Saturday, 20 March 2010

Being bad for stupidity

Deleuze says somewhere that the function of philosophy is to be bad for stupidity. Fine, but how go about with it?

First: what is stupidity? Stupidity happens when you start relying on what you think you know, when you stop thinking. I'm often stupid myself. Stupidity is relative: it depends on the topic, on how tired you feel, if you are in a hurry or not.

Routines tend to produce stupidity, while situations that prevent the reliance on routines (like childhood or travelling) counteract it. There is invariably be something stupid about a so-called intelligent person who stubbornly adheres to a fixed set of premises.

Two observations:

1) Power is good for stupidity (absolute power stupidifies absolutely)

2) Science too is a great producer of stupidity since many people think of what scientists say as, if not certainties, then at least as authoritative.

Let us look at what it is in science that it so objectionable.

Firstly, there is a long tradition in science to try to formulate results in the form of generalizations. Against this it is helpful to remind onself that the exception is more interesting than the rule. Carl Schmitt observes that exceptions usually provoke a livelier and more stimulating discussion than generalizations do. Exceptions are the perfect way to think about generalizations without fetishizing them or getting entangled in illusions about their dignity.

Secondly, science tends to anchor its dignity in what is claimed to be superior scientific methods. This fetishization of method is especially problematic since, unlike the fetishization of results, it tends to be strongly present also among researchers themselves. Here we do well to remind ourselves that method is primarily a tool for blinding oneself to relevant information. What is usually meant by “method” is a practice of putting restrictions on common sense. What I am proposing is something else: the unfettered development of common sense. The only method, ultimately, is to keep one’s eyes open and think.

Take sociology. Many believe that sociology can only have scientific value if it is divorced from common sense, that it is only interesting if it shows common sense to be wrong. But is sociology itself really that different from common sense? What if sociology is only an unfolding or sophistication of processes already at work in common sense? Thinking is not a scientific prerogative. In everyday life, we all tend to rely on given, taken-for-granted beliefs to some extent, especially if we are too caught up in routines. But we also think, every one of us, every minute. Thinking means not to rely on what is given. It means to experiment with the given. Whenever we try to understand anything, we think.

If we look at the two propositions above – that exceptions are more interesting than generalizations and that methods are straightjackets – we will find that they are rooted in ordinary thinking. Only a person out of his senses would rely on a single method if she or he were really trying to find out something that was important to him or her in ordinary life. Neither would that person accept what a neighbor or colleague told him or her without trying to come up with exceptions – at least not if the subject interested him or her. Just listen to a discussion between two fans of some sport or hobby. They already know all the rules of logic used in science, everything about induction and deduction, about what counts as evidence and how to find it, and about how crucial it is to search for exceptions and anomalies. Common sense doesn’t just consist in taken-for-granted beliefs. It also consists of this everyday ability to think, of “common thinking”.

Scientific method is not the addition of a new and superior tool to common thinking. Rather, methods come into being by isolating one or the other of the ordinary ways we go about creating knowledge in order to be able to apply it systematically. This is why what the researcher searches for is always something beyond the reach of any one method. The “truth” he or she is searching for is never identical with the result of any one method.

If philosophy is to be bad for stupidity, then it can’t consist in a series of beliefs or propositions. Philosophy must be measured by its effects: good philosophy is good for thinking.

Philosophy is trust in thinking, in your ability to think yourself past the limitations of method. It is love and curiosity, and confidence in your own strength.

It is the freedom of thought: freedom from fear and from the shackles of dignity.

What did Deleuze try to do? Something very hard, yet extremely pleasurable: to let himself think; to forget all about dignity while he was thinking.

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