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Philosophy of Science

I like it when new and unread books are standing on my desk, waiting for me to read them. In my student days in the eighties of the last century, when course programs where published in a booklet in the summer, I used to get the new prescribed half meter of books as soon as possible and put them there in front of me – creating the excitement of anticipation for the next year of study. Nowadays my years of teaching have no end, they are like a circle that begins again when it reaches its fulfillment. Studying has become an even greater joy as it is my reward when course administration, grading, actual standing for the classroom leaves any spare time. Among those new books have been, for some time, the titles by two Eduardo’s: Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s Cannibal Metaphysics, and Eduardo Kohn’s How Forest’s think. Preparing my next conference paper, the time to read them has come (and I have to make haste to get my presentation ready in time!) Although very different in style and argumentation, both books show in unison that much creative philosophy is done outside philosophy departments. Here we have anthropologists who delve into the works of philosophers to question the ontological presuppositions that stand in the way when they try to understand how their research subjects, ‘non-Western’ peoples, understand the world and interact with it.

While still reading the introduction of Kohn’s book I got a pleasant surprise – that it will be the old pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) who will provide for Kohn the groundwork for understanding how forests, and animals, all living creatures for that matter, think. Kohn announces that he will draw on ‘the “weird” Peirce [that is on] those aspects of Peirce’s writing that we anthropologists find hard to digest – those parts that reach beyond the human to situate representation in the workings and logics of a broader nonhuman universe out of which we humans come.’ This made me happy as it again brought me back to an important period in my years of study: following the courses of one of our most excellent teachers – Gabriel Nuchelmans (1922-1996), who taught philosophy of language and analytic philosophy. All very broadly understood. Nuchelmans wrote sturdy and thorough books on philosophical problems, and specialized articles that were just as thorough, all of which will only be familiar still to those who specialize in the history and philosophy of logic. As a teacher he just passed on some of his wide readings in whatever interested him. One year he passed on his knowledge of pragmatism – and although at first I did not know how to fit this in with my mostly ‘continental’ interests, over the years my notes of this course would be the only ones that I always kept – which in retrospect can be seen as a predicting sign of my later return to the material.

For years it was mostly William James that interested me, first his Varieties of Religious Experience, and later his Pluralistic Universe. Works that I still consider to challenge standing frameworks of thought and to be indispensable if one tries to begin to build a critical ontology of the spiritual. In the article by Eugene Taylor which serves as an introduction to the centenarian edition of the Varieties, I read about the influence of Swedenborgian thought on James, but also on Peirce, as both longtime friends participated in the circle of James’s father, and in experiments that aimed at understanding spiritual communication. I only knew Peirce as having contributed to logic and philosophy of science/epistemology, so this came a bit as a surprise to me. But now I find that Peirce’s ability to think beyond philosophical modernism, seeing relation and signification  as the basis of thought rather than immediate intuition and mental clarity (which one can call the unfounded dogma’s of modernist thought) – forms the inspiration for those that are creatively moving beyond modernism by different paths, as Kohn does while trying to understand the world as understood by the peoples of the Amazon.

When I will be reading along, I will not only follow Kohn’s path of a semiotics of the forest, but I will also remember the mysterious smile of professor Nuchelmans when he spoke about Peirce’s weird categories of ‘firstness, secondness and thirdness’. And also how this old-fashioned professor lifted his hat for female students, calling them ‘mevrouw’ (mrs) – and then again how he left his comfort zone of the history of logic when he felt the need to criticize Heideggerianism. Then his face gained more color, and his voice betrayed suppressed excitement – and one felt the echoes of the struggle against the irrationalities that had swept over Europe only fourty years ago. Nowadays Nuchelmans’ suspicions of Heidegger have been vindicated by the publication of Heidegger’s explicitly racist notebooks. But that is perhaps not the most important thing in which Nuchelmans’ teaching put up signposts. More important was how his own work showed that digging into abstract stuff like logic, grammar, and structures of thought did not have to lead away from real world issues. As goes for the work of the ‘weird’ Peirce – which invites us to think the human in relation to the non-human in a thorough philosophical manner – work that is very relevant in these days, when it becomes more and more visible that the human, all too human issues that have led modern civilization, are destroying the possibilities to lead enjoyable lives for so many. Let’s try to read the signs of other ‘living ones’, and forests are not the least among them.

