Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Philosophy is in the Streets.

Robert C. Solomon, From Hegel to Existentialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
Robert C. Solomon, Love: Reinventing Romance for Our Times (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988).
Robert C. Solomon, Continental Philosophy Since 1750: The Rise and Fall of the Self (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).
Robert C. Solomon, Entertaining Ideas: Popular Philosophical Essays 1970-1990 (New York: Prometheus, 1992).
Robert C. Solomon, "Existentialism," The Teaching Company, DVD/VCR, Audio Lectures.

I like Robert C. Solomon. He is a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, which is a really good school that is actually located -- astonishingly enough -- in Austin, Texas. I have read several of Solomon's books and I am about half-way through his massive treatise on Hegel's Phenomenology, a book that I will finish before I depart this valley of tears.

Professor Solomon is that strangest of all philosophical creatures, an existentialist in a deconstructionist or postmodernist era. He is all about being "in the moment," but not above humor, sharing a laugh at the foibles of politicians and professors. He is "down to earth," as they say in the vicinity of Waco. Despite his many years in Texas, however, I doubt that he can be described, just yet, as "A Good Old Boy."

Professor Rick Roderick certainly can be so described, though he is now better known as the "Huck Finn of the Duke Philosophy Department." Do not miss Professor Roderick's lectures, which are also available from "The Teaching Company." If you tell them that I sent you, you will receive absolutely no discount whatsoever. They may even charge you more money for those tapes.

No one is better than my first professor of philosophy, Robert Seitelman. He lectured with humor and yet, with great thoroughness, guiding me through Plato's Republic, later leading me to Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx and a few of the other "usual suspects." Along with a handful of other teachers, he will stay with me forever.

Solomon wears black turtlenecks (even in the Texas heat) and likes to write dialogues -- in the form of television interviews -- with the great philosophers. Solomon is very American, but also (like most of the best American thinkers) he is solidly grounded in the Continental tradition of thought, especially in the works of Kant and Hegel. Kant and Hegel are the unavoidable philosophers in the modern world. Whoever you are, you should have some idea of what these two guys were up to.

Some of the best philosophical work in the Continental tradition is being done right here, in the U.S., and some of the best teaching of the subject is also available here. One of Solomon's missions is the promotion of philosophical awareness and sophistication for ordinary people in everyday life, most especially in connection with our public lives, in politics, international relations and law. Solomon is one of those philosophers who has a tattoo on his forehead, metaphorically speaking, that says: "Philosophy is for everybody." I agree.

I was often astonished at how philosophically unaware people can be -- even successful or powerful people -- in positions of influence. The antiphilosophical are often ignorant of the implications of their own professed beliefs. If this sort of realization of pervasive philosophical ignorance is available to a student, then a highly philosophically adept person, like Professor Solomon, must see far more that is troubling when it comes to our chosen and blissful ignorance of theory in the United States.

A British friend reported on his shock at being told by a waiter: "Have a good one!" He answered: "A good what?" His skills with linguistic analysis did not help him in what is known as "an antiphilosophical setting." He was astonished at the lack of clarity or precision in speaking habits in New York.

When informed that Solomon is an existentialist, an editor from Vogue magazine wondered: "Isn't existentialism a little out of fashion?" This very American (or is it French?) tendency to think of philosophies and systems of ideas as fashion items that we acquire, try on for a while, then change with the passing of the seasons, a rise in our theoretical hem lengths or widening of conceptual lapel widths, can be grating on the nerves. Ideas aren't like that. Philosophy isn't like that.

Some of the best philosophers today are Platonists, for example, since there is a perennial attractiveness and appeal to the best thinking on subjects of concern to the human soul. Great ideas about art or ethics, politics or the nature of law are never untimely. By the way, some of those contemporary Platonists also happen to be famous scientists, like Roger Penrose.

Even more annoying is the failure to see that how we resolve questions of genetic engineering, abortion rights, boundary definitions between disciplines and their concerns, whether it is science and/or religion and theology or some other intellectual controversies -- that all of these are profoundly philosophical controversies, so that no matter how you try to avoid it, you will be taking a contested theoretical or philosophical position, if you grapple at all with these issues.

