Obsolescence as Opportunity

When I returned to Harvard’s Houghton Library five years ago in order to consult certain manuscripts of the American philosopher and scientist Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914), I discovered that the photocopy machines that I had used in my earlierharvard2 visits had been eliminated. Now, researchers who wanted to obtain copies of the documents they were consulting had to take photos with their cameras, provided they did not use flash, turned off the click when the photo was taken, and without any kind of support for the camera.

nikonMy next step was to go to Hunt’s Photo Video, the closest store, and for $220 I purchased a little Nikon Cool Pix, a camera that I’ve since used to take thousands of photos, all of them of much higher quality than a novice like me could have taken with his cell phone camera. Last week, when it snowed in Pamplona and I wanted to take some photos of the campus under a blanket of snow, I noted that the images that the camera was taking were blurry, and two days later it stopped working, displaying a mysterious message about problems with the lens. I took the camera to a certified route to universityphotography shop in Pamplona, and they recommended that I buy a new, identical camera for only 80 euros, economical because the technicians that could repair the camera charged 70 euros the hour. So that’s what I did, and with my new camera they threw in a new protective case and a rod for making “selfies”.

The whole process left me thinking. I don’t know whether the obsolescence of the camera was programmed into it by the manufacturer. It got me thinking: perhaps human beings suffer from a similar phenomenon. We get old, something not just brought to our attention by the presence of gray hair, lesser agility and the loss of memory, but also by our obvious incompetence with the new machines which–or so it seems to me–multiply in an exponential fashion. As we say nowadays, those of us who were born before 1980 are not “digital natives”: rather–in an expression of Marc Prensky–we are “digital immigrants”, and the new technologies always seem to be a little strange. In my case this is obvious, above all when young people tell me that I’m not taking advantage of all the functions of my current phone, since I am barely able to type numbers with my clumsy fingers, or do any number of other things which require computer savvy and dextrous fingers.

robotWhile I love machines that last twenty years or more–from my fountain pen to my shaver–I get annoyed by the machines, programs and systems that I have to learn again every three or four years, because of new features that I almost never learn to appreciate. There are so many things that I wrote on my computer twenty years ago that I can no longer read because the program to open them no longer exists! All this brings to mind the old principle from the U. S. Navy’s seaman’s manual: “the law of KISS”, KISS being an acronym for the wise expression “Keep I Simple, Stupid!” The simpler a mechanism is, the safer and more efficient it will remain over time. In contrast, our accelerated technological progress often consists in the accumulation of new benefits and applications that always demand better performance from our computers, despite the fact that the average user will most often not benefit at all.

matrixMany science fiction movies, like Matrix, revolve around the rebellion of the machines that have taken over our planet, while the humans that remain hide themselves in remote places to avoid being annihilated. None of this happens in real life, nor does it look likely that this scenario will ever occur, but in contrast the manufacturers of machines, of programs and new technological resources have taken over the lives of many human beings–especially those of the youngest among us–whom they convert into docile consumers who are always wanting the latest new thing.

It’s worth the effort to say no: we can assert our personal independence, our liberation from the machines, our inner freedom in the face of the pressure of technological consumerism, in order to be able to care for others and enjoy nature, instead to having to permanently be paying attention to screens, tablets and smartphones, which admittedly are really useful for maintaining our communication with those we love. Here, as with many other situations, it is worth the effort to say–with Mies van der Rohe and the encyclical haackLaudato Si“–that “less is more”. I love walking down to campus every morning: it is much better than coming to the University in a new model car, even if it were an electronic Tesla. As Prof. Susan Haack once told me, being able to walk to work is an undeniable signal of quality of life.

In sum, the programmed obsolescence that so strongly favors consumerism, can also be an invitation to think through our relationship with all these gadgets, and thereby seek to free ourselves from them a little, affirming the true human quality of life, which is, in the end, the only thing that never becomes obsolete.

Pamplona, April 7, 2016.

P. S. I am grateful for the illustrations by Jacin Luna and the corrections by Félix Álvarez, Gloria Balderas, Enrique García-Máiquez, Jacin Luna, Ainhoa Marin, Julián Montaño, Moris Polanco and Jordi Puig.

