From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 2 ("Where is Public Philosophy Going?").
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We live in times of hopelessness. The social systems that we have built and in which we live are failing us. They condemn us to lives, at best, of meaningless labour – at worst, of suffering and domination at the hands of others. We are simultaneously destroying the earth systems on which these human social systems rely and with which they are entangled. Human life and more-than-human life are in tandem being laid to waste.
It is not only that we are burning the world and denuding human existence. The real cause of hopelessness is in the fact that the possibilities for change are slim. The same global social systems of capitalism, patriarchy, racism and extractive neocolonialism that are the source of these depredations lock in the direction we are heading. They foster in us human tendencies that make it difficult for us to see the problem, let alone respond properly to it: a self-interested love of self that blinds us to what we wreak, a close-mindedness to alternative possibilities, an addictive dependence on the “value” that we extract from the earth, a disregard for others and for ourselves, a need to dominate and feel superior to others. These ways of relating to ourselves and the world render us almost powerless to resist those forces that careen us toward destruction.
Hopelessness has both subjective and objective aspects. Philosophy has traditionally addressed the former, but it might also be able to address the latter. Subjectively, hopelessness appears as a shrinking of possibilities, as a loss of our capacity to imagine what it might be to live well into the future. What we do ceases to have meaning for us, for what meaning can the present have where there is no liveable future?
This sense of the closing of horizons might already be a familiar feeling. But if you need a comparison, think of the loss of meaning and of possibility that often forms part of the experience of profound grief or severe depression. One who has lost a partner with whom one has built a life may feel as if activities and places that were once meaningful, because done or experienced with that partner, are now meaningless or even actively to be dreaded. “We” once walked these paths, listened to these songs, ate together at this table. Now, there is no “we”. It becomes inconceivable to take that walk; that once-moving melody is but flat notes on a page; food is now just ashes in my mouth.
People suffering from severe depression report an inability to imagine what the future holds, and an inability to connect the present with that future. One sufferer, the psychologist David Karp reports in Speaking of Sadness, says the following: “You look at the world, the array of things that you could do, and they’re completely meaningless to you. They’re as meaningless to you as if you were an earthworm.” The experience of severe depression carries with it the kind of hopelessness that comes from a lack of an imaginable future.
To live in hopeless times is not only subjectively to feel hopeless. It is for that feeling in a real way to reflect the way things are.
The generalised condition of hopelessness we face is not just a subjective feeling. It is grounded in the objective conditions that I sketched earlier. The systems that we have created and in which we are embroiled pose an existential threat to human life and the ecological systems that support it. And these systems make it all but impossible to address those threats. We have created a machine that is seemingly outside our capacities to constrain or to change. Not only is there no acceptable future; there is, it seems, no way to change that fact. The powerlessness we feel is thus quite real. To live in hopeless times is thus not only subjectively to feel hopeless. It is for that feeling in a real way to reflect the way things are. The social systems we have created and that are threatening the possibility of human life outrun us. We appear incapable of transforming, for the better, what we have already built.
Philosophy, in various guises, has traditionally been a means of dealing with despair. There is a philosophical genre of consolation, figured, for example, in the Roman Senator Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae, or On the Consolation of Philosophy. (Alain de Botton more recently penned The Consolations of Philosophy, which aims to help readers with everyday problems, including “Not Having Enough Money” and “Unpopularity”.)
The consolation, as a genre, aims to help people cope with despair through a practice of philosophising that brings the practitioner to a higher state of being. This conception of philosophy contains some important insights. Philosophy-as-consolation is not just theory. It is a practice that changes the self, renders it more capable, more active. In shaping the self, the practice has value in itself, not just in achieving the external end of consolation.
Yet consolation only deals with the subjective side of hopelessness. It leaves the underlying objective conditions untouched. I don’t mean to deny that philosophy-as-consolation may be of great help to many. But only political action – by which I mean collective action together with others – will help us deal with the objective conditions of hopelessness. We need not just a means of coping, but some means of social change.
