Why We Fail and How




DIOGENES THE CYNIC (c. 412 BC–323 BC) apparently had to flee his native city of Sinope because he was caught in a scandal involving the defacement of Sinopean currency. He managed to save face, though, and switched from a failing career in counterfeiting to a more promising one in philosophizing. Diogenes would always remember fondly his early life of crime. When, years later, in Athens, someone reminded him of the re-stamping scandal, he hit back proudly: “But it was because of that, you wretch, that I turned to philosophy.” The two career paths didn’t always stay separate, however; Diogenes would boast, for example, that his skill at re-stamping coins came in handy when he embarked on his great philosophical project of reevaluating all the values of Athenian society.

An impecunious life may not be exactly a counterfeiter’s dream, but Athens offered Diogenes precisely that. The irony must not have been lost on him: here he was, in one of the wealthiest places on earth at the time, which offered anything that money could buy, and yet the former minter of coins was penniless, reduced to a life of begging and scraping. But Diogenes was nothing if not imaginative. Soon enough he must have figured out that he could turn destitution into philosophical vision and begging into an art form. And that, in so doing, he could beat Athens at its own game: in a city that placed such a high value on excellence in any form of human endeavor, Diogenes could excel at the art of doing nothing; he could be the best of idlers, an aristocrat of the dregs. With the cult of success permeating every aspect of Athenian life, he must have realized he could make a fabulous career in failure. Of his master, Antisthenes, Diogenes once said, glowing with gratitude: “This man turned me from a rich man into a beggar, and made me live in a storage-jar rather than a spacious house.” Antisthenes deserved praise, he thought, for turning him into a social failure and thus a great philosopher.

Diogenes found Socrates wanting: lukewarm and compromising, still too attached to things. Socrates had a pleasant commerce with the world, and submitted to its temptations: success, reputation, followers, social appearances. Diogenes, the former minter of coins, complained that Socrates “had lived a life of luxury; for he had devoted too much concern to his little house, and his little couch, and his sandals.” In Diogenes’s eyes, that made Socrates suspect of selling out.

And so Diogenes took it as his philosophical mission to push Socratic ideas to their breaking limit. When Plato called Diogenes a “Socrates gone mad,” he may have said more than he meant to. Diogenes actualized much of what in Socrates was only virtual. From Hypatia to Thomas More to Jan Patočka a number of thinkers have died a death like Socrates’s, but fewer, if any, have managed to live a life like Diogenes’s. That many of his sayings and deeds are apocryphal is not relevant here; if anything, the fact testifies to the hold this figure has had over our imagination and to the veneration we’ve grown to have for his “failure.” Diogenes placed failure, firmly, at the core of his philosophical project. He made failure his element, and fish don’t drown.

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It is our gregarious human nature that leads philosophers to fail in the first place. Whether we are aware of it or not, there is a strong atavistic drive, at work in all of us, that compels us to seek the companionship of others, to form groups and groupings, and to stick to them. The group offers the promise of protection, a sense of safety, and indeed plenty of animal warmth. As long as we are part of the group, and play by its rules, we can expect to survive. In exchange, we surrender some of our freedom, our individualism and autonomy, but that is more often than not a good deal. Atavistic as it may be — we can survive alone, now — we still find nothing worse than to be left out, all alone, the one in the corner no one talks to. There can hardly be a harsher predicament than to belong to no tribe — reclaimed by none, exposed to all — and therefore be doomed to perdition. We know it instinctively: to be left out like this is to be a social weakling, and we would do anything to avoid such fate. Solitude is failure’s other name. Solomon Asch famously showed the extent to which we conform to group’s pressures, even in the smallest things.

