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Letter To All Philosophers

Or “Why We Need Wise Not Just Smart Philosophers in Any Intellectual Dark Web”

Much has been spoken this year of the “Intellectual Dark Web”, a loose group of thinkers and philosophers who are bucking the recent trend to be Politically Correct (PC) and are speaking out on important topics without censoring themselves to fit into the niceties of Identity Politics or mainstream media cycles. These intellectuals — from nominally right-leaning Jordan Peterson to left-leaning Brett Weinstein — are harnessing the internet to share their ideas free from the fetters of the both conventional media industry (and the plutocrats who own it) and the academic establishment, which is reeling under the influence of aggressively deconstructivist politics. Smartly, they are using the disintermediating digital ecosystem to be paid, more or less directly, for their ideas — whether in Patreon donations (Peterson apparently receives over $1M of donations a year) or podcast ads— affording the world a potent and potential rejuvenation of intellectual life (yes, philosophers need to eat too).

A key characteristic of the IDW is that its members seem unafraid to speak their truth even if it isn’t PC to do so, privileging the principle of genuine free speech over being “nice”. They want to talk about problems that matter to us all without having to tiptoe over the eggshells of cultural sensitivities. And most want to remind us of the awesome role of science and reason in our lives rather than just critique and deconstruct the ideas of others, as so many post-modernists are wont to do. Big and bold ideas are entering the public square from people that aren’t (as) caught up in professional oneupmanship — and the courting of tenure — so common in academic philosophy departments. Many said to be part of the IDW speak on important themes in a way that is urgent and accessible to people who don’t have a PhD in philosophy, bringing more people into discussions on some of the most critical issues of our era.

But, and its a big but, my sense is that in our caustic and conflictual times, we need something other than conventional intellectualism (albeit it one disintermediated by the web and open and honest about race and identity). I have come to see we are all yearning for a new paradigm of intellectualism and a new(ish) kind of public philosopher: one that returns to the roots of Greek philosophy by seeing our smart liberating ideas and our own embodied. heartfelt wisdom are inextricably linked. My sense is that if we really want to live in a genuinely better world, we must be wise, socially-innovative philosophers not just smart, independent, and digitally-empowered ones. This has inspired me to write this Rilkean letter to all philosophers, young or old.

Unlike some, like my dear friend and colleague David Fuller who wrote this very optimistic piece about the IDW (and, full transparency) shot a film about some of my ideas with his Rebel Wisdom project), I believe that without such a major paradigm shift in how independent intellectuals both be and think, we will end up in the same place we are in now: divided and ruled by more fear and loathing. For at the heart of my concern is that many IDW thinkers, whether consciously or not, spark outrage about Politically Correct craziness; and trigger much frustration in those that don’t agree with either their ideas or style of delivery (often unnecessarily acerbic and closed-hearted).

Important recent research has shown that triggering anger in viewers / readers / listeners is a powerful way to get content to go viral. So it amplifies video shares, Facebook likes and book sales but it also pours fuel on the many internecine fires that are breaking apart our culture precisely at a time when we need to be coming together to crack climate change, over-population, food scarcity, conflict, depression, anxiety and so much more. The last thing we need now is more outrage — for it is this gateway drug into the rage that populists on both left and right use to further their demagogic agendas. You may want to read my recent piece on the global culture wars driven by anger and identity — and why we need to hack it with huge amounts of love and compassion to save our species.

Crucially, if we want to see a paradigm shift in the role of ideas to generate sustainable and peaceable change, we can’t have disembodied words stream out to people on Youtube or through podcasts from intellectuals whose own inner world is beset by their own frustration and anger: because ideas cultivated in anger tend to spark anger in listeners/viewers. The great danger of anger is that it taps into what appear to be the endless disappointments and frustrations of modern life: a modernity which has atomized us and alienated us from our own essence. The schism within ourselves, that has divorced our hearts from our minds, causes us so much suffering that we are “always-already” primed to react with anger and frustration whenever anyone decides to tap into it for their own agenda.

Anger triggers within all of us “protective patterns”: tried and tested beliefs and habits that once worked to protect us from threats and control a chaotic world. Once grown up, such patterns then tend to shut down the genuine dialogue and trust we need to co-create practical solutions to our many shared problems together. These patterns, which are often subtle and many times look smart, cool and “good”, used to get our needs met but now act to block our own transformation and that of others. As philosopher Martha Nussbaum said: “Anger is a poison to democratic politics, and it is all the worse when fueled by a lurking fear and a sense of helplessness.” Anger, in both philosopher and their followers, cannot but block the collective creativity we need to enact right now to solve the practical problems that are tearing apart communities from neo-Nazi-struck Charlottesville, North Carolina to knife-crime-struck London.

As some kind of philosopher myself, I have come to realize, the very hard way, that being wise and being smart are very distinct. In fact, research shows that different parts of our brain fire up when we are in control, using our smarts to create certainty, than when we connect and imagine. I have found, over many years of inner work and wisdom cultivation, that as soon as I seek to use my cognitive talents to “win” an argument in a zero-sum game , I have already lost the long game. We intellectuals of the web — whether light or dark — need to get out of the desire to be brilliant, to get claps on Medium (nice as these are), to make that killer point… and engage in a win-win-win innovation-focused intellectualism where we seek to find higher order truths in genuine Bohmian dialogue with one another; and without resort to anger in ourselves or sparking outrage in others. This means growing huge hearts that can reach out to all, no matter their political persuasions, and focus them on the many tasks at hand.

By doing this we might “lose control” of the debate but we then gain connection to each other and to the co-creativity we need to embrace and transform real problems. Once we have taken steps to heal our own heart from the many disappointments in life — with the parents, teachers, philosophy professors, book publishers, book reviewers, funders etc. etc.who did not see us and hear us [I know all these seeming indignities all too well]— we can couch all our ideas in a (re)generative compassion that seeks to include all and exclude none.

