Tag Archives: philosophy

A Problem: Polanyi Defeaters

Let’s say there are two ways to understand the world: materially and spiritually.

Material understanding thinks in real, practical, commoditized, gain-oriented, market-going, exchange-valued, utilitized, consequence-based, pragmatic, luxurious, wanting, surplus-seeking, growth-inducing, ambition-promoting, what-can-I-get-for-X terms. Generally, material understanding sees the world economically.

Spiritual understanding thinks in ideal, divine, ascetic, use-valued, subsistence-seeking, need-based, balanced, sustainable, transcendence-promoting, virtuous, appreciation-of-X-for-its-own-sake terms. Generally, spiritual understanding sees the world socially-religiously-aesthetically.

A Polanyi defeater poses an epistemological problem for those that think they can understand spiritual statements. Karl Polanyi argues in The Great Transformation that the market system has been embedded in our social relationships since the Industrial Revolution; literally, that our society is an economy, wherein we interact with one another economically and not socially. If this is true then it seems relevant to wonder if our language, the expression of our social relationships, has been similarly affected by the market system. I think it has.

In a market any statement is understood economically. We explain and understand what we mean when we speak in terms of gain and exchange. If we accept that the market system is embedded in our social relationships, and language is an expression thereof, then we must understand or explain every statement economically. Furthermore if language constitutes our thought in some essential way, then by extension our thought is economic in nature–founded in material gain and exchange.

This is a problem. If it’s true, then I can never truly understand or express, rationally or irrationally, any spiritual statement. For every spiritual explanation I can give of a statement I can produce a Polanyi defeater explaining it materially. Any statement about truth, beauty, friendship, love, virtue, or justice can be expressed in terms of material gain and exchange. I can try to understand a spiritual statement, but since understanding requires thought, and thought is economic, then any attempt to do so will fail. And since language is the expression of social relationships, then this holds for anyone that speaks the language I do.

Granted, language is an historical artifact. Another language may be safe from the Polanyi defeaters depending on its history. But given the extent of globalization from early colonial imperialism up through our own contemporary  neo-colonial cultural imperialism, the chances of finding or generating such a language are slim. Even if I do find such a language there’s little hope, if I translate it into mine–try to understand it in terms of my own–the possibility of spirituality disappears immediately. Materiality is built into the fundament of my thought. The structure of my consciousness is material and market-oriented. No matter what I do, so long as I’m thinking, I can’t be spiritual.

For example: “Lily is my friend because she enjoys my company.”

Whether or not this is true, I cannot know whether the statement refers to some deep, spiritual feeling of friendship that Lily has or if she’s is using me for some end. I have no way of knowing if this is the case.

“The sky is blue.”

Again, whether or not this is true, ‘sky’ and ‘blue’ are linguistic entities. It may be the case that the sky and blueness are transcendent properties of an actually existing, divinely or naturally created world. But these words are subject to the market system and may have been constructed and formed over time to get me to see the world in a particular way for some purpose.

“Philosophy seeks wisdom.”

This, for me, is incredibly problematic. I can produce a Polanyi defeater for it such that the only reason philosophy seeks wisdom is for some kind of material gain. Though Socrates died for the idea that the unexamined life isn’t worth living, it turns out that in our cultural moment–if you’re reading this and understanding it–then we have no way of understanding what he was talking about. We can only think about it in terms of commodity and gain because our thought is economic.

The same goes for this blog post. It’s doomed. Tragically. I have no way of understanding if what I’m writing refers to something in the world or, because I’m looking to gain something from what I’m describing, I’m just using this “reality” as a resource for my own material gain.


Letter to Veteran’s Association at Columbia University

To Whom It May Concern,

My name is David Backer and I work with the Philosophy Outreach Center
at Teacher’s College. The Outreach seeks to create and maintain philosophical activities in educational and cultural contexts. I write to ask your opinion and
advice about one such program I’ve been thinking about recently.

There has been a clear increase in the prevalence and severity of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in recent veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and
Iraq. The demand for programs and services to help our veterans cope with PTSD has never been higher, but many veterans lack reliable access to counseling and resources for mental and psychological well-being. This can have awful consequences for their re-integration into the society they fought so bravely to protect.

I think philosophical discussion can serve as a kind of palliative for
psychological distress, a way of dealing with traumatic experiences in a rational
and communal way. Philosophy struggles with life’s deepest questions: the meaning of life, the inevitability of death, the existence of God, the nature of justice and morality. The rigor, respect, and community that a philosophical dialogue provides has helped me gain perspective on the greatest difficulties and has helped me find a way of living with painful realities in a productive and meaningful way.

I wonder if veterans would find any solace in philosophical discussion
of topics relevant to their experiences. Would sitting down and discussing the
philosophical questions inherent in war, violence, justice, and combat help to alleviate the psychological pressure they create in the mind of a soldier recently returned from battle?

Do you think such a program, called Philosophy for Veterans or
something similar, could be helpful? If so, would it be feasible to organize? Any feedback, guidance, or thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Having never fought in a war but having great respect for my country and the opportunities it affords me, I’d like to try and help those that have fought in the name of those opportunities.

David Backer

Homework for the History of Communications, Journal 4, for Havelock

These are two audio files of me speaking out an idea I had regarding Eric Havelock’s interpretation of Plato’s Republic. In it, he proposes that Plato creates thought with the help of the alphabet. In the first, I summarize this. Then I apply this analysis to Dr. Frank Moretti’s question regarding the new digital consciousness.

Mimesis v. Phronesis (part 1)

The New Dynamus (part 2)

(Footnote: I’m aware that some of the things in the second recording are far flung. They’re probably also counter-factual, anachronistic, anathema, and just straight up wrong. But it’s what I was thinking at the time.)