Can we still do philosophy?

Written by J. Aaron Simmons
(Associate Professor of Philosophy at Furman University)


In the first Saturday Night Life episode after 9/11, Lorne Michaels asked then mayor Giuliani, “Can we be funny?” With four words, Michaels got to the core of all the existential realties of the situation and the difficulty of living after tragedy.

Of course, I do not see the events of this past week to be a tragedy in the same sense as 9/11, but they might lead to very real tragedies in the lives of many, many people. We will see.

Nonetheless, the question I keep asking myself is, “Can we still do philosophy?” It seems that there are many other, and much more important things to do. But, C.S. Lewis rightly notes in the essay called “Learning in Wartime,” which he wrote in the midst of WWII, it is in the midst of existential threat that doing good intellectual work is more important than ever because it reminds us that what we are fighting for is worth the effort. We must keep building the world that is at risk of being turned to ruins.

In agreement with Lewis, then, I offer the following.

I often tell my students that I write in order to figure out what I think about things. So, let me make clear at the outset that I am still working through where I am on where we all find ourselves. I keep thinking that maybe the other night when I was watching the election results until 4am, that I just lapsed into a really bizarre dream and just haven’t woken up yet.

If only . . . but, here I am.

I am awake and thinking well matters and the luxury of delaying one’s thoughts until things “calm down,” is one that I don’t think remains an option.

In the past few days I have had terrified students come to me in tears to express their existential concern about their own future due to their immigration status, race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. That this is the case demands a response from everyone, but especially those of us who because of our position as professors are the ones to whom some people look for answers—we spend our life thinking about things for a living, don’t we? Surely we have a response that is helpful, right?

Again, if only . . . but here we are.

There are a variety of possible responses that are all reasonable and maybe even helpful, but whatever else we do, we should at least respond by thinking well with them about where we find ourselves. But, what makes things so difficult is that, in the current context, I struggle to see how in doing so I am not literally a performance of what has been shown to be untrue within our social and political reality.

See, I stand in front of my students every single day and tell them that critical thinking, a concern for truth, being well-spoken, reflective, intentional, hermeneutically charitable, and ethically motivated is what real education is all about. This is why I celebrate liberal arts education in the first place: the point is not to train people for jobs, but to invite them into meaningful life—a life that will still be difficult and full of both joys and miseries, but a life that they will hopefully have the strength to live, and to live fully.

David Foster Wallace once said in an interview that one of the benefits of education is being able to be articulate about your frustration, your hopes, and your failures. He is right. This benefit is not simply an esoteric, or theoretical, meta-ability to offer a post-colonial-critical-theoretic-non-onto-theological-socio-political-Deleuzian-etc interpretation of your situation, but instead the real, concrete, no shit ability to own up to the complexity of the situations in which we find ourselves. It is what allows us to avoid the temptation toward assuming that questions are useless because answers are obvious. It is this idea that has motivated my career, my life, my faith, and my identity.

Yet, here I stand in front of my students who may just see it all as a big (albeit eloquent) lie.

Ultimately, this week may have shown that only power matters, money is status, hate is more motivating than love, and cultivating fear generates social action more effectively than building coalitions around tenuous and fragile points of common values. Accordingly, the liberal experiment about critical social discourse, mutual respect for divergent views, and the shared hope for some sort of political solution to pressing social problems is now on life support—and, it very well might die.

Whether this is a good thing remains to be seen, but here we are.

So, how do I stand in front of them and keep teaching them that philosophy is worth their time and their energy when this situation in which might not only makes right, but verbal abuse just counts as good argument? How do I explain to them that to engage in argumentum ad hominem is actually a fallacy rather than a good political strategy? How do I weep with them without also shedding tears for the manifest irrelevance of the very conversation of humankind that has for so long been what invites us to cry, laugh, love, and rage in the first place?

To paraphrase Walt Whitman, we might ask what good is philosophy amidst these who confuse being offensive with provoking reflection, who mistake vulgarity with a critique of political correctness, who flaunt ignorance as a productive challenge to the “liberal elitism” of the universities? As Whitman puts it: “The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?”

