A Moment to Think about Philosophy

I had a call yesterday asking me if I’d come and present a paper to honour my thesis supervisor’s life work in September (this event will be held at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto on Saturday, September 27, 2008, if you’ve an interest). The amazing thing about this (to me, at any rate) is that I am not actively academic, don’t regularly publish philosophical papers, and so on. I have accepted — Thomas Langan’s work deserves celebration, in my view — and will spend much of the next few months worrying away at a style of writing and presentation I haven’t made a part of my life for fifteen years.

But the request does raise the question “what does a business advisor with a strong technology background have to say about philosophy?”. This is not as strange as it might appear, although I have certainly met more than one philosophy professor in my time who has pooh-poohed the very idea that anyone who dresses in a suit and tie and goes to work in offices with others of that ilk would have anything much to contribute to the issues of that discipline. With that, I fundamentally disagree as much as I did when I was doing my B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. pre-thesis work in and around holding down a full-time office job, managing people and projects and generally burning the candle at both ends.

If philosophic positions hold water, they have applicability in the lives of so-called ordinary people doing ordinary, everyday things. Indeed, I think this is one of the acid tests one has to apply: what happens if you take this idea out into the world? Does it make sense to people without the specialised training in academic philosophy, who are unfamiliar with the technocratic lingo of the schools? Can they tie it to things they know and do, recognise it in situations they encounter, even “put it to work” in their own lives? If they can, then there’s something there worth working on further; if it lands with a resounding thud of disinterest and disuse, perhaps it is hair-splitting and distinction-making to no purpose.

One of the concepts Thomas Langan has put forward for the last quarter century (perhaps longer, but I know for certain he was teaching to it in 1983 as I was in the classroom) is the notion that there is an overlaid social structure on the societies, nations, cultures and civilisations of the world which he labelled the HTX (the “high-tech I don’t know what to call it”). It is not a culture in its own right, but rather poaches from some of the world’s cultures, and is best visualised as a nodal network of connections between people and locations. HTXians have little affinity for place, community or neighbourhood; their loyalties are to others who share their symbolic-analytic interests.

Tom always noted that I was one of these people, at home in and a part of the HTX (indeed, his book on the HTX, Surviving the Age of Virtual Reality was dedicated to me as an exemplar of someone living the experience directly) but also with one foot still in community. Perhaps that foot has atrophied somewhat in the eight years since Surviving was published; that will be one point of reflection to consider while thinking about my remarks for September’s conference. What’s more interesting is that the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management has created an institute dedicated to the exploration of the very “spikiness” of the world that the HTX tried to describe, headed by Richard Florida, author of a number of books on the “Creative Class” and their clustering style.

Another idea, from Thomas Langan’s Tradition and Authenticity in the Search for Ecumenic Wisdom, that resonates with business leaders, Little League baseball coaches, Executive Directors of not-for-profits, and Deans of Medical Education (to pick but four) is the notion of the hypocrisy that infests institutions as they diverge from the principles of their founding tradition. Institutions thus are always in need of reform, even as one holds onto the tradition (indeed, the reform is to preserve the tradition). One need think only of politics in Canada, the deformation of Parliament, the focus on leaders at the expense of MPs, the parties’ faux democratic methods in candidate selection, etc. to see how the institutions have radically diverged to work almost antithetically to our tradition of responsible government, Crown-in-Parliament. Again, a possible point of departure for a reflection on the nature of our society, and its prospects, a topic that was and is near and dear to Thomas Langan’s heart.

But the final point of take-off may come from his master work, Being and Truth. I had the pleasure, two years ago (and will do this again in May and June this year) of leading a philosophers’ café composed of 9-12 year olds. The core chapter, “Kinds of Objects, Kinds of Truth”, was not made into a reading, but rather several of the examples (Langan’s approach is resolutely phenomenological: first go to the things themselves and see what they reveal) were talked about. The children involved were able to reason out what the things were “saying” without prompting, and come to moments of enlightenment for themselves that parallel the arguments Langan makes. Einstein is reputed to have once said that if he couldn’t explain his theory of relativity to a six year old, he didn’t really understand it himself. Seeing these children grasp the different between an object and what it symbolises, or the built-up construct we call “a nature”, or even the inter-relationship between different kinds of truths (not just a world with shades of grey, but indeed, a world with colour) shows how essential these arguments were, and how well linked together to build up a world-view, yet graspable by anyone without scholastic training. An “Einstein test” moment, indeed, and perhaps also a worthy starting point.

In any event, I have found myself today turning these over again and again in my mind, and although I have no intention to return to the campus for a fourth time to teach, or even to complete my abandoned doctoral programme, I am “on fire” with the thought of this event and this speech/paper.

Every so often, you are presented with a gift. When your next gift is presented to you, will you see it? Will you accept it (and the responsibilities it will entail)? Or will you let it go, and then wonder why life is passing you by?

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