Introduction to the Philosophy Seminar – Part 2

In the second part of his lecture, Mr. De Carvalho discusses the concept of progress and lack of progress when applied to societies and history and begins to outline the true nature of philosophy as education for understanding real life problems.

 

Student: In an interview you gave to the Atlântico magazine, you said that instead of dividing the political spectrum into right-wing and left-wing, we should try to classify political movements as revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, because this latter pair of concepts enables us to see, for example, that some political positions and movements usually regarded as right-wing are actually revolutionary and thus belong together with left-wing movements—something which escapes our view when we use the usual definitions of left and right. Regarding this problem you have been addressing so far, have you developed another key to understanding the problem of progress, something like your concepts of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary?

Olavo: No, I have not. What I am doing is merely splitting apart a pair of concepts and saying that they do not form a pair of opposites in reality. More accurately, only at the level of vocabulary—only semantically speaking―, is backwardness the opposite of progress. In historical reality, there is no such thing as a phenomenon of backwardness which is the contrary of progress. Even if in our minds we conceive of progress as a forward movement and backwardness as backward movement, the fact is we know that in reality time never moves backwards and that it is impossible for it to do so. Now, let us examine the expressions “advanced societies” and “backward societies” in light of this. It is obvious that the current conditions of any society can get worse, but they cannot literally go back to a prior state because the present conditions of a society include all their prior states. Some people say: “Oh no, we’re going back to the Stone Age!” But being born in the Stone Age is one thing, and having to live with Stone Age instruments after having known all the technology we have today is quite another. This is not going back to the Stone Age. This is something totally different; this is deterioration, not backwardness.

From this it is evident that this simple pair of concepts, progress and backwardness, are among the most frequently-used, most imaginatively powerful, and most entrenched ideas in our culture; and they can keep people from understanding a significant number of historical processes. That is to say, if people judge historical processes in terms of progress or backwardness, they will never be able to grasp the reality of what they are considering.

Wanting to become intellectuals, historians, philosophers, and so on, the poor and naive students will naturally apply to and eventually enter universities. The problem is that as they gain entry into the world of high culture, they will receive a severe impact of a huge network of intellectual blinders. Of course, they will also get a lot of positive knowledge, but when we compare the sum total of material knowledge they learned, the whole of the content they acquired at university, with the system of concepts that organize this knowledge, we see that the latter is always more powerful. Why? Because the contents and their organizing concepts relate to each other as form relates to matter, in the Aristotelian sense of these words, and because it is the form of a body of knowledge that determines what this knowledge means.

Now, the study of philosophy has precisely the purpose of enabling you to create your own network of concepts according to the actual needs of the quest for knowledge and not according to pre-established social ends, which are rather focused on the creation, expansion, and conservation of cultural fashions. Philosophy is an instrument for the creation of conceptual structures capable of comprehending and transcending the structures of the cultural fashions that prevail at the moment. In this sense, philosophy is a powerful instrument of deculturation. So, since your task is to try to see beyond the horizon of the culture in which you live, the first thing you need in order to be able to do this is to learn how to retrieve the lost cognitive and intellective possibilities from times past.

How do you restore these possibilities? In the first place, you must have the necessary materials at your disposal, that is, the texts and documents that tell you exactly what happened in the periods of the past you are studying. Next, you must use your imagination to try to understand—note well—not the authors of the past as they understood themselves but rather your own situation as those authors would understand it if they were alive.

You cannot study Plato, for example, from the viewpoint of the contemporary culture because you will never understand him. Why? Because, in addition to that series of important cultural mutations that took place in the twentieth century, we are now going through a gigantic transformation in our society, a transformation determined by a factor called “technology.”

The impact of technology on modern society and culture has been only gradually perceived and integrated into human consciousness, and, strictly speaking, we are not yet living in a technological civilization, because technology does not decide and determine all social processes, although it determines a great and significant number of them. But there are still a lot of things that are based on processes which have nothing to do with technology. For example, consider the fact that in our society there is a large number of religious people and that these people live, partially at least, within a cultural environment upon which technology has little or no influence at all because it simply has nothing to do with religion.

