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The International Writers Magazine: Talking Point (From Our Archives)

Reflections on reflection
Simon Mussell

hen Karl Marx famously complained that ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’, he was launching a critical attack on those who merely think. Yet what appears prevalent today is mere ‘doing’.

Thinkers have often been caricatured as overly serious or pretentious layabouts, beatniks and idle oddballs by those who find their constant questioning either irritating or pointless. After all, what is so disturbing about a world in which most of us get on just fine that warrants such relentless reflection?

Well, what disturbs is that in the contemporary world, most people seem to merely ‘do’. What Marx envisioned as a union of theory and practice has not come to fruition, and nor is it likely to in an environment obsessed with action, pure action.

Whilst I do not believe that the majority of people merely go about their day-to-day business like automatons, there can be no doubt that society (as it stands) functions a lot smoother when it is not challenged. This is in part why governments will tend not to provide funding for courses that are not ‘practical’, ‘scientific’ or ‘vocational’. They do not want ‘thinkers’, they want ‘doers’. They want people who can contribute to the existing way of life without questioning or shaking the foundations of that way of life. If you wish to pursue education for its own sake, as an end in itself, be prepared to self-fund, since the doers will not care for your intellectual stimulation, well-being, personal interest or whatever else you care to call it.

Over the past century at least, the realm of theoretical thought has been well and truly subordinated to practice. The twentieth-century is marked (and marred) by such unquestioning, misguided action. If Marx could have seen what had become of his theories, distorted by the likes of Stalin and Mao, he would have observed just how much horror a purely practical form of politics can cause. Without theoretical underpinning, practice becomes blind, oppressive and dangerously violent.

It is this pervasive ‘do something, anything’ approach which we must be on our guard against today. It is all around us and is almost inescapable - in advertising, news media, schools, government, even families. It is implicit in the Presidents overly simplistic ‘you are either with us or you are with the terrorists’ statement, and explicit in his more recent outburst at a journalist stating that some things are ‘unacceptable to think’. Yet our ability to critically think about the world around us, as well as the other people within it, is the most significant part of what makes us human. To attempt to expunge this most essential feature of humanity is both appalling and regressive.

It is perhaps our greatest gift that we do not merely do, but can also think. It is in the realm of pure thought where intimations of the future and possibilities for a different world are born. If one is staunchly grounded in the current social world, there is little hope of radically changing it; for more often than not, we will merely reproduce the status quo. Concrete visions of alternative social set ups are not necessary in order to critique the existing one. This is perhaps where Marx went wrong. In trying to analyse society in quasi-scientific terms, he felt the need to posit a prediction (e.g. revolution within 100 years) and an alternative social arrangement (e.g. socialism), when he needn’t have done so.

We do not need rigid conceptions of what is good or humane to recognise something so unequivocally bad or inhumane. Such recognition comes through uninterrupted insight, undertaken by those with patience and fortitude who refuse to be terrorized into action. And so long as there remain people embodying these values, there is at least some hope for the future. A random assortment of great thinkers who made a world of difference: Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Copernicus, William Shakespeare, Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Paine, G.W.F. Hegel, J.W. von Goethe, Charles Darwin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Jacques Derrida, Edward Said.

© Simon Mussell Oct 2006

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