We can take inspiration here from traditions of philosophy that tie thought to action, understanding to change. The Black radical tradition is one such tradition. bell hooks, in Teaching to Transgress, conceives of theory as a liberatory practice. hooks writes:
I came to theory because I was hurting – the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend – to grasp what was happening around and within me. Most importantly, I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing.
Theory as liberatory practice, for hooks, is a way of doing theory that is tied to the actual problems people face. It is a form of theory that begins in consolation. It can help people see things differently. Yet it goes beyond consolation to help people do things differently, and for this difference to spread more widely. hooks conceives of “theory as intervention, as a way to challenge the status quo.”
Vincent Lloyd, in the pages of this journal, participates in and describes a tradition of philosophy born of struggle. Philosophy born of struggle, for Lloyd, “route[s] the traditional philosophical questions that have eternal import…through the experience of struggle”. It does so in part “by tethering itself to social movements against oppression.” Philosophy of this sort “test[s] concepts against the language of protest, of organizing, and of dreaming a new, impossible world.”
Philosophy has a role to play not just in consoling individuals against despair in a world that remains unchanged, but in changing the worldly conditions of hopelessness.
For both hooks and Lloyd, as for the Black radical tradition of which they are both a part, philosophy has a role to play not just in consoling individuals against despair in a world that remains unchanged, but in changing the worldly conditions of hopelessness. The genre of consolation is essentially private, in the sense that the change it aims to bring about is internal to a soul. But for Lloyd and hooks, philosophy as liberatory practice, born of struggle, is essentially public. It is public in the sense that it arises from a public, one that struggles. And it is public in the sense that it helps form a public, one that sees and does things differently, challenges the status quo, and dreams a new, impossible world.
Philosophy can thus do more than console. It can illuminate and create possibilities for action and for change. Its power to illuminate and create possibilities are contingent on its publicity. It is no accident that hooks wrote those words in a work on teaching and consciousness-raising, and that Lloyd locates his voice in relation to social movements. Both consciousness-raising (whether in the classroom or elsewhere) and organising are public, collective, done with others. They are forms of public philosophy.
The sense in which this form of philosophy is public is different from other meanings of the phrase “public philosophy”.
One contemporary meaning of that phrase is in contrast to “academic philosophy”. “Public philosophy” is the name given to those academic philosophers who deign to come down from the ivory tower to “give” their philosophical knowledge to the masses. “Academic” philosophy – the creation of knowledge – comes first. Only once knowledge has been created can it then be disseminated to the public. This form of “public philosophy” is embedded in the public lecture, in the figure of philosopher as sage-on-the-stage.
Philosophy as liberatory practice, by contrast, arises from the struggle. It does not begin in the academy, but in the streets, in the jails, in the agorae and in the workplace, wherever people have the possibility to meet to make change. It is a form of creating knowledge tied to action, and of more directly creating action. This form of “public philosophy” is embedded in the discussion group, the town hall, the union meeting, the protest and the rally, in the conversations that we have with each other. Feminist philosophers have described the ways in which consciousness-raising groups functioned both as forms of self-knowledge and collective action. The Movement for Black Lives, Deva R. Woodly argues in her recent book Reckoning, embodies a “radical Black feminist pragmatism”. Practice is a form of theory.
Philosophy done in this way is also collective. It is an activity that one engages in with others. It builds and sustains a public. hooks sees the liberatory practice of theory as a form of consciousness-raising. It is a practice whereby people, together, come to understand the conditions of their oppression and to work to change those conditions. Philosophy in this sense does more than just provide “concepts”, whether as new names for phenomena or as tools for thinking – though it does and should do that, at least in part. It fosters solidarity and connection and care between the participants in the practice. The activity of philosophising is not just a means to the end product of “knowledge”. It is an activity that shapes the self. (This is something philosophy-as-consolation gets right.) I want to say: philosophy as liberatory practice embodies a practice of hope.
What do I mean by a practice of hope? I mean a hope in other people. Public philosophy in this sense is a way of placing hopes in others. This is not just a belief; say the belief that we, together, can change the world. It is a practice of shaping ourselves in collectivity with others so that we are able to change the world. It is a practice of solidarity and care, of building the conditions for collective agency, collective understanding, and collective power.