To be honest, I am not sure. It may be that the simple answer is just that philosophy is worth precious little.

But what if that little remains precious, nonetheless?

Must we throw up our hands, shrug and keep weeping? I don’t think so. In fact, I think that Whitman gives us a good suggestion for a better response: “That you are here—that life exists and identity, That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

It matters that we demonstrate critical thinking even while others assume that shouting louder is tantamount to evidential refutation. It matters that we think well when it seems hard to think anything at all. It matters that we care about truth because only then can lies and bullshit still be categories to avoid.

I am here, and so are you. Life exists. Identity exists.

While I have breath, I will speak—God help me to speak words of life that foster identities in others who are then able to contribute their own verses.

So, here I am. Weeping at moments. Raging at others. But through it all trying to find the words to say such that my contribution to this play might matter such that it doesn’t turn tragedy into nothing other than a farce.

Here, then, is what I have found myself leaning on in order to be able to be someone upon whom my students can lean. I am not sure if any of this actually restores truth about that which now seems to be a lie to so many of them, but as the small stool in my grandparents’ bathroom said: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” I am a philosopher and so philosophy is what I can do. I will stake my claim that what seems to have been shown to be the case over this past week is not, finally, true. This is a moment in which truth is, itself, at stake. So, all I have, I give to you so that you might have a little more left to give. Philosophy matters now, more than ever, because it is, here and now, at stake more than before.

Cynicism is cheap grace—it allows us to excuse our own apathy. Costly grace is always costly because it requires us to risk ourselves. Aware of the risk, then, here are three thoughts keep me going and keep me committed to thinking well even when those in power have abandoned such a commitment:

First: Democracy matters more than those who are empowered within a democracy. There will always be individual leaders and there will always be those who are marginalized within a social structure. Yet, what democracy is about is not voting practices, but a commitment to the idea of critique being possible all the way down. Rightness is never assured because of one’s position. Truth is never guaranteed because of one’s status. This is the fundamental democratic opposition to authoritarianism. This is the reason that democracy requires that justice recognize that we are never democratic enough. There is always more work to be done. So we keep working.

It is important to keep in mind that marginalization occurs even when we are attempting to include the marginalized. Martin Heidegger’s account of truth such that every unconcealing is also a concealing is a helpful framework for understanding that to stand with a particular group is always going to be perceived as standing against some other group. This is what we liberals have too often forgotten. When we fight for the rights, voices, and status of the oppressed, which we should!, we tend to ignore that someone else feels (whether rightly or not) to have had their rights restricted, their voices silenced, and their status threatened. I do not want to equivocate here between those who have no social status and those who, because of their traditional status, feel entitled to have even more, but a sensitivity to the complexity of experiential context is important.

My point is not that we need to find a way to be more charitable to those who are not charitable. Nor do I mean to suggest that there can be a society without exclusion. Rather, I am saying that we all (whether liberal or conservative) can do better at realizing that our own identities are not necessarily the hallmark for the identities of others. To forget this is to foster the very sort of resentment that festers into hate and then translates to violence. We are all responsible for where we now find ourselves.

Presidents matter, but democracy matters more. It matters more because it is what allows us to understand why Presidents matter. It matters more because it is what allows us to continue to be right about our very moral commitments to inclusion and critique. It matters more because it is what allows us to have the institutional structures that facilitate speaking up against injustice (whether real or perceived) in the name of our own experience, while always aware that our experience is not total.

Second: Critique is a mode of caring about others, but dismissal is not. This is important because marginalization is not a one-way street. Had the election turned out differently, there would still have been half of the voting populace that feels unheard. It is difficult to own up to the fact that both the working-class rust-belt white worker who may have voted differently than I did, and also the undocumented immigrant in my church who was not able to vote at all, demand my concern and my attention. It is frustrating to live into the realization that my community, my neighbors include both the Bentley-driving white family who thinks that the United States is really “their country,” and also the Muslim refugees who have literally lost everything in the attempt to come here in order to save their children. Of course I realize that I am setting up extreme dichotomies because unless we own up to the extremes, we are likely to avoid trying to understand what is at stake between them. As Søren Kierkegaard and Emmanuel Levinas both show us, when we try to restrict who counts as our “neighbor” to those who we are most comfortable with (whether the members of the country club or the facilities staff at the country club who can’t afford to be members), we miss the moral insistence of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

