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