What is philosophy, and why should we care? Many people tend to think of philosophy as something done by professors or experts, such that it’s just out of reach of everyday folks. But what if we all do philosophy on a decently regular basis, and just don’t think of it this way? What might that mean for us, or for philosophy?
Let’s say you’re doing something relatively simple, like cutting the grass in front of your house. While at times you may zone out and not think at all, and lapse into simple unconscious rote habit, perhaps daydreaming as you do it, just following your muscle memory, usually you are thinking while you do most tasks, at least to one extent or another. You make sure you are covering all the parts of the lawn with the mower, squaring the corners, that sort of thing, all of which requires some degree of conscious thought. Rather than simply mowing the lawn, which is at its simplest merely doing something, you are also thinking about it, and while all doing involves some degree of thinking, this is conscious thinking. It’s this thinking which transforms this doing into an activity.
Sometimes, however, you reflect on how you’re doing things. Returning to the lawn, perhaps you think “I’m not really doing this efficiently,” or “I could do this better,” or “perhaps I should try this other technique instead.” At this point, you transform the activity of moving the lawn into a practice, in the sense in which you say a doctor “practices” medicine. That is, there is a reflection on how you are performing that activity, one which is constantly assessing the activity in regard to particular standards that seem pretty obvious, such as, in the case of mowing the lawn, making a nice looking lawn without expending too much energy in the process with arcane techniques.
From there, however, you may start to reflect even further. You might start to question these very standards, in this case, what constitutes a nice lawn, or what should determine the amount of effort one puts into something like a lawn. There’s a shift from assumed norms of lawn mowing, questions of technique and “how,” to questions of value, which is to say, what sort of lawn does one want at all? Is mowing really the best way to get a good lawn, or even moreso, a good looking front of your house? Maybe a lawn simply isn’t the answer, maybe a small garden would work better. Asking these sorts of questions, these meta-level questions, transforms the practice of mowing the lawn into what the Marxists would call a praxis.
Of course, you may still mow the lawn after asking these sorts of questions, but you will not only be asking yourself if your technique is good, questions which exist at the level of practice, but also, how questions at the level of technique relate to those of value. And so, you may ask yourself if spending so much energy on trying to figure out the best technique for mowing the lawn isn’t perhaps a waste of time, when planting a garden might not only make things look nicer, but provide some produce to eat as well. Whatever you decide, lawn or garden, so long as you do this while questioning not merely the technique of what you are doing at the level of practice, but also the value of the activity in and beyond questions of technique, you are engaging in an activity which is not only a practice, but also a praxis.
Of course, things get really tricky if you start to then question not only the technique of what you’re doing (ie: can I mow this lawn better?), or how this relates to your larger scale goals and values (ie: is a mowed lawn really the best thing for the front of my house?), to the question of why you have these values in the first place. That is, you might ask yourself why it is important to have a nice looking area in front of your house in the first place. You might start to question whether or not you are doing this to simply impress the neighbors, or whether perhaps your desire for a nice area in front of your house is part of the myth of private property foisted on us by the way we are brainwashed by the capitalist system. Of course, this opens an entire potentially infinite regress, in which you start to question why you want anything at all. Eventually, you just have to decide on your values, and go with them, and work from there.
Either way, when you start to question not merely “how” you are doing something, or even “why” in relation to your values, but rather, “why” you have any of those values which could even help you answer these questions, you are doing something like philosophy. That is, you are thinking about “why” questions on a second, meta- level. Instead of merely asking “why” you are doing something, you are asking “why” it matters to ask “why” you are doing something. You are inquiring into the foundations of what you value, or in this case, why it matters to you to have a nice area in front of your yard in the first place. This sort of meta-thinking about anything we do is, I’d like to argue, precisely what philosophy is.
From this perspective, some of us never engage in philosophy. We just act mostly out of habit, and we do what is normal for those around us. Some of us try to be more efficient or better at what we’re doing, and this makes not mere doers, but technicians. Beyond this, we may even reevaluate our technique in relation to larger questions of big-picture goals, and this makes us true practitioners. But if we even question if perhaps even our big-picture is misleading us, such that perhaps there is a better way, in a much more fundamental sense, then this is what is meant, I believe, by philosophy.