Philosophers and the search for truth

Aristotle_Bust_White_Background_TransparentIt was some twenty-four centuries ago that Aristotle declared wonder (θαυμάζω, “be astonished”, “marvel”) to be the starting point for philosophy as well as its fundamental motivator, for it is because of wonderment that we seek to be freed of ignorance (Aristotle, Metaphysics 982b). I love this description of philosophy, and believe that we who philosophize need to preserve that sense of wonderment, that amazement that first drew us to ask “But how can this be?” and “what is the truth about this world we live in?” For what we want is the truth… the facts about the deepest principles of the world and ourselves.

However, a budding philosopher will soon run up against the fact that those who have taken this path have only rarely been in complete agreement, whether the disagreement is about superficialities or about the deepest questions we can ask. One of the more common responses to this universal disagreement, sometimes even experienced during one’s first class in philosophy, is becoming convinced that the universality of disagreement in philosophy means that truth is nowhere: none of the positions taken by philosophers throughout history is more true than any other.

This skeptical response is certainly tempting, but isn’t the only way we can respond. Instead of trying to become philosophers all by ourselves, and falling victim to skepticism, we can seek out those whom we might call “true” thinkers, and adopt them as our guides to the fantastically complex world of philosophy. When we call a philosopher “true”, we are saying something more than that his or her doctrine is faithful to the world as it is. Rather, we are pointing to those philosophers who feel themselves to be prisoners of the truth, to be enslaved to the search for knowledge, and whose hearts are in love with reality as it lets itself be known.

Every time we turn to read or listen to a great philosopher we become possessed in this way; we feel a pressuring necessity. At every step of his or her arguments, we are pulled along by the internal logic of their position: once we see that if this is true, that must be true. The philosopher cannot go in any direction that the truth does not permit. We can see, upon reading such philosophers, that they are “dragged along” to places they perhaps never expected to go, impelled by the necessity inherent in the fundamental positions they have taken. And it is in a philosopher like this that we will find the truth about the world and ourselves, if we find it anywhere.

This means that when seeking truth in philosophy, we will often do better to first identify the traits of a true philosopher in the philosophers we are studying, seeking to discover how their own experience of wonder is transformed over the years into a mature doctrine that reflects reality deeply, a doctrine that reflects both a mature certainty and a continuing sense of wonder, insofar as the search for truth takes the philosopher ever deeper. The great philosophers are thus a guidebook, so to speak, to the empire of reason.

By entering into the philosophical traditions within which these thinkers work, we find ourselves taking part in a great conversation, a discourse where the philosopher teaches how to seek truth and how we will know it when we find it. And while it may turn out that this philosopher erred in this or that question, he or she may still embody wisdom, which is the result of a lifetime spent seeking truth.

It seems that there is a paradox at work: somehow, in a way that is not entirely transparent, the philosophers we study sometimes achieve wisdom, even though their doctrines may have been decisively refuted. Perhaps it is because of the necessity that the search for truth imposes, or perhaps he or she has delved deeply into reality, and has surfaced with a new respect for the transcendental depth of the world, together with a new respect for those people that struggle to attain to truth. And this includes ourselves, insofar as we too surrender to truth: from wonder, we progress to truth, and perhaps end up wise thanks precisely to that surrender.

The Joy of Enjoyment

messi         For years now I have been telling students who come to see me about “career opportunities” that the most important thing is to enjoy what they are doing: when someone enjoys their work it is a signal that they have chosen the right career and that they are doing well at it. I tend to give the example of the great soccer players, who are those who most enjoy themselves when they make a goal, or the example of the many chefs who are truly happy when they see that their customers call their meal “finger lickin’ good”.

siena         St. Josemaría wrote in Forge that “the happiness of Heaven is for those who know how to be happy on earth. St. Catherine of Siena said that “all of the road to Heaven is Heaven”. With these examples I wanted to reject a dark vision of life that sees it as a vale of tears and laments. Suffering and sorrow–which of course everyone has in their life–are the shadows that make it possible for the light to shine more brightly.

