Is Philosophy Work or Leisure?

April Topic:

Is Philosophy Work or Leisure?

When: April 12 at 7:30 pm  

Where: YWCA 136 Bishop Allen Drive; Cambridge, MA

Topic moderator: Richard Bennett

Although Americans are working longer hours than ever, we worry that artificial intelligence and automated machines will remove us from the workplace and press us into a leisure that (some of us) seem to be resisting tooth and nail. I would like to ask us to consider what leisure actually means to us and why we have such a surprising and unusual response to its being offered to us. In particular I would like us to consider whether philosophy is best pursued as a product of work, or a product of leisure.

Josef Pieper in Leisure: The Basis of Culture notes that philosophy is unlike science. Philosophy does not regard it’s worth as dependent upon usefulness. Written in Germany after WWII, it demolishes the twentieth century cult of “work” and predicts its destructive consequences. The New York Times Book Review noted:

Pieper’s message for us is plain . . . The Idolatry of the machine and the worship of mindless know how, the infantile cult of youth and the common mind–all this points to our peculiar leadership in a drift toward a slave society.

In his 1998 introduction to the book, Roger Scruton writes:

Leisure has had a bad press. For the puritan it is the source of vice; for the egalitarian a sign of privilege. The Marxist regards leisure as the unjust surplus, enjoyed by the few as the expense of the many. Nobody in a democracy is at ease with leisure, and almost every person, however little use he may have for his time, will say that he works hard for a living-curious expression, when the real work of living is for dying. …We mistake leisure for idleness, and work for creativity. Of course, work may be creative. But only when informed by leisure. Work is the means of life; leisure the end. Without the end, work is meaningless-a means to a means to a means . . . and so on forever, like Wall Street or Capitol Hill. Leisure is not the cessation of work, but work of another kind,work restored to its human meaning, as a celebration and a festival.

Pieper extracts from the idea of leisure not only a theory of culture and its significance … but also a philosophy of philosophy-an account of what philosophy can do for us, and what it ought to do for the world where science and technology have tried to usurp the divine command: that command from Elijah to Pascal to Kierkegaard is: BE STILL.

Regarding leisure and work, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous line from “Nature” seems to sum up how purposeless attendance to reality relates to the deepest meaning: “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”

Questions to Consider

In this meeting of the cafe we will examine the third option. Here are some questions:

  1. Is philosophy different than science in its reliance upon empiricism and discursive thought?
  2. What branches of philosophy are best explored at “leisure”? Which are more reliant on “work”?
  3. Are we afraid of leisure because it presents us with enormous questions with no recourse to distraction that work affords?

Suggested Readings

Mary Popova: Review of Josep Pieper’s “Leisure: the Basis of Culture”

From the New Yorker Magazine. Elizabeth Kolbert: No Time

TED Talk: Iain McGilchrist on the Divded Brain

Joseph Pieper: Leisure: the Basis of Culture

Iain McGilchrist: The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Additional Discussion

Aristotle said “we work in order to be at leisure” In a more authentic translation that would be: we are not-at-leisure (work) in order to be-at -leisure (rest, stillness). The distinction between the “Liberal Arts” and the “Servile Arts” is based upon Aristotle’s concept. Servile work is useful work… in other words it serves some purpose. But what that purpose is comes not from “work” but from contemplation. Contemplative “work” is the product of the Liberal Arts and those arts are only pursued by those who engage in Leisure.

Intellectual work and the intellectual worker are the modern idiom of work. Pieper believes that Intellectual Work is based upon a certain interpretation of the human knowing process. He distinguishes between “gazing” at a rose.. A relaxed looking upon, “taking it in”, and the active “deconstruction” or analysis of a more scientific stance. The former state of knowing is devoid of “effort” and does not have any suggestion of “possessing” or “using” the rose for our own ends. The latter stance regards the object as inherently “useful” or appropriate for our own ends. We are thereby not merely seeing it on its own terms.

