Examined Life (2008)
Cornel West: The unexamined life is not worth living, Plato says on line 38A of the Apology. How do you examine yourself; what happens when you interrogate yourself? What happens when you begin to call into question your tacit assumptions and unarticulated presuppositions and begin then to become a different kind of person. See, I put it this way, that for me, philosophy is fundamentally about... our finite situation. We can define that in terms of we're beings toward death, we're featherless, two-legged, linguistically conscious creatures born between urine and feces whose bodies will one day be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms. That's us, beings toward death. At the same time, we have desire, why we are organisms in space and time, so it's desire in the face of death. And then, of course, you've got dogmatism, various attempts to hold on to certainty, various forms of idolatry, and you've got dialogue, in the face of dogmatism and then of course, structurally and institutionally, you've got domination... and you have democracy
Cornel West: There's a certain pleasure in the life of the mind, that cannot be denied. It's true that you might be socially isolated, because you're in the library, at home and so on. But you're intensely alive. In fact, you're much more alive than these folk walking the streets in New York, in crowds, which is no intellectual interrogation and questioning going at all.
Slavoj Zizek: This is where we should start feeling at home. Part of our daily perception of reality is that this
[points to garbage]
Slavoj Zizek: disappears from our world. When you go to the toilet, shit disappears. You flush it. Of course, rationally, you know it's there, in canalization and so on, but at a certain level of your most elementary experience, it disappears from your world. But, the problem is, that trash doesn't disappear. I think ecology, the way we approach ecological problematic is maybe the crucial field of ideology today. "And I use ideology in the traditional sense of illusory, wrong way of thinking and perceiving reality. Why? Ideology is not simply dreaming about false ideas and so on. Ideology addresses very real problems, but it mystifies them. One of the elementary ideological mechanisms, I claim, is what I call the temptation of meaning. When something horrible happens, our spontaneous tendency is to search for a meaning. It must mean something. You know, like, AIDS. It was a trauma. Then, conservatives came and said it's punishment for our sinful ways of life and so on and so on. Even if we interpret a catastrophe as a punishment, it makes it easier, in a way, because we know it's not just some terrifying blind force. It has a meaning. It's better when you're in the middle of a catastrophe, it's better to feel that God punished you than to feel that "it just happened". If God punished you, it's still a universe of meaning. "And, I think that, that's where ecology as ideology enters. It's really the implicit premise of ecology that the existing world is the best possible world in the sense of, it's a balanced world that is disturbed through human hubris. So, why do I find this problematic? Because I think that this notion of nature, nature as harmonious, organic, balanced, reproducing, almost living organism, which is then disturbed, perturbed, derailed through human hubris, technology, exploitation and so on is, I think, a secular version of the religious story of the Fall. And the answer should be, not that there is no Fall, that we are part of nature but, on the contrary that there is no Nature. "Nature is not a balanced totality which then we humans disturb. Nature is a big series of unimaginable catastrophes. We profit from them. What's our main source of energy. Oil. But are we aware, what is oil? Oil reserves beneath the earth are material remainders of an unimaginable catastrophe. Are we aware? Because we all know that oil is composed of the remainders of animal life, plants and so on and so on. Can you imagine what kind of unthinkable catastrophe had to occur on Earth? So that's good to remember. "Ecology will slowly turn into maybe a new opium of the masses, as we all know Marx defined religion. What we expect from religion is a sort of unquestionable highest authority. It's God's work, so it is, you don't debate it. Today, I claim, ecology is more and more taking over this role of a conservative ideology. Whenever there is a new scientific breakthrough, biogenetic development, whatever, it is as if the voice that warns us not to trespass, violate a certain invisible limit, like "don't do that, it would be too much", that voice today is more and more the voice of ecology. Like, don't mess with DNA, don't mess with nature, don't do it. This basic, conservative, archly ideological mistrust of change. This is today, ecology.
Cornel West: Oh, God no.
Cornel West: A philosopher is a lover of wisdom. It takes tremendous discipline, it takes tremendous courage to think for yourself, to examine yourself. The Socratic imperative of examining yourself requires courage. You know, William Butler Yeats used to say "it takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on the battlefield." Courage to think critically,
Cornel West: courage is the enabling virtue for any philosopher, for any human being, I think, in the end.
Avital Ronell: This is something that Derrida has taught: if you feel that you've acquitted yourself honorably, then you're not so ethical. If you have a good conscience, then you're kind of worthless. Like, if you think, oh, I gave this homeless person five bucks, I'm great! then you're irresponsible. The responsible being is one who thinks they've never been responsible enough, they've never taken care enough of "the other". The other is so in excess of anything you can understand or grasp or reduce. This, in itself, creates an ethical relatedness. A relation without relation. Because you can't presume to know or grasp the other. The minute you think you know the other, you're ready to kill them. You think, oh, they're doing this or this, they're the axis of evil. Let's drop some bombs. But, if don't know, if you don't understand this alterity, you can't violate it with your sense of understanding, then you have to let it live, in a sense.
Peter Singer: I think ethics has to come from ourselves, but that doesn't mean that it's totally subjective, that doesn't mean that you can think whatever you like about what's right or wrong. When you start to look at issues ethically, you have to do more than just think about your own interests, you have to ask yourself how do I take into account the interests of others? What would I choose if I were to be in their position rather than my position?
Peter Singer: One of the most obvious things that emerges when you put yourself in the position of others is the priority of reducing or preventing suffering because ethics is not just about what I actually do and the impact of that, but it's also about what I omit to do, what I decide not to do. And that's why questions about, given that we all have a limited amount of money, questions about what you spend your money on are also questions about what you don't spend your money on, or what you don't use your money to achieve. And, a lot of people, I think, forget that, they think, well, you know, I'm not harming anyone if I go and spend a thousand dollars on a new suit but, in fact, given the opportunities that we have to help and given the way that the world is, I think quite often you're actually failing to benefit someone, which you could be doing. And I think we have moral obligations to help just as we have moral obligations not to harm.
Martha Nussbaum: Now
[Social Contract/State of Nature]
Martha Nussbaum: was fine when you're thinking about adult men with no disabilities. But as some of them already began to notice, it doesn't do so well when you think about women because women's oppression has always been partly occasioned by their physical weakness compared to men. And so if you leave out that physical asymmetry, you may be leaving out a problem that a theory of justice will need to fix. But it certainly does not do well when we think about people with serious physical and mental disabilities. And in fact, some of the theorists who noticed that said, well, this is a problem, but we'll just have to solve it later. We'll get the theory first and work on this problem as some other point. Well, my thought is, that this is not a small problem. There are a lot of people with serious mental and physical disabilities but, it's not only that, it's all of us, when we're little children and as we age. How do you think about justice when you're dealing with bodies that are very unequal in their ability and their power and perhaps even harder, how do you think about it when you're dealing with mental powers that are very, very unequal in their potential.
Michael Hardt: We're stuck, almost conceptually, between two almost cliché ways of thinking about revolution. On the one hand, we have the notion of revolution that involves the replacement of a ruling elite with another... better-in many ways-ruling elite. And that's sort of the form that many modern revolutions have taken and have posed great benefits for the people but they have not arrived at democracy. So that notion of revolution is really discredited and I think rightly so. But, opposed to that, is another notion of revolution, which I think is equally discredited but from exactly the opposite point of view, which is it's the notion of revolution that, in fact, hasn't been instituted, that thinks of revolution as just the removal of all of those forms of authority, state power, the power of capital, that stop people from expressing their natural abilities to rule themselves.