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Columbia University Undergraduate Philosophy Magazine
“What is your aim in philoso
“To show the fly th
- Ludwig W
he way out of the fly bottle.”
EDITORS Editor- in-Chief Jonathan Tanaka Managing Editors Emma James Aiden Sagerman Chief Article Editor Chase Bush-McLaughlin Chief Interview Editor Rishi Chhapolia Chief Digital and Design Editor Skylar Wu Discussion Coordinator Matthew Harper Social Media Manager Ashley Blanche Waller Article Editors Ella Markianos Joanne Park Elia Zhang
Interview Editors Wynona Barua Qingyuan Deng Gabrielle Epuran Wenni Iben Angie Lytle Soham Mehta Deputy Editors Sara Croghan Jalsa Drinkard Jeongin Kim Oscar Luckett Kylie Morrison Lucy Narva Kyle Y. Rodstein Elise Sickinger Judy Tao April Wang Staff Writers Elena Flack Sophia Lander Ella Markianos Ashley Blanche Waller
Letter from the Editor 02
Learning to Breathe: Absurd Lessons from the Pandemic 06 Hannah So Insects 16
Glen Weyl on the Epistemology of Economics 23 Soham Mehta
A Spectre is Haunting Philosophy: The Spectre of Language Games 31
Joan Alice Tate
Thomas Mar Wee
The Tale of Mus Musculus 40 “What Would Weil Do?”: Philosophy as Work 44
What is our task in philosophy? More importantly for our purposes, what is the task of a publication like Gadfly? Presumably, a central end of any academic publication is the dissemination of insights that have distinctly contributed to the pursuit of truth. In present times, the vast majority of self-proclaimed contributions to this end, particularly in the domain of philosophy in the English-speaking world, have been embedded in academic institutions dominated by analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy—that is, philosophy heavily influenced by the English philosophy of language tradition, which prizes itself on logical and mathematical rigor—tends to set aside “Wittgenstein’s bottle” systematically, if not entirely. This is done on the basis of assumptions regarding the efficacy of language, particularly formal languages, and their ability to “latch onto” the world. Wittgenstein’s view in Philosophical Investigations is meant to be a direct contrast to his earlier views about the efficacy of dissolving putative philosophical problems through rigorous work in the clarification of language. He is skeptical that such an approach — an approach similar to much academic philosophy today — will lead to anything more than running into the transparent wall of the philosophical bottle. The later Wittgenstein’s skeptical challenge—that is, the challenge of the fly and the bottle—ought to be treated as significant and central to the project of philosophy. What might motivate us to, along with much of today’s philosophy, set aside Wittgenstein’s challenge? To take it up? Making this judgement requires viewing philosophical inquiry in a non-dogmatic and refreshing way. That is, it ought to be viewed from a standpoint in which our intuitions are uncorrupted by some of the potential dogmas of systematic formal training. Herein lies the undying importance of publications like Gadfly. In maintaining that we are a magazine as opposed to a journal, we empha-
size our commitment to engaging in philosophical inquiry in a variety of forms, from philosophers of a variety of backgrounds—including (but not limited to) depth of formal training. With this as our mission, we have made exciting and important advances over the past semester. Our editors launched our first-annual Hermeneia Essay Contest, an international essay competition for pre-college students interested in putting their philosophical intuitions and ideas to paper. Gathering submissions from around the world, from students of all ages, language backgrounds, and levels of training, we celebrated the outstanding work of these young philosophers by presenting the best of their work to tenured professors at Columbia, who selected the winners of the contest. Moreover, we established a group of staff writers for the first time ever, giving these students a platform by which they might communicate more widely their philosophical reflections regarding phenomena rarely discussed in academic philosophical contexts. Finally, we have continued our tradition of hosting weekly informal discussions, building a community of lay philosophers. This Gadfly community both reflects the diverse range of disciplines that an international university like Columbia has to offer and is united in our love for deeper discussion, reflection, and inquiry. As we deliberated on the most fitting theme for this experimental issue, it became increasingly obvious to us that taking on Wittgenstein’s challenge of the fly and the bottle from the perspective of a variety of deep thinkers outside of the academy exemplifies both our mission and our values. Through aesthetic experience, composed music, activism, narrative, enterprise, and so much more, the contributors to Gadfly 06 wrestle with this central philosophical question in a fashion that cannot be found anywhere else. They take the question seriously, both from pre-philosophical and philosophical standpoints, and their solutions to Wittgenstein’s dilemma are diverse and interesting in and of themselves.
My aim in this brief letter is not to mitigate or disparage the rigorous philosophical work done in the academy, especially from the standpoint of analytic philosophy—I myself am deeply sympathetic to the analytical approach. Rather, my hope is to attempt to further vindicate extra-academic philosophical inquiry as not only a means by which more diverse philosophers might enter the academy—a construal that we see far too often—but as an end in itself. I hope to assure you, the reader, that whether you are formally trained in philosophy, simply looking for an interesting read, or anything in-between, the contents of this magazine are palpably unique. Herein are but a few ways of dealing with the fundamental problem of the fly and the bottle. If nothing else, they might serve to make one realize that those clear, confining walls are not merely some philosophical metaphor.
Jonathan Tanaka, Editor-in-Chief
We thank the Columbia Philosophy Department for their continued support in all our endeavors.
The fly thinks, hey, the bottle might just be...
EARNIG TO TREA HE
B RDU S ESSONS
THE a NDEMIC ...really beautiful.
Among the many great lessons learned from the pandemic—how to make a mean sourdough, how to be alone, or where lies the fine but critical line between “just passing time” and “alcoholism,” to name a few—one particularly distresses me. That lesson is this: our perceived rational dominion over the world is a sham. Every claim to order is precarious at best.
-tain visceral and even inarticulable feelings that can be experienced in our day to day, such as when the tearful philosophy student, recovering from her third breakdown this week, poses the fateful question: “what’s the point?” But the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought more drastic and jarring disruptions to our structures of meaning and order than these everyday moments of consciousness. Conflicting medical advisories at the outset of the global response (and even now, with contradictory recommendations regarding newly emerging COVID variants) already betray the limits of science, the epitome of our affinity for meaning and order. But we have also experienced disruptions to more primordial structures such as time, or, more specifically, clock time. This is evident in the disruption of routine or the sentiment that is revealed when one says “every day has felt the same.” Even our notions of space have been altered, demonstrated by the newfound perils of visiting
The pandemic is perhaps the most stark, far-reaching, and proximate testament to the fundamental meaninglessness of the world that we have had the misfortune of experiencing. In fact, we may be even so inclined as to call these past eighteen months (or so) entirely absurd. In Myth of Sisyphus, Camus describes the absurd as a fundamental existential truth: the confrontation and subsequent “divorce” between us and the world in which we are situated, or in more specifically, man’s continual projection of meaning and order on the world and the world’s inherent lack thereof. Oftentimes we are made aware of the absurd through cer-
Learning to Breathe: Absurd Lessons from the Pandemic
a place as mundane as the subway or the grocery store, or the dissolution of the partition between workplace and home. Perhaps most significantly, the pandemic has caused disruptions to our senses of self. With the interruption of future projects and the uncertainty of what’s to come, we find ourselves suddenly unable to anchor our identities to such possibilities, and imposed distancing and isolation have estranged us from once familiar relationships. The phenomenon underlying all of these experiences is the same: previously anchored realities have been revealed to be wholly mutable. The meaninglessness of the world is revealed with the very admission that the times we live in are strange and that we are completely unsure (of truth, the future, and ourselves).
