coromandal


janitors in the Crystal Palace

I am going back to Critchley’s book Continental Philosophy for a second read. I’m not a philosopher so it takes time to sink in.

In this passage from early in the book Critchley describes how in the 17th century philosophy became a handmaid to the newly dominant pursuit of science. The original Greek conception that knowledge and wisdom were part of the same comprehensive, civic, good living enterprise, was upended by science which valued knowledge – episteme – over the love of wisdom. Plato’s queen of the sciences, philosophy was left to mop the floor.

The question is what does the subjugation of wisdom and the favoring of knowledge leave out? What is the implication for our lives?

Here is Critchley’s description:

In a science-dominated world, what role does our professional philosopher assign to philosophy? This can in part be answered by recalling the Greek word for knowledge, episteme. Philosophy becomes epistemology, the theory of knowledge. That is, it is overwhelmingly concerned with logical and methodological questions as to how we know what we know, and in virtue of what such knowledge is valid. Philosophy becomes a theoretical enquiry into the conditions under which scientific knowledge is possible. In the scientific conception of the world, the role of philosophy moves from being, as it was for Plato, the queen of the sciences, where theoretical knowledge was unified with practical wisdom. It becomes rather, in John Locke’s formula at the beginning of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1689, an under-labourer to science, whose job is to clear away the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge and scientific progress. Philosophers become janitors in the Crystal Palace of the sciences.

Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy, The Gap Between Knowledge and Wisdom, p 4-5, Oxford

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death in your mouth

Material life or … spirituality or … death in your mouth.

Simon Critchley describes how materialism and spirituality are the diametric options for living that we tend to follow en masse in this life, and how they enslave us.  Both are escapist strategies:  materialism is the handmaid of forgetfulness; spirituality of assurance of endless life.

But to learn to know death realigns our lives to our own mortality and frees us.

There are two very aggressive contentions in this idea: that to ‘know’ death will have a freeing effect; and that to deny death is hate yourself.  Does it follow that to be materialist or spiritual, are forms of self hatred?

Here is Critchley’s description from the introduction to The Book of Dead Philosophers:

We are led on the one hand, to deny the fact of death and to run headlong into the watery pleasures of forgetfulness, intoxication and the mindless accumulation of money and possessions.  On the other hand, the terror of annihilation leads us blindly into a belief in the magical forms of salvation and promises of immortality offered by certain varieties of traditional religion and many New Age (and some rather older age) sophistries.  What we seem  to seek is either the transitory consolation of momentary oblivion or miraculous redemption in the afterlife.

It is in stark contrast to our drunken desire for evasion and escape that the ideal of the philosophical death has such sobering power.

[…]

To philosophize, then, is to learn to have death in your mouth, in the words you speak, the food you eat and the drink that you imbibe. It is in this way that we might begin to confront the terror of annihilation, for it is, finally, the fear of death that enslaves us and leads us towards either temporary oblivion or the longing for immortality. As Montaigne writes, “He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” This is an astonishing conclusion: the premeditation of death is nothing less than the forethinking of freedom. Seeking to escape death, then, is to remain unfree and run away from ourselves. The denial of death is self-hatred. …

The Book of Dead Philosophers, Simon Critchley



watching the royals

SPELL

Why so enthralled with the royal wedding?  It’s senseless to care about quaint, ceremonial institutions. Fairy tales and princesses – we’ve moved on, haven’t we?  We revolted against and removed the heads of monarchs and dispatched the ideas that held us in thrall and them in power:  divine right, heredity.  And with blood and politics ushered in emancipatory ideas to fill the void:  enlightenment, meritocracy, democracy and modernism.  Plebiscite, suffrage, revolution: these are the hard fought – and won – battles waged against the long pre-modern night.

To the wedding, reaction among my friends was pretty tepid.  Except for three Brits who donned their fascinators and watched on the BBC big screen in DUMBO and later the repeat in a bar in Brooklyn, no one seemed to care much. Each was one of nonchalant, bored, oblivious, mocking and categorically opposed.  Some were a mix.  I’m busy, we defeated the Brits, we’re anti-pomp, but mostly, we’re American, was the field of responses.

When Diana died, I watched, in the middle of the night in my east coast studio:  the cortege of the Princess, her sons, the princes and her shocked brother walking in black suits behind.  “The half muffled bells of Westminster Abbey ring out their quarter peal across an unusually still London,” said the announcer.

