There are two main lanes in an adult’s life. The first lane leads to success, career and money; and the other lane, which is more of a roundabout, revolves around friendship, care and love. As always, let’s say that the middle is the best – spiralling forward. The problem occurs when the first lane leaves no space for the second, and this is the situation experienced increasingly in academic, institutional philosophy today. There is, furthermore, a very peculiar paradox behind this situation which I call the paradox of academic philosophy. I will explain what I mean by this phrase by drawing a close analogy with the (post)colonial condition.
Academic philosophy resembles the Orient that Orientalists invented, only that, in this case, the philosophers are Orientalists themselves. Edward Said’s classic book Orientalism, which is considered as the inaugurating work of postcolonial studies, shows that the “Orient” (the Middle East) was an ontological category created by Orientalists. This category, moreover, revealed less about the object (the Orient) than it did about the desires, obsessions and contradictions of its subject (the West).
Orientalism was a highly eclectic book and was widely criticized. One of the most prominent criticisms, and also the one that concerns us here, was that Said, in order to actually “save” the Orient, “erased” it entirely. In Said’s account, there was only one actor, the West. This was precisely the gist of the critique that Sadik Jalal al-‘Azm raised shortly after Orientalism’s publication. Al-‘Azm averred that “that nineteenth-century Europe was superior to Asia and much of the rest of the world in terms of productive capacities, social organisation, historical ascendency, military might and scientific and technological development is indisputable as a contingent historical fact.”[i]
Having defined the fact of superiority as a contingent and extensively lived one in the Orient, Al-‘Azm stressed that the problem was Orientalists’ attempts to eternalize this mutable fact and “turn it into a permanent reality past, present, and future.”[ii] An immediate corollary to this critique is that what the Orient meant for Orientalists was a conjunctural outcome of asymmetrical power relations and global hierarchies that, while destroying the lifeworld of the Orient, used this destruction to redraft and consolidate its own lifeworld further. This is what Johannes Fabian famously called the “denial of coevalness”, which “becomes the gloss for a situation where the Other’s hierarchically distancing localization suppresses the simultaneity and contemporaneity of the ethnographic encounter.”[iii]
The abundance of the Occident was built on the scarcity of the Orient. Recalling Al-‘Azm’s critique, abundance-vs-scarcity is the sheer lack of symmetry between the economically, politically, industrially and technologically stronger and the weaker parties. In Said’s Orientalism this lack of reciprocity was expressed by “hegemony”, which “gives Orientalism the durability and the strength” by putting the Westerner always “in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand.”[iv] Decolonialists follow a different line of thought, conceptualising this asymmetry within “the colonial matrix of power.”[v] In short, scarcity is the very lived experience in which one feels oneself belated, left behind, abandoned, humiliated, frustrated, silenced, rejected, pauperised, and eliminated. Though material deprivation is not necessary to make one feel this way, it proves to be a strong catalyst for the condition of scarcity. (Ken Loach’s new movie Sorry We Missed You is an amazing exposition of this thesis).
You might be asking what it is that I am trying to show here. The point is, first, to draw an analogy between the condition of institutional philosophy and that of the Orient back then; and, second, not to reify the current situation in academic philosophy, but instead, to offer an explanation as to why choosing the lane of success, career and money has come to exclude friendship, care and love.. That is, why “we” (institutional philosophers) do not feel like a community anymore and increasingly, with every new generation, style ourselves as individual worlds not only truly closed onto ourselves but also looking askance, if not with anger and frustration, through our shrinking windows to one another. Why is the well-being of philosophy jeopardized today?
It is the same scarcity, which sought to dismantle the meaningful world of the Orient, that now targets institutional philosophy. It is lack – the lack of funding, grants, tenures, lack of certainty, lack of stability, and lack of recognition. Philosophy is under siege. The result is short-term contracts and constant uncertainty that are ruining one’s mental health, the tenure track which has become an instrument of intimidation. Thought itself, as we philosophers would like to repeat, might be overabundant. But, unfortunately, the one who is supposed to think that thought needs somehow to avoid scarcity. A healthy society, as it is defined in modernity, which can be conceived of as the ceaseless redrafting of the social, is one where exceptionally talented subjects eventually defy scarcity and find abundance. The belief in this teleology is as strong as faith in progress: they presuppose one another. For that reason, one might object that the measure of truth is neither abundance nor scarcity. The very overabundance of thought would remain as a transhistorical VIP lounge, so to say, populated by what we call the canon, which can be accessed with enough gift, perseverance and perhaps a little bit of luck (or should I have said destiny?).