That said, it is easy to rest complacently in the postmodern logic of theoretical superiority, but difficult to enact the entailments of Jacques Derrida’s claim that “tout autre est tout autre,” and that a democracy must be hospitable even to the enemies of democracy. It is not for nothing that he also notes that a democracy worth its name would be a “Christian democracy” because the virtue of loving your enemy must be enacted within democracies as a social practice. This is very, very hard work. I am not sure I am up to it on most days. But, I do know that it matters that I try to be.

When I work to care about others, I must not give in to the temptation to conclude that this requires me to shut down my critical engagement with them (and the views that they hold). Indeed, one of the truly regrettable aspects of the postmodern philosophical world in which I work is that it sometimes gives the impression that everything is interpretation, except for our interpretation, which is fact about the interpretations of those who don’t agree with us. This can’t be right.

Postmodernism is worth defending because it throws us all back on our hermeneutic decisions. We are all in this together, but that doesn’t mean that everything is equal or that just anything goes. Rather, when we understand the moral imperative of democracy itself, as ultimately rooted in neighbor-love instead of self-interest, then we can better appreciate that it is patronizing to “tolerate” everyone’s views, rather than lovingly taking their views seriously enough to allow them to be worth refuting or adopting. Standing with those who are marginalized by those in power does not require standing for what they consider to be true.

Third: There is a time for anger, but it is important to think really, really well about when that time is. There is a real risk in expending one’s emotional and psychological energies in trying actually to fight a rhetorical war. The danger is that by taking to the streets merely in opposition to the potential policies that might come, you galvanize the opposition’s resolve to enact those very policies. Anger rarely breeds charitable responses from those at whom one is yelling. And yet, there is a contrasting real risk that in waiting to take to the streets until actual policies occur, you can make it seem like it is ok for such policies to be enacted. The question is not about what one ought to speak up and speak out, but rather how to know when and how to do so?

I refuse to be the person who didn’t stand against oppression because I happened to be among those not being oppressed. I refuse to be the person who waits so long to get involved that involvement has become a futile exercise in self-congratulatory moral superiority. It is kind of like waiting to see how bad the hurricane gets before deciding whether or not to evacuate. By the time you realize that you need to leave, it is now too late to do so. Alternatively, however, there are also real consequences to leaving just on the rumor that a hurricane might be developing far out to sea. The goal has got to be to live such that we are prepared to leave at any moment, and yet attentive enough to be able to use good judgment about when to get in the car.

Part of me wants to march in solidarity with those taking to the streets. Part of me wants to applaud Elizabeth Warren for being willing to work within the democratic structures to bring about justice even if it might mean working with the people who seem so often willfully to refuse to see the faces of the victims of injustice (or at least some of them). I do not know how to reconcile these two parts of myself.

If only . . .

I have not yet figured out how to move forward, but I know that we must not judge too quickly those who already have moved forward in ways that raise for us genuine concerns. There are always genuine concerns that attend any movement in any direction. So, I will keep doing philosophy and be ready to march. But, in marching, we must not stop doing philosophy, and in doing philosophy we must realize that we are continuing to build the world for which we march.

Kierkegaard was right to say that life must be lived forward but understood backwards. None of us know what is going to happen tomorrow, much less over the next four years. Yet, we have to live into tomorrow and every day after that with boldness tempered by humility.

May we have the humility to be so bold.

3 thoughts on “Can we still do philosophy?

  1. I am wearing a safety pin on my sweater today. I’d like it to symbolize what you wrote here. And I’d like it to be sufficient advocacy for today, so that people who need the space for a voice can be heard above me, and my privileged academic voice doesn’t try to eat up that space. But I’m here, listening and watching, and I have a small token symbolizing that fact.


  2. Pingback: The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English Redux (2016) | the becoming radical

  3. Pingback: The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English Redux (2016) by Garn Press Author Paul Thomas - Garn Press

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