Total Work, the Chief Enemy of Philosophy

This piece is an accompaniment to a fiery LinkedIn post I wrote yesterday.


I used to think that the chief enemies of philosophy were bullshit and deception. Bullshit because, as Harry Frankfurt in On Bullshit argues, it shows a complete unconcern, or lack of care, for truth. The bullshitter advances whatever will make the ruse efficacious, so that he appears to know what he is talking about and that appearing suffices for him to win the day. As I put it elsewhere, he’s skilled at using whatever is at hand–be it half-truths, confabulations, cock and bull stories, chumminess, statistics, faux-neuroscience–to “pull things off.”

Deception is a more recognizable enemy. If philosophy teaches us to care for the truth, then deception, just insofar as it seeks to mislead us, is a genuine opponent to philosophizing. The more we deceive others, deceive ourselves, or are deceived in turn, the less we’re in contact with the truth.

Only recently, though, did it strike me that bullshitting and deception aren’t the chief enemies of philosophy. Total Work is. Let me explain.

In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, the German philosopher Josef Pieper foretold a time when “total work” would come to pass, a time when, as I see it, our lives would revolve around work, working, and–most important for my purposes–work-thoughts and work-feelings. To say that our entire lives would be wrapped up in work is to make a profound understatement.

The man in private equity working 80-120 hours per week when in the midst of finalizing a big deal. The female executive in Silicon Valley working at least 60 hours, not counting all the work from home she does. These are far cries from the late philosopher Bertrand Russell’s proposal, published in 1935, for a maximum four hours of work each day. The longer story of how we got here would need to begin with the Bourgeois Revolution. Such a history would seek to illuminate (i) the advent and then hegemony of commercial society together with (ii) the radical transvaluation of values leading to a newfound affirmation of the realm of production (work) and reproduction (the intimate sphere of the family). Today I simply wish to compare “total work” with philosophy.

Total work is always on the clock. Ever behind, always in a rush toward, or just behind, an approaching, encroaching deadline. Philosophy occurs when clock time falls away. It seeks to put us in the presence of eternity.

Total work assumes that the logic of the market must penetrate into all aspects of life. A man a cofounder and I interviewed yesterday asserted unequivocally his view that all human relationships are transactional. Philosophy denies the logic of the market, opening up a space defined by the gift.

Total work is the latest, and most potent, assertion that the vita activa is first, last, and everything. Philosophy is one such proponent of the view that the vita contemplativa must come first. It is out of thought (whether considered or, later on, spontaneous thought) that good action arises.

Total work is solipsistic. The entire world, it believes, turns around it. It is so wrapped up in itself that there can, in its eyes, be no other. Philosophy privileges the two, even more so the other who speaks. Philosophy opens up time, eternal time, for the other.

Total work is ferociously hegemonic. As I wrote yesterday,

  • The Centrality thesis [the view that total work is that around which everything else in life turns] goes hand in hand with work’s imperial colonization of the rest of our lives. For instance, it’s nearly impossible to think of what is not work without thinking (a) of not-work in work-derived terms (I rest from work; I have a weekend; I am taking a short break from work; I am taking time off from work; I spend time away from work; etc.) or (b) of what is non-work in working terms (“Oh, I have X number of tasks to do on Sunday.” “We need to work on our relationship.” “I’ve been very busy during this holiday.” “We got a lot done on Sunday.”)

Philosophy, like art, welcomes new concepts, fresh perspectives. It doesn’t wish to get bogged down in one way of seeing. Indeed, philosophy is especially focused on changing our perspective on the world and in this it is like art at its best.

Total work denies thought–specifically, thought about First and Last Things. Philosophy embraces thought.

I see that while these points and counterpoints bring out their differences, this approach fails to reveal why total work is such a horrible monster. So, let me come to the heart of the matter. Total work utterly and completely refuses the most basic metaphysical assumption that I believe is true: that life in general and human life in particular is a mystery. Carelessly does total work destroy, even before it begins, the very possibility of questioning what we most basically, fundamentally, ultimately care about. The horrible consequence is that, falling prey to total work, we can live our entire lives without ever having investigated why we’re here. I’m saying that our blind embrace of total work is the culprit, and I’m struck by how modern American culture is one. big. delusion.

Campus Wars: A Culture of Decadence?

