PHILOSOPHICAL PRACTICE OR NOT PHILOSOPHICAL PRACTICE: A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF THE COPENHAGEN PRACTICAL PHILOSOPHY CONFERENCE (2004)
Philosophy and philosophy
We had the opportunity to assist to the seventh conference on practical philosophy, “Philosophical practice, a question of Bildung”, held in august 2004 in Copenhagen; a conference which left us with a number of questions on this matter. What constitutes philosophical practice? What is alien to philosophical practice? Those are questions that can anyhow always be asked when one attends a gathering of philosophical practitioners. Be it both on the question of what is philosophy and what is a practice.
Short of giving any definite answer, the advantage of asking such questions is that one has the opportunity of thinking through – or rethinking – the very principle of philosophical practice, and philosophy itself. But as a preamble to our reflection on this matter, we should keep in mind the distinction which is often introduced between a “noble” conception of philosophy, and a “popular” or “vulgar” one – what Kant distinguishes as “academic” and “mundane” – to the extent that one accepts that they can be separated. The first case is an activity of the mind inspired both by great authors, by a culture and a tradition, and regulated by formal requirements, such as logic, dialectic or concept production. The second case is a “freethinking” that implies considerations upon our own vision of the world, a personal reflection upon the meaning of life or other crucial aspects of human existence, as it occurs to anyone. The first case is more geared toward a form of knowledge, and to a certain extent a form of know-how, when the second one privileges what can be called wisdom, again in the popular sense: how to conceive and lead one’s own life. In other words, if “noble” philosophy is more formal, radical and abstract, it has as well more pretensions toward certitudes and universality, while “vulgar” philosophy deals more with the singular: it inscribes itself in the contingent, it is concerned with concrete situations and bears none if little criteria outside of itself.
Now, of course, like all philosophical schemes, this one is controversial, since some philosophical systems might deny any validity to our first description, the one of a “philosophia perennis”, quasi metaphysical in nature being too abstract and formal, and others would deny the value of our second description, because of its very concrete and pragmatic considerations. This rather simplistic caricature bearing this ready made antinomy is here proposed for only one reason: to show the tension involved in the very concept of practical philosophy, a concept that will appear as a sheer oxymoron to many a philosopher. And many a philosophical scheme, starting with a number of religious messages, attempts to transcend this dualism. Although within each religion, we can perceive as well this very distinction, articulated as a tension between faith and knowledge, often an object of contention between different authors or interprets.
We could, by way of a report, account in a descriptive way for the different events and speeches that constituted the totality of the conference, but it seems to us to be more philosophically productive just to choose and analyze specific moments, in order to draw out the general philosophical implications of their occurrence. A criticism that can of course only be accomplished through the sift of our own conception of practical philosophy. In order to do so, we acknowledge this bias of ours instead of pretending to refer to some objective unquestionable and rather hidden matrix. This philosophical view has been further explicated in other articles of ours. But for now, let us just say that to distinguish philosophical practice from philosophical theory, we profess that this theory must be actively confronted to the otherness presented in a threefold way : by the world as a totality expressed in the alternative form of mythos or logos, by the other as a subject different from ourself, and by the unity of our own self.
Since philosophy for us bears on the object of being defined as the totality of what can be thought, it seems that the practice has to be a confrontation to this object itself, of the object to itself, as foreign to us as this object may be, just like the physicist confronts his theories about the material world to this material world, or the biologist to life itself. Although the specific problem for the philosopher, somewhat spared to the scientis, is that the object and the subject share a common nature. Thus, being, as we conceive it, takes the triple form of totality, of singularity, and of unity, or coherence. So practice will be primarily geared toward this confrontation, rather than on the indefinite extension of a given speech. But we have no wish here to belabor any further on our own perspective. Hopefully it will clarify itself in the process of the discussion.
But a key point we are trying to ensure in this part, is that we wish to replace the merely moralistic or ethical perspective on dialogue, the ethical justification of it, very much in vogue those days, with an actual methodological and philosophical requirement for such a confrontation of standpoints, if only with oneself, as Plato defines thinking as a debate within one’s soul. For if the philosophical world outlook does not exclude of course the ethical world outlook, it should not stand to be replaced by it under the guise of being the “right” and the “good”, dogmatically established. We choose to criticize what one could call the “nursing” dogma in philosophical practice: the puffed up sentimental focus on care rather than actual rigorous and creative critical thinking.
Reading papers is a must
First there are general observations that we would like to formulate, since they correspond to a general pattern of behavior that one could observe throughout the conference proceedings, very revealing of a given philosophical outlook. The most striking one is the very simple fact that the vast majority of speakers chose to give a formal lecture which constituted in reading a paper. Even though the different papers were of unequal value, as is expected in such an event, depending as well on the expectations of the listener, some appeared to us as quite interesting. But why did most of the contributors think that they actually had to read, page after page, line after line, word after word, a text that they had written before the conference took place? Even in a very traditional academic setting, some professors might take the risk of giving a somewhat more improvised presentation. Why would specialists who pretend to revise the classical conceptions of philosophy, who pretend to steer it away from its ivory tower, far from the usual erudite monologue, fall into this type of behavior? Are they not in total contradiction with the content of their own speech, with what they officially stand for?
At this point, some objectors will contend that there is nothing wrong with the principle of “paper reading”, claiming that it is a good way to account for one’s own work and explain one’s position, and that there is no reason to make such a fuss about it. So we have here to accept the fact that this criticism on our part is not of an obvious nature, and to explain why we find this a major point of contention, even though we may regret that this is not an evident matter for practical philosophers – a fact that tells us a lot on this activity, as conceived by its standard bearers.
Our first major criticism is that the auditor is absent from the presentation. As already mentioned, the paper has been written before, without knowing who the specific people constituting the audience will be, or the issues that have been brought to the fore, or how people would react to the ideas, or the kinds of blind spots and contradictions that will be observed by the foreign ear. Thinking together, the confrontation to otherness in all its forms, which always lead to unexpected results, seems to us to be a major determinant characteristic of philosophical practice But visibly, this is not the case with most of our colleagues in this field.
Second, unless one thinks that practical philosophy is an activity only significant as applied to oneself, the principle of the exchange is to work on someone else’s mind, which does not exclude a simultaneous work on our own – quite the contrary. As basic pedagogy implies the following: In order to address someone, it is better to be informed about what is going on in our auditor’s mind, to know what he knows, to be aware of what his difficulties are, in order to deal with him directly rather than to address some abstract inexistent auditor concocted a priori. Concretely, this signifies for example that instead of spending the whole time imparted by delivering to us a monologue, one could present a less developed speech, and depending on the reactions of the public deal anew with what has been said, or with other aspects that will address directly the remarks formulated. As any pedagogue should know, what is the use of going further if the auditor has not followed or understood the basic principles of the presentation? Should we not check that he is with us before going any further? Of course we can always presuppose his understanding, but it is precisely the prerogative of pure theory to proceed a priori rather than verifying our hypothesis.
Third, to read a speech is often an artificial activity, in the sense that it bears an illusion of thought. We could even say an illusion of life, in view of the monotone way many a speaker adopts when he reads his own work. One does not think, because the work is already done, fossilized, and nothing accounts anymore for the genesis, for the process of creating thought. All the failed attempts, the bifurcations, the errata, the hesitations have disappeared: we are now in a museum, and even though some of the pieces might be beautiful, the artist is not present anymore, if he is not long gone. A practice should invite us in the workshop of the artist, a messy and dirty place, where we can see in real time how the artists proceeds, how he behaves step by step: his methodology becomes visible, his way of proceeding appears, he is alive and we gain insights in his genius. Reading or not reading is not a mere formal issue: one can tell when a speaker is thinking while he speaks, something else takes place while the exchange goes on, actual live thinking is taking place during this improvisation. Reading a paper is comparable to a concert in play back: certainly the musician has played himself, but not for the public, not in the presence of a public, and with much gimmickry that makes the whole difference. In one case he is trying to impress us, in the other, he is playing for us. Why should we ask more of a musician than of a scholar?
