Truth or dare

Simon Critchley tells Julian Baggini about philosophy without fear

critchley200Judging philosophers by their book covers is a perilous business, especially in these days of absurd blurb-inflation, which means that even the worst book comes plastered with some sort of glowing quote. But the especially impressive endorsements on Simon Critchley’s latest [as of September 2007] book, Infinitely Demanding, are signs that Critchley currently commands the admiration of his most esteemed peers. Alain Badiou assures us “Reading and discussing this essay is utterly essential,” an adjective also employed by Ernesto Laclau. Cornel West says he is “the most powerful and provocative philosopher now writing about the complex relations of ethical subjectivity and reinvigorated democracy.” Slavoj Žižek also offers warm praise, but ever since he told me that he provided some puff for Hardt and Negri’s Empire without having read it, I’ve taken such effusiveness with a pinch of salt.

With eminent friends like these, you inevitably end up with enemies too. Brian Leiter counts Critchley among the “philosophical used car salesmen”. But exposing himself to such criticism is part and parcel of Critchley’s whole approach to philosophy.

“I remember when I was teaching in the University of Sydney in 2000, there was a story I was told about someone who’d been offered a job,” the New York based Critchley told me while on a trip back to his native England. “He got this job on the basis of articles which had been accepted by prestigious mainstream journals, and then withdrew those articles. When he was asked why he did that, he responded that you have to make yourself as small a target as possible. Now there’s a strand of philosophy just about making yourself as small a target as possible, and I think that’s a philosophy which is dominated by a fear of falsehood.

“There’s nothing virtuous about falseness but there’s another way of doing philosophy, which would be to say that philosophy is about the pursuit of truth. And the pursuit of truth is about looking at the whole picture, with as much information as you can possibly find. That means you’re going to make some mistakes and be found wanting in all sorts of areas. The consequence of the fear of falseness is that philosophy ends up as a narrow, inward looking, professional discipline. And that just doesn’t really interest me. I’ve tried at times to engage with philosophy at that level and in that way but it’s not why I do this. I want philosophy that produces all sorts of daring hypotheses and which says something specific but general about what it means to be human.”

Infinitely Demanding is certainly not lacking in such ambition. It combines, among other things, a diagnosis of the times, a fundamental theory of the structure of morality, and a political prescription.

“To me, the framing philosophical problem of the modern period is the problem of nihilism,” says Critchley. “By nihilism, I understand the way Nietzsche formulates it, that the highest values have become devalued. The meaning of history is the process whereby we realise that the idols that we’ve set up to worship are ones that we ourselves have created and thereby we depose them.

“Then that leaves us with the huge question as to what is the basis for meaning. The position that Nietzsche calls nihilism is the affirmation of the meaninglessness of existence. Nietzsche sees the philosophical task, and I agree with him, as how we overcome or resist nihilism.

“Now for me in the contemporary world, there are two dominant forms of nihilism, what I call passive nihilism and active nihilism.

“Passive nihilism is roughly the idea that the world is a chaotic, disorderly place that’s blowing itself to pieces. What we do in the face of that is to withdraw, make ourselves into an island, make ourselves as peaceful as possible and try and shut our eyes to the reality. I see that passive nihilism as being a completely legitimate response to the world.

“The active nihilist looks at the world, finds it chaotic and meaningless, and decides to destroy it. My pathology of the active nihilist is to look at the traditions of violent, revolutionary vanguardism in political groups like Lenin’s bolshevism, which is all about the overcoming of nihilism as a construction of the new man; or Marinetti’s Futurism, where the processes of war and violence and technology can be used to construct the new situation. So there’s this alternative response to the meaninglessness of the world, which is to try and actively destroy it and bring another world into being.

“That active nihilism strand has its most powerful representation in groups like Al-Qaeda. I think a huge misunderstanding of groups like Al-Qaeda and of Jihadism or Islamic fundamentalism is to see it as some sort of other to western civilisation and thereby to construct some sort of clash of civilisations. Jihadism has, in perfect continuity with a strand of western thought, this violent, revolutionary, vanguardist tradition.”

Although, like all quotes in this interview, that is but an edited version of Critchley’s own oral précis of his book, it does give you a sense of how far he is happy to stick his neck out. But how can he even think of attempting such a sweeping zeitdiagnose without years of hard social scientific research to back it up?

“Just sheer chutzpah, I think. The tradition of philosophy that I still identify with is one that would see the philosophical task as having two faces. The philosophical task is to look at the state of the world, using all the available data, using whatever social scientific research or other research that would be available, but also just making hunches and guesses. Hegel came to his picture of the enlightenment based on a reading of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, which is just a book. To that extent, I wouldn’t see a radical division of labour between philosophy and forms of social research. For me, a big chunk of philosophy is critical social research.

