The problematization of the world

I also write about the problematization of the world in a recent Quartz piece.


You might have thought that food is an activity of cultivating and partaking and communing with others and that death is an event that calls upon us to make sense of our earthly lives, but it turns out that, like most things in modernity, food and death can be ‘problematized.’ Food and death can, in other words, be turned into and conceptualized as problems. But this is only the true provided that one already affirm the metaphysical belief that the world consists of problems in need of human solutions.

Most do.

Imagine the world as being the kind of place–not here and there but everywhere and in all quadrants–which is filled with problems; then human conduct can become the search for and the application of solutions. Based on this metaphysical view, it can be held that sleep is a problem, stress is a problem, sex is a problem, hyperactivity is a problem, staying awake is a problem, eating is a problem, excreting is a problem, drinking is a problem, domestic abuse is a problem, construction is a problem, crime is a problem, water shortage is a problem, maintaining an erection is a problem, trust is a problem, childhood development is a problem, economic growth is a problem, obesity is a problem, overpopulation is a problem, public safety is a problem, shelter is a problem, climate change is a problem, and death is a problem. In short, anything having to do with the world has become problematizable.

Consider, again, food and death: food is a problem to be solved, and death is a problem to be solved. They can be considered as separate problems, as is the case with those who believe that technology can help human beings live forever. Or the two theses can be combined: food is a problem to be solved because death (from starvation) is a problem to be solved or else because time (i.e., clock time) is a problem to be solved (efficiency gains).

In ‘So You Want to Live Forever,’ an article that appeared recently in The Weekly Standard, Charlotte Allen discusses the Live Forever Movement whose thesis is, as she puts it, that ‘death is a problem to be solved, not a fate to be endured.’ The scientist Aubrey de Grey claims, ‘The problem right now is that people think of aging as a universal phenomenon, but diseases such as heart disease are thought of as separate phenomena. But they’re universal!’ Like disease, aging can be conceptualized as a problem begging for a creative scientific solution.

In a recent New Yorker essay titled ‘The End of Food,’ a couple of startup guys are developing a food-like stuff called Soylent that would fulfill the utility-function of food. They take food to be an ‘engineering problem’ that could, if solved, end ‘mankind’s oldest problem.’ By some, writes Lizzie Widdicombe, ‘Soylent has been heralded by the press as ‘the end of food.” Widdicome continues,

To help a village full of malnourished people, “you could [Rhinehart, one of the founders of Soylent, states] just drop in a shipping container” full of Soylent-producing algae. “It would take in the sun’s energy and water and air, and produce food.” Mankind’s oldest problem would be solved. Then, he added, all we’d have to do is fix the world’s housing problem, “and people could be free.”

With these examples, food and death, we have come to the ultimate and radical transformation of needs–of the basic constituents of the perdurance of a human life in particular or human life in general–into problems. In terms of our thinking, there are no further thresholds to cross with regard to the ‘problematization of the world.’


I want to ask not yet, ‘How did the world become problematized?’ but for now, ‘What is a problem taken in social life?’ This problem in social life is distinct from other concepts of problems: a problem set in mathematics, a boulder problem in climbing, etc. I want also to distinguish between such statements as ‘The problem with Joshua Tree is that it lacks a food coop’ and those like ‘The problem of childhood obesity is pandemic.’ The first simply means that there is something deficient about the place (with the assumption that one can live just fine with this deficiency) whereas the second points us to the way in which the world has become problematized. The latter sort of case is what I have in mind in my conceptual analysis below.

In the everyday world, problems of the kind I seek to understand exhibit the following characteristics:

1.) Some agent (person, organization, institution, etc.) does not have what is good at the same time that it has what is bad.

2.) The domain of the problem is specified or local in the sense of being circumscribed or isolated from the whole (i.e., it is ripped free of the whole).

3.) It is postulated that there is an efficient cause that led to its existence. (E.g., overeating is the cause of obesity.)

4.) It is urgent.

5.) To act (solve it) is to get rid of what is bad or undesirable, thereby clearing the way for what is good or desirable.

6.) The solution is presumed to be final and definitive. (E.g., solving the problem of climate change puts an end to the problem. One could not both solve it and have more work to do.)

An example: drinking too much often enough is said to be a problem. Let us say that it is not an illness in this case, only a bad habit. The agent does not have what he wants (e.g., a comfortable family life, a stable work life, a sense of control over his appetites, etc.) at the same time that he has what he does not want (e.g., cravings, poor health, sundry vices, etc.). The problem of drinking is specified so as to exclude (e.g.) questions of the divine, communion with nature, the possibility of anomie, the sociological analysis of drinking rituals, etc. An efficient cause is sought: his lingering rage, let’s say, with his domineering yet now deceased father. It is urgent: unless it is solved, the good things in life will go away while the bad things will dwell with him. The proposed solution–coming to terms with his late father, say, combined with an intensive will training program–would allow him to ‘solve’ his drinking problem.

It strikes me as highly doubtful that this is a good way of understanding why this person cannot make sense of his life. And I am equally skeptical that it is a good way of understanding human life. I would want to say something similar about all the so-called problems above. Yet another way of knowing the world cannot be disclosed until a path is cleared that lies well beyond the ‘problematization of the world.’