Fourth, when the speaker stops reading and interacts with his audience, he accepts to step down from his pedestal, he takes away his sacred aura, he stops pretending he is a magician: he reveals the hard work involved in producing ideas, because his memory fails, because he does not have all ideas handy, because he has to deal with objections and questions that can cause him certain problems, when they don’t show certain spots of weakness or impotence in his discourse. Certainly we can be seduced by the artistic quality of a finished work, well polished and refined in all its details, but the glossy aspect can as well stop us from perceiving the substance of the matter: he spoke so well, we are full of admiration, and we think by proxy rather that struggling with the ideas. How often does the public react more to the apparent brilliance of words, which makes them feel good, when they in fact are just sitting back in their chairs, passively seduced by the forms and the occasional pleasing expression. The listener is in fact flattered by the speaker: if the listener is pleased by the glossiness of the speech, this must reflect upon him; if he is overwhelmed with admiration, he must be admirable himself. He enjoys sharing the magnificence, intelligence and glory of the speaker, which he believes magically radiates upon him. As long as he does not try to question his own understanding, that neither the speaker nor anyone in the audience questions it through some unexpected confrontation of ideas, everything is fine. And this is probably the main reason why this type of audience views as an unwholesome trouble maker anyone who would challenge the established authority: he would be forced to se a problem and think! They would be deprived of a warm and cozy intellectual environment where they delight themselves with words. And even if the speech seems in the immediate long and even boring because of its opacity, the memory will later on retain the impressive quality of the discourse and forget quickly the unintelligibility of it. In fact, how much the audience will love to applaud at the end is as much to acknowledge profundity as it is a sigh of relief: it is finally finished.
Thus practice is necessarily linked to the experience of a test, it cannot exist without confrontation with otherness in the most profound and challenging way. In this exchange, both speaker and audience take risks, a condition for becoming more conscious of oneself and one’s own limitations, and for gaining new insights into one’s own thinking and being.
In this context it is always revealing when the chairman of the session asks the audience to put forward exclusively questions and short ones, thus forcing a major difference of statute on the listeners: at best the auditor is allowed to ask for an explanation, he has no right to confront the world outlook of the speaker, for this cannot be done in a few words. Especially since the speaker himself has the right to extend his speech as much as he wants without any interruption on the part of the chairman. At the same time the requirements put on the person from the audience that tries to express himself is huge, since he is asked to be very brief, when he may have difficulties to articulate his own speech, a tough requirement which does not apply to the speaker, although the latter is supposed to be more competent since he is given a greater statute.
At the same time, this same chairman demands that in the workshop presentations – which lasted only forty minutes while the plenary speeches were given one hour – the speakers devote half of the time to discussion, an injunction that of course was not respected at all. Why should it, when the example given in the plenary sessions was to mobilize the whole time for paper reading? It is, by the way, interesting to notice that discussion was officially given a role only in moments that had “lesser” importance.
Fifth, this is an attitude which encourages a conception of speech as omnipotent, a principle which is very contrary to the idea of practice, since practice is the confrontation to otherness, true respect for otherness, an otherness that is then susceptible of exposing the inside of words, demonstrating the falseness or even the absurdity of a given speech. After all, the principle of practice is one of verification, of experimentation. But rather than engaging in this process, most speakers would try to say everything they could, without forgetting the least garnishing device or scrap of quote that might make him look good… The most vivid example of this is a speaker that even tried to grab some extra time by pretending that her session had been delayed for five minutes, in order to throw in a few more sentences. As if one has to say everything, in some quest for the ultimate speech that does not leave anything out.
Contrary to such a view, we tend to believe that philosophical practice is geared at installing a certain mistrust of words, because words are often confused, because words lie, because words are limited, because words are impotent, because words often hide more than they express, because words can never pretend to exhaust reality, no matter how we define this reality. Words are mere tools that cannot pretend to fully seize the object that they pursue, and any attempt to glorify them – when it is not to deify them, like in traditional societies where words had magical powers – bears much ridicule. One can still hope, in a superstitious way, that those words make a person happy or grant him success. But to expect too much from words can only foster certain illusions about the world and the self. In other terms, time spent on examining the value of any given speech is at least as important as the speech itself. This is what can be called criticism in the classical philosophical sense. The problem is that a speech often tends to be complacent with itself, pretending at least implicitly to be beyond criticism, or pretending to contain its own criticism, when in fact there can always be an “elsewhere”, an “outside” perspective, from which a given speech can show its emptiness. Then it is a crucial choice of a speaker to either assert his postulates and ensure the completeness of his own speech by piling up more information, or rather to search for this “otherness” which can offer a real challenge, a challenge that can be used as the very definition of practice.
As we have already said, the vast majority of presentations were lectures. So, apart from the fact that those lectures were being read, which shows a lack of practical perspective, one can question as well the fact that there were no actual practices presented, or hardly any, as a part of the conference proceedings. Even the moments that were characterized as workshops were lectures: the only actual difference was that a few of them were held simultaneously, and therefore there were less people in any group than at the plenary session. However, at a certain moment, on our demand, the organizers of the conference asked who would like to show his practice in public. Then only two persons out of more than a hundred participants volunteered for the proposal.
But once more, let us not take for granted the reason why the fact of engaging in actual workshops should be preferred to talking about it, even though we might regret the fact that this is not an obvious claim. Thus, based on our general observations, let us forward a few hypotheses on the reasons why actual practice was not displayed, why contributors largely preferred to ramble on the theme of the conference rather than engaging into its activity, rather than watching others practicing or showing their own particular way of doing things.
Our first hypothesis or conclusion is a harsh one: very few persons are really involved in any kind of continuous practice. This might sound like a sort of “the king is naked” statement, but our experience of many groups and societies in different parts of the world leads us to believe that it is very natural, most likely and even necessary for human beings gathered in any form of tribal activity, to foster and promote “big lies” that are needed to initiate, promote and enhance social life. Myths are fundamental to human existence, they give sense and meaning tour existence, which alas! for us “reasonable” animals has to be more than mere biological survival. Man permanently needs a supplement of soul. And indeed, what would signify a “Philosophical practice” conference if it was reserved to the handful of persons that actually are engaged in a practice? How could we select them? What about those persons who just want to learn something about it? After all, why should not practice represent a mere regulating ideal, however imaginary or fantastical it may be? Maybe something can be born out of those dreams! Just like in some traditional cultures, where the believers need to believe that the high priest has special powers, the attendants to a philosophical practice conference need to believe in the power and the reality of the orators presented to them. Therefore, short of seeing what they do, we indulge in listening to their words, often because they sound nice and make us feel better and wiser. Who cares about reality! The massage is the message, as all advertisement agencies know. How can we not believe someone that speaks well, even if we don’t understand what he says, and even when we find it over all quite boring? Maybe the opacity of the speech is part of its depth! Maybe the absence of concreteness and experience is the proof of its mystical power!
Philosophy, in spite of its harshness, is a very meaningful enterprise to the human soul, and a number of us like to believe that it can play a significant role in our life, so we prefer to ignore the impossibility or the inexistent actual reality of such an endeavor as “philosophical practice”. Maybe we have to admit – and that is part of the practice – that philosophy as such has never and will never be, at least in an open and explicit fashion, an ascetic experience accessible to the vast majority of people. But then again, we have to distinguish between the traditional “noble” form of philosophy and its “popular” version, and we have to acknowledge the utmost difficulty that lays in the attempt to relate those two registers. This is most likely the reason why the most common judgment among specialists is that the adjunction of the two words in “practical philosophy” is a sheer contradiction of terms, a real oxymoron. Is it thus better to give up the hopeless horizon of a philosophical practice? Since we are present in this discussion, our response, just like the one of Sisyphus condemned to ever rolling his huge stone uphills that always drops in the end, is to contemplate in this absurdity the spiritual fatality of human existence, the emergence of conscience. And like Camus ironically invites us to do: “We have to imagine Sisyphus happy”!
