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.