What is Stand Up Philosophy

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This blog charts my attempts, in whatever way I can, and whenever I can, and as honestly as possible, to stand up for thinking - real thinking, whether in philosophy or politics, or maths - Because thinking needs standing up for!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Rousseau, or where tyrants come from

For me Rousseau is always unintentionally very funny (in all his pompous glory), and always very instructive. It is perpetually interesting to see an intuitive mind, a man who can feel more that he can prove in action. A kind of Philosophical everyman if you like. All the more so, because one sees the danger of such a methodology. For at times it is clearly very difficult for Rousseau, to distinguish prejudice from thought. This is particularly the case in this piece, from the start of the Social Contract, which is as infamous as it is famous. For in this essay, is enshrined for all to see, a series of mental switches, double takes and jumps in the face of adversity and complexity, that transform idealism into something terrifying and inflexible. What is even more telling, is that it is clear that Rousseau himself, is utterly unaware of what we are seeing. He knows that 'He is a reasonable man', and feels that he is merely responding, pragmatically and robustly to the problems which his argument faces, and is going where it ought to lead...but the modern reader sees something quite different. For here written, quite transparently, and with a chilling if chirpy self confidence, are the series of transformations that warp even the most liberal of modern politicians, of all parties and creeds, and see them move from idealistic ambition, through pragmatic dogmatics to repression. The Social Contract is, more truly than its author could have meant, a manifesto for contemporary democracy, for it clearly re-stages one of the great tragi-comedy dramas of modern times, the drama of political idealism, and its corruption, and does so in the (musical) key of hope. But the really strange part about this movement is not that it happens, but that we sometimes convince ourselves that it will not happen; and that this is the young, idealistic leader, who will somehow at last triumph, if only we support them... So that, and in spite of ourselves, the theatre of our democracy demands that we are all caught up, and complicit in the hope as well as witnesses of the despair. Hence the aim of this performance of the Social Contract must be to sweep the audience along. They ought to start in hope and feel that the performance really might be going Somewhere, that this might be at last The Change or a Utopia We Might Believe In. The movement to the darker side of the argument must be subtle and gradual, so that for the most part the argument must appear to sound reasonable, or at least better than the alternative...and only at the end, should the full implication of all that seemed so clear and reasonable at first, be apparent in all their terrors. An all too familiar drama that catches us all up in it, so that it is the same for Rousseau as it is Robespierre, Blair and for us. We all have a part in the inflexible hopes and the implied villainies, whose complicated nature 'The Social Contract' reveals (if unintentionally) so very well....

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Performance Notes - so Just what is it to be Moral? Leibnitz and the best of Worlds

At the heart of this performance is a difficult question, and a strange answer. The difficult question is simple. What is morality? What is it about a certain set of behaviours that allows us to claim that they are somehow better or different than all the rest? That somehow these actions ought to have an effect or perhaps merit a reward, beyond their immediate outcome. And does such a faith, that not all behaviour is equal, survive into a world where belief in God has collapsed?
   This question has of course had many answers, and has been seen from so many different angles. And yet most of these answers have in some way sought to involve morality in a higher world, a world beyond mere natural gain. Such answers have therefore been typified by ideas of God, Duty or merely the Essence of Man. Leibniz stands out in this debate because he alone makes a somewhat startling claim. He asserts that morality is the same as materiality. That the two go together. He makes this claim, in the context of an argument about why only one world, and that being this one, exists. It alone is, he says, because somehow it is the best, is the richest, of all possible worlds, and so the one God chose to create it. What is more this choice to create this, the richest of worlds, is essentially ongoing, and we as agencies have a key part in it. For matter might be moral in that it is at all, but it is immoral in itself. It contains all possible worlds within its folds - that is, the same lump of stuff might open on many worlds, and be sword or ploughshare at different times or in different places. It is therefore us as individual agencies who by our choices usher in this world, the one that must be the best, and it is therefore our duty to remember this as we act.

