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Philosophy In An Inhospitable World

“What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own…Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer.”

– Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia


The relationship between the world and philosophy has probably always been estranged, marked by distrust and mutual contempt. There is every reason to think that matters have taken a turn for the worse in recent years.

To think, to question, to doubt, to become more aware, to gain perspective on things – all require time, yet an already-restless world has sped life up with its technologies and its growth-centered economic model. Philosophy prefers an engaged and inquisitive public, a receptive if not captive audience. But the world has divided the public into niche audiences and target markets and produced not engaged but apathetic citizenries; not unity but an atomistic diversity. Philosophy demands the sort of intelligence that can follow and dissect long arguments and wrestle with profundities. But such sobriety has been overridden by tele-visual culture, by screen life, and the result has been a generation of minds reared on images, web clicks, neural spikes, video graphics, text messages and tweets. Philosophy requires a certain earnestness and sincerity, a holy quality such as we see in the platonic dialogues when those questioned by Socrates admit that the “soul is more important than the body.” But our secular, commercial world trades in the currency of irreverence and parodic mockery, engendering a nihilism which suggests, if it never actually asserts, that nothing at all is serious, that nothing is meaningful or true, that anything, anyone is not ultimately more than the butt of a joke.

The world has science and math and technology; why does it need mysticism or metaphysics? As far as it is concerned, philosophy is as useful as phrenology, perhaps an anachronism, at worst a menial mental exercise. Where philosophy sits the world looks shallow, vulgar, and blind: rebarbatif. The mark of intelligence is the ability to plumb the depths, to ask what the point of an eight-decades-long existence is, to ask if death does not usher in something new or more, and if so, what the implications are or would be for everyday life. It is to question the meaning and value of experience rather than to accept blithely the ephemerality of a contingent existence.

The world doesn’t see the need to make such a fuss. It asks simply that people accept the conditions of their life, cultivate a utilitarian rationality and sensibility, go about their work and try to be happy. Solemnity, it would remind us, is not such a good trait, and few are as unwise as those who do not know how to take it easy or do not know how to laugh.

But many are the luminaries who have rejected “thoughtless happiness” as a worthy moral end. “Tis a happiness I do not want,” Volaire’s Good Brahmin tells us. It is an open question whether a naturalist ethics is even defensible; as William James puts it in The Varieties of Religious Experience, “All natural goods perish...fame is a breath; love is a cheat; youth and health and pleasure vanish. Can things whose end is always dust and disappointment be the real goods which our souls require?”

Blind and impoverished though it may be, the world still has power and might on its side, and it will likely have the last word. In what way, then, should philosophy speak to the world? What can it do in a world of unmeaning and untruth, in a world in which the conditions of its very survival begin to wither and wilt?

Possible Approaches

This issue was not remote to Adorno, who spent his career witnessing all the ways that life had become devalued, from the carnage of the second war to the savagery of Stalin’s and Mao’s regimes to America’s foray into Vietnam to the transformation of the res publica into what he called “the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption.” Life, he said, no longer had “autonomy or substance of its own”; it had become “an appendage of the process of material production.”

In Germany he saw what happens to the quality of life when state power is merged with corporate commercial power, when an entire cultural apparatus is arrayed against the individual and the solitary pursuit of truth:

Things have come to a pass where lying sounds like truth, truth like lying. Each statement, each piece of news, each thought has been pre-formed by the centers of the culture industry. Whatever lacks the familiar trace of such pre-formation lacks credibility, the more so because the institutions of public opinion accompany what they send forth by a thousand factual proofs and all the plausibility that total power can lay hands on. Truth that opposes these pressures not only appears improbable, but is in addition too feeble to make any headway in competition with their highly-concentrated machinery of dissemination.

This rotting of modern life is chronicled in Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life, a classic of pessimist thought.

In the last paragraph of this work Adorno tells us what philosophy should aspire to in so uncongenial a world as this:

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.

What Adorno is saying is that philosophy should not seek to be reconciled with the world. Not accommodation, but a fierce defiance is what it should aspire to, a stance that addresses itself to the eternal rather than to the temporal-cultural. [Note] This view is shared by Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Russell.

There is a problem here, though. This position assumes that philosophy will continue to be audible in an ever-hostile world; that no matter how far into the technological distance the world wanders there will still be a stage on which philosophy will appear, still a subject to do the philosophizing, still an audience for untimely meditations. Do we not already live in a world in which such a stage, such a subject and such an audience have disappeared?

To be fair, Adorno died in 1969 and so missed all the ways that the world has become an increasingly nihilistic place. These would include the predatory hold that TV and the computer have had on the collective mind; the unaccountability of capital to any system of democratic deliberation, creating everywhere a kind of “dictatorship of the market”; the deterioration of social institutions, at the bottom of which is the inability any longer to find a purpose or “why” of knowledge; the absence of a value system to compete with the ethic of money; and finally, an overall loss of reality and being.