From Irrational Man

William Barrett, Irrational Man:

If philosophers are really to deal with the problem of human existence—and no other professional group in society is likely to take over the job for them—they might very well begin by asking: How does philosophy itself exist at the present time? Or, more concretely: How do philosophers exist in the modern world? … Philosophers today exist in the Academy, as members of departments of philosophy in universities, as professional teachers of a more or less theoretical subject known as philosophy. This simple observation, baldly factual and almost statistical, does not seem to take us very deeply into the abstruse problem of existence; but every effort at understanding must take off from our actual situation, the point at which we stand. “Know thyself!” is the command Socrates issued to philosophers at the beginning (or very close to it) of all Western philosophy; and contemporary philosophers might start on the journey of self- knowledge by coming to terms with the somewhat grubby and uninspiring fact of the social status of philosophy as a profession. …

“Not enough has been made of this academic existence of the philosopher, though some contemporary Existentialists have directed searching comment upon it. The price one pays for having a profession is a déformation professionelle, as the French put it—a professional deformation. Doctors and engineers tend to see things from the viewpoint of their own specialty, and usually show a very marked blind spot to whatever falls outside this particular province. The more specialized a vision the sharper its focus; but also the more nearly total the blind spot toward all things that lie on the periphery of this focus. As a human being, functioning professionally within the Academy, the philosopher can hardly be expected to escape his own professional deformation, especially since it has become a law of modern society that man is assimilated more and more completely to his social function. And it is just here that a troublesome and profound ambiguity resides for the philosopher today. The profession of philosophy did not always have the narrow and specialized meaning it now has. In ancient Greece it had the very opposite: instead of a specialized theoretical discipline philosophy there was a concrete way of life, a total vision of man and the cosmos in the light of which the individual’s whole life was to be lived.”

So, what would be a better position in life for informing a total vision suitable for a broad range of human existences? I would say that being a human centered designer would rank near the top.

I’m reading Irrational  Man, because I’ve been working on redescribing my philosophy in more existentialist language. My project does draw heavily on pragmatist thought, but its ethical core is an existentialist one — but one tempered and matured by insights from distributed cognition, postphenomenology, the material turn in the social sciences as well as human-centered and emerging polycentric design practices.

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