A major practitioner
But let us be more specific for a moment, and give some concrete meaning to a discourse that may seem strange to the reader, as we got caught in our own literary thrust. We can for this purpose take the example of a man presented as a “major practitioner”. What does this man do for us believers? He makes a big speech about what man should be. He speaks about education, about virtue, about certain ethical principles that one should abide by as a practitioner, and thus he is to be regarded as an ideal for other men who therefore should follow his example. “This is the way we have to be, this is the way we should be” is the essence of the discourse. And everyone applauds!
Of course, no demonstration of his practice is offered to make us witness how this kind of behavior is put into action. It is an ideal, not a regulating one but a determinant one, as Kant would have distinguished. We a priori determine the specific behavior one should abide by, in a very moralistic way, rather that some perspective that should be elaborated in common. It is not an action one is invited to engage into, but an actual moral injunction one has to obey. Now, anyone can after all propose a certain way of being which for him incarnates the ideal, the super ego, the way to be that leads to happiness, to the good life, to true humanity or whatever the concept of realization or perfection may be. But it should therefore be presented in this fashion, as an abstract ideal, and not as a path to become “this person”, the “right kind of person”.
At the same time this specialist attempts, probably in order to answer some objections and problematize his position, to introduce certain elements of critical perspective in his definition. He strongly affirms and reiterates that each human being is singular, that each one has to find his way. But his way to what? To a predefined modality of being! How personal can that be? Are not the cards rigged? We are offered a fixed agenda, how can the host pretend to hold an open house?
In order to makes things clear, let us emphasize that we are not contesting the validity of such a perspective, which is very classical and certainly not deprived of any value. We only claim that the there is a lie in the nature of the merchandise. Jesus Christ, Spinoza, Bouddha or Kant all invite us to a certain form of morality, truth or happiness, but in their message they exclude certain ways of being which to them seem contrary to the good, the true or the beautiful. The path they invite us upon is clear, however harsh or impossible this path may be to engage upon.
The question that we encounter here is a very modern one – or a post-modern one, as the amateurs of neologisms would have corrected. What is philosophical practice? A path of wisdom, already established and channeled, or the search for the specificity of the self? The first perspective is often badly viewed in intellectual circles today for being out of fashion. But if this is the perspective that one proposes, why not admit it clearly in beforehand and put the right label on it, however uncouth it may appear. There are many identified paths to wisdom or happiness that have proven their functionality throughout the years and even the centuries, if this is what one is looking for. But these paths do not pretend to have some kind of “post-modern openness”; they anchor themselves on definite principles, condemning other ways of being as undesirable, unhealthy or even evil. In a certain way, through these condemnations, they admit their own finiteness instead of claiming the omnipotence of containing everything and its contrary.
But let us again examine our “major practitioner”. Beyond the contradiction he offers between an “open” practice and a very definite “ethicist” perspective, he claims to have no method. What takes place during the encounter he has in the consulting practice is “the encounter of two individuals”. Because of this, he cannot describe his own practice, his own way of working: it is too contingent on the particular situation, he says.
This kind of consideration or argument has an echo in the discourse of the typical philosophy teacher, often the official description of this function. Since he does not work, or hardly works, on methodology, he claims to have no method, and because of this, he is incapable of conceptualizing, and even of describing, his own classroom practice. The truth of the matter is that he lectures all the time, or once in a while attempts to initiate a vague discussion that does not go very far and leaves him frustrated. But he cannot admit this, so he cloaks himself in a shroud of mystery and refuses to delve into technical considerations such as didactics, considered as standing below his intellectual level and his natural artistic genius. The official “party” line, as it is spouted out in France for example, is that “He is the author of his own course”, a very dignified description for someone who spends hours trying to explain to students what he has retained in a more or less clear fashion over the years. But he does not see himself working, he refuses to become conscious of his very standard way of teaching: he simply lectures. To do anything else would be too costly: he has been trained this way, he has hardly ever seen anything else. To make sure that he will have no problem with himself and the others, he refuses any request to come and see how he teaches: that would be too perilous an experience. He fears the judgment of the “other”, an other that could emit some criticism, an other that could make him conscious, as Sartre describes, and our “specialist” is ill at ease because he is being worked over by doubt and fear. No wonder that he acts in a very defensive manner!
We also encounter this refusal to discuss method on the other end of the philosophical spectrum, within the domain of “popular” philosophy. Just like his “noble” counterpart, the “popular” philosopher believes in his own genius. We refer for example to the café philo facilitator, who in fact is often – as we encounter him – a mere discussion manager who from time to time throws in his two bits in the discussion. His main interest for most of the participants is to guarantee their turn for a well waited for narcissistic moment of pleasure: to hold the floor and try to impress their audience. Beside the fact that he regulates the discussion, the facilitator may participate in the exchange of opinion, and he often is just as keen as the others, if not more, in defending his particular options on truth, morality or whatever. He is just himself, and represents himself, but he thinks that he is endowed with some particular gift or power that makes him believe that he represents some guarantee of a true or good philosophizing. Actually he is incapable of defining his own mode of behavior, of conceptualizing his practice, because he has not thought it through and has not compared it to different practices. But just as his “noble” counterpart, he has a claim to artistic genius and conceives himself to be beyond method. But when the first one merely lectures, the second one merely manages an exchange of opinion. In both cases, no analysis takes place to ensure that the participants really philosophize. In the first case the participant listens and grabs what he can, in the second case he expresses his opinions. Now of course, both these modalities of philosophizing have their particular interest, but they are just what they are, and from our point of view they have a limited capacity to engage someone to think by himself. Their non-dialectic nature, where the thinking process refuses to become an object to itself, hinders their own philosophizing potential. Their pretension of “beyondness” is a simple refusal of self-consciousness; their claim to an unfathomable experience constitutes a negation of their own reality.
Thus, our “major practitioner” surrounds his practice with an aura of mystery. Some suspicious colleagues suggest that this might represent a cheap trick in order to attract curious customers, intrigued by this curious phenomenon. He compares himself to a violin teacher, he indulges, but he never plays in public. Then, what does our “major practitioner” do in his practice? Or what can we suspect him of doing, since he does not say what he does, since he does not show what he does? Well, we can only have suggestive clues, based on the way he speaks, based on the way he engages in personal discussions, and as well based on the descriptions given by a couple of his “colleagues”. Let us try to guess, more or less, what the “mysterious” or “mystical”, and highly “unspeakable”, method of his consists of. It seems to be a rough mixture of “noble” philosophy and “popular” philosophy, an alternation of lecturing and discussion. The room that he makes for the singular is to let his interlocutor tell his life stories or present his existential problem in a rather uncontrolled way, with a little question here and there, in order to get some explanation, without demanding any strong philosophical requirement such as conceptualization, since this would make his interlocutor ill at ease, and he does not want that. Then, once in a while or frequently, he will throw in some quotes of authors to give the exercise some “real philosophical” flavor, or refer to some idea that might enlighten this person by echoing his preoccupation. After all, why not! Of course, his choice of ideas and quotes are taken primarily from a Kantian or an idealist perspective, as he thinks that the right path goes in that direction. He therefore softly moralizes the person in order to mildly attempt a restructuring of the self. If we have to give a name to this method, we would call it the “philosophical conversation” technique. Indeed, in this technique, the philosopher presents himself as a “master of wisdom” in the “classical” sense: the one that knows what to do and how to behave in order to have a “good life” and to be “happy”, which of course is conditioned by being “virtuous”.