As a group, philosophers — human, all too human as they are — play the social game as well. They always have. The -isms throughout the history of philosophy arise as much from the philosopher’s identification with a larger family of “kindred minds” as from a need to belong to an influential group — something to offer that sense of security, protection, and empowerment that only a “home” can. This was true of the ancient students who joined one philosophical school or another in search of wisdom, as it was about the medieval or early modern students who faithfully followed their magister from university town to university town. Even as late as 20th century, it was not unusual for philosophy professors in Germany to be followed by some of their closer graduate students when they took up positions at other universities. The nature of the modern university, however, has rendered philosophers’ social game particularly intense. Their playing over the last century or so has become at once more refined and more self-destructive.

Academic philosophers will rarely admit their gregariousness — we are fiercely independent, intentionally iconoclastic. We understand that we stick together because philosophy is all about debate and argument — isn’t it? — and because truth-seeking is a collective enterprise and philosophizing dialogical in nature. True enough. A dialogue, however, is a conversation between equals. And while genuine dialogues do take place between academic philosophers, the most pervading and consequential form of interaction here is a fierce — sometimes shouted, sometimes whispered, but just as often teeth-clenched silent — conversation about power. About who has it and who doesn’t, what are the best ways to get it and to keep it, who is in and who is out, and other similar interrogations. The remarkable thing about this conversation is that it is highly performative: power is being produced — gained and lost, increased or weakened — as the conversation takes place. It may start being between equals, but the conversation begets inequality: it increases the power of few to the detriment of many, it vitiates the interaction between those involved, and seriously alters the nature of philosophizing itself.

This power includes that over funds, resources, opportunities, academic credentials, positions, and recognitions, but — more subtly and more consequently for those involved — over the meaning of words. In his Memoirs, Hans Jonas recounts how once, while he and Hannah Arendt were teaching philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, the dean of the Graduate Faculty asked some philosophers from the University of Chicago what they made of Arendt and Jonas’s work. Proud as the dean must have been of his star employees, he was in for a cold shower: “It’s not philosophy,” answered one analytical philosopher from Chicago. “It’s interesting, also good to have, and there should be departments that work on such things. I’m in favor of that. But the name for it has yet to be invented. I wouldn’t know what it should be called. I do know it’s not philosophy.” The power to give names to things, as those crushed by it know only too well, is among the greatest powers that there are: what you do, what you’ve been doing all your life — even the name of your calling — is something others who have that power can decide.

Equally important, this is also a power over the definitions of success and failure; the power to name is also the power to issue scales and rankings, lists of winners and losers. The closer one is to the site of this power — for us universities, academic journals and presses, funding bodies — the more successful one is judged to be. And since no one wants to be thought a failure, the social mobilization these definitions and rankings trigger is a sight to behold: everyone flocks there. To get there no costs are too high, no sacrifice too small, no expenses unaffordable. Most of those involved in the academic game are fascinated, to the point of intoxication, by the almost otherworldly prestige of this power. Everything that stems from it seems truthful, ennobling, worthy, and worth pursuing. What a generous giver, this power, what a wonder: not only does it confer upon you an identity, but it also gives you a sense of your own worthiness, a promise of redemption. It delivers you from your worst nightmares: the prospect of failure.

And that’s precisely where we fail. For all this flocking is fundamentally foreign to the genuine quest for truth; it falsifies the nature of philosophy and turns the philosopher into something else. Caught up in this game, a philosopher becomes a politician, a courtier, a clansman, a henchman, a tribe chief — anything but a thinker. The political game alienates a philosopher from what philosophy is fundamentally about, causing what is said (or much of it, anyway) to be dictated not by the exigencies of philosophizing, but by an alien force. The lodestone has shifted from truth to power.

When this happens, rather than coming from existential problems or philosophical obsessions, an authentic impulse to communicate something important, writing becomes all strategy: the attempt to signal the writer’s presence within a certain power structure, his willingness to play along and not to cause trouble. The philosopher chasing success works on a wide range of trendy topics, open-minded, flexible, ready to bend and adjust as needed in order to court those in power, to please them, to silence adversaries, and to win over new adepts, to be a good soldier. Obviously, this is all done between the lines — for otherwise the writing is about obscure topics in metaphysics, new arguments for free will, trolley problems, the greatest good in Plato, or the latest developments in the philosophy of mind. But it is written politically, not philosophically. Its success is its failure.