“The other side of philosophy is coming up with some picture of how things might be changed, how things might be looked at in another way, or at its crudest, imagining that another world is possible. I think if you look back at the philosophy of antiquity, right back to Heraclitus and Pythagoreans and then through to Plato, it’s both things.”

Critchley’s talk of hunches and guesses doesn’t do justice to the very careful, analytic nature of much of his book. This is particularly evident in his writing about moral motivation, which combines a tightly-argued theoretical position and more speculative stabs at capturing the zeitgeist.

“My metaethical claim is that at the core of ethics are the two concepts of demands and approval. I basically try and show that in every moral theory and indeed every major philosopher, there’s something doing the work of a demand at the core of their work. In Plato it’s the demand of the Good; in Paul and Augustine it’s the demand of the resurrected Christ; in Kant it’s the demand of the moral law; in utilitarianism it’s the demand of happiness; and so on and so forth. An ethical subject for me takes shape around a demand that’s approved of.”

For Critchley, however, there is a paradox at the heart of this, one which gives the book its title. For the moral demands that fall upon us can never be met, since they are without limit. So when I mention to him how he responds to the old claim that “ought implies can” – than one can only be morally obliged to do what one can actually do – he happily retorts, “I think ought implies cannot.”

Critchley is not embarrassed by the appearance of paradox in his position. “I think philosophy can be about the production of paradoxes. Carneades, head of the later Platonic academy, went to Rome, and gave two public lectures, one arguing in favour of justice, one arguing against justice. I think that is a quintessentially philosophical thing to do. Philosophy should be about the cultivation of certain forms of paradoxes in the face of what passes as common sense.”

But why prefer a self-defeating formulation? Why choose a view which is paradoxical over one which is not?

“It’s more stringent, and I think it’s truer to the ethical demands to which we should submit ourselves. I think if ethics is based on a feeling of being able or having the capacity to do something, or being satisfied by one’s actions, then one is lost. My position then gets very close to Christian ethics. This is something that at one level repels me and another level interests me. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ says that you have heard it told that you should love your neighbour, but I say unto you, you should love your enemies as well as your neighbours, you should love those who despise you, you should love those who persecute and hate you. If you don’t do that, you’ll end up like what he calls the publicans, the people that go along with Roman authority, the people that agree with the status quo. And then he ends this passage in this sermon by saying ‘be ye perfect as God who made thee,’ something like that. So Christ’s ethical demand is to be God-like.

“Now it’s a completely paradoxical and ridiculous thing to say, because you can’t ask human beings to be God-like. Then the question arises, is the person who’s making that claim God? For a Christian, he is God, to me he’s just this rabbi on a mount in Palestine making this extraordinary demand that involves one in a deeply paradoxical position.”

Religion turns out to play an important role in this atheist philosopher’s thinking about what he calls the “motivational deficit in contemporary liberal democratic societies.”

“You can see this exemplified in phenomena like decline of interest in political institutions – the democratic deficit as it’s called – and the decline of traditional forms of activism. People are demotivated, and that leads on the one hand to passive nihilists, rejection of the world, and to active nihilists on the other. This motivational deficit in western liberal democracy is a failure of secularism. Secularism just does not have the wherewithal to motivate citizens unless it’s against some theological threat.

“I’m not a theist, but I’ve always been very interested in Jewish and Christian theology, and it seems to me that Christian theology particularly has something deep to say about what motivates human beings to act on the good or to fail to act on the good. There are descriptive or conceptual resources in the religious tradition which can help us think through the failures of secularism.”

If the quasi-theological idea of the infinite demand of morality sounds somewhat removed from real life, Critchley brings his thesis right back down to earth with his prescription of what a politics of the future should look like.

“I’m arguing for an ethical anarchism. I think anarchism is a belief that human beings can co-operate with each other freely and equally without the intervention of state, law and government. So anarchism is order: the A is always within the O of the symbol. That’s the classical 19th century vision. You find it back in Godwin, you find it in Bakunin and in Kropotkin. The belief there was that if you take off the shackles off the state, the law and government, human beings would co-operate freely and equally with each other and be happy.

“What interests me about anarchism firstly is that it’s a political philosophy whose core is ethical, rather than a political philosophy whose core is analysis of capital and revolutionary strategy, like say in Lenin.”

If you think putting money on neo-anarchism to emerge as the dominant form of politics in the near future wouldn’t be a sound investment, Critchley would agree.

“if you were going to bet on any option in the future as being what will determine the shape of the future, I think it’s military neo-liberalism,” by which he means “neo-liberal economic policy, justified by a discourse of human rights and a theology of freedom, backed up with military force.”

