top of page

"Philosophy Born of Struggle" by Vincent Lloyd (Keywords: Black Philosophy; Old Age; Moods; Hope)


White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 1 ("Where is Philosophy Going?").

If you enjoy reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.



Here is what distinguishes the future of philosophy from philosophy’s past: instead of a context of increase, the years ahead will be coloured by decrease. Aging populations. Economic and political volatility. Extreme weather and proliferating natural disasters as the effects of climate change make the earth less and less inhabitable. A realization that not all harms are repairable, whether they are done to animals and land or to once colonized or enslaved populations. And surely, in years to come, we will realize that we have inflicted, we are inflicting, grave harms of which we are not yet aware.


In short, we must ask what it means to do philosophy when we fully expect that the next generation will be worse off, in many ways, than our generation – and that this diminishment will continue for generations to come. While it is true that every generation and every culture has its optimists and its pessimists, our current moment is unique in the extent to which we find an ethos of vulnerability in the present and a sense of diminution in the future.


We must ask what it means to do philosophy when we fully expect that the next generation will be worse off, in many ways, than our generation.

There have been moments in the past when world events have unsettled assumptions. In the twentieth century, Europe was shaken by two world wars, events that challenged the sense that there is a bedrock of moral and epistemological stability. This did not result in philosophical paralysis. Quite the opposite: it fuelled philosophical creativity – in movements that leaned into the newfound vertigo (existentialism and post-structuralism), in movements that sought to manage that vertigo (hermeneutics and phenomenology), and in movements that sought to repress it (ordinary language philosophy and naturalist currents).


But what we face today is not a reckoning with an unsettling event. What we face is, to put it melodramatically but not wrongly, the end of the world.


***


It might seem as if this situation calls for a tragic mood. The world is the sort of place where we will inevitably face choices that make us turn away from important, even essential goods. And it is the sort of place where we misperceive, over and over again. Such a mood cuts through aspirations to get things right, ethically or epistemologically, and challenges those philosophical projects that are fuelled by these aspirations. The philosopher plays a therapeutic role, loosening the fixation that we feel on getting things right, at an individual level, at an institutional level, and at a cultural level.


The philosophy suited to old age is one characterized by struggle without the promise of success or reward.

Or, it might seem as if our darkening future calls for a critical mood. Perhaps philosophy, having obscured our impending doom or even been complicit in it, ought to be replaced by critical theory. In this view, our world is chock full of oppression, layer upon layer of systems of oppression, and the vocation of the philosopher is to sort through them, giving them names and exposing them to the fresh air of public discourse so that they might wither. The philosopher’s task must be negative rather than positive, naming falsehoods rather than proclaiming truths.


But it is not clear that either the tragic or the critical mood, important as they are, fully take into account the sense of decline we face. The critical mood suits youthful exuberance, discovering that the richness of the world, both its darkness and its light, have been concealed by the habits and dogmas of older generations. The tragic mood suits middle age, when we realize the time in front of us is finite and there are hard limits on our future possibilities, set by our past choices as well as the facts of the world. But what is the mood suitable to old age, when we feel our faculties steadily declining, when we attend more funerals than weddings, when our life is no longer organized around plans and hopes for our future?


The metaphor of old age, of a life approaching death, can mislead. It conjures a sense of slowness, acceptance, and fatalism. While in some cases this is the experience of old age, those who have spent time around the elderly think of other traits found in that phase of life, too. We find spunk and stubbornness. We find commitment to habit but also, at times, playfulness and curiosity. We find daily struggle, physical struggle against the increasing friction of one’s own body but also against the desires and interests of family and culture that seem to be drifting away. And we find wisdom, the heart of philosophy.


Rather than wallowing in tragedy or taking pleasure in unveiling the obfuscations of the world, the philosophy suited to old age is one characterized by struggle without the promise of success or reward. Along with struggle comes wisdom, and joy.