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About a year ago I wrote a post on the idea of ‘symmetrical anthropology’ coined by Bruno Latour. I was critical about the idea of such an anthropology back then. And principally I still am – one can not overcome the colonial attitude at work in researching ‘exotic others’ just by turning the colonial culture itself into the research object. One still didn’t listen to those ‘others’ nor has one put the problematic relationship between anthropology and the colonial project into question. The idea of anthropology itself, studying human beings apart from their self-understanding, just the non-literate, non-reflexive social phenomena that they produce could be seen to be, well, ‘racist’. When Latour proposed to turn the anthropological gaze around, and study the tribe of ‘the Moderns’, I couldn’t fathom how that would solve any of the negative effects modernity has had on relations between peoples.

I found it funny though, and that was why I read We have never been Modern in the nineties. The turning of tables was kind of naughty and potentially promised to realise a deconstruction of anthropology by using it against itself. Recently we are able to judge Latour’s project to the full, as his latest work, Modes of Existence, presents the outcomes of his anthropological research on the Moderns in a rich, full, thick volume. And in a website. As I promised to write a review article this month about the book, I set myself to reading it. And was surprised. I really really like the book. Latour’s anthropology develops into an ontology, or even a metaphysics – deploying the felicity and unfelicity conditions (a concept from speech acts theory) of the modes of existence that are factually recognized by the Moderns. The Moderns really are studied apart from their self-reflections, objectively, which is symbolized in the mysterious narrative figure of a female anthropologist. Latour describes how she tries to get behind their apologetical self-representations, and discover what they really hold to be real.

This kind of anthropology reminded me of a specific kind from the forties, not the more general approach that aims at description, but one that tried to overcome paternalism by reconstructing the ontology of a ‘non-western’ culture – taking it serious just like modernity does itself: the philosophical anthropology of Placide Tempels’ Bantu Philosophy. The idea that culture is grounded in ontology appears to me a very ‘catholic’, say neo-thomist thought. This approach searches to understand or describe not in terms of reductionistic science, nor just in those of self-expressions, but to dig into a layer of being being intelligible by the mind. The layer of the plan, so to say, of the Creator, readable by the schooled thinker. Every culture, in this view, gets dignity allocated to it by being outlined by the ultimate Source. This kind of approach is also present in Modes of Existence. The Moderns are not explained as a phenonemon in social evolution, nor are they taken by their own word, but they are questioned as to their deepest attachments – what they really truly hold to be of value, and thereby take to be real. Thus, Latour, hopes to open negotiation with ‘the Others’ – those the Moderns declared to be other, that is. A negotiation which is urgently needed in order to make a turn from economy to ecology. To negotiate with mother earth (‘Gaia’) before she decides to get rid of us.

Actually Latour goes about his business so seriously, and digs so deep into this cultured ontology of the Moderns, that one cannot not value the book. It makes distinctions you never thought about, it really puts your mind to work, and thereby stimulates the brain like a complex musical composition. After reading you will be able to understand more complex relations. Therefore Modes of Existence is great. It is also funny in the sense of putting those who always observed others in the role of being observed. And it is crazy in its many original ideas like that of the imaginary anthropologist, or the diabolical figure of ‘Double Click’, who aims at promoting the epistemological idolatry of unmediated access to an object.

Still, my old troubles with Latour’s project hold true. He doesn’t investigate the conditions of the negotiations he is aiming at. He doesn’t look into his own belief in the power of metaphysics – although it has become a pragmatist, speech acts kind of metaphysics. He has criticized so called postmodern thinkers for being ‘just critical’ and not doing real work to negotiate a different world. I have always thought that criticism to be unfair, for it is too early to know whether we are already ready to negotiate. Whether ‘we’ moderns are allowed to participate in the negotiation at all, and on what conditions. The real question lies hidden behind the seemingly accidental replacement, by Latour, of ‘the Moderns’ by ‘the Whites’, at the end of the book. Moderns, Westerners, Whites, Colonizers… Has the world been decolonized already? Has the reign of white mythology (made fun of by Latour in the figure of Double Click) already come to an end? Can we do anthropology at all? Should we not first accept the problems that the idea of anthropos has created? What to do with an analysis like the following: ‘To destroy the colonial world means nothing less than demolishing the colonist’s sector, burying it deep within the earth or banishing it from the territory.’ If that is true, what is there for ‘the Moderns’ to negotiate? The ‘warfront’ of modernity, as Latour calls it, then will not disappear but by the final defeat of the moderns. not by telling them that they were never really modern.

