It starts off very personally, very intimately. You’re going about your business and then – for some unknown reason – you can’t carry on. Maybe there’s a choice you don’t know how to make. Maybe you’ve reached a dead end or the limit of some chain you didn’t even know you wore. You are thrown back on yourself. It’s very close and uncomfortable, painful.
Simon Critchley (2007:1) writes that philosophy begins in “disappointment”: “the indeterminate but palpable sense that something desired has not been fulfilled, that a fantastic effort has failed.” Philosophy begins the moment your intelligence reaches out from within this situation to clarify, to identify and understand, to find a way through. What’s happening? What is the meaning of this?
Here, philosophy is not concerned with an absolute Truth but with the truth that will set you free. “Freedom” here is also not absolute but small and personal: the freedom to carry on.
In a paper for a conference on “Philosophy and the Moral Life”, and in my work with individuals and groups, I’m thinking about philosophy in this way, as a practice of emancipation. To be emancipated is to take oneself in hand (literally: its Latin roots are “hand” [manus] and “take” [capere]).
The first condition of emancipation is a belief in oneself as significant, as a person of dignity. Your original desire and effort cannot simply be surrendered, and you are capable of understanding and finding your way. It matters that others believe in you, too – especially where you have been fettered by shame or oppression.
This is a philosophical practice. You will have to apply your intelligence and your wisdom to articulate what is happening and what it all means. You will have to make changes and choices for yourself and be held responsible. Before, you travelled blind. Now you open your eyes and see, even when it’s hard and even when you might not like what you find. Freedom has a price.
In The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, Jacques Rancière (1991: 17) imagines a universal emancipation in similar terms: “that every common person might conceive of his human dignity, take the measure of his intellectual capacity and decide how to use it.”
He refutes the belief that some of us are more intelligent than others, calling this the foundation myth of all the hierarchy and inequality of our society. It would be better, he suggests, to presuppose an equality of intelligence. I think he’s right, and I would go further to say that our basic capacities for sanity and goodness are equally equal. Differences in performance can then be chalked up to how we work (how we take ourselves in hand).
Emancipatory philosophy is also an ethical and dialogical practice. We need to speak together, both to expose the tyrants and to encourage and learn from each other. Because one person’s emancipation is bound up with all the others’. This bondage is a tie of the heart, and it draws us on together.