Thought’s Material Powers, Jamming, 15/10/2014

For such a cynical bastard that I am, there seems to be a very odd utopian streak running through my writing. And it seems I’m not the only one. Reading one of the later chapters of Karl Jaspers’ The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man, I seem to have found another fellow-traveller. Here’s how.

As you can tell from reading this blog, one of the larger goals in my writing career is to keep producing, publishing, and promoting philosophy. The discipline need not be sequestered in the academic university system anymore; the demands of that increasingly neo-liberal institution are starting to do more harm to philosophical practice than good. 

But if philosophy is to continue outside the institutional framework of research disciplines, we should justify why an independent researcher and writer is capable of contributing in the same way as an established professor with the resources of his entire department behind him. What makes them equals?

Philosophy, if I can put it extremely simply, took two paths into the university system in the Western tradition. One was as a branch of theology, an extension of the medieval period’s production of philosophical writing in Europe’s abbeys. This is how universities like Oxford and Cambridge ended up with such strong, long-standing philosophical traditions, as the philosophy departments grew from theological work.

University of Heidelberg, where the disciplines live freely
in mild constraints, applied voluntarily, perhaps made of
leather. German universities can be a little kinky.
But the modern institutionalization of philosophy in the university system follows the German model of rigorous research through strict disciplinary divisions in the context of an elite teaching institution. The tradition of philosophy was socialized into this new system of research disciplines. Since then, notable philosophical practitioners like Edmund Husserl, many in the logical positivist camp, cognitive science, and the conservative philosophers of science, have conceived of philosophy, if not as a rigorous science, then as an essential partner of the scientific enterprise. 

Yet philosophy, despite all the attempts to make it a scientific discipline, just isn’t one. There are no essential truths that philosophy will one day discover, and no subject matter specifically limiting the domain of philosophical discussion. Philosophical practice uses the tools of argumentation and comprehension exercises of re-interpreting its own history to create new concepts. 

These concepts can then catch on through the readers of philosophical texts themselves, and the works of artists using them to motivate and animate their popular productions. Once the concepts start going to work on people’s minds, they can begin, subtly, to change the way people think. Eventually, the change can develop such that a large-scale social movement begins. Philosophy can literally change the world.

And I found the same notion in Jaspers’ writing. When he considered, as he approached the end of his long inquiry, how humanity could change so radically that we would all give up our global political conflicts in the shadow of nuclear annihilation and choose peace, his answer was philosophy. Philosophy, says Jaspers, has the power to change the world because it has the power to change how people think. Thinking on the circumstances of humanity caught in an arms race with weapons capable of destroying the Earth, the only solution is peace. But humans, thinking as we do, could never be peaceful.

It lay in the power of philosophy to create the new vision of humanity that would inspire people to change their entire orientation to existence and political life. Because the ability to take part in this process is universal across so much of humanity, this creative dynamic of philosophical practice is how the independents and the institutionalized are on the same level. We all strive to create.

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