Surveillance, the Panopticon, and the Prison of Your Mind

Surveillance, the Panopticon and the Prison of your Mind

Freedom. We all think that we’ve got it. We all want to have it. But can we truly, confidently say that we are “free”? Rousseau famously once said “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. In last month’s blog we looked at how free will may in fact be an illusion in a pretty fundamental sense – that is, in the sense that our experience of being able to choose between path a or path b is an illusory one; the choice was never ours to make in the first place. In this blog post we’ll reign in the focus a little, and talk about freedom in a less abstract sense. We’re going to talk about how powers outside of ourselves can limit our freedom, and, in a sense, can turn our own minds into a kind of prison.

Many of us suspect that there are powers acting on us in various ways so as to constrain our freedom. We know there are explicit rules, regulations, and systems of power in place to stop us from acting in certain ways. If you murder someone you’re aware that the police are likely to track you down, and that you’re likely to spend most of your life in prison. To many of us (most of us, one would hope!) this does not feel overly constraining. Murder is not particularly high on most of our agendas. The power of the law feels generally acceptable because it is pretty explicit about what is permitted and what is not, and, as such, we can challenge these laws if we feel they are outdated. Yes, we may disagree with some laws, but when we do, we can debate in our parliaments and legislatures whether these laws are unjust and need to be reformed. As long as the law remains honest, explicit and just in exerting power upon us, we do not feel that it harms our freedom to a substantial degree.

But what if there was a way that external powers (such as governments) could control us not just from the outside – but could actually come to nestle within our own minds? What if our choices, our freedom – our very thoughts themselves – could be controlled from within. It would be as if a tiny alien had implanted itself within our own heads and was influencing our choices, whilst we still believed it was ourselves who were in control. It’s a pretty menacing prospect isn’t it? An external power taking control of you, your-self, and yet you wouldn’t even know it. Well, unfortunately, certain philosophers – specifically, my boy, Michel Foucault – have suggested that this is very much what is happening to us in our day to day lives.

Now, Foucault was a pretty cool guy. He was a bald-headed, turtleneck-wearing bespectacled French historian, ethicist, social theorist, philosopher and – I would say – a poet. When you read his work you’re confronted with a work of philosophy but also an immense literary creation. I’m a big fan. His works tend to analyse spheres of human life traditionally neglected by philosophy – exploring themes of madness, punishment, and sexuality. His historical analyses of these unusual topics have led some people to claim that he is not a philosopher. Right. I have some pretty choice words for these people, although this blog is not, perhaps, such a wise place to air them. Feel free to message me directly if you want to hear me wax-vulgarly-poetic.  Anyway… I digress. Foucault is important to this blog post, because Foucault discusses how external powers utilise surveillance technology to create a prison within one’s mind.

Foucault illustrates this beautifully through an analysis of Jeremy Bentham’s perfect prison – the “Panopticon”. The Panopticon was a prison in which all cells were arranged in a circle around a central tower, within which guards were stationed who could observe all the prisoners at all times. The prisoners were always being watched, and thus (so the theory goes) they would always behave themselves under the fear that any misdemeanour would be seen and punished by the guards. The really clever part was that eventually one would not even need to station a guard in the tower to watch the prisoners – the prisoners themselves would start to modify their own behaviour because they believed that they were being observed. That is, the guards all-seeing-gaze starts to become internalised, as the prisoners modify their behaviour to match the guard’s expectations, even if there were actually no guard present in reality. Within the prisoner’s minds, an external power system had become internalised. The prison, that was once an external expression of power through its concrete walls and iron bars, had gained a new, more insidious, internal expression of power, through its ability to raise esoteric, mental walls within a person’s mind.

Panopticon
The Panopticon

“Why should this worry me?” you think. “I’m not a prisoner – I’m certainly not in the Panopticon – so why is this relevant to my life?”. Well, Foucault claims that in a certain sense we are all in a kind of Panopticon – that is, we have all started to modify our behaviours to match the expectations of certain external powers even if they are not actually watching! For example, clocking in and out at work allows your boss to observe whether or not you are late for work. This simple act of surveillance subtly shapes your behaviours, and increases the chance that you make it into work on time, as you know your boss may know – and may punish you –  if you are in fact late. Your boss doesn’t even need to be monitoring your attendance – the very fact that they have the power to do this affects your decision to get to work on time. This internalisation of power is so subtle that we tend not to even realise that it is shaping our choices. These expressions of power that invade our subjectivity seem almost natural to us. Sure, they may be benign enough – they may encourage you to get to work or school on time – but they also have the potential to be malicious.