By now, most of us are familiar with the controversies, starting back in the fall of 2016, surrounding gender and race on college campuses in Canada and the US. One fairly recent incident bears mentioning: the conservative political commentator Heather Mac Donald gave a speech at Claremont McKenna College. The site where the speech was to be given, the Athenaeum, was obstructed by protestors, and the speech was ultimately given before a small audience presumably consisting of members who were able to make it inside. Protestors outside claimed that she was racist while Mac Donald insisted that her right to free speech had been violated. Other incidents, I suggest, would follow logic that closely resembles this one.

What are all these heated incidents about? Those to the right of center frame the debate as pitting the apologists for free speech against the PC police and social justice warriors (or SJWs). Meanwhile, those to the left of center construe these events as a conflict between the forces of hate (hence calls for hate speech as well as the penchant for shaming) and the claims of justice and respect. Who is right?

As things stand, they could, if viewed from a distance from those of us who are independently minded, appear to be what the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard called a “differend”: the sort of conflict in which the vocabulary of group X is not only heterogenous but also unintelligible to group Y. Both, speaking two different languages, are also, and necessarily, speaking past one another.

Calling this a differend invites us to go further still in our thinking. Suppose we were to take an aesthetic interpretation of these ongoing events. Then what might we notice? One would be the farcical quality of the phenomena. Somehow, the magnitude of the matters under debate is exaggerated by the feelings associated with those matters. If the word farcical seems inapt, then sentimental could be a good substitute. It’s hard to see, provided one remains rather literal-minded about the whole thing, why everyone is so charged up to such a feverish pitch. Another would be the accumulative tedium of the back and forths, of the protests and counterclaims, of the campaigns and counterattacks. One not so involved can’t help feeling rather weary with all of it. So, one might reasonably feel that there’s something farcical about this ongoing controversy, only then to feel a sense of tedium set in, only then to return to sense of its being farce, and so on.

These reflections lead me (aesthetically, not necessarily in strict logical fashion) to think about what these “campus wars” (as I’ll now wryly call them) may be signs of. And I want to suggest, in a word borrowed from Nietzsche, that they are signs of decadence. One of the things that concerned Nietzsche about modernity was that after the death of God there would come, as he saw in the German culture from which he was alienated, a culture of decadence. This culture would be unable to create life-affirming values, to say yes to life. If one were such as “diagnostician” viewing matters from Nietzsche’s perspective, then such a culture would appear as if it had lost its vitality, its creative potency, its ability to say yes and to herald and shepherd the new.

My view, then, is that the farcically feverish and tedious pitch of these campus wars–whether it is the right’s version or the left’s–provides evidence for the decadence of college culture at this stage in history. Both sides are weary, are tired out of ideas. Classical liberal defenses of free speech stretch back to the eighteenth century. Do we really need to make such an Enlightenment-based defense today? Isn’t this old hat? The voice of the left could be traced, at least, back to the birth of the New Left of the 1960s. Is the defense of a small set of unrecognized groups really cause for such vociferousness and, in some cases, physical violence? Are these not signs of things having grown comfortable, too comfortable, too–bourgeois? 

Where, in brief, is the energy associated with creating life-affirming values? Where the breath of natality? Perhaps we should turn our attention away from institutionalized education and look elsewhere–in educational experiments existing at the margins, in artistic and entrepreneurial pursuits springing forth from out-of-the-way places–to find vitality, verve, struggle, real heat, heart. Somewhere earnestness, wholesomeness, and affirmation of life must dwell. Somewhere… Somewhere… Elsewhere…

Being an Odd Ball

I am an odd ball. Hoinacki, Ivan Illich’s buddy:

I suspect that to enjoy this quietly exciting and ever-changing contact with reality, one needs to seek some kind of marginality from the mainstream: physical places in which to drop out, psychical realms in which to dwell apart, spiritual disciplines through which to reach and practice a healthy detachment. Perhaps one should look into vocations to foolishness, to being an odd ball, to living queerly. (Stumbling Toward Justice: Stories of Place, 90)

In the opening line, Hoinacki is referring to a simple, farming life (“quietly exciting and ever-changing contact with [sensuous] reality”) anchored in a specific place, a life outside of the institutions–schools, universities, the market system, modern medical care, the nation-state, plus certain kinds of technology–that define modern society. He argues for “dropping out” and “dwelling apart,” for a kind of detachment from it all.

