Philosophy in a Time of Crisis

An Interview with Prof. Miguel De Beistegui

An iPod, a phone and an internet communicator’ were the words that arguably sparked most radical change in how the masses consume information in recent history. As the smartphone managed to put the internet at the forefront, we have experienced a gradual decline in authenticity and facticity in journalism. Just recently it was revealed that a journalist of the German newspaper ‘Der Spiegel’ had been faking quotes and invented people for years. ‘Fake News’ is just one of many crises we are faced with today. We talked to Prof. Miguel de Beistegui, who launched the project ‘Philosophy in a Time of Crisis’. The project seeks to challenge the ever-accelerating news by applying the methods of ‘philosophical journalism’ to find an alternative way.

Interviewer: In the manifesto for your project you introduce the concept of Philosophical Journalism. What would you say are the defining features and what is it that you are trying to achieve by this sort of journalism?

Prof. Beistegui: The first thing to say is that the (notion of) the idea of philosophical journalism is one that we borrow from Michel Foucault. It is not our invention, but it is something that we identify with and it is a label with which, at one point, Foucault tried to define what he was doing. Now, what is that? The first thing to mention is that this kind of approach is not unique to our project and it is growing as an effect of an increasing discomfort on the part of philosophy that is not able to engage with certain crucial issues and problems that are happening right now. So, what do we mean by philosophical journalism? For us, it is an attempt to reconcile two approaches and two temporalities. That of philosophy on the one hand with its strength to be slow and long-term. [I think philosophers, as Nietzsche used to say, are like cows that like to ruminate for a long time. That means that they are often at odds with the time of history or, the time even more so of the media.] The media increasingly operates in not even daily segments, but almost minute by minute. There is a duration in the media that is accelerating and becoming more and more immediate. And then there is a traditional temporality of philosophy, which is long term and that is required in order to think through problems. We are trying to find a middle-way of articulating these two temporalities, while retaining the tools and methods of philosophy and it’s kind of seriousness of the way it engages with a problem, but at the same time trying to reconcile that with the more immediate or current approach to issues and problems that are affecting us in different ways today.

Interviewer: Back in the early days of Philosophy, in ancient Greece, its study was closely intertwined with everyday life, yet now it seems mostly confined to academia. At this point, I wanted to ask when you think philosophy abandoned everyday life? Would it be possible for us to re-establish this connection and how does this perhaps link to your project?

Prof. Beistegui: It is a complicated question because, on one hand, you are pointing to a relatively recent phenomenon, which is the professionalisation of philosophy. So, the way in which philosophy is done by academics within a specific institution that is called The University. For a very long time (before and after the middle-ages), philosophers did all sorts of other things. They were active in everyday life: they could be active in politics, or they could be scientists, they were corresponding with people from a range of backgrounds. It is only really in the 19th century that philosophy became institutionalised in that way and with different degrees of disconnection with the reality around them. I think there are particular strands of philosophy that began to think, with the logical positivist term, that philosophy could no longer make any claims about reality or the world. It could only make claims about the procedures through which certain scientific discourses were developing and specific procedures were relating to the production of meaning and propositions. However, I think there is another strand of philosophy that try to retain a certain connection with everyday life with greater or lesser success. I, therefore, do not think that this connection was ever completely lost. But it is true that the institutionalisation of philosophy and, sometimes, its disconnection from where the action was taking place, namely urban centres and that is was no longer at the heart of the city.

You were mentioning ancient Greece and in the Greek context citizenship, the political and the philosophical were absolutely bound together, which is no longer necessarily the case today.

Interviewer: You advocate for a move in philosophy away from abstract and eternal problems towards are more real-world engagement. Do you think it is possible that these two distinctions can talk together or are we bound to only consider one type of issue at a time?

Prof. Beistegui: That is a very good question, because, ultimately, I think that you cannot. What matter is the articulation between the two or at least one should not separate them to such an extent where you would have those philosophers who deal with the eternal problems of philosophy and those who deal with the current problems that philosophy tries to address. Now, the truth is, I do not even believe in the eternal problems of philosophy. I think that problems are always historically defined and that they do not exist somewhere “up there” and we just pluck them from the sky and decide to address this rather than that problem. What we mean by the eternal problems of philosophy are those problems that are perceived to be eternal and seem to recur throughout the history of philosophy. That, therefore, would be transhistorical and that would be of concern no matter what the historical situation is. If that is what philosophy needs to be concerned with and it means that is cannot be concerned with the historical problems that we all find ourselves confronted with. So, in a way, it is that sort of distinction that I would want to dispute on both sides.