Now, our “major practitioner” disciples would strongly deny this, as they “officially” never imposes any change in their guests by way of persuasion, however mild it might be. They claim that the philosopher should not try to change his guest, which of course adds to the “mystery” of his practice. The ideal seems in their words to be that the guest should change by himself during the course of the sessions, which might go on for weeks or months or even years, similar in this fashion to classical psychological therapy. The philosopher merely enables his guest to see for himself more clearly where his path of life – which is highly individual and cannot be discerned at once – has taken him, and where it might lead from now on. The ideal of equality between the philosopher and his guest refers to the equal value of the guest’s outlook on life and the philosopher’s, however different these two outlooks might be. This is a dogma that no one can challenge without being accused of elitism or moralism, which are real bad words in a world where equality and tolerance is what you must bow to. But this equality and tolerance are precisely the concepts that are being used to enforce a “new moralism”. Beside this, one should really wonder if it is possible to be as neutral as the ideal prescribes it and not impose any points of views – and especially values – of our own on the guest during the philosophical conversation. Especially while proclaiming aloud very specific ethical injunctions. One should discuss whether the dogma of the equality of outlooks on the world is possible to hold in one’s practice, or if the claim to neutrality in the practice produces hypocrisy, as the philosopher after all favors naturally his own outlook and cannot avoid that this shines through, if only in his behavior.
At this point we can accuse this practitioner of being culturally determined, and we may wonder how he would deal with someone who does not fit into his cultural scheme. Here there seems to reside a certain confusion between the Hegelian concepts of volkgeist (spirit of a people) and weltgeist (spirit of the world) : some universality anchored and articulated in a certain cultural framework overlooks its bounded nature and affirms itself as some unconditional principle. And if the volkgeist can constitute a natural access to weltgeist, it becomes an obstacle when it overlooks the limitations of its own provincial presuppositions. Furthermore, how can one pretend to be open to singularity when one is so embedded in a fixed cultural framework that cannot be problematized ?
But at the same time we have to grant our “major practitioner” a certain patience, at least in appearance, for the “psychological needs” of his interlocutor. He can let him go on quite a while in an unchecked manner on his wants and desires. This psychological “openness” in his “discussion” process composes without any doubt his main concession to modernity, the prime reason why he would deny the accusation of being a moralist. But as is visible in the lectures he makes in public when he is invited to speak, his agenda is clearly an ethical one, where there is little room if any for the slightest transgression: his stern profession of faith borders any critical analysis with a strongly tainted Aufklärung idealist perspective. The best evidence we can offer on this matter of theoretical rigidity is the total absence of concrete cases in his public discourse, which tends to prove that the singularity, primarily psychological, which he admits in the privacy of his consulting-room, does not merit a real philosophical statute. The same thing can be said about his interlocutors at the conference, in front of whom he primarily wants to defend his world outlook, without any real consideration for any “otherness” that would invite him to problematize his rather well defined “enlightment” standpoint. In fact, on this matter, there is a little trick that is being played. For this school of thought claims that they are not dogmatic, that there are open to other ideas and even to changes. And if one listen to this speech, they would almost claim a skeptic or Pyrrhonian attitude, but that is definitely not the case. And the clearest proof of this is that they have very defined principles upon which you should address the other and the other should address you. By referring to “Ethics of communication” in the vein of Habermas and his followers, they think they involve the other sufficiently to pretend to outward openness. But they forget that in this matter of relation or methodology, nothing is neutral, and this very post-modern morality is for one not freed of any dogma, but second and not less it is very hypocritical. Just as a mere example, not deprived of heavy consequences, it rejects any Taoist, Nietzschean or Socratic path.
But as well, in order to conclude our “wild guess” on the practice of our “major practitioner”, we would like to insist on the fact that based on his lack of interest in the actual practice itself, be it in describing his own or knowing and understanding the one of other colleague’s, we can imagine that he is engaged in very little effective practice. How can we else explain why his interest is primarily oriented toward a priori theorization of what “good life” is all about? Anyone who is frequently involved in dealing with individuals of very different origins and background would very naturally address the difficulties and obstacles of such a practice, the conflict between the individual and the ideal, which would temper such a constant insistence to describe and promote a clean and marvelous description of human behavior. Even very idealist thinkers such as Jesus Christ, Spinoza, Buddha or Kant periodically address different forms of pathologies that seem rather absent from the discourse of our “major practitioner”. But our “major practitioner” will on the other side claim that any “methodological” work suffers from the “non neutral” or “authoritarian” pathology. In other words, if patient have the right to be what they are, this is not case with other practitioners, who have to obey to a certain well-defined world outlook, at least in their practice.
But again, another lie or incoherence, used to justify in a very pragmatic way his outlook and practice, is the way our man explains the concept of philosophical practice, through the idea that one will try to verify ideas upon the reality of the world, since he seems to believe that there is an objective reality that lays beyond concepts. An objective world which is the ultimate reality, but at the same time his concepts, rather idealistic, do not leave much space for this reality. Furthermore, he refers to concepts which are very “Aufklärung”, and we do not hear much of any other perspective, nor of the problems posed by such a specific perspective, just like if we were all in agreement on this universal and indubitable theorization. Indeed, his only interlocutors must then most likely be the occasional person seduced by such a philosophical perspective, who would rather indulge in “friendship” than being actually challenged by his practice, our “master of life” avoiding anyone that would challenge his practice, declared beyond criticism because of its pretended openness. Taking risks is not part of this ball game. And does not our man claim, after all, that his visitors come to see a person more than anything else, just like a neighborly visit.
Let us now depart from our “major practitioner”, even if he offered us the occasion to deal with important issues in the analysis of philosophical practice. This clarification of the issues will now help us to deal more rapidly with the different reasons accounting for the lack of interest in actual practice during “philosophical practice” conferences. We should now address an issue which was already mentioned, that seems recurrent in what we have perceived of the philosophical practice: the issue of psychology. Although we at this point should bring together, strangely enough maybe, “popular” philosophy and psychology.
This is the case for two reasons. First, because psychology in the last thirty years or so has become a very popular activity or concern, and many terms derived from this specific field have now found their way into common language: e.g. projection, libido, oedipal, ego, castration, etc. Second, because psychology is a practice geared toward persons who are basically suffering from problems and want to solve them by consulting a specialist – a context that places the subject in a situation where basically somebody will do something for him, where a knowledgeable person will help him. It is in other words a very passive mode where no profound requirement is demanded from someone, for he is conceived as a crippled person attempting to become healthy.
Another point to consider is that most psychological approaches hardly confront the immediacy of the self, with its wants and desires, except when it comes to grip with very practical situations, like in relational problems, where a person has to be able to create a distance from his self in order to make space for others in his immediate environment. In opposition to this, philosophical activity implies a confrontation of the self with very radical concepts, criticism, problematization and abstraction. Theoretically at least, the latter demand is very harsh, intellectually, and as well from an emotional and existential point of view.
In this sense, we would advance the hypothesis that philosophy has a resemblance to the kind of conversion and asceticism involved in religion, where the self is challenged by a reality which lays way beyond our own immediacy, while psychology tends to pamper and cuddle this self like it was a fragile little thing. Philosophy and religion, in a rash way, both claim the autonomy of the self. They both claim that the self is completely responsible towards itself, its thought or its actions, even in its relationship to transcendence. But unlike philosophy, psychology tends to consider that one’s self needs care and understanding in the way we would relate to a child or a weak person who has many excuses for “not being or behaving as he should be or behave”. This is taken to the extent that the “me”, taken as self-evidence, becomes the measure for everything. Its empirical narrated existence, his biography, sums up the essence of all reality. The fragile little child in every person is put on the pedestal and is comforted and “understood” up to the point where the grown up person disappears in a regression towards to most infantile self-pitying and narcissistic corners of one’s self. Then one is supposed to find the truth about oneself, when one has, helped by the psychotherapist, dug really deep into one’s self. Even though this process can be helpful in certain cases when one has little access to rationality, and for a limited period of time, too often it becomes a dubious hobby than one can entertain for years, quite unhealthy.
