Category Archives: thinking out loud

QA 58. “But it doesn’t work like that!”

Annals of philosophical counselling/practice with others, or Things I find myself saying to someone like you*

* you |juː|
pronoun [ second person singular or plural ]
1. used to refer to the person or people that the speaker is addressing: are you listening? | I love you.
~ Oxford Dictionary
Who is this “you”? Do you know who you are speaking to? Well no, actually. I don’t. I am responding to a question that someone raised about something I said. It is also a question for me, so “you” also means “I”. (Who, me? Yes, you!) Plus any other Cinderella for whom the shoe fits, vous tous, y’all, second persons plural: all us first-person-singulars who feel correctly addressed when I write to myself as to another and say “you”. Which is to say, it’s an open call. Your call.

“But it doesn’t work like that!” I say this in response to some proposed scheme or strategy of yours. I mean that, in terms of what you want to achieve, what you are doing seems either futile or malicious because you have a mistaken view about what’s going on. (I could be wrong, of course. We can talk about that.)

My basic theory is that, although there’s no saying how something will turn out, the world generally makes sense and we are basically equipped to take part in that. And  we always are taking part in that. Sometimes we get the wrong end of the stick. We can do better. Philosophical practice is how we learn to do that by our own lights. That is why I call it “emancipatory”.

push the pull

I say “futile or malicious” because it seems like a) you are not going to achieve what you want and/or b) you are going to do some damage. I say it when I know you’ve done this same thing enough times that the result is predictable. Your wife is not going to take you back if you send another threatening or pleading text. Re-accessorising your life will not make you happy. “It doesn’t work like that.”

Your efforts will be futile as long as you are mistaken about how it does work and how to work with it. Yes, you are frustrated when things don’t work out for you. Beyond the injury to your vanity, what does that tell you? The pursuit of futility isn’t sensible (is it?) – but look, the scene is full of information that has been created especially for you. What can you learn? Stop and pay attention. You could learn to re-align yourself, your desires and your actions with the world as it is. Things will go better, even if not in the way you imagine now. That’s my bet anyway. (P.S. I’m actually much kinder in person, given a particular you and your particular misery.)

Your efforts become malicious when you forge ahead anyway until you break something, or “repurpose” it to your own designs. Don’t talk to me about unintended consequences! Let’s talk about hidden intentions. Pride and stubbornness won’t serve you well in the long run. Do you imagine you won’t have to answer for yourself? Malice isn’t sensible. Please stop and think.

When I suggest that the world makes sense and can be worked with, it does include the kinds of suffering we can’t do anything about, because that’s just “the way it works”. We get sick, we get hurt, people we love leave us, death awaits. Working with these involves some acceptance or resignation.

But we also find ourselves in unacceptable situations that were messed up before we ever came on the scene. Things that are not the way they are supposed to be. Lies, injustice, callous indifference, unnecessary suffering. We can feel the wrongness in our bellies and bones – that this is “not the way it works”. Maybe it’s a political scene that calls for resistance. Or maybe you should get yourself the hell out of Dodge. Or maybe you have to bide your time so long.

Risky times like these call for us to be even more careful and attentive, to avoid futility and malice. How do you align yourself in this situation? Like we practiced. (Aren’t you glad we practiced?) By working with it and learning its truth, testing it, catching the scent of possiblities. Turn and return. Reach out. Move in the direction of your freedom. Step lively.

QA 56. Four touchstones for thinking about peace

mandelaFor Nelson Mandela’s birthday, and because I’m reading Thula Simpson’s Umkhonto We Sizwe: The ANC’s Armed Struggle, thinking about and respecting the lives of everyone who stood against apartheid, those whose names are known or unknown, remembered or forgotten. Thinking that the aim of the struggle was peace, and how we’re not there yet. Thinking that peace without justice isn’t good enough, but neither would be justice without peace. Continue reading

QA 52. The real world keeps us honest

standard equationStill thinking about the need for a new mode of thinking… What is the proper relation between philosophy and science now?

Last year, citing Stephen (Philosophy-is-Dead) Hawking and Martin Heidegger, I wrote about “the end of philosophy” in the triumph of science. Given the massive productivity of scientific theory and technology and a world in turmoil, social-order thinking put its faith in scientific standards of evidence, objectivity and rationality. But it’s no good. Science can’t tell us about the meaning of life, precisely because meaning belongs to another order of thought: call it “ethics” or “wisdom”. Pascal knew that the heart has its reasons, but we don’t give the heart much credit. And so it seems that the new task for thinking is to return to the beginnings of philosophy, to inquire into the nature of subjectivity and how to live well with others.

