“Why we fail and how” (Costica Bradatan)

LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS, September 24, 2017

DIOGENES THE CYNIC (c. 412 BC–323 BC) apparently had to flee his native city of Sinope because he was caught in a scandal involving the defacement of Sinopean currency. He managed to save face, though, and switched from a failing career in counterfeiting to a more promising one in philosophizing. Diogenes would always remember fondly his early life of crime. When, years later, in Athens, someone reminded him of the re-stamping scandal, he hit back proudly: “But it was because of that, you wretch, that I turned to philosophy.” The two career paths didn’t always stay separate, however; Diogenes would boast, for example, that his skill at re-stamping coins came in handy when he embarked on his great philosophical project of reevaluating all the values of Athenian society.

An impecunious life may not be exactly a counterfeiter’s dream, but Athens offered Diogenes precisely that. The irony must not have been lost on him: here he was, in one of the wealthiest places on earth at the time, which offered anything that money could buy, and yet the former minter of coins was penniless, reduced to a life of begging and scraping. But Diogenes was nothing if not imaginative. Soon enough he must have figured out that he could turn destitution into philosophical vision and begging into an art form. And that, in so doing, he could beat Athens at its own game: in a city that placed such a high value on excellence in any form of human endeavor, Diogenes could excel at the art of doing nothing; he could be the best of idlers, an aristocrat of the dregs. With the cult of success permeating every aspect of Athenian life, he must have realized he could make a fabulous career in failure. Of his master, Antisthenes, Diogenes once said, glowing with gratitude: “This man turned me from a rich man into a beggar, and made me live in a storage-jar rather than a spacious house.” Antisthenes deserved praise, he thought, for turning him into a social failure and thus a great philosopher.

Diogenes found Socrates wanting: lukewarm and compromising, still too attached to things. Socrates had a pleasant commerce with the world, and submitted to its temptations: success, reputation, followers, social appearances. Diogenes, the former minter of coins, complained that Socrates “had lived a life of luxury; for he had devoted too much concern to his little house, and his little couch, and his sandals.” In Diogenes’s eyes, that made Socrates suspect of selling out.

And so Diogenes took it as his philosophical mission to push Socratic ideas to their breaking limit. When Plato called Diogenes a “Socrates gone mad,” he may have said more than he meant to. Diogenes actualized much of what in Socrates was only virtual. From Hypatia to Thomas More to Jan Patočka a number of thinkers have died a death like Socrates’s, but fewer, if any, have managed to live a life like Diogenes’s. That many of his sayings and deeds are apocryphal is not relevant here; if anything, the fact testifies to the hold this figure has had over our imagination and to the veneration we’ve grown to have for his “failure.” Diogenes placed failure, firmly, at the core of his philosophical project. He made failure his element, and fish don’t drown.

It is our gregarious human nature that leads philosophers to fail in the first place. Whether we are aware of it or not, there is a strong atavistic drive, at work in all of us, that compels us to seek the companionship of others, to form groups and groupings, and to stick to them. The group offers the promise of protection, a sense of safety, and indeed plenty of animal warmth. As long as we are part of the group, and play by its rules, we can expect to survive. In exchange, we surrender some of our freedom, our individualism and autonomy, but that is more often than not a good deal. Atavistic as it may be — we can survive alone, now — we still find nothing worse than to be left out, all alone, the one in the corner no one talks to. There can hardly be a harsher predicament than to belong to no tribe — reclaimed by none, exposed to all — and therefore be doomed to perdition. We know it instinctively: to be left out like this is to be a social weakling, and we would do anything to avoid such fate. Solitude is failure’s other name. Solomon Asch famously showed the extent to which we conform to group’s pressures, even in the smallest things.

As a group, philosophers — human, all too human as they are — play the social game as well. They always have. The -isms throughout the history of philosophy arise as much from the philosopher’s identification with a larger family of “kindred minds” as from a need to belong to an influential group — something to offer that sense of security, protection, and empowerment that only a “home” can. This was true of the ancient students who joined one philosophical school or another in search of wisdom, as it was about the medieval or early modern students who faithfully followed their magister from university town to university town. Even as late as 20th century, it was not unusual for philosophy professors in Germany to be followed by some of their closer graduate students when they took up positions at other universities. The nature of the modern university, however, has rendered philosophers’ social game particularly intense. Their playing over the last century or so has become at once more refined and more self-destructive.

Academic philosophers will rarely admit their gregariousness — we are fiercely independent, intentionally iconoclastic. We understand that we stick together because philosophy is all about debate and argument — isn’t it? — and because truth-seeking is a collective enterprise and philosophizing dialogical in nature. True enough. A dialogue, however, is a conversation between equals. And while genuine dialogues do take place between academic philosophers, the most pervading and consequential form of interaction here is a fierce — sometimes shouted, sometimes whispered, but just as often teeth-clenched silent — conversation about power. About who has it and who doesn’t, what are the best ways to get it and to keep it, who is in and who is out, and other similar interrogations. The remarkable thing about this conversation is that it is highly performative: power is being produced — gained and lost, increased or weakened — as the conversation takes place. It may start being between equals, but the conversation begets inequality: it increases the power of few to the detriment of many, it vitiates the interaction between those involved, and seriously alters the nature of philosophizing itself.

This power includes that over funds, resources, opportunities, academic credentials, positions, and recognitions, but — more subtly and more consequently for those involved — over the meaning of words. In his Memoirs, Hans Jonas recounts how once, while he and Hannah Arendt were teaching philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, the dean of the Graduate Faculty asked some philosophers from the University of Chicago what they made of Arendt and Jonas’s work. Proud as the dean must have been of his star employees, he was in for a cold shower: “It’s not philosophy,” answered one analytical philosopher from Chicago. “It’s interesting, also good to have, and there should be departments that work on such things. I’m in favor of that. But the name for it has yet to be invented. I wouldn’t know what it should be called. I do know it’s not philosophy.” The power to give names to things, as those crushed by it know only too well, is among the greatest powers that there are: what you do, what you’ve been doing all your life — even the name of your calling — is something others who have that power can decide… [+]