Thus the critical perspective, to convoke a major philosophical criterion, is not natural to psychology, or just in a marginal way, while it is at the heart of the religious and the philosophical activity. But the consumer ideology shares with the post-modern perspective and psychology an attitude that tends to take as legitimate the slightest desire and the most arbitrary way of being. The only accepted possible limitations are the practical consequences of such desires and ways of being. Hence many of our “would be” practical philosophers indulge in what can be considered as a rather psychological mode of practice. First because they have not come to grasp the interaction between “noble” philosophy and “popular” philosophy, but also for very practical reasons: that our consumer society produces primarily individuals defined as “clients”, who are used, like children or restaurant customers, to obtain what they want, to have their desires satisfied and cannot stand to see any of their wants frustrated.
Anyone involved in consulting work will have remarked how, on an initial basis, subjects who come for a consultation will want to tell their life story, confide their little preoccupations, express themselves as much as they can. In a society where one hardly listen to the other, they most likely are enchanted to encounter a patient and caring ear, and if any counseling is expected, it is one that can help them to feel better, to satisfy needs or give moral comfort. Seeing it this way, mottos like “good life”, “happiness”, “whole being”, “caring” and many others cast in this same mould sound like music to their ear. How tempting, then, to use those soft concepts and follow their lead, when it is so much easier, when it seem to offer a better guarantee of personal and professional success ! “You have to listen, and that is the main point of the practice”, the specialist repeats, as it is his favorite “profound” leitmotiv.
What then makes the philosopher different from the psychologist ? The irony of it is that the philosopher is not really trained for this task, as the psychologist is, and his credentials on these grounds are not the best. Even though our practitioner enters a gig act in order to resemble a psychologist, this does not seem to bring him the expected success. Maybe he encounters a certain legitimate mistrust for false advertisement. Too bad for the philosopher who hoped for definite professional success by espousing and spouting the rhyme of the time.
Now one might state that the difference between philosophy and psychology is not very interesting to him: it is only a name, claims he. After all, shouldn’t philosophers allow themselves to dwell in their guest’s emotional problems as well as their intellectual ones ? Can one really separate these two kinds of problems ? Very unlikely ! responds he, denying a major part of the philosophical tradition that precisely affirms the importance of such a distinction. But in the eyes of our “whole being” advocate, to contend that you are a philosopher, and not a psychologist, may quickly turn you into a formalist, blocking you off from those problems that really bothers people in everyday life, and which have to be addressed. Well, let us affirm that the quest for helping people to solve their everyday problems can be alien to the task of a philosophical counselor, as he is not necessarily so concerned with the immediate “needs” of your life. But let’s deal more in depth on those matters in another moment.
Noble theory and lowly practice
Thus we have “philosophers” that on one side establish principled positions on theoretical philosophy, sounding very much like the traditional professor, although they tries to buy themselves a practical image by threading a discourse on “life philosophy”, “mastery of life”, “beauty of life”, while for “practical reasons” they produce seducing jingles and address directly, without any qualms, psychological issues: most likely they will be interested in suicide cases, schizophrenia, sexual difficulties, hospital patients, etc. In a way, it is not that they should necessarily exclude those patients from philosophical counseling – even though this is our personal choice to do so. But they should not consider people with these kinds of problems to be their paradigmatic guests, or they will fall in the definite trap of psychologism. And this is an important matter since we know some practitioners might offer their services for example to hospitals, simply because of the lack of job opportunities for philosophical counselors.
But let’s not forget another important category: the practitioners that indulge in a “coaching” like activity, which is primarily to help persons who have difficulties in their professional activity, be it educational or business. Now, it is not that philosophical work cannot be done in any of these contexts, but like always, when faced with certain difficulties or obstacles, man naturally opts for evasion and equivocation, he engulfs himself in dubiousness, where he can get the impression of accomplishing something, of knowing what he is doing, in order to cheaply provide himself with a good conscience. For us, the whole question here is how to use philosophical concepts, how to develop philosophical competences, how to ensure that someone works on his own thinking and is being put through the numerous tools offered by philosophy, be it in individual cases or in group work – either with ready-made concepts produced throughout centuries of philosophical work, or by developing the innate potential that any human being has of producing concepts. But how can this be done unless practitioners give a real statute to practice, a practice that should be at the center of any gathering like these international conferences, so that each practitioner can examine other practices and invite his colleagues to analyze his own. Then one can wonder and examine if the different practices, taking into consideration the context in which they operate, really are on the level of a philosophical task, or analyze how they could improve and bear the philosophical challenge.
In Copenhagen we heard a comment that should be reported. One practitioner told us that “one needed courage to show one’s practice, which will seem so lowly after all these lofty speeches”. This comment is particularly interesting for a number of reasons. The first one is that the couple of practices that were shown attracted a definite interest, and offered quite a relief to a number of people stultified after all these theoretical speeches. Personally, we would rather be inclined to wonder why the majority of people still preferred to attend even more theoretical discourses instead of attending an actual practice. Our conclusion, reaffirming our previous statement, is that most of these persons are not involved in practice, have no interest in it, and would even be annoyed by an actual practice, as it might awake the unbearable memory that “the king is naked”…
The second point of interest in this remark is the confirmation that all those theoretical gesticulations generate fear more than anything else. Unlike fantasy ridden declarations, which might even be lies about the ways things are supposed to be, daily down to earth reality consists of putting one’s hand in the mud – something that often sounds messy and not glorious at all. Theoretical speeches have the advantage of producing any kind of reality they want through mere words, which like we previously accused, provide a sense of omnipotence, but also a sense of impotence, since the material reality of “otherness” does not at all correspond to the glossy theoretical reality. And of course, since theory dominates in the philosophical traditional hierarchy, practical endeavors easily suffer from some inferiority complex, even if, in the case of philosophical practice, one should turn things around and examine the operativity of theory in the light of its applicability.
Oddly enough, some “beyond method” practitioners would claim that they do exactly this, as being beyond method implies to be beyond any fixed theoretical stance. The post-modern way of shopping around in the supermarket of philosophical theories is then supposed to be their privilege. But when it comes to conferences, they just give speeches, which might seem to contradict their proclaimed stance. Their answer to this accusation would of course be that they are just displaying various goods from the supermarket of theories, which is completely in line with their stance. They might also claim that giving a demonstration consultation during a conference is meaningless, as their practice requires several consultation to give you an idea of what their work amounts to. They might also contend that the setting of a demonstration consultation is too artificial to give a proper demonstration of what an actual consultation really is. To these objection we could say that they, as the next best solution, ought to comment on their own practice in their speeches, giving examples of productive or unproductive moves or techniques, or provide some information about the results of their practice, to the extent that this can be done. Which is exactly what they did not give us at the conference, to our great disappointment.
The third remark concerning this comment bears on the question of universality, and the reality of this universality, its singular existence, which Hegel names “concrete universals”. It seems to us that philosophical practice bears a lot on this paradoxical entity, which Hegel uses to criticize empty concepts, filled and even bloated with their own grandeur, but which are empty and meaningless for lack of actualization, their absence of singular existence. Kant warns in a similar way against concepts without intuition, just as he warns against intuition without concepts. In a more radical way, Kierkegaard affirms that there is no truth but subjective truth, and he criticizes the spouting of abstract absolutes endowed with objective pretensions.