 

The citation in the final section is from The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

White Mythology is a paper by Jacques Derrida, discussed here.

Placide Tempels was a Franciscan missionary living in the former Belgian Congo, and his work on the ontology of Bantu’s led to so many discussions about ‘African philosophy’.

Modes of Existence was published in 2013. My review (which is not a longer version of this piece, but a separate article) of it will appear in ESSSAT News and Reviews.

I have been living from one day to the next – making the recurrent switch from research time (meaning reading and thinking, for a philosopher) to teaching time. My agenda is not mine anymore the next three months, some three to four hundred students will occupy it with their legitimate demands. The switch must explain this longest time between posts: nearly two weeks. A different kind of time installs itself. When doing research, I have to force myself to going slowly, to let things fall into place, and critical views develop. When preparing for classes it is the other way around: I have to force myself to move fastly from one subject to the next, sharing it with others, instead of letting it incubate in my reflection.

The first few weeks I will deal with the changes that occurred in philosophy of science between, say, 1935 until 2014 – 80 years. Oh no, my students awaits no course on the history of… these first classes will be dedicated to making understandable how the field changed from it’s interest, with Popper, in legitimacy, or justification, of knowledge as knowledge, to the situational, culturally critical approach which is claiming attention nowadays in the work of Bruno Latour. So I will tell about Popper’s criticism of induction, and of the logical positivist belief that empirical data could provide a rock bottom of certainty for knowledge. Of his insistence though, that we keep on testing our scientific convictions, and aim to keep them testable. The background of his being so passionate about this in his experiences with those massive ideological movements of the twentieth century: communism and fascism. Then I will treat of Kuhn’s criticism of a Popperian focus on justification. Of Kuhn, who shifted the attention in understanding science to those periods of revolutionary change, the paradigm shifts, which make researchers see the world in a completely new light. 

Or is it that the world itself changes in a paradigm shift? Latour, one could argue, moves further in the direction which Kuhn first made possible – for which Kuhn proposed a new paradigm in understanding science. This new, historical and situationist, paradigm not only had to explain the important changes in the theory of physics in the early twentieth century – it not only changed the world of science as we understand it – it also changed the way science plays it’s role in the rest of life: in morality and politics, in economy and culture. Science is no longer an innocent search for objective truths – Latour’s symmetrical anthropology of the modern life, shows science to be a cult, one could say, that gets our factish gods to produce a certain life for it’s believers. Secular, consumerist, rational, individualist.

Latour offers a cultural criticism, showing implicitly the limitations of modern life. But he leaves it there. He shows no road to change, should we not like so much the view of our life which he has given. Here we have to go back in time to the work of Feyerabend, who was, although he probably was not completely aware of it in every respect, a prophet for change. And very fundamentally so. Interesting is that he not only offers an alternative view of science (something like: believing in certainty through method is having a false consciousness), but that he shows an alternative approach: doing research in a Dadaist fashion. Dadaist means not only playful, but also crossing disciplinary and methodical boundaries, on purpose. The Dadaist artist shows loudness in font size of her print letters, or indicates the screaming quality of a color in sound – thus crossing the boundaries of the senses. Dadaism also introduces collage as a method to destruct method. Having no original beginning, the work of art springs from shifts and changes. Noticing this it springs to the eye that the first argument on the first page of Feyerabend’s Against Method is a collage. By sticking citations from Butterfield, Hegel and Lenin playfully together, he constructs this argument, that history is so complex that we can never cut through it’s multi-faceted interactions by designing and following a ‘method’. It is the surprising coherence between these divergent authors which is meant to convince the reader, as much as the content of what he says. If one can arrange citations like these to make it look like they sprung from one mind, that proves already the complex, anarchistic way knowledge production works.