Philosohpy is then, in a sense, always already meta-ethics. It asks the question of why we should value what we value. Everything else flows from here. This even includes what we think we know, because our knowledge is shaped by the ways we study the world and what we do, and if we change the way we gain and use knowledge, we end up changing that knowledge and/or its use in the process.
Another way to look at this is that philosophy is what happens we start thinking about how we’re thinking. That is, it’s meta-thinking about meta-thinking. For if I’m not only thinking about what I need to do mow the lawn, but how to mow better, as well as why I should mow in the first place, and even why it matters to question why I should mow in the first place, there’s ultimately four levels of reflection going on. That is, one is thinking about thinking about thinking about thinking about what one is doing.
All of us likely engage in the first few levels quite often. Most of us can’t help thinking about what we’re doing on some level, even something as simple as mowing the lawn. Most of us think on occasion as well about how we could do it better. On occasion, we might even think about whether or not mowing the lawn really helps us reach our bigger picture goals. But to question why we even have these goals, and if these are the sorts of goals we want to have, as an individual or society, now that is quite uncommon.
Many of us might only reach the last two layers of reflection when are depressed or anxious. The reason for this is that we’re really questioning everything, up to and including our place in everything we’ve ever known, up to and including the cosmos, any notions of the divine, our value to society, our friends and family, our self-worth, etc. When you start to question all that’s made your life meaningful up until then, this can often lead to anxiety about the possibility that one might need to change one’s general ways of looking at the world and acting within it, or rather, depression thinking about all the time wasted with ways of looking at the world and acting within it may have been wasted energy, or even, both anxiety mixed with depression.
And so, most of us tend to stay away from philosophy unless it’s absolutely necessary. True philosophy is uncomfortable. Academic philosophy, however, skirts this danger. It makes philosophy into a game, one without any real stakes. This is like going on a roller-coaster at an amusement park. The fun is the illusion of danger, you know there is no real danger, even if there is simulated danger when you engage in fast drops or curves but are really strapped in safe and tight.
But often times, you don’t have the option of doing philosophy. You start questioning your entire life and your place in it, because your old ways of working simply have stopped functioning. Life seems meaningless or frustrating, and you need to try ways of looking at the world and acting in the world which are different. Philosophy is then thrust upon you, like it or not.
While sometimes we solve this sort of problem by means of reflection, and meta-reflection at even more abstract levels (ie: what is the value of asking why I’m doing what I’m doing, how might I even evaluate my possible new values?), this is not often explicitly the case. That’s not saying this sort of reflection isn’t potentially quite valuable, and in fact, I think we often do this in semi- or unconscious forms whenever we are philosophizing. But most times, we simply act, and then look back, and say, oh, I must’ve changed pretty radically at some point, because I was in a state of crisis, I looked into the abyss, and then came out the other side and acting differently. My entire way of looking at the world changed in the process.
I think those are the times when you look back and can say that you have been philosophizing. How much you were explicit in this is another story. And while I do think there are benefits to the more abstract layers of philosophizing, the differences between them become I think less distinct than at more basic layers. Nevertheless, the differences, often rarely picked apart when people are “staring into the abyss” of philosophy, is nevertheless I think helpful for dealing with that abyss.
If we return to the abyss in relation to lawn mowing, and you start to ask why do I want something like a mowed lawn in the first place, asking why you have the values you do, then from there, you can start asking the first real question of philosophy, which is what values do I have for deciding my values? This is the question of meta-ethics. But even more abstract is the question of what the value of having values is about at all, a question of why we have values in the first place. From there you might start questioning how humans ever came to have values, how individual human values relate to the values of our societies, and how these relates to humanity as a species which values, in relation to a world which has produced us by something like a process of evolution, which itself has an implicit value system. From there you might start to wonder how evolution came about, and whether or not it implies some sort of value system inherent in the very structure of our worlds of experience as such.
And from there, you might start to ask why the hell you should care about any of this! After all, why should the cosmos matter, if all you’re really wondering is if it matters at all, in the grand scheme of things, if you should mow the lawn. But this is the real grit of philosophy, this is when it starts getting deeper into being philosophizing, when one sees everything in one’s life as suspended in the air, up for grabs, when the meaning of the entire universe, and everything in it, past and future, condensed up in the question of whether or not to do the action in front of one, as one would always have done. Should I not simply mow the lawn and be done with it? Just stop thinking and just “do”?
