Envy and admiration: Some important remarks about higher forms of life

1. Now more clearly than before, it occurs to me that all higher forms of life will require renunciation. At the moment of severance, the renunciant points to the lower, gives it a name, and frees himself from its hold. As Hadot shows in his work on ancient philosophy, the ancient philosopher must sever himself from ‘everyday consciousness’; Sloterdijk, in his work on Nietzsche for whom living extraordinarily and daringly was the ‘arrow’ of life, points to ‘ordinary life’; social entrepreneurs will point to greedy capitalism; the Romantic artist of plenitude to the bourgeoisie; the warrior to the hedonist governed by his appetites; etc. In sum, the lower serves its purpose if it can, at the outset, be that from which I sever myself.

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A schema of higher forms of life

He climbs on high–him we should praise!

–Nietzsche, ‘Higher Men,’ Gay Science

Modernity is the time in which those humans who hear the call to change no longer know where they should start: with the world or with themselves–or with both at once.

–Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life

If I want to know that I’m not wasting my life, then I have to make a distinction between higher and lower ways of life. I have to do so in order to make apparent that some forms of life are wasted whereas others are not. This thought is in line with Nietzsche’s question: how can a human being lead an extraordinary life?

Sloterdijk cues us into our puzzlement about the sort of transformation one means to effect. In the schema below which contains the higher forms of life in modernity, I imply that it is usually the case that one plumbs for leading an active life or a contemplative life.

There are three considerations to apply when examining the question of what higher form of life to lead.

1.) Human variety is a fact of the matter. Given this, one cannot expect for there to be one final aim for all human beings.

2.) However, there is only a finite number of higher final aims available to us in a certain epoch (in our case, modernity).

3.) I have to operate on the postulate that there is a ‘secular calling’ for me. To have a ‘secular calling’ is to have found what is best for me. Otherwise, I fall into and cannot overcome doubt.

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My doubts about the ‘sharing’ economy

On Twitter, my friend Dougald Hine brought Susie Cagle’s comic-laced article, ‘The Case Against Sharing: On Access, Scarcity, and Trust,’ to my attention. In this post, Cagle argues that the ‘sharing’ economy is only nominally so. The economic and historical conditions that make possible this ‘sharing’ economy cannot, she thinks, be lost sight of. She writes, ‘The sharing economy’s success is inextricably tied to the economic recession, making new American poverty palatable. It’s disaster capitalism.’

This is incontrovertibly, manifestly true, and it is for this reason that she has cause to put ‘sharing’ within quotes throughout most of the piece. Still, one has to spell out further the economic and historical conditions only alluded to therein, and I think my friend Dougald does a fine job of this in his Dalarna talk about the rise of the precariat class. It seems prudent, then, to point you there and to leave that task up to him.

The question that Cagle wants to ask is different from the one I wish to ask. Her leftist-inspired question, ‘Who is left out of the equation, and what power interests underlie the so-called sharing economy?,’ is, to be sure, a fine and legitimate one about justice (where justice is conceived of as equality). My philosophical question, though, is more basic. Is this not a category mistake in which one sort of economic arrangement–an exchange together with an agreement–is mistakenly called another sort–an act of sharing? For it is manifestly not the case that any of these services are acts of sharing. To say that it is is to say what is mere sophistry. As a young boy, I knew what it meant to observe my older sisters sharing the eldest’s favorite sweater. I also know that sharing is not swapping and have no trouble distinguishing the former from the latter. But I don’t see how AirBnb, Lyft, etc. is setting up an economic arena in which one person is actually sharing something (food, water, shelter, clothing, etc.) with another. No, no: this is simply an LA-style (so to speak) form of exchange. In LA, faux-friendship is the veneer of transacting. Shall we say–in a word–that the ‘sharing’ economy of the sort pushed by AirBnb and its peers is simply a fake?

Let me round this post off. In need of being reclaimed are various concepts as well as their attendant, friendly relationships: hospitality, invitation, sharing, giving, requesting, offering, and the like. These concepts will only have a home, I want to argue, in the right sort of life. What, then, is the good life, and what does it mean to justly and consonantly sustain a life that is excellent? These are the sort of things I will be considering in my fall course, ‘The Good Life and Sustaining Life,’ to be held at Kaos Pilots in Denmark.

The active life: Ways of life available to us in modernity

More reflections on my fall course at Kaos Pilots

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Given the distinction between the good life and sustaining life and given also that the former furnishes us with a reason for being while the latter, on its own, can only answer the question of how to go on, it follows that someone will be wasting his life if he seeks only to secure his material needs (food, water, shelter, clothing, warmth when cold, coolness when hot, etc.) without any consideration for why he would do so apart from mere persistence in his existence. In brief, sustaining life cannot be a reason for sustaining life: this is mere tautology.

This requirement that sustaining life be an infrastructural support to the good life calls us to examine which forms of life can be defensibly higher forms of life. We can rule out from the outset any claims about status, wealth, popularity, career progression–that is to say, all bourgeois claims–on the grounds that this is merely sustaining life for the sake of sustaining life. Also out is the hedonic view according to which one is to maximize pleasures and minimize pains. Finally out is the everyday pragmatist who seeks to find the utility in all things and persons, asking always in what ways this or that will benefit him.

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Pragmatist consulting: The art of bullshitting well

‘Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at.’

–David Graeber, ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’

Philosophers spend far too much time focusing on providing defensible views of their own and on knocking down the views of their colleagues when more attention is surely owing to the social phenomena and ‘public philosophies’ that define the shape of our modern culture. One example is pragmatism. One could either canvass pragmatists’ view of epistemology and philosophy of science (all the positions, unworkable arguments, modified views, damaging counterexamples, etc.), or one could cast a critical eye on the figure of the pragmatist consultant.

It is worth understanding why in business culture and at business schools the question that seems to trump all others is: ‘How useful is this? Tell me: how much practical value does this have in the context of our general pursuits?’ Enter the pragmatist consultant–McKinsey or anyone coming after. The pragmatist consultant is the figure who gets paid to tell others these very helpful, useful, and efficacious things. Or he gets paid to provide theories and models–typically represented in these rather silly-looking charts–that are meant to serve as tools or instruments for getting things done more effectively. Or to fire up the PowerPoint slides about business strategy.

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