However, it is one thing to live in an environment where people believe in the existence of a God who has created the world and who is going to drive the process of history until it reaches a certain goal—the end of the world and the passage of all things into eternity. Now, it is quite another to live in a culture where everything is a matter of technology. And the fact is that as the impact of technology on society gets stronger, our culture tends to consider all matters in the light of technology.

The first and most immediate consequence of this is that everything that lies beyond the reach of technological action ends up falling beyond the reach of people’s imagination as well. (When I say “immediate,” however, I do not mean that this effect occurs without any delay, since several decades, at least, may be necessary for it to take place.) Because if technology becomes the main lens through which we view reality, then, sooner or later we will end up only thinking about those things which fall within the grasp of technology or which will supposedly fall within the grasp of technology in the future. This means that, in a sense, the realm of human action (in its material sense) becomes the ultimate horizon of reality and that nothing exists beyond it.

It is evident that the territory which falls within the grasp of man’s technological agency is vast. For instance, we may expect that someday all currently existing diseases will be cured by technological means. This has not happened yet, but we may fairly expect it will, and it is a fact that people have hopes that it will indeed happen. When people contract a disease for which there is no cure yet, what do they usually do? They sit tight and hope that, within two, three, four, five, ten, or twenty years, a cure for their disease will be found. For example, I think that all the HIV-positive people in the world entertain this kind of hope. So, as I was saying, there is indeed a realm of existence which can be affected by man’s technological action and this realm is very large. However, when technology is understood as the key to existence, then, quite naturally, all that lies beyond the theoretical possibility of technological action ceases to attract people’s interest. The world, seen from this viewpoint, becomes a sort of laboratory for us to conduct our experiments (which, of course, may go right or wrong), and everything that cannot be tested through experimentation ceases to be of any interest for us.

As a consequence, all those dimensions of existence upon which technology cannot act in any way are viewed as nonexistent or irrelevant—an example of this is the phenomenon of death. Nowadays people cannot seriously think about death, only about how to postpone it, which is actually thinking about how to extend human life, or how to prolong human existence. Prolonging human existence is indeed a technological possibility, and more than that, it is a possibility that technology has been able to realize so far. But what about death itself? The fact is that sooner or later, we are all going to die, that death is part of the structure of reality, and that no life-prolonging technology can possibly change this structure. And because the phenomenon of death cannot be affected by technology, because the reality of death lies beyond the reach of technological action, the concept of death is not integrated into our society and we live in a culture where death has no place. For centuries death was one of the most predominant themes in culture, but now, suddenly, the topic of death is gone. People do not talk about it anymore; they only talk about health, about extending life, about eliminating pain, and so on.

When you set out on a quest for high culture in a cultural situation like that, you start your intellectual journey with a huge blind spot in your field of vision, because an entire dimension of reality is invisible for you, as if it has never existed.

Now, the study of high culture and philosophy can help you recover the vision of those lost dimensions of reality, that is, it can help you become capable of imagining that which is not usually imaginable in your own culture. The problem is that acquiring high culture is often identified with acquiring the credentials necessary to obtain government authorization to enter the teaching or the researching profession. This poses a problem for all those who seek to acquire high culture. For it is one thing to want to acquire high culture in order to be able to understand reality, and specially the reality of history, of civilization, of human existence throughout the ages. It is quite another thing to want to acquire high culture in order to be able to practice this or that profession. In fact, these two uses of high culture are not just different, but opposed to each other, because you will have to adapt yourself to the present culture to the utmost, if you want to be able to represent high culture professionally.