In Britain it’s poignant to think about this in terms of the omniscience of CCTV. There doesn’t even need to be an operator observing the inputs of these CCTV cameras, the very threat of surveillance is often enough to shape our behaviours. Now, if you’re a law abiding citizen, this may not bother you too much. But imagine if our society was suddenly overtaken by a Fascist government who would execute anyone who disagreed with their policies. This government would not need to be watching everyone to have an effect upon their behaviours, the very threat of surveillance would be enough to make certain choices – such as conforming to the regime – more appealing than others. In such a circumstance the government has invaded our minds and controls us (to a certain extent) from within. An external power has become internalised, affecting our choices, and with it our freedom (and subjectivity itself) comes under threat.

So, your mind is – in some sense – a prison. Your choices are often affected by the potential for surveillance – a potential which causes you to become like your own prison guard, as you modify your behaviour in line with expectations that are not entirely your own. A more generous commentary may perhaps describe your mind as more like a school, under the watchful gaze of a teacher, whose expectations encourage you to change your behaviour for the good of yourself as well as for the good of society. Make what you will of the choice of the metaphor.

The threat of surveillance (in the most general sense) is everywhere – at your workplace, in school, on the street, in your family household. Its influence on your behaviour has potential for good and for evil. It can both help you and harm you. With that in mind, I would suggest that the moral of this analysis is to become aware of who is shaping your choices, what their agenda is, and what potential for abuse their influence holds. Are you choosing something because you genuinely want to choose it, or because you have internalised the expectations of someone else, who may or may not be watching?

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You are not free.

You do not have free will. Or, at least, we seem to have very good reasons to think that you don’t. I know. “Preposterous”, you think, “I make choices every day. Do I want salt and vinegar Pringles, or perhaps a bar of Milka? Fosters or Stella?”, and, depending on how you feel that day, you make a choice one way or the other. When it comes to describing how you made that choice you can often provide a handful of reasons, but describing the actual process of making the choice – of willing – is a lot more hazy. It kind of comes down to a sort of feeling we get – a sense of two possible paths that the future could take, and then choosing between one of those. But I want to describe to you that that feeling is an illusion. In fact, there has only ever been one path that the universe could have taken since the dawning of time – and you, and every single one of your actions, your choices, are bound up with it.

Let’s think about it from the level of bare physics to start with. Science. Ruling aside quantum mechanics, most people are happy to assume that if we know all the physical conditions of an object and we know the past (and present) states of the universe that are acting on an object, then we can describe with certainty how that object will behave. Billiard balls is the classic example. When you’re playing pool (or billiards, whatever) and you fire the cue ball into the coloured balls, then you can know how the coloured balls will behave if you know the angle of the collision, the velocity of the cue ball, and the weights of the two balls etc.. So if you know with certainty all the physical facts about a system, then you can describe with a certainty how that system will behave. There is no room for two possible outcomes of the exact same physical event. All things being equal it could only have possibly behaved in the way that it did. It was “written in the stars”, so to speak.

Now most people are happy to accept that the brain is a physical system. As a physical system it behaves mechanistically – just like the billiard balls. When you make a “choice”, certain neurons in your brain fire that have been triggered by previous physical actions in the brain. We can imagine a future where we’re talented enough at neuroscience to describe all the physical processes that govern the brain. Then we could plot all the physical processes that led to you choosing the way you did, leaving no room for you as a kind of “radical chooser”. Your choices are just governed by purely physical reactions. Physical reactions that have been predetermined to play out in the way that they did since the beginning of time.

And, yes, I agree, this is pretty intellectually dissatisfying. We do have an experience of ourselves as a “radical chooser” – of actually experientially “choosing” between two possible futures – an experience of selfhood that seemingly cannot be reduced to physical processes. But, worryingly, this doesn’t save our freedom of the will.

