So the moment has finally arrived, and I’ve programmed this post to be published exactly at the moment when I’m defending the dissertation that, if approved by the professorial jury, will grant me my doctorate (which I will duly reflect adding the corresponding “Ph. D” to every and any description on-line of myself, screw modesty and humility after almost seven years of hard work!). What follows is the slightly abridged and minimally edited version of the dissertation defense:
<< Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and illustrious members of the tribunal. I’m most grateful for your presence here today, and hope that when I finish my lecture you will consider it a time well spent.
I would like to start my defense by posing a question to everybody in the audience: Why am I here? I do not mean in this room at this particular time of the day, although that may be the necessary beginning of the answer I want you all to think about. I mean why am I on this planet, all of these years I’m given to live. And I’m not interested in a generic, species wide answer (“to pass my genes on”, “to reproduce”), but in a most individual, first-person perspective one (hence the wording: why am I here?). I’ll give you a hint of the kind of answer I’m trying to get at: think about what you would like as a defining feature of your own life when you contemplate it whole, as you may on your last day. Not as the defining feature of your life right now, as you are actually living it, but the ideal one that would make you feel contented and satisfied with having completed a “well-lived life”.
Good, let’s call the answer to both questions (what is the ultimate purpose of life? And how would I like my life to have been led? which I contend have one and the same answer) by the Greek letter theta (q). We will come back to this towards the end of the lecture. Now I recognize that is a most difficult question. I’ve been struggling with it a lot for the past seven years, and am not fully satisfied with the answer I’ve arrived at, so it would be unreasonable to expect that anybody can reach such answer in a few seconds. Indeed, some would argue that most people do not arrive at such answer at all in their whole life (and are not the worse for it!), and manage to lead meaningful lives without having to contend with such weighty matters. But the fact that most do not arrive at a satisfying answer does not mean they do not pose themselves the question. I want to drive your attention to one life situation when most people not only publicly ask it, but they also share their attempts at an answer: in funerals or wakes, it is common for the attendants, even when not very acquainted, or having been a long time without seeing each other, to exchange some sentences along these lines, especially when the deceased was young. The fact that the sentences tend to be somewhat platitudinous, or clichéd (“such is life”, “what’s the end of all this struggle?” “live for the day, because you really can never tell when it is all going to end”) should not obscure their meaning, as they point to some very fundamental aspect of our inner lives.
There is another aspect of those occasions that I want to draw your attention to. I would dare to say that in the majority of such utterances people show a certain dissatisfaction, in the face of such sudden remainder of our own mortality and the transience of our presence in this planet, with how they are actually leading their lives. Again, it is surprising how they are willing at those moments of vulnerability to share with relative strangers such profound, intensely personal dissatisfaction, which normally has to do with devoting too much time and effort to pursuits that are not that important (typically work and empty leisure) and not enough to those that we are more likely to miss when the time to depart comes (spending quality time with friends and family). That mild dissatisfaction at the personal level becomes a chasm, a gaping abyss at the social level. We know from time immemorial what makes human lives worth living, and what conditions have to obtain for humans to flourish and be satisfied (to have a “good spirit” in Aristotle’s words):
So we can legitimately ask ourselves why it is that the lives we live are so distant (as recognized in those moments of crisis) of the ones we tell ourselves we would like to live, both individually and as a group.