Politicians often philosophize on complex matters without knowing it. The same is true of judges. As a result, they do not philosophize very well. I see politicians contradicting their own theoretical foundations, as set forth in one speech, when delivering their next scheduled speeches and being unaware of it. Presidential candidates' speeches, for instance, should be subjected to "philosophical screening," in addition to the close scrutiny they already receive from legal experts.

Philosophy is nothing but thinking, sometimes for oneself and by oneself, but more often with others and for others. It is thinking about everything and anything. There are no bounds to this dilettantism. Indeed, philosophy is best not only when tempered with real life and about real life, but when it is real life, real life elevated to the realm of thought and reflection, real life digested and pondered and understood rather than simply lived through, or as some would say, experienced. But experience without philosophy, as one of our most famous philosophers has insisted, is blind. [Kant] Philosophy divorced from experience, however, is empty. Philosophy may be one of the necessities of life, but it is also not the whole of life. It is to be put in its place and its place is in the midst of things.

Here is one very good reason why philosophy matters, besides making your thinking on specific issues better, philosophy clarifies ideas, and --

IDEAS GIVE LIFE MEANING. They provide perspective and purpose and see through the phony obsessions of an overconsuming, status-conscious, and appearance-minded society. In these days of relative scarcity, we can't promise our students the jobs they all want; we can't quick fix the economy or force better programming into the television networks. But we can give them ideas and a broader point of view, a kind of satisfaction with life that mere acquisition and [material] success alone cannot provide. Ideas don't cheapen with inflation, they don't cause cancer, and they can't be taxed. They require no large monthly payments and neither rust nor break down nor lose their value before they're paid for. Sam Keen has often said that you can't get enough of what you never wanted in the first place. There is so much of what we really do not need and do not want, and what we need, when we come right down to it, are a few good ideas.

In striving to clarify and improve our ideas, it will be useful to increase communication between the various schools of Western thought, between Continental and Anglo-American branches of philosophy, but also to reach out to world philosophy.

There is an oft-told (and perhaps apocryphal ) story about two philosophical giants, Gilbert Ryle and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, seated together at a conference. "Aren't we after the same thing?" asked Merleau-Ponty. Replied Ryle, "I hope not." It is a scene that has been repeated thousands of times with lesser figures and less polite language, and, to correct a possible misimpression, the Europhiles are just as often as narrow and nasty as the analysts. Against the one side, there are the residual logical positivist charges of "gibberish"; against the other, there are more ponderous charges such as "the denial of death" and "ignoring the meaning of man." What is at stake on both sides are entrenched professional interests which have little to do with philosophy.

A defense mechanism when people are in over their heads in a philosophical discussion is to dismiss or insult an adversary. I was told that I am "too stupid to understand" ethical relativism by someone who was in the midst of a self-contradiction. "Latinos are not smart enough to be philosophers." Shortly after insulting me, this person stated incoherent metaethical views. I have now had time to reflect on this bizarre "Philosophy Cafe" episode in my life.

It is only one of many occasions when I have found my statements dismissed as "unworthy" of consideration, by people who seem to know much less than I do about the subject. I realize that assumptions are being made on the basis of my ethnicity ("Latinos are not smart enough for philosophy" has stayed with me). I continue to refuse the anonymity of the Internet. I also cannot be intimidated by threats or insults at this point in my life. I have been to my share of dark places and seen some evil. I think it shows.

I want to upset those assumptions about Latinos, if I can. I realize that anger or a response in kind is useless and frustrating. It only hurts those of us who face this dilemma on a daily basis. Even the U.S. Attorney General (Mr. Gonzales) does not seem to receive the respect in the media that is normally associated with the office that he holds. I wonder why?

