A Moment to Think about Philosophy

Back in early 2008, I had a call asking me if I’d come and present a paper to honour my thesis supervisor’s life work in September of that year. The amazing thing about this (to me, at any rate) is that I am not actively academic, don’t regularly publish philosophical papers, and so on. I did accept, gave my talk, and it was a wonderful day.

Last year, I was given the great gift of all of his working papers, going back to his own doctoral dissertation at Institut Catholique de Paris, drafts of articles, unpublished book manuscripts, and the like. I am still digesting these yellowing, hand-typed pages when and as I can. It is fascinating to see trends of those days played out in his interests, yet given his unique contribution to the river that is philosophy coming to the fore even in his student days.

But the request did raise a question that still worries me in the middle of the night, those Caravaggio hours just before dawn when worries come to the fore: “what does a business advisor with a strong technology background have to say about philosophy?”. What worth, in other words, does someone who studied it once but has done other things, bring to that great river of thought?

I have certainly met more than one philosophy professor in my time who has pooh-poohed the very idea that anyone who dresses in a suit and tie and goes to work in offices with others of that ilk would have anything much to contribute to the issues of that discipline. With that, I fundamentally disagree as much as I did when I was doing my B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. pre-thesis work in and around holding down a full-time office job, managing people and projects and generally burning the candle at both ends.

Still, giving that paper back in 2008 showed me how differently I approach matters philosophic: I spoke much as I would as a keynote speaker at a conference, with an outline of issues, examples and derived conclusions in mind, as opposed to the typical review of literature approach taken by all the others. It was a humbling experience, not that anyone there made me feel as though I wasn’t their equal. I felt out of place. (Two years working in academe that followed never did completely remove that sense of “not quite being part of this”.)

Yet, as a blogger and in my professional life, I hold that philosophy matters. Why?

If philosophic positions hold water, they have applicability in the lives of so-called ordinary people doing ordinary, everyday things.

Indeed, I think this is one of the acid tests one has to apply: what happens if you take this idea out into the world? Does it make sense to people without the specialised training in academic philosophy, who are unfamiliar with the technocratic lingo of the schools? Can they tie it to things they know and do, recognise it in situations they encounter, even “put it to work” in their own lives? If they can, then there’s something there worth working on further; if it lands with a resounding thud of disinterest and disuse, perhaps it is hair-splitting and distinction-making to no purpose.

(It may not be, of course: but the thought attributed to Einstein in his later years, that “if you cannot explain something simply, you do not understand it yourself”, should be used to ensure that you truly are not “way out there in front” (as philosophers often have been, a century or more in advance of society) and merely unable to draw connections to help readers or listeners. Would that I were better at it!)

One of the concepts Thomas Langan has put forward for the last 35 years is the notion that there is an overlaid social structure on the societies, nations, cultures and civilisations of the world which he labelled the HTX (the “high-tech I don’t know what to call it”). It is not a culture in its own right, but rather poaches from some of the world’s cultures, and is best visualised as a nodal network of connections between people and locations. HTXians (please permit me the abysmal made up word!) have little affinity for place, community or neighbourhood; their loyalties are to others who share their, to use Robert Reich’s term, symbolic-analytic interests.

Tom always noted that I was one of these people, at home in and a part of the HTX (indeed, his book on the HTX, Surviving the Age of Virtual Reality was dedicated to me as an exemplar of someone living the experience directly) but also with one foot still in community. That foot waned from time to time and is waxing again.

Back when the HTX was first put forward — I came across it in 1983, when the then unpublished manuscript for Tradition and Authenticity in Search for Ecumenic Wisdom was the text in our class — other philosophers and people outside the academy alike that this concept was shared with poo-poohed the whole notion. The name still turns people off, and they stop listening. But the idea has gained some traction: the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management created an institute dedicated to the exploration of the very “spikiness” of the world that the HTX tried to describe, headed by Richard Florida, author of a number of books on the “Creative Class” and their clustering style. Certainly, too, the experience of globalisation in corporate life has made this “real”: a raft of recent job postings from a company most people would think of as Toronto-centred, Manulife, all demanded that applicants “be aware that late night and early morning work will be required, as you are joining a global company”.

We think nothing in these days of social networking of saying “I have friends all around the world”. Indeed you may! You certainly know many people this way, which is not dissimilar to how you know colleagues in a globally-scattered enterprise. There is not a month goes by I don’t see one person or another celebrate their “finally meeting in person” someone they’ve been strongly drawn to for years, using the high-tech tools of the HTX to communicate daily, but never having been in the same place, at the same time, to do something as simple as sit over coffee and talk face to face.

Is it any wonder that our fabric of communities atrophied, when our neighbours are reduced to “fellow sleepers” in favour of those we reach by other means, and where (as with my work in the past, and with my neighbour’s work today) the airport is really more “your office” than anywhere else?

Another idea, from Thomas Langan’s Tradition and Authenticity, that resonates with business leaders, Little League baseball coaches, Executive Directors of not-for-profits, and Deans of Medical Education (to pick but four) is the notion of the hypocrisy that infests institutions as they diverge from the principles of their founding tradition. Again, they may not know the words when they first hear them, although these they quickly “get” and can add their own take on!

Institutions thus are always in need of reform, even as one holds onto the tradition (indeed, the reform is to preserve the tradition). One need think only of politics in Canada, the deformation of Parliament, the focus on leaders at the expense of MPs, the parties’ faux democratic methods in candidate selection, etc. to see how the institutions have radically diverged to work almost antithetically to our tradition of responsible government, Crown-in-Parliament.

Then there is Langan’s master work, Being and Truth. Here he lays out the epistemology and metaphysics necessary to close the subjective:objective gap, and with it the fact:value distinction that has animated our actions in our destruction of communities and treating the planet as a waste dump whether we know the terms or not.

I’ve had the pleasure twice of leading a philosophers’ café composed of 9- 12 year olds. The core chapter, “Kinds of Objects, Kinds of Truth”, was not made into a reading, but rather several of the examples (Langan’s approach is resolutely phenomenological: first go to the things themselves and see what they reveal) were talked about.

The children involved were able to reason out what the things were “saying” without prompting, and come to moments of enlightenment for themselves that parallel the arguments Langan makes. Even complex symbols such as “money” yielded to their ability to ask, see, reason.

Seeing these children grasp the different between an object and what it symbolises, or the built-up construct we call “a nature”, or even the inter-relationship between different kinds of truths (not just a world with shades of grey, but indeed, a world with colour) shows how essential these arguments were, and how well linked together to build up a world-view, yet graspable by anyone without scholastic training. I’d say that passes Einstein’s test!

I find myself still turning these over again and again in my mind, and although I have no intention to return to the campus for a fifth time to teach, or even to complete my abandoned doctoral programme, I am more “on fire” today than ever with the role philosophy — and the practising philosopher — plays in our daily lives.

So allow me to leave you with a thought to mull:

Every so often, you are presented with a gift. When your next gift is presented to you, will you see it? Will you accept it (and the responsibilities it will entail)? Or will you let it go, and then wonder why life is passing you by?

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