In Defense Of The Philosophy Faculty

When I began studying philosophy in 1997 some people called it navel-gazing. It is no different in 2017, as calls for austerity affect everything that doesn’t generate a direct cash return. The reputation of philosophy, because it has no (and cannot have) direct practical value, is that of a complex game of words that refuses to surrender to the regime of utility.

If philosophy doesn’t demand absolute independence from cultural, economical or religious influences, it ceases to be the love of wisdom and becomes the worship of the power structure that embeds it. Of course it is always embedded in such a power structure (as a faculty with a budget, staffed by people with salaries and affinities); hence a philosophy faculty cannot exist without a permanent struggle to evade canonization as a useful, rational underpinning of the real thing: the worldly sciences.

The idea that such struggle is prima facie, and not only after its effects have been measured, beneficial (to avoid the word useful) with respect to something like truth, is difficult to accept, precisely because it evades the framework of economical usefulness in the most fundamental way: it indefinitely postpones the ‘cashing in’ on its usefulness, something that is anachronistic in an era that is obsessed with realizing the idea of future today.

Is this the cultural bias against the benefits of a strange discipline that appears to force itself to be contrarian? Every time a philosophical theory becomes ‘fixed’ as a useful tool for a particular science, it loses her philosophical essence. At their heart, the theories of Marx, Darwin, Freud and their twentieth-century successors are philosophical new ways of asking questions. Sure, these theories have been refined (or: overcome) but that is not the point. Such theories ask the foundational questions of disciplines. They might have a ‘return on investment’ only in useful applications, but the kind of thinking that gives rise to them can be organized in a properly philosophical environment.

So there are these two lines of argument in favor of the philosophy faculty:
1) The irreducible value of the unique ‘flight forward’ to ever new perspectives due to the proper intention of philosophy to ‘leave nothing unthought’ (which can be read as ‘thinking totality’, or not). The value of philosophy exists in opposition to the cultural context that embeds it. It always has to think this opposition and can therefor never be contained. This restless ‘spirit’ of philosophy is directed towards truth, with which it coincides at the end of days. In a certain way it is the secularized Jewish or Christian (idealist) eschatology.
Giving this philosophical drive a formal place in socity is an existential choice that is and should be presented to the sovereign (the electorate). Personal note: This ride (or rite, in a wink to Derrida’s différance) of truth is invaluable to me.
2) The ability of the philosophy faculty to nurture and disseminate theories that can later be borrowed by other sciences that can make them useful (if and only if they deprive these theories of their philosophical spirit).

The more practical issue is whether the creation and teaching of fundamental and foundational theories should be relegated to a faculty that specializes in them. Of course individual philosophers could be integrated in other faculties, such as physics, anthropology, or law and still be prolific researchers and great teachers. However, this misses one great opportunity of philosophy gives us: mingling between faculties. If students of law, economics, biology and architecture take the very same logic and ethics classes, there is the unique opportunity of cross-pollination, of interesting debates between the students (and who knows, their tutors) that will ultimately sharpen the intellectual contours of society.

I think such classes are best organized by a distinct faculty in order to avoid the possibility of bias. But more importantly, a philosophy faculty should be something like the dedicated and sacred ground of Reason.

In Defense Of The Philosophy Faculty was originally published on Meandering home


"Neo-Malthusian" "populationists"

The straw man used to “debunk” people who count

The business-as-usual people like to portray anyone who raises concerns about the exponential growth of the world population, given our finite habitat, as a misanthropic pessimist who doesn’t believe in progress. These people – whatever their motives are, I find it hard to believe they aren’t bought by corporations – won’t get tired of pointing out that the “overpopulation movement” allegedly started with a certain Mr. Malthus, who in late 18th century England claimed that workers bred quicker than they would be able to increase productivity, thus creating an unsustainable population growth. Malthus was elitist; his modern-day “counterparts” who aren’t shouting Hallelujah at the 7. billionth human but raise concerns instead, are called racists or “anti-progress”.

I don’t think the discussion is trivial. Smart people have argued on both sides. We should ring the alarm bells, says one side, because we are dangerously approaching and overshooting carrying-capacity of the planet. Nay, say the others, the more the merrier, and worldwide production has actually increased more than population growth over the past few decades.

I am of course extremely biased. Production almost always means irreparable destruction of nature (don’t say “resources”; if anything WE are resources for nature regulating herself). I don’t think we (let alone the planet) would be better of when there are more of us around. And I think it’s extremely dangerous to keep betting on all these fantastic inventions (3D-printing, artificial meat, nanotechnology, strong AI, nuclear fusion) to come to the rescue.

On a side note, I’m not anti-technology. I think many of these techniques are very fascinating and should be developed. But we should not rely on inventions in the future that we merely predict. That is not good survival strategy for individuals, nor is it for a species.

