Step Two

07 May 2016

Maciej Cegłowski:

If you’ve ever wondered why Facebook is such a joyless place, even though we’ve theoretically surrounded ourselves with friends and loved ones, it’s because of this need to constantly be wearing our public face.

I spend a great deal of time connected to thinkers and texts from centuries ago, trying to eke out meaning and insight – preferably of my own, but I often settle for glimpses of the same from the original authors. While I would like to think of myself as a philosopher, I am likely still just an academic who studies philosophy.1 In a lot of ways, I am rooted in the past.

But I have also long been interested in technology, both it as a theoretical construct and as a series of devices that loom over all the entirety of my life. It used to be that I considered these interests as wholly distinct from each other: one was my intellectual pursuit and the other was a casual hobby. That was, of course, a mistake, although it is an easy one to make, because all of my academic training has reinforced it. The rise of facile pop philosophy hasn’t exactly helped legitimize thoughtfulness when it comes to the Internet or smart phones.2 There are particular forms that philosophy, in order to be considered sufficiently philosophical, has to adhere to and topics that are legitimate. Everything else might be interesting, novel, and even worthwhile, but it can never be elevated to the status of philosophy.

There are any number of problems with this way of thinking, but lately I have been acutely aware of how it turns our attention away from the immediate in favor of some mythical and universal experience of being in the world. We ignore the problems of the now because they are only fleeting and unworthy of “serious attention”; to philosophize about the iPhone is beneath any true philosopher. Recognizing this is only the first step towards correcting the error. The second step involves finding and reading the people who have gotten out way ahead of us, so that we can try to bridge that gap between the world that we, as philosophers, live in, and the world that we, as human beings, live in.

This is not to suggest that A: people like Maciej are struggling to articulate themselves without traditional philosophy; or B: people are not already looking into technology and how the radically changed context we find ourselves in today has radical effects on the human being and our interactions with each other. The former, if it were a problem (it is not, especially in the case of Maciej), is not mine to solve. But the camp of folks in the latter category is not as big as it could be – and I think that philosophy, as a subject of academic study and a discipline itself, could learn a lot from them.

  1. I am still working on that.

  2. This is a point that I will get in trouble for at some point in the future. Let it be noted that I am both acknowledging that far in advance and that I don’t really care.