What is Radical? (Part I)

 by on December 19, 2013
Dec 192013

In her essay Anarchism: What It Really Stands For,1 Emma Goldman discusses anarchism–still a widely misunderstood idea–as the most progressive and just political project whose moment has arrived. At another time I’ll get into what this means, whether anarchism is still relevant today, and how it is different from libertarianism. For now, I want to briefly introduce the question, What is radical?, by looking at the following excerpt from Goldman’s essay:

Someone has said that it requires less mental effort to condemn than to think. The widespread mental indolence, so prevalent in society, proves this to be only too true. Rather than to go to the bottom of any given idea, to examine into its origin and meaning, most people will either condemn it altogether, or rely on some superficial or prejudicial definition of non-essentials.

The word ‘radical’ doesn’t appear in the essay, but Goldman, in attempting to dispel the myths surrounding anarchism and to promote an understanding of the political project, gives us a great starting point to discuss the concept. Radical, from the latin radicalis, is that which goes to the root. Radical thought, then, is what Goldman describes here: thinking that goes “to the bottom of any given idea, to examine into its origin and meaning.” The lack of such thinking is lamentable because without it understanding remains on the surface of ideas, in the area of “some superficial or prejudicial definition of non-essentials.” No progress can be made in politics if the common understanding doesn’t advance beyond the superficial understanding. In order to promote a better understanding for the transformation of society, Goldman seeks to radicalize our thinking on politics.

What we are describing here, radical thought and the thinking that goes to the root, is what is often said to be the task of philosophy. Isn’t the explicit task of the philosopher to ‘get to the bottom’ of things, particularly ideas, and investigate their origin and meaning? And for what purpose does the philosopher take on this task? Let’s put aside the empty and worn idea that the goal of doing philosophy is the acquisition of knowledge. This idea has run its course and failed to produce fruit for either philosophy or for the larger society. The raison d’être, if there is one, of philosophy is not only to think radically but to appropriate radical thought for the radical transformation of self and world. Any philosophy student who has not yet been given over completely to the demands of academic performance standards and a desolate job market knows this and takes it for granted that transformative thought can bear fruit.

The root is the most vital part that makes possible the plant and its fruit. It is life itself through the passage of seasons and the connection between birth and death. In going to the root, though intellectually at first, one can’t help but be transformed and to transform every thing to one’s own self. It is the human condition that to get to the root of something one’s entire self is propelled. To think radically is to exist radically, by definition. In this way, radical thought implies radical action.

The next step is to realize that this thinking that transforms is essentially a human activity and not confined solely to philosophy as a profession. Anytime we seek coherence between understanding and action, and between self and world, we’re already on the way to the root. When Goldman laments a society that relies on superficial and prejudicial thought, she is indicating the possibility of another kind of thought that goes beyond the theoretical debates and intellectual posturing that prevent progress. For Goldman, this radical thinking originates in distinctively human activity and social relations. So why do we often find it missing, while misunderstanding and prejudice prevail? Perhaps one of the reasons for this lack of radical thought in social and political contexts has been the myth that thinking belongs to the philosopher and, further, that thought is detached from action. But both of these myths are dispelled when we trace the concept of ‘radical’ through philosophy straight to a basic human mode of existing that seeks the root of things.

From the common conception of philosophy we get the thinking which goes to the root, and from this thinking we get the realization that philosophy, in its core task, is only the explicit form of an essential human activity. The task of philosophy is the hope for a better self and world through uniquely human understanding (radical thought), and the fulfillment of the hope comes through radical activity, i.e., human existence. As I’ve discussed here, philosophy doesn’t progress in the way that science and technology do. But for this very reason it is able to promote the kind of radical thought that belongs to everyone and that can bring us from misunderstanding and condemnation to dialogue and reconciliation.

In this conception of philosophy, not as only a profession or academic specialization, but as the essentially human task of radical thinking, the philosopher helps prepare the ground for justice. 

  1. The essay can be read here: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/goldman/anarchism.html []

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