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HowTheLightGetsIn Festival, London 2018

By Richard Marshall.

A good philosophy festival needs to have good philosophers and no bad ones. It also needs to be able to honour the wissenschaftlich seriousness of philosophy at its best. There are therefore two key difficulties that a good festival must avoid. It mustn’t invite charlatans and bullshitters. And it mustn’t include non-philosophers who might be mistaken for philosophical proxies of the wissenschaftlich seriousness. The HowTheLightGetsIn philosophy and music festival this year at Kenwood House avoided the first threat with ease. The invited philosophers were a strong bunch, all both serious and good at what they did. It also largely avoided the second problem, although the powerful presence of Sean Carroll, the philosophically minded physicist was unfortunately accompanied by the unphilosophical Steven Pinker’s. Hard rain fell throughout the two days.

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari once wrote: ‘Every philosopher runs away when he or she hears someone say “Let’s discuss this.” Discussions, they claimed ‘ are fine for roundabout talks, but philosophy throws its dice on another table. The best one can say about discussions is that they take things no farther, since the participants never talk about the same thing.’ Festivals of philosophy set up public dialogue involving philosophers. So we have to ask: what is the point of public dialogue involving philosophers if all philosophers do is go on the run? Perhaps the best we can expect are Beckettian conversations ‘ … such as those between Vladimir and Estragon, which oscillate between surprising and absurd agreements and ostentatious refusals to communicate, without any guarantee of a common ground,’ as Jan Voelker writes in an afterforward to his book “German Philosophy’ featuring a dialogue between French philosophers Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Nancy.

To be honest, the table these guys sit at is a strange one. They have a pretty narrow view of what philosophers are and do. Marx, for example, isn’t even a philosopher for Badiou because ‘… philosophers don’t put forward a program to transform the world, in the political sense. They might touch on this kind of activity, but its not their real aim, no more than it is to offer an interpretation of the world… the idea of moving from interpretation to change seems to me to miss the mark… it’s a judgment made within the context of a political polemic… To sum up then, Marx isn’t strictly a philosopher, even though he makes use of philosophy… the judgment that he passes on philosophy and that would seem to produce a radical break within it (this was to some extent Althusser’s interpretation) is a judgment that does not seem to me very pertinent and in reality didn’t produce any radical break in the history of philosophy.’

Nancy agrees: ‘ I agree that whatever definition we might give of philosophy , Marx isn’t really a philosopher… because he doesn’t do what every other philosopher does – he doesn’t go as far as he possibly can, with the means at his disposal, in his attempt to pose, to say, to name, to designate what he doesn’t cease to consider as the end of action. He doesn’t name what he’s striving for, even if it is unnamable… it’s because he doesn’t say what individual property is that he’s not a philosopher.’ This is the kind of bonkers Althussarian nonsense you can expect from these two pretentious poseurs but nevertheless they do raise the issue of what we want from philosophers and why we want to listen to them.

Germany seems to like philosophers and philosophy at the moment. It’s regularly on tv. Stuart Jeffries in an article back in July 2017 wrote that its popularity showed that something had gone wrong:

‘Philosophie Magazin now has a circulation of 100,000, proof that Eilenberger’s approach paid off. Indeed it would appear there is a new demand for ideas in Germany, one ripe for the plumbing. In 2017, philosophy in Germany is booming. Student enrollment in philosophy courses has increased by one-third over the past three years. Its leading practitioners are giving TED Talks and producing best-selling books, top-ranking TV shows, and festivals such as phil.cologne, which attracts more than 10,000 visitors to the German city each June.’

So philosophy in Germany grabs a mass audience. This could mean people want great philosophers doing the hard-core wissenschaftlich seriousness stuff but Jeffries worries that it more than likely means that philosophy ‘ … is becoming an item of conspicuous consumption designed to flatter user’s intellectual self-images.’ Jeffries cites Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ where they discuss the limitations of the culture industry, writing that it’s ‘… so designed that quickness, powers of observation, and experience are undeniably needed to apprehend them at all; yet sustained thought is out of the question.’

