Sunday, June 13, 2010

Why anarchists and activists, and punks for that matter, should study philosophy: because it allows you to do things in the real world.

I know. A heretical statement, the last thing that you'd expect philosophy to actually do for you. Yet, it's true, if you use it properly. The problem hasn't been with philosophy itself so much as it's been with the way that it's been taught and applied, at least in the United States and possibly elsewhere. Here, despite the foundation of Socratic questioning that underlies Western philosophy, it's descended into a sort of hermetic discipline that's cut off from the rest of the world. But philosophy hasn't always been like this and doesn't need to be like that. For centuries philosophy was taught to the upper classes in Europe, not for the sake of giving idle people something to contemplate but for the sake of preparing them to be leaders. Philosophy, at it's core when wedded to action, is about how to think critically in a way that can increase your effectiveness in everyday life.

A lot of people have a kind of "Just Do It" attitude. Just do it, do what's obvious that it needs to be done, and then when that's done do the next obvious thing. But at some point there's going to be questions about what to do and how to do it. If you want to accomplish a goal how do you move towards it, think about strategies to achieve it, organize the resources necessary, and implement it? The critical thinking process fostered by philosophy can help with all of those areas. The same sort of reasoning process that engages people in the quest to define what Truth and Beauty are can help you strategize, plan, and implement goals. In this sort of reasoning you engage in a Socratic dialogue, either with yourself or with other people, coming back to the core questions and being tolerant of ideas that come up, fostering ideas instead of shooting them down, then working with the ideas themselves, asking the questions of them, which in turn generates ideas, which in turn spawns questions. Through this real, valid, points that you likely would not have thought of come up and can be synthesized with the whole strategy, they can be gathered from the process and collected, then integrated and acted on in order to increase the power of the plan.   

It doesn't matter if you're planning on how to put on a show or to do a demonstration, whether you want to fundraise or put out launch a public awareness campaign, the principles are the same. You can also apply the principles in your personal life to great effect, and this is where the wedding of philosophy and action is still to be found in books about personal success, usually penned in pro-corporate and pro-business help books intended to advance your career. It's also the standard process that corporations themselves use to brainstorm and plan the next course of action. The difference is that they don't formally study philosophy in order to do this. Instead, the techniques by themselves are taught without the context, possibly created independently by folks who never came in contact with the original way it was taught, possibly inherited from folks who really did study some philosophy as part of, say, an Ivy League or upper class education.

By actually studying philosophy though, and then bringing philosophical reasoning to the table, you gain a large advantage over people who have only studied it second hand. While they have a sort of vague knowledge about how to do things your abilities will be honed because you've actually had particular, universal, topics on which to practice. So study the early Socratic dialogues of Plato, and then move on to other views and opinions about ethics and about the political nature of society, then go on to the nature of reality itself. It won't disappoint you if you also keep your eye on action as well.

*incidentally this sort of reasoning process is what many people who get a lot of their education through being Marxist activists, not Trotskyist sect members but people on the ground who come into contact with Communist groups who are dedicated to really doing stuff, receive through the process of Marxist reasoning. It's not necessarily the Marxism that they learn, but the process of how to think about society and about life that they really benefit from.

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