Masters of the Universe

I started classes today, and so things might get more philosophical around here.

Today I didn’t think I had time to post anything, but then I got in the shower and thought about some ideas that I thought would be worth putting down, if I could do it quickly and then get back to work.

This is another post about academia, but more generally about society and respect (warning: these are generalizations of course, but I mean for this post to be a kind of social/psychological diagnosis, and so I can work with statistical regularity or cultural salience). Most people in academia, and in fact professionals happen to be a pretty arrogant group, and the reason comes partly from their smartness, which allows people to take a very wide view of the type of work they do, and so inflate their value. Take philosophers, who have almost no obvious value to society. We don’t make things or help people, but sometimes we come up with some interesting ideas. And in fact, philosophers do make a difference, slowly and surely, and oftentimes very indirectly. But since philosophers are smart, they can follow these attenuated and indirect connections to their conclusion, and so end up seeing themselves in an undeserved heroic light. The philosopher sees himself as the arbiter of thought; he decides which thoughts are worth thinking or are acceptable to be thought. This becomes very annoying, and the worthlessness of this stance becomes especially clear when the philosopher comes up against a person of “action.” Revolutionaries, military heroes, and humanitarians might fall into this category. When the philosophers sneers that there is “no justification” for the course someone is pursuing, they are trying to limit and control conduct by deciding what should count as true thought. (get a philosopher started on what they think is “rational” and you’ll see what I mean real quick).

Nietzsche makes this point well when he labels some philosophers as operating from ressentiment. These philosophers are afraid of action and choice and so retreat to an ideology of thought. For example, Hannah Arendt talks about the VITA CONTEMPLATIVA or the “contemplative life” as the ideal of some early Greek philosophers. She contrasts this with the VITA ACTIVA, which is the life of action.

Ok, so now I’ve skewered philosophers, but see how this same sort of ideological perversion is endemic to academia, and some professional careers. Think of the English major who carries the burden of being stereotyped as a snob. This type of person (not all, or probably even English Ph.D.s are like this, but the stereotype is culturally salient) sees themselves not as the enforcer of what counts as good thought, but what counts as culture. They are the guardian of high culture as against the masses who watch movies like Beverly Hills Cop I, II, and III (not pointing any fingers). Scientists are the guardians of technical knowledge, and the know-it-all attitude follows closely behind. The endless corrections about this and that constant.

But just as the philosopher can try to enforce the life of contemplation even when the life of activity is staring us in the face, so can other disciplines make the same mistake. The scientist makes the a-bomb because he wants to KNOW “if it can be done,” while everyone else wonders why we don’t just say “who cares if we never know.” The doctor says “you’re being unhealthy” and the soldier says “I’m not concerned with health.” He leaves the realm of health behind. The economist says “you’re wasting money” and the poet says “I’m in love.”

What I’m trying to say is that ideologies of dominance grow up around a profession and people begin to believe that they are somehow the embodiment of the most special value available to humans, life (doctors), death (soldiers), rationality (philosophers), knowledge (scientists), justice (lawyers).

Rather than close with a boring platitude about how we should all just get along (which we should), I want to move in a different direction, and say why I greatly admire the common man, for example, the carpenter who is always renovating the house next to mine. These people either don’t entertain, or have the basis for, such grandiose thoughts. The person who paves the roads I drive or fixes my shower, is contributing to society in pervasive and influential way, but the ideology of the working person is, as many have deridingly noted, humble and “down to earth.” There is no greater purpose or animating value that has to be puffed up with rhetoric or ideology. There is only a task and the will to achieve it.

Now of course, there is a real risk of romanticizing the working class, and I am particularly prone to that tendency having not been exposed to that life. And course, its a hard life, and it might be coercive and oppressive in a variety of ways. It also might suffer from a lack of intellectual exposure. There’s no need to sanitize the effects of pervasive ignorance on many issues. Still though, there is coercion in all forms of life, and while we work to alleviate it, we can understand why two workers carrying cement in the hot sun are nonetheless talking excitedly to each other and smiling to boot.

Marx tried to provide the worker with his transcendental purpose, so that he could be like the lawyer, doctor and philosopher. So that he could be an equal. On Marx’s theory, only the simple working man could bring a revaluation of society that would release the true spirit of human beings and repair our fractured souls. But here again we see the old tendency of IDEOLOGY; to invent a way to be better than everyone else secretly. Marx was tired of all the values that the upper classes kept babbling about and flipped everything so that in fact, those values were just masks for oppression: only the worker held the key to salvation.

But if I’m right in this post, we can see that this is just the same old trick; that of inflating the values of one sphere of life at the expense of others. Marx didn’t hide this: there wasn’t much for professional to do after the takeover; they might even have to be killed (as they were in many places). I would like to say to the marxist, perhaps even the unrepentant capitalist is engaged in a certain type of valuable pursuit? Would that be so hard to admit?

Anyway, I’m not sure if what I’m saying is that values are “incommensurable” so much as I’m saying that they are finite. No value can be stretched to cover the whole of human life, and so my going philosophy is that of the traveler who tries to experience every foreign land to learn its charm, and then, maybe, return happily to his homeland, where he lives out his days in peace.


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