So, what are we to do? Well, Camus urges us to revolt. We must live while maintaining full consciousness of the meaninglessness of our condition—and all “without appeal,” while declining to project meaning. In other words, we must live for life itself. But it seems naïve to suggest, as Camus does, that by sheer force of will we can fully embrace our condition and persist through disorder. After all, though the pandemic has continuously thrust consciousness upon us, it has been incredibly difficult to preserve it with the full-hearted gusto Camus asks of us. Instead, our response to the pandemic has been largely characterized by stubbornness: an unshakeable desire to retain some semblance of past order (the feeling of “nostalgia,” as Camus would say). In saying “when things go back to normal,” for example, we appeal to
of bridging Camus’ leap through the aesthetic appreciation of the ordinary. In one of Camus’ earlier works, “Nuptials at Tipasa,” Camus himself explores the role the aesthetic has in regards to the absurd, writing that the natural beauty of the world as it is formed by the scents, sounds, sensations, and sights of his environment grounds him. “This sun, this sea, [his] heart leaping with youth, the salt taste of [his] body and this vast But acknowledging this predilandscape in which tenderness and lection admits defeat, or loss. glory merge in blue and yellow” Specifically, it admits a loss of make him proud of his human conbelonging in the world. Our efforts dition, and they are the only things at preserving awareness give way which do not seem futile. It seems, to an overwhelming and crushing then, that the aesthetic may be the weariness; consequently, we find crucial bridge from the moment of that it is easier, or even better, to consciousness to revolt. In other create order than accept that life is words, it can serve as an emotional truly meaningless. Thus, the diffi- and psychological grounding force culty with Camus’ response is the which permits us to live without leap he makes from the moment of appeal. crippling consciousness to the decision to revolt. In the midst of the While perhaps not immediately absurd, even if revolt is possible, apparent, the mode of aesthetic it does not seem to be achievable appreciation Camus describes in with the framework Camus has “Nuptials” is unorthodox. For inprovided us. stance, when Camus writes, “deep among wild scents and concerts It looks like we have been dealt of somnolent insects, I open my an unsatisfying hand. While eyes and heart to the unbearable granting Camus the importance grandeur of this heat-soaked sky,” of maintaining consciousness, he reveals a particular mode of aeswhat I propose is the possibility thetic appreciation which diverges
this structure, supposing that the world will inevitably correct itself and return to this “essential order.” Yet, this outlook mistakenly assumes that such an order ever existed, and further, arbitrarily excludes the madness of the pandemic from that supposed order. Even those who flout mandates and protest restrictions do so in order to tighten their grip on their desired reality.
from the way one might aesthetically appreciate, say, a painting in a museum or a flower growing in a field. In these cases, aesthetic appreciation is derived solely from one’s visual and at most intellectual apprehension of the object, while Camus’ case requires a much more holistic and immersive approach. Berleant captures and explains this mode of aesthetic appreciation with what I will refer to as his “Total Immersion” theory.
of using one’s imagination to place oneself in the world built by an author, seem to be at odds with disinterestedness and distance. The way we tend to appreciate nature especially escapes containment by traditional aesthetics: when we stroll through a garden, not only are we entirely surrounded by the “object” of aesthetic experience, which compromises the use of the “object” label, but we are encouraged to “make a reciprocal contribution through our movement and change of location and vantage.” The aesthetic of a meal, too, is not simply in its taste or presentation, but also in the order in which one chooses to consume each item on her plate and the combinations and succession of flavours which result. This is all to say that such aesthetic experiences are formed by the subject and made possible only by her immersion in and engagement with the natural world which ultimately allows for a sense of unity.
Total Immersion theory, as presented in Berleant’s “The Aesthetics of Art and Nature,” responds to the difficulties created by the traditional Kantian emphasis on disinterestedness and distance. When we consider how we appreciate certain art forms, such as architecture, performing arts, and literature, we can see that insisting on a disinterested attitude—that is, detachment from the subject’s relationship to that object—fails to capture the ways we actually engage with these works. However, such intimate ways of appreciation are vital to accessing the full spectrum of aesthetic potential. For instance, the bodily and affective responses inspired by music and dance, or the necessity of entering and walking through a building to fully appreciate its architecture, or
I think Berleant’s first claim, that Total Immersion is distinctive to the way we aesthetically appreciate nature, is true. Seeing the Grand Canyon on a postcard does not induce the same aesthetic experience as seeing it in person precisely because it does not and
At least empirically speaking, Immersion allows us to experience everyday moments which are typically overlooked and regarded as unaesthetic in a completely
Imagine, for instance, that you are standing in Dundas Square on a summer night: the air is warm and humid, and it blankets you like a second skin. Surrounding you are flurries of colours which flash across gigantic LED screens. You listen to the steady and muted hum of the city’s night life—a melody of cars, laughter, drunken declarations, banter, and your own breath. An unfamiliar boom bap record plays through a speaker, peeking through the drone. Above you, the sky is clear and the deepest blue. In such ordinary experiences, it is the subject’s sensory awareness, immersive perception, and active participation in her environment which endows it with an aesthetic quality—a quality that is importantly positive, even beautiful. With Immersion, even something as trivial as taking a sip of tea can be-
Learning to Breathe: Absurd Lessons from the Pandemic
cannot afford the same depth of experience. Philosopher Yuriko Saito would chalk this up to the fact that seeing the Grand Canyon on the postcard create the same “ambience” afforded by a live experience: it lacks the coming together of its complete sensory qualities. The lack of ambience is why contemplating the Grand Canyon at a distance affords a much less lucid and striking experience than, say, actually hiking through it. But further, I posit that the Total Immersion view can be extended to encompass not just nature, as Berleant discusses, but the aesthetic appreciation of the everyday—in Everyday Aesthetics, Saito also posits that ambience is a key aspect of everyday aesthetic experiences. I will refer to this mode of aesthetic appreciation as simply Immersion.
Learning to Breathe: Absurd Lessons from the Pandemic
can become unequivocally aesthetic: the curling steam emanating from the white porcelain mug, the heat of the mug seeping into your palms, the delicate aroma of the tea wafting into your nose, the blooming warmth that spreads through your body as the tea trickles down your throat. Such everyday moments are, importantly, available even in the confines of one’s home.1 But how exactly does Immersion grant this specific instance of drinking tea with special aesthetic qualities? There are four elements at play: phenomenological reduction and deconstruction, defamiliarization, experiential distinction, and the engaged subject.
I. Phenomenological reduction and deconstruction
First, Immersion demands a Husserlian phenomenological reduction and deconstruction. Briefly, given in Husserl’s The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, the phenomenological reduction requires that one “bracket” the external world from one’s perception of a given phenomenon such that the phenomenon is instead apprehended as something in itself. That is to say that phenomena are abstracted from any sort of metaphysical or scientific conceptions of the world, including the existence of correlated external reality and one’s own body. It is also abstracted from any notion of the empirical “I,” the experiencing person, a consciousness with character traits and dispositions posited as being joined to the body.2 To this extent, it involves a certain “quieting” of the consciousness which leaves behind
pure experience. 3 With the phenomenological reduction, we also see that a phenomenological deconstruction occurs. Phenomena are effectively savoured and “pulled apart” into their individual sensory elements. For example, the experience of licking chocolate ice cream becomes the coldness and creaminess, the slight resistance met by your tongue as it touches the ice cream, the ice cream dissolving on your tongue, the nutty and sharp sweetness, and so on. In other words, in the phenomenological attitude, the consciousness deconstructs an ordinary experience as it occurs such that its simple phenomenal components—namely, specific sensory qualities—are then fully in view.
