Review of Rupert Read’s Philosophy for Life


The saying that
philosophy bakes no bread may indeed hold true for the chemists who invented
Wonderbread but for those of us who derive nourishment from this strange thing
called philosophy, the saying rings as hollow as a Petri dish. The cover art on
Read’s excellent book offers us a slice of toasted bread, as if to say,
philosophy is the bread that our age requires. Of course, this bread must be
fresh and new like the manna that fell from heaven if it is to break open the
impossible.

The Old English
word for loaf is hlifan, which means to raise higher and to give
subsistence. Philosophy done in the right way can be the panarium or
breadbasket that gives insights and tools to combat the ignorance, apathy and
stupidity that have been shaping our world for too long.

Read see philosophy
and literature as activities that can affect how ethics and politics are carried
out. Philosophy can provide room to see the other as a gift rather than a
problem. The other can be seen as a companion, that is, one with who bread is
broken.

Read’s book offers
a space in which to recover the meaning of philosophy as the quest to know the
truth of the becoming of all things. This quest moves to recover philosophy as
the love of wisdom and as the wisdom of love (of affection, friendship,
eros
and agape).

While trained in
the analytic tradition, Read is a careful reader of Nietzsche and Derrida. He
shows us that to philosophize means not only to know the truth, but also to
fully live the truth of what is known, even when the road leads to silence and
paradox.

In this book, we
are offered a collection of essays grouped under four headings: Environment,
Religion, Politics and Art. M.A. Lavery provides useful and helpful
introductions to each section while raising important critical
insights.

Lavery writes that
Read’s book, “aims to go where philosophy is typically scared to venture:
into the ‘murky’ domains of love, forgiveness, religious practice, our
connections with animals, political dissidence, politics, revolutionary art- in
short, areas of social and political thought often pushed aside in current
academic discourse”. If Lavery is speaking of the Anglo-American analytic
tradition that became known in 1900, he is correct. This tradition has viewed
the topics that Read explores as areas not worthy of consideration. Perhaps this
is the reason why certain analytic philosophers, stuck on conditionals, truth
tables and the great mystery of how the evening star is the morning star, show
contempt toward such thinkers as Plato, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Bataille,
Levinas, Derrida, Deleuze and others who do deal with the issues that Lavery
lists, precisely because they are the only philosophical issues worth thinking
about.

While this is not
the space to fully examine the hostility that certain analysts show towards the
continental French and German philosophical tradition, it is true that the
analytic tradition has a narrow and limited view of what doing philosophy means.
I find Read’s book astonishing because he confirms that one can still practice
analytic philosophy in the great tradition of Wittgenstein and have the passion
and style of Nietzsche and the existentialists.

The Wittgenstein
presented to us by Read is primarily an ethical thinker. Wittgenstein declared
his Tractatus to be a work on ethics. This point was apparently missed
by most of his English followers probably because Wittgenstein was speaking
German at the time. Ethics here can be understood as a form of resistance
against certain conceptions of doing philosophy. By asserting that ethical
living took place before “philosophy” came on the scene, Wittgenstein resembles
Heidegger who was concerned with recovering a sense of dwelling that avoid
devastation, while allowing thinking and building to flourish.

In his chapter on
the Environment, Read demonstrates how the Gaia imagery of James Lovelock is
“deeply politically dangerous” because it leads to “plain silly
gender-stereotyping”. The earth is no more a Mother than time is a Father. Read
argues that we must “endeavor to overcome the Nature vs. Culture debate
altogether”. This debate first begun by Aristotle,
who argued that nature (physis), is that which is not made by humans,
is in contrast to techné, or that which is of human origin. Read
believes that we “share a common environment: in which the cultural elements and
the natural elements are not qualitatively distinguishable”. I find this to be a
problematic feature of Read’s analysis. Culture is something other than nature.
We are more than just a biological species that participates in an ecosystem.
Following Proctor,
I
take Read’s position to be an epistemological assertion that deals with our
knowledge of nature rather than an ontological assertion concerning the reality
of nature itself.  The question remains, how an epistemological assertion
becomes an ethical imperative.