First fossil fuels will become very expensive (and a few perverts very rich), then they will simply be no longer available. And we rely on this stuff for our very food. Industrial agriculture is a one-way street, and we all know where it leads to. But I don’t need to repeat that here.

This is not about the numbers. You and I have seen the numbers. And otherwise, they are just a few mouse clicks away. What is important is how we interpret the numbers.

What do we want?

A boom-and-bust with real people of flesh and blood, like the way we frantically keep inflating and popping economic bubbles? That is so disgusting and inhumane, let alone that would also decimate the natural habitat of almost every species we know, and every species we never got a chance to know because we destroyed them before we discovered them. All because we can have a few more decades of “prosperity”, a few more decades of smiling artificial families in sterile apartment blocks stringed together to megacities that suck the lifeblood out of the environment.

Is that what YOU want?

I am impatient with people claiming that we shouldn’t actively check population growth. I challenge them to look anyone straight in the eye and say they are not religious fanatics, that they have thoroughly studied the situation, and conclude that human population growth is possible and desirable. Their opportunism, taking as advice by an Indian or Chinese (rural or urban) family, is potentially murderous.

Because their children’s children might live in a barren world with soil erosion, draught and starvation caused by the current levels of extraction and consumption. And anyone honestly willing to prevent that (for the sake of humans and other wondrous species) is demonized as an enemy of progress.

Fuck. We have MODELS for this. We can model the rise and decline of rabbits in Australia, so we can also model the rise and decline of human population. Humans: the only species who has it in his might to avoid becoming a plague (leading to their own inevitable self-destruction). But they are screwing it up.

What the heck! Earth has space for a lot more humans. Let’s take the number of square feet of land on earth as an upper limit: 5,490,383,247,360,000 people could stand on this planet. This means (if we have all the technology, except the technology to shrink ourselves, that human population could increase millionfold. If we could shrink ourselves using advanced generational picotechnology, we could perhaps grow population even more! Humans would of course need to be kept in cages like in the Matrix trilogy and essentially converted into energy sources.

Drill, baby, drill.
Screw, baby, screw.

Let’s bequeath the next generation what we so humbly deny for ourselves: Insurmountable problems that lead to certain death when unsolved. Let’s continue screwing each other, the planet, and the next generation.

Mad Max World

Cover of "Mad Max (Special Edition)"
Cover of Mad Max (Special Edition)

We have been taught to accept whatever choices people make, as long as they are lawful. Within an essentially unquestioned framework called “The Law”, we believe, people (I mean citizens) can live out their valuable freedom, and choose anything they want and cannot do in-justice.

Of course, “The Law” is a power structure only cosmetically separated from the state, which is only cosmetically separated from the Corporatist Elite. And these corporate entities (with more “personhood” under the law than most primates have) make the choices that matter to our planet. They choose to “develop the resources”, that is to rape and kill mountains, forests, rivers, oceans.

We have choices too. I’m not talking about the allegedly all-important consumer choices (will come to that in another post), but about the choice to fight back. To do something about “it”. If we can for once indoctrinate ourselves, and find other sources to base our emotions on than our flat-screen TV sets, we might have a chance. We might be able to associate the feeling of wealth with healthy forests and rivers teeming with life. And to associate the feeling of poverty with encroaching concrete, industrial production and consumption.
Cover of January, 1915 National Geographic Mag...
Cover of January, 1915 National
Geographic Magazine
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
But it’s a choice so it’s your call. Green propagandists like myself, environmental scientists, and others can only advise. Go ahead. Choose an ocean where 90% of the fish are gone (you probably don’t know what codfish tastes like), choose the destruction of primary rain forest, never mind about biodiversity, never mind about cancer treatment, never mind the indigenous, or the fact that these forests are the carbon sinks. Choose a world where the important industrial nations don’t even show up at a conference (Rio+20) because they’re too busy shoveling money up bankers’ asses. Choose a world where the positive feedback mechanisms of climate change (and to you, corporate media dick, if you abuse the word “positive” to pretend it’s not that bad, I’ll kill you) are structurally ignored: what do you (and anyone) really know about methane trapped in permafrost, the Greenland icecaps, and the plankton depletion, all of which could trigger runaway climate change?

Choose a world that will look more like the background of the Mad Max films than what we still see on National Geographic. Choose a world where the smog is unbearable and you need a mask to survive (a real one, not a figurative mask like we think we already need today). Choose a world without wild animals. Choose a world full of poison. Choose a world that looks like a moon, with big air conditioned apartment buildings housing the wealthy 1%, while the rest is enslaved in the production process to satisfy their insatiable perverse hunger for more. Go ahead, choose for yourself.