-iarization of ordinary experiences. Unfamiliar or typically unrecognized features of ordinary experience are brought to the light, infusing the experience with a new sense of novelty. 4
III. Experiential distinction
The ordinary thus becomes something that is simply not ordinary. That is, there is a transformation in the experiencer’s subjective relationship to the ordinary such that, for example, the daily commute on this particular Tuesday morning has a new and distinct phenomenal character. While phenomenological reduction and deconstruction induce the defamiliarization of experience and its consequent elevation from its ordinary status, they simultaneously enhance, and even facilitate, the aesthetic The aesthetic experience then aris- experience, just as a gemstone’s es as an immediate reaction of the appeal is enhanced by the fact that consciousness to these atomized it is uncovered from a rock that is phenomena as they are made pres- otherwise nondescript. ent to the mind and come together to form a whole experience. IV. The engaged subject
The phenomenological reduction and deconstruction aid in the aesthetic experience of the everyday in effectively inducing a defamil-
Finally, Immersion necessi tates an engaged subject. The subject is engaged insofar as, over the course of the aesthetic experience, one is made an active participant in one’s environment. That is,
unlike distanced appreciation of an artwork, in which the subject is fully removed from the artwork and merely looks at the piece, the subject is fully immersed in the aesthetic experience itself. The subject’s own emotional responses to her environment are formative of the experience, as are her interactions with it: her footsteps, her breathing, and her sensations are all vital to creating the overall aesthetic atmosphere. The subject is both the centre of experience and the experience itself, and, as such, the aesthetic is lived. So, the aesthetic experience granted by Immersion is one that is dynamic and holistic, contingent upon the phenomenal experience of the subject. Meanwhile, the “object” of aesthetic experience, namely the objects and routines of daily life, is made unfamiliar and extraordinary in the transformation of the subject’s relationship to the experience via phenomenological deconstruction and reduction. Working in tandem with each other, phenomenological reduction and deconstruction, defamiliarization, experiential distinction, and the engagement of the subject open up an otherwise mundane experience to aesthetic appreciation.
Now we can begin to understand how Immersion can serve as a catalyst for revolt. At a more superficial level, we may say that, as Kevin Melchionne claims in his essay, “The Point of Everyday Aesthetics,” these moments of beauty contribute to one’s subjective well-being. In other words, though for the past however many months life as we know it has been turned on its head, the pleasure taken in the beautiful experiences of the everyday can afford us the ability to accept this and simply live—without taking shelter in meaning. But more significantly, in my participation in the aesthetic experience and the full occupation of the consciousness with one’s subjective perceptual experience, I become a part of the world as the world becomes a part of me. I am, in other words, both witness and participant. This reciprocal relationship— the world being made present to me in my experience and my contributing to the world—brings the two together in a psychological union. In experiencing the beauty of the world, the despair engendered by our frustrated attempts to derive order and meaning is thus replaced with feelings of contentment and belonging. Rather than feeling alienated from the world, we can continue to live fully and
In the midst of the pandemic, where every day challenges us with the weight of pure existence, this immersive approach to everyday aesthetics seems especially crucial. There is a particular quote from “Nuptials” which feels especially pertinent to my thesis: “but watching the solid backbone of the
Chenoua, my heart would grow calm with a strange certainty. I was learning to breathe, I was fitting into things and fulfilling myself.” Above all, the aesthetic appreciation of the everyday forces us to slow down and contemplate, as many would say, “the little things in life.” Consequently, one may find a sense of reassurance in a world that is otherwise alienating, an anchor in a life that is wholly uncertain. Indeed, over the past year, the little things were often times my only source of sanity: blinking city lights and abandoned streets, strangers on Instagram dancing on rooftops, the warmth of a big plate of spaghetti, the soft glow of my salt lamp, the breeze licking my face while I read in a park. Recognizing and appreciating the beauty in these little things, in turn, made me feel more at home in the world. It seems that there is another great lesson to be learned from the pan-
Learning to Breathe: Absurd Lessons from the Pandemic
lucidly. The world remains unknowable (that is, devoid of any inherent order and meaning), yet we experience it as it is and derive pleasure from it. Indeed, even experiences which may be characterized as aesthetically negative (e.g. disgusting, ugly, horrifying) can serve to reaffirm and strengthen me. As an active participant in such an experience, I still find that I am more present, more engaged, and more unified with the world. The sentiment becomes: though life is meaningless, I am alive in the world, and the world is alive in me.
Learning to Breathe: Absurd Lessons from the Pandemic
demic: life, though meaningless, can nonetheless be beautiful.
 However, this is not intended to present a claim on how the world is, i.e. that the world is purely phenomenal, devoid of materiality. We are primarily concerned with the method of aesthetic appreciation that phenomenology offers us, and as such, we perform the reduction as if the world is purely phenomenal for the sake of the aesthetic experience, though this may not be the case in reality, nor do we act as if it is so afterwards.
 I do not mean to claim, however, that such ordinary experiences will always give way to positive aesthetic qualities. Granting that all aesthetic experience is inherently subjective in that it is contingent upon one’s personal feelings towards the object of aesthetic appreciation (or in this case, the experience), all ordinary experiences have the potential to be appreciated in a positive or negative aesthetic manner; what one might find beautiful, another might find disgusting, ugly, or frightening. Nevertheless, some initially unappealing experiences of the ordinary, such as that of gazing at a dilapidated building, may be revealed to have some positive aesthetic value through Immersion—for example, in the textures of the peeling paint, the silhouette created by its sagging roof, or the stark whiteness of the graffiti sprayed across its stained exterior.  In Myth of Sisyphus, Camus in fact praises phenomenology for this quality, though he rejects Husserl’s subsequent attempts at deriving essence.
 The role of defamiliarization in opening up an object for aesthetic experience is not uncommon. For example, found objects and readymades are ordinary in that they are literally (made of) ordinary things, but they can nonetheless be granted the special status of “art” when they are removed from the everyday, namely in being turned into something which is for contemplation, whether through literal display in a museum, the particular combination of objects, or the conferring of a formal “artwork” designation, such as in the case of Duchamp’s Fountain. This is also found in representational art: in depicting ordinary objects, representational artwork effectively highlights “the special qualities of the mundane” and effectively renders it something other than mundane. It is the role of the poet, the novelist, the artist, to capture the particular specialness of ordinary objects and highlight those qualities for our apprehension. Likewise, phenomenological reduction and deconstruction effectively frames everyday experiences in a new light, one which, like the role of the museum, the painting, or the poet, renders the ordinary unfamiliar and thus opens it to aesthetic appreciation.
The fly plays a teeny tiny viola.
NSECTS Sofia Ouyang
sounds of a haze, blurring into its surroundings,
the swarming collective creating, making,
illuminating interlocking and successive sounds
Insects that are not immediately pleasant nor unpleasant, at times elegant and at times coarse.
sounds of clarity, of a repetitive, mechanical tingling, of –
enchanted was I, a three-year-old little human being looking into the flowers and trees and grasses and mountains and lakesides of Dali, China, my childhood.
Sofia Ouyang A dedication of countless afternoons by the garden’s baby’s breath observing the buzzing of honeybees, by the lake bordering our village looking for the blue green orange red dragonflies, by the tea tree fields discovering praying mantis and crickets hiding beneath......
they are the intricate coinhabitants of our planet, those which simultaneously fascinate and alienate – Insects.
The fly utilizes syncretic views to radicalize markets.
E. Glen Weyl serves as an economist and technologist at Microsoft, where he provides insights about the future of technology, geopolitics, and macroeconomics to the CTO. He is also the Founder of the RadicalxChange Foundation, an international movement focused on political economy and social technology, and co-author of the book Radical Markets. This conversation focuses on Weyl’s critique of modern economics, heterodox views on Artificial Intelligence, and his experience building the RadicalxChange movement. This interview was conducted, transcribed, and edited by Soham Mehta.