         We human beings are made in such a way that we enjoy those tasks that occupy all of our attention, to the point that we hardly notice as the hours fly by. It doesn’t matter if this activity requires considerable effort. For example, caring for children, which so often demands our entire attention, can be tiring, but it can also fill our days with meaning. A former student, who works for a well-known British consulting firm,publishes each week in Facebook the adventures of her
baby2first son, born only a few months ago. “Tired days, but precious ones… I don’t want him to grow!”. And the following week she 
posted a fascinating article on maternity that ended thusly: “They should have told me that becoming a mother changes everything, and that I would never want to go back and visit my former self, not even for a second. They should have warned me that my life was at the point of acquiring a wealth, a beauty and a fulfillment that are so tremendous that when I look back I would think: ‘Poor me. Before I just never knew’”.

         We all understand her well. Choosing to have a child and being able to give it all the attention that it needs is something wonderful, able to fill one’s existence with joy. The same can be said of all the tasks that are involved in serving others, since a full life has much to do with caring for others. Our contentment, our joy, springs up spontaneously on seeing that we are wanted and loved, on seeing that our life has meaning beyond ourselves.

workerIn recent weeks I have been reading Dorothy Day (1897-1980), the American social activist who is in the process of being beatified. Many things about her life and writings have impressed me, but here I wanted to mention just one thing that is relevant for what I want to say in this post. Those who wanted to become part of the Catholic Worker, the movement that she had created, were told: “Begin with the place you live: identify the needs of your neighborhood and put the works of mercy into practice”. (…) Choose the work that gives you the greatest joy, and don’t be afraid of changing as you follow the call of the Spirit”. Choose the work that gives you the greatest joy: what wise counsel!

Along the same lines, I remember the counsel given more than 30 years ago by Blessed Álvaro del Portillo, then the Grand Chancellor of the University of Navarra: “Put people to work on things they enjoy–he told us during a meeting of the Governing Board. You will see them work better, with greater efficacy, and they will also enjoy what they are doing”. I thought it was an extremely valuable piece of advice; we might call it a matter of common sense, but I had never heard it before.

etica         Last week I had the occasion to visit Cuba in order to attend a small congress in Havana. I took as reading material the recent book by Magdalena Bosch, La ética amable [Friendly Ethics] (Eunsa, Pamplona, 2015) which I really loved, starting with the title itself. It is well thought-out and wonderfully written. What I want to emphasize is how, in that little book where the author unpacks Aristotelian ethics, it becomes clear that happiness is identified with one’s own excellence, with the personal effort to be better and do better: it is not just “the best activity of the soul”, but in addition “it tends to generate positive emotions as a result” (p. 52). And a few pages further on the Catalan philosopher adds: “The good can be addictive, because performing it produces joy” (p. 55).

         This is the key. Turning our entire attention to others, or to the job we have at hand, is able to brighten our lives and fill them with joy. Enjoyment is the unmistakable signal that we are doing what we should be doing, and that in addition we are doing it well.

Pamplona, December 3, 2015

I am thankful for the help of Jacin Luna with illustrations, and the commentaries of Gonzalo Beneytez, María Rosa Espot, Ángel López-Amo, Beatriz Montejano and Marta Torregrosa.

What is philosophy good for?

Philosophy, once hailed as the “queen of the sciences”, is now going through bad times, ancillaand they are likely to get worse as the financial crisis deepens and lengthens. For those who take a more pragmatic approach to life, philosophy seems like the perfect example of useless knowledge: “What is philosophy good for?” asked my grandfather, at one point in a recent conversation. He wasn’t convinced by my answer, which focused on the contributions to society provided by philosophy. This experience caused me to rethink the importance of philosophy.

This widespread opinion probably has something to do with declining enrollments in philosophy programs in the U.S. (and abroad; cf. the article by Jaime Nubiola “In Defense of Philosophy”). Philosophy seems neither to bring good salaries, nor does it seem to have coupleany purpose other than eternal arguments, disconnected from the concerns of human life, with no decisive resolution. Truth is supposed to be philosophy’s ultimate goal, but when every philosopher and his brother claims to have it, the easiest conclusion is that no one does. Why, then, should citizens pay to support this discipline in the University curriculum, and support the professors that study and teach it?