And part of the answer comes from a fact that I hope our little exercise of trying to formulate the ultimate end of life has highlighted: we can go on living without bothering too much with such heady thoughts because the society we are raised into already provides us with a readymade answer. As indeed it should, as having a widely shared answer of that type is one of the preconditions of the very existence of a viable, well functioning society! It seems obvious to me that human flourishing requires a well functioning social body, as our ability to flexibly coordinate our efforts is the ultimate explanation of our success as species (as opposed to both compete in a war of all against all, as most big mammal males do, or collaborate according to an inflexible program as ants are termites are so able to showcase). To achieve that flexible coordination we need not just a shared symbolic language, but also to share a common understanding of what constitutes a reason, so we can convince, persuade, cajole, prod, suggest and incentivize each other in pursuit of what then become common goals. The implicit set of statements that form that common understanding is what I have called “dominant reason”, and to be more precise, a successful dominant reason, one able to articulate a social group that can at least reproduce itself, and if possible outcompete other groups has to address at least the following three areas:
· What’s the ultimate goal of life (the highest in a hierarchy of reasons that thus gives support to all the rest)
· What’s the ultimate criterion for social ordering (who can command and who should obey)
· What desires are socially sanctioned (what it is legitimate to desire, to wish for)
And it is the main argument of my thesis that we have built during the last centuries a single social system (which can be for the first time in history called a “world-system”) that encompasses every society on Earth under the sway of a common dominant reason. I have called that reason “desiderative reason”, and it is characterized by providing the following set of guidelines:
· The ultimate goal of life is to satisfy as many desires as possible
· The position in the social order is determined by the amount of money one can command
· All socially sanctioned desires are manifestations of one single desire: to be as high as possible in the social hierarchy thus constructed (so as long as what you desire can be construed as status enhancing, go for it!)
It is my contention that such reason is highly toxic, and not conductive at all to the happiness, the well being and the contentment of the individuals under it. Some words to explain its dominance then are then called for, as such explanation shall be the first element in its critique. What we have to realize first is that dominant reasons are not consciously chosen to ensure the maximum happiness of the members of society who, willingly or not, have to give their consent to them. Rather than of “choice” we should speak of “selection”, as dominant reasons are features of societies that compete between them for the resources of a limited world, and those more “fit” are wont to grow, prosper, and thus transmit their values and ways of reasoning to their descendants, while those less fit are slowly absorbed into more successful ones, when not outright exterminated. I would also contend that the main measure of “fitness” in an environment of inter social competition is the ability to produce material goods (and, increasingly, to trade services in exchange of money in an established market, but we do not need to get concerned with those subtleties at this point). Not because material goods provide any advantage by themselves or make the societies that produce them more attractive or more capable of peacefully persuading their potential competitors of the superiority of their ways, but because the society able to produce more material goods is able to divert that production to more bellicose end, and thus field larger, better equipped armies that in turn can crush any competition.
That’s the story of the West in a nutshell: since the middle of the XVIII century (and based on a technological superiority that started to assert itself since the XIV) it has used its superior ability to extract labor from its citizens to produce more goods than anybody else, and has consistently used that ability to raise itself to the center of a world encompassing system from which it has forced everybody else (every other society) to a “periphery” that had to exchange commodities with them in highly disadvantageous ways, resorting to brute force when necessary to reassert the conditions most conductive to perpetuate such arrangements. As the peripheral countries have embraced the West’s dominant reason they have enhanced their population’s abilities to produce equivalent amounts of goods, and are thus becoming able to more credibly challenge the old central nations. The price, of course, is that they get embroiled in the ugly consequences of such reason: the growing gap between how they would like to live and how they end up living.
In order to better understand how such dominant reason came to be (and thus what is valid and what not, the kernel of what a critique consists in)we have then to turn our attention to the basic discontinuity in the history of mankind that constitute its immediate origin:
Although much different from an aesthetic point of view (how they have expressed their inner life) and from a technological point of view, for much of humanity’s history the landscape of experience has been pretty much the same (the long horizontal line that hovers around an annual income between 400 and 600 of dollars a year that has been our lot for most of history): hard toil most of the time (a bit more or a bit less depending on the fruitfulness of the soil and climate and the harshness of the stations), frequent periods of outright hunger, a very monotonous diet, a life between 35 and 45 years in duration, being survived by 2 sons, which would require the birth of between 4 and 8 (thus a son’s dead being an inseparable part of human experience) and a basic identity between how the world around one worked between the moment of his birth and the moment of his death. But starting in the countries around the North Atlantic around 1750 conditions start to change, and keep changing so dramatically that in the extremely short time lapse (for historical standards) of 250 years we arrive to a totally altered, unprecedented field of possibilities of what being human consists in.