   Hence Leibniz is effectually arguing that the world of matter, of stuff, lays upon us, by both its existence but also its potential, the duty to be worthy of it and so of its existence. We must remember therefore that existence does not revolve around us and our particular actions or thoughts, but rather is composed of those actions through the whole of Being. What is more our position in that whole is always perilous. If we forget it, and the true power of existence, then the very matter which we think we control may elude us, and become a part in a world beyond us, one in which we have only the least of effects upon (or even interest in).
   From which it follows that Leibniz's much maligned assertion, that this is the 'Best of all Possible Worlds', is not dogma or doggerel, but the evocation of a very practical empirical programme. Leibniz is suggesting that we must think and so act in the knowledge that the world is beyond us all, and that it is richer than any one of us. So that, as it is our individual actions which, taken together, create this universe (and no other), we must make those actions worthy of that whole, and so worthy of participation in every thing else, and must do so in each action, each reaction, and each moment. - An argument I  find very very beautiful, and very strangely compelling; something which I hope the performance begins to communicate.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Performance Notes - subtlety, and planning a new piece.

I am currently starting on thinking about a new performance piece (which I will preview at Exeter's premiere open mike night 'Taking the Mic' in mid-June), and it is very interesting as I do so, to think about what makes performance thought so compelling, and so fun. The piece I am working on is perhaps a philosophical oddity: It is Spinoza's unfinished Political Treatise. This is a work that appears on the face of it archaic and rooted in the most conventional of Aristotelian/Cicero traditions, where there are three types of pure state; Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy, and a mixed constitution which combines them all. On the face of it the fact is, that Spinoza's essay appears to show exactly how illiberal it is to modern ears (Spinoza eulogizes those who guard convention, restricts his democracy to thirty individuals, and denies women any rights). All of which must be included in any faithful account of the essay, and yet of course if this was all that Spinoza was saying, then I doubt the essay would have had the - albeit intermittent influence - that it has, and would certainly not make good performance.
   What really interests me in this piece is not the convention, so much as the realism. Spinoza is, you see in this essay really trying to get to grips with a very difficult problem: How do we make decisions both individually and collectively? And how should we create organisations to enable these decisions and those thoughts to made and acted upon? The point is that what we decide and so how we can act is actually a product of our organisation at institutional level. So that only certain policies and thoughts are possible in certain societies. And Spinoza is cutting very deep here - he really means it. It is not just that societies can only do what they are organised to do, and what is more should only do so (as to step beyond that organisation is to step beyond the society, into anarchy and oppression - hence Spinoza's praise of the tradition). But far more radically Spinoza is clearly saying that the types of organisation impose upon those who are caught up in them, a certain set of problems and certain allowed set of resolutions to those problems. So that how one organises one's world, and how how understands it are reflections of each other, and part of the same basic problem.
   The strength of Spinoza's essay is then in its honesty. It accepts this limitation head on, and tries within the imperfection, to create at different levels, different ways to understand or to react to governance. The point being that each of these ultimately limited thoughts ought to be as perfect as it can be it itself. What is more Spinoza clearly leaves open the idea that in any one state, and  criss-crossing any one individual, there are many types of organisation, and so many thoughts - none of which have to easily resolve one into the other. A society becomes a conjunction of disparate parts, combined and recombined in differing ways, and these parts involve many individuals, and many parts of the same individual, all attempting at different rhythms and in different ways to comprehend one another.
   In short Spinoza is offering us, from the other end of its history as it were, a very perceptive critique of modern liberal societies and their governance. And as part of that picture he has his finger one of the real difficulties to democracy, understood in its purest form - that is as collective decision making. At that level he says it is simply impossible to organise thinking and so action, unless one restricts the numbers involved. He suggests then, that the perfect democracy can only have around thirty citizens in it (a number which, given these individuals must forge between them a collective agreed plan, seems rather large). In addition, Spinoza is clear that the numbers involved in being a democracy ebb and flow, as it becomes easier or harder for groups to form the kind of collective will and thought which a true democracy demands. By implication, then it is very easy to be a democracy (or Spinoza might suggest a mob), that is opposed to something obnoxious, or 'for' something in general (say peace). But it is very difficult to turn that ideal into actual policy.
   Now of course in our jaded times perhaps none of this is new, and yet of course in Spinoza's time it was practically unheard of, and unthought. I want then that jar of history to be felt, and to matter. The voice of Spinoza (if I do it right) will clarify thoughts we all have about our world and its promises and policies. And yet there will be something at stake here, which I will certainly end with. Spinoza, at the other of this history (the beginning) still had hope, for all his cynicism, that albeit slowly, things might change, new thoughts might become possible. It is this hope for better in the midst of scepticism which I wish to give the audience as a parting thought, and a lingering refrain. So that the piece should be ultimately uplifting and thought-provoking in the most positive of senses....