The Real Vanguard II: The Leading Edge, Composing, 29/03/2016

Continued from last post . . . What really transforms humanity is a much more profound process than just a few orders from a government. No matter what kind of force you might summon to back up those orders. That profound process is what I want to write about when I write Utopias

It’s a profound process, even though it’s pretty ordinary: changing people’s minds. It’s ordinary because we typically think of our whole life narratives in terms of how we changed our minds about different topics. “I used to think this way, until I realized that it wasn’t quite the right track” or “I realized that I was making a mistake” or “that I was missing something very important.”

Writing my own existence.
Every now and then, I like to remind readers that they’re actually watching an unfolding storyline on this blog (with some interruptions). That storyline is my research and developing the ideas of my next big nonfiction book, Utopias

Utopias literally picks up from the end of Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. There, I introduced the idea that the only way to build a mass political movement or a transformative social change is the hard, grunting work of changing people’s minds. One person, one act of outreach, at a time. The process itself is very profound, because when successful, it’s the complete reorientation of someone’s personality. But it’s also really hard work.

The arc of the actual book Utopias will start from the profound and work its way into the gritty meat of everyday reality. The core idea is that because self-conscious humans can understand themselves narratively, we have a special relationship with time itself. 

Everything has a history – the series of events that have happened to bring them into being, knock them around, and eventually destroy them. As fundamentally narrative creatures, each of us not only has such a history, but we make a historical narrative out of our histories. That power to understand ourselves historically (and also act socially) gives us a very special ability to shape our own history and that of other people.

So the first third of Utopias will be about understanding that special human relationship with time. The final third is about the process of political and social change itself – how you change people’s minds genuinely and effectively. The middle part bridges the two investigations in what will probably be its weirdest part.

Right now, I only have a vague idea of what this bridging section will involve. But it starts from a potentially very pretentious conception of humanity.

A philosopher in ink.
In Henri Bergson’s last major book, Two Sources of Morality and Religion, he writes about the transformative power of humanity – prophecy. The religious mystic, he says, is the vanguard of life’s creative energies, pushing human understanding into new territory and dragging the rest of us after him. 

You can also interpret this idea as implying that genuinely creative philosophers can do the same thing. That’s pretty controversial in Bergson scholarship, to my knowledge at the moment, anyway. But in very basic terms, the creation of new concepts is the leading edge of human progress.

And you can see how that makes sense. If progress is about developing new ways to live, solving the problems we’ve made for ourselves in our current era, then we need new ideas and concepts to do so. Concepts are our guides for self-positioning, self-definition as people and communities, and action. 

But as the Jewish tradition* says, the time of prophecy is over. The work of creating new concepts is less for mysticism and the ecstatic, and more for deep thought and detailed investigation. Work out what we need to do, what are conditions would be to do it, and then work to make those conditions real.

* And possibly also the Muslim tradition, though I’m not nearly as familiar with these kinds of theologies, and they’d certainly put the date later than Judaism too.

Philosophy is the discipline of human knowledge that focusses most intently on the creation and refinement of new ideas, new concepts. At least when it’s firing on all cylinders and not caught up in the unfortunate institutional games it tends to lose itself in, as an academic discipline.

This is why I’ve been following so closely the debate unfolding at the Reply Collective over what philosophy’s political role should be outside the formal academy. No matter what you might think philosophy used to do, the truth is that the university-based discipline is in a crunch.

The casualization of teaching and research labour is eroding job security in the academic sector and driving many of its brighter talents among the younger generation outside it. That’s one of the main topics of my upcoming presentation at the Canadian Philosophical Association – how to keep trained philosophers who’ve left the university system engaged in the creativity of philosophy as a tradition.

Rooting the creativity of philosophical thinking in a wide-ranging political activity – outreach, activism, and social change – can be a more firm ground for the philosophical tradition than the increasingly corrupt university system. 

Utopias will be a framework and a strategy guide for what that unmoored philosophy would look like.

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