One answer is that philosophy has been, either directly or indirectly, an important factor in the development of society over the centuries, ever since human beings acquired the ability to look critically at their own way of living, indeed, their very way of being. We can characterize this critical investigation as “philosophical anthropology” (PA); it was only in the 20th century that this area of study was recognized as a philosophical discipline in its own right, but every philosopher who has had a view on the nature of the human being is, in a real sense, a practitioner.

I contend that this area of study will be critical in the years to come, and that the transhumanism“anthropologies” that are proposed will strongly influence how human beings are treated in society for decades to come. An example is the Transhumanist movement, which redefines human nature by treating it as infinitely malleable, and teaches that more than an option, cooperation in the task of breeding better humans is an ethical obligation. The entire project of transhumanism, as an example, depends on what human beings are and should be; in turn, the study of the human being from the perspective of PA is linked strongly to a number of other philosophical disciplines, such as metaphysics, philosophy of nature, ethics, consciousness theory, political philosophy, philosophy of language and others.

It is the linkage between PA and political and social change that makes it a particularly interesting philosophical discipline, because it is one where the layperson can contribute to its development by supporting philosophy departments that study it. All of those who are interested in the future conditions of the human race can participate, by supporting those philosophy departments that take PA seriously through political action to prevent those departments from being closed, or endowing Chairs in philosophical anthropology, for instance, which can attract new students to the department and post-doc fellowships to study issues of interest to those Chairs.

freedomThe next time somebody asks you “what is philosophy good for”, you can answer “preserving your freedom and rights against those who would take them away”. People need to be made aware of those discourses today that seek to eliminate these crucial elements for a just and free society—corporations, Islam, philosophical antihumanism, among others—and promoting those approaches, such as the Enlightenment project, that seek to protect and strengthen the rights of man. (Another important philosophical task is deciding whether Enlightenment values are still appropriate today, but that’s a topic for another post.) Even Scott Brown might then understand why humanities, and in particular philosophy, will be crucial to the American project over the coming decades.

A Defense of Philosophy

Some 2,400 years ago, the government of the city of Athens condemned Socrates to images1death, the first of the philosophers, accused of impiety and of corrupting the youth. In Spain, the LOMCE has voted to once again condemn philosophy, relegating the course History of Philosophy to being an elective in the curriculum for the 2nd year of secondary studies in Humanities and Social Sciences. This decision will inevitably bring to mind the famous quote by our philosopher George Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

Etienne-GilsonÉtienne Gilson’s affirmation in his William James Lectures (Harvard, 1936-37) seems far away today, i.e. that the history of philosophy is the laboratory of thought, the true test bench of philosophy. Why should we renounce the history of thought and of ideas, which is what, ultimately, can help us most to understand the present? It seems to me that the radical response is that the powerful, together with the apparatus of the State, prefer that citizens not think for themselves; they believe that anesthatizing the populace with candy, videogames and reality shows is sufficient.

Barbarianism advances and slowly takes up the collective space: one need only watchPhilosophy Class the news programs that have ended up being merely a chronicle of spectacles. The barbarians that finally conquered the Roman Empire thought that they brought progress with them. Just as in the Middle Ages, those of us who dedicate ourselves to thinking and to inviting others to think—those of us who are philosophers and professors of philosophy—are being marginalized by society. We are sealed up in the ivory tower of our own specialization so that nobody can hear our denunciation of the direction the world is taking. This is why they want to eliminate History of Philosophy from secondary education: they do not want the adults of tomorrow to be able to think rigorously and freely.