This is why I consider the academic institution to be the worst enemy of higher studies nowadays and why I have remained on the fringes of academia all my life. I have always feared it because I knew it did not strengthen people’s consciousness to enable them to understand reality, but rather molded their minds to enable them to perform certain social roles. Besides, I have also noticed that the social role of the academic and the scientific profession can be so hostile to a true understanding of reality that even the best minds, to the extent they strive to adapt and be successful in those professions, have to maim themselves intellectually so as not to say things that would be incomprehensible or shocking in their professional environments. Of course, there are exceptions to this. There are people who are able to have an academic career and still remain in touch with reality, but they are very scarce.

While I was watching “Voegelin in Toronto” — the DVD of a 1978 conference at York University in which Eric Voegelin participated as a lecturer and panelist—, I came to the realization that if you compared what Voegelin had to say to what the other participants had to say, you would find that while Voegelin was talking about realities, they were discussing typical academic topics of philosophy. And they were no ordinary professors, but first-rate philosophers like Bernard Lonergan and Hans-George Gadamer, among others. Voegelin, however, sounded so strikingly different from them that I think they could not really understand what he was saying, because it was too grave and too serious.

We can never forget that universities are schools, and that school education does not pose real-life challenges to students, but it is merely designed to afford theoretical teaching and practical training to students. In this sense, a school is like, for instance, a military academy, where students do battle exercises, go through shooting training, and so on and so forth, but they do not go to real wars or shoot their classmates. In this sense, a school, or a military academy “non é una cosa seria,” as Pirandello says. That is to say, it is not a serious thing. For things only get serious when you see some actual combat. There, in the battlefield, the enemy is not trying to teach you anything, he just wants to kill you. So a soldier who has a good military training and a soldier who has combat experience are worlds apart.

This means that everything that is adapted to suit a school education mindset is merely an imitation of real situations and processes. In short, academic and school education simulate reality. And they always do it from a safe distance, since students and teachers are confined behind walls that protect them from reality. Because of academic freedom, for example, a student or teacher cannot be held accountable for what he says. Now, if you are a politician, a minister, or the head of a company, everything that you say has consequences. But if you are a teacher or a student, little of what you say has consequences, since most of what is said during a class is said for the sake of learning. In the classroom, for example, a teacher can teach the exact opposite of what he truly believes. If he wants to do it, there is really nothing to keep him from doing so. Because ultimately what a teacher says to his pupils has always a didactic purpose and therefore is tentative, experimental, provisional. Nothing that he says is definitive, so to speak.

Now, if you want to understand the reality of what is happening now in politics, society, and culture, you have to remember, first of all, that reality does not fit curricular and disciplinary requirements. In other words, it is just not possible to reduce reality to a scheme of standardized approaches that correspond to the names of the various disciplines and to the curricular gradations of education. Let me give you an illustration of the irreducibility of reality to the exigencies of academic study. Think of any war. Nowhere can you find a war perfectly adequate to the exigencies of, say, a War 101 college course, another war that fits the purposes of a War 102 course, and a third one that is perfectly suited to War 103. No, actual wars do not come already adapted to fit different course levels. Likewise, there are no wars suited for the methods of the science of economy, nor wars tailor-made for the purposes of sociology, nor wars adapted for the study of political science. The reality of war is one and the same for every science. However, let us say I am a political scientist and I have to teach a course on war for freshmen in a university. In that case, I will have to select from the concrete reality of war only those elements that match my discipline. That is to say, I will have to shape the phenomenon of war according to the requirements of political science rather than according to the requirements of the objective reality of war. This means that the more the academic institution grows and expands, the more it becomes an essential instrument of subdivided professional departments serving societies immediate practical needs, and the less it serves the purposes of the quest for knowledge.