The Gadfly: Could you give us a primer on the RadicalxChange movement? Broadly, what are the central problems of political economy that RxC seeks to address, and what are the organizing principles of the community? Glen Weyl: Fundamentally, what we’re trying to do is allow our ability to organize, communicate, and cooperate to advance as far as our technologies have. Let me start from a conceptual perspective and then turn to an operational level. I think the fundamental problem
RxC is addressing is that the ways we are organizing ourselves have not advanced nearly as much as our tools have. As Einstein once put it, “What the inventive genius of mankind has bestowed upon us in the last hundred years could have made human life carefree and happy if the development of the organizing power of man had been able to keep step with his technical advances. As it is, the hard-bought achievements of the machine age in the hands of our generation are as dangerous as a razor in the hands of a 3-year-old child.” Communications technologies have gone from writing, to telegraphs, to telephones, which make the experience of communicating with someone at a distance more and more similar to being with someone in person. However, our political institutions haven’t updated simultaneously, and are consequently incredibly thin representations of the robust relationships technology enables. A fundamental goal of RxC is to have a technological approach to our social institutions so that they advance as far as our technologies have, so we aren’t destroyed by our own tools. One of the core problems RxC addresses is the challenge increasing
is proud of, from cities to complex social organizations, despite being inconsistent with the logic of capitalism. RxC tries to design institutions that work in these contexts where human sociality and cooperation is important and ruled out by standard economics. Because our ideas fundamentally revise our basic institutions, they can’t be treated as policies implemented from the top down. Instead, our ideas should be treated as technologies. People don’t use smartphones and computers in the ways that they do because they are being directed by someone on high. These behaviors emerged organically because people experimented with these technologies and spread virally. We believe in these new social institutions because they’re so different and have to emerge from people’s involvement with them, people experimenting with them, people making them a part of their imagination and lives. That only happens through the humanities, arts, and activist groups, rather than through some process of technocratic policy-making.
Glen Weyl on the Epistemology of Economics
returns poses to classical economics. The fact is that classical economic theory, what you learn in basic economics about market efficiency, only works if there are decreasing returns. The more and more you add to workers and production the less incrementally workers produce. In that context, if you pay out to everyone their incremental contribution it will add up to less than the total since everyone’s average product is greater than their marginal product. Therefore, you have private firms that are producing efficiently, that are paying everyone their marginal product, yet they make a profit. However, in cases where there are increasing returns like in cities, networks, and everything that creates value for civilizations, you would have a loss if you tried to pay everyone their incremental value since each worker’s marginal contribution is greater than their average product. So, the profits of capitalism are inconsistent with efficiency. Yet, increasing returns produce everything capitalism is
Glen Weyl on the Epistemology of Economics
Therefore, RxC is a social movement of artists, creators, activists, and entrepreneurs rather than a standard economics department that analyzes policies and makes expert recommendations to policymakers. RadicalxChange and Radical Markets use “radical” in a very specific way, referencing the tradition of political economy in the 18th and 19th centuries. You claim that modern economics has fundamentally changed since this period, “transitioning from a field of social visionaries to one of specialized technocrats,” despite the growing prominence of economists in governments and universities. How do you believe that academia and the modern scientific and quantitative approaches in economics have affected the discipline’s legitimacy and ability to shape policy? How
does RxC diverge from the modern technocratic consensus in economics? Now, there are a lot of great things that have been accomplished in quantitative, formal academic approaches. Of course, disciplines have to exist, but they have to be pluralistic. But if economists come to think they should be directly making policy, that the political process itself is a problem, and forget that policies are products that ultimately serve the public, that’s when they’ve lost. Computer scientists understand this; they know their discipline is ultimately judged if they produce technologies regular people find interesting. Economists need to understand that their audience isn’t an elite set of other policy thinkers. Rather, they have to generate things that are meaningful
and can be evaluated by the public. But economics has gotten lost in modern technocratic practices and I think we need a way to arrive at a perspective where we can employ math to the extent that it allows us to find useful things for people. We can’t expect to do the math and think that is the only relevant argument that carries the day. The argument has to be one that appeals to the public and math is just a way to find that. To the extent we’ve succeeded in diverging from orthodox economics, it’s because we’ve brought together very different types of people and forced them to work on real projects together. We take the sociological perspective as seriously as the economic perspective. Including the non-academic perspective, such as the technologist, the artist, the religious conservative in rural Oklahoma equally seriously has been an intellectual source for us. Being forced to confront all these views allows us to generate new ideas.
First, I would just make a critique in its own terms of the ALONE worldview. This notion that people have some utility function (essentially a set of preferences, a ranking, over certain states of the world) that they go off and maximize is inconsistent with the most basic principles of computer science. For example, to even have a ranking for the courses you take next semester at Columbia would require more space than exists in your brain since there are so many possible combinations of courses you could take in your schedule. So, obviously, no one actually has a utility function for which classes they want to take at Columbia. Individuals have a vague notion of the future and then, collectively in conversation with other people,
In your blog post “Why I am not a Market Radical,” you criticize social sciences for operating on “Atomistic Liberalism and Objectivist Naive Epistemology” (ALONE), the assumption that individuals
have self-contained conceptions of well-being that can be modeled and optimized. I believe we can also see ALONE’s impact on the post-Enlightenment West, given the emphasis on individual freedom, autonomy, and agency in liberal politics and humanism. Could you explain to our readers what you believe is so dangerous about ALONE in understanding human nature, and what first principles RxC holds instead about human behavior?
come to some function. So rationality does occur, but it occurs collectively, rather than at the level of individual decision making. Therefore, the basic conception which treats the individual and their desire as fundamental, rather than seeing them as an intersection of social forces, simply misses what it is to even be an individual. There is no human individual in the sense there is a presocial, atomized capital “I” individual. There are only members of many different social milieus that create who you are and what you want. Our social circles have a small intersection between them, and that is what defines you as an individual. This can be a powerful basis for replacing identity systems that say that you are reducible to being classified along a single factor, such as how a single national government-issued ID designates you as merely a member of a country. Instead, you are part of all sorts of social communities including that country. Utilizing the full richness of the communities we are part of is at the core of the spirit of the internet. It is a network of networks with people interacting with each other. We need protocols for identity that conform to the actual rich structure of human identity
that the internet tried to get at but ended up unable to capture. And it’s this intersectional way of thinking about what constitutes identity that I think is core to the RxC vision of policy and what we need for individuals to thrive and what makes a successful society. Your understanding of technology as something that enhances the human experience reminds me of a WIRED article you co-authored, where you suggest that AI is interdependent on humans and that all intelligence is hinged on the initial context it expands on. Could you explicate this human-centric vision of AI and describe how it can lead to richer human relationships? The fundamental distinction is an ecological versus eschatological worldview. Eschatology claims that there is one thing and we are going to it and then everything will be perfect or end. Whereas, in ecology, we don’t get to one truth as things develop, but instead we get speciation. Things split and get more differentiated as time goes on. That is what I would call a pluralist view of technology. You can think about this in epistemology as well. There’s a certain view in the rationalist community where we have to remove bias and get to
to the extent it is coherent at all, incredibly thin. This goes back to Jorge Luis Borges’s story On Exactitude and Science. In it, Borges describes someone who tries to make a very very precise map of a kingdom. Following generations find the map unsatisfactory and demand that the map becomes bigger and more precise until the map is larger than the kingdom and the kingdom is destroyed. There is no such thing as a map, and you can think of any intelligence as a map that is incredibly untrue to the underlying reality. Subway maps, topographical maps, political maps, and atlases all show you the different ways of slicing the underlying reality. And be-
Glen Weyl on the Epistemology of Economics
the truth and strip away mistakes versus a view that says that no form of communication or understanding can ever understand more than a minuscule fraction of the incredibly complex universe. And, therefore, every attempt to do so is hundreds of orders of magnitude oversimplification. Rather than thinking that we’re digging down into the earth to hit gold, we’re growing a tree out into the infinite void and this tree’s branches are splitting off and diversifying in every direction. All we can hope is to have something that ties it together so it doesn’t fall under its own weight. Any structure we can hope to build can only model some tiny portion of human understanding. Any such structure will always be,
cause intelligence is always an incredible reduction of reality, no intelligence can ever hope to be the intelligence or the solution. It can only hope to be something that is open to conversation with other kinds of intelligence. And that’s what is so wrong about AI as an ideology because it thinks of intelligence in this autonomous way, believing that there’s a point where we’ll have superseded people. There is no such point; every intelligence is just part of an ecology and is interdependent on and
and benefits from the other elements of that ecology. It doesn’t matter if it’s human or artificial; what is important is the fundamental principle of speciation, ecology, diversity, pluralism rather than this eschatological notion that we’ve reached the Messiah, the intelligence, and all of the problems of the world are solved.