With this division of labour, I effectively left science to its own devices and carried on with my own business. (After all, it is hard to relate to someone who gloats about leaving you in the dust.) Happily, it seems that my judgement was premature. A reconciliation, under new terms, may be on the cards. Continue reading

QA 51. Optical illusions, the political economy of

My_Wife_and_My_Mother-In-Law_(Hill).svgOne image that can be seen in two distinct ways, but never both at once. Faces or a vase? Duck or rabbit? Crone or maiden? Someone shows you: See, the old woman’s chin is the young woman’s throat! All of a sudden, you do see. You start to switch the two back and forth, grinning like a kid. You can’t believe your eyes!

In times like ours, which call on us to think differently, the skills of vacillation are good to cultivate. Look at it this way. We are all, more or less, caught in the thrall of a particular mode of thinking and its moral order. Call it Western hegemony or what you will, this dominant perspective prizes objectivity, reason and utility, and excels in categorisation, prediction and control. It conceives of humans as self-interested and separate beings that are concerned with their own being, and as winners and losers in competition for scarce resources. It is a view that marginalises and dismisses human tenderness, vulnerability and relatedness. But it knows a duck when it sees one! Continue reading

(QA 48 revisited.) conception, in other words

Heidegger says you must be born again. No, that was Jesus. Even Heidegger, then. As philosophy will be born again from a thinking mother.

socrates1Philosophy’s first birth was attended by the son of a midwife. He himself practiced husbandry. A ranchero. Pedagod who knew which theoria should be brought to bear and which aborted. A miscarriage, God’s truth! Next time, we start with the troth: a pledge and a patience, a willingness to bear the whole world in our belly. Not a titan of strength this time, not forced to bear the heavens upon our back.

The old way will continue to complete itself. Our time is early, so early – not even dawn but the chill that rises from the dead of night. Our time is the wee hours. I wrap myself in a shawl and blanket, crone, chronicler, kairomone.

Philosophy before philosophy begins again, philosophy before its time, before it’s due, its due, before the dust has settled. While it is still unconceivable. That’s how early we are. Midwives to ova.

What is the task of our time? Emancipation, metanoia. To turn. In this field of philosophy, to refrain. To recover what was neglected. To think what it was unable to think, what has remained unthought. To think before philosophy, return to thought.

Which is what I mean by philosophical practice. With others, to understand the meaning of our struggles and desire, to attend to what is unbalanced, what has been obstructed or occluded. As if to tend the earth, to soften with water, loosen soil, break dry clods to dust in our hands. To open the way, vul’indlela. Philosophical practice as cultivation.

QA 48. Think, again (The end of philosophy)

ImageIn 2010, Stephen Hawking pronounced philosophy dead: “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” But he had not kept up with Martin Heidegger, who already said this in 1964, in “The end of philosophy and the task of thinking”. Philosophy’s dissolution into science, Heidegger says, is a legitimate end. What was begun with questions of being and reality, physics and metaphysics, ends up here. Western philosophy has reached its destination.

“Science” signals a rational, objective methodology of “systematic observation, measurement and experiment, and the formulation, testing and modification of hypotheses”. Heidegger saw this attitude illuminating every area of human life. The fields of psychology, sociology, the arts, economics: everything will be “determined and steered by the new fundamental science which is called cybernetics”. (Cybernetics” as “the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things”.) “Philosophy turns into the empirical science of man”, writes Heidegger, thus achieving “the triumph of the manipulable arrangement of a scientific-technological world and of the social order proper to this world. The end of philosophy means the beginning of the world civilisation based upon Western European thinking.”

He’s right, of course, never minding the havoc that Western European thinking had already let loose in the world. With all its evident technological and scientific achievement, this new world civilisation has also delivered cascading economic, environmental, political and social crises. All of our institutions of state, political and religious order are now plagued by corruption. Continue reading

QA 47. Motion of confidence (Part 2)

MariaIHaveConfidenceLast week’s philosophy café offered another conversation about confidence. As noted before, confidence has two levels. One is conditional: the conscious trust in one’s abilities or worth, developed through experience and familiarity (“or entitlement”, as someone pointed out, referring to the social confidence of private-school girls). The other is what John Dewey described as “unconscious faith in the possibilities of the situation”, or “the straightforwardness with which one goes at what he has to do”.

One man, I’ll call him Anthony, spoke about a friend he’d had in his twenties who led the two of them on rigorous mountain hikes. One day Continue reading