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  • Max Schmermbeck

Philosophers are losers (and why that is okay)

As it stands today, philosophers (whoever should and should not be included under that umbrella is not relevant here) are increasingly leaving the margins of the social, cultural and academic fields. Especially in the Netherlands, philosophy is becoming a sexy, hip discipline that attracts more and more students every year. Don’t get me wrong: I do not want to defend a sort of intellectual elitism here, and surely every young person that chooses philosophy over business administration makes a very good decision. What I mean, is that through various structural processes (such as the corporization of academia and the breakdown of societal, cultural and intellectual boundaries) philosophy is becoming part of the mainstream. The world of public and private institutions, for example, adores philosophy: from banks and police squads to municipalities and human-resource managers; philosophers are constantly called upon to exert the fine skills of critical thinking. Perhaps this is not surprising in a world which, due to its restless acceleration and increasing complexity, becomes harder to understand and navigate every day. To quote Slavoj Zizek: “in desperate times, one always resorts to philosophy.”

So what is there to worry about here? Isn’t the rising appreciation for philosophy a beneficial development to society? Not necessarily. What I am criticizing, is not the fact that philosophy is becoming more directly involved in societal practices, but rather the approach to philosophy’s proper place in society that underlies this trend. In today’s hypercompetitive gig-economy, philosophers are increasingly expected to (1) be useful to society in a concrete, tangible way, and (2) be actively entangled in public life. In other words, philosophers should play the same social game as everybody else. Contrary to these two assumptions, I want to argue that philosophers are losers, have always been losers, and should remain losers, because their most bold and valuable thinking has always taken place within the margins of society, rather than its center. It is in this sense that philosophers are losers; they never really fit in, because their lifeworld is haunted by a radical asynchronicity. A philosopher, when he is at his most dangerous, is always slightly out of time, and out of place. It is this marginal position that is so valuable for philosophy, because it fosters the kind of uncompromising, creative thinking that mainstream discourse either inhibits or flat-out makes impossible. As such, a life at the margins is a condition for what philosophy is when it is at its best: subversive, parasitic, imperceptible.

Let me unpack that. As thinkers like Foucault, Agamben and Deleuze already pointed out in the 70s and 80s, contemporary societies do not only exert power directly (as in a top-down approach which dictates what a person should and should not do), but also indirectly, that is, by letting people regulate themselves according tonormative categories such as humanity, normality, sanity, sexuality and delinquency. Deviants, savages, weirdos and madmen must be hospitalized, controlled, expelled, and medicated within structures of power, because they pose a threat to those structures. They are uncontrollable. They are wild. They are ‘dangerous’. And what power wants, above anything, is control.

My argument is that philosophers today suffer a similar fate. In the jargon of postmodernity, philosophers must be responsible citizens by ‘contributing’ to society. This instrumental approach to philosophy makes it a more viable career choice than it has ever been, but simultaneously hides an agenda of normalization. Philosophers are expected to apply their skills to solve problems within society, rather than question, protest, and subvert the structures of power that ushered in these problems in the first place. This conformism seeps through into the confines of professional academic publishing, where decrepit nihilism reigns supreme over score-board publication structures. One makes an argument, gets published, scores a point, and returns back to daily affairs. Perhaps this structure is so pervasive because it fits our tendency towards stasis and conservatism; we think we act to instigate change, but in reality, we often act precisely so that nothing changes.

Historically, philosophers have managed to elide these pitfalls by living, thinking and acting at the margins of society. But in times of increasing normalization, these places are under threat. That is one of the reasons we created Thought Magicians; to foster critical and creative thinking at the margins. This will probably do nothing for our CV’s, or to enhance our careers. If one assumes that everybody plays the same game, one can see that as a monumental waste of time. But I argue that it is not about winning the game that we are assigned to play, but creating the kinds of games that we want to play. Whether one loses or wins is a matter of perspective. So let us create places of thought and action that are marginal, subversive, and imperceptible. Let us become losers again.

1 comment

1 commento

18 set 2023

The sentiment of this piece is really admirable. (I don't mean sentiment in a deregatory way.) It is true that many philosophers (I use the term loosely) let themselves be (ab)used. The article is a good reflection on ones own practice and every philosopher should question themselves this way. However it is not a tool to judge others and/or true for the general population.

When I was a teenager we had these discussions in the underground scene. For some when someone became succesful, they where by definition not 'true' anymore. Although for sure if one gains that much traction, one should ask themselves whether they aren't being misunderstood or what's happening anyway. Of course nobody is really true, but you are…

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