Philosophy and Ethical Life

 by on January 17, 2014
Jan 172014

Is Professional Philosophy Pseudo-Philosophy? This is how Eric Schliesser poses the perennial question of the crisis of philosophy in academia.1 As Schliesser hints, the question is really part of the two-fold larger issue of how philosophy progresses–in a society in which the standard for the relevance, even truth, of any discipline is ‘progress’–and what is the relationship between philosophy and its larger societal context. About the former, I’ve written a bit here. As for the latter, what is at stake, apparently, is the severance of philosophy from ethical life.

To paraphrase Hegel from the introduction to the Phenomenology, the discussion of an authentic philosophy is confused from the start when it assumes a division between ourselves and this philosophy. That is to say that when we talk in this way what is assumed to be at issue is the correspondence between thought and action, except that it’s not thought and action in the abstract, but our thoughts and our actions. The philosophy of which we’re talking is always the philosophy of and for us. So the question of pseudo-philosophy entails a prior question: the question of pseudo-life. Are we living pseudo-lives? Are we pseudo-living?

It’s no coincidence that Heidegger be used as an example in such a discussion, as he has been the focus of so much obsession in recent decades over philosophy’s divorce from practical, political life. What’s bothersome about the Heideggerian scandal is that it usually comes down to one of two options: (1) either Heidegger’s political failures are products of his philosophy, and thus his philosophy must be feared or, at least, approached with extraordinary caution, (2) or his political missteps are argued to be disconnected from his philosophy, and we’re allowed once again to study his texts. There’s something terribly unnerving about this choice. Notice that we are not deciding what Heidegger did or what he wrote; these are done and written, in history and in text. What we know of his actions is indisputable, and what we have of his writing is there in the words that fill so many books. Rather, what’s unnerving about the choice above is that we are deciding how we want to read Heidegger, and not only to read for pleasure or education but to read in order to abstract a connection between his thought and action. This obligation to read Heidegger in a certain way puts the responsibility back on us, and we are struck by the ambiguity of the texts and life before us in the face of such a theoretical task.

Heidegger is frightening in this respect. By all accounts a serious student and scholar of philosophy, whose volume and breadth of work aimed to revive a conversation with being and the idea of a philosophy in an age of science, and thus his was the idea that launched a thousand ships, as it were, both in defense and in opposition. But it wasn’t to be, as the events of the 20th century would dictate a different course, and Heidegger–due, yes, to his own actions–became associated with what is now thought of as the historical manifestation of evil itself, Nazism. So we want to know, what is the connection between these events and his thought, and what does that mean for those wanting to do philosophy and not merely masquerade as such. With Heidegger, the choice of how we read him isn’t essentially an academic one; it is a matter of the fate of our own projects.

Let me provide another example apart from Heidegger that will help us frame the issue in a new light. Morgan Meis has written a short article lambasting Walter Benjamin for being a coward, intellectual fraud, and “jerk.”2 The article is worth reading if only for its complete lack of evidence to back the sweeping conclusions made about Benjamin. But also interesting is the way in which he poses the question of the authenticity of Benjamin’s work. Meis says, “the important question here is whether the personal failings of Walter Benjamin-the-man infect… the thought and writing of Walter Benjamin.” The talk of infection here is not incidental, because Meis isn’t merely concerned about the influence Benjamin’s life had on his work. The idea of infection carries with it the fear of contagion, and we should be concerned that if the life can infect the thought, the writings could in turn infect us. But what is this “Benjamin-the-man” that has the potential to infect, and how is it different than “Walter Benjamin”? Meis had hoped we wouldn’t ask, because if we were to ask him what is the difference between Benjamin-the-man and Walter Benjamin he would be left like Meno stunned by the torpedo fish. And if we’re going to set out on a critique that exposes an infection between two things, we should first have the slightest idea of what the terms in this theoretical framework refer to in the world, so that our path is sure to lead to a real diagnosis and not quackery. Yet Meis gives us no such analysis of Benjamin-the-man and what the importance of the contamination between Benjamin’s thoughts and actions might be for us. No, he simply relies on the fact that the mere mention of infection itself peddles the fear of contagion needed to justify his medical malpractice.

By questioning this idea of infection are we then saying that there is no contamination between the thought and the actions, that they are independent and should be taken as such in the history of philosophy? On the contrary, if there is a real infection it is surely so widespread that little could be done about it. But this infection that is widespread is different than the abstract infection that draws a line between two monolithic entities-in-themselves–the idea of the thought, and the idea of the person. The infection that is always already an epidemic and infects from birth is the pre-theoretical relation between thought and action, which is to say that it is thus pre-pathological, having neither a diagnosis nor a cure. We’re talking, of course, about the life-structure of experience that constitutes the pathologies and theoretical determinations we make when trying to diagnose the authenticity of the philosopher. It seems trivial that experience in this way determines our theoretical investigations, but exactly for that reason it is a problem for philosophy, because the most trivial non-problem, having gone under the radar of our thinking, empowers itself as the wholly other that dominates our thoughts.

In this way, the search for the historical philosopher determines its own fate. The analysis of the correspondence or non-correspondence, as the reading requires, of the action to the thought divides the two from the start. This move, the whole stepping back to get a supra-historical view of the philosopher, is rooted in the idea of the ‘authentic philosopher’: that if we search long enough and gather enough facts, we will expose the philosopher-in-himself. Unfortunately, such a search is only a theorization of a certain reading of the lived life and written work, and what we discover from such a theorization can only be circumscribed by terms with which we divided up the philosopher to begin with. What we miss is that a true correspondence (and thus a true division) of thought and action is impossible, because in the moment that we would try to make such an analysis the two would have already done their work together and receded from view.

All of this is not to say that we shouldn’t look for a correspondence between action and thought in the history of philosophy. Of course Heidegger’s politics is connected to his thought. Of course Benjamin-the-man infects the writing of Benjamin. But these are already happening on a pre-theoretical level, and our desire to pathologize the pre-pathological infection inevitably transforms the disease in ways that are determinative for our diagnosis. Just as it would be difficult to cure a disease for which we cannot have a pathology, so care should be taken when talking about the authenticity of the philosopher, if philosophy is something which doesn’t reside on the level of theory but instead goes to the origins of this theory in life. In trying to understand itself in this way, the question of its purpose and future lead philosophy to the roots of the life that philosophizes. The question of authentic philosophy is replaced by the task of ethical life. 

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