Speaker Pelosi said to Charlie Rose that she "didn't know why Mr. Gonzales was attorney general in the first place." Well, Mr. Gonzales was a Texas Supreme Court justice and Harvard Law School graduate. Whatever one may think of Gonzales or Bush, this easy assumption that he was not to be taken seriously, or somehow laughable, trivial, a person to be insulted with impunity, denigrated, unworthy of respect -- like a Mexican waiter in a restaurant, perhaps -- is a feature of the daily lives of millions of Americans who will never escape such assumptions.

Many people in other parts of the world are subject to similar asumptions on the part of American politicians. Some of us "subhumans" believe that even Mexican (or Cuban) waiters are entitled to respect. Perhaps we should not destroy or alter the creative work of anyone, especially in violation of First Amendment rights. I wonder whether Ms. Pelosi attended Harvard Law School? Sadly, the revelations concerning Mr. Gonzales approving and colluding in torture have brought me closer to Pelosi's view President Bush's Attorney General. Despite my ethnicity, I would rather have Pelosi as Attorney General -- wherever she went to school -- because she understands that America cannot torture people, publicly.

Given recent protests over immigration policy, it may help people to realize that -- most fundamentally -- all people wish to be recognized in their humanity. Many of the "little people" (remember Ms. Leona Helmsley, the "Queen of Mean"?), whose work is "what makes the world turn," would remind you that your grandparents survived by doing pretty much the same work that they, those "little people," do every day.

These immigrant neighbors are not stupid or ignorant, but they are reluctant to have a conversation with people who assume that they must be. I know the feeling. Of course, some form of legalization and citizenship track is necessary for people who contribute to the economy and get nothing in return from the government, except persecution. I am for amnesty for undocumented workers, those without criminal records who are gainfully employed or studying, should be permitted to apply for citizenship, after fulfilling all legal requirements. Family members (or persons who love each other, which is what I mean by "family") should be permitted to remain together. After all, the denial of this need for the presence of loved-ones only produces misery, intense and often lethal suffering is the result of such forced separation.

Would it help if we asked immigrants (like me) to attend the next protest dressed as Puritans?

If you are a young woman, who is African-American or Latina, coming out of a working class home -- yet reading Kafka and Kant, say, when no one is looking -- you will find that your opinions on issues that you know better than every other person in a university class, will receive dismissive and insulting non-consideration and/or trivialization.

When a vague or lesser version of that same opinion of yours is offered by someone else, ten minutes later in the discussion, it will be greeted with nods of the head by the professor. The person who will get those nods of the head, usually, from a professor -- including, surprisingly, minority professors sometimes -- will be the guy sitting in the front row in a pink shirt, with a tiny Polo player on his chest, wearing expensive denims and penny loafers, who graduated from Dartmouth, right before coming to law school or graduate school. Inevitably, this person will be known as "Biff" or Cliff," or something like that. He is almost always destined for a career in politics. (Stereotype? How does it feel?)

For minority men who manage to escape some kind of criminal record, a miracle these days, familiarity with almost daily humiliations at the hands of police, teachers, other authority figures, and the experience of insulting indifference to or destruction of one's work -- which is often much, MUCH better than what is rewarded and celebrated by the system -- leads to festering resentments and bottled-up rage. A major challenge for minority men is to cope with rage, fury and the temptations of violence. Violence is something modelled for them by the media as well as peer groups, but for which they will be demonized, if they succumb to it. Resist violence so as not to be what they want you to be.

More subtle forms of discrimination in the professions or academia amount to trivialization and condescension, leading the "successful" minority person to disappear into a constructed normality and to, quite literally, "whitewash" his or her writing or thinking, making that writing and himself as "normal" and "acceptable" as possible. This is also a kind of death. An intellectual suicide. You will see it all around you, in legal and medical, or other professional gatherings.

Among minority persons seeking to write or create art -- who often have very important things to say to a society desperately in need of hearing them -- the reality will be a closing of the doors. Creative freedom may require "silence, exile and cunning," as James Joyce taught us, but it also demands a holding on to that rage against ... not the dying of the light, but the withholding of the light, that is, systematic denials of opportunities to be heard or read, marginalization, censorship, silencing. My advice is use the rage to create your work.