To provide some structure to the historical analysis I have identified five “dimensions”, or features of both the socioeconomic arrangement of society and the corresponding features of the intellectual landscape (the great themes that thinkers discuss, and that tend to cluster for any given period around certain traditional dichotomous values):
Let’s turn our attention, then, to European society at the beginning of the XVIII century, still a “society of orders” where birth accounted for much of the social recognition one could expect and where it was a safe assumption that the world at life’s end would look very much as it looked like at birth:
However, a couple of developments taking place at this time are going to dynamite (and dynamize) this society and to change it beyond recognition. One is the rise and consolidation of Protestantism, after its bloody separation from the mainstream faith (Catholicism); Protestantism, by forcing almost every able bodied member of society to attend a weekly assembly devoted to values (and how one should live) is going to have the effect of a high-energy source of X-rays near a DNA molecule (in this analogy the set of values that constitute the dominant reason of the age would be the DNA): it will facilitate its change and mutation, and thus accelerate its evolution in an atmosphere of open hostility between competing powers (not that different from the most recent Cold War, the role of the backward and sclerotic Russians being played back then by the Catholic powers). The other development is the coming of age of the Scientific Method, thanks to the combination of widespread literacy (to be able to read the Bible), the printing press and the existence of a phonetic alphabet (that’s Mac Luhan theory of why the scientific revolution did not happen in China, which have had the printing press for much longer, and I find a lot of merit in it). The key figure that will benefit from both developments to crystallize a system with some recognizably modern features, able to really leave behind the ways of thinking of the old order is the Scottish philosopher David Hume, whose thought I will very briefly summarize:
It has to be noted that the last aspects of Hume’s thought are highly problematic, as it was obvious to himself that Sympathy could very well fall short of ensuring we take enough care for other people’s concerns and troubles, and that the existence of a Universal Standard of Taste (or a universal criterion of goodness) is very doubtful. We will deal later on with the problems derived from Hume’s insufficient taking into account altruist considerations, at this point it’s more interesting to dwell on the new rationality that he would enable, where economic science would take off in its own (thanks to the Adam Smith, one of Hume’s disciples and friends) and where God would be mostly banished from rational discourse and consigned to the realm of theology, a discipline most thinkers would not trouble themselves with from there on.
As we’ve seen, the society under this new form of rationality would excel in the production of commodities, but at a terrible price. Justified by a materialist, mechanistic thought it would see inequality rise to alarming levels and the exploitation and dispossession of vast swathes of population are still considered the great moral blemish of that age (at least in Europe they nominally got rid of slavery, something that can not be said of every society under the sway of this mode of rationality). Unsurprisingly, society has in itself the tendency to counteract those extreme oscillations in any direction of its main defining features, so economic reason would give birth to the romantic movement, which would in turn coalesce in a different kind of dominant reason, which I’ve called sentimental reason:
Sentimental reason was subject to its own forms of excess, and one of the most remarkable features it showed was its legitimation of the overthrow of the ruling class that had led the destinies of Europe for millennia (the nobility) and its replacement by a new social actor (the Bourgeoisie) that having essentially solved the problem of survival demanded the resolution of a much subtler one: that of amusement and finding meaning. That’s why this rationality toyed with the idea of bestowing the highest recognition to “genius”, as highlighted by the episode of Goethe and Beethoven crossing paths with a group of Burghers and noblemen, towards which the first (a son of the previous rationality) intends to yield, but which the second (a romantic hero) resolutely sets aside. It is to be noted that in this period the ability of philosophy and speculative thought to influence public opinion (the theater of that dominant reason we are dealing with), displaced by a discipline that sprung from it in the previous period and that had fully matured since then, as illustrated in the work of Karl Marx. It is to Marx to whom we owe one of the distinctive features of desiderative reason (the understanding of money as the sole criteria for social dominance), but we will deal with that in a later stage.