Let’s imagine we’re an immaterial soul, freed from all physical processes. Surely then we have room to make a free choice – a choice that is really our own. But, from what platform would this choice be made? In choosing, I must have made a choice that was “mine” by the past “me” carrying itself forward by making a choice in the present. But then, my choice is built purely upon the past states of myself. It was not a radically free choice of the present, it was shaped entirely by my past. This morning I appeared to have a choice as to whether I should write this post or not, but ultimately I was predestined to write this post as the sum-total of my previous experiences (studying philosophy, enjoying writing, knowing I had time to write etc.) made it impossible for me to choose otherwise. The same thing happened with you choosing to read this.

Now some of you might think that this makes you “free” in an important sense. I don’t disagree. In some sense these actions are your own. All this constitutes is an argument against free will in the “radical” sense – in the sense of having the godlike power to radically choose between two possible futures when you make a choice in the present. I’m saying that you could never have chosen any differently because of the way that you are (and, ultimately, the way that the universe is). The feeling of choice is nothing more than an illusion. The road was always set.

Now, I briefly excluded quantum mechanics from my arguments before, and some of you might be tempted to look to quantum randomness as a place within which your free will could hide. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help much. Random actions do not constitute free actions. In many ways, “random willing” constitutes a much less appealing outcome than unfree, predetermined willing. Perhaps you want to claim an immaterial soul’s choices interact with the universe through some kind of quantum weirdness, but then I’d like to refer you to the previous two paragraphs, where I explain how this doesn’t save the will as a “radically free” one.

The most agreeable rebuttal to these arguments that I can think of, and that I have a lot of sympathy for, is a non-rational one. You can claim that we cannot rationally comprehend free will, and that the non-rational, felt experience of freedom is ultimately all the proof we need. However, we all know that we can be deceived by our experiences. Setting aside deception though, if you want to rebut my arguments through feeling, I want you to take a long hard look at other things you might not accept feeling as an argument for. Like God. Or a flat-earth. People feel these things, people believe these things. If you’re using rational evidence to rebut God or a flat earth, then you have to have a long hard think about why your non-rational feeling of free will is enough to justify its existence.

So, there you go: you are not free. This is not big news to philosophers, but to non-philosophers it can often seem fairly shocking and outrageous. I know I’ve certainly annoyed a lot of non-philosophers with these kinds of arguments in the past. People almost always reject these arguments outright as “just stupid”. When this happens I tend to tell my interlocutors to go away and have a think about it when I’m not there. And when they do, nearly all of them eventually concede that there’s not much space for free will (at least, of the radical kind).

So is this a bad thing? Ultimately, I don’t think so. I actually find it rather comforting. These arguments make me feel much more connected to everything in the universe. It unites me with the infinite. I am part of and caused by everything that exists. I don’t know what the infinite is working for (if, indeed, anything at all) – but I like the fact that we’re all connected and all in it together. We’re all inextricably a part of the greatest apparatus ever invented, and just as it acts on and defines us, so to do we act on and define it. To me there’s something incredibly romantic – poetic – about that.

 

 

[[Note that the free will arguments are some of the oldest in philosophical history and are ongoing today. My argument against the “soul” as I’ve termed it (used as a convenient term to describe something free from physical processes) is ultimately incomplete. If you’ve picked up on this I can point you towards some good literature that explains why this is not a get-out clause for free will, but it might make your brain hurt a little. Also, if you’re worried about moral responsibility, please don’t be. I don’t believe in free will but I do believe that we have good reasons to still think of people as morally responsible. However, I do think that these arguments change the way we should think about punishing people; especially whilst thinking about punishment in a retributive sense. Again, if you want me to point you in the direction of some literature that explains this I’m more than happy to – there’s soooo much out there!]]

Behind the Peak

Shrouded in mist
An Arcdaemon beckoned
As white wisps whispered
Of secrets untold;
And salsa dance seekers
Sought lost answers
To those forbidden questions
The old Gods had hidden
Within the mysteries of the mind.

And so we dance
With our insecurities,
Our faith, our reason,
Our love, our lives.
We two-step to the rhythm,
To the beat of that great drum
Which we hear so clearly,
Yet fail to see with our eyes.

So spring your stride gaily
With fleet foot, thought and pride;
Lost together we’re lost no longer,
Dance together, we bring sight to the blind.

 

[[This poem was written on the rooftop of a hostel in the Peruvian city of Arequipa, with Misti, the snow-capped volcano, towering in the distance.]]