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love not possession
January 24, 2011, 4:41 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , , , , , ,

Here is a definition of philosophy by Critchley which is quite democratic.  It wrestles the discipline out of the iron grip of the intelligentsia of the day – sophistry – and presents it transparently for anyone and everyone who will have it.  It says it can’t be owned or quantified, and rather it is a quest, a procession toward friendship and knowledge and truth.

Last month I was sitting in the office of a dean of a school, pitching a new course.  I was making a case for a connection between high energy consumption and outdated property development ideas, and I happened to mention blogs among other media as a source for my observations.  And got a wrinkled nose from the university administrator.

He’s in his 50s and has a PhD in history and a blog simply isn’t a good source of information.  His retiscence protects quality; and it also commodifies and controls sources of knowledge.  The new media tends toward democracy, shattering that block between the academy and people.  Maybe like the church replacing it’s Latin liturgy for the peasant lingua franca.  The sudden new knowledge is a flush of love.

From the book:

So philosophy begins with a critique of the Sophists; the Sophists are those people who claim to know and offer to exchange knowledge for a fee.  Philosophy begins with a critique of Sophistry and its claims to knowledge.  In place of the sophistical pretensions to wisdom, philosophy offers a love of wisdom, a philia, an orientation of the soul towards the true, which is not the possession of the true.  So philosophy begins with love in a non-erotic sense:  a kind of friendship, usually between men, usually between an older man and a younger man.

How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, Simon Critchley



the european dream
February 8, 2010, 7:32 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , ,

The American dream is only a dream after all.  I had a suspicion.  There were so many red flags chief among them grandiloquence, bombast:  if we keep telling ourselves we’re the best, then we’re the best.  Peddlers of the big lie everywhere:  that to tell monstrous falsehoods will breed credulity.

I stepped off the boat (actually it was a plane) over 12 years ago.  My first reactions were that it seemed … communist, incredibly.  I’ve never heard anyone else who has moved to the US describe it that way, but I hold firmly to the description.  Streets and buildings were shabby, shops forlorn, people up to their necks in groupthink speaking in clipped and thuggish phrases, options that initially seemed abundant proved narrow and restrictive, city centers were abandoned and shuttered on the weekends and evenings, a general joylessness pervaded, the design of products and streets and consumer goods was utilitarian at best.  No babushkas or bread lines but pretty much everything else you wouldn’t expect if you watch a sitcom or a hollywood movie.

Here is an excerpt from a review of Jeremy Rifkin’s book The European Dream written over six years ago.  Look at that list of quality of life indicators that Europeans enjoy:  longer life, less poverty, less crime, less suburbs, longer vacations, shorter commutes!  Why?  I must be policy and policy comes from ideas, so their ideas of living must be very different than ours.

I have written posts about the difference between continental and Anglo attitudes to living based on the writing of the English philosopher Simon Critchley.  (Essentially, the continental, or European, tradition is to use wisdom to look for better ways of living; and the Anglo way to merely search for and implement functional solutions.)  I think this is why Europe enjoys a better standard of living than us:  they use wisdom to secure a good life, we use technique to get ahead.

Everyone is talking about what we need to dig ourselves out of the messes we’re in.  I say we need good leaders.  I say we smoke out the ones who look merely for short term fixes, and replace them with ones who have broad and bold and daring visions of good living.  Either that or lobby the government for easy options for emigration.

Here is the excerpt:

The European Union’s GDP now rivals the United States’, making it the largest economy in the world. The EU is already the world’s leading exporter and largest internal trading market. Moreover, much of Europe enjoys a longer life span and greater literacy, and has less poverty and crime, less blight and sprawl, longer vacations, and shorter commutes to work than we do in the United States. When one considers what makes a people great and what constitutes a better way of life, observes Rifkin, Europe is beginning to surpass America.

More important, Europe has become a giant laboratory for rethinking humanity’s future. In many respects, the European Dream is the mirror opposite of the American Dream. While the American Dream emphasizes unrestrained economic growth, personal wealth, and the pursuit of individual self-interest, the European Dream focuses more on sustainable development, quality of life, and the nurturing of community.

We Americans live (and die) by the work ethic and the dictates of efficiency. Europeans place more of a premium on leisure and even idleness. America has always seen itself as a great melting pot. Europeans, instead, prefer to preserve their rich multicultural diversity. We believe in maintaining an unrivaled military presence in the world. Europeans, by contrast, emphasize cooperation and consensus over go-it-alone approaches to foreign policy.

