Question 1: Gramsci: Some Preliminary Points of Reference
Philosophy has had a long history in which it has been viewed as an ‘ivory tower’ pursuit – a subject which is to be studied by those who have either too much time or money on their hands. Through this view philosophy had no practical applicability and was simply a pass time for those who could afford it. Contrary to this view, Gramsci argued that not only is philosophy a practical subject of study – one which embodies the idea of ‘praxis’ but that every individual is a philosopher. This (somewhat deterministic) standpoint claims that all people are, in fact, philosophers to greater or lesser degrees and their engagement in spheres such as history, economics, and language determines whether they become shapers of their society or merely passengers and idle reactors to changes which have been brought about by other people.
This claim – that everyone is a philosopher, needs more than a little qualification. Gramsci notes three areas wherein people are taught either to become active members of society or mere passengers. These areas are language (which is a totality of notions and ideas), ‘common’ and ‘good’ sense (which are specific, crystallized notions of behavior, be it hand-me-down ‘common sense’ or practical ‘good sense’ which are used to act in given situations), and religion (which delivers a more or less ‘finished’ conception of the universe and our place in it). Furthermore, people, by virtue of entering the conscious world, are hurled into ancient systems of thought which every society, everywhere in the world, has been evolving since the dawn of humankind. This ancient source of philosophy is naturally shared by all members of a given society and what the individual’s response to it should (or rather, ‘can’) be is most clearly elaborated in Gramsci’s own words:
‘The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is “knowing thy self” as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.’ (Gramsci 324)
This, I would argue, is the basis for Gramsci’s idea of ‘Organic Philosophy’ – philosophy stemming from oneself and one’s engagement with the world.
Now comes the question of what this ‘know thy-self’ concept entails? To a layperson this might simply mean ‘know when you are cranky because of hunger and when it is because you are tired.’ but it has deeper implications. When one decides to engage with philosophy as an active member of society, it means being able to root out that which has been imbibed and indoctrinated into oneself and that which one has (or rather, which one ‘can’) choose for oneself. It is here that language enters. Gramsci notes that language is either a tool for expanding one’s horizon and improving one’s cognizance of the world around them, or (through limited command of language) is a deterrent to becoming fully active members of society.
Language propels an individual into a dual world – one, a world of thought and discourse, and another, a world of action and establishment. In this, one begins to note a slight tinge of Spinoza in this treatment of thought and action. Spinoza, with his idea of the one substance – ‘Deus sive Natura’ posited that it is at the moment of stimulus that both thought and action are spontaneously produced in a person. This idea has been hugely influential on me. It has shown that it is not a question of whether one chooses to act ‘OR’ think, but that it is a choice to do or neither both – they come as a package. One’s choice as to whether one is more an actor or a thinker is all that matters. As a student of philosophy, I believe that this means, though I am a ‘thinker’, I am also a ‘doer’, in that I am a part of this world and must react to it as much as I ponder over it.
But how can one do this? Gramsci sets the mind on an interesting path when he both lambasts Marxism as it was displayed in Communist Russia, and praises Calvinism for being able to put individuals in a position where they can choose and grow (subject to the teachings of pre-determined fate and all encompassing grace). This is where another important influence of mine fits in – Bertrand Russell. Russell’s idea of ‘Enlightened Self-interest’ shows that, even if altruism and generosity in the traditional sense cannot exist (they are myths fabricated by religion and other hegemonic powers), to take care of oneself as a philosopher is to take care of society at large. I don’t think this entails a Platonic sense of balance and equilibrium and to prove this one need only consider the problem of food and starvation. In the platonic sense of equilibrium, one is to have only as much as one needs and no more, but in today’s complex and every-changing society, this is not an option – everyone cannot be a farmer or even grow a victory garden! Instead, one can be in possession of surplus food and trade with others for other necessities. This was the notion of an ‘enlightened democracy’ which the Founding Fathers had envisioned when they conceptualized the USA. The problem comes in when one forgets Gramsci’s organic notions and views only a miniscule part of the world. It is then that one works for a false kind of self-interest and causes problems and crises in the larger world.