A Spectre sI Haunting h P ilosophy:
The Spectre of Language Games Adam e F ng The fly is exhausted by metaphysical considerations.
I. A while ago, in the first ever philosophy class that I took, the fabled “what makes a chair a chair?” question was proposed to me in the form of a final exam. At the time, I found it difficult to respond without offending my professor. I mean, seriously, it is questions like this that my mom latches onto during Thanksgiving dinner in her project to incessantly torture me for not pursuing a “better” degree, like computational biology. In the end, I answered with something
along the lines of “chairs are chairs because we have designated them so,” but I still felt dissatisfied with the fact that I even had to answer such a stupid question in the first place. After expressing my grievances to my friends, I found that they all unanimously agreed with my mother that it was my fault for choosing the major. Heartbroken and misunderstood, I retreated to the library to seek consolation from the dead. It was there that I found the company of two sweet, German-speaking men—Karl Marx and Ludwig Wittgenstein—who in their time voiced similar concerns regarding the nature of such philosophical questions. However, despite the tremendous amount of literature on both authors, few scholars have sought to explore the similarities between the two. In fact, the majority of Karl’s fanbase (henceforth referred to as Marxists), tend
Wittgenstein’s philosophy—at least according to the vast majority of Marxists—is nothing but another manifestation of the ruling bourgeois ideology. They argue that his works are conservative and reactionary in nature, preserving the status quo. It is for this reason that many Marxists have set Wittgenstein and his ideas aside. After all, no self-respecting leftist would choose to adopt such a conservative stance in their theories. Therefore, much to my dismay, any attempt to interpret Wittgenstein through a Marxist perspective seems to inevitably end in failure, as his philosophy is inherently antithetical to leftist beliefs. That is, of course, assuming that the dominating Marxist narrative about Wittgenstein is correct—which certainly is not the case.
II. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” -Karl Marx, Theses On Feuerbach Karl Marx may be philosophy’s most virulent critic. It may seem ironic that Marx would have such a hostile attitude towards philosophy, especially given that his prized dialectical materialism would not exist if not for the philosophical contributions of Hegel. Was it not hypocritical of him to criticize philosophy so harshly yet engage with it so heavily in his theories? In order to answer such a question and grasp why he holds such a dismissive attitude towards philosophy, it is imperative to first understand how Marx defines “philosophy.” In his 1844 manuscripts, Marx writes the following: “philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought and expounded by thought, i.e., another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man; hence equally to be condemned.” Here Marx likens philosophy to religion—something that he famously denounced as the “sigh of the oppressed creature, the
A Spectre Is Haunting Philosophy: The Spectre of Language Games
not to respect, or even acknowledge Wittgenstein at all. Perhaps Herbert Marcuse puts it best in One Dimensional Man: “Wittgenstein’s assurance that philosophy ‘leaves everything as it is’—such statements exhibit, to my mind, academic sado-masochism, self-humiliation, and self-denunciation of the intellectual whose labor does not issue in scientific, technical or like achievements.”
A Spectre Is Haunting Philosophy: The Spectre of Language Games
heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions, and the opium of the people.” Much like how opium slows down the body and mind of a person by bringing them a powerful euphoria, Marx claims that religion—and thus philosophy—have similar effects on a societal scale. To Marx, religion and philosophy offer an “inverted consciousness of the world” to the masses, selling them illusions that do not exist in reality with the intended effect of creating a “false consciousness” within. Therefore, religion and philosophy serve a practical purpose for the ruling class—to strengthen and ensure their dominance by dousing the proletariat with illusions. It is for this reason that Marx so strongly denounces philosophy. Aside from it being a branch of the ruling class ideology, Marx has another bone to pick with philosophy, namely how impractical and needlessly abstract it is by nature (don’t shoot the messenger!). In The German Ideology, we read that “philosophy and the study of the actual world have the same relation to one another as onanism (masturbation) and sexual love.” From this amusing comment, it is clear that Marx thought that philosophy and practicality are
divorced from one another. Marx elaborates by writing the following (italics are my own): Just as philosophers have given thought an independent existence, so they were bound to make language into an independent realm. This is the secret of philosophical language, in which thoughts in the form of words have their own content. The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language (everyday use of words), from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it, as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life. By elevating thought and language to “independent realms,” Marx argues that philosophers have lost their connection to the tangible world. In essence, they have erased any ability to solve practical issues when they began relying on the self-referential, “distorted” language they created. Therefore, with philosophy so full of empty abstractions that concern themselves not with real life but with the fabricated theoretical (what makes
However, Marx’s perspective is not entirely bleak, as he offers
within that same passage a way out of this linguistic mess: a return to ordinary language. If philosophy cannot solve real-life problems due to its distorted nature, why not bid it farewell and opt to stay
a chair a chair?), it is easy to see why Marx would find it distasteful and associate it with impracticality.
grounded in reality instead? If philosophers were to dissolve their language back into ordinary language as Marx said, they would gain the ability to cause substantive changes in the world. And that is precisely what Marx advises his readers to do in his German Ideology; he declares that we must “leave philosophy aside” and devote ourselves like “an ordinary man to the study of actuality” so that we can discover the truth of the world that is “unknown, of course, to philosophers.”
community setting, i.e., language is a social product. In The German Ideology, he states that “language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men.” In other words, the development of language requires a collaborative effort from a community, meaning that an individual cannot define a language by themselves. Thus, the idea of a private language, a language that in principle can only be understood by a single person, is utterly impossible.
Notably, according to Marx, language is only possible in a
So how would Marx answer my professor’s question? Likely,
hear the expressions of civilized men, put a false interpretation on them, and then draw the queerest conclusions from it.” In his view, traditional philosophy takes ordinary expressions—believing that they are insufficient to deal with philosophical issues—and assigns them new, specific definitions in an attempt to achieve clarity. What they fail to realize, however, is III. that the sharper their terminolo“What is your aim in philosophy? gy gets, the more distorted from —To show the fly the way out of reality it becomes. Because the the fly-bottle.” meaning of a word, according to -Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein, “lies in its use,” it Philosophical Investigations drastically changes depending on the context—making it impossible Wittgenstein, much like his peers for someone to tie it down to spein Cambridge at the time, thought cifics. Thus, like Marx before him, about philosophy in a radically Wittgenstein advances the idea different way than traditional that practicality (the everyday usphilosophers. For him, philosophy age of words) dictates language—a is not about pursuing the cosmic concept that traditional philosophy truth or even the love of wisdom has continuously failed to grasp. and knowledge, but rather, much as it is for Marx, it is an issue of To illustrate this point, Wittlanguage. genstein introduces his famous “language-game” and asks us to In his Philosophical Investigaconsider this: when we use a word, tions, Wittgenstein states that like the word “game,” it can refer philosophical problems arise not to several different things. We from nature, but from language could be talking about Monopoly, confusions. According to Witta soccer match, gambling your genstein, when we engage in life savings in Las Vegas, and so traditional philosophy, “we are on. The only way to know for sure like savages, primitive people, who which definition “game” refers to
A Spectre Is Haunting Philosophy: The Spectre of Language Games
he wouldn’t entertain it in the slightest. Instead, he might ask my professor if the question has any relevance to the material conditions of the proletariat. And when my professor would inevitably respond in the negative, he would leave the classroom, but not before telling my professor to join a union.