In a Socratic way, philosophical practice is concerned with the emergence of concepts as they are brought about in the singular individual, as they structure or deconstruct the subject; in other words as they operate and are formulated by a singular mind, and not defined by a a priori list drawn and spelled out by some professorial development on the history of ideas. Now, of course, most likely this singular mind will echo what the great geniuses of our past have spelled out in a more profound and clear, and especially in a more systematic fashion, and the knowledge of “noble” philosophy will help us to decode what we hear, although we should watch out for the temptation of recognizing classical positions too easily, as that would betray the originality of the singular thought. What kind of conception of practical philosophy is it then, if we are ashamed of the singular event instead of loving it like a newborn child, with all its imperfection, simply because it signifies the emergence of life, the bringing about of conscience? Certainly, like Plato warns us, we can sometimes give birth to little monsters, but still, giving birth is in itself more substantial that any ready made set of letters, which are awfully dead. Thus the most hesitant practice will be endowed with a quality that can never possess the most beautiful speech – which is a major reason why it should never be ashamed of itself.
Trial and error
At the same time, as already mentioned : to actually engage in a philosophical practice is not an easy task, since this tradition is non-existent in the western world, or has somewhat disappeared, so that the person engaging in this path is left on his own in terms of conceiving such a practice. A philosopher is as well also often loaded with heavy presuppositions in terms of what philosophy is, and even more in terms of what is expected from it by an internalized audience composed of “experts”. A third obstacle is that often is not accustomed to the confrontation of philosophy to life, or maybe only in a very vague manner, and not as a willfully constituted and formalized practice. Therefore, as we undergo the description different philosophers give of their work, through their various written or oral contributions to the conference proceedings, we discover the importance of having real philosophical practice presented to the participants. The intention is apparently present, because if some philosophers are visibly not involved at all in any practice and not concerned with it, a handful of others are visibly driven by a real desire to accomplish something of this kind. Some even make quite an effort in this direction, even if the mastery of any practical tools, in the technical sense necessary to any practice, is very absent. Which is one of the reasons why vague theories about “method less methods” seem to us to be particularly vain, and even dangerous, in terms of maintaining a cloak of lie and dissimulation, where inaction and crude impotence is hidden under the guise of profoundness.
For example, we can discover some practitioners who are very involved in what we might call popularization of philosophy. They are like professors who accept to teach philosophy outside of the classroom, an initiative which in itself is a worthwhile task. First because one has to acknowledge the interest of philosophy to a wider audience, not only in the manner that a “subject one has to learn” in order to get a good education or a diploma. Second, one has to look for such opportunities of presenting philosophy to non-specialists, and in order to do so, one has to defend and somewhat think through the necessity of philosophy in daily life. Third, if one wants to do this in a continuous fashion and be regularly invited by some institution or group, he as a philosopher has to be able to really address his audience, and not some abstract doctoral jury. He cannot be content to show his knowledge, he must make his interlocutors think – a task which implies the capacity to enter a minimal form of dialogue.
Philosophers engaged in those “public conference” circuit are, however, (or some of them at least) well aware that something is lacking, despite their general interest of popular lecturing, to make this activity constitute a real practice. They have not conceived a “real” group workshop activity, even though the desire is apparently present, they are not engaged in private consultations, or very little so, and sometimes they slip into some kind of simple professional guidance – a practice that can be assimilated to “coaching”.
Now of course, “coaching” can be directed in a philosophical way to the extent that one is willing to engage in a discussion and a reflection in the more profound meta level aspects of one life’s difficulties. But this often implies a redirection of the demands and expectations, which generally are initially dealing with domains of purely pragmatic considerations linked to professional or personal activities. Is the philosopher the one who is capable of helping to resolve professional difficulties? Nothing is less sure! Dealing with the depth of being or the requirements of truth is often too earthshaking to really be helpful in an immediate manner, although it is not forbidden to help in this fashion. This is, by the way, the whole problem of philosophizing within the “business” context, where efficiency and economic considerations are considered primary, while philosophical analysis invites us to be free to criticize such presuppositions.
The case of “business ethics”, so popular to-day in the context of a free enterprise where the absence of ethics is conspicuous while the financial and juridical rule is predominant, particularly in the U.S., is an interesting case of this particular situation. Even if it seems rather normal that what is being mostly talked about is what is mostly missing, there appears in this instance to reside a contradiction of principles that renders our nominal task difficult, if not impossible. But after all, like Plato experienced with politics, a fundamental contradiction should not stop us from attempting the impossible from time to time. Who knows what can be drawn from such an erratic initiative? Nothing is more conducive to philosophizing than the experience of failure, at the risky cost of corrupting our own self…
Apart from the persons who acknowledge in a very brief way their “bad conscience” about actual practice, giving mere lip service to practical philosophizing, and who are inclined to fill the void by falling in a very traditional lecturing on some particular historical debate or one’s own particular worldview, there are others who make a big hoopla about one or two half-baked experiments, giving it some pompous name while pretending that they have found the “way”. Which is another kind of lie, of course: a lie by omission, a lie by glorification!
There are some unmistakable hints that allow the listener to recognize a mixture of “self” and “other” deception in such lame attempts. The main one is that the description of the exercise mostly accounts for its theoretical background. This philosophical framework often pretends to present an overwhelming and complete summary of all philosophy, if not all philosophies, as if this omnipotent or exhaustive pretension were some kind of commercial pitch of the kind applied by door-to-door salesmen. Then the description of the exercise itself, besides the fact that it deals with a quasi-single situation, will be somewhat unclear and will present major practical difficulties to the attentive listener. This will be especially visible if the listener himself has any habit of practical activity. To any objection offered, the presenter will not offer any concrete example to show how the problem is resolved, in order to nourish the intuition and understanding of the listeners. Instead we will hear either of the following rhetorical strategies. Add a few layers of the omnipotent theoretical speech. Claim that you have to actually see the exercise to understand it, a claim which makes us wonder then why the exercise was not presented directly to us, why we were not invited to put it into practice, at least in a sample way. Admit that the exercise is not perfect but still has to be worked out, which would be the most honest avowal. Claim, in a coarse or subtle fashion, that this exercise revolutionizes philosophy, or, if you choose to be more aggressive, accuse the objector to have a reductionist conception of philosophy. But whatever the answers may be, our philosopher who has been visited by the Holy Spirit will most likely maintain an enthusiastic and convinced countenance. We can just hope that this signifies his perseverance in his attempts to define some real practice, instead of hiding in some abstractly concocted scheme, a conversion which will most likely imply that he accepts a “regression” to a more sober view of philosophy.
Pedagogy is theory
Another recurrent scheme is characterized by the specialist in the philosophy of education. He is actually convinced that he is involved in some practice, since he deals with philosophy from the standpoint of education. But he forgets that so many teachers look at those specialists with all their theoretical meandering as bookworms and abstract thinkers that do not know anything about teaching, for the good reason that they do not step foot inside the classroom, or hardly ever do, so they never show how their practical theories should take effect. The only teaching they generally do too often, is to teach philosophy of education in the colleges and university, suffering thus from the same problem that philosophers teaching philosophy to future philosophy teachers encounter. Teaching philosophy of action makes you no more involved in action than a swimming teacher talking about swimming in the classroom, since you remain dry.
The best proof of this tendency is the fact that our specialist in philosophy of education cannot write three lines without some quotes, some idea bearing the name of some famous author, while any references to some concrete experience is totally lacking. He comments authors, he has them discuss with each other, but he never brings forth a single example born from his own experience. Doesn’t he have any experience, or doesn’t his experience fit with those theories? Or again: does experience represent too lowly a perspective to be mentioned on those “noble” premises, where the name of the game is to impress the audience with “heavy stuff” ? We can really wonder why some participants come to those conferences. For lack of audience ? To meet the buddies and the “big guys” ? To show off ? One can really speculate about their motivations…
Then again : it is not that discourse may not be enlightening, it is simply that there should not be a swindle on the nature of the merchandise, a fraud which is taking place too often, not only in philosophical practice conferences but generally throughout the academic world. Through the modern western distinction enforced between the two meanings of “sophia” – wisdom and knowledge – a teacher does not have to practice, or even know how to practice, what he teaches: he can merely talk about what he knows. The only exception can be found in sciences, where one is still very much preoccupied with efficiency and results, if not only with that. But in arts and in humanities, this is not the case : there is no problem with being a musicologist without playing music, neither to teach theories on courage without being courageous.