Modern Art, Chester Cathedral, and the Essence of Religion

Chester Cathedral – rather surprisingly – has, for the past few months, been the host of a modern art exhibition. I describe this fact as rather surprising firstly because Chester, at least to my eyes, is somewhat of a void for the visual arts. The city itself may well be an extraordinarily beautiful place to live, but in terms of showcasing artistic creation it seems to have always remained somewhat shallow. I was, therefore, very pleased when I returned to Chester after several months away to see an art exhibition running in both the town hall and the cathedral. The second (and more pertinent) reason I describe a modern art exhibition in the cathedral as rather surprising is because modern art, at least to my eyes, is a subversive project. It challenges norms, challenges institutions and, most importantly, it presents us with new ways of thinking. As such, it would seem that modern art stands in opposition – and perhaps even presents an existential threat – to that age-old institution which is the church.

These were the ideas that I was grappling with as I entered the Cathedral building. After walking past a rather strange Damien Hirst piece I took a left and found myself face to face with a rather majestic looking silver back gorilla. Again, here I found myself slightly taken aback. Not only was the church exhibiting potentially subversive modern art, it was presenting modern art with evolutionary conotations. Sure, the gorilla was very much a wild animal, very much a beast. A proud silverback, standing strongly on all fours. Nevertheless, there was something remarkably human about its face, its expression, its entire aura. Whenever I look at a great ape I’m struck by the fact that its major sensory apparatus – its eyes and its ears – are so similar to ours. For all intents and purposes, the world that the gorilla perceives – on a base, sensory level – is the same world as ours. There is something within that gorilla’s body (a mind? Spirit? Soul?) who experiences something very similar to what we ourselves experience (on a pre-conceptual level).

This experience of continuity between myself and the gorilla is an experience strongly associated with knowledge of evolutionary theory. The UK church may well be much less opposed to the theory of evolution than their American counterparts, but I still found the display of such potentially subversive pieces of art to be rather striking. After pondering these thoughts for a while, I turned to inspect another gorilla sculpture, displayed upon the floor behind me. The first gorilla had given me some pretty thoughts to dance with, but this second sculpture took it to another level still.

This second sculpture features a gorilla almost laid upon its front, gazing into a mirror that one imagines to be a crystal clear pond. Again, with this gorilla, I saw myself – I saw humanity. The gorilla Narcissus, inspecting his reflection, clearly has a degree of self awareness. He is seeing himself, he is recognising himself. He is recognising something inextricably his own. His consciousness is reflecting in upon itself. This act of self-consciousness is one that we witness in only a small number of animals, ourselves included. The evolutionary undertones abounded once again. Here I am seeing a brother, a body, a consciousness – perhaps even a soul.

But beyond this display of self-consciousness, I also witnessed the majesty of the cathedral reflected around this silverback’s face. Alongside self-consciousness there was a reflection of the religious, the spiritual. The reflection of the religious building brought upon new reflections for the mind. With self-consciousness, is there perhaps always a sense of the religious? Of something more, of something bigger? Of something not-self, something that the self is contained within? Of a universal, an infinite, within which our finite selves are contained as vessels within a jar? Did the gorilla sitting there observing its reflection also feel an intuition of something larger than itself? Something that promotes the multiplicity, the grandeur, the vulgarity, on display within the religions of the world today?

I tend to think that the gorilla did experience something akin to this. Something similar to what I feel, something similar to what countless others feel. A kind of pre-conceptual marvel at the grandeur and mystery of existence. The very fact that there is something that is. That there is something rather than nothing. The gorilla’s feeling, however, in contrast to that of those who built the walls that surround him, was pure. The gorilla’s sense of the infinite exists before concepts, before dogma, before power structures, institutions and lies. The gorilla’s sense of the religious is pure spiritual self-indulgence – something shared purely between itself and the whence from which it came. This, to me, is the essence of spirituality. It is the feeling that the religions of today are built from, but in trying to attach meanings, concepts and stories to, they have obscured the truth (or, at least, the experience) of the expression itself.

I still have sympathy for the views of Schleiermacher, who tried to express something similar to this in his philosophical theology. He, however, later got lost by trying to plant more concrete theology on top of this abstraction. Strange, Schleiermacher was a man who had experienced how to build his house upon the rock yet instead tried to make a castle made of sand. I think we must turn to the religions of the East, specifically Taoism, to have these truths most clearly expressed in readily digestible, aphoristic form. The Tao Te Ching begins:

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

Wiser words about the essence of religion and the spiritual would struggle to ever be spoken.

