What Is Philosophy Even For? Jamming, 02/06/2014

Over the last few years, I’ve had friends ask me what philosophy was even for, mostly jaded former students at the undergrad (and a few from the doctoral) level, who have graduated into a tough job market where the skills of the humanities are in low demand in any industries’ entry level positions. However, aside from this economic reason (which is real and legitimate, and which more humanities departments and programs should confront in their programs, which often resemble simplified versions of graduate level course material), I’ve often heard more profound reasons.

One reason that stuck with me came from a political idealist I knew, who told me that you could write all the philosophical books you wanted about how the world should be changed, but thinking doesn’t change a damn thing. This, for me, is one of the most fundamental challenges to philosophical practice that I’ve ever heard, and I’ve thought long and hard over the last two years, as I’ve hit my own economic walls in the university system, for an answer.

A comic that captures the basic difference between genders
in our society that #YesAllWomen was all about. More
thoughts are at the blog of the artist's friend.
Oddly enough, I received one from a long conversation on my facebook wall last week in response to a link I posted to an article about men on twitter and tumblr who laughed at the suicide of Alyssa Funke and said the murders of Elliot Rodger were a perfectly legitimate reaction to being turned down for dates. I was a little upset about these sorts of activities, what with them being ethically horrifying acts of misogynistic victim blaming. However, my wall ended up becoming a microcosm of the conflict between #NotAllMen and #YesAllWomen.

The difference between these perspectives, of course, is that #NotAllMen sees Rodger, those who agree with him, and those who laughed at the hounding of a girl who did one amateur porn video to suicide as exceptions from an overall reasonable society of men. These people are outliers among a community of men that is largely respectable and ethical. And they are, in their context, correct: few men actively intend to harm women.

But the opposing #YesAllWomen perspective wins out in this argument because they do not focus on intentions, but affects. The passive benevolence of most men counts for little when the number of actively malevolent men are above the critical threshold that forces women’s socialization to include self-protection procedures. Just because such malevolent men are small in number, their numbers are not so small that they don’t constitute an atmosphere where women are, practically speaking, always under threat. That atmosphere affects even those men who hold themselves to be ostensibly virtuous. I remember having said and done some wretched things, and I think an honest search of all our memories will discover similar shameful events. But the current moment offers redemption. The twitter hashtag became a vehicle for people to share stories, whether their own, or their own perspectives on other people’s stories. 

The conversation on my own wall ran about 40-odd comments deep before finally petering out. I don’t know if that conversation itself actually changed anyone’s mind about this issue. But it helped me finally work through what exactly is the value of talk about ideas. The value of philosophy, whether it happens in everyday life, as with the conversations people surely had as #YesAllWomen became a global phenomenon, or in its more esoteric essays and books, lies in the intense examination of ideas. One’s actions can only be effective if you understand them. Otherwise, they’re nothing but misdirected flailing. 

Even though we’re often caught up in networks that envelop us in affects without intentional authors and so for which no one individual can sanely be blamed, we’re still intentional beings who can think through and plan our actions. Philosophical thinking, especially when it happens in the everyday, as in the deep ethical and moral conversations of #YesAllWomen, is the most intense, fundamental, and potentially radical form of thinking we can do. The more instances of such thinking we can encourage, whether on twitter and facebook or in wild, strange books like the ones that I’m writing, the more minds we can open to new kinds of actions that make our world a better place.

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