But don’t you dare to choose for your – and our – children and grandchildren. Don’t you dare.

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Writing. Laughing.

What is the value of writing? Thinking, shared. The ability to think old thoughts again, sharpen them, create a monument for our live thinking that otherwise would exist only as marginal comments to whatever circumstances we’ve concentrated our thoughts on. Systems of thoughts can be dangerous; history is full of examples. See the system of the bible, promoting human superiority (“and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth”, Genesis 1:26).

Deconstructive writing, that French fashion that had to be ahead of its time – is not really possible as much as it is necessary today.

I have an intuition about what this life is all about. It has a lot to do with the ability to laugh deeply, genuinely, affirmatively, to laugh in unison with the universe.
The philosophical idea of the universe “observing” itself through humanity as ultimate goal and final act of history in Hegel is, in my view, the ultimate consequence of abstraction running wild. It’s where the doctrine of “everything is connected with everything else” ultimately leads us, pretending to actually have words for everything. Abstraction, and the creation of concepts, has been divorced from the realm of tools and given an ontological quality just because we think it has. Of course, this is not the place for simplistic Hegel-bashing, and you probably need a couple of thick volume to spell out all the consequences and “trap” him like a rat in a cage. Hegel himself famously said that philosophy is the struggle against the primitive abstract thinking of subjectivists. To me, that sounds like a carpenter saying that carpentry is the struggle against the functionality of his tools – saws, hammers, screwdrivers, or words. It makes no sense. Words are abstract. Thoughts, however holistic and all-encompassing and overwhelming they might be, are arrangements of words, subtle interplays made of the elements with which we represent and figuratively “grab” the world. Why are we still bashing the early 19th century protestant think er? Because we can learn a lot from it. From observing his neat system that claims to accommodates the structure of everything we can dream of, and from observing the son of my brilliant bald Hegel professor who had Down’s syndrome (the son, not the professor), I felt this is not my playground. But I still feel the importance of this pivot, or prism, in thinking: the self-relation of our minds.

I said I have an intuition and I feel like being a bit more verbose about it than I usually am. So far what we’ve got is that the self-relation of our minds has to be accommodated in our lives – in our everyday life – by bouts of deep and sincere cosmic laughter, rather than by academimics carving out nifty formulations like Ich=Ich, Id, Es, and a lot of much longer intellectual circumcisions.

What does any of that have to do with why I like writing so much? I feel that our faculty of laughing can benefit from writing and the whole tradition of letters. How? I don’t know of course, that’s because I haven’t done too much of it yet. The laughing somehow lets us fully “be” without the need of that complete grasp of the world. Laughing is, again here’s my intuition speaking so don’t expect much of an explanation, a detour to taking up our humble place in the universe. It is how we can make our scientific and philosophical ignorance bearable.

I have this very sophisticated philosophy in mind, with said form of laughing at its heart, as some sort of sacred entry point of thinking. As a tangible manifestation of self-reflection that as such can be acculturated as a sacred act, an act of reaffirming a fine tradition of thinking that let us admit we don’t understand how history, or the mind, works. That doesn’t need to pretend this in order to “save” its very foundations (Hegel). It would be an open-minded philosophy, indeed anyone who can experience this existential laughter can be a philosopher. And to be a philosopher means to be inquisitive, to have all the answers to the big questions while knowing they are makeshift answers, and above all, to make others laugh.

Bookstore Blues

Here’s another all too human emotion I want to share because it might be familiar.
In a Virgin Megastore inside a recently erected Shopping Temple on Istaklal Street, Istanbul, I am browsing some books, mainly paperbacks. As the lighting is good I decide to take some pictures of the store.

Of course, the staff won’t allow me to take any photos. I switch off the camera.

I start to browse the English section and hold a dozen books in my hands. I like English sections in large foreign bookstores because the selection is normally reasonably small and restricted to items that have been “pre-approved” by Anglosaxon readers. Here are the titles I can remember:

  • The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
  • The Tell-tale Brain by V.S.Ramachandran
  • The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
  • The biography of Steve Jobs
  • Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

The covers unanimously praise them – all of them – as one of the best books of the year or decade or whatever. I feel intimidated.
These book are all brilliant I’m sure, but it makes me feel uncomfortable. I’m sweating. Why do books need to be “the best of the best?” or why do they need to be called that way? It’s a marketing trick. You buy only the best, the very best. Mediocrity doesn’t exist in new publications, only in books well beyond their expiration date. But these books are very mediocre, and need to be replaced by the best of the best, new-smelling grey paperbacks with shiny covers full of praise.

I am going to read some of these books, and hope to tell you about their bestness in some next article.