That is a real tragedy—the great tragedy of the twentieth century. In the last few decades, not only in Brazil, but everywhere, the universities, rather than being centers for the education of first rate intellectuals, have become hubs of political recruiting, of training of political activists to defend the most stupid ideas in the universe. Nowadays, virtually no first rate intellectuals are well integrated into the academic milieu. In every field, the best are always at least slightly out of place in that environment or have a conflicting relationship with it. Besides, we should never forget that the university is an educational institution for the masses, not for the elite, and also that anyone in the amorphous mass of university students can earn a bachelor’s degree, become a Ph.D., a professor, etc. What is worse, nowadays most people think they have a right to earn a college degree, as if this were one of the fundamental rights of man, which, of course, makes the coordination between academic education and the quest for knowledge even more difficult. Now, please note that so far I have been only talking about a problem that pertains to the structure of academic education, a flaw that is inherent in the very nature of academia, and I have not brought into the picture the possibility of deliberate academic censure and boycott (which are things that indeed happen in colleges, universities and research institutes). Worse than that, this academic wickedness is actually a reflection of that structural problem, which means that even if academics were as honest as they could be, the very structure of academic education would still be problematic. However, the fact is that, academics, for multiple reasons—internal power struggles, maintenance of the prestige of the academic class, and the like—do not always behave honestly. So, when we put together the obstacles to the pursuit of knowledge that derive from the structure of academia and the malice and wickedness that exist in there, the result we get is the end of the knowledge of reality.

This means that, in an academic environment, the possibility of carrying out a serious investigation into the true reality of things is virtually nil, except for those who are geniuses, who have such impressive personalities that nobody dares to mess with them. These people are allowed to do what they want, for both their students and colleagues think them crazy and find it best not to mess with them. This was, for example, the case of Eric Voegelin. Because people were afraid of him, they did not try to stop him from doing what he wanted, but they kept a distance away from him. In fact, they did not understand much of what Voegelin was talking about. For example, there is a famous anecdote about Voegelin’s first lecture at the University of Munich. Among the attendees were some of the greatest German intellectuals, including Ralf Dahrendorf, the most eminent political scientist at that time. But Dahrendorf, after he had heard Voegelin’s lecture, confessed he was perplexed by it and said he could not understand a word of what Voegelin had said: “He did not talk at all about the Constitution, about human rights, and things like that. I do not understand, what sort of political science is that? He was talking about something else altogether, and I do not know what that something is.” The fact that Voegelin was never understood in the German academy did not result in any form of boycott against him, but had he been any less rigorous a person, he would have been crushed by the German academic environment. Voegelin eventually got fed up with German academics and decided to go back to the United States, leaving all his German students at a complete loss, because for them, Voegelin was a light in the darkness. But the truth is that Voegelin could not take—who would imagine this?—the mediocrity of the German university.

Another amazing thing about the universities is that they usually maintain their prestige long after they have lost their intellectual vigor, just like mummies. An illustration of this is that almost anywhere in the world people still think that the German universities are great universities, as if we were still living in the 1920s. A similar phenomenon takes place here in the United States when somebody mentions Harvard in a conversation, in spite of the fact that nowadays Harvard is nothing more than a training school for leftist activism. People praise Obama, for instance, because he once was the president of the Harvard Law Review—which is nowadays nothing but a periodical of the extreme left, a magazine for semi-illiterate people, but which still retains the prestige conferred upon it in the old days. A quite curious thing is the fact that those who contributed the most toward the destruction of the academic institution—the leftist activists of the 1960s—are the ones who benefit today from the prestige of those universities they themselves have helped to destroy. This is plainly a usurpation. It is like murdering a person to take over his position and title, just like in Alexandre Dumas’ “The Man in the Iron Mask.”