These sorts of questions have inspired philosophers and poets throughout the ages. Zen Buddhists have argued through the ages that to understand one grain of sand is to understand the cosmos and oneself, for these are all aspects of each other. Surely this is the approach to the world of philosophy. When T.S. Eliot famously said “do I dare eat a peach?,” he was asking a question of philosophy. William Carlos Williams famously stated in his cryptic, terse poem that
“so much depends
glazed with rain
beside the white
it seems to me that he was dealing, in poetic fashion, with questions of philosophy. Or when Franz Fanon asked, “What does a black man want?,” he was asking a question of philosophy. Moreso than Eliot or Williams, however, Fanon was asking this not in a merely abstract sense, however. If you know anything about Fanon, his was a question of action. That is, not only what does a man want, but what does a black man want, and in regard to the context of how he is asking this, in regard to the possibility of changing the world, to make it a better place, a world with less racism.
Fanon’s approach to the question is similar to that put forward by Marx, in his famous Theses on Feuerbach, when he stated that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” And here we see another level of reflection going on. For if the first level of philosophy is meta-ethical (ie: why I value what I do?), and the second is meta-meta-ethical (ie: how can I determine the value systems whereby I choose, implicitly or explicitly, what I value?), the level beyond this, as described earlier, is to question what value is in the first place (ie: in relation to my community, species, cosmos, etc.). But the next level of reflection brings us back to where we started in the first place: what do I need to DO, once I have reflected on all these things? That is, how does doing impact my thinking, and how or should my thinking impact what I’m doing?
This sort of thinking about thinking just ups the ante. We start to ask what it means to think, what value there is to thinking, whether or not there are better or worse ways to think, how we should evaluate our thinking, what criterion we may want to use to evaluate our thinking, and even what we think about our thinking in relation to our society, species, and cosmos, and what to do about our thinking and how it relates to our acting in the world.
Of course, by the time you are at this level of reflection, you are deconstructing the very difference between acting and thinking. For in the process of thinking in this way, you likely come to realize the ways in which your thinking is impacted, at least in part, by the world which gave rise to you, and the values you were produced to value, and the modes of thinking, evaluating, and doing which are you are only now starting to question with all this thinking. You also likely start to realize that when you change what you do, it has subtle influences on how you think. And when you change what you do with others, you change not only how your own actions impact your thoughts, but how the very world you live in changes your thoughts. You start to change the world, as a way of impacting how you change your thinking, which in turn changes how you act in the world.
For how did thinking even come to be, in the first place? It seems nerve cells evolved from the need to coordinate increasingly complex sets of organs to help us respond ever more complexly to a rapidly changing world. And these nerve cells, feedback systems, increasingly began to feedback into each other. And yet, evolution too is a sort of thinking, of which the organisms it produces are like the thoughts, just as evolution itself is like one of the thoughts of the cosmos which produced it. It’s all brains, all the way down, distributed attempts to more richly come into sync with the world in ever more complexly changing ways over time, and in ways which can give rise to this more intensely and constructively, which is to say, robustly, in the future. Our thinking brains and the languages and cultural ideas we produce are just evolutions best attempts at thinking through the problem of how to develop ever more robustly creative entities to make the most out of this world. If we don’t end up killing each other first, of course, having not been able to work our way out of the evolutionary baggage from evolution’s earlier, more violent, survival oriented stages. Still, evolution learned to think that acting in cooperation, from individual proteins to living cells, from cells to organisms, from organisms to those with brains, from thinking beings to those with language and culture, that things work better when we cooperate, syncing things together in ways that maximize the potential for creativity for all. Thinking can perhaps help us to imagine ways to sync up this sort of big picture with our everyday possibilities for action. For imagining better ways in which the world can start to think these sorts of thoughts, through the small ways in which we can contribute to this.
All of which brings us back once again to where we started. By shifting from thinking about doing to thinking about values in relation to what we do, to finally thinking about thinking about what we do, we then arrive at thinking about doing and thinking as aspects of each other. We shift from practice to praxis to philosophy as something one does, to something one practices, to a praxis of philosophy, a philosophical praxis.