You will have noticed: Feyerabend’s approach fascinates me, more so than that of the now much more famous Bruno Latour. Latour remains in the end in the observing mode of the anthropologist, while Feyerabend cuts the Gordian knot, even without the detour of a culture criticism: if we have reached a dead end with the law-and-order enterprise of modernity – if we feel it kills the pleasure of being human, of being able to play, if it kills nature, and our own soul in the process – why not change our ways, radically, by adopting ‘theoretical anarchism’. Since Feyerabend leaves the order of security and control behind, he does not need to prove that his alternative approach will work. He can only advocate that we try it out.

 

I cited from Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method, Verso 1993 [original edition 1975]. Actually it is online.

I wrote on his life and ideas before here and here.

 

Just this weekend I heard someone say: ‘the most famous book of Bruno Latour is We have never been Modern.’ It was the presenter of an interesting paper at the conference of the European Ethics Society, Societas Ethica, who made this remark. It surprised me, as I tended to understand ‘most famous’ as ‘most influential’, and when focusing on the influence, I’d rather think Science in Action to be his most famous book. Yes, perhaps We have never been Modern has sold more copies, or has been more widely read. But I doubt whether it is understood very well, and I have even more doubts in this respect towards his later books Politics of Nature and The Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. What is it about these books? Why are they attractive, and why they seem to fall short of their promise?

Latours books are all driven by some interconnected set of questions – dealing with the epistemological, political and cultural presuppositions at work in modernity. Questions which are inspired by a critical attitude. Having been trained as a philosopher and as an anthropologist Latour decided at some point to turn the gaze of Western anthropological researchers, which is normally directed at the religions and cultures of ‘the others’ (the non-Westerners, if one may use this already ideological expression), around, and direct it at modern Western culture and religion itself. This endeavour he has called ‘symmetrical anthropology’: looking at one’s own world as if it were an exotic world – with the same tools of research. Thus he started out studying the heart of modern culture and religion: science, from which resulted two books (Science in Action and Laboratory Life).

The first one has had quite some influence in philosophy and sociology of science for its surprising epistemological revolution. Latour said: forget the idea of science as a set of methods for discovering truths about reality and the idea of philosophy of science as a means to decide on the validity conditions of these methods. Seeing science as a process of discovering truths only makes sense, according to Latour, after the fact: when the members of the scientific community have reached consensus about a certain description or explanation of reality, this ‘truth’ seems to have always been true, which makes them say ‘we have discovered a truth’. In fact things do not work that way, says Latour: when one looks at scientists at work tackling a certain problem, that is, when one turns the clock back to the time before they reached agreement, the truth might yet turn out in very different ways. There are, then, different possible truths. The difference between the view which looks back after reached consensus and the one which looks forward from the point in time when nothing was decided yet, is called by Latour the difference  between ‘ready made science’ and ‘science in the making’. In making this difference Latour has historicized the epistemology in philosophy of science. A move which I think has been very influential – many philosophers and sociologists and historians of science have since been studying science ‘in the making’.

Science in Action however was only a starting point for Latour to go further and further in his endeavor to criticize supposed timeless truths of modernity. The modern view of nature showed to be informed by interests, the modern reference to facts reflects the modern’s magical attitudes. In short: he shows that ‘we’ have never been really modern, in the sense that we have not discovered ahistoric and universal truths about reality, but that we tried to shape and influence the effects of our surroundings on us in ways comparable to the ones ‘we’ ascribed in former days to so-called ‘primitive peoples’. The later works however are no easy meal. Partly this goes back to Latour’s habit of crafting neologisms or giving new meanings to existing words (think: ‘factish’, ‘hybrid’. ‘constellation’). More fundamental, however, is the circularity of the project of ‘symmetrical anthropology’. For studying an era (modernity) by a method (anthropology) which was part of what that era did (determinate ‘others’ which it then could try to ‘civilize’ and in the meantime dominate) can not shed fresh light on it. Therefore only one thing would work: listening to what those who have been named ‘others’ have to say on modernity.

Bruno Latour was born in 1947.

Mentioned works are: Science in Action, How to follow Scientists and Engineers through Society, (1987), We have never been Modern (1993), Politics of Nature – How to bring the Sciences into Democracy (2004) and The Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (2009). I have given the years of publication of the English editions only.