Wise and caring, we can still harness the liberty of free speech whilst heeding our responsibility to not trigger trauma with the care-less use of our liberties. Any lurking pain within our own hearts — from the endless indignities of life as a free thinker and change agent — will manifest in ideas that inevitably lead to schism and disconnection wherever they land. Our clarity it obscured by any angst. The pellucid ideas we need to move forward are blocked from our minds by clouds of upset, even if we don’t realize our heart still hearts deep down. Let us not forget that philosophy means a “love of wisdom”, not a love of being smart.

As I say in one of my own philosophy books, “the esteemed academic Pierre Hadot has suggested that a connection between inner and outer transformation is what philosophy was always about for the Greeks; those we hold up to be paragons of pure disembodied and disenchanted reason. His research has led him to believe that our famous Greek ancestors were not philosophizing about the world for intellectual glory, political power, or simply to educate the scions of society. Philosophy for them was a lifelong commitment to using a series of expressly spiritual practices to become responsive, agile and adaptive; able to constantly and vigilantly reorient themselves to whatever was happening in the world to bring about personal and societal harmony.

In Hadot’s view, Plato was not a philosopher in the way we understand it now. He was a wisdom teacher who invited people to seek traces of the oneness in all things so they could act wisely in the moment. Plato suggests in his Republic that only such true philosophers, lovers of wisdom who no longer want to rule with Control and Protect Mode but instead seek the truth with Create and Connect Mode, should be given the power to lead society. In other words, only those who have transcended the Protector’s [the part of us that constructs protective patterns] constant need to compete, grab, and defend should lead us through the trials and tests of the Digital Age.

As leaders inspired by spiritual atheism [the life philosophy I espouse in the book], we can all bring about tangible transformation in the material world inspired by our huge, healed hearts. We appreciate that everyone is responsible for themselves and that nobody should expect handouts, while also knowing that everyone needs compassion (and some form of coaching and empowerment) in order to overcome their problems, especially when they are going through a tough time. By becoming masters at connection/love, we can reach everyone, no matter their ideology, and help them to transform emotional despair into collective hope, as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. all did so powerfully. These men were all expressly spiritual leaders leveraging connective consciousness to transform the material world.”

We can no longer have an intellectual life disconnected from our committed and purposeful efforts to transform our own personal and shared problems. Untethered from heart and body, the mind does what it will always do in such situations: race away to craft brilliant cognitive castles even as we fail to show up fully in the relationships and communities that are looking to us for leadership and love. Future-forward philosophers must treat others in our lives — from loved ones who patiently allow us to write to the lowly intern that helps produce a podcast — with the same heartfelt respect we would afford a famous media host or brand name intellectual. Above all, we must test out and burnish our grand ideas in concrete projects that seek to reduce suffering and increase thriving. Perhaps this is what the latter Sartre meant by having full “commitment”; or what Gandhi meant by “satyagraha”, holding fast to truth.

This is then an invitation for all budding and existing philosophers — of all stripes and spectrums — to forge a wise and embodied intellectualism that develops what Aristotle called phronesis: practical wisdom that counts in the gnarly moments of everyday life. Let us be intellectuals that are also practical social innovators not just smart social commentators.

The research into the viral transmission of content shows that there is only one emotion that we can trigger in our audiences that exceeds the power of anger: and that is awe. Love truly triumphs over hate! With awe in our hearts and minds we can meet people where they are at — outraged and indignant perhaps— and take them into a more thrivable vision as we all act as examples: modeling the change in real-time. We can touch a little bit of fear and anger to get attention from an overwhelmed brain but then take people rapidly from the shock into the awe.

As such transformational leaders, we can use our wisdom to imagine and bring to life concrete and achievable alternate worlds for people using mythos and metaphor; and highlight the roles they can play, and the skills they might want to develop, to take on their full part in transforming our world. Best of all, we can strike awe without glib yet care-less soundbites designed for social media and without firing up pain which is felt by so many. Returning to Martin Luther King Jr: he knew that whilst anger got people to protest for civil rights, it was only once it had been “purified” in love and connection within that it could become useful to sustained transformational change in society.

Inspired by awe, embodying our wisdom as we speak and write, testing our ideas out in tangible social change experiments, and aligning our private lives with our public personae, we can avoid baiting any human suffering. We may sell less books and have less social shares, but we will be doing what the world is calling us out to do: to share the ideas that can only come from a healed heart not a hurt one. Such ideas reach out across the political spectrum to the many billions who all share a common feeling: that they have been left behind and left alone by modernity.

We cannot make the same mistake as much modern and postmodern philosophy: remaining disembodied, disenchanted and professionalized “intellectuals”. We must become, in the humbling stumbling of our everyday lives, Plato’s philosopher-kings: who roll up our sleeves and put our ideas to practice in the systems we love to pontificate about. Such metamodern phronetic philosopher can move people towards great transformations with actions as much as words; and with heart as much as mind. We can listen deeply, dancing in dialogue with each other, exploring what might work together without needing to control, win, or protect in the conversation. What we build is more important that what we tear down with clever analyses and smart intellectual moves. In the awe-inspiring words of the designer and innovation leader R. Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Now what?

  1. Please forgive typos and errors. If you like the post, please clap AND remember that you can clap up to 50 times if you like it a lot :)!
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Embodied wisdom for life, love, and leadership—at the intersection of social change, science, wisdom, and a regenerative futurew

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Nick Seneca Jankel

Nick Seneca Jankel

Transformational Leadership, Innovation & Systemic Change; Professional Keynote Speaker; Regenerative Futurist—Architect of Bio-Transformation Theory & Practice

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