However, the development of technology and demographic pressure (it’s difficult to shine even when you have “one in a thousand” talent when you are surrounded by many such thousands) will cause the dominant reason to oscillate in the opposite direction, thus becoming a reason more inclined to a rationalist, positivistic, impersonal age (where other people are slowly driven out of the proper subject of philosophical inquiry):
At his point in history we find the next significant figure in which I want to spend a few minutes, as it is to him to whom we owe the final configuration of our current rationality. It is in the fully bureaucratized “kakanian” double monarchy that ruled the Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of the XIX century where a Jewish physician was starting t make his name. We talk, of course, of then not-so-young (44 years) Sigmund Freud:
It has to be noted that, in a show of that “cunning of reason” that Hegel talked about, the good Sigmund never formulated the character of the original overarching desire that I am positing: for him it was rather the desire to have sex with the parent of the opposite sex that had to be overcome, but I find such explanation so implausible, and so lacking in explanatory power for most observed conduct, as to feel confident in disregarding it; the analysis of Freud’s own reported dreams and his biographical details (his need to banish from his side any old friend who show any attempt at independent thinking that he always saw as an attempt to overshadow him) has provided me with much additional material to confirm the display and recognition of social superiority as his real driving force.
What Freud provides us with is the last element we needed to fully understand the desiderative reason we submit (mostly unconsciously) to:
It is easy to see the roots of the success of such rationality. Men educated in it have no interest in God, no interest in their fellow countrymen, not even interest in themselves or the inner sources of their actions, their hopes and their desires (as that source is eternal and immovable, and based on a monstrous premise, that if followed would tear society apart). They are only interested in, they can only devote their attention to, things. Its production and its enjoyment. Continually pressed to acquire more of them, to display more of them, even to discard more of them so they have place for more, newer, shinier objects that constitute the sole object of their attention and their affection.
So where do we go from here? It may be a good point to take stock of the swings of the dominant reason we have briefly gone through, as the direction of the social arrangements and the economy may be more predictable than the vagaries of the imagination of public intellectuals:
No such luck, as we see that in the most recent period the correlation between the socioeconomic dimensions and the intellectual ones seem to have been greatly weakened. Even as we see signs of a social shift against the inequality that has ballooned in the last decades, and such shift takes the form of increased regulation and a decreased role for private property, it is not clear that may reignite growth and induce a new era of increased economic activity, as the two engines that historically have propelled such growth (demographic expansion and technological innovation) are pretty much exhausted and are inconsistent with the prevailing dominant reason, after it has exhausted the possibility of further expansion in untapped peripheral areas. In any historic juncture there are three paths open (improvement, maintenance of the status quo and more or less slow decline), and this is no exception:
Confronted with this image, I have to confess I see little cause for optimism. One of the dirty little secrets of our society is that we can no more count on technological progress to get out of our current predicament, as it basically stopped in 1970 and the current focus on short-term profits and increased awareness of the environmental cost of previous developments makes it unlikely to restart. Although science has a track record of unexpected spurts and discoveries that would grant a kindle of hope, we can not count on it blindly, and that leaves us with scenarios II and III.
I have little doubts that probability favors massively the regression to what has been the historical norm, and all that it would take for us to plunge back to what, from today’s standpoint would look like a new and barbarous dark age is for the mega corporations that increasingly dominate the production of goods, service and entertainment to complete their already well advanced conquest of the regulatory apparatus of the state. They don’t even need to fight or struggle for it, because there is not “they” pushing for such ambitious agenda. There is no hidden cabal of conspirators plotting to overthrow the fragile (and already limited) institutional equilibrium that keep each group of our complex society imperfectly represented in the political process, but the blind forces of the market (not just of goods and services, but most pointedly of ideas), acting through the dominant reason of the age just developing themselves. However, for that conquest to hold, they need at least our acquiescence, an acquiescence necessarily based on our acceptance of the basic tenets of what a valid reason is.
So I will end my defense with a request. Do you remember your theta? The ultimate reason for living we devoted a little time to formulate? the next time you hear that the goal of life is “to have fun”, “to enjoy yourself”, “to have gratifying experiences” (that always come with a price tag attached) remember that under the guise of that liberationist discourse hides the society that has most successfully enslaved its members, extracting (voluntarily!) amounts of work that would have put to shame any Roman slave master. The task of any freedom loving human, of anybody committed to the universal dignity and emancipation, is to rise against it and combat it.
Many thanks for your attention >>
I'll let you now in a later post how it went