In 1969 Adorno had to abandon a lecture when protesting female students surrounded him and bared their naked breasts. A few months later he died. Jeffries writes: ‘Peter Sloterdijk in his 1983 tome, Critique of Cynical Reason [writes]: “Here, on the one side, stood naked flesh, exercising ‘critique’; there, on the other side, stood the bitterly disappointed man without whom scarcely any of those present would have known what critique meant.… It was not naked force that reduced the philosopher to muteness, but the force of the naked.”’ Cutting through the daft rhetorical tosh a sensible point can be extracted: reverence towards the grand tradition of German philosophy had been challenged and this was a good thing. The resulting deflation of the grand pessimistic style of German philosophy allowed it to break into the popular consciousness as it hadn’t been able to do previously and enabled philosophy to appear on popular tv and best sellers lists.

Figures like Habermas have led the way in this. “I do not share the basic premise of critical theory, the premise that instrumental reason has gained such dominance that there is really no way out of a total system of delusion, in which insight is achieved only in flashes by isolated individuals,” Habermas said in an interview back in the 70’s and in his ‘The Theory of Communicative Action’ he envisioned an unlimited communication community where discourse and argument would endlessly reinterpret the world and everyone would participate. As Jeffries summarises it: ‘ … though Habermas didn’t attempt to obliterate Adorno’s leading injunction — avoiding forever another Hitler — his more optimistic philosophy was premised on trying to theorize ways to prevent Auschwitz from occurring again. And to do so, Habermas believed philosophers like himself had to work on improving the conditions in which life is lived rather than issuing, as Adorno tended to do, despairing jeremiads about the fate of human beings. That’s to say, he took his mentor’s leading injunction more seriously than Adorno did.’

Peter Sloterdijk and Rudiger Safranski from 2002 to 2012 ran a talk show on German channel ZDF discussing philosophical topics of the day. Now it’s eye-candy bimbo Richard David Precht who hosts the show to boost ratings and there’s a bit of ill feeling coming from the replaced hosts. According to Jeffries, ‘Sloterdijk, in what reads like sour grapes, told the German press that his replacement’s “clientele is more like that of [the popular violinist] André Rieu, to whom ladies, especially those over 50, listen in a late-idealistic mood.”’ But if this suggests that all popular German philosophy has dumbed down, Markus Gabriel has had a best seller with his 2015 book ‘Why The World Does Not Exist’ and everyone agrees the work is good philosophy and not middle of the road mood music at all. In fact it’s fair to say that Gabriel is of a very different order of talent and academic esteem than either Precht or Sloterdijk and it was great to see him working his magic at the festival. Neither Precht or Sloterdijk are considered important philosophers, or even jobbing ones for that matter. They’re lightweights, or no-weights even – and in Sloterdijk’s case controversial in a ponderous way. Habermas called him out as a fascist but it’s more likely he’s just another narcissist looking for ratings and a new book deal.

But talent or no talent, Gabriel, Sloterdijk and Precht can perform and in Germany if you can do that then you can be a hit as a philosopher. To put across hard philosophy in a language and style that can be understood by non-philosophy experts is what is being demanded by the German pop media culture ( Or maybe its the other way round: to put across a language and style that might be hard philosophy is what is being demanded…?). Gabriel is the real deal in that he can both perform and do the philosophy, so he fits neatly in with what equally serious counterparts in the US and UK are doing but with the added advantage of a German media culture happy to take his philosophy out to a mass audience. But Sloterdijk can’t do the philosophy. He’s superficial, self-regarding and always gesturing to some outrageous idea just to ensure he stays centre stage. The media and book deals keep rolling in thanks to a media uninterested in his actual intellectual abilities. He’s a celebrity who with that other celebrity philosopher, Zizek, is possibly the biggest beast in the philosophy hall of bullshit since the passing of Derrida. (I think Zizek is a bit better as a philosopher actually, although he’s nowhere near as good as his fans think he is, but nor is he as bad as his detractors think he is either!) Sloterdijk’s buffoonery is of the order of the higher shock jock. According to the New Yorker :

