I’m Pretty Sure I’ve Always Thought This Way, A History Boy, 11/09/2014

Or at least I have for a fairly long time. I think a lot of people who study philosophy intensely choose the focal areas they do because the subject speaks to them in a way that other sub-disciplines don’t. You might say that we’re drawn to study what we find intuitively true, but this isn’t really accurate at all.

Michel Foucault was one of the first philosophers I ever read.
After I discovered the discipline, I bought books because they
stood out to me. Madness and Civilization was one of those
early, exploratory purchases.
For one, saying that something is true tends to imply that what you find true is internally consistent. This isn’t true with philosophical sub-disciplines, in which the central figures may share some broad presumptions or styles of writing, but for the most part disagree about fundamental questions and concepts. 

Perhaps it’s better for me to say that there are particular underlying ideas in some sub-disciplines of philosophy that, if those ideas resonate with you, you’ll be drawn to focus on that sub-discipline. Or at least, you’ll find yourself reading that area more often than the others, choosing courses in it, reading and researching it independently, maybe even thinking about contributing to its evolution somehow, if that’s even possible.

I’ve known people who think this way about Marcus Aurelius and the ancient Greeks and Romans, Thomas Aquinas and the medieval Christians, René Descartes and the modern rationalists, and Bertrand Russell and the logicist philosophers of language. For some years, I’ve thought this way about the French post-structuralists, the neo-Nietzscheans, neo-Bergsonians and neo-Spinozists in disguise. I’ve studied the main authors in that tradition, largely on my own outside of any class guidance, and a lot of those ideas inform my approach to other areas of philosophy.

I say this, after a week of writing about the anarchist theory of 1970s Britain, because I think part of what underlay my attraction to the French thinkers was their own anarchism. It was rarely said, but there was a powerful critique of the state, the legitimacy of representative government to do all the metaphysical heavy lifting of politics that it said it could do, and the danger of putting your life in the hands of the materially more powerful. 

The French theorists whose work I loved
rarely acknowledged their debts to the
political philosophy of the old anarchists,
which might be why it took me so long to
find them myself.
I thought of the idea this morning when, on the train to my college in Oakville, I read about a speech Peter Kropotkin made in 1887 which, in many ways anticipated the insights and research of Michel Foucault into the links between insane asylums, prisons, and the morality of shutting deviant people away from public view, effectively disappearing them and rendering them practically non-existent. 

Kropotkin went on to focus on the practical critique, that the isolation and brutally authoritarian power structure of the asylum and prison actually worsened the mental and anti-social condition of the inmate. As a society, we are largely afraid of the insane and criminal, so prefer to lock them away to rot instead of deal with the problem directly. Despite the physical risks of this more ethically open and responsible approach, too many of us remain afraid, gripped more by anxiety than by our responsibilities to take a more reparative approach to the problems of our fellow people.

Ultimately, that’s what I think the only productive forms of anarchist politics are about: as a person, you take responsibility to repair your society, and you only repair your society one person at a time, doing the best you can.

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