When I had nothing new to read lately, I picked up the Letters of a Traveller 1923-1955 which Teilhard de Chardin,  the famous jesuit, scientist and thinker, wrote on his long geological and paleontological excursions. My copy is an old, beautifully bound Dutch version, belonging once to my aunt Mary (who died in 1970). That I refer here to my family is no coincidence, as I was raised by an outspoken Teilhardian – my father, the younger brother of my aunt. Books on evolution for children, a nice collection of minerals and fossiles, and holiday trips to prehistoric caves were key ingredients of my childhood – next to regular church visits and a jesuitic intellectual atmosphere. This cocktail left me with an ingrained attitude of self-criticism (the jesuit heritage), methodological doubts of the infallibility of the theory of evolution (although I liked the caves and the stones) and an aversion to the belief in progress in history (which made me a Nietzsche fan for quite some time).

The Letters of a Traveller are really enjoyable – although I am sometimes irritated about the man’s primitive social views (he holds a kind of race theory then in fashion, and not very critical views on the moral issues of World War II), he has a great talent for describing the landscapes and peoples he comes into contact with. And then I thought it to be time to read that other book for the first time – the one which inspired the intellectual upbringing of my primary school days: The Phenomenon of Man, written by Teilhard largely during the war years, and published after his death, in 1955. It is a fascinating book, that is for sure – but also very strange. It’s author claims not to write as a theologian or a philosopher, but as a scientist: he wants to restrict his reflections to the phenomenal. Methodologically he is quite progressive for his time, while he acknowledges the theory-ladenness of all observation, and thus the provisional character of any reflection. Also he sees clearly that this reflection is perspectivistic, in the sense that it is human reflection – which explains his dismissal of metaphysical reasoning, which he defines as searching a final foundation of thought in being as such.

I could not read the book without drawing into account the biography of it’s author. It is so obvious an attempt to unite the conflicting forces in his character: the careful researcher, digging up and dusting ancient bones and rocks – and the passionate jesuit, who has rendered his entire psychic energy to a life for Christ. His biography is not meaningless, however, and especially nowadays, when evolution theorists and creationists have entangled themselves in fierce battles, his attempt at fusing Christian belief and scientific observation, deserves a re-read. He goes about his job intelligently, that I must also confess, and quite some of his ideas are not strange to me either. The idea that not only biological life, but the universe itself is a result of evolution has become a standard view. His idea that a kind of consciousness is present in pre-human forms, in everything in fact, is not standard, it reeks of Fechner, indeed, but is quite attractive to an anti-anthropocentrist. Finally his understanding of the importance of time in conceiving the world (a thing is just a moment in time) is to my view very sharp and interesting.

On the other hand there are the strange aspects. First, his observation that Christianity is the ultimate religion which will grow and unite the whole world – since it would be the only belief system that takes love as it’s central value. Second, his idea that humanity will unite in a process of ever greater communication pressure (well, the latest element in that was prophetic) – and must transcend it’s conflicts by a transformation of the individual into the person. That mysterious category is the key of his thought: the person is an individual, but one which lets itself be governed, united and transformed by the one ruler: Love=Christ. This must happen, he thinks, since the concept of evolution, of living in time, with it’s diversification and increasing complexities, leads inevitably to the concept of an ending, in which everything comes together again. Not in a gigantic destruction, as in gloomy SF stories, but in a spiritual ‘escape’ of humanity (and thus of the entire creation) from it’s material boundaries.

I don’t buy that – original beginnings, nor final endings – not in cosmology, not in spirituality, not in religion. I don’t believe in the Big Bang, I don’t believe in the total unification of humankind as the ‘end of history’. I do think that human beings can be transformed into more loving beings by following Christ, but this might happen as well by leading any other sincere religious life, be it islamic, shamanistic, buddhist, you name it. As it might in a life inspired by sincere atheistic views. Any view which helps to reduce self-centered and destructive attitudes will do. Believing in a necessary progression is not helpful in that process, since it makes one prone to forgetting real sufferings of real living beings (human and non-human) – seeing them as just a price to be paid in some grand scheme. It is clear, I think: this would be valuing the beauty of an intellectual construct over real love.