This suggestion runs against common intuitions. Struggle is often dismissed as the product of adolescent hubris, as a phase. In this way, we – in general, and especially philosophers – look at those who struggle as doing something rather peculiar, over there, away from us. We seek to understand problems, small and large; they struggle to survive as they are drowning in problems. Racism, patriarchy, capitalism, and the legacies of colonialism: we can name these, take account of them in a footnote or an extra paragraph, but over there, somewhere else, people struggle against their effects every day.


Instead of testing concepts against ordinary language, philosophy will test concepts against the language of protest, of organizing, and of dreaming a new, impossible world.

In the future, this distancing will fail. We will all know, and feel, the force of intertwined systems of oppression. We will all, increasingly, struggle, and be aware that we struggle. The philosopher’s task, then, will be to explicate struggle. How is it best directed, and why is it misdirected? How do we route the traditional philosophical questions that have eternal import, about truth, beauty, and goodness, about knowledge, friendship, and community, and much else, through the experience of struggle?


Again, we must avoid the temptation to reduce struggle to adolescent rebellion and turn, instead, to the quotidian experience of the elderly, where struggle and wisdom are twinned, and held with an essential lightness. Systems of oppression fill the world and form who we are. They are inescapable, though not total. Once we see this with clear eyes – social movements and climate catastrophe are bringing about such clarity more and more each day – we are faced with the choice between resignation and struggle. Resignation, admittedly a not unpopular choice, is the refusal of wisdom, the embrace of nostalgia or the projection of regrets and anxieties onto others. Struggle means acknowledging the overwhelming darkness of the future as well as the overpowering forces of oppression in the present, and then wrestling with the forces of death and destruction.


***


Let us shift from the language of age to the language of colour. Blackness today is defined by the experience of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. More than by skin, more than by culture, more than by genetics, Blackness grows out of the experience of treating some humans as less-than-human, with all that entails. It grows out of near-severed bonds with language, land, family, and culture. It grows out of domination in its purest form: the master having the capacity to arbitrarily exert his will over the enslaved. It grows out of the laws, institutions, habits, and forms of reasoning and feeling and imagining that made slavery possible – many of which persist to the present, after slavery officially ended.


To live amidst the afterlives of slavery, to live as Black, is to already know what the rest of the world is coming to know. We are vulnerable, caught up in unavoidable systems of oppression, and pulled toward death. From the perspective of Blackness, this is not just one phase of life; this is life itself. Our world crumbles around us and is set against us: in terms of health, environment, economy, family, social institutions, and all the rest.


Black philosophy is philosophy that is oriented by struggle, for merely to live as human in a world that treats me as less than human requires constant struggle.

The future of philosophy, then, is to cleave closer and closer to Black philosophy. Black philosophy is philosophy that is oriented by struggle, for merely to live as human in a world that treats me as less than human requires constant struggle, on scales small and large. Black thinkers, rarely accorded the honorific “philosopher,” have carefully reflected on this situation for two centuries and more, from Frederick Douglass to Anna Julia Cooper, from Aimé Césaire to Angela Davis. They have done so with a mix of gravity and lightness, with an appreciation that the essential work of struggle promises no immediate reward while at the same time the work is twinned with the ultimate reward, wisdom.


One more misconception about the elderly: they live lonely lives. And a misconception about Blackness: it is an essentially communal existence. Both of these views result from present social pathologies, but both remind us of risks philosophy will run in the future, as its institutional structures come under increasing pressure. Whatever organizational form philosophy born of struggle takes, it can achieve the balance it needs by tethering itself to social movements against oppression. Instead of testing concepts against ordinary language, philosophy will test concepts against the language of protest, of organizing, and of dreaming a new, impossible world.


Vincent Lloyd is Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University, where he directs the Center for Political Theology. His most recent book is Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination, published by Yale University Press.

 

From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 1 ("Where is Philosophy Going?").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

Comentarios


bottom of page