A Spectre Is Haunting Philosophy: The Spectre of Language Games
is to understand the context, or the language game, that the word is being used in—outside of its usage in language games, it has no meaning. Wittgenstein summarizes this method in the Philosophical Investigations through one last remark: “When philosophers use a word, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language-game which is its original home?—What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.” Wittgenstein’s language-games are therefore yet another reflection of Marx’s conception of language as a social product. Language is defined by the community and it will only be useful within that particular community and context. However, unlike Marx—who bid traditional philosophy farewell and encouraged his readers to “leave it aside”—Wittgenstein provides an exit to this false tradition: to rehabilitate philosophy and its contents through ordinary language. Wittgenstein defines his “new” philosophy as the following in the Philosophical investigations: “There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place.”
Wittgenstein makes it clear that philosophy should aim to be purely descriptive and non-theoretical, to sweep away misconceptions rather than explain. He advocates that we look deeper into“the workings of our language” and insists that we must utilize “what we have long been familiar with” to “bring words back from the metaphysical to their everyday use.” This way, instead of ignoring philosophical problems as Marx did, Wittgenstein dissolves them by clarifying the initial misunderstandings that led to them in the first place. In his Culture and Value, Wittgenstein writes that the task of philosophy is to “erect signposts at all the junctions where there are wrong turnings [sic] as to help people past the danger points.” Philosophy, therefore, offers no new truths, theories, or advancements, but rather it serves to reaffirm and clarify what we already know. So, it seems that Wittgenstein would have little to say about the chair problem besides the fact that “all chairs are chairs.” Perhaps he would remind me that the only reason we raise such a question is because we have taken the word “chair” out of its friend circle and forced it to sit with a bunch of other words that it never wanted to
hang out with in the first place.
most likely end up falling for the same traps that the bourgeois laid IV. out—ones that Marx recognized “Ok, but why should I care?” but did not nothing about—and be-You (probably) come intellectual victims without even knowing. But, if we rehabiliWhile Marx does accurately point tate philosophy into a clarification out the many tool like faults of Wittgenstein traditional proposed, we philosophy, will be able to in the end set up signhe just tells posts to warn his readers newcomers to abandon against the the project countless pitaltogether. falls laid out His rejection by the ruling of traditional class. And if philosophy, we consishowever, tently apply creates a mahis method of jor problem: dissolution, What about we might those who wipe away all have yet to that remains come across of traditional Marxist philosophy ideas? With once and all the Marxfor all. In ists removed short, if we from the adopt Wittconversation genstein’s of philosophy, no one remains to philosophy into our arsenal, phiwarn newcomers about the many losophers of the world will unite, faults of traditional philosophy. and we will have nothing to lose Therefore, they will most likely but our language games.
The fly is a rodent.
T HE O
T ALE F
o J an lA ice Tate
He wakes to knocking on his door: an angular patch of scuffed-out light, gauged by two dull teeth. his teeth. He wakes and finds his lit door shorn to a slight slit of shine who slides dry along the ground. He sniffs like he means it. He scuffles, bold behind the plaster expanse, the silent homewalls, until he scratches on the boards imposed upon a now-dead door. Nothing. He rushes over cracks and crags from one hole to the other. Another in the kitchen, bedrooms, basement, garage, all to find his life now boarded in. The Big Ones sealed the holes to his house and now his pink and gliding tail has been nailed behind the walls. Trapped. A dastardly strike in sleep with coordinated boards shored up so tight the air can only hum like bugs beneath a gown of beige. This is to say it is dark and dull with no ferocious orange creeper hissing out with fangs to bat him like a ball, or Big One spats to stomp and smack and hunt. The sport of him was dashed to ghosts. dulled to a rounded point. He is a chore completed. Quiet waits our Hero scuttling blind. catching whispers through the wetted pipes. sensing snapping surges from the wires hissing copper overhead. feeling tepid feet of roaches bumping off his
The Tale of Mus Musculus
nose. The food has left and his head spins forward I must I Must Escape! Nostrils flaring, our friend preparing, sets his face against the inner wall, the siren voice of cabinets closing, dryers thumping, great big beasts of white who fill with food, flood with water, shit, litter, who knows (not he) the goings on of Big Ones up above, of the walls they walk, except that they are thin and chewy. He dreams of boxes big and brilliant, crackling gold in bags, of bountiful fruit to nibble as the stores run out. He dreams of secret hunts on frigid counters for a flake or crumb and so his quickened heart thrums beside his belly. Should he carve again a niche to go and grab their crumbs? their bits of twine and mossy thread to sow his nests together. to make his now dark home woven, nice, and dear. to make the stores run hot with bread. to bathe with beam his floor as once before. Staring at the wall, behind the cold and heat of the pipes he taps his paw against the drywall. Trapped. Tempted. He contemplates the boards he used to haunt, the faint peals of sound from out the wall haunting him with races run. The path he toed with sweat against the mewling keeper and its children stirring in the night or dawn to balk at him with whiskers. to brandish flaming sword on all that nibbles. Our Hero stops and breathes a bit, his tiny lips pressed clean against the boarding while his lungs pump up and down. He has grown tired of the running. of the nuisance he’d been deemed. grown weary of attention from the cat. from
the shoes and children paws who clutch at his pink string. Moreover now the light that lit his home seems still and stale from in his memory. This house was not his home and so, he turns to find some other way beyond the cool slick brick of the outer wall. Like iron our Hero starts to climb the pipes and follows faint and feathering cries, errant eyes can pick out places yet to put his feet as high he drifts beyond the echoes of the Big Ones, beyond the crying of the cat who sniffs him out with a Thwump Thwump THWACK from out the fireplace. In this hidden dark he rises til it’s empty, a little attic stretching out before his toes. Musty boxes stain the air but clear as glass the light floods in between a widening gap of brick and stone. There is peace. or at least a patience as a beak of light fans out: obtuse and wild. The boards are soft and moist and warm. Siren sounds from out the gap root throughout his mind like visions or vectors soaring overhead. Beams of music fill him, not the watery whining through the pipes, but songs that come calling along the breeze. His whiskers poke the gaps of black and red, the world erupting through the brick in greens and blues and browns. Erupts in light. in endless dreaming. in waving limbs and cries of creatures, hidden on the branches making him fear. tremble. wonder. He steps out on a dull green gutter slicked with morning dew such that his heels click softly. along the pipe he pauses. He is looking at the shingles and the long wet drop below until he trips and tumbles. He hears his quaking breaths resound within the iron guide and wonders where he’ll land until he strikes the green rain-water. Our Hero kicks his feet and up he floats. The sun flickers in the grass and branches above before his pinkened nose, and bright he steps along the ground to wonder where in this world of cut-up light he must now go.
Joan Alice Tate
The fly takes a stroll with Simone Weil.