Environ is not only
where we are surrounded (nature) it is also what we surround ourselves with
(culture). Read argues, “We are part of our ecosystem. We are one with
it. We are nothing without it”. If the trans-humanists are to be
believed, we can be more than our ecosystem and more than our flesh. This launch
beyond the earth may be a necessary leap forward even as it is criticized by
those who urge a return to earthly values. Read sees the environmental concern
being transformed into “a political philosophy of justice for all, including the
future ones”.  Read is critical of liberal principles “that have gotten us into
this mess in the first place”. The masquerade of Rawls “veil of ignorance” is
here shown for what it truly is, namely an ignorant veil that constricts the
coming of justice. Justice in the sense outlined by Read cannot emerge from the
theories that Rawls puts forth.

Read’s chapter on
Religion brings in the example of Quakerism and its political consequences in
order to offer an alternative to so-called liberal tolerance. As Read argues,
“liberalism can tolerate religions only if they either strip themselves of
intrinsic aspects (i.e. are no longer truly a way of life and therefore in the
end of no deep significance for their practitioners”). A religion stripped of
its core becomes a site for quick fix slogans. Read rightly sees liberalism as
“a secular fundamentalism”. On the other hand, he sees Quakerism as “positive
and life affirming” in its emphasis of peace, equality, integrity and
simplicity. However, in arguing for a religion without belief, Read carries out
the same liberal procedure that he criticizes in Rawls.

Following the
insights of Quakerism, Read writes, “one may then live more by living for
others, including others who will come afterward”. While critical of the
Catholic notion of resurrection that claims, “all flesh” will be raised from the
dead, Read sounds as if he is completing Saint Luke’s Gospel when he claims, “if
you actually live, and live in a way that is not self obsessed, you will not be
so scared of death and dying”. Here of course, we will have to wait until Read
faces his final moments to learn if his insights still hold true.

Read closes his
analysis of religion with an essay on forgiveness which he sees as a “renewal of
the possibility for life to go on”. He argues that “an act of true forgiveness
adds something to life; we give something to life with this act”. Read’s
understanding of forgiveness is contrasted with the forgiveness that promises
“the status quo” and is used “as a cover-up for the presentation of
injustice”.

While I agree with
Read that forgiveness must be lived, I think he errs when he writes, “Derrida
has said virtually nothing about forgiveness”. Derrida argues that forgiveness
is a gift that one gives to oneself. This does not, as Read argues, “short
circuits the presence of the other person altogether”. What it does is avoid
self-deceit. The mere giving of the humanists has resulted in pity, shame,
weariness and disgust. For Derrida, when we realize that there can be a pure
giving that comes from our bankruptcy, we can find joy in the midst of our
sorrow. Following Rousseau, the egoist who takes care of her won good cannot
cause others to fall into misfortune. Those occupied with the business of
improving the other (imperialism, colonialism, globalization etc) are the ones
who give birth to continued violence. Their mere “forgiveness” means
nothing.

Read’s chapter on
politics provides an interesting reading of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. He
writes, “giving up the fantasy of absolute security involves overcoming one’s
terror of facing a life without any guarantees”. I wonder how this viewpoint
helps us to deal with the tragedies of our time. I take Read’s statement to lead
us to the very heart of the liberal ideology that he criticizes. The uncertainty
of a “life without any guarantees” is presented as an opportunity to finally
free oneself from all constraints, i.e. to become truly authentic, even while
the existing ideology entrenches, itself further into its own “absolute
security”. Following Read’s insights we should not see unemployment as an
anxious moment, we should embrace it as an opportunity to be “retrained” in
order to find our true vocation in life while making sure that our “free choice”
does not disturb the social order.

Read argues “the
nearest equivalent in our world to Sauron and his minions is George Bush’s
America” Is it really the case that Bush’s America has become a dictatorship
while say; China and Putin’s Russia should become our political and ethical
exemplars? Here, Read’s views are inconsistent with what is really destabilizing
our world. Again, I find that what he is proposing functions as a supplement to
the very liberalism that he criticizes. In other words, Read’s political vision
where we embrace, “the non-violent consciousness of Frodo….the ecological
consciousness of Treebeard and…the empathetic social consciousness partially
realized in Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf and Aragon”, really does not lead to the
formation of a new social order. It is business as usual in the Shire. Tolkien’s
politics of either/or may have worked to save Middle Earth but I think our time
requires an actual free choice, one that is not given in the “choice” between
Coke or Pepsi. Tolkien allows us to fantasize. However, we know that the idyllic
world of the Hobbits (England) was built from the spoils of their pirate navy,
to echo the words of E.M. Cioran. What is saved is precisely the old way of life
that still makes slaves of others. Those nations who were liberated from Fascism
at the end of WW II went on to wage wars on the African continent showing us
that “Sauron” finds new ways to emerge.