But this seems somewhat wishy-washy. How on earth can one ensure that one’s horizon is large enough to change not just local, but global society? Here is where another thinker comes in. One of my favorite quotes from Jacques Derrida is - ‘You are not responsible for what you know, you are responsible for what you do not know.’ If one were to follow this as a maxim for life, it ensures that even if one’s horizon is not large enough at present, one can rest assured that one will keep growing. This growth is the ‘enlightened’ (so to speak) growth of philosophers which, in one way or another, every great philosopher since Plato through Spinoza, Kant, Russell, Derrida to current thinkers have posited.
Through Gramsci, Spinoza, Russell, and Derrida, I have learnt that philosophy is a virile, organic subject. One cannot merely surround oneself with books and shun the world. Rather, I believe, one must actively engage with society with a sense of humility which only philosophy can give. With this humility, I believe that I could take up many, many subjects ranging from history and economics to science and better apply it to myself and to the world around me.
Question 2: Descartes: Discourse on Method
Descartes has often been ignored in contemporary philosophy due his reputation as an outdated philosopher. His ideas on everything from existence to science and mathematics placed caused him to be at the very head of the rationalist school of thought which has subsequently lost much of it reputation, due, largely, to Descartes’ absolute rejection of empiricism and the evidence of the senses. However, Descartes’ influence pervades science and philosophy to this day. Certainly, it is not because of his ardent rationalism, but rather it is the sense of self that he created which still dictates how society and the individual think and behave. Descartes’ work - Discourse on Method probably holds the clearest picture of Descartes’ conception of the self.
The first book (which many-a-school-goer would love to quote) in this work deals with what a human being’s natural abilities and the problems of education. Descartes, using some of his most memorable wit, outlined that the individual is, in fact, in possession of all the faculties necessary for the creation of coherent and true idea of the universe. He came tantalizingly close to saying what Albert Einstein would say centuries later (‘The only thing which came in the way of my learning was my education.’) but restricted himself to remarking on how he had to travel and read from ‘the book of the world’ with an unbiased mind to truly understand the nature of things. In so doing he noticed that everyone, regardless of their birth or wealth, was perfectly capable of working out for themselves a true system of thought which brought them to the truth. But what was this system of thought?
In the second book, he finds himself in the stove-heated room which sparked some of his most important ideas on the method to find truth. He came upon the idea that all the knowledge he was given while growing up was flawed for the same reason that plans formed and executed by committees are less effective than those of individuals – because where there are many minds, there are many systems of thought and it is only through the use of one clear method that one can find truth. So one must solve problems by firstly eliminating all personal bias, then begin with the simplest part of it, and move on to the most difficult.
With this system in place, the next question is that of morality. Descartes provisionally set out a set of rules that he would live by – following the rules and customs of his society, being decisive, even in the presence of some doubt, to change himself and not the world, and to determine which was the best and most useful occupation (which he, not surprisingly, concluded was the search for truth, i.e. philosophy).
Granted that many assumptions which Descartes made were later rejected and eventually he did lose his place of prime importance, Descartes created a system of thought and an idea of self which pervades the modern world just as powerfully as it did in his time, if not more so now. His conception of the individual possession of the power to reason and liberate oneself from bondage has shaped the modern world in a way few others have and so he rightly deserves a place of veneration as a truly great thinker.
Question 3: Marx: Bourgeois and Proletarians
Over the centuries Marx has received very bad press due to the ways in which his works were interpreted. He was seen as nothing more than a revolutionary and a trouble-maker, though this was only part of the story. It could be argued that more than being a social revolutionary, Marx was a social chronicler. His works, though polemical and revolutionary at first glance, veils a sharp awareness, not only of the (then) current state of affairs but also a vast knowledge and sharp Hegelian understanding of history.
Marx, like Hegel before him, believed that history was not merely a linear progression of events, but was a dialectic – a war between a thesis and an antithesis, only to be resolved by the production of a synthesis. For Marx, this thesis and antithesis was the class struggle. Hegel had outlined it in his conception of the Master-Slave dialectic, but it was Marx who brought it to its ultimate position as the age-old class dialectic.
