“The fly is the philosophical animal. drawings of flies always look the same, regardless of the period in which they were made” — HUBERTUS VON AMELUNXEN / photo: gabriel yoran

If you question something, people will question you

The most controversial decision of my life so far was attending philosophy classes

“I don’t understand you,” a friend from Munich wrote me on Skype. “This leads nowhere,” my father said and recommended: “Do something that will make you happy!” More than one colleague asked: “Is there any practical value in this?” One even wanted to know: “Does it improve society?”

No decision in my life was met with so much resentment, let alone open aggression, as was my decision to enroll in a Ph.D. program in philosophy.

When I studied advertising I wasn’t told: “Why do you do that? You’ll become one of those liars selling us stuff we don’t need!” (I expected this to happen, but it didn’t). When I started going to philosophy classes however, a lot of my peers surprisingly didn’t get along. I obviously decided to pursue something that many people can only pronounce by having two fingers of each hand drawing quotation marks in the air: “Philosophizing.”

Philosophy seems to be something anarchic and elitist at the same time. By pursuing it you apparently say goodbye to society. The view of the working man is that you become a “useless, elitist prick,” only concerned with “self-indulgent crap” that has no use whatsoever. While the rest of the world struggles to get along, the philosopher sits under a tree and — thinks. This obviously is seen as nothing short of impudent.

I co-founded two Internet companies and did a lot of other things, so one could say I am a “maker”. And now I’m all about thinking? What’s the use? What came over me?

Even the few artists I know are not met with such resentment. If they aren’t tremendously successful (and most of them are not), they are being pitied by the hard-working business people, but as far as I know most are not met with open aggression. The reason is simple: Artists produce things, not just thoughts. And art is being patronizingly viewed by the majority as an ancillary science of real life: Something you consume to make you feel better about what you actually do. Something that you can enjoy, enjoy ironically or at least pretend to enjoy ironically. Philosophy can’t offer such relief.

So, unsurprisingly, the practical, the economical dominates everything. What you do is being valued in terms of economic logic. Thinking is not regarded practical, or it is only regarded practical if it leads to some doing, to some measurable result. And thoughts cannot be measured (regardless of the quotation counting in scientific journals).

It was a journalist who actually took his job seriously by asking me why I founded my first company in 1997. He really asked “why”. Nobody ever asked me this question before, not my co-founders, not my investors, not even my parents. I was dumbfounded. My companies were dumb-founded: I was sure about what I was doing. There was no questioning it, because this is what being sure is all about: It’s not that you have answers to all your questions. It’s that you don’t even question anything at all. It’s this dumbness, or sacred naivety that pushes you forward. Its strength protects you: Because it makes people to not question you or your motifs. However, if you start questioning something (or everything), people will start questioning you.

You don’t have to study philosophy to start questioning things. But once you start, you lose your naivety, which is a loss so severe that you cannot recover from it.

If you want to make it within what I rather helplessly call the system(s), it’s not recommended to ask fundamental questions. What you should do is ask questions that can be answered. And then you answer them. Especially when you’re socialized in the IT world, you’re prone to solutionism: If there’s a problem, a privately funded company will come up with a (technical) solution to solve it and make people’s lives better. You don’t ask why, you just do.

And your doing will be rewarded or at least that is the expectation. It will be rewarded in a measurable way. Your life will practically improve in return. I am not just talking fancy cars or expensive trips. It’s the practical knowledge one will have gathered about how to tweak the system, how to hack oneself all the way through. And the mind tricks to improve endurance, because one will need time, the time that will bring you to “the dark side of the moon,” as Michael Douglas’ character in Falling Down puts it: The point where going back isn’t possible anymore. You have to go all the way. But the irony is, going all the way means returning back to earth. You will not have left the system, you will return and strengthen it.

The economy is the economy of the conservative. Not technologically conservative, of course not. But conservatism is so successful, because you can be successful within it. The older people get, the more conservative they normally become: There’s more to lose, there’s less to gain. And asking questions too late can be even more devastating than asking them too early, I guess. To win within the system, you must not question it. And by not doing it, you get rewarded. That’s the hedonism of conservatism.

The people I met who practiced philosophy in the most sincere manner, are deeply troubled by the world in which they have landed. They don’t show this all the time by making sad faces. They try to look at the systems that are woven intricately around us from a distance. They look at the “us” in the previous sentence. They struggle with the things that most people take for granted: Time, space, things, being, consciousness, language, truth — and their relations. The majority of people try to pragmatically master the system(s) from within. (This is what is generally called “working”: mastering a system from within). This is what one has to do to make a living in this world. Who is to blame for doing so?

Stepping outside the order of practicality, the order of the hedonism of conservatism is unacceptable for most people. It seems not to be rewarding and even antisocial to pursue philosophy — something of no immediate material, pratical value. For no-one, not even for the one pursuing it.

Philosophizing means trying to understand something from a radical outside. How we see the world (and thus act in it) is man-made. And therefore it can be changed. The naivety lost by starting to ask questions can be replaced by the naivety of looking for something else, something new. We cannot give up on how we understand the world when it is generally acceptable to continuously act within it.

Acting without quotation marks is okay and so should thinking.