But, is a single class that important? The answer is yes. The history of philosophy is the sciencebest vaccine against the dominant relativism. We find ourselves in a society that lives in an impossible amalgam of a generalized skepticism about values and a supposedly scientistic fundamentalism about facts. This is a mixture of a naive trust in Science with capital S with that perspectivist relativism that the poet Ramón de Campoamor expressed so well: “nothing is either truth nor lie; it’s all the color of the lens that one views it with”. Anyone who studies the history of thought immediately recognizes that this is not so, that—as Stanley Cavell writes—there are better and worse ways of thinking about things, and that via the contrast with experience and rational dialogue human beings are capable of recognizing the superiority of one opinion over another.

sculpturesThe question about the role of reason in our lives and in our civilization is probably the central philosophical question that has impregnated the last two centuries of Western culture and philosophy. Those philosophers who—in the expression of Edmund Husserl—feel ourselves to be “servants of humanity” have a great responsibility towards our fellow citizens, as Socrates had with Athens. With our work we are not only transmitting philosophical knowledge to the new generations, but we are also keeping alive the flame of free and rigorous thought, the flame of how to be fully human.

In this regard, the history of philosophy has a tremendous importance. It is a class that provides some of the keys for helping students to grow in their confidence in their own manner of thinking, which is the most efficacious means for resolving—almost always provisionally—the problems that arise in life. In addition, it helps those young people to open up to the opinions and experiences of others, to deciding to learn from others and broaden too their own capacity to love. This ambition is not small. As Hannah Arendt emphasized, it is only if every one of us lives creatively, thinking with radicality, that we can resist that banality which is, in the end, the greatest danger that looms over us as we build our own, authentic, lives.

At times one hears people speaking about saving the Arctic, because it is shrinking at an accelerated rate. It seems to me that hardly anyone speaks about saving Philosophy, which for human beings is a territory that is much more vital. The attack against the class on History of Philosophy at the Bachelor level is the tip of an immense iceberg which truly seeks to eliminate our culture.

Truth and Freedom

Something I love about academic life is the permanent possibility of forging deep, fruitful intellectual links with people who want to learn from the experience or wisdom of their professors. When a student comes to me to ask me to be the director of her doctoral 2012_11_7_PHOTO-e542a77f8f08ef53d59245bed30f6930-1352310131-57thesis, I discuss two qualities—probably learned from my teacher, Prof. Alejandro Llano—which must always guide a relationship of this type: truth and freedom.

The first criterion, that of truth and transparency, is about eliminating all “diplomatic” false appearances from the student-director relationship. One the one hand, it demands of the director that he always speak openly about everything he thinks is appropriate, and to correct—as many times as necessary—the defects of the doctoral student. On the other, it demands from the student that she tell the thesis director about all the errors that he has—at least in her judgment—fallen into. Therefore, the two must agree on some system for tracking progress, a periodic conversation, during which the doctoral student can simply and openly tell her director about the progress she has attained, and they can talk about her weaknesses and the difficulties she has run up against.

The second criterion derives from the totally voluntary character of this relationship, on the part of both the director and the student. Both the reciprocal acceptance, as well as the choice of the topic or methodology that will be used, must always remain open to later revision over the course of the calendar of progress they have established. Anyone who begins a thesis must feel truly free—and must in fact be so—to later change directors, department or even university.

Since I frequently speak about these two criteria of truth and freedom, I was impressed a few weeks ago when I read in the memorable “Banquet Discourse” by Albert Camus, that 330px-Albert_Camus,_gagnant_de_prix_Nobel,_portrait_en_buste,_posé_au_bureau,_faisant_face_à_gauche,_cigarette_de_tabagismethe two responsibilities that constitute the greatness of the office of the writer are “service to truth and to freedom”. The Banquet Discourse was given at the final banquet which, as customary, was offered in the Stockholm city hall on the 10th of December of 1957 in order to bring to a close the award ceremonies for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Camus explained: “[w]hatever our personal weaknesses may be, the nobility of our craft will always be rooted in two commitments, difficult to maintain: the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance to oppression.” And a little later he added “Truth is mysterious, elusive, always to be conquered. Liberty is dangerous, as hard to live with as it is elating. We must march toward these two goals, painfully but resolutely, certain in advance of our failings on so long a road.”