These are a scattered overview of my reflections from my first visit to the Cathedral – a visit I have made several times since, but during which I have unfortunately struggled to dance the same mental tango of that original experience. I am highly impressed with the ARK exhibiton, and have a whole lot of respect for the Cathedral for staging it. Modern art, at least from the perspective of a philosopher, is designed to make us think – or, at least, it provides us with an experience of what it is to be human. Religious practices and religious institutions have also remained part of what it is to be human since the dawning of civilisation. Even amongst those of us who have experienced the death of God, this remains the case. As such, it is highly rewarding to view modern art in a religious location – it opens new perspectives, new possibilities for thought and being that we may not have experienced in a more secular location. I’d highly recommend everyone to get to the Cathedral quick to visit the exhibition – its free, but it closes next week!

Apologies for the slightly, rambling structure of this post and for the absence of blog posts for the past few weeks! I’d been wanting to get these thoughts down for a while, and thought I would write stream of consciousness style whilst I have the time (which I don’t have much of at the moment!). I intend for my next post to be a much more structured exposition of Nietzsche’s infamous “will to power” doctrine and I will use this to discuss the bias of soul atomism. It’s good stuff, I promise!

The Poet, the Priest and the Philosopher

Each intellectual discipline stems from the same root. Let me oversimplify – which is, to say, romanticise, poeticise. The shape of the western soul was moulded from the formless (or form-less) clay that lay in the hearts of the ancient poets. These poets of old, however, were not just literary men – they were also philosophers, they were also priests. Men of faith, reason and beauty; bound together in one mortal soul. Yea, this was a time before our souls were cleaved – before the split of the rational and the irrational – before faith, reason and beauty became discordant and began to look dispalatable to one another. These priests and philosophers, nevertheless, remained first and foremost poets. Those with eyes to see clearly perceive that beauty was these poet’s primordial guiding light. Yea, these poets –  guided by their will to beauty – were the pride of Ancient Greece and, thus, the forefathers of western civilisation.

Yet, when internal pressures became too great – when the soul of the poet finally cleaved and ruptured – the priest and the philosopher were finally born as distinct and competing entities. These new historical beings each grasped at opposite poles of a once proud, now decadent, unity – each claiming their own pole, their own mode of life, their own “truth”, as the best and only. Truth was born as a new idol, an idol elevated to the highest of values, an idol to be invoked alongside the thought: “I believe that I am correct and you should – you must – too”. This preoccupation with “truth” later gave birth to and was, perhaps – redeemed? – by the scientist, as our instruments and methods for pursuing that most beautiful of idols became increasingly refined. With this new emergence, with this new pre-occupation, the poet slipped into perverse shadows – making an occasional disjointed whisper or whimper, yet possessing none of the vigour, none of the boldness of voice, none of the rawness of passion and the unity of spirit, which elevated the sages of old.

And what does all this mean? Well, please excuse a little naturalistic fallacy and genealogical contriteness: the pursuit of beauty birthed us, the pursuit of beauty propels and compels us – beauty, therefore, must now play Hermes and guide humanity once again? A fallacy indeed, but, nevertheless, a beautiful one at that.

 

[[ This is as an aesthetic rewriting of the theory explicated in Blog Post #2. This is written in a much more aphoristic style. Whereas post #2 explicated a philosophical theme through systematic, rational argument, designed to be rationally apprehended, this post intends to evoke a kind of “experience”, designed to be apprehended by both rational and non-rational parts of the self. Stylistically, this piece is obviously heavily influenced by Nietzsche – and I believe he is trying to accomplish the same feat described above. ]]

Poetry as Sermon

A great parchment lies before you
Upon which words fall with each step;
Each action; each thought; each rhyme;
Caligraphy and crudity,
Spelt upon the breath of time.

Be aware and beware.
The sages of old proclaimed:
“Each ending is a new beginning”,
Just as each beginning is the sign of an end.
New chapters are both gifted and created –
You are poet and divine lyricist;
Sing your life as both muse and bard.
Speak your truths as the words of God,
For just as you are a reflection of the whole,
The whole is a reflection of yourself.
Self-authorship is self mastery;
Poetry is the mirror of life.