Perhaps the earliest stages described above are a sort of proto-philosophy or theorizing, and the more abstract levels are perhaps meta-theorizing and ultimately philosophy itself, that is, meta-ethical thinking about values as theorizing, thinking about values as such as meta-theorizing, and thinking about thinking as philosophy itself. But even these more basic levels, theorizing and meta-theorizing and whatnot, looking into the abyss while mowing the lawn, are a sort of philosophy. They are the opening of the philosophical in our everyday world. They are the start of the questioning of everything which can lead to a change in everything. It’s all philosophy, just in differing degrees of refractive intensity.
Viewed as such, philosophy can, in this sense, then be very dangerous. No wonder the powers that be want to keep it locked up in stuffy universities. Or keep us all focused on popular culture, distractions, petty competitions, and motivate us with petty theft. If we all started thinking about how things play out in terms of the big picture, that would be dangerous indeed.
To return to those who do philosophy for a living, a group in which I must include myself. My sense is that the sort of philosophy we do is rarely philosophy in any true sense. It is philosophy reduced to doing, much like mowing the lawn. It’s only when we start to question our technique, and why that matters, and our values in relation to this, in relation to value as such, and how this relates to the thinking and doing which produce these values in relation to the contexts which produce all of this in the first place, that I think we start doing real philosophy. Real philosophy, the hardest thing to do properly, is stuff which can change the world.
And perhaps then any sort of thinking which does change the world is a sort of philosophy. Notions like God, money, or science are fictions, in a sense, words which describe abstract notions which nevertheless organize our practices. As Nietzsche famously argued, all language is a sort of slight of hand or “lie,” to use his term, a “mobile army of metaphors.” For, to use a famous example employed by Hegel, I’ve never seen a notion of “tree,” only individual trees. A real tree is leafy and full of a near infinite set of particular details. But as soon as I say to someone “that is a tree” I erase these details, I make that tree part of a set, I implicitly argue that this particular thing in front of me is in some sense “the same” as many others which might be quite different from it. When I say both an “oak” or “maple” are both “trees,” I am fudging, faslifying, perhaps over simplifying, at least to put it nicely. Or as Nietzsche would say, lying.
Language is a set of useful lies, a set of slight of hands which make it possible to deal with the world and each other in particular ways. When I say “look at that tree over there,” I’m using a set of gross oversimplifications, but you still look about where I want you to and see something like I’m hoping you do. But we so often forget that it’s all efficient fictions. While relatively concrete notions are easy to work with and around, what about notions like God, money, or science? Economies rise and fall on money, but what is it, other than the fiction of value? We treat scraps of metal as valuable because they are rare, durable, and relatively useless. But what if we decided to make special slips of paper into fictitious value holders instead? Clearly this is all paper currency is, a set of mobile fictions. Just like property ownership. After all, what does it mean to own land or stuff other than that other people believe the fiction that you do? And in regard to money, what does it represent other than that everybody believes together that the special paper slips are valuable?
That said, entire societies rise and fall, lives are dramatically changed, around fictions like money. Or god, or science, or any other words. After all, once you see a word like “tree” as a fiction, then notions like “money” or “god” or “science” are easy. And yet, also peculiarly difficult, because these are the fictions to which we adhere so strongly, because these are the fictions which we use to organize our practices, fictions to which we anchor our values. These are what Lacan would call “master signifiers,” terms in our discourses which we can think of as grounding terms of a sort. Philosophy tends to come into its own when it starts to question not only whether to mow the lawn in a certain way, but how to relate that to issues such as money, god, or science, and perhaps more important still, why we value these notions, and how thinking about these things could then impact our ways of thinking or even acting.
While language is important to all of this, however, it’s not the whole thing by any stretch. We wouldn’t believe in money, after all, if people didn’t act as if the fiction were real each and every day. Perhaps there is nothing more real, then, than the fiction of money. Perhaps money, god, science, and grounding terms are the most real fictions of all. Philosophy had better question these, then. Why do we have things like money, philosophy, or science, what is their value, and how do they relate to thinking and doing, and what is the value of those things in relation to notions like god, money, or science? And how might this all impact how we do these things, or change to start doing other things? For surely if we started to act differently, say, we stopped exchanging and hoarding money, we’d stop thinking it was so real. Change how you act, and you change in often unforeseeable ways the way you think.