For Kant, the human act of knowing is exclusively “discursive” (Proceeding to a conclusion through reason rather than intuition). In Kant’s view human knowing consists essentially in the act of investigating, articulating, joining, comparing, distinguishing, abstracting, deducing, proving- all of which are acts of mental effort. It is no wonder that , starting from this basis, Kant was able to conclude that all knowing, even philosophy itself (since philosophy is at the greatest remove from sense perception) is activity. Thus for Kant, philosophy itself should be understood as a form of work. Contrast Kant’s strict rational moral code with Hume’s idea that morals arise from a benevolent human sentiment. In that cultural movement we can see the gradual tectonic slide that our culture has experienced, whereby anything of value, including philosophy is arrived at by working at it.

Plato, Aristotle and the Medieval philosophers held that man had an elementally distinct, purely receptive “looking” faculty. Not only in the sense of perception, but also in intellectual knowing -what Heraclitus called “Listening-in to the being of things”.

The implications of knowing as the product of work is that the one who knows, really knows only the fruits of his own labor. Subjective activity is by that light the result of analysis. There is nothing “received” in it that is not from his intention and effort. Pieper believes that knowing of the passive kind is related to the idea of “Grace”. We receive the understanding not by effort but by through the grace of God (or Nature)

For Kant the fact that an “intellective vision” didn’t cost anything (labor ), that it was not a “Herculean Effort”, made it suspicious to him. Kant of course believed that moral laws are by definition opposed to natural inclination.

Kant believed that virtue makes it possible for us to master our natural inclinations. But what St. Thomas would have said at an earlier time is instead; virtue perfects us so that we can follow our natural inclinations in a right way.

The origin of the concept of intellectual labor consist of two views 1) that all human knowing is accomplished exclusively in the matter of discursive activity and 2)the view that the effort that goes into thought is the Criterion of its truth. But there’s a third element as well, that is the idea that work consists of utility. Work is to serve a “function”, have a use. Thomas Aquinas thought that every art is called liberal which is ordered to knowing , but those which are servile are ordered to some utility. Liberal arts therefore are ways a human action has justification in themselves, but Servile Arts are ways of Human Action that have a purpose outside of themselves, a purpose which consists in the useful effect that can be realized through their practice.

Not everything that cannot be categorized as useful is useless. Things that fit that in between those classes might be contemplation, reflection, dreaming, musing, pondering, as well as loving, playing, feasting, music, celebration and philosophizing.

A few modern thinkers agree that calm and leisure are neccessary for deep thought. Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking Fast and Slow” extols the value of thinking reflectively and calmly.

Thomas Kuhn challenged the then prevailing view of progress in “The Structure of Scientific Revolution”. Normal scientific progress was viewed as “development-by-accumulation” of accepted facts and theories. Kuhn argued for an episodic model in which periods of such conceptual continuity in normal science were interrupted by periods of revolutionary science. Kuhn’s insistence that a paradigm shift was a mélange of sociology, enthusiasm and scientific promise, but not a logically determinate procedure.

Only when they must choose between competing theories do scientists behave like philosophers.

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World is a 2009 book written by Iain McGilchrist. He wonders how is it that the more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it?. Why? McGilchrist offers an explanation that is part philosophy part neuroscience.

In “Experience and Nature”, Thomas Dewey opens Chapter 3 with the thought ” Human Experience in the large in its course and conspicuous features, has for one of its most striking features, preoccupation with direct enjoyment, feasting and festivities, ornamentation, dance, song, romantic pantomime,telling Yarns and enacting stories. In comparison with intellectual and moral Endeavor this trait of experience has hardly received the attention from philosophers that it demands. Even philosophers who have conceived that pleasure is the sole motive of man and the attainment of Happiness his whole aim, have given a curiously sober, drab account of the working of pleasure and the search for happiness”.

This entry was posted in Discussion Topics. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Is Philosophy Work or Leisure?

  1. Pingback: If You’re Feeling Too Frantic, Genuine Leisure Can Restore Your Soul – Novus Vero

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s