Interviewer: Today’s world is undoubtedly beset by countless failures, political, economic and social – do you think that the lack of proper critique lies, at least partly, behind all these failures?

Prof. Beistegui: There is certainly, I think, insufficient critique. And that is where Philosophy has a role to play. That is to say to, whenever we are presented with facts, whenever we are presented with interpretations of facts or whenever we are presented with, for example, a crisis that we are supposed to respond to, then philosophy has a role to play in questioning the terms through which they are defined. The problems, which we are told are the urgent and crucial problems, philosophy has a duty to call into question, and, of course, as a result of calling into question also of reformulating problems from which solutions can emerge. Critique is not in that sort of negative critical sense that we often associate with the word criticise, but critique in a strong constructive term. That is what we are looking for.

Interviewer: Would you say that the dominant discourse of crisis is a direct cause of the rise of populism and nationalism in recent years?

Prof. Beistegui: I would say that the way in which the notion of crisis is used, and this is something we are trying to address on the website and in our project generally, is often with a view to pushing forward an agenda that is not entirely clear from the start. The notion of crisis, whilst we think that it can serve a purpose, that it has a place – a notion that philosophers have used and continue to use in a fairly technical sense – a sense that is not always spelt out, I think in the way it should even by philosophers. It is also used in all sorts of ways, broadly speaking, by the political class, by media and by, perhaps, demagogues to force upon us a sense of urgency. Because once you have identified something as a crisis, well, of course, you need to respond to that crisis. What we want to do also is to question the extent to which the so-called crisis that we are confronted with is a real crisis. The main aim has to be about distinguishing between exercising judgement and distinguishing between crisis themselves – those that are real and those we think a not so real – and again philosophy has tools at its disposal to do something like that. In that respect, critique and crisis work together.

Interviewer: Is Europe actually failing and succumbing to a perpetual crisis? Or is there more to reality than the current discourse would suggest?

Prof. Beistegui: My answer is a way of returning to your previous question also. I think many of the current crisis you were referring to implicitly have to do with a major crisis we experienced in 2008. The aftershock of which we are still feeling today. So many of the issues, so many of the failings, if we limit ourselves to the European situation, but also perhaps also to the North American situation, have to do with our inability to come to grips with the magnitude of what happened 10 years ago. What happened back then was a sort of breaking point in a relatively recent history, because if we go back to maybe 20 years, back to 1989 we have the fall of the wall, we have the collapse of communist regimes, we have a transformation of Europe and we have, what Fukuyama called, The End of History. That is to say this idea that there is only one horizon, which is not communism as Sartre would say, but it is a capitalist liberal democracy. And it is only a matter of time before that model spreads throughout the world and conquers the entire world, but basically, that would be the end of history. It is a narrative, which my generation lived with and within for a long time. What happened 20 years later was the collapse of that end of history, so it was in a way the end of the end of history, where things were all of a sudden completely turned upside down. This force that we thought was going to be the vehicle for which liberal democracy was going spread, well, that had not really turned out and not only that, but that force in itself could be responsible for the collapse of the world order as a whole. As a result, after this period of increase of flows – capital flows, service flows, flows of goods and of population – after this period of deterritorialisation, we have witnessed and are witnessing an extraordinary return of territorialisation and a return of themes, thematics and problematics that we thought we had, in a way, superseded. I have in my lifetime never witnessed such a strong return of sovereignism, nationalism and of this fixation on issues to do with borders and questions on ‘who do we let’ and ‘who do we leave out’. The sense that we in this period of economic insecurity at least can we can secure our borders and that will make us feel better. Again, I think this goes back also to the idea of crisis, because then there are certain crisis that one will want to identify as the urgent problem and I feel that very often there are more fundamental problems behind those that need to be addressed and were they to be addressed this so-called urgent crisis would perhaps not be seen as urgent or be seen as crisis at all.