When you look into the void, and begin to philosophize, you question everything. And then you generally either return to doing what you were doing before, either cynically and in detached fashion, or passionately with renewed vigor, or you change what you are doing itself. Hopefully you don’t get stuck locked into a cycle of depression or anxiety, the dissolution of skepticism or the paranoia of fanaticism. When you do actually change the way you act, it always retroactively shifts how you look at things, particularly how and why you were doing things in the past. Perhaps this sort of changing the way one thinks about what one was doing is one of the most important forms of doing we can ever do, for it is where thinking impacts and changes what we do in a way which changes how we think.
But if this awareness keeps us tied up in ourselves, it only ever goes so far. For after all, what we think and do is always the product of our world. While we can question why we do and why we even value questioning these sorts of things, even the ways in which we question our questioning are always already shaped by the world which made us. If we’re really going to question everything, we’ve always go to question the relationship of each to the all, ask the question of the big-picture beyond big-pictures. And if we are ever going to change the way we think and act, the only way to really do this is the change the world which makes us the way we are. And isolated individuals can only do this to a minor extent. To really impact how one sees the world and acts in it, you need to change that very world. And this requires others.
And this is where I think philosophy can be really important. Because if one is always questioning, one can’t settle into this or that too easily, one is always tentative. Of course, being too tentative makes one indecisive, and that’s not good either. But there are optimal levels of questioning and doing, feedback and questioning which allow for modification without getting one stuck in never being able to do anything, as much as helping to keep one from getting stuck in one’s ways. These are both extremes to be avoided, which is to say, philosophizing as its own end, and the complete amnesia of a world without any philosophy.
Why do we think? What is thinking? Why do we value it at all, and how can it make the world better? What sort of thinking can make the world better, and how can we think of ways to think more like this in relation to the worlds in which we find ourselves? These seem to me likely important philosophical questions. And important questions which, if we keep asking ourselves, not so much that we stop doing anything, but enough that we stop doing the same thing simply because it’s what we’ve always done, or what others are doing, could help make us change the way we relate to our worlds for the better, both as individuals, and collectives.
Because philosophizing I think is what gets us out of ruts. It stops us from being fixated, even on philosophizing. After all, philosophy should not only help us to detach from ways of acting and thinking which don’t work as well anymore, but also, help us to realize when our thinking has become caught by a fetish or fixed idea, even by the fixation on philosophy itself for its own sake. Between the abysses of pure thinking and unthinking doing, between getting stuck in reflection for its own sake and doing because it’s what’s done, there is a middle path. This is, I think, the path of philosophy.
And this path is one which can never be merely for oneself or one’s group, merely for one set of ideals or values, but rather, the continual investigation of these in relation to actions within the dynamic set of contexts in which one finds oneself, questioning and in feedback relations which can help one stop getting stuck, stop making the same mistake, help one go back to experimenting with new ways of acting and thinking. Easier said than done, of course. But it’s all about experimenting. Good philosophy should do a lot of that, experimenting with new ways of thinking to potentially give rise to new ways of doing.
And this is why philosophy has impacted society as much as nearly anything else. Every religion, every science, every economics, these are all the results of, implicitly or explicitly, philosophy. They are the use of useful fictions, ideas, to help organize our actions which relate us to our worlds. A philosopher is then, for Nietzsche, something like a “cultural physician,” someone who attempts to intervene in the collective fictions we use to help structure the ways we relate our actions to those of our worlds.
Or perhaps, following Alfred Jarry, philosophy could be cast as a sort of pataphysics. Jarry, a writer and artist of the absurd, famously described pataphysics as the “science of imaginary solutions.” But isn’t that what philosophy is? After all, Jesus and the Buddha created new ways of looking at the world, they intervened in the realm of ideas, and as a result, the worlds around them changed in dramatic ways. Communism is an idea which changed the world in incredibly profound ways, and clearly this is as imaginary as any “tree” any of us have seen, in manner not unlike that of god or money. These are all imaginary notions, as imaginary as any word, even if these words are some of our most powerful organizing fictions.