Truth and freedom are great words: we need them as ideals that preside over our lives, over even the tiniest details of the daily work of living together. This won’t make us able to remake the world or create an entirely new one, but we will at least —as Camus defended in the same discourse— “prevent the world from falling apart”.

Solitude and boredom

At the start of a new school year I frequently get invited to speak to the incoming freshmen of the University. I usually choose to speak about the intellectual life–thinking, reading, writing–because I am convinced that it is what they most need and what will most help them in this new stage of their lives.

2I always begin my talk by asking what they think the most important problem for young people is. The responses tend to be: superficiality, comfort, fear of thinking, running away from commitment, living only for today, excessive technologization, liking noise, dependence on fashion and trends, and other similar responses. All of these responses of the young people seem to be right on to me, but I like to add that, if we think more radically, if we go more to the root of things, the most pressing problems for the young people that are listening to me is almost always a painful sensation of solitude, which frequently goes hand in hand with a painful chronic boredom.

3Nearly all the young people in my audience concur with my diagnosis–at least they nod their heads in silence, and their eyes light up when they listen to me–because it nearly always fits with their personal experience, and also because that radical explanation is able to explain other factors that they had spoken about before: how many young people connect themselves to a machine so they don’t have to talk with the person next to them, or who get drunk–they say–in order to shed inhibitions and be able to have fun! Perhaps what most drew my attention is that frequently, on finishing my talk, a professor who heard me will approach and quietly tell me that solitude and boredom are not just problems for young people, but that above all–at least that’s how the professor feels–it is a problem for adults.

4In the lovely PowerPoint presentation that María Guibert prepared to accompany my talk, the affirmation about boredom is illustrated with the photograph of an old Dalmatian dog ensconced on a chair without its stuffing, as though it were sick of watching television. It is a very graphic illustration of what happens to so many people, although perhaps the best part is the quotation from Erasmus of Rotterdam at the bottom of the image: “He who knows the art of living with himself does not know what boredom is”. Indeed, the secret for completely eliminating from our lives the specter of boredom is the cultivation of inner vitality, the discovery of the creative potential of thought, of reading, of writing what we carry in our imaginations and hearts.

But to illustrate this I often use a Mafalda comic strip, wherein she asks Miguelito if he isn’t outraged by a sign that says “Keep off the grass”, to which Miguelito replies, “No, why should it? I have my own inner lawn”.

This is the point, then: we must cultivate our interiority, with freedom, with passion, thinking for ourselves and running our own risks. Only in this way will we overcome fashions, the oppressive dominant trends in our consumerist culture, which blocks thought–“Thinking makes you crazy” is a popular saying among the youth–and impedes reading, all of which will turn us, if we let it, into superficial beings that are satisfied with being entertained by the mediocrity of what comes through TV and gaming screens.

wifiIt is often said that mobile phones, machines in general, bring us closer to those who are far off and separate us from those who we have near. Perhaps this is why I loved the humorous sign in a Latin-American bar, “We don’t have wifi, talk to each other”. Many times this is how it is: technology masks our own loneliness. A growing problem–both for young people and, especially, for many adults–is a terrible loneliness that arises from isolation, from closing in upon oneself, perhaps as a consequence of wounds received from others, or simply because of the passing of time. For example, those of us who have reached a certain age note with nostalgia that those whom we have most loved have died and are no longer at our sides.

6Opening ourselves to other makes us vulnerable. Since I don’t want to suffer any more–we say more or less consciously–I prefer to not get to know new people, not to make new friends, not to love again: it’s enough for me to enclose myself in my armor and resist the buffeting of loneliness by remembering the enjoyable moments of my life in years past. This is very understandable, but it is a trap, a deceitful reasoning: closing in upon oneself, affective isolation, hurts us, causes us harm, because human beings are made to love and feel ourselves loved.

If we find ourselves alone or bored it means that something within is not right: we have not been cultivating our intellectual life–to think about what we live, to say what we think, to live what we say–or else we have given up on loving others. But in both activities–enriching our heads and enlarging our hearts–there is always time to start over again. The important thing is not to settle for solitude, nor for boredom.

Pamplona, August 29, 2014