WOULD D O ?”:
Thomas a M r Wee
“You could not have wished to be born at a better time than this, when everything has been lost.” - Simone Weil The first time I read Weil, I was a senior in high school. I was given a copy of Gravity and Grace by my older, much wiser friend who was in college and who seemed infinitely more advanced than me. Weil had become, for her, a kind of spiritual and intellectual mentor. For years, she carried her dog-eared, heavily annotated copy of Gravity and Grace with her like a pocket King James Bible. The epigrammatic, koan-like Gravity and Grace reminded me of the austere architecture of a Roman cathedral—something both lofty and utterly removed from daily life—or of the uncanniness of medieval Christian portraiture. There was something alien to her writing, something simultaneously recognizable as human while also appearing to exist primarily outside of our world. On my first read, I’ll admit that I found Weil, cold, impersonal, and opaque. As someone who was raised Christian but who has since
lapsed into a vague spiritualism, her intense devotion was initially off-putting to me. It often felt, while reading her, that she was speaking another language. Nevertheless, I sensed that there was something to her, a reason why my friend and so many others were consistently drawn to her life and work. In the fall of 2020, as the world reeled from the pandemic, I, like everyone else, was spending a lot of time at home and alone with my thoughts. I decided it was time to give Weil another try. After acquiring an anthology of her writing, I began working my way through it, and instead of finding her writing dour, discomforting, or off-putting, I felt as if I were being led by a warm, firm, steady hand. I took comfort reading her during the dark winter months of 2020, finding something reassuring in reading a thinker who could write with such moral clarity
“What Would Weil Do?”: Philospohy as Work
during another uniquely calamitous time in history.
cause the least amount of harm: “What would Simone Weil do?”
Weil lived during a time filled with ethically fraught, high-stakes decisions. Although the circumstances were different, the pervasive feeling that one’s daily decisions had grave, large-scale consequences, is common, I think, to both Weil’s lifetime and our own. Weil
One way, out of many, to read Weil’s work and life, is to examine how she applied her ethical philosophy to her own actions. This is the kind of reading I will attempt here—looking at the way theory and praxis merged in the particular instance of Weil’s engagement
was living through an ethically convoluted environment similar to the one that myself and everyone I knew faced as we attempted to navigate our lives during a global pandemic, where daily decisions could have literally life or death consequences. Weil’s writings on living ethically during fraught times resonated deeply with me. I found myself asking, only partly ironically, when faced with challenging day-to-day choices and attempting to calculate what would
with labour throughout her work, following some of the twists and turns in the development of her thinking on the topic of work, both in an abstract and a literal sense. The site of this engagement was most often the factory floor. During her short career, the factory, like the lycée, was a place where Weil engaged in philosophy, among her peers and her fellow workers. It was a fertile breeding ground for Weil, and, especially early in her career, a place where
Simone Weil lived a short and intense life bracketed by two world wars. Born in 1909, a few years before the outbreak of World War I, she died in 1943 from a combination of tuberculosis and self-imposed malnutrition. In her short life, she produced a prolific amount of work on everything ranging from classical literature, mathematics, psychology, science, and religion to, of course, philosophy. In a short time, she managed to live a remarkable amount of often contradictory lives, and part of the joy and difficulty one encounters reading her work is how to make sense and reconcile the starkly different “Weils” that one encounters. Weil was, at various points in her life: a Frenchwoman, a mystic, a Platonist, a philosopher who labored among factory workers, a Jewish-born convert to Roman Catholicism, a pacifist who fought in the Spanish Civil War, a revolutionary who was skeptical of revolution, and (according to André Gide) the “patron saint of all outsiders.”
Having lived through three wars and participated in two (the Spanish Civil War and World War II), her short life during this intense historical period gave her a unique amount of opportunities to put her ethics to the test. Unique among her contemporaries is the narrow distance between the values she espoused and the actions she performed. Although she contradicted herself over her career, and her actions were sometimes misguided and even unhelpful (see, for example, her absurd proposal to parachute unarmed nurses onto the Allied front-lines, or her botched attempt to fight in the Spanish Civil war, which ended after she accidentally burned herself with oil) Weil was, above all else, deeply committed to all of her beliefs. I. One of the first causes the young Weil pledged herself to was the plight of the workers. Like many other French intellectuals of her period, she was attracted to Marxist ideas and from a very early age expressed an interest in labor relations. Where Weil differs significantly from her French intellectual contemporaries, however, is how she applied her concern for the worker’s conditions. She was not
Thomas Mar Wee
some of her most well-known theories—notably her theories of “attention” and “affliction”—were first sketched.
Thomas Mar Wee
simply an armchair Marxist, teaching about dialectics in a university somewhere: she made concerted (if sometimes ridiculous) efforts to meet the workers where they were, to tutor them in the cultural education she felt them to have been robbed of, and to engage with them on their own terms. Weil was not, despite her bourgeois class position, writing about labor from an idealized, comfortably removed position. Rather, Weil wrote from the perspective of someone who had intimately acquainted herself with physical work and who knew both how soul-crushing and how fulfilling it could be. While teaching at a small lycée in Roanne, an industrial city in southeast France, Weil applied to work at the Alsthom factory in Rue Lecourbe. Slight, clumsy and plagued by migraines, she was certainly a poor candidate for hard labor. But despite these deficits, she persisted in her search for factory work, finally convincing the factory director to take her on in 1934. While teaching her half-dozen students philosophy at the lycée, she worked during her off-hours at a machine press on the Alsthom factory floor. It was obvious that she was not well-suited to the work: she often missed her
her quotas (once damaging an entire quota’s worth of metal components), frequently burned herself, and, wracked by migraines and fatigue, finished most of her work days weeping. Despite not being a very capable manual laborer, her experience at the factory proved fruitful intellectually, as is documented in the “factory journal” she kept during her time at Alsthom. To read her journals from this period is to watch her distilling her physical experiences with labor into philosophical theories in real time. At the factory, her experience with the mind-numbing, repetitive, painful experiences of physical labor was essential for the development of her ideas, especially her writings on affliction and attention. Work, as Weil’s thought develops, becomes an especially intellectually dense locus within her broader philosophical system. This sphere of activity is a meeting place where many of the ideas Weil explored are staged. In her later writings, as will be shown, work acquires for Weil spiritual implications that are latent in the earlier “factory journal” entries. When work is done under nonideal conditions it produces the
In an essay written a few years later in Marseille in 1941, “Prerequisite to Dignity of Labour,” we find Weil writing again about the negative effects of work done in inhumane conditions, but this time from the vantage point of
someone who was undergoing a spiritual conversion. She begins the essay by stating that i n all manual work and all work done out of the need to survive, there is an element of constraint: “it means exerting effort whose sole end is to cure no more than what one already has, while failure to exert such effort results in losing it.” Anyone who has had to work for a living—to pay rent, support their family or themselves, and put food on the table—will understand the kind of experience Weil describes vividly: “the unit of time is a day and [workers] oscillate like a ball bouncing off two walls, from work to sleep, working so as to eat, eating so as to continue to work and so on ad nauseum.”
“What Would Weil Do?”: Philospohy as Work
the kind of acute mental and physical suffering Weil experienced herself on the Alsthom factory floor. This affliction is both physical and psychological: it reduces those that endure it (the workers) to the status of things—dehumanized, non-thinking things. To paraphrase Weil, affliction reduces its victims to slaves. Writing about inhuman labor conditions and affliction, Weil often sounds like Marx writing on the alienation of the worker from his labor.