In the end Teilhard’s great attempt for me boils down to the following: he created a Christian myth to save his belief in evolution as a basis for solid science. His endeavor seems outdated seventy years later – as religious dialogue seems a better tool to overcome conflict than a conversionist attitude, and as many authors (among whom Thomas Kuhn, Bruno Latour and Sandra Harding) have provided strong arguments to show scientific theories to be culturally and historically situated views of the world we live in. This goes as much for evolution theory as for any other theory, and I have a strong feeling that it will be pushed over by another paradigm in the near future.

Teilhard de Chardin lived from 1881 to 1955.

The books I discussed, Letters of a Traveller 1923-1955 and The Phenomenon of Man are around in numerous translations and editions. Both appeared after the writer’s death.

In an earlier post I wrote about Paul Feyerabend’s autobiography. The publisher of the Dutch translation of the work changed it’s title into ‘Tijdverspilling’, which is not exactly the same as killing time – the expression is more negative, meaning ‘a waste of time’. It draws a conclusion from Feyerabend’s thoughts, which is not off the point, as the philosopher described his academic career as not living to the full, as a blind state, not more than a preliminary to the joy and love which he discovered only later in life. It came to me, however, that a meaningful ambiguity of the original title was lost in this translation. An ambiguity I will explore below.

Killing time can be understood, as I did in my earlier post, as it is in everyday language – referring to an art we seem to have lost in the modern Western world, but which is still known to men in economically less ‘developed’ countries, who manage to stand around on streets for hours, or who keep hanging around in the barber’s shop long after they have been shaved, just to discuss sports and society with each other. It is an art which prevents the experience of boredom, the boredom which induces one to action. Watching the pace at which people in ‘rich’ countries work and even keep themselves active in their free time, one may draw the conclusion that they have forgotten how to keep boredom at bay, fleeing it in continuous activity – like the lonely, cold, bored young man Feyerabend saw himself to be in earlier life – travelling, studying, singing, working endlessly to forget  that he forgot what life was all about.

There is another meaning to the expression, however, which relates to the main content of his activities: philosophy. Killing time is what Western philosophy has tried to do in the most literal sense, from its beginnings in ancient Greece. The ancient Greek philosophers (okay, apart from Herakleitos) were fascinated by the eternal, the timeless, which they saw in the heavens. The continually changing aspects of earthly life, they thought, could only be understood when one digged up it’s timeless essence, and expressed this in general concepts. Although time as a concept was never denied, it was itself understood in a timeless manner, that is, in its measurable, discrete, ‘timeless’ form – subjected to the stripes on a clock which cut time to pieces.

There are some Western philosophers who have tried to break away from this view of time, and who tried to stop killing it, most notably Henri Bergson and William James. In his Pluralistic Universe, James searches for expressions to conceive of time in a manner closer to experience. He speaks of the ‘sensational stream’ which makes up our normal, non-scientific, experience, in which there are no discrete elements. This goes together with a reluctant attitude to general concepts: ‘When you have broken the reality into concepts you never can reconstruct it in its wholeness. Out of no amount of discreteness can you manufacture the concrete.’ What he aims to express is that no experience or phenomenon can be isolated and then said to cause or influence another – experiences ‘compenetrate’ each other, time spans overlap each other. While one event can perhaps be seen to wear out, another has, in it and through it, already developed and influenced it, so that they never van be seperated exactly.

A meaningful example for the problematic James has indicated shows itself in medical research: while scientists are trying to find ever new medicines for the illnesses that plague humankind, they need large trials to ascertain their general effectiveness. Therefore they carry out double blind proofs in populations in which individual differences are ruled out statistically. What they are looking for are general truths, and consequently, medicines that obey to the laws of cause and effect – i.e. to time in it’s discrete, measured, ‘eternal’ version. It is a wonderful thing that in this abstracted, dead, time, many medicines have been developed that are effective in the real world, but all the same they have no answer to the complex streams of influences which may disturb the predicted effects in concrete individuals. When this happens, it is put aside as ‘side effects’, or as private complaints and feelings of patients, left to nurses, psychotherapists and relatives to deal with.