This of course is the case not only with philosophers. Scholars from other fields fail precisely in the same way; their work is political in that it serves purposes alien to the quest for truth itself. What makes the philosophers’ failure particularly crippling is the fact that, beyond its moments of sociability, philosophy, at its core, is a profoundly private exercise. There can hardly be anything gregarious about the way one’s self puts itself in order, struggles to find meaning in a senseless world, and strives to understand itself and its workings. Philosophizing happens when we are at our most intimate, and it is vital that this encounter takes place in the right setting. Michel de Montaigne talks of a “room behind the shop” (arrière-boutique) as the proper stage for this process. For him the space of this encounter is so private that not even family members are to be allowed in:

We must reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude. Here our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves, and so private that no outside association or communication can find a place.

Outside the “room behind the shop,” philosophy occupies a social space where it can still operate authentically. After all, thinkers seek each other’s company; philosophical companionship is as old as philosophy itself. Yet this space is well defined and rather narrow; once the philosopher has stepped outside her circle, troubles can start at any moment. For, to remain authentic, philosophy has to be critical, outspoken, unflattering. If true philosophizing is “thinking against oneself” — done systematically, mercilessly, with no safety net and no escape routes — then what kind of treatment should others (including fellow-thinkers) expect from the philosopher? In an important sense, then, to the extent that she is bound to practice parrēsía — to be outspoken — the philosopher is doomed to find herself, sooner or later, in a perilous position: cutting an odd figure, going against the current, singled out, defended by none, exposed to all. The philosopher often finds herself to be precisely “the one in the corner no one talks to.” She then becomes a social failure not by accident, but as a matter of personal calling.

If she now surrenders to the power of the group, the philosopher fails twice. First, she fails because in the eyes of the others she is already a failure — a weakling, an outcast. Then she fails because she doesn’t know how to be a failure: how to use the outsider’s privileged position for philosophical purposes. For, philosophically, to be a failure is a very important thing to be — almost a blessing. Far from being crushed by her social failure, the philosopher could put it to excellent use: to gain insight into the workings of the mind, into the affairs of the human society, the abyss of the human soul. Provided that she knows how to exploit it, the philosopher’s social failure could make her a richer, more penetrating and original thinker.

For it is originality that is the primary victim here. To play the political game, philosophers have to be a “good sport,” as they say, to avoid standing out and to tune down their idiosyncrasies, their personal oddities, the “crazy” ideas and grain of madness so vitally needed in philosophy. No longer eager to challenge the received wisdom, to puzzle and annoy, caught up in the play, the worst thing that can happen to them now is to attract the derision and mockery of their peers — that would be the end of their game. The long-term result is the vast expanse of blandness in academic philosophy, as conspicuous as it is depressing, even as the attendance at conferences grows. The philosophers’ gregariousness comes with its own punishment. You can’t be philosophically original and politically smart at one and the same time; you can’t have your integrity and eat it too.

It’s easy to see now why some of the most original and innovative figures in modern thought, from Spinoza to Kierkegaard to Thoreau, came to work outside the university. His university made Nietzsche sick — literally. And it left Schopenhauer with a life-long loathing for “philosophy professors.” In 1928, a group of distinguished academics from the Goethe University Frankfurt found Walter Benjamin’s Habilitation dissertation seriously wanting, which denied him access to a teaching career. Simone Weil found many careers — that of a factory worker or agricultural laborer, for example — more fulfilling than that of university professor. With characteristic self-irony, Cioran enrolled at the Sorbonne as a doctoral philosophy student with the sole purpose of having access to the university’s inexpensive cafeteria; he quit the doctoral program when they no longer let him have his meals there. All these academic “failures” turned out to be profoundly original philosophers. They’ve compelled us to look at the world, and ourselves, with new eyes; we don’t remain the same after we encounter them. But if they managed to bring out something authentic, it was in spite of the university, not because of it.