This dialectic is that of the preservation and propagation of the class in power and the suppression and eventual oppression of the other, lower classes. Marx notes that in his age, it is only the proletariat which is in a position to truly lead a revolution – a revolution which would be the final manifestation of an unacknowledged civil war between the class in power and the classes oppressed. This dialectic caused each class, throughout history to actively seek its own betterment by the acquisition of power. This power, when obtained by a certain class, would then be used to perpetuate itself and proliferate its mode of self-perpetuation in all other classes, thereby ensuring its primacy. History (in the Hegelian sense) ‘happened’ when the class in power loses control of its power of proliferation and cedes its place of primacy to another class. Marx further notes that it was possibly the first time in history that the revolting class was a majority.
This anomaly was due to industrialization. It brought together people of the same oppressed class in large numbers. Such was the power of this single class that Marx claimed that the only reason that violent revolution had not broken out was because of the false-consciousness held by the proletariat. This false consciousness was the product of indoctrination by religion (the famous ‘opium of society’), law, and other systems controlled by the bourgeoisie in order to control the masses.
The bourgeoisie is, undoubtedly, the dominant class for Marx. They were the land owners, factory masters, and leaders of society who could (probably by virtue of the limitations of their experiences) only legislate and make decisions based on their own self-interest. In order to keep their position as rulers of society it was necessary to take from the proletariat their sense of ownership (what Marx called the ‘charm’ of their occupation). By turning the ‘work of their (the proletariat’s) hands’ into mere commodities which the bourgeoisie could buy and sell, the power to control the livelihood, and by extension, the lives of the masses was in the hands of the bourgeois. Given the facts that the only thing needed to spark revolution was the realization of the injustices served to them (i.e. the proletariat) by society, and that the proletariat was already the dominant class in terms of numbers, Marx believed that the communist revolution, leading to truly egalitarian, enlightened, socialist state, would be the last ‘event’ in (Hegelian) history.
Question 4: Role of the Philosopher
It is, unfortunately, beyond a doubt that the age-old role of the philosopher as guide and teacher, not only to individuals but also to society is almost gone. Every social group and field of learning as its own ‘philosophy’ and raison d’etre which claims supremacy and stakes its claim on the world and its resources. Today, the pursuit of philosophy is seen as a gangly, unfocused, run-around-the-bush subject which has no place in a highly specialized society which prides itself more on sharp focus in narrow fields of study than a vast focus in many things. This seeming lack of focus is, however (and somewhat paradoxically), philosophy’s greatest asset.
Subjects such as the sciences, mathematics, even the arts and other humanities, can easily be trapped in certain modes of thought and be swayed by certain powers. John S. Wilkins, a blogger and curator of the site evolvingthoughts.net believes just this. His article The nature of philosophy and its role in modern society wittily states that philosophy’s role in the modern world is no different than Socrates’s great sin (in the eyes of the Athenians) – corrupting the youth. By not being over-focused and specialized, philosophy has the benefit of being able to focus on many things all at once.
This puts the philosopher in a unique place in society. Unlike in the days of Kant and Hegel when armchair-intellectualism was hailed as the highest form of learning, today philosophers need to fight to remain in existence (or non-existence, depending on their school of thought). Wilkins was witness to the closing of all but his own humanities department in Queensland. This, as he notes later, is excellent news for those in power and certainly worth opening a bottle of bubbly over.
Philosophers, in the eyes of society, are an unpleasant lot. The image of either Diogenes the Cynic of Kant, the original armchair-intellectual, has somehow been indelibly pressed onto the minds of most people to the point where philosophy and its teachers are shunned. This is a problem since philosophers, as Wilkins noted, were one of the great groups of people who ensured that society kept moving. Just not smoothly.
Wilkins, John S. (2011, February 6). The nature of philosophy and its role in modern
society. Retrieved from http://evolvingthoughts.net/2011/02/the-nature-of-philosophy-and-its-role-in-modern-society/.