One wonders what would happen to science, and to medicine, if it succeeded in combining the  views of Plato and James. If it looked as seriously into concrete phenomena as into general truths. That would mean it had to move beyond conflicting paradigms, which would need revolutionary groundwork by philosophers. A great reason for them to get out of the ivory tower of overspecialized subjects, to stop killing time and try to change the way we conceive of life instead.

Whether Feyerabend himself contributed to the philosophical killing of time is a subject for another post.

Citations are from William James A Pluralistic Universe. Hibbert Lectures on the Present Situation in Philosophy, University of Nebraska Press, 1996 [original edition 1909].

When I was a student, in the eighties of the twentieth century, Karl Popper’s Open Society was considered not quite okay to read – at least when one considered oneself to be on the critical and leftish side of the political arena. As incomprehensible as this now seems to me – well, there were more strange things going on in that stifled age of what is called ‘Cold War’. In those polarized circumstances anyone who was not for Marx, was definitely thought to be against him, and, more, under suspicion of propagating Capitalism and its wrongs.

Popper, who had been a Marxist in his own younger days, left the movement when in a protest rally some individuals were shot dead by the police. It opened his eyes to the moral principle that no ideology justified people dying for it – which made him leave the movement. But worse, he criticized Marx to the core in the book which he considered to be his ‘War effort’ (while living peacefully in New Zealand, which he had reached in time before the Nazi’s could have hunted him in his native Austria for being of jewish decent). His criticism centered on Marx’ idea of history: that one could project into the future a blueprint of a just society, for which then, sacrifices were acceptable.

Of course he was right about this core point in Marx, which was borrowed from Hegel, and we know how it worked out in Communist countries, where the destruction of families, of personal privacy, and of lives were condoned by this idea of rightful sacrifice. Instead one should hold, Popper wrote, that history cannot progress, cannot move towards a (somehow already existing) end: ‘only we, the human individuals can do it; […] by defending and strenghtening those democratic insitutions upon which freedom, and with it progress, depends.’ Democratic institutions, because they garantuee that we can always take new courses when tried ones fail, instead of having to keep steering toward the one ideal society once thought out. And then he wrote those compelling concluding words: ‘Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate.’

Another philosophical writer on society (who had fled Germany for similar reasons in that same period, but then to that other haven, the USA) – a writer with similar views on history – was considered to be okay for the left-wing student, since he rather revised Marxist theory from within, instead of rejecting it. I mean Herbert Marcuse, whom I mentioned earlier (in ‘Difficult Freedom’) and to whom I will probably return another time. The interesting fact is that he does not reject absolutist tendencies in theory only, but that he sees them at work also in the so-called ‘free’ world of those days. Because we have separated ideologically politics from technology, says Marcuse, we have lost a real freedom of thought. Thinking that our technological progress is a politically neutral development, we can no longer criticize the economic, ecological and humanitarian injustices that are inescapable when we let it dominate our goals. Food for thought, really, in our present days of ecological and economic (and humanitarian…) crisis!

Marcuse dares to criticize a naive faith in a certain type of democracy (which he calls ‘mass democracy’) – the kind that grants liberties, while at the same time denying freedom. Liberties for some, that is, because they are denied to ‘the exploited and persecuted of other races and colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside of the democratic process […].’ This sounds still relevant, watching today’s world – with its masses of poor people living on the verge of subsistence, working in situations which are not officially, but actually situations of slave labour, who lack democratic institutions, or the knowledge, money and power to make use of them; more, our world with it’s large amounts of undocumented migrant workers living in the heart of ‘democratic’ nations without full citizen’s rights. They are named ‘illegal’, and my own government now wants to upgrade this downgrading by declaring illegality a penal offence.

In these conditions it is necessary to make use of any theory which will work for a better world – so forget right or left, love Marcuse’s critical analysis of false freedom, and stress at the same time that we, individuals, are the makers of our shared fate. Love Popper for rejecting so strongly the idea of rightful sacrifice, since it stresses the provisional character of any blueprint and it’s subordination to the worth of every individual life.

Karl Popper lived from 1902-1994, Herbert Marcuse from 1898-1979.

Citations are from Karl Popper The Open Society and its Enemies, Routledge, 2002 [original edition 1945] and Herbert Marcuse One Dimension Man. Studies in the Ideology of advanced industrial society, Routledge Classics, 1991 [original edition 1964].