Needless to say, a good amount of high-quality philosophical work comes from the university environment. Academics have for centuries produced major works of philosophy, and important philosophical movements have originated in university circles. And yet. When one considers the sheer amount of people involved, and the time, resources, opportunities, and talent they have at their disposal, the result is rather disappointing. The American Philosophical Association, for example, has more than 9,000 active members, roughly the same size as the entire Army of Ireland. The ancient Greeks invented the field, and managed to formulate almost everything essential in it, with just a handful of people, less than a platoon.

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We would be fortunate if we failed as thinkers only on the social stage. But our failure runs much deeper, enmeshes us more amply. For failure can be embodied in the most personal aspects of philosophy; it sneaks, like a worm, into the very core of thinking.

Although philosophy starts out as an utterly private impulse, an all-absorbing gesture to which we cannot but abandon ourselves completely, when it comes to formulating and articulating it, we usually adopt a language that’s not our own. No matter how personal our concerns, how authentic our philosophizing, most thinkers, even some of the best, fail to devise an equally personal philosophical language. Instead, we seek shelter in one or another of the major existing philosophical vocabularies: Platonism, Thomism, Hegelianism, Marxism, Logical Positivism, Phenomenology. The radical solitude of philosophizing becomes oppressive, perhaps, too much to bear, and we bring it to a place — a shared philosophical vocabulary — where our solitude joins the solitudes of others and thus becomes easier to live with.

The issue is certainly not limited to philosophy; in a sense, every major creative field has to face this, in its own way and on its own terms. Harold Bloom, in The Anxiety of Influence (1973), famously speaks of the burden of the past that any young poet has to deal with when asserting herself. According to him, a new poetic language has to be invented every time another “strong” poet emerges, which is a complicated business given the overwhelming influence of previous poetic languages. There is always a fierce struggle — an agon — in the soul of the poet between her own poetic universe and that which precedes her, and against which she is to make her voice heard. The philosophers who are also creators of philosophical language are rather few and far between, but their influence is enormous, perhaps stronger than that of Bloom’s “strong” poets. Whether they “misread” or “misinterpret” the previous thinkers (as poets do, according to Bloom), or help themselves liberally from their work, or make everything from scratch, these creator-philosophers end up asserting themselves decisively against the existing vocabularies. Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Husserl — to name just a few — are important not just because of the intrinsic value of their ideas, but for their distinct philosophical vocabularies. The conceptual universes they created long outlived them, and shaped the history of philosophy in ways both visible and invisible. These philosophers changed the way other people speak and think and live, including people who never heard their names. These are “strong,” irresistible thinkers.

Once a philosophical vocabulary has imposed itself, it becomes the hospitable place where other thinkers seek shelter. They have no qualms living in other people’s homes. The failure to create a personal vocabulary doesn’t seem to bother philosophers as much as it does poets; most thinkers don’t seem to suffer from the “anxiety of influence.” And yet, from Aristotle’s parting with Plato to Marx’s separation from Hegel, there is a distinct tradition in Western philosophy of philosophers’ renouncing their masters. Discontinuity, rupture, and crisis are the keywords here. Nietzsche, who went through a noisy divorce himself (from both Schopenhauer and Wagner) even developed a little theory of philosophical separations. In his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he has the master tell the disciples:

Now I go alone, my disciples. You, too, go now, alone. Thus I want it.

Go away from me and resist Zarathustra! And even better: be ashamed of him! Perhaps he deceived you.

The man of knowledge must not only love his enemies, he must also be able to hate his friends.

One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil. And why do you not want to pluck at my wreath?