The Curse of Efficiency

Everybody with a working brain knows about the paradox of efficiency. Production processes have to become more efficient in order to stay competitive, but that greater efficiency may *never* result in giving people longer vacations. Instead, workers need to work even harder because the increased efficiency means competition has increased, too. Instead of enjoying the fruit of their ongoing creativity, workers enslave themselves more, are more afraid of being laid off (which becomes more inevitable the more efficient they become) and the toxic fumes of the system keep them dumbsmart enough to keep refusing any alternative.

Sounds like Marx, doesn’t it?

All the poor have to offer is their labor, and the value of that labor is irreversibly racing to the bottom. The result of that race will be a perfect class system. Perfect because it doesn’t allow for transgression between the classes because all that counts is raw power that clumps together like ferrous dust particles on magnets.

A world in which there is no work. The system is simply so efficient that there is no demand for the contribution of average human beings. *And economically spoken, demand will be taken care of by high net-worth individuals, that “sustain” the economy like the Maldives, banning every traditional culture to slums. So not their labor nor their consumption matters. Their skills will have been far surpassed by machines. No factory hires anything made of fragile flesh, no supermarket lane employs error-prone human cashiers, no logistics company lets soft grey tissue intervene in their state-of-the-art supply chain, and so on. The result is mass unemployment and a most urgent need for social change on a scale exponentially more radical than any past “revolution”.

Doing these things efficiently will throw people out of jobs faster than they can ever be replenished. Yet the point is of course that the revolution is radical enough to do away with the whole concept of “job” along with some other obscure remainder of past inefficiency. The idea is indeed a leisure animal like Ernst Bloch described in “Das Prinzip Hoffnung”, which has generated all thinkable counterarguments so that I don’t need to do that here.

But tell me what do you think? Is there a fundamental problem in a society where technology becomes more potent than the human brain? Will those in control of that technology form an elite that has something close to absolute power, with privileged access to the rapidly depleting resources of the planet? Or will a supercomputer calculate that equality among the human strata is the optimal outcome? Outcome for what? The rise of Intelligence?

Read: “The Singularity is Near” by Ray Kurzweil for a discussion of the adaptability of the social system to the exponential surge in technological capabilities of society.
Watch: “In Time”, movie with Justin Timberlake.

The three Ps of Motivation

Let’s categorize motives of people roughly in “doing it for the money” and “doing it for the fun” and we miss something essential. The third category of motivation, one that needs to remain vague and adventurous. Indeed: that other type of motivation has something to do with adventure. Not with just any treasure hunting or survival-in-the-wild undertaking, as they might be overshadowed by the “possession” (money) and “pleasure” aspects. What we mean is the kind of adventure that doesn’t seem to have a clear material goal (but often a psychological). We mean the adventure that people feel the just have to do, an individual Quest that can’t be replicated by anyone else. Perhaps this kind of adventure doesn’t exist in its purity, perhaps it is only a minor aspect of a Gold Rush or Into the Wild.

We amateur thinkers like to tinker with these concepts and squeeze them into a clear one-dimensional schema. So, there are three fundamental factors of motivation:
1) Pleasure: Satisfaction of our needs;
2) Possession: Saving up money for future security, and
3) Passion: A motivation that just “is” and can’t be analyzed.

Pleasure or immediate satisfaction takes plays in the present, or a representation of the present in our emotional states. We’re hungry, thirsty, feel sad, and want that solved a.s.a.p. This is of course the kind of motivation we share with other primates and even many other vertebrates. This is the motivation of the present, a clearly understood overcoming a lack. This is Aristotle’s definition of desire and its satisfaction.
Possession is one way to cope with the future. Here we humans leave other primates “behind” with our capacity to plan ahead and pay next year’s taxes. We don’t feel an immediate desire or lack, we create this feeling through our abstract concerns about a possible future (can I pay my mortgage, what about my pension, can I afford falling ill). This way to cope with the future is essentially about possession: The relevant question is “where do I stand compared to my peers and where do I stand in society?”. This is about power: How can we turn these potential futures into other people’s futures?
Passion can’t answer these questions. We might feel a vague sense of lack as the source of our passion, but we can’t tell what is lacking. We might dream of a future in which the passion has been accomplished, but we can’t describe it. Passion, it shows, must have her source in the enigmas of our past. These are the secret missions of our minds, with no goal other than that we have to be active to relate to this past. A good example is the mission of Little Oscar in Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”.

We thus arrive at the following table:

Passion              ~ Past
Pleasure             ~ Present
Possession         ~ Future

In reality, these three aspects are of course interwoven, but it can be a good thought experiment to discern them. You could plot your daily activities on some 3-dimensional graph to indicate how much they are tied to past, present, and future. And, a more important exercise would be to deconstruct this homegrown philosophical hypothesis.