His beef, like Illich’s, is with institutions. Why? Institutions deform and dehumanize human beings in many ways, yet one of these ways, the one I shall touch on here, is subtle and less often remarked upon. Each institution operates according to a set of concepts and categories that work by distinguishing between what is countable and what is uncountable and, in so doing, the institution must necessarily violate the supreme singularity of this fleshly human being, not to mention other kinds of sentient beings. This becomes especially visible–to the odd ball himself for sure–in the case of the odd ball. The odd ball as odd ball cannot find a home there for such is, by definition, impossible.

For an institution must make illegible or unintelligible the existence as well as the claims of the odd ball. It does this either by forcing the odd ball to shoehorn himself into a category that inaptly fits in order for him to have some chance of existing inside the margins of this institution or else by rendering him or her invisible and–worse–mute. Her kind of speech cannot be heard because it is absolutely unhearable. Must he make himself speak theirs, or shall he continue with his foreign poetry?

The odd ball, as odd ball, cannot register her sense of difference for difference is precisely what is impossible in the eyes of the institution. The reign of sameness is evident in the subsumable under the ready-to-hand concept (X is subsumable under concept P) or in what is assimilable according to analogy (X is like enough to concept P).

What is left for the odd ball but a positive affirmation of life apart–for a kind of mock foolishness (relative to the eyes of the institution) and for a pleasant, natural oddishness that suits him or her very nicely. The odd ball must learn to hang his hat on a tree bending over the river into which he has happily plunged his bare feet. Maybe he shall find roaming odd balls in yonder woods and maybe together they shall knit together words, ones they can sing by.

‘It’s Not At All Hard To Be Misanthropic Today…’

It’s not at all hard to be misanthropic today because it’s plain to see that most human beings don’t care about each other or about other sentient beings all that much, let alone about what Daoists beautifully call the “ten thousand things.” Industrial civilization has ravaged the planet in only 250 years, causing global temperatures to rise, oceans to acidify, fields to be poisoned and salinated, soils to erode, waterways (via careless mining practices) to be polluted, coral reefs to collapse, animal populations to contract, global human populations to explode… One may wonder whether human beings really are homo sapiens or whether they might more truly be regarded as the messy species: the species that makes a mess of things, of their, as well as each other’s, lives, and of the places they dwell and pass through.

It is not at this global, historical level, though, that I wish to discuss our predicament (though what I have to say is very much related to our global fate); it is at the local, everyday level. What I shall term “particularist” or “particular cares” refers to my caring for this person and for this being. It’s here that misanthropy may come to mind because the lack of particularist care is painful to observe.

The bulk of ordinary evidence suggests that most human beings living today aren’t actually embracing particular cares nor are they developing or cultivating such close attachments and intimate bonds. They don’t seem to actually care in some emphatic sense about specific, fleshly other beings.

Make no mistake: to be able to care in this way requires much of each of us. To begin with, it requires right effort: it takes an extraordinarily focused mind, one capable of being diligent, to care for another being. Diligence is not to be confused with enthusiasm or bouts of excitement. No, enthusiasms, excitements, and “fevers” all wear off over time, the other–whether an animal or person or plant–can be no fun to be around on certain occasions, and then the excitable person seems to be left with no reason to persevere in attending to this being. Notice how many people are around after their initial excitement has worn off.

Secondly, particularist forms of caring require paying very, very close attention to another being. It’s not just the case, as it’s commonly said, that many people are distracted today; it’s even truer to say that a whole lot of people are checked out, zoned out, tuned out, are–that is to say–so far from being “awake” that even talk of being present is nowhere close to what it actually means to be present. Paying very close attention to this person or that animal, being very observant of how she moves, what words she uses to express herself, how she carries herself, what ticks she has, how this animal feels about itself, how this plant responds to nurturance involves mindfulness of a tall order as well as right diligence. What is noticeable instead is a profound zoning out, a checking out of life just at a time when we need people to be bright, vivid, and bound to one another. Leaning in is just a start.

Thirdly, the sort of caring I have in mind requires imagination plus deduction-drawing. One needs to image what this being’s life is like as well as tease out things, moving from the said to the unsaid. Based on what I’ve seen, how does this ant actually live? Is this slug, which I just found curled up on a dandelion leaf, suffering? Can that be gleaned from its movements? What is actually going on in the life of my friend whose absence I can feel strongly? Much of it is a sort of cobbling-together guesswork–hence the deduction-drawing. We need to piece the unvocalized,  unenunciated, and unsaid together with what has been said and done.

