Sunday, August 15, 2010

Fourth Thesis on the Concept of Form of Life

Paraphrasing Nietzsche, we could say that one is a philosopher at the cost of regarding that which all non-philosophers call “form” as content, as “the thing itself.” To be sure, philosophers belong in a topsy-turvy world: for henceforth content becomes something merely formal--our life included. At its best, philosophy (but also art, as in Nietzsche’s original fragment, and even religion, as in Hegel’s system) allows us to find patterns of forms of life in the seemingly endless and senseless fragments that crowd our everyday existence. It can also help us realize that our manner of being is not merely the arbitrary shape or inconsequential refinement of this rough and ready thing that people call life (their so-called life). Rather, our form of life is precisely what philosophers like to call “the thing itself.” (As an example of this philosophical proclivity at work, think of Judith Butler’s understanding of gender.) This is not to say that philosophers should merely act as the servants of a form of life, or that their true task is to develop some pseudo-science of forms of life. Even though people treat the way they live as fish treat water, philosophers are not fishermen. Philosophy is, above all, a way of life in its own right. Until this elemental fact (which, as Pierre Hadot has shown, was an obvious one for the Ancient Greeks) returns to inform current philosophical practice, it has no chance of getting out of the inconsequential mess in which it finds itself today. Luckily, when philosophy as a form of life devolves into philosophy as a profession, when friends degenerate into peers, the unique power that inheres in such a strange mode of being does not become yet another power that dominates life (aside from the occasional stray student). Kierkegaard probably said it the best: instead of having any power whatsoever, today’s philosophers seem to cheerfully “speculate themselves out of their own skin.”

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