What Do We Do When We Do Philosophy?
Recently, an ‘anonymous academic’ published a piece in The Guardian. He or she seemed to be voicing a common ‘predicament’ that has been recently upsetting the western academia: “I struggle when hiring academics – because the candidates are too good.”[i]
The overabundance of good academics, which is to say, the proliferation of high-quality knowledge-production, at once a blessing and a curse perhaps, is a very recent phenomenon. It has to do more with the transformation of the world that took place in the course of what historians call ‘the long nineteenth century,’ than with the universality of reason itself. This means that the number of outstanding academic works has been gradually increasing, at least since the mid-nineteenth century, albeit not primarily because reason does not belong exclusively to any particular ethnicity, class or gender. Rather, this happened because the gradual ‘improvement’ of the standards of life, that is, the advent of the middle classes, the replacement of merit over privilege, the collapse of royal authority and aristocratic domination (in short, the weakening of the ancien régime), opened the way for the ‘universalization’ of reason. What may be called the ‘massification’ of the modern regimes was thus accompanied by egalitarianism.
In case massification is understood in a pejorative way, I should note that the fact that I have come to do philosophy in the middle of Europe is a direct consequence of global massification. One should be careful not to exaggerate this fact though, for such an overemphasis may result in redefining the issue in terms of identity politics, which would then trap one in cultural paradigms miraculously set behind political economy. Under the corporate rigidity of the old regimes in Europe, I assume that having the possibility to do philosophy was no less impossible to most western Europeans than it would have been for someone in Anatolia. As Eugen Weber demonstrated more than forty years ago, ‘even’ the French had to be first made French out of the untamed raw material of peasantry.[ii]
Joining the men who were busy with philosophy, or, put more precisely, for whom doing philosophy was a possibility to be considered, was no less a dream for a woman or a man of no rank or importance in Europe, than for her or his counterpart in the Middle East. To be sure, if it had ever come to a decision between a simple man from, say, a small city in Germany or in Turkey, the preference would definitely be for the former. But such an ethnocentric choice, common to all ethnicities, was not a concern until massification became global, accompanied by western institutions, cultural norms, industry, organizations of space, understanding of time, and technology. It was only when an image of a ‘global past’ could be projected on the entire planet that a concomitant egalitarianism could set out on its own journey. As I ‘patiently waited’ for massification to reach Ankara, reason waited impatiently for its own universal fulfillment.
Although some people are still seriously discussing whether or not non-Europeans can think,[iii] the real issue, at least since Husserl acknowledged in 1936 that “even the Papuan is a Man and not a Beast,” is not if ‘non-Europeans’ can think or not, but why ‘we’ are ‘thinking’ at all. What motivates one to think? What is the point of thinking?
A couple of years ago, famous renowned anthropologist Johannes Fabian challenged the established view in western academia which unabashedly presupposed that ‘we live and others survive.’ Clearly, ‘thinking’, something that non-Europeans were once believed to be lacking, means more than ‘surviving’ and has to do with ‘living.’ This brings to mind the 1974 Camel “Meet The Turk” cigarette advertisement on which it was written: “He does more than survive. He lives. Because he knows.” Thanks to global massification, a large majority of humanity seems to be better off and also ‘living’ now. At last, it seems, we can all ‘think’ and ‘know’. Better yet, we can even do philosophy, which was truly unimaginable in the past.
Is it then because of the indebtedness that we feel or simply of the awe and admiration towards the ever increasing number of high quality books and articles that, I wonder, we rarely raise the question of what we do when we do philosophy, that is, why we even ‘think’ when we ‘think’? Surely, it must be more comfortable to succumb to the endless and indeed very strange discussions which try to prove that non-European people can also be ‘rational’, that they can also think, produce knowledge, build cars and bridges, and look beautiful and wealthy.
Debating the intellectual acuity of the non-European peoples is not only comfortable but perhaps also the ‘only safe’ option, one might say. In the face of this overabundance of publications, the immensity of books and articles that can in no way be handled in a single lifetime, one feels provoked from time to time into a certain hybrid mood of nostalgia and anger in which one wishes that there were no good books anymore, and that most of the publications were pedestrian repetitive fabrications devoid of any genuine value. It is hard sometimes to distinguish the truth from the mood.
Germany was the prime example of this. The rapid massification that took place starting in the second half of the nineteenth century in Germany spurred some conservatives to seek singularity in individual geniuses – those people who were, as it were, ‘predestined’. In a new egalitarian world order in which ‘anyone could become anything’, conservative Germans wanted to maintain a status which could not be reached by ‘imitating’ the higher strata of society. Ishay Landa brilliantly showed in a recent book how such an endeavour led to fascism.[iv] After the Nazis were defeated, there was a global agreement on the principle of ‘anyone becomes anything’ (keeping the global hierarchies and power asymmetries intact, of course). This agreement, which was never in fact ‘global’, seems to be opened to contestation now, evinced by various fragmentations around the globe. I wonder, why this turn to particularities re-emerges precisely at the moment when I could also ‘finally’ join the ranks. Who is the ‘bad guy’, I find myself asking: massification or egalitarianism. A meaningless choice…
One may possibly claim that in reality there is no deeper reason than the fact that the overabundance of knowledge brought about its own unmanageability. Maybe, the real problem was never to prove that “even the Papuan is a Man and not a Beast.” I reckon that it was not the Papuan’s problem if he was a human or a beast. Maybe, it was precisely the other way around: the very possibility, the need, the obligation, even the obsession to deny or prove the ontological status of the Papuan, was a fundamental problem that rarely bothered us. It never occurred to ‘us’ that ‘we’ also survive (as Fabian noted), due to the awe and gratitude with which we stand before the realm of knowledge. The expansion of the punditry of white men doing philosophy so as to include even nonwhite women arrived, however, at once too late and too early. It was too late to ask the question of whether or not non-European people could also ‘think’, and too early to ask the question of what it even meant to think. In this limbo we exist, asking questions that truly do not make sense anymore.
There is no doubt that non-European people can think. The thriving economy of China, a people not long ago deemed incapable of any scientific enterprise, must be the prime example of the universality of reason. But I must concede that I do not know why we even ‘think’, or what we do when we ‘think’ and why we do it. The only thing that I ‘know’ as a survivor among the living is that it is no longer possible to ‘do philosophy’ in the way it has been done so far. But what this entails, what it means to do philosophy in global modernity – that I do not know.
[ii] Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976).
[iii] See the discussions between Hamid Dabashi, Walter Mignolo, Santiago Zabala, Michael Marder, and Slavoj Zizek.
[iv] Ishay Landa, Fascism and The Masses: The Revolt Against the Last Humans, 1848-1945 (New York: Routledge, 2018).