Kaos Pilots: Making a Difference

Yesterday, I began to discuss what Kaos Pilots is; today I will discuss what it could become.

I suggested that what could unify the school would be (i) the cultivation of character, (ii) the articulation of a finite set of final aims, and (iii) the attempt to draw a comprehensive picture of a set of prima facie competing claims and vocabularies. It occurs to me that it could make the most sense to begin with (ii).

What it is Not

Manifestly, it is a school committed to the active life even though it does not fit the models of a design, business, or creative leadership school. The purpose of the school is not to teach design (e.g., Stanford D-School, RISD, etc.), sustainability (e.g., Bainbridge Graduate Institute), business (e.g., Aston Business School, Wharton, etc.), ecology (e.g., Schumacher College), or fine art (e.g., Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts). And it is not simply a social enterprise or social innovation school either. If it is not these, then what unifies it in form (formal cause), substance (material cause), and aim (final cause)?

Furthermore, even though it believes in self-cultivation, it is not a school oriented to the contemplative life. It is not an ashram, a retreat, a meditation center, an Esalen Institute.

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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.

photo 1 photo 2


Distinguishing the active life from the contemplative life

It is not so easy to draw a meaningful distinction between the active life and the contemplative life. Too strict and a way of life becomes suffocating. Too broad and it seems no difficult thing to shuttle back and forth between one and the other when, in reality, it seems rare that an individual can lead both ways of life and lead them well. Too much weighting and you beg the question that the active must be preferable to the contemplative or vice versa.

With these cautionary notes sounded, I will venture a provisional distinction. These are two non-overlapping orientations to ‘the world.’ One cannot both be active and contemplative in the same respect at one and the same time.

The contemplative life, I’ll say, is concerned with the question, ‘How do I transform my overall perception of the world so that I can accord myself with it?’ The active life is concerned with a very different question: ‘How do I engage with the world to change some aspect of the world so that it accords with some aim I have?’ Understanding something in the most basic sense differs categorially and absolutely from changing something in some basic sense.

To illustrate and test this distinction, I could imagine a philosopher and a craftsman looking at a tree. The first wonders, ‘What can be said about the significance of this tree in this environment?’ The second queries, ‘Could this tree, were it to be cut down, provide me with good wood out of which I could make a fine table?’

A note: I’m not at all sure that one can lead both an active life and a contemplative life well. It seems to me that most of us (excluding in this accounting the rarest of persons) can only hope to lead one way of life well.

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

More reflections on my fall course at Kaos Pilots


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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Marx’s error and our own

Final days in Appalachia. Reminder of Marx’s error, of ours since Francis Bacon.

Tao Te Ching 29 (Feng and English translation): ‘Do you think you can conquer the universe and improve it? / I do not believe this can be done.’ The second stanza unearths the source of our error. ‘The universe is sacred. / You cannot improve it. / If you try to change it, you will ruin it. / If you try to hold on to it, you will lose it.’ Sacred, in a deflationary sense, meaning: be gentle, follow along.

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