However, the only other option currently on the table right now is, Critchely believes, “what I call neo-Leninism. Neo-Leninism is very much like how I described active nihilism before. Given that the world is dominated by this combination of economic neo-liberalism, a western dominated model of globalisation, and a secular model of rights and military force, you have something like Jihadist revolutionary Islam as a response to that. And I see that as a form of violent confrontation with that violence.”

Faced with the choice between military neo-liberalism and neo-Leninism, you can see why neo-anarchism looks like an attractive option. “Neo-anarchism is an attempt to think about the nature and tactics of political resistance over the last 10-15 years in a way that burst into immediate visibility with the Seattle events in late 2000. The Seattle protests, as other people have shown, really find their motivation in movements like the Zapatistas, and the Landless Movement in Brazil, which offer a new form of political organisation and political resistance. I see that as an essentially anarchist strategy, because what you’re seeing is just the combination of groups with radically different demands being formed into a common block by having a common element. And what is driving that protest is not some common ideological world view like Marxism, it’s simply an ethical concern, a sense that there are grievances or wrongs that need to be addressed.”

What makes this different from traditional anarchism is that it is “not about the construction of society without a state, which always was the classical anarchist dream. It’s about the construction of, or the articulation of, a distance from state authority, what I call in the book interstitial distance: the idea that a political protest, a political movement or a labour movement in a specific part of the world might create a new space where human beings can autonomously co-operate in a way that’s free from outside intervention. So the best hope, I think, for politics at this point is the creation of a distance from the state.”

The second major innovation of neo-anarchism is that “it is anarchism of responsibilities rather than anarchies of freedom.”

“Anarchism classically and right through to the 1960s was concerned with freedom. It was deeply libertarian. In particular, it was about sexual liberation, for example in Marcuse. I think the forms of protest we’ve seen in the last 10 to 15 years have been very different. It’s an anarchism which is concerned with the fact that another’s freedom is not being respected and we need to do something about it, or it’s about responsibility for certain wrongs that multi-national capitalism might be doing.”

Although neo-anarchism can sound exciting, on closer inspection, it is not as radical as it might at first seem, for by seeking a distance from the state, it does not seek to radically change the political structures of the world, as Critchley is resigned to accept.

“I don’t think that, at this point, capitalism can be overcome. I think capitalism is a permanent feature of the social economic landscape – there we are. That means one has to work with that. I think the idea of revolution as an overthrow of capitalism was dependent on the possibility of a very specific epoch when there was something like a Bolshevik party, which claimed it could speak for the proletariat and therefore force humanity as such, and construct an entirely new economic system. I think that is not possible. We are stuck with capitalism. But that doesn’t mean that we’re stuck with increasingly oligarchic, expropriating capitalism that leads to forms of disgusting inequality. It means that we have to re-think what the political objectives are.

“The way I have always seen socialism, it is the perfection of capitalism, which exchanges impoverishment of the many for forms of co-operation. So if we look at say classical social democracy, to the Scandinavian model, that doesn’t mean rejecting structures of trade or market, it means redistribution of those things more equitably. And it seems that the situation that we’re in, in the west, and in particular in Britain and the United States, is a riotous celebration of inequality, and the belief is that anything that’s done to criticise that is going to be anti free trade and will lead to all these billionaires leaving the country. So the choice is not between things as they are now and some sort of revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. It’s a choice between things as they are now and some sort of much more equitable co-operative form of society.”

Critchley’s own immediate future looks brighter than that of the world he described. Infinitely Demanding is in many ways the culmination of his philosophical work to date, the one he says he would save from a metaphorical fire in the library of humankind. In 2008, he is also publishing his most commercial work yet, The Book of Dead Philosophers. You may not buy a used car from this man, but more people than ever are going to be acquiring and exchanging his ideas.

Simon Critchley’s home page

Julian Baggini is editor of tpm.

  1. “That active nihilism strand has its most powerful representation in groups like Al-Qaeda.”
    I have trouble with this. My understanding is the Islamic group doesn’t see the world in chaos at all but not as it wishes it to be. Al-Qaeda has a more or less specific target which it would like to replace with itself. Existence has great meaning to its members and is based on an extreme value system. To me, except for the random-like killing and destruction which it is responsible for, Al-Qaeda seems the antithesis of nihilist.

  2. Calvin Johansson

    I think that Critchley needs to define better what he means by “some sort of much more equitable co-operative form of society.” He should also be more specific about how this can be achieved without moving to a different mode of production and without revolutionizing the sources and exercise of socioeconomic and political power.
    Neo-anarchism just sounds like the “utopian socialism” of Marx and Engels’ age or just another continuation of the “Third Way” of Tony Blair. Or maybe an enhanced “Third Way”. Pointing to Scandinavian social democracy is not enough.

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