scientific and philosophical methods form merely a set of contingent "vocabularies" which people abandon or adopt over time according to social conventions and usefulness.

Richard Rorty, then, reveals his importance in this way: we don't merely need to stop at analytic philosophy in applying his carefully deductive approach. We can dissolve "philosophy," as well, in this way, while at the same time arriving at a position that is merely philosophical. And in doing so, unfortunately, we RETAIN the handicap under which "philosophy" labors.

Even with Rorty, "philosophy" still retains the idle nonsensicality of someone in a coffee-house saying "here's what I think." We can see this flaw in Rorty's approach in the numerous critiques that have been lodged against his views of society. (The critics might think Rorty's approach is good -- they just think his politics suck.) The correct response to "philosophy" is: who cares what you think? The history of philosophy, actual philosophy, should reinforce our suspicions about the deep-seated individuality of the approach represented in "philosophy." Remember Socrates? His philosophy was "know thyself," and he apparently spent his time showing his students that they did not know themselves, until eventually he got caught in a tussle with the City of Athens. And that was that.

Against all this, the philosophers themselves occasionally entertain a concept which, in its best formulation, is called the "social imaginary." The philosopher Jurgen Habermas, borrowing from Edmund Husserl, adopts his concept as "Lebenswelt," or, in English, the lifeworld. The social imaginary is that portion of the real thing which we call "society" which is not composed of concrete physical entities and which therefore has to be imagined. It is composed of taken-for-granted assumptions about the world, or more specifically, our worlds.

Good discussion of the social imaginary is bound to be messy as Hell. You can't talk about something you take for granted without removing it from the realm of the taken-for-granted! Nonetheless this is also the charm of discussions of the social imaginary. Such discussions tend to show us that social problems can be solved with serious applications of real imagination. The optimistic principle behind all of this is that if society can be imagined, it can be reimagined. Such an approach is what Habermas calls the "rationalization of the lifeworld," and it is probably the main reason we don't give up on wide-ranging discussions. Whereas if we were merely to listen to "philosophy," we'd be twisting in the wind.

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