Philosophers, when they are truly philosophizing, are perhaps those who work to help us shift our relation to these fundamental grounding notions. And in ways which think about how this all relates to the big picture. About our values, and why we value, and how we think about what we value, and how and why we value this sort of thinking, and what we could do about any of that. Philosophers, at least in theory, intervene in our relation to the imaginaries which help us structure our relations to our reals. After all, my hands may touch the wood in the trunk of a tree, something very real, but I can only really relate to this by thinking about this tree as a “tree,” especially if I’m going to describe any of this to someone next to me, or even try to coordinate my actions with theirs. We often think that fiction is elsewhere, but nothing is more real, it’s what helps us structure the real right in front of us, even if it often remains unseen. Philosophy helps us tweak our relation to this, shifting how the real appears by shifting the imaginaries we use to structure it. This is about much more than language or even ideas. It’s about shifting reality.
And you shift reality by shifting what we all do to impact the world which creates us as thinking and doing beings. Philosophy is how we learn to impact this, actively, rather than passively let it all happen to us. Philosophy is how we question what a better world might look like, and how we might get there, necessarily for any and all, because a better world for one would never be possible or even work in the long term. We need something like philosophy if the world is ever going to get better, and we are ever going to get better at relating to our worlds.
For it’s when we listen to our fears that we treat others around us, and our world, like hell, and in the process, make hell reality. While no fear is dangerous, too much fear makes us paranoid, makes us close up, makes us stop thinking and questioning, and just do what feels best for right now, which is usually what protects me and only me right here and right now. Philosophy is always about undermining this, because it always looks at the bigger picture. Philosophy makes it impossible to merely be satisfied with short term fixes or goals which only work for now. It makes for the penetration of each by all and vice-versa. When philosophy is truly philosophizing, it undermines any approach to things for only one way of looking at things, a valuation of any one type of thing, be this a country, gender, sexuality, race, class, my stuff, my way of thinking or acting, or anything like that. It’s all up for grabs, always, particularly as the world changes and new possibilities come to light. Philosophy always rips us out of our self-enclosures, relating things that would otherwise seem separate and discrete. For philosophy puts each in touch with any and all, the particular with the biggest of pictures, the mowing of the lawn with the why of the cosmos. And in a way which doesn’t fixate on itself either, but thinks by doing and does by thinking.
Such a thinking as philosophy is necessarily always already an ethics and meta-ethics, at least if it is truly philosophical thinking. It is always a questioning of if we can do a better job of thinking and acting, of shaping the world which will shape our forms of thinking and acting to as to give rise to the type of uses which will shape the future of our worlds. It’s a danger to the status quo, whatever that is, even if it is overthinking, or more likely in our world, overdoing.
Because if there is one thing which paranoia makes us do, it’s stop thinking. Act now, or there’ll never be a deal like this again, kill the person next to you or they’ll take your stuff. But if the other person is thinking, and you are too, you’ll see quite logically that things are better if you can cooperate. That the type of world which is the best for all is actually also the type of world which is best for me in the long run, because it is the richest in diversity and hence the richest world for me to live in. A world on the brink of chaos, but which skirts dissolution and rigidity, by means of thinking and what leads to and comes from thinking.
Between fixation and the abyss of fixation on questioning, there is the middle path. This is, I think, something for philosophy today to be thinking, particularly in relation to the horrifically exploitative conditions of increasing inequality in every sense our world today. How can we start thinking again?
It might not seem evident at first, but what I’ve described above is in fact an approach to the question of “what is philosophy?” which is quite networkological. It views thinking as always already related to the contexts and processes of its production, and sees thinking relationally, as networking which seeks to give rise to ever more complex forms of networking. My sense is that the robust emergences of networking is thinking, and that this only ceases to be thinking when it ceases to robustly emerge in relation to its worlds. My sense is that this is the sort of thinking which emerges when we are thinking relationally and networkedly, and I also think that this is the sort of thinking which is most philosophical, which is to say, the most about the robust emergence of thinking as what thinking is all about in order to bring about thinking which can potentiate robust emergence of networking. Such an approach might seem a bit circular at first, but thinking always has a circular aspect to it, even if there are circles which go nowhere, and circles, like going up a mountain and coming back down, that can change the way you look at, and hence do, everything.