 

– Written at Rupanco Farm, Chile, ~40 miles from Entre Lagos

 

[[ This is not the aesthetic re-writing of Blog Post #2, which I promised last post. That will come next post, promise! ]]

Ancient Greece and the Emergence of Modern Consciousness

Ok guys, this post is going to be slightly harder work than the last one, but stick with it and I promise you that you’re going to gain something interesting to think about. In this post we’re going to think about consciousness and how it developed into the form that we all know and recognise today. Let’s do this:

It is easy to assume that the experience of consciousness has always taken the same form across the history of humanity. Our daily lives are shaped by a relatively uniform experience of what it is to be a conscious being.  Yes, most of us are familiar with the experience of different conscious states – be that through intoxication, religious experience, or, most familiarly, through the mental states surrounding sleep. Nevertheless, we intuit these different states of consciousness as outlier states – modifications of a natural, baseline level of sober consciousness. It is this “natural” state of consciousness that we tend to project across history, onto each and every human that has ever existed.

But this historical, “natural” consciousness is almost certainly not representative of reality. To begin with we must remember the obvious – yet easily overlooked – fact that we are all descended from animals. Just as we tend to understand that animals minds are devoid of reason and are instead driven by instinct, so too must we understand that, as animals, human minds were also once structured in such a way. The consciousness we observe within ourselves today – with an apparent separation between our instincts, emotions, and reason – has slowly developed over the course of a very long time.

With this said, there appear to be certain privileged historical locations – namely, Ancient Greece – within which we can witness a consciousness that we recognise as our own starting to emerge. Ancient Greek society was a society whose thought was structured around a myriad of religious, poetic myths. Stories of gods, goddesses, heroes, heroines and mythical creatures. Stories of Zeus, Odysseus, Hercules, Agamemnon, Achilles, and Helen of Troy. These great myths united poetry, philosophy and religious thought. Within this epic poetry, religious stories were proclaimed and philosophical ideas were debated. These poems would deal with themes ranging from the creation of the world to the form of the good life. Within these works, reason, faith, and beauty created a harmonious, poetic whole.  Within the words and minds of the ancient poets faith, reason and beauty were united as one. The ancient poet was, indeed, first and foremost a poet, but he was also a priest and a philosopher united in one mortal soul.

The unified consciousness of the poets, a unity of the rational and irrational – of faith, reason and beauty – exemplifies the structure of the minds of the ancients. Yet this unified consciousness appears very foreign to us. Intuitively, it is hard for us to suspend our mental separation of these spheres and perceive like the ancients would have done. To observe a more familiar shape of consciousness we must wait for the emergence of Socrates, around 470 BC. With the figure of Socrates we witness the birth of philosophy and the emergence of our modern, western consciousness. In Ancient Athenian society Socrates cut an extremely annoying – yet, also, an extremely influential – figure. Socrates would spend his days hanging out in the marketplace and demanding that influential Athenians provide a rational account of their virtues. He would ask questions such as “what is justice?”, “what is happiness?”, “what is good?”, “what is evil?”.  At first the noblemen of Athens would believe this an easy task – of course they could define the virtues that made themselves and their society great. After all, these virtues were constantly invoked by the poets of old! However, Socrates would use reason to demonstrate that their definitions of virtue were, in fact, logically unsound. These dialogues would almost always end with the noblemen feeling perplexed and annoyed – having been shown that they did not know that which they were previously certain that they had known.

The problem for the Athenian noblemen was that whilst reason had previously worked in harmony with man’s other poetic, religious, irrational capacities, Socrates elevated reason to a position of dominance, which all our other capacities were to be answerable to. Socrates assumed that if our other capacities could not provide a rational account of themselves then they were, in some sense, understood to be deficient. Philosophers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger identify the figure of Socrates and the emergence of philosophy with the death of Ancient Greek culture. With the figure of Socrates consciousness divides itself, with reason emerging as a separate (and dominant) capacity. It is this rational dominance that continues to pervade our modern psyche today.

With reason emerging as a separate capacity we witness a split between poetry and philosophy occurring around 2500 years ago. The poet and the philosopher become separate figures, concerned with expressing different elements of the psyche. Around the same time – and made most explicit 500 years later with the dawning of Christianity – we witness a split between the poet and the priest. The priest ceases to share the concern of the poet for the beautiful – rather, his object of expression (and obsession) becomes that of faith. With the collapse of Ancient Greek culture beauty, faith and reason lose their conscious unity and become separate, disparate realms of specialisation for the poet, the priest, and the philosopher.