This course—in fact, not only this course, but all that I do in education—has been designed to give an answer to the following problem: What exactly should you do if you want to study history, culture, philosophy, religion, and so on, “in order to know things as they really are,” as Leopold Von Ranke put it, regardless of whether you were ever able to use that knowledge in an academic profession or not, and regardless of the risk that you might become incomprehensible if you succeeded in gaining such knowledge? If you have the courage to take on this challenge, you can attain knowledge of things as they really are, you can attain objective knowledge of reality. But, take note: the more you know, the more you know things that others do not. So, right from the start, knowing more is knowing things that others do not know, and thus the more you know, the less understood you will be by those who do not know. If you want to pay that price, if you think knowledge is worth it, those are the first things you have to bear in mind. Personally, I think knowledge is worth it. I have devoted my life to the pursuit of knowledge and I do not regret it in the least. Quite to the contrary, I think it is great. However, over the years, I had to learn not to expect to be comprehended by the ignorant, for they simply cannot understand me. Also, bear in mind that if you really want to be a serious scholar and not only viewed as such by the ignoramuses who pretend to be scholars, you will have to engage in a series of practices and follow a number of protocols of learning which will allow you to get where you want. This is what I have been doing all my life and is what I would like to teach others to do.

So, when I start thinking about a problem, I want an actual answer for it. Ranke’s sentence, “I want to know things as they really are,” is always on my mind, and I truly believe human intelligence is capable of attaining this kind of knowledge. However, the “things as they really are” are not necessarily the same as people like to imagine they are. Besides, when you find out the truth about the past, for example, your new knowledge changes your view about people who live in the present, that is, you start looking at them from a different perspective. Also, you become able to make comparisons between the past and the present according to a significantly larger scale of reference, and as a result things that may be novelties to other people may be not so new to you, because you may have points of comparison which other people do not have. As a consequence of your accumulated historical knowledge, you will know beforehand that many of those high hopes people usually entertain are not going to lead anywhere. Also, a terrible thing may happen to you: once you have understood a series of processes, once you have acquired a large measure of philosophical and historical culture, it may happen that people do not really want to hear your opinion, because they would rather cling to their prejudices and silly ideas. Let me tell you that this is not at all uncommon: it does happen all the time, putting you in a rather awkward position.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate my point. There was this one time when I was walking down a street and came across an old lady who had fallen down to the ground and was laying there, wiggling and squealing in a fit of hysteria—I even thought she was having an epileptic seizure. As I reached out to help her get back up on her feet, she started punching me and screamed: “I hate men, I hate men!” So what could I do? I simply told her: “You know what? Screw that. I’m not trying to help you anymore; if you don’t want my help, then you won’t get it.” That is precisely the situation you will sometimes find yourself in when dealing with politicians, public men, opinion leaders, business leaders, military officers, and so on and so forth. Because they refuse to listen, the only thing you can tell them is something like this: “Look, I have a solution to your problem, but if you don’t want to listen, that’s your loss. I was just trying to help.” That is to say, you will be regarded as an unheeded and unwanted adviser who actually knows how to a fix a problem. Even so, even if this happens to you, and it may very well happen, I still think that the quest for knowledge is the best of purposes in life because when you understand how things are, at least you do not suffer like a helpless animal, but with all the dignity of a human being, for you know what the problem is.

The purpose of this course is to convey to you a part of my experience of searching for knowledge, and in this sense, in this course we are not going to study “philosophy,” our subject matter is not “the philosophical tradition,” but rather something that is known as reality. But you might ask: what is reality? Roughly speaking, everyone knows reality and what reality is. Reality is where we live, where we move, where we have joy, where we cry, where we have hope, where we have our struggles, our victories, our defeats, and so on and so forth. In short, reality is the realm where we have all of our internal and external experiences—that is reality. And when philosophy first appeared in the world, it came up precisely as an inquiry into reality, not as an academic discipline where you had to perform certain rituals in order to be accepted into a professional community. When compared to philosophy, that is, to the study of reality, this professional or academic “philosophy” is merely a child’s play. It is something we cannot take seriously for even a minute and, in fact, we should always keep our distance from it.

End of the second part.

Olavo de Carvalho is the President of The Inter-American Institute and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Philosophy, Political Science, and the Humanities.

The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute. This lecture was delivered online in December 2008. Translation from the Portuguese by Alessandro Cota and proofreading by Benjamin Mann.

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