Josef Pieper on the Waning of Philosophy in the Time of Total Work

In preparation for writing a couple of articles for Quartz and Aeon on total work, I thought I would try to make some sense of Josef Pieper’s insightful Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1948), In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity (1965), “The Condition of Philosophy Today,” and “The Condition of Philosophy in the Modern World” (1950). Pieper was obviously very concerned about the possibility of philosophy in the modern world. Why?

In 1950, Pieper saw that philosophy was threatened on two sides. He argues that philosophers, following Bacon and Descartes, sought to make philosophy “useful” while the world of work continued to expand its claim to be “total,” the result being philosophy’s obsolescence. Some years later, in another essay entitled “The Condition of Philosophy Today,” he offers a third side, the view according to which philosophy should aspire to the precision of science and yet this it is incapable of doing. He suggests that philosophy exists in a free space, negatively free in the sense of not being encroached upon by state power or, I’ll add, by market logic and positively free in that it opens us up to a profound sense of wonderment at the fact of existence. In light of these encroachments on all three sides (and I believe Pieper, who was writing against totalitarianism, would have been disheartened had it seen the ways in which market logic under late capitalism have seeped into our daily consciousness, reshaping us in its image), the more work becomes total, the more use and power control the terms and conditions of the world, the less philosophy is possible and thus the less philosophy is able to cause the kinds of “concussions” (Pieper’s marvelous word I can use wish were my own!) that may disclose to us the vertical dimension of life and, more specifically, may engender within us the glorious mystery of the totality of existence.

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As I see it, all of these books and essays seek to tell a single story about the hegemony of total work, of work’s becoming total and at the same time about the eclipse of art, love, philosophy, and religion whose collective power resides in their ability to awaken us to the vertical dimension of life, the dimension that makes life worth leading, the placeless place where all questions fall away in the encounter with an immense presence.

In his book on the festive (which is published almost twenty years, in the mid-1960s, after his post-World War II book on leisure), Pieper shares a quote with us that, to me, gets to the heart of the book I’m trying to write. It is that we’re witnessing (or have witnessed) “the transformation of the individual into a worker” (In Tune with the World 54). I would rather say: the transformation of the human being into a worker. That is the central question of the book I would like to write: how did human beings get transformed into workers? In Leisure, Pieper suggests that this is an ‘anthropological question’ (a question concerning what is man) or an existential question, not first and foremost an economic or political question. What he suggests in passing there is that “work and unemployment are [now] the two inescapable poles of existence” (Leisure 32). What’s fascinating is that Pieper, a German Catholic, is writing during the aftermath of WWII and so what lurks less in the shadows and more in the foreground is totalitarianism. He suggests that one manifestation of totalitarian thought is the following: “For the process of production itself is understood and proclaimed as the activity which gives meaning to human existence” (Leisure 40). What’s intriguing is that liberal democratic capitalism shares with totalitarianism the same impulse or the same proposal that production is the alpha and omega of human existence. Quartz, a successful online business and entrepreneurship newspaper with a very large readership, ends its daily brief with: “Our best wishes for a productive day.” But this only goes to show that the heterogeneous space where genuine thought, beauty, love’s transport, and mystery dwell have been occluded, are almost lost.

In closing, let me try to state as clearly as possible the philosophical questions I am grappling with:

1.) What is one of the defining features of the modern world? It is the power that work wields over our lives, the way in which work took over the world. (Which is not to say that the birth of the supposedly self-regulating market, the emergence and hegemony of nation-states, the disenchantment of the world, the rise of the autonomous individual, etc. aren’t also defining features for surely they are.)

2.) How did it come to pass that there was an epochal transformation of persons into workers? That is, how were human beings transformed into just or only or exactly workers and nothing else? I’ve placed an early bet on the relationship between the Protestant ethos and the rise of capitalism (I’m re-reading Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism alongside R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Study). The Protestant Work Ethic may be the key to understanding this epochal transformation, though I’m not sure that this is the entire story.

3.) How can I flesh out the specific ways in which work has become ‘total,” the specific ways in which it manifests itself in our consciousness, our actions, our lives?

4.) Finally, as Josef Pieper asks, “can a full human existence be contained within an exclusively workaday existence” (Leisure: The Basis of Culture 23)? I answer in the negative. Love, art, philosophy, and religion disclose what I call the vertical dimension of life.

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