11 August 2012

Conversation with a Philosophy Major

At this time of year, I sometimes find myself fielding questions from the students whom we hire to help out with the rush.  They are almost never happy with my answers.  Yesterday, I was speaking with one student who is going into the postgraduate field of philosophy.  It began with an innocuous question.

Him:  Have you ever read any Nietzsche?

Me: Regrettably.

Him:  Seriously?  What does that even mean?

Me:  It means he appeared on a course list or two, and I was forced to read him.

Him:  So what did you think of him?

Me:  Same thing I think of most Victorian era syphilitics: lunatics best locked away and forgotten.

Him:  I can't believe you just said that!  He's one of my favourite philosophers!

Me: You mean anti-philosopher. He only attacked other philosophies and ideas, but presents little in their place. His writings have no coherence and no system.

Him:  He wrote in aphorisms.  You do know what that means?

Me: Of course.  It means he couldn't hold onto any idea that took more time to explicate than a paragraph.  He just wrote down whatever idea popped into his head, up to and including "I forgot my umbrella today."

Him:  I can't believe you just said that.

There were a lot of things he couldn't believe.  He named one author after another, asking my opinion, not believing my opinion when I gave it.  Eventually he got around to a Really Big Name:

Him:  What about Marx?

Me: Groucho wasn't so bad, but I never could understand Harpo.

Him:  No, I meant Karl.

Me:  Sigh.  I think I could gather all his books into one huge pile and burn them as a favour to humanity.

Him:  Seriously?  What's the matter with Marx?

Me:  Let's see, shall we?  Twenty to Forty million dead in the Soviet Union, sixty to one hundred million dead in China, two million dead in Cambodia, I don't know how many dead in central and south America, plus a rising number of dead in Africa.  Somewhere between one hundred and fifty to two hundred million people dead in one century trying to make his system work.  I think if it really did work, it would be considerably less bloody.

Him:  I can't believe you just said that.

He also couldn't believe I didn't think much of Keynes.  What used to surprise, but does not surprise me any more, is his unshaken core belief.  He couldn't understand how I could reject an idea on the grounds that it did not work in reality, and that practical considerations could outweigh ideas.  It is so with so much at the university:  The idea is sound, and it must work.  The fact that it hasn't is a mere trifling consideration, even with bodies piled higher than Everest. 


Johnny said...

No one ever used Marx's Manifesto word for word. So in his defense it wasn't his ideas that directly failed but the variations that others created that failed. But I get your point. Nevertheless it kind of pointless to invalidate an idea becuase of their practical applications in politics becuase well not a single political theory works the way it was suppose to in real life. Under your standard you would end up rejecting every single political philisophical idea ever. When someone "accepts" an idea I think what they accepting are the moral stakes that accompany the idea which is not the same as the end results of the idea in practice. I.E The results of Marx's manifesto misuse by leaders all over the world and Nietzches ideas being misused/misinterpreted by Hitler aren't the ideas moral implications. But anyway that just my opinion and I get where you are coming from.

Bear-i-tone said...

First: You believe an idea should not be rejected simply because it does not work in the real world? I would find that difficult to believe if it were not the attitude I ran into so often during my time at university. S many student fel in love with this theory or that one, despite the fact that they did not work, never did work, and could never work, simply because the theory counded oh so good. What, then, in your opinion, would constitute a valid reason for rejecting an idea?

Second: The objection that all ideas more or less do not work the way they are supposed to is a false and illogical point. First, it overlooks the idea of degree. Some ideas, say, like the Wright brother's ideas for flight, more or less work, though not quite as planned, and with some tweaking working quite well. Others are a total failure. Most fall somewhere in between.

Third: 'Pure' Marxism has never been tried. I've heard that one before, many times, as people try and whitewash the incredible bloodshed that has been done in Marx's name. The best that can be said for Marx and Socialism as a whole is that it is medicine, not food. That is, when taken in small doses, it can be helpful as a critique or a curb to the worst excesses of unbridled capitalism. However, every single attempt to impose it from above as a total system has lead to systemic bloodshed and slaughter. It is a poison.

Pure Marxism is impossible, simply because Marx envisions a system in which everyone will want to live, but leaves no room for those who don't particularly want communism. The communists who try and transform his ideals into a practical system are left to come up with their own repsonse to such people, and that response is, overwhlmingly, kill them. Marx is a failure on a practical level, and a fantasy, and should be regarded as such.