‘He calls Germany a “lethargocracy” and the welfare state a “fiscal kleptocracy.” He has decried Merkel’s attitude toward refugees, drawn on right-wing thinkers such as Martin Heidegger and Arnold Gehlen, and even speculated about genetic enhancement of the human race. As a result, some progressives refuse to utter his name in public. In 2016, the head of one centrist party denounced him as a stooge for the AfD, a new far-right party that won thirteen per cent of the vote in last year’s federal elections.’

The article goes on to comment that ;

‘The rise of the German right has made life more complicated for Sloterdijk. Positions that, at another time, might have been forgiven as attempts to stir debate now appear dangerous. A decade ago, Sloterdijk predicted a nativist resurgence in Europe, a time when “we will look back nostalgically to the days when we considered a dashing populist showman like Jörg Haider”—the late Austrian far-right leader—“a menace.” Now Sloterdijk has found himself in the predicament of a thinker whose reality has caught up with his pronouncements.’ The guy has a nose for self publicity but has no gift for philosophy at all. If anything he offers a kind of putrid self-help for the pretentious right, forever offering his banalities dressed up in the hard won language of tougher , actual philosophy. His “The Critique of Cynical Reason,” seemed to promise a cheeky update of Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” but the book instead delivered a wildly personal polemic about the deterioration of the utopian spirit of 1968 and called for Sloterdijk’s generation to take stock of itself. His peers, as they reached middle age, were pragmatically adjusting to global capitalism and to the nuclear stalemate of the Cold War. He issued a challenge to readers to scour history and art for ways of overcoming social atomization. Punning on Kant’s concept of the thing-in-itself, he asked, “Have we not become the isolated thing-for-yourself in the middle of similar beings?”’

This is lame, preposterous, middle-brow Sunday magazine stuff and is so embarrassing it makes Alain de Botton sound like Hegel. Fellow German philosopher Axel Honneth writes of him : ‘He wins on points of rhetoric that are in inverse proportion to the irresponsibility of his ideas.’ And the New Yorker writes that ‘The English philosopher John Gray argued, in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, that, sentence by sentence, much of his output is simply incomprehensible.’ But when he wants to grab attention he is comprehensible, and those on the extreme right in Germany claim to understand him all too well. If anything, he sounds like he’s channeling the same crapola as Donald Trump is, although he’s careful to distance himself from even the idea of the possibility of a European Trump just to cover his own back:

‘You can’t go looking for Trump in Europe…You know, Hegel in his time was convinced that the state in the form of the rule of law had not yet arrived in the new world. He thought that the individual—private, virtuous—had to anticipate the state. You see this in American Westerns, where the good sheriff has to imagine the not-yet-existent state in his own private morality. But Trump is a degenerate sheriff. He acts as if he doesn’t care if the state comes into being or not, and mocks the upright townsfolk. What makes Trump dangerous is that he exposes parts of liberal democracies that were only shadowily visible up until now. In democracies, there is always an oligarchic element, but Trump makes it extremely, comically visible…He’s an innovator when it comes to fear… Instead of waiting for the crisis to impose his decree, his decrees get him the emergencies he needs. The playground for madness is vast.’

This is nonsense, but isn’t it interesting that he calls Trump ‘a degenerate sheriff’ and elsewhere he calls Hitler ‘a degenerate papist’? ‘Degenerate’ is clearly a word he likes. Nazis used it with art they didn’t like, and he knows that! And he knows we know that too!