Of course, this conception has certain advantages. It simplifies the teaching or the determination of who is able to teach, as it is simpler to prove what you know about courage that to prove that you are courageous… And as Plato suggests, virtues cannot be taught anyhow: you have it or you don’t have it, and philosophy might have more to do with virtue and attitude than any particular formal knowledge. A observation that doe not make our problem any simpler!
In this context, we would especially like to mention a speaker that came to talk about the importance of the body in philosophy, but who throughout his lecture (he of course read a paper, just like the others) gave us the terrible impression that he did not have a body ! This was not only caused by his remarkable absence of corporeal motion and his apparent embarrassment of his own body, but also by his total absence of voice modulations; his global functioning offered an excellent example of a total denial of any corporeity, and produced a great performative contradiction: when the content of a speech and the speech itself, or the behavior of its bearer, come in blatant conflict. And when in private we made this remark to this speaker, he responded something to the order that “we are professors, and not entertainers” !
Just like in clothing, there are fads and fashions in the discourse on education. Certain concepts will know glory, although in a transitory manner, and in their period of fame they will undergo an extensive analysis, they will be quoted and criticized, but above all they should be repeatedly mentioned by any specialist worthy of his own title or function. “Bildung” was of course such a concept in this conference : after all it had been pronounced in a very insistent way by a “major practitioner” at the previous conference. But the concept of “authenticity”, just to give an example, was as well put on a pedestal by a speaker, “because it is the concept being discussed at the moment by the pedagogical profession”. Now, this might have been a criteria if we did not also observe that the “expected” apology of the concept, by now very modern and powerful, and “of course” rooted in ancient history to add to its grandeur, was in total contradiction with the behavior of our speaker. He probably confused “authenticity” with “sincerity”, as he was so sincere in his profound reverence or quasi obsequiousness toward established authority that one did not see where the singular nature of authenticity played its role in the functioning of its spokesman. Authenticity was there a mere word, an empty concept, however rich in definition.
Strangely enough, we might add, the analysis of the term was definitely interesting, and many quotes were nicely brought forth. Although at a certain time, the music started sounding completely off when the speaker thought that he had to act in a blatant and exaggerated way as a “chair carrier” for some “leaders” in his field, be they dead or alive, and for some persons endowed with pompous titles, showing the impotence and inadequacy of his very concept of authenticity. For his defense, in a certain way, he probably overlooked in himself the social conditioning which resists such a concept, the desire for professional success, the career orientation which largely determines and overbears any legitimate desire. Consciously or unconsciously, the speaker contented himself with paying lip service to the “eros” he so vividly defended, and the over glorification of words might often be understood as compensation: the only access one allows oneself in terms of expressing one’s personal existence or transcendental self, the only possible breathing interstice for his most profound desires. (The syndrome of Dr Faust’s, the reason the poor fellow sold his soul to the devil: words, as powerful as they seem, in the end reveal their own powerlessness.)
The big lie
Words often contain more hope than reality, but the outright confusion between the state of the world and our own desires for a better world, just like the confusion between what we are and what we would like to be, engender the most terrible lies. This is precisely the kind of lies that philosophical practice, as a practice, is geared at exposing to broad daylight: the discrepancy between different aspects of human existence – a source of confusion, resentment and pain. In this issue lays a major and profound point that goes to the root of the difference between our kind of practice and the “nice” kind of other practitioners, as the latter easily becomes concerned with preserving the guest’s lies about his life, instead of exposing them. Letting the guest remain at the level of his empirical self enables him to maneuver in well-known waters where good reasons for maintaining his lies can be given again and again, by way of putting forward contingent reasons that seemingly make the guest’s choices the only possible options. And what can a philosopher do, then, being confronted with such a cascade of contingent reasons that belong to the guest’s private life and biography, and not to the domain of reasoning? He has to listen and wait for some just as contingent opportunity to say or ask something that might challenge the guest in a mildly way that the guest can choose to ignore if likes.
The conception of lie implies of course that there is a truth somewhere, and that the guest’s words are not in accordance with this truth. Here the “nice” and “beyond method” apostle would reveal his fixed theoretical position by protesting that there is no truth but subjective truth, believing here to be quite kierkegaardian in his post-modernist stance, which actually gives up on the demanding nature of truth, as Kierkegaard insists. Presupposing a truth outside the subjective truth of the guest’s personal story of life has a flavor of a philosophical realism or religiousness that does not at all fit in with the great concern for the guest’s autonomy and authenticity, which seemingly can only be found within his empirical self.
This particularly is the case in the relationship between professional activity and existential expectations, since one’s career, which is often invested with high expectations, represents the main source of personal oppression and the principal cause of anger. On this particular point we have witnessed different kinds of reactions, coming from those people who have invested much in this formal system of social recognition – those who think that happiness will be achieved through time and hard work, though submission and self denial, or when they have been able to reach a somewhat satisfying rank in the pecking order -but who in their deeper self can never be satisfied. First, there are those who see the contradiction and somewhat manage to live with it. Whenever someone transgresses the established order they will criticize him or deny him any right in public, but in private they will confess their agreement: “You might be surprised, but I totally agree with you !”. Or they will add a few condescending recommendations of the type: “You are totally right, but you have to act differently in order to be credible!”, thus inviting you to their strategy, which they consider efficient in professional careering. Those persons are sincere, short of being authentic : they lead a very schizophrenic life, but they alternate between their antinomic selves with the utmost naïveté, passing from Dr Jekyll to Mr. Hyde with absolutely no qualms.
Then there is the other kind of “successful managers”: they most likely suffer more from the impossible life they are involved in, so they absolutely hate and despise anyone who refuses to play the game they are involved in. They are the killers described in the last part of Plato’s Allegory of the cave : when someone refuses to play, they first laugh at him, but after a while, if he insists in his refusal, they definitely have to get rid of him through any means available. They cannot stand one moment longer the living mirror who reflects their own fictitiousness. So they do not need much refusal to get the claws out, thin is the formal varnish which they seem to wear in permanence. They are the guardians of the established order. And they fundamentally know that any philosophical practice that refuses their fundamental illusory dogmatic presuppositions is a threat to them, i.e. to their status. The only relief for their pain is the admiration or jealousy they think they deserve from their colleagues and from the common mortals. For them, one has to be serious, and to be serious is to obey the law, their law, the law of the land, an obedience to which they even give moral value : they call that being responsible.
Now and then some speakers might mention the fundamental contradiction between actual practice and academic life, going as far as mentioning the apparent radical impossibility of mixing both activities, particularly in universities. Teaching cannot have the pretension to help anyone, at least in a philosophical way, when the universities generally function along principles that resemble more a business venture than an institution engaged in an educational venture. Obtaining diplomas, gaining knowledge, when it is not an administrative and economic burden, are indeed very far from a philosophical practice. Unless one engages on the side to some unofficial practice. It is not sure that the institution would appreciate such an attempt, but even more so, it is not sure that the students would be interested, since they often – just as we have educated them to be – are more concerned with grades and diplomas than with anything else.