Nietzsche himself offers the spectacular example of a complete break from his teachers — indeed, from any teachers and schools and -isms. He was no ordinary creator of philosophical language; there is nothing heavy, technical, scholastic, abstruse about the language he uses. The holy grail of philosophical style, that’s what Nietzsche seems to have stumbled upon: the art of formulating the most difficult philosophical points imaginable in the most elegant personal language possible. Which makes him not only inimitable, but also infinitely evasive. One of the most penetrating modern philosophers, he fails to speak “like a philosopher.”

Using an existing philosophical vocabulary doesn’t necessarily diminish the depth of a thinker; some of the finest minds have borrowed their conceptual apparatus and philosophical vocabulary from others, and produced original, lasting works. There are brilliant Thomists who are not St. Thomas, Hegelians who never met Hegel, and Marxists who lived long after Marx. An -ism can turn out to be a fertile ground for ideas, a site of serious thinking, and even innovation. That is all fine. The real consequences of this failure show up elsewhere, and they can be singularly unpleasant.

As you move down the scale of originality — from the originators of the vocabulary, toward the other end, whatever that may be — at some point you reach a threshold that, once crossed, takes you into another stylistic universe. Here thinking is no longer personal, but purely mechanical. The texts no longer seem written by authors in flesh and blood, but by machines; they look very much like those hoaxes based on content generated randomly by computer software. It becomes excruciatingly difficult to tell technicalities from pure nonsense; the jargon takes over completely, it hijacks the writing and makes the writer disappear. Everything here turns into its own caricature: Thomism becomes hilarious scholastics, Hegelianism becomes pure gibberish, Marxism propagandistic junk, and poststructuralism a laughing stock. We know the result: we’ve all seen, on more occasions than we would have liked to, those atrociously unintelligible pieces of work for which academia is unfortunately notorious. And this goes well beyond philosophy itself; from comparative literature to religious studies, no humanistic field is completely safe from such devastating failure.

There is no doubt in my mind: such authors badly need a form of belonging. Human, all too human as we are, we don’t want to be left out: unaffiliated, unrecognized, and unloved. We must abhor failure and, to avoid it, we seek, through our texts, to join a larger community of like-minded spirits. Yet what we produce exhales a profound sense of intellectual alienation — as painful to read as it is impossible to follow. The companionship we hope to find by writing those things turns out to be no companionship at all: it is just an optical illusion created by the jargon that drowns our thought. We flee from ourselves, hide, and bury ourselves under all that imposing pile of incomprehension. And that’s where failure awaits us. Again, we fail precisely because we are so afraid of failure.

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In a certain sense, however, all these vocabularies — those of the landlord thinkers and those of their tenants, the genuine ones as well as the imitations, the great personal styles, as well as the incomprehensible ones — are nothing in the end but the expression of what may be the greatest philosophical failure of all: the failure to keep quiet. In the face of the cosmic muteness, doomed as we are to deal with the great silence, whatever we may say, however great, must be nothing but small talk. Nothing we could possibly utter can make a difference. All our attempts — our essays — are doomed to fail. A humble silence: that may be the ultimate philosophical success, the highest accomplishment of all. But to dwell on this too much would be rather self-defeating.

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One day a mocking Athenian reportedly said to Diogenes, his disdain barely disguised: “You play the philosopher without knowing anything at all.” The Cynic replied with an ironical smile, we can imagine: “Even if I merely pretend to wisdom, that is itself the mark of one who aspires to it.” Our small hope, then: even though what we do may not be the real thing, only a failed imitation of philosophy as Plato, Aristotle, and Nietzsche understood it, we needn’t throw away the baby along with the bathwater. To move from the copy to the authentic, we have to redefine our relationship to failure. We need to domesticate failure and place it where it belongs: at the core of what we are.

And for that Diogenes is an invaluable master: we can learn from him not just how to defeat failure and live with it, but even how to thrive off it. For fish don’t drown. Far from it.

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Costica Bradatan is professor of humanities at Texas Tech University. He is the author, most recently, of Dying for Ideas. The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers (Bloomsbury, 2015). He is currently working on a new book, In Praise of Failure, for Harvard University Press.

 


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