Ancient Greek society interests me immensely because with its glorification of great, poetic myths we witness a society primarily ordered by the pursuit of beauty, rather than the pursuit of truth. It thus stands in stark contrast to the ordering of our society today. As such, it presents us with a glimpse of what it would be to live a different kind of life, to be a different kind of human. Different lives, different societies, different ways of being human, are possible.

Besides this, the primacy of the poet in Ancient Greek society interests me for another reason. It is from the ancient poet that we witness the characters of the priest and the philosopher emerge. Religion and philosophy appear to stem from poetry. That is, they appear to have emerged from the human pursuit of beauty. Eventually, we witness the scientist emerge from the figure of the philosopher. Indeed, these first scientists went by the title of “natural philosopher”. As such, we can trace a lineage beginning with poetry, through philosophy and theology, to science. This heritage is easily forgotten, especially with the modern tendency to view these subjects as completely separate disciplines. Knowledge of this history reveals to us that this separation is perhaps not as clear as it first appears. The maternal pursuit of beauty that underlies the origins of philosophy, theology and science has been forgotten. Perhaps, just perhaps, there is the room – and the need – for its reincorporation?

[[ Disclaimer: In my first post I claimed that I would try to produce works of aesthetic philosophy: uniting truth and beauty, poetry and philosophy through my words. Admittedly this post is not particularly poetic, but it does provide more of the theoretical background as to why a (re-)unification of poetry and philosophy may be useful. In my next post I intend to express the theory of this post in a more rhetorically dramatic fashion. ]]

Philosophy as Art

In recent days it has become unfortunately apparent that I’m unlikely to acquire funding to study for a PhD in philosophy. This realisation has been pretty disappointing, although not entirely unexpected. There’s just not enough people handing out money to prospective philosophers. I can’t say I blame them like, I’d be reluctant to give someone 20k a year to go and sit in a library and read books all day. That said, I also truly believe that philosophy has the potential to contribute something to everybody’s lives. It certainly transformed me. It transformed me from a stoner, wanna-be football hooligan back in 2011, into the Master’s educated, articulate, intellectual bombshell that I am today. Ahem. Basically, philosophy can make your life better. The problem is that traditional works of philosophy can be very difficult to understand.  What I hope to do with this blog is in some sense bring philosophy back to the people by making it less arcane and more human. Hopefully some of you out there will dig this. Maybe.

My recent liberation from academia, whilst disappointing, does come with some major benefits. For one thing,  I can now read what I want, when I want. I can also write what I want, when I want. More importantly, I can now write in whatever style I want. Freed from rigid, arid academic conventions, I can now write in a more artistic style. The relation between philosophy and art (and the relation between truth and beauty) has long been an interest of mine. I have believed for a long time that these concepts are very closely related and deeply integrated. This has led to a long-standing dissatisfaction with much academic philosophy, which has become preoccupied with painting bland and grey truths. The element of beauty has been forgotten. It is the reintegration of beauty into philosophy that I want to toy with in this blog. I want a philosophy that can dance, a philosophy that can sing. An aesthetic philosophy; philosophy as art and art as philosophy. A philosophy which is produced in order to heighten the spirits, rather than a philosophy that dampens and dulls them.

Traditional philosophers – and, to some degree, proponents of common sense – will currently be feeling a kind of dis-ease. “What is philosophy if not the pursuit of truth?” one might say. To these people I would reply that an aesthetic philosophy need not abandon truth. Indeed, it remains guided by the pursuit of truth but this truth is no longer the be all and end all. Aesthetic philosophy is guided by the will to truth (the pursuit of truth) but also the will to beauty. Truth and beauty become intertwined in aesthetic philosophy; they begin to dance. “But why?” one may ask. “Why abandon that pursuit – the pursuit of truth – that has guided philosophy for so many years?”. Well, friends, this has got something to do with both the nature and the value of truth.