Now of course, if someone accomplishes some endeavor of this order, or even tries to do so, we would like to hear about it, of how it works, rather than hearing about mere good will, attitudes and the rest, which again proves a kind of impossibility more than anything else. Furthermore, in the obsession of gaining credibility, one should not underestimate the formatting of the mind which academic life causes. The terrible habit of constantly referencing one’s speech in order to look serious, which hinders freethinking, can sometimes be awesome. We want to take as an example of this conditioning someone who produced eighteen pages of references for fourteen pages of speech in the conference compendium. This of course for a forty minutes session ! What is worst about this is not that this person dared to carry out his stunt, but that the organizational committee agreed to publish such a ridiculous thing, evidently considering it as something normal. If one is concerned about different forms of instrumentalization of philosophy, isn’t academia then one of the basest forms which reduces knowledge to pure vanity : to the vanity of recognition and careerism ? It might have been better to enslave it to some pragmatic social purpose : it would then at least be more meaningful.
Clients, sorcerers and midwives
Can we conclude from our way of speaking that any theorization or any discussion on the history of philosophy can be judged useless from the standpoint of philosophical practice ? Certainly not, and quite the contrary. As part of the great debate, some will tend towards an educational vision, flagging concepts such as wisdom and education, when others will be more inclined towards a conception of philosophy as a personal therapy, leaning towards a psychological bias, talking about healing, development and self-realization. The latter will very naturally tend to overlook, if not avoid, the tools of philosophical activity, the concepts it has produced over the centuries. Under the guise of a certain “secularization” of philosophy it will indulge in an easy rehash of common sense, pop psychology and new age pseudo spiritual commercial slogans. In this sense, the confrontation with its radical otherness, academic philosophy, as foreign as it is to itself, is crucial.
Some people who are engaged in a more classical psychological practice, such psychoanalysis, will try to convoke a number of philosophical concepts in their daily work. Why not! But when they claim a certain collusion between psychoanalysis and philosophical practice, one should become slightly watchful. The temptation is great to fall in the night where all the cows are black, just because of mere fusional temptations. There are some radically opposed requirements between philosophy and psychoanalysis, or psychoanalytic influenced kinds of activities, for example radical criticism and conceptualization, which are – theoretically at least – not part of the goals of the psychological practice, and are even rejected by it. But of course, like always, one has to look closer to speak wiser, one has to see the actual practice itself, and this is why a simple declaration of intentions cannot be a sufficient answer, even in the context of a conference where time allowed is often very reduced for each contributor. If such an event does not expose the different practices, relay the existing tension and parallels between them, what is it purpose ? And why should anyone believe that “it all goes together” ? Now it is very much in the air to refuse distinctions and unite everything; it reflects the desire of omnipotence of the consumer society, which characterizes our epoch. We should therefore stay very cautious of such attempts, which allow complacency : one does not take risks, since it becomes forbidden to compare and make judgments.
The last trap that we want to mention again in this cultural context, is the “client” ideology, as a number of practitioners baptize their interlocutors. Now we should not pretend that philosophers live outside of material contingencies, in particular that of money, a lie by omission that is one of the most vivid in the profession. This was a major point of attack by academics against practical philosophers, claiming that they resembled the sophists as the latter were criticized by Plato for receiving money. But they just forget – a very Hegelian bias – that the state money they get as a paycheck still is money: it is not sacred nor holy. They forget as well that the universities that they work for are often run like businesses, where the administration equates the philosophy teacher to an employee, with expectations of cost efficiency, and that there are several numerical ways that one can be assessed with. But just because academia bears its own potential of corruption, it cannot simply be equated to practical philosophy, for the latter is threatened with maybe more direct and immediate “market” demands. Often the practical philosopher is one who has no academic post, and he still has to survive financially. Some have managed to obtain a secure source of revenues, but others are struggling by, and the danger therefore is great of providing “customers” what they want, thus nourishing one’s hope that they will come back and bring their friends, too. But as we have experienced it, many persons who come to see a practitioner do not actually come to philosophize, but just to find a “friendly” or “patient” ear. And our fellow citizens are well accustomed to-day to obtain what they want, as doctors for example know, who are very careful about what they dare tell their patients if they want to keep them as “clients”.
From our standpoint, the philosopher, like the sorcerer in the Indian village, is one who lives outside, or should live outside. He is elsewhere and invites his visitor to momentarily go elsewhere and accept otherness. This can be viewed as a very harsh proposal, for it is not easy to abandon one’s habits, to give up on one’s usual speech and pitches, even for a few minutes. Many traditions – like in the rough masters of Zen Buddhism, like the radical and impossible Greek cynics, like the famous Turkish wise man Nasreddin Hadj who played tricks on his fellow citizens to get them to wake up and think, like the Zarathustra of Nietzsche who does not think much of the villagers and warns against the “last man” who has all his desires fulfilled, like M’Bolo the African hare who taught life often in very nasty ways to the stupidly human hyena, like the Gargantua of Rabelais who laughs out human mediocrity – witness that philosophy is not a practice that takes place very naturally, and that it rather confronts brutally the natural tendencies of men, if only by showing the ridicule and the desultory aspect of human existence.
Truth is often a requirement that does not convene well with “feeling good”. Such a conclusion leads us to think that anyone who pretends to please his “clients”, or even claims that one has to be “nice” in one’s practice, is either forgetting the nature of philosophy by falling into a mere propitiatory posture in order to make money, to be loved or to be recognized, or worst of all, to acquire a good conscience. No pseudo ethical posture will be able to hide those very banal reward expectations. A nurse like behavior has become for some practitioners the basic measuring rod of all practice and behavior, far from the role of the philosopher as the one who invites his fellow human on inhospitable grounds, to travel those unknown waters that make him ill at ease but where he can discover his own humanity. It is to be feared that in the world of philosophical practice, as we saw it in this conference, a strong protestant ethnocentrism – and assimilated doctrines – has set itself up as the master ideology: the so-called “master of life”. It is then forbidden to see or to show how this is so meaningless, for “meaningful” is a code word without which you risk excommunication. But why should not morality and moderation be replaced by power and will? Or by truth, however impossible it is? Or by nothingness and absurdity?
For us, the purpose of philosophical practice is not a practical one, in the sense of “helping” or “solving problems”. It is a pristine experience, the one of existing, linked to agony as much as to joy, while it can make those feelings totally irrelevant. It is not therefore theories that we verify through scientific like experiments, since truth, although not reducible to subjectivity, can constitute itself primarily through subjectivity. Certainly philosophy has to do with problems, has to deal with problems, but to work them through, to create them, to become conscious of them, to exist because of them instead of merely survive, in other words to appreciate them instead of pretending to solve them. A pretension to solve problems would in fact turn the practitioner into a charlatan selling moonshine or the London bridge. But as we saw it, our official theoreticians encourage much more nice speeches in order to provide the happy listener a supplement of soul, through a lot of rhetoric, the kind of speech that tells how everyone is so unique and how we are all so good. After all, we live in the era of communication, where the main point is to be efficient and obtain the desired effect with the least pain possible. “Good life” and “ethics” become those cheap products that attract everyone to our own supermarket. Even if some practitioners don’t hesitate to try, at the same time, to sell a few of those century old worn out virtues of the exact type which so often stop human beings from being with themselves, as those “ideals” stop people from living precisely because those ideals have been coined as unquestionable and godly. Virtue is like a ritual: it engulfs us into habit. Just as if Atlas bearing some impossible world still was the universal and undisputed ideal, when being in the world very well might signify to escape from the world, to be with the world rather than carrying it, to inhabit the world rather than mastering it.
If one had to define, in a simple sentence, the role of the philosopher, its archetypal function in all human beings, it seems to us that it should be the one who is elsewhere, always elsewhere, never where expected, never where wanted. In this sense maybe, the midwife, just like in the Socratic metaphor, finds her true meaning and becomes again what she actually is: a life provider. The one that brings about to existence, incarnating the mystery of giving birth, the miracle of bringing about otherness.