Fourthly, we need to be curious in order to engage in particularist cares. We should want to deeply ask, “By golly, what makes this person tick?” And we should put aside all pet theories and simple explanations. To be curious is to believe that this person or this creature, in this way like all the other ten thousand things, is a mystery, plainly. Boy is she a mystery; I can’t immediately make her out; just when I thought I had put my finger on something and pinned something down, she went and did something unexpected. Huh, what to make of that?

These are only four of the conditions–right diligence, attention, imagination and deduction-drawing, and curiosity–that make possible particularistic forms of caring. I would bet that there are more, and I would place a second bet on all these being intimately intertwined.

You have to ask yourself, “How many people are really putting in the effort with others in their lives? How many are genuinely paying close attention? How many are imaginative and curious?” What I observe is–to put all these together–a kind of thoughtlessness that entails particularist carelessness. One can feel the pain of David Foster Wallace, especially the kind voiced, however humorously, in his Kenyon College graduation speech.

Let’s conclude by sketching a picture of the caring person. Well, it’s easier to tell when one is in the presence of someone who actually cares about actual persons than it is to say exactly what that is, but let me try anyway. Caring is (a) genuinely a way of perceiving the whole of that person or as much of that person as one can perceived (it is, after all, an ongoing process) and (b) speaking or acting in such a way as to manifest that whole perception. The caring person has a knack for seeing about or in another person what he or she cares about and quite possibly has never spoken about; for recognizing, again in ways that often go unsaid, what her vulnerabilities are, vulnerabilities she herself may not be aware of; for going one, two, three steps further in seeing into how another being actually lives; for, of course, being there when the chips are down or when that being most needs another–namely, you. The caring person is not looking around to find someone else to fill in for him. Rather, he wants unselfishly to be the one other beings can count on just because they need it.

It doesn’t take any great education to care for another person except, beautifully, the sort of broader education of the heart. Deeply sadly, it’s hard to find many people who fit this description today, who act from the heart, but the heart may in the end be just what saves us from misanthropy. The caring person, being rare and refreshing, may be what redeems humankind from its messy thoughtless carelessness. May it be so.

The Three Gifts of the East, the West, and Ancient Greece

Some epigrams may, if we don’t dismiss them as mere caricatures, reveal to us certain truths about the East and the West. So the American poet and deep ecologist Gary Snyder: “The mercy of the West has been social revolution. The mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.” So D.T. Suzuki translating, in 1906, some lectures by Reverend Soyen Shaku delivered before an American audience: “Generally speaking…, the West is energetic and the East is mystical.”

While I believe that Rev. Shaku and Gary Snyder are bringing out something special and important about these differences, I want to add a third dimension to this picture. The East is mystical; as such, it’s been concerned with self-transformation (vita contemplativa). The West, being energetic, has been focused on social transformation (vita activa). But what of Ancient Greece? Its focus was human excellence. Here is Pindar: “[H]uman excellence grows like a vine tree, fed by the green grass, among men wise and just, raised up to the liquid sky.” A schema:

  • The Christian and secular west: justice.
  • The East: oneness.
  • Ancient Greece: human excellence.

To riff on Snyder, we need all three.

But what has happened instead? To begin with, in the West, the justice telos, good so far as it goes, has become hegemonic, with the result that meditation has become instrumentalized or therapeuticized and rightful human excellence villified. Furthermore, the corruption of human excellence in the form of power has reared its ugly head. With these two points, I’m talking about the deep and persistent conflict between the entrenched left and the entrenched right. Third of all, all these final aims have been corrupted.

The corruption of justice is two-fold: victimhood and, in Nietzsche’s sense, decadence. The latter refers to what happens to the human spirit when, under conditions of great comfort, it lacks struggle, exertion, fight. I have sometimes call this bourgeois.

The corruption of oneness is two-fold: retreat (witness the ways in which retreats have sprung up as forms of escape from, say, the world of total work) and the cult of personality (the creation and worship of infallible gurus).

The corruption of human excellence is two-fold: power (so, not to be great or masterful at some craft for its own sake, not to be a truly excellent or fine human being but to wield power over others, i.e., to be Great) and spectator sports (the shift from art to sport and the creation of the spectator as the passive consumer of others’ excellence).

How to bring together all three teloi in their uncorrupted forms is not an easy question; I don’t pretend to have the answer. As I see it, there will be contestations, negotiations, and local priorities. Yet the point still stands: neither justice nor oneness nor excellence can become hegemonic, claiming to be the “only game in town,” and we desperately need all three in order to have a good society.