“What Would Weil Do?”: Philospohy as Work
For Weil, the condition of working simply to subsist produces “revulsion.” All workers, but especially those who work under inhumane conditions, are the most susceptible to revulsion. The connection to her earlier notion of “affliction” is explicit. Revulsion, it seems to me, is an instantiation of Weil’s theory of affliction that applies specifically to workers. In this state of revulsion for the worker where all “effort is survival,” the Good is notably absent. As Weil puts it, “necessity is omnipresent, good nowhere.” Weil’s intellectual debt to Plato, her deep love and allegiance to his philosophy, is especially evident here, and is indicative of her moral philoso-
-phy at this later stage in her career. Never a particularly orthodox Marxist, it is Weil’s unique conception of work as it relates to the Good that I would argue distinguishes her among other philosophers similarly concerned with labor relations, forms of oppression, and revolutionary politics. Breaking ranks with Marxist orthodoxy, Weil claims that Revolution is not a cure-all for this state of revulsion, but rather like a “drug”; it is an illusionary form of compensation. Revolution “as a revolt against the injustices of society” is right, according to Weil, but “as a revolt against the
II. As “Prerequisite to the Dignity of Labour” continues, Weil makes a turn, revealing her hand. It is here, as her thought begins to ascend to a loftier, spiritual plane, where Weil begins to lose me. What workers need most of all, Weil argues, in order to fill their miserable and empty lives, is beauty. “Only one thing,” Weil writes, “makes monotony bearable and that is beauty, the light of the eternal.” What is not needed for workers is bread so much as beauty in the form of poetry—but not poetry’s “closed inside words,” as we would conventionally assume— poetry in the form of religion. “Such poetry can come from one source only, and that is God,” she writes. Religion fulfills what workers are fundamentally lacking in their lives: purpose. Interestingly, for Weil it is the worker who is in a social and economic position most well-suited to receive God: “Nothing separates them from God. They have only to lift their heads.”
The very work that they do, which was also the medium for much of their misery, becomes also a vehicle for their salvation. Although in the workplace “all thought is dragged down to earth,” the tools and material of the workplace contain, for Weil, the cure. The workplace, as Weil enumerates, is full of reminders of God. For these workers, “the very work which paralyses, provided it be transformed into poetry, will lead to intuitive attention.” Work is the ideal medium for the practice of Weil’s notion of “attention,” a crucial, loaded term in her philosophy, traces of which can be found in her early factory journals, although it wouldn’t become a fully fledged concept until the final years of her career. What then is Weil’s theory of attention? It is hard, given limited space, to summarize her concept fully. Nevertheless, here is an attempt. Contrary to the conventional understanding of attention as a kind of intense mental effort, Weil separates attention into two categories: inferior attention (mental exertion or “mental gymnastics”) and intuitive intention. “Pure, intuitive attention,” she writes, “is the only source of perfectly
Thomas Mar Wee
essential misery of the working condition it is misleading, for no revolution will get rid of the latter.” If revolution is only a partial solution, what does Weil suggest as an alternative?
Thomas Mar Wee
beautiful art, and truly original and brilliant scientific discovery, of philosophy which really aspires to wisdom and of true, practical love of one’s neighbor.” Attention is also, for Weil, a form of prayer, one that, if practiced correctly, promises a direct link with God. Like prayer, it involves a great amount of patience, and it requires us to leave ourselves open to the possibility of being awed. Weil’s practice of attention is also intimately connected with the Good. It is here where we see Weil’s particular flavor of Platonism in full force. She writes, in Gravity and Grace: “If we turn our minds towards the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.” This kind of orientation towards the Good, through the practice of attention, involves a particular form of self-abnegation—the suppression (or even destruction) of the Ego. However, in Weil’s case, this detachment does not result in a hands-off, cloistered kind of noninvolvement, but instead a particularly charged form of ethical engagement with the world. At first, this statement seems to be, like many of Weil’s theories,
a paradox. Here, understanding a little about Weil’s thinking on the relation between perception and ethics is helpful. For Weil, in contrast to other theories of phenomenology, perception and value judgement are coterminous. Thought, she argues, occurs simultaneously with discernment: we perceive and we judge simultaneously. Thus, for Weil, acting morally is contingent on “seeing” the other properly. Attention, in Weil’s unique formulation, is therefore able to take the form of an ethical precept. Especially when the subject of our attention is another human and their suffering, the act of attention takes on pronounced ethical dimensions: “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it.” Attention, when its object is another human being, can be described as a conscious attuning to the sacredness inherent in the other regardless of their status, their behavior, or their identities. Proper action towards another human, for Weil, can only first emerge when this inherent sacredness of the other is properly
III. With all this in mind, what can studying Weil, both her work and her life, teach us today? What if we do not agree with all of her views, especially those concerning God? What if we are unbelievers? I’ve struggled with this often while reading Weil, as I find myself torn between being drawn to her strongly and almost inexplicably despite rejecting (or at least severely doubting) many of her fundamental religious beliefs. As a spiritually curious, lapsed Christian, there is much of Weil that I disagree with. Still, I can’t stop reading her. Reading gives me a glimpse of the kind of clarity and surety that having such devout belief can bring to one’s life. It is this feeling, of being awed by
such a display of devotion, that is part of the reason I return to Weil, again and again. This, and the fact that she seems to have something important to say about nearly everything. As one of her translator’s, Richard Rees, puts it in the introduction to her First and Last Notebooks: “There is probably not a single fundamental problem of our age, in any domain, that is not resolutely faced and examined somewhere in these pages.” She is a thinker who, I believe, rewards continual, long term engagement. In other words, Weil rewards our attention. Unfortunately for her readers today, Weil’s work will not provide a simple compendium of answers to common ethical questions. A reader looking for a “self-help” style guide on how to live will come
“What Would Weil Do?”: Philospohy as Work
Thomas Mar Wee
away frustrated. Her writing does not provide any easy answers. It will not, for example, tell us how to solve climate change, who to vote for, or whether you can buy from Amazon and still consider yourself a good person. Even the more direct answers that she does give to moral problems may prove equally unhelpful, at least initially. But do I believe that a sustained engagement with her work does serve to train us to be better at thinking “ethically”— at interrogating our beliefs, and our motivations, and our ideals, so that when we do act, we do so with great intention and moral clarity. In a general sense, I think Weil serves as a model of someone who lived a committed life, held firm ideals, and thought and lived rigorously until right up until her death. She is a model for a version of the philosopher: the philosopher as a thinker who is also engaged in daily life—a model of philosophy not as a solipsistic retreat, but as
continual re-engagement with the world. It is not only Weil’s theories that are worthwhile to study today, but her particular way of thinking through them. It was Weil’s thought as a verb and not as a noun that ultimately proved the most rewarding takeaway during my year of reading her. By reading, in her journals and essays and lectures, Weil articulating simultaneously her experiences “doing” work and “doing” philosophy, I began to understand the intimate relationship the two possessed for her. Philosophy, for her, was not something detached from one’s daily, banal existence but something fundamentally inextricable from it. After spending a year with Weil, I believe that she has much to teach us about what it means to be a thinking person in this world and how thinking itself is a morally fraught action. Weil is something of a philosopher’s philosopher: she writes lucidly about the role
of a philosopher, and what doing philosophy means at all.
It took me a long time to come around to Weil. I felt intimidated, uncomfortable, and a little guilty reading her. It is easy, when
“What Would Weil Do?”: Philospohy as Work
At her very best, Weil is a kind of moral exemplar in the sense that she encourages us to think more critically about our thought processes (and the actions that spring from them) and to commit ourselves more deeply to what we believe in. As she writes in her notebooks, “philosophy is exclusively an affair of action and practice. That is why it is so difficult to write about it. Difficult in the same way as a treatise on tennis or running, only much more so.” This is both a wonderful, succinct definition of her conception of philosophy and a useful way to approach her own philosophical practice. For Weil, thought was action, although it was not a complete substitute for it. Even if her attempts to enact her ideals were sometimes flawed in execution, there is much to admire in a person who is willing to live and die by their beliefs, a person whose ethics are so enmeshed in their life, that it is nearly impossible for them to separate ethics from existence.
reading Weil, to feel ashamed. One feels that they are continually falling short in her presence. I am reminded, every time I read her, that I am not doing enough for the causes and ideals I believe in. I think that, especially today, this feeling is not a bad thing. As one of her earliest friends and later her biographer said of her, “Who would not be ashamed of oneself in Simone’s presence, seeing the life she led?” Shame, I think, should only be our initial feeling reading her. For if we get past the shame, the richness of Weil’s teachings are unveiled to us, and we are given the immense privilege of bearing witness and giving attention to her beautiful, luminous mind.
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