Changing worlds

A talk with USM philosophy professor Jason Read
By CHRIS THOMPSON  |  October 4, 2006

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On the USM philosophy department's home page, I noticed Karl Marx’s famous lines from Theses on Feuerbach: “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it.” I wonder what these lines mean to you, today. In what sense does philosophy as you practice it contribute to the changing of the world?
I feel like I should clarify matters first by pointing out that this quote is one of many that appears on the Web site: Plato, Descartes, Lao Tzu, etc.; to get others all you have to do is press the refresh button. So it does not represent a real commitment on the department’s part.

I would like to answer this question through something of a paradox: I believe that philosophy does change the world, does have real effects, but it does so by acting only on itself; or rather, by acting on thought, on the concepts and ways that we make sense of the world. To clarify how this is so perhaps another quote is in order. Antonio Gramsci says that “everyone is a philosopher,” which means that we all think, interpret, and judge the world. However, he added that we do so haphazardly with ideas that we have picked up from different areas of life, books, people, and so forth. The first task of philosophy is to make sense of this inheritance, to evaluate our understanding of the world, and to see the tensions and contradictions in our ways of thinking. I consider philosophy to be an activity, a practice, and not a body of knowledge. It is less a matter of knowing who said what, when, then of understanding the conditions and effects of our thoughts.

I wonder what the difference would be, in terms of a practice, between an evaluation of our knowledge of the world and the interpretation of the world which Marx criticized and ranked second to changing the world?
I think that it is a different of starting point and perspective. An interpretation of the world seems to me to be based on the idea that we are outside looking in, the person doing the interpretation is the subject and the world is simply an object to be evaluated. Whereas the evaluation of our knowledge that I referred to above takes for granted that we are fully part of the world that we are critiquing. There is no Archimedian point, some perspective from which stand outside the world to pass judgment on it. All of the things that we are critical about in the world—violence, the destruction of the environment, and so on — are not just things out there, but are also things that are in us, part of who we are. The difference between evaluating and interpreting is the difference between transcendence and immanence. Secondly, I would argue that as much as philosophy seeks to interpret the world from the outside, it also seeks to change it from the outside. Throughout the history of philosophy, from Plato through Descartes and beyond, there is a recurring theme of wiping the slate clean, of starting over to create a world which would be entirely based on rational principles. Not only is this impossible, but it reveals how much of the history of philosophy, as much as it is caught up in this history of transcendence, is based on a devaluation of the world as merely material, embodied, and irrational. As Morihei Ueshiba (the founder of Aikido) writes, “Transcendence belongs to the profane world.”

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