This hope in others should be distinguished from other forms of hope, along two dimensions. First, it does not rest on any shared vision of the future. Hope, we usually think, aims at some desired but uncertain future end. I hope that I will one day be able to afford a house. I hope that we will someday be able to live well. I hope that the world does not burn. These are hopes that may seem utopian, ideal – beautiful, but unachievable. (I know that I will never be able to afford a house.)
Lauren Berlant coined the phrase: “Cruel Optimism”. For Berlant, these forms of hope are part of the problem. They are ways in which systems of structural injustice reproduce themselves. They redirect our energies away from structural transformation towards these unachievable forms of individual “success”. One need not go as far as Berlant. Future-oriented forms of hope may well be valuable as inspiration or as critical ideal even as they may be cruel in their impossibility. (Martin Luther King, Jr once said that the challenge is “to accept the finite disappointment and yet cling to the infinite hope.”)
The point I wish to insist on is different. It is not clear how these hopes, even if valuable, can form a practice, other than one of wishful thinking or of the new-age attempt to manifest one’s desires. Hope in others, by contrast, is not primarily future-oriented. It is present-oriented. We shape ourselves in conjunction with others in the here and now. We lay our hopes in what we and others can do and become together in the present, not in some dreamed-for-future.
If hopelessness consists in the impossibility of imagining a future, then hope in others side steps that impossibility by focusing on the present, on the capacities of those who inhabit that present with us.
Second, the object of this hope is not the world, but other people. We do not aim at some worldly state of affairs, but keep ourselves open to what others are capable of saying and doing, beyond our current state of close-mindedness and self-interest. Hannah Arendt wrote of the human condition that it is characterised by natality – the power of creation, of giving birth to something new. Hope in others is a recognition of that power of human agency, as against the systems and structures that choke us and constrain us. If the state of the world makes certain possibilities unimaginable, hope in others allows us to imagine again, together with those others.
Hope in others is no guarantee. It cannot be, because to guarantee a result is to aim at a future goal and to predict successfully what is needed to achieve that goal. Hope in others does not aim at any particular future goal. And to treat others in the mode of prediction is not to treat them as agents capable of saying and doing things anew. If hopelessness consists in the impossibility of imagining a future, then hope in others side steps that impossibility by focusing on the present, on the capacities of those who inhabit that present with us. It is a remarkable fact that when one does philosophy in public, with others and not as an authority who, as Michel de Montaigne said, “bawl[s] into a pupil’s ears as if one were pouring water into a funnel”, one can be constantly surprised by what others say. There is no script. We learn from each other, and together, in the moment, we create something new.
In a way, this essay is not about the future of public philosophy. For, as we all know (at least if we are being honest with ourselves), public philosophy is quite likely not to have a future, because we are quite likely not to have one. It is about the present practice of public philosophy in response to this lack of a future. What are we, or can we be, doing now? What forms of public philosophy practice this hope in others?
I want to leave this question open. What forms public philosophy takes, and where it is practiced, are up for re-imagination by each and all of us. What I do want to insist on is that the philosophical spirit in which it is practised matters. Socrates, after all, never – or at least rarely – claimed authority. What he sought to do was to awaken in the Athenian public their own capacities for thought and right action. (One could easily replace “Socrates” with “Zhuangzi,” or with “Gautama,” and “Athens” with their respective publics.) That spirit ought to respond to the times in which we live, times of hopelessness that call for collective struggle. Philosophy can be part of that collective struggle. Indeed, it must be if we are ever to be able to live well.
Yarran Hominh is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bard College. He is also the Associate Editor of APA Studies on Asian and Asian American Philosophers and Philosophies and is on the editorial board of The Philosopher. His research sits at the intersection of social and political philosophy with moral psychology. He draws liberally from a variety of traditions of thought and practice, including the pragmatist tradition, the Black radical tradition, Buddhist modernism, and anti-racist, anti-colonial, and anti-imperial praxis from around the globe. He is working on a book manuscript entitled The Problem of Unfreedom. You can find out more at yarranhominh.com
From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 2 ("Where is Public Philosophy Going?").
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