An Interview with Simon Critchley

A 2003 interview with Simon Critchley can be seen in the above image. In it, he shares his thoughts on a variety of topics. He talks about the importance of language, his views on human nature, and his opinion on the world we live in. Critchley’s insights offer a unique perspective on these issues and are worth considering.

One of the major questions in philosophy is trying to determine the meaning of life. Not necessarily to provide us with a definitive answer, but to help us comprehend how to find and create our own meanings in this world.

In response to nihilism–a worldview that suggests that it is impossible to discover any sort of meaning in life–Simon Critchley believes that we should embrace the “acceptance of meaninglessness as the achievement of the everyday or the ordinary”.

This means that instead of looking for meaning from an outside source, we have to find it ourselves. This concept is intertwined with ethical considerations of what is good in a secular society.

Interviews with Simon Critchley, professor of philosophy at the University of Essex in England and directeur de programme at the College International de Philosophie in Paris, were conducted at various times and places, including New York, San Francisco and various locations in Europe as well as Iceland, between March and June 2003. Communication methods used between interviewer and interviewee included email, cassette tape, barely legible handwriting and in-person conversations. In January 2004, Critchley joined the New School University in New York. He is the author of five books, the most recent of which is On Humour (Routledge, 2002), and has a fondness for ellipses.

— Jill Stauffer stated

JILL STAUFFER: Could you explain what you meant when you said that philosophy starts out of disillusionment? How does this idea apply to both philosophers and non-philosophers, as well as the discipline of philosophy itself?

Simon Critchley proposes that philosophy originates from two forms of disappointment: religious and political.

He explains that religious disappointment is rooted in the understanding that religious belief is not possible for everyone, whereas political disappointment is a result of living in an unjust and violent world where the rich exploit the poor.

Therefore, Critchley believes that philosophy begins with the experiences of disappointment, such as the lack of meaning in life due to the absence of a God and the pursuit of justice in an unjust world.

It is probable that many people would agree that injustice exists in the world, however, some might find the idea that there is no God to be disagreeable or not accepted.

Did you not get the memo? The Almighty has been declared as deceased.

JS: Yes, I’m familiar with that. Could you elaborate more on what you mean?

SC: Nietzsche argues that nihilism is a situation where the most important values have been devalued by themselves.

He believes this is connected to the concept of the death of God. This is not due to a general sense of skepticism, but rather the realization that what was once believed to be true, such as God, immortality of the soul, etc., is no longer accepted. He states that “God is dead. We have killed him.”

Christianity, according to Nietzsche, is based on a need for truth, which has caused people to recognize that the world of heaven, immortality, and God does not exist. This leads to a feeling of meaninglessness, and is associated with Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Nietzsche’s aim is to combat the nihilism of his own time.

Nihilism takes hold if people assume that there’s no solution to the dilemma of purposelessness. In my opinion, Nietzsche’s argument is that human beings themselves are the answer. We can overcome nihilism by embracing the potential of humanity to think and act.

SC: Indeed. Nevertheless, our current situation is still one of nihilism. As Nietzsche stated, he would be considered to have been “born” after his death. People are well aware of the vacuity of their own lives, and seek to mask it using multiple tactics.

These range from returning to traditional beliefs such as fundamentalist Christianity, to engaging in novel religious activities like New Age pursuits like yoga, crystal-gazing, or finding one’s “inner child”, or sitting beneath a pyramid.

All of these are cases of passive nihilism. Alternatively, some people may consider active nihilism to be a way out, such as the use of violence or terrorism. This is the idea that, since nothing has any value, we should just destroy everything.

Nevertheless, I do not advise either passive or active nihilism, as both are attempts to flee from the “meaning gap” in our lives. Instead, the point of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and all philosophy for that matter, is to think within that chasm and fight nihilism. To use thought to battle the nihilism of today.

JS: