What is Philosophy?

What is philosophy? There are so many definitions of philosophy. It is not altogether unlikely that the “What is…?” question is not the best way to approach a definition of philosophy. There are many other important questions for defining and describing philosophy. Who are philosophers? What do philosophers do? How does one become a philosopher? How, where, and when does philosophy happen? If you want to keep the question of being (ti esti, “What is”), maybe you could at least pluralize or verbalize philosophy, so that “What is philosophy?” becomes “What are philosophies?” or “What is philosophizing?” (“What are philosophizings?”). In any case, all of these questions hover around the same point. Whatever philosophy is/does, it seems particularly involved in defining itself, maintaining itself, like it has to keep turning on the engine in order to keep driving, continually initiating itself, bringing itself back to itself. In short, philosophizing maintains a constant connection to its own beginning. Philosophy is perpetually preparatory, programmatically provisional. Continue reading


The Danger of Thinking: Nihilism

In volume one (“Thinking”) of her unfinished three volume work, The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt thoughtfully describes thinking. In the following excerpt, she focuses on nihilism and the danger of thinking:

What we commonly call “nihilism”—and are tempted to date historically, decry politically, and ascribe to thinkers who allegedly dared to think “dangerous thoughts”—is actually a danger inherent in the thinking activity itself. There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous, but nihilism is not its product. Nihilism is but the other side of conventionalism; its creed consists of negations of the current so-called positive values, to which it remains bounds. All critical examinations must go through a stage of at least hypothetically negating accepted opinions and “values” by searching out their implications and tacit assumptions, and in this sense nihilism may be seen as an ever-present danger of thinking.

But that danger does not arise out of the Socratic conviction that an unexamined life is not worth living, but, on the contrary, out of the desire to find results that would make further thinking unnecessary. Thinking is equally dangerous to all creeds and, but itself, does not bring forth any new creed. Its most dangerous aspect from the viewpoint of common sense is that what was meaningful while you were thinking dissolves the moment you want to apply it to everyday living. When common opinion gets hold of the “concepts,” that is, the manifestations of thinking in everyday speech, and begins to handle them as though they were the results of cognition, the end can only be a clear demonstration that no man is wise. Practically, thinking means that each time you are confronted with some difficulty in life you have to make up your mind anew.

However, non-thinking, which seems so recommendable a state for political and moral affairs, also has its perils. [….]

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (San Diego: Harcourt, 1978), 176-7.

Saving the World from Sovereignty

The Posthumanities book series at the University of Minnesota Press keeps releasing terrific books.  I finally got around to reading Mick Smith’s book, Against Ecological Sovereignty: Ethics, Biopolitics, and Saving the Natural World (2011).  Making important contributions to political ecology, environmental ethics, and continental philosophy, Smith presents an approach to radical ecology grounded in a thorough critique of the concept of sovereignty. 

Smith focuses extensively on Agamben’s analysis of biopolitics and the reduction of humans to “bare life,” which Smith relates to Heidegger’s analysis of the reduction of nature to Bestand (“standing reserve” or “resource”).  Arendt, Bataille, Benjamin, Latour, Levinas, and Nancy also make frequent appearances, as Smith draws on their works to support his critique of sovereignty and his ethicopolitical vision of an open, diverse, and posthumanist “intimate ecology of responsibility” (167).  Furthermore, in a refreshing tone, he does not propose a solution to the environmental crisis.

In any case, unlike the majority of people writing on the environment, I do not have a recipe for saving the natural world, a set of rules to follow, a list of guiding principles, or a favorite ideology or institutional form to promote as a solution.  For before all this, we need to ask what “saving the natural world” might mean.  And this requires, as I have argued, sustaining ethics, and politics, and ecology over and against sovereign power—the exercise of which reduces people to bare life and the more-than-human world to standing reserve. […]  What we need are plural ways to imagine a world without sovereign power, without human dominion. (220)

Saving nature, saving the planet, saving Earth.  These are usually just more exercises of sovereignty.  To the extent that we should “save” some beings in the natural world (e.g., save the whales!), saving must take on a meaning that is not encumbered by sovereign power. 

To save the whales is to free them from all claims of human sovereignty, to release them into their singularity, their being such as it is—whatever it is—quodlibet ens, and into flows of evolutionary time, of natural history, just as they release themselves into the flows of the world’s oceans.  This “saving” is an ethicopolitical action. (103) 

Although Smith is focusing primarily on criticizing human sovereignty over nature, he is clear that this does not mean replacing human sovereignty with the sovereignty of nature. 

It is not a call to recognize the sovereignty of nature over all human activities, including ethics and politics. […]  It is a political and ecological critique of sovereignty per se, both natural and political.  The breadth and depth of this critique is why radical ecology is potentially the most radical form of politics, why it offers the most fundamental challenge to the established order of things. (107)

One highlight of the book is that Smith brings together multiple philosophers without ignoring their differences, incompatibilities, and contradictions.  His use of Agamben is a good example: Smith continually draws on Agamben’s concepts and analyses while simultaneously criticizing Agamben’s anthropocentric or “hyperhumanist” tendencies (116).  Another example: Smith offers a critique of Latour that ends up bringing Latour and Levinas together in a productive way.

In short, there are a lot of gems in Smith’s book.  It’s inspired me to look deeper into Arendt’s work, which I haven’t spent much time with in quite a while.  Overall, Against Ecological Sovereignty makes me like radical ecology more than I did before I read it.  Continental philosophy and radical ecology are good for one another.