Being ignored is another kind of death for a thinker and artist, but it is at least not a suicide. This denial of opportunities to be heard and lack of minimal respect is a kind of killing of the artistic and philosophical spirit in a person, or a people. If you want to know what that is like, then read the essays of James Baldwin. The genius of someone like Mr. Baldwin or Toni Morrison is not only a tribute to the human spirit, but a kind of miracle.

I need to be reminded of that miracle as I struggle against computer viruses and hackers, against insults based on ignorance, destruction and tampering with my work, even as rewards are given to the smiling imbeciles and crooks wearing judicial robes or holding high office in New Jersey and other places. Being plagiarized by writers appearing in The New York Times and The New York Review of Books is to add salt to the wound. ("What is it like to be plagiarized?")

The only way for attitudes to change is for people to encounter others in dialogue, whom they usually would not meet, but who seem to have some small talent for the subjects that interest them, like philosophy.

In law there is a subtle "ghettoizing" process that takes place beginning in law schools. It amounts to the belief that, you should be grateful just for being there. Hence, the message is that the really good stuff is "for us," and being too smart or writing as well as "we" do, is something that "we" will refuse to recognize and will even hold against you.

In the legal profession, minority lawyers -- except in the corners of the legal world where they practice, for the most part -- receive about 2/3 of the respect that their mainstream colleagues do (they are "two-thirds" of a legal professional), and are probably 10 times more likely to be disciplined than others, especially if they refuse to acquire what is known in the Garden State as "political juice." To act against these persons, shrewdly, docile minority members of the profession will be found to disarm critiques, and to go along with the violations of a targeted trouble-maker's humanity and civil rights. All of this is part of the immense hypocrisy that threatens to destroy so many more of us, every day.

We need more trouble-makers in the legal system, not more sold out minority lawyers. We need people to say: "I will not go along with violating someone's rights." Refuse to legitimate illegality or unfairness towards anyone. Do not serve as a frontperson for anything you regard as political oppression on the part of state tribunals and agencies in our worst jurisdictions, like New Jersey. Do not help to silence someone with whom you disagree. Despite the temptations, do not become what they are, the powerful hypocrites and biggots, who oppress and seek to silence us.

If you find yourself -- as a young professional -- in psychological pain and being overwhelmed, then you go to the authorities and tell them that you are experiencing trouble and let them do their worst. Never do favors for criminal politicians if they take your license away because you don't play along. ("What is law?" and "Terry Tuchin, Diana Lisa Riccioli, and New Jersey's Agency of Torture.")

Perhaps we can expect no better from a legal system that is now tainted by big money. Although I refuse to give up, insisting on respect for Constitutional rights to notice and confrontation, to due process of law and equal protection, to free speech in an electronic age, when subtle technological means exist to silence pesky dissidents, dissidents who will be ignored by the mainstream press anyway, or be made the subjects of reprisals, such as anonymous slanders. (See "Chomsky's Turkish Publisher Jailed.")

I will do my best to make it difficult for people to ignore me. I will try to confront the powers that be, so as to show them what they have become. I will offer them a "portrait" that is a little different from the fawning attention they usually receive, because it is somewhat less flattering than the portraits for which they enjoy posing, while wearing their most attractive smiles. (An "error" was inserted in this last sentence since my previous review of this text.)

I will not be silenced or deterred from confronting those who deny human rights to us, "little people" and who then cover up their actions with the complicity of corrupt legal authorities and officials. The days of political bosses are numbered. I hope. If they are not, then we must oppose them anyway, or risk losing our Constitution. Philosophy, like democracy, law and art in a free society, must be in the streets. Philosophy must and will do better than this. In recent years, finally, traditions have come together:

... I see the battles between analysts and "Continental types" not as philosophy but as politics, not as intellectual positions but as excuses to limit one's thinking, refusals to leave the intellectual security of graduate-school dogmas.

No real progress will be made until we include everyone in the public conversation of our society, until we benefit from the insights of all. Our philosophical dialogues must return to the public square. Philosophy will always lead the way in this effort. Read, study and learn from Robert Solomon's books. He is one of the good guys.

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