In western society truth is valued higher than art. Our society is shaped around the pursuit of scientific advancement, rather than the creation of artistic masterpieces. This fact is readily apparent when one looks at the relative funding allocations to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects than to those of the arts. But should we really value the pursuit of truth so highly – as, perhaps, the highest value in our society? Initially it appears obvious that we should. It seems strange to even raise the question. Who could doubt that the pursuit of truth – that scientific advancement – is extremely beneficial in terms of things like healthcare and increasing life expectancy. But on closer inspection the pursuit of truth also leads to the creation of atomic bombs and climate change – that is, it creates things that could annihilate life on earth. Besides this, scientific advancements seem to be aimed at making our actions ever-more efficient. But is it efficiency that is really, truly what is important when it comes to being a human being? A quote often misattributed to Buddha (though not for that reason any less profound) claims: “It is better to travel well than to arrive”.  A Taoist proverb similarly proclaims: “The journey is the reward”. It is not about travelling efficiently, it is about travelling in style

The bottom line is that truth should not necessarily be valued as the highest human pursuit. At the very least, this value should not remain unquestioned. In the course of questioning it may well turn out that truth is not the highest value, and that perhaps the pursuit of truth should be supplemented by other human pursuits.  Perhaps the pursuit of truth should be supplemented by the pursuit of beauty.

Besides this argument we also have reasons to be apprehensive about the nature of truth. In the past two hundred years or so we have come up with plenty of reasons to doubt the existence of objective truths. After all, as all good philosophers will tell you: God is dead. And with this monolithic collapse, we have lost our most secure foundation for objective truth. Admittedly, the claim that we cannot know truth objectively sounds very strange to common sense. It seems obvious that science states objectively true facts about the world. But did it not seem obvious to not only religious zealots but also to common man – less than two-hundred years ago – that it was indubitable that God existed?  Within the mental frameworks of men of the past it seemed that religious truths were, indeed, true. Could it not be the case that something similar is happening with our scientific truths today? Think about it from another perspective:  we can, indeed, say that it is “true” that a man who has committed a murder is guilty of murder within our current legal frameworks. But this is only “true” within such a legal framework – within certain concrete definitions of “guilt” and “murder”. Outside that framework there is no “objective truth”, no Gods-eye-perspective, regarding the man’s guilt. Likewise, our scientific truths have good reasons to be described as truths within our current frameworks. Nevertheless, these truths are not objective. There is no sense in which they stand as “true”, objectively, outside of our frameworks. Moreover, it appears these frameworks can and do change over the course of history.

Admittedly, this argument requires a lot more work. It is something that I will return to in a later blog post where we’ll flesh out this pretty, post-modern perspective. The wider point I want to get at is that if our truths are not objective – that is, if they are subjective – then in conveying our subjective truths we are doing something much more closely related to art than we thought. We’re creating and conveying a certain perspective on the world – a kind of truth for us, not necessarily a truth for every man. This is especially true of the “truths” of philosophy, which don’t tend to work from “objective”, empirical evidence, but rather convey something deeply situated within the reason of an individual person. As such, I feel philosophy can benefit from embracing a more radical kind of subjectivity. I feel philosophy can benefit from embracing the subjectivity which has always laid at the heart of the pursuit of the true, and imbue this with another of our powerful subjective capacities – the pursuit of the beautiful. As such, philosophy becomes much more radical – a kind of free self-expression, an expression of what it is to be really, truly human. Philosophy becomes a kind of artistic science of the subject. To appropriate Nietzsche’s phrase, philosophy becomes a kind of “joyous wisdom”.

And so this, my friends, is what I would like to do with this blog. I want to do philosophy as art. I want to channel both the pursuit of truth and the pursuit of beauty. As such my musings will tend to focus on the nature of truth, beauty, art and philosophy. I will also probably explore some of Nietzsche’s philosophy, whom my thought is unashamedly influenced by. Well, maybe slightly ashamedly, but only because it’s a cliché for a white male in his twenties to love Nietzsche. Most white males in their twenties are dicks though and don’t really get it. I’ve studied him for a long time now, and you’ll just have to trust me that I’ve developed a pretty nuanced reading of his philosophy. Besides these themes, I’ll probably also explore some issues in the philosophy of psychiatry (as this is a field I’ve also studied a lot) as well as branching out into other issues in philosophy more widely.  I’ll also put up some of my poetry, which scares me, but what is poetry without philosophy and philosophy without poetry. They’re one and the same in the end, one’s just more honest about the degree to which it exposes your soul.