Interviewer: An early focus of your project is on European margins, be they geographical, social or economic. Do you think philosophical critique is the right tool to push for real change for those at the margin?

Prof. Beistegui: I think this question points to the limits of philosophy. What can philosophy do and what can it not do? To the latter question, I think it is impossible to know what philosophy in principle cannot do. What I think is very difficult to establish is a kind of causal connection between certain philosophical ideas or certain philosophical analysis and change. What I do believe in is philosophy’s ability, if it can leave the purely academic institution and move beyond small philosophical circles, to ask difficult questions. To resist extreme simplification and therefore also resist extreme polarisation. To articulate the nature of problems, that is to say, to ask what is the sort of problem we are dealing with here. So, Philosophy can only advocate complexity, it is an advocate of complexity and I do not think what we mean by philosophical journalism should do away with the right to nuance, to subtlety, to complexity. If it can convince certain people who would want to see a situation as very black and white, to see the complexity of it and to also see the origins of that situation – to take it apart, deconstruct it – then, I think, that can have an effect in the way which people relate to a given situation and relate to other within that given situation. It can have an impact on the way which people will decide to vote or decide to implicate themselves at a micropolitical level. I think it can operate at a macropolitical level – the democratic process in general. But also, with respect to specific problems and specific causes related to those problems. So, I think, both at the micro and at the macro level, that operation of critique can have an impact and can transform the way in which apprehend a situation. The way we think about them.

Interviewer: Can one still be an optimist in this ‘time of crisis’?

Prof. Beistegui: I am always ill at ease with the pessimistic-optimistic binary view. If by optimism you mean: is there always, unless we live in a situation of complete cohesion – when there is no room for manoeuvre whatsoever. There are such situations in the world, but they are not the situations that define for example the European situation or the North American situation or many situations in Asia or all Africa or South America. Where there is room for manoeuvre, there always is a reason to be optimistic. One has to understand where there is room for change and, in that respect, try and implement it. Cautious optimism, if by that we mean the possibility of resisting and transforming mentalities as well as one’s own behaviours. I think that could range from the way in which we see and deal with the migration crisis today to let’s say the environmental crisis to the prison and housing crisis. There are ways in which one can adopt a militant position that can bring about some degree of change. If I can add one thing: What I do not think, this is probably a key feature of our project, we do not believe in a blanket diagnosis that would translate into a blank solution. I do not think that philosophy has the answers to everything and it needs to identify and distinguish between problems and deal with them one by one. I say this, because philosophy has had this totalising tendency or temptation, and by doing that it also fails to address specific problems. There are certain things it cannot see as a result of that. This project is also about what sort of glasses or spectacles do you put on before your eyes in order to see situations at a more granular level.

Interviewer: How responsive has the academic community so far been to your calls for cooperation and partial reorientation?

Prof. Beistegui: It is early stages still. My response would be that the people I spoke and engaged with generally speaking find it not only an interesting project but also a worthwhile one. Where it gets complicated is when we try to get them to contribute to the website itself. Now, the website has different kinds of pieces: it has pieces that of talks given at conferences and it has more philosophical journalism pieces that are tailored to a broader audience, which often can be shorter. That is an exercise that colleagues, in general, are not used to. They do not always know how to go about it and are not always comfortable about doing it. Because what they do normally is, and this what they are paid to do and what they also want to do, for the most part, are highly academic, often highly specialised articles or books. That is what they were trained to do. While they feel tempted, they do not always follow through because it is also at a time of so much pressure and different kinds of demands are made upon academics. It is also about finding the time to write things differently. Having said that, the number of contributions is growing, and it is interesting to see how some, of course, whose academic work tends to be related to some of the issues we try to address have responded positively. There again, I am optimistic. If we were to project ourselves medium term or long term, I would hope that it would gain momentum and become an increasingly recognised vehicle for philosophers to be able to say something about a specific situation. That is would become a kind of local intervention that is possibly related to their academic work, but which also could be independent of it.

Interviewer: This perhaps goes in hand with your view to resist extreme specialisation, because you are trying to stir up the academic community by making them aware of the possibilities of philosophical journalism.

