Saturday, March 14, 2009

Philosophy and Collapse

The questions of what exactly philosophy is and what it is for, are old central questions in philosophy, (working on them is called “metaphilosophy”), and there are a lot of quite different answers. Here is the handout I give my students. The ancients thought philosophy was the love of wisdom, the literal roots of the word. Moderns often portrayed philosophy as some form of searching for truth. Kant thought that philosophy was about finding the limits of our reasoning ability. Marx thought it was about understanding the world so that we could change the world. Wittgenstein thought that philosophy was about clarifying the claims of other disciplines but that it can really make claims of its own.

Myself, I side with the ancients, that philosophy is the love of wisdom, but when talking to moderns, I often find Husserl’s picture helpful. Husserl says that philosophy has two fairly different aspects, one is aimed at contemplating timeless truths, searching for those things that are true in all times, what he calls “philosophy as an exact science.” Just as the laws of physics or geology care nothing for whether our society is flourishing with an expanding economy and hope for the future, or collapsing facing the end of growth economy with fear and despair for the future, so perhaps there are truths of logic, or metaphysics, or epistemology, or even ethics or aesthetics that care nothing for the particulars of the age. And indeed, it would be all too easy to confuse the prejudices of one’s own age with timeless truths, so when we are pursuing philosophy as an exact science, it is critical to try to find reasons for our beliefs that will not be exposed as merely the prejudice of our age when we poke at them hard. Many, including Husserl, have thought that philosophy-as-an-exact-science has made no or very little progress over the centuries, and have had various explanations for this curious supposed fact. The second aspect of philosophy in Husserl’s picture is what he calls “World-and-life Philosophy” and its job is to give us wise advice on how to live in our own particular time, place, and world. Here, it is critical to examine and understand the particulars of the age you live in, rather than abstracting away from them. Here, wisdom and advice are more central to the project than truth. Again, world-and-life philosophy seems to make little or no progress, but this is not surprising as its subject matter is always changing out from under it.

So as we are facing a collapse of some kind, a collapsing economy, but probably a broader societal collapse as well, philosophy has as usual its two main tasks, helping us seek for timeless truths, things that will not change despite the social and economic changes, and giving us advice on how to navigate the changes. And these projects are fairly distinct, but they are deeply interlinked. Navigating a changing world well probably requires understanding it deeply and insightfully (as well as luck and flexibility, and other virtues). But insight into the world of today usually requires seeing past to moment to the timeless truths that act as the skeleton of the age. So world-and-life philosophy brings us back to philosophy-as-an-exact science. But insight into the timeless truths usually involves understanding your own biases, and how you yourself have been shaped by your own times and society, and that requires insight into the particulars of your own age. So philosophy-as-an-exact science brings us back to world-and-life philosophy as well.

So what timeless truths are most salient for understanding our world’s situation right now? Well, a Christian and a Communist will give you quite different answers, and a devout Neoliberal economist will give you a third set of answers. But MY teachings are this. From metaphysics we learn that events rarely have a single cause, and that there is rarely a single best way of looking at things, rather different visions of the world have different strengths and weaknesses, and the world itself transcends them all. From epistemology, we learn that the world is too complex for anyone to really understand, that all strategies of human knowing have limitations. We make do with our imperfect models of reality, and divvy it up into many specialties and use division of labor in our epistemology as well as in our economy. But this relies on the ability to trust the honesty and competency of folk charged with keeping track of parts of the world that we are not ourselves specialists in. Any honest person, in dozens of specialities could see that exponential growth was going to hit resource limits eventually, whether in energy, population, habitats, atmospheric carbon, available freshwater, credit or something odder. Yet honesty itself is a resource that might be in short supply, and self-deception is a common problem for humans. From logic we learn that even when we try to communicate honestly what we have learned of the world to people of a different specialty or lifestyle, many problems can occur. At best, we summarize in ways that are helpful to our audience. Speaking claims that are formally true is usually impossible, for the same basic reasons that theories never reach reality, or that knowledge is never comprehensive. From ethics and value theory we learn that material wealth is not the end all and be all of happiness. Sometimes lack of wealth does cause misery, but other times more wealth is not going to solve the problems or make people happier. Nonetheless many people do seek more wealth (often as a stand in for social prestige or self-worth) and are often willing to compromise other values to do so. So we are often in the position of trying to make the best of a bad situation, and the ethics of acting as well as we can in a deeply f***ed up situation can be quite tricky, and quite different than the ethics of flourishing in good times, or of trying to prevent f***ed up situations from arising when they are still preventable. These are the themes that I will return to again and again in trying to explore my positions.

So what advice can world-and-life philosophy give? In flush times we seek every good we can, expanding in many directions; in contractions we seek to return to essentials, prioritizing goods as more or less pressing. What is most essential to your life and your happiness? Advice is not making the decisions for the advisee, it is seeking to augment the insight of the advisee, so that they can see more deeply into the situation than they could before. So how do I see the situation? We have reached the limits of exponential growth, and the ability of the global economy to create and sustain credit seems to be the most immediate limit. Perhaps the limits of water, carbon or oil will become increasingly salient soon. Like Sharon Astyk, I imagine that we will return to a level of ordinary human poverty, very much in line with prior historical ages, rather than some Mad Max world or zombie apocalypse or new dark age. Although wars, famines, and social unrest are certainly common elements in historical transitions. I predict that the US median income in real purchase parity power will drop to between 1/3rd and ½ of its 2005 value by the end of 2010 and remain under ½ of its 2005 value until at least 2020. This is going to change many aspects of our society, and certainly have global effects. I am optimistic that American life in 2025 will actually be better than in 2005 in a variety of ways, as America has suffered a number of problems related to having too much wealth, but the next 10-15 years are going to be extremely hard, and there will surely be plenty of injustice, death, and heartbreak along the way. I do not believe the government can be relied on to help us through this, but that preparations should be at the family and community level. Credit and money in a credit society act as a kind of artificial trust and these are breaking down, in large part because our society has become addicted to dishonesty, and lack of trustworthiness. As these breakdown, old fashioned trust, person to person bonds of obligation and trustworthiness, will become more important. I follow Stoneleigh in anticipating hard deflation in 2009 and 2010, with inflation setting in, in the US, sometime after that. You will lose much, your family will lose much. Some folk will lose everything. But many folk will lose much, but also keep much. What is most essential to your life and your happiness? What can you give up, and what must you fight to keep, knowing that no matter how hard you fight you probably can’t keep it all? That is a question that is at once intensely practical and intensely philosophical, and I can’t answer it for you, although I hope we’ll talk about it in dozens of different ways over the next months.

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