Badiou says the role of philosophy is to ask ‘… a system of singular questions, at the centre of which lies… the following question: Does there exist anything with a universal value – and if so, how is this possible?’ Sloterdijk tries to say that Trump is rejecting this very idea, as if the incoherent ramblings of a mentally ill real-estate President have anything at all to do with philosophical ideas :

‘This is a moment that won’t come again…Both of the old Anglophone empires have within a short period withdrawn from the universal perspective… The moment for me was when I first heard him say ‘America First.’ That means: America to the front of the line! But it’s not the line for globalization anymore, but the line for resources. Trump channels this global feeling of ecological doom.’

Sloterdijk’s banalities and inane metaphors are substitutes for what he claims to be doing, which is thinking. It’s this lack of philosophical thinking that shocks more than the aggravating positions he takes. Nothing he says rises above the average Murdoch tabloid article about multiculturalism, refugees, PC talk, etc. There’s nothing seriously philosophical about this guy at all. So here’s a problem with popularizes of philosophy. They can be poor philosophers and charlatans, people rightly marginalized by decent philosophy departments. But these days there are new outlets for them – the internet, festivals of ideas and those other parts of the academy that have much, much lower standards  than the good philosophy departments – Critical Theory departments being notorious in this respect. As Brian Leiter, a top Nietzsche scholar at Chicago University says;

‘… what’s happened in the last few years is that people who aren’t very good at philosophy and/or feel otherwise marginalized in the profession have taken to the Internet, and under various high-minded sounding moralized banners—equality, fairness, inclusiveness and so on—have launched an attack on the idea of philosophical excellence and smarts. In its dumbest form, it amounts to saying that “excellent” philosophy is just work by upper class white men in the Judeo-Christian West…it’s a sign of some progress that those revolting don’t accuse good philosophy of being “Jewish” anymore! … ‘

High profile publicity-seeking star-turns in philosophy – the likes of Sloterdjik, Zizek and others – tend to be overrated as philosophers – but so what? What harm do they really do? Why does any of this matter? So what if the leading lights of this movement in Germany and elsewhere are poor philosophers, if they pull in the crowds surely that helps those who are good but aren’t able to? And surely it’s better to have these figures on tv and livening up festivals of ideas etc than not have them. They create a buzz for philosophy which promotes it so everybody wins. That’s the defence. But they do do harm. One harm they do is betray the notion of wissenschaftlich seriousness that defines great philosophy departments and philosophers and which Tim Williamson, top professor of philosophical logic at Oxford University, has recently written about and defended, alongside others such as Brian Leiter in Chicago. It’s this wissenschaftlich seriousness that’s under pressure at the moment and it would be a shame if well-meaning attempts to get philosophy out to the masses inadvertently helped to erode this ideal. From what I can see as an outsider, philosophy departments are experiencing a threat to the wissenschaftlich in the same way that English departments did back in the 1980’s. Of course economic and institutional forces indifferent to academic excellence are hugely important in eroding this ideal too, but it’s always a concern when bad philosophers and/or non-philosophers with no understanding of the philosophical wissenschaftlich are paraded as if representative of the profession as a whole.

For philosophy festivals to work they must divest themselves of the charlatans and the poseurs and promote only those who are genuinely interesting and good at what they do. The idea that all philosophers are up to one thing is nonsense of course. Philosophy is full of different traditions and approaches and the divisions can be deep and at times unfriendly. And work in Anglophone philosophy can be as scholastic as alternative approaches, probably due to the demand for specialization. This can mean that much philosophy can be dry, boring and frankly uninspiring and irrelevant. Some philosophers have noticed this and have even claimed it’s in the doldrums at the moment. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt (who has written well about ‘bullshit’) in his ‘Portraits of American Philosophy’ wrote back in 2015 that;

‘ … there is, at least in this country, a more or less general agreement among philosophers and other scholars that our subject is currently in the doldrums. Until not very long ago, there were powerful creative impulses moving energetically through the field. There was the work in England of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell and of Gilbert Ryle, Paul Grice, and Herbert Hart, as well as the work of various logicial positivists. In the United States, even after interest in William James and John Dewey had receded, there was lively attention to contributions by Willard Quine and Donald Davidson, John Rawls and Saul Kripke. In addition, some philosophers were powerfully moved by the gigantic speculative edifice of Whitehead. Heidegger was having a massive impact on European philosophy, as well as on other disciplines–and not only in Europe, but here as well. And, of course, there was everywhere a vigorously appreciative and productive response to the work of Wittgenstein.