Prof. Beistegui: I think we are all, from the purely academic point of view, encouraged what pays off in academic dividend, if you want, is hyper specialisation. The model that is out there and according to which the quality of a contribution of academics today is measured is borrowed from the natural sciences. The natural sciences themselves, as you know, are incredibly segmented. There are actually few people within the natural sciences that have a kind of transversal view even of their own discipline. So, there are not that many physicists who have a transversal view of the state of physics today. Now, there is something specific about philosophy, which is that it is a very ancient discipline that once encompassed all disciplines. Philosophy was, therefore, any kind of investigation, any kind of questioning and any kind of later on discipline was thought to be philosophy. Later on, the disciplines broke free to the point where one can ask what philosophy is left with today? That is a huge question and there is no agreement about that. Very often in philosophy becomes a philosophy of something else. Within that, there are even greater specialisations, for instance within the philosophy of physics one can become a philosopher of quantum physics or within the philosophy of mathematics, one can become a philosopher of topology or set theory. Again, this is the way in which the institution works, and I really think that this is the death of philosophy. I have personally attempted to resist that in the last 12 years and tried to see philosophy as a way of navigating between different disciplines and discourses, so it neither becomes this isolated discipline that is disconnected from the other disciplines, which, I think, in this day of age makes no sense. Nor should it merely be the philosophy of biology, physics or literature. So, then the question is how do you develop the tools that will allow you to move from one discipline to another and ask specifically philosophical questions within or to that discipline? And how does that discipline itself, to go back to our general discussion, relate to specific problems that we are concerned with? To give you an example: on the issue of borders, migration, of refugees that we are very interested in, a lot of extremely interesting and philosophical work is happening in departments outside philosophy. This critical, thoughtful, philosophical approach is, by no means, the prerogative of institutionalised philosophers. There is philosophical thinking going on in other disciplines too.

Interviewer: Finding answers about issues of practical and immediate relevance to our society is at the heart of your project. Yet how do you plan on bringing your academic debate and results into the public’s attention?

Prof. Beistegui: The website is an attempt to open up a space without any guarantee that it will have any effect. We are quite loose about the limits of what we are doing. You can never tell in advance what the effects of what you are doing can be, especially if you project yourself into the future and fairly long term. Ripple effects are perhaps what we hope for and perhaps a media picking up on some of the things that we are doing in the context of the project. It is interesting to see how in the last 20 years, I feel that philosophy has gained a place in the public sphere that it did not have in this country. Philosophy has had a different trajectory and role in different countries, if we limit ourselves, again, to the European situation. We cannot assume that the British situation is the same as the German or the French or the Italian and so forth. Each country has its own history when philosophy comes into play, but it is striking to see how the philosophical voice is growing in public debates today.

Interviewer: Many of our student readers are likely to have a deep interest in philosophy yet have significant doubts over the usefulness and applicability of philosophy in today’s hyper-competitive world. Do you think that initiatives like your project can assuage their doubts?

Prof. Beistegui: Well, I would certainly hope so. But let me perhaps give you another example that is related, because it is part of the work, I have been doing following with Foucault’s invitation. You talked about the hypercompetitive world. One of the things that I do in a book I just published called ‘The Government of Desire’, which is a philosophical and critical history of desire as well as liberalism and neoliberalism at the same time. I will not go into detail as that is not the point of this interview. One thing that I do in this book is to show how the concept, the value and the norm of the competition were introduced and how it has increasingly come to define ourselves – the way in which we relate to other and the way in which we relate to ourselves. One way, I think, in which I would answer your question is by saying: why do we not start questioning the value of this norm of competition. If we feel there is something questionable about it, how can we resist competition as opposed embrace it? When we are told – and it is true – the current world is a hyper-competitive one. One, that I think, generates all sorts of fears and anxieties amongst the student body to a greater degree than when I was growing up because I did not grow up in this world where I thought that it was myself against the entire world. Once you are able to question that norm of competition, then you might want to think (and this is back to the idea of the room for manoeuvre that we have), how can I resist this and not allow myself to live the competitive life. Am I really forced to live it that way? Are there possible alternatives, where are they and how can I develop them? This is where philosophy has a role to play – where we are told: “This is the situation. Live with it”, to say how did this situation come about in the first place? Do I really need to live with it? Do I really want to live with, and if not, how can I live? These philosophical questions are relevant not only to philosophy students but to any student in general.


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