I agree with Read
that Chomsky’s work is of fundamental importance insofar as it engages in the
“pitiless defacing of political rhetoric”. However, the facts that Chomsky gives
us are nothing new. Do we really expect the CIA and other secret service
organizations to act in a kinder, gentler manner? The fact that we allow such
behavior to continue may be an indication of our own complicity in the practices
championed by the real Jack Bauer’s and James Bond’s of the world.

For those who have
lived through what Chomsky is merely content to write about from his comfortable
surroundings at MIT, his so-called facts are often false. Here I am thinking of
Chomsky’s analysis of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Chomsky blames the Slovenian
and Croatian declarations of independence for having started the war, ignoring
the fact that the war against the integrity of the Yugoslavian federation began
when Milosevic assumed power of Serbia and the Serbian dominated Yugoslav Army.
Slovenia and Croatia could no longer remain in this totalitarian position and
invoked the right to independence, which was enshrined in the 1974 Constitution.
My claim here is, yes, Chomsky is right (as Read argues), to “lead his readers
to see the nonsense latent in theoretical-propaganda” only if Chomsky is aware
of his own propaganda and how it supported the side of the aggressor.

Read’s chapter on
art argues that art has little to do with the imaginary, the virtual or the
real. In his words, “It’s just Art”. He links his understanding of art to
Nietzsche’s saying, “Become what you are”. Art then is about metamorphosis and
becoming. It is not about frozen forms. Read takes the Zen mantra, “everything
changes” to point us in the direction of what art is. As a painter, I find what
Read says here to be very useful.

The conclusion,
Philosophy for Life outlines the perils and opportunities for humanity. These
perils include commercialism, economic neo-liberalism, evangelical
fundamentalism, consumerism, repressive laws, paranoid security apparatuses etc.
Read asks, “how can philosophy come to the rescue when it is essentially without
power?” Read, following Wittgenstein, sees philosophy ” as part of a therapy for
self and society that treats illnesses and offers the outline of something
beyond them”. Read forces us to ask what the task of philosophy is. My question
is why must there be a demand that philosophy become practical and applied. Let
us put the practical under suspicion because the practical may become the
parasitical that waters philosophy down into self-help secrets and new age
remedies. Here thinking becomes training and what can be trained has already
become manipulated. The philosophical task, following Kant is to take the bit
out of our mouths, to no longer be domesticated livestock incapable of free
action. The true philosophical task as  I see it must be accomplished without
the traditional co-ordinates in place. To do otherwise is to simply re-arrange
the furniture in Plato’s cave while believing we have improved our situation.
Perhaps philosophy is not a tool to solve problems but a discipline that must
teach us how to ask the right questions. These questions must disturb the
existing ideology rather than prop it in a Habermasian manner.

I wonder if
Wittgenstein could not be saved or cured by his own philosophy, why we should
pick up the tools that failed him. Does reading Wittgenstein+ Chomsky+ Quaker
spirituality+ Tolkien lead to an epiphany that will finally put ignorance to
rest?  How does reading these authors provoke us to act in a way that will
radically change the co-ordinates of our entrenched positions? Here I fear, that
philosophy remains the most useless of activities.

Surely, there has
to be an alternative to Jesus’ words, “Take your cross and follow me” and the
Socratic gesture of holding out the empty cup of hemlock so that it can be
filled and swallowed by yet another willing mouth. Is it not strange and
perverse that the exemplars of our tradition are individuals executed by the
State rather than individuals who have executed the State and its repressive
apparatus?

Read argues that
philosophy is for life. “It must be on the side of life”. Read remains
affirmative and believes in hope. While I share his dream for “a peaceful
civilization”, I wonder whether this civilization of peace will continue to be a
civil lie. Here I am reminded of Thoreau’s words from Walden: “The millions are
awake enough for physical work but only one in a hundred thousand is awake
enough for the intellectual life and only one in a hundred million is awake to a
poetic or divine life. I do not want to have to say when I come to die that I
have not yet lived”.

Clearly written,
with passionate intensity, I recommend Read’s book to anyone interested in
rescuing philosophy from its sterile academic straitjacket.

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About Mark Zlomislic

Philosopher. Writer. Artist. My Studio/Gallery Inscape Fine Art is located in Cambridge, Ontario. Viewing by Appointment Only. Please email: zlomislic@hotmail.com.
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One Response to Review of Rupert Read’s Philosophy for Life

  1. Chi Perron says:

    “Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

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