The lively impact of these impressive figures has faded. We are no longer busily preoccupied with responding to them. Except for a few contributors of somewhat less general scope, such as Habermas, no one has replaced the imposingly great figures of the recent past in providing us with contagiously inspiring direction. Nowadays, there are really no conspicuously fresh, bold, and intellectually exciting new challenges or innovations. For the most part, the field is quiet. We seem, more or less, to be marking time.’

It’s a point well worth thinking about although I for one don’t agree with much of this and more importantly there are many philosophers who don’t agree with it either. I think there are interesting and important things happening in many areas of philosophy – philosophy of mind is just one example – and it seems obvious to me that philosophers like Dennett, Chalmers, Clark, the Churchlands, Metzinger et al are doing groundbreaking work. And there are many good philosophers who when asked can articulate clearly what they are thinking about their specialty to a general and smart slice of the public, even though any idea that philosophy can always be made accessible to a non-specialist is nonsense. Try getting into the depths of cutting-edge discoveries in mathematical logic without any training or practice and most of us are going to give up pretty quickly. It’s obvious when you think about it that some topics and traditions are going to be more capable of generating a popular audience than others. Let’s face it, Chomsky might be the world’s most well known public intellectual and he’s a philosopher – but it’s for his anarchist politics and anti-Capitalism that he’s famous and not his ground-breaking and frankly difficult technical work in linguistics and semantics.

So how did the philosophy and music festival HowtheLightGetsIn fare when measured by these two demands – no bullshitters plus wissenschaftlich seriousness? Well, as I said at the start, all the philosophers invited were first class philosophers who were able to articulate their ideas and engage with their audiences. There were no bullshitters, charlatans or poseurs on the list and so despite the thick rain that fell over the two days that kept us in the tents, what the philosophers had to say was lively and worth hearing. However, what was a little strange for a philosophy festival was that there were equal numbers of speakers that weren’t philosophers. This suggested that the organizers were unclear about just exactly what philosophers are up to these days. There was  a recognition that the scientific revolution of the last five hundred years continues to define the central facts about human sustenance and flourishing and that the naturalistic revolution in philosophy begun (perhaps) in mid 19th century Germany and involving the giant figures of Nietzsche and Marx is important, but no other philosophical agenda was particularly clear.

And the presence of non-philosopher Steven Pinker was odd, not just because he was not a philosopher but also in the light of how his poor understanding of the Enlightenment, the subject of his last book, has been called out numerous times by philosophers much better placed than most to say why the book is so bad. Interdisciplinary work is of course something that many philosophers are engaged in, and the brilliant and philosophically inclined physicist Sean Carroll’s presence was an example of what non-philosophers can bring to philosophy. But it’s because he’s interested in philosophy as well as physics, and is good at it, that makes him a legitimate presence. Pinker is neither interested nor any good at philosophy and therefore shouldn’t have been there because he erodes its wissenschaftlich seriousness . Overall in fact, the proportion of non-philosophers was for me a little too high.

Nevertheless, it was on the whole great fun. I’m hoping that the organizers will continue to screen out the philosophical bull-shitters and poseurs and be a bit more confident in screening out crowd-pulling best-seller acts who have neither a talent nor interest in philosophy. We need to fight for the integrity of the wissenschaftlich seriousness of philosophy and ensure that when we bring the academy out to the public we quality control it and make it simple enough without being simplistic. It’s never going to be easy. Good things rarely are.


Richard Marshall hanging around in one of the tents with fellow festival goers.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, October 14th, 2018.