Yet, here emerges the peculiar paradox of academic philosophy. The very lifeworld that can sustain the belief in such a transhistorical VIP lounge seems to be no longer sustainable. This is because historical processes push the community of academic philosophers to a situation very similar to that the Orient found itself in the course of modernity. Academic philosophy today is under the sway of the entire cluster of forces that enabled the so-called “superiority” Al-‘Azm mentioned in his critique (thanks to which the aforementioned lack of symmetry and denial of coevalness could be realised), plus the increasingly omnipresent information technology. Besides expressing, perhaps, a sullen irony, this is the condition of scarcity, which can destroy, as it did in the Orient, even the dearest truths of a community. There is no doubt that there would be those like Bruno Latour who would find what “they” say more eligible than what “we,” philosophers, have been saying. This is, in effect, not so different from what Chakrabarty called “the everyday paradox of third-world social science”, namely “that we find these theories [theories developed in the “West” – Orientalist accounts were also, by many Orientals, found perfect descriptions of the Orient], in spite of their inherent ignorance of ‘us,’ eminently useful in understanding our societies.” Just as the Orient could not go on without adapting (and resisting) nineteenth-century Euro-American “superiority,” so also philosophy, posited by people like Husserl as the defining feature of what Europe is, cannot pretend as if nothing has happened. Scarcity overrules abundance. This is, however, only one side of the paradox of academic philosophy.
It is the other side which makes things peculiar. Scarcity is not necessarily detrimental to communal bonds. As a matter of fact, history speaks to the opposite. From Germany, or more precisely the German-speaking parts of Central Europe, to postcolonial nations, it has been repeatedly shown that scarcity generates and strengthens communal bonds. When Gregory Jusdanis claims that “nationalism is in part a response to a condition of belatedness,”[vii] he underlines that the bonds that created Germany as a nation emerged from a situation where it was politically, industrially and culturally handicapped – that is, in a condition of scarcity compared to England and France. This was, however, no obstacle for philosophers to establish a philosophical community; the other way around, it helped them bring such a community about. When Husserl, following in Fichte’s footsteps, claimed to be “the functionary of mankind,” the latter universal was a product of his particularity, for which he was fighting (namely, Germany).[viii]
Now, centuries of wars, including the two world wars and the colonisation of the large part of the world (by 1900, Euro-America was governing almost 90 per cent of the globe), it has become almost impossible for philosophers to “feel” as a community. The very philosophical task, the historical mission of social justice, assigned to us has become the ceaseless questioning of any communal impression, implication and pretension.
Bringing these two sides together, the paradox unfolds as following. Academic philosophy is caught up in the spiral of its own inevitable annihilation. Its defining feature, its felt necessity, its historical mission of social justice, reinforces the very reason why it is in the pincers of annihilation: namely, scarcity.
When what is called “the West” colonised the entire globe, having thereby created a global past, present and future due to the impossibility of further spatio-temporal expansion, it inevitably turned “inwards” and targeted philosophy as the next “outside” (the next Orient, so to say) but this time only in thought. This not only revealed that philosophy has never been equal to this curious entity called “the West”, but also, by the same token, engendered a peculiar confrontation, in which we found ourselves trying to conceptualise our own demise.
A particularly pernicious outcome of this is that it creates the dream of a flight from scarcity, similar, again, to the postcolonial situation, in which an educated “Oriental” seeks to migrate to “the West” in order to evade scarcity that becomes unbearable to him or her – reproducing thereby the inevitable decay and destruction of his or her own community. This means that we, at the same time, destroy the possibility of the transhistorical VIP lounge, for, in the end, it is a community that decides on the value and reality of such a thing. Too proud, scared, or bewildered to commit to any sort of community, we are bringing our own demise closer by seeking ferociously to avoid scarcity. In other words, philosophers have become the Orientalists who orientalise philosophy: we have become the conditions of our own impossibility.
Fırat M. Hacıahmetoglu
[i] Sadik Jalal al-‘Azm, ‘Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse’, (1980), Web (http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article20360), 25 July 2015.
[iii] Johannes Fabian, Time and Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), ix.
[iv] Edward W. Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2003), 7.
[v] Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2011).
[vi] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 29.
[vii] Gregory Jusdanis,, The Necessary Nation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 7.
[viii] See Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, trans by. David Carr (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970), 17: “In our philosophizing, then—how can we avoid it?—we are functionaries of mankind.” Also see Edmund Husserl, ‘Fichte’s ideal of humanity [Three Lectures]’, Husserl Studies 12 (1995), 111–133 (131): “so that this people [German] continue to increase in true glory, that it elevate itself in itself, and through itself it elevate all of humanity.”