All of this does not suggest that Europe has suddenly become a utopia. Its problems, Rifkin cautions, are complex and its weaknesses are glaringly transparent. And, of course, Europeans’ high-mindedness is often riddled with hypocrisy. The point, however, is not whether Europeans are living up to the dream they have for themselves. We have never fully lived up to the American Dream. Rather, what’s crucial, notes Rifkin, is that Europe is articulating a bold new vision for the future of humanity that differs in many of its most fundamental aspects from America’s.

–Jeremy Rifkin, The European Dream

resources:
author:  Jeremy Rifkin

Simon Critchley
book:  The European Dream, Rifkin

Continental Philosophy, Critchley
organization:  The Foundation on Economic Trends



beasts and lunatics
September 19, 2009, 11:15 am
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

Here is a quotation from Critchley’s Continental Philosophy in which he gives a kind of primer description of each of a half dozen or so significant 20th C European (non British) philosophers.

Critchley establishes a dialectic:  that an emphasis on knowledge leads to scientism and turns us into beasts and conversely an emphasis on wisdom rejects scientism, introduces obscurantism and turns us into lunatics.  But his broader point is that the Continental philosophers instruct us to return to searching for the meaning of life – by way of wisdom – and conversely to resist the reductive nature of mere knowledge.

My contention is that what philosophy should be thinking through at present is this dilemma which on the one side threatens to turn us into beasts, and on the other side into lunatics.  This means that the question of wisdom, and its related question of the meaning of life, should at the very least move closer to the centre of philosophical activity and not be treated with indifference, embarrassment, or even contempt.  The appeal of much that goes under the name of Continental philosophy, in my view, is that it attempts to unify or at least move closer together questions of knowledge and wisdom, of philosophical truth and existential meaning.  Examples are legion here, whether one thinks of Hegel on the life and death struggle for recognition as part and parcel of the ascent to absolute knowing; Nietzsche on the death of God and the need for a revaluation of values; Karl Marx on the alienation of human beings under conditions of capitalism and the requirement for an emancipatory and equitable social transformation; Freud on the unconscious repression at work in dreams, jokes, and slips of the tongue and what that reveals about the irrationality at the heart of mental life; Heidegger on anxiety, the deadening indifference of inauthentic social life, and the need for an authentic existence; Sartre on bad faith, nausea, and the useless but necessary passion of human freedom; Albert Camus on the question of suicide in a universe rendered absurd by the death of God; Emmanuel Levinas on the trauma of our infinite responsibilities to others.  This list could be extended.

-Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford



continental abyss

This is from Simon Critchley’s Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction which describes the differences and similarities between continental and British – also called analytic – systems of thought.

I’m just back from a trip to London and Paris and found the two cities to be radically different; I am convinced the forms of the cities derive directly from their philosophies.

Critchley seems to be saying – you know I don’t really know! – that there is a gap – a gaping one – between merely finding solutions – as Thatcher seems prone to do in the excerpt below – and finding a way toward a well lived life.  The British tradition tends to separate these ideas – with ultimately reductive results, whereas the Continental joins them in a kind of enriching critique of life.

Here is Simon Critchley –

On 5 October 1999, when pressed for her current views on the prospect of a European union, Margaret Thatcher remarked, ‘All the problems in my lifetime have come from Continental Europe, all the solutions have come from the English-speaking world.’  Despite its evident falsehood, this statement expresses a deep truth:  namely, that for many inhabitants of the English-speaking world, and indeed for some living outside it, there is a real divide between their world and the societies, languages, political systems, traditions, and geography of Continental Europe.  British politics, especially but by no means exclusively on the right, is defined in terms of the distinction between ‘Europhobes’ and ‘Europhiles,’ known to their opponents as ‘Eurosceptics’ and ‘Eurofanatics’ respectively.  That is, there is a cultural distinction, some would say a divide – perhaps even an abyss – between the ‘Continental’ and whatever opposes it, what Baroness Thatcher, in tones deliberately reminiscent of Winston Churchill, calls ‘the English-speaking world.’

/…/

There is a gap in much philosophy between theoretical questions of how one knows what one knows, and more practical or existential questions of what it might mean to lead a good or fulfilled life.

/…/

the cultural life in the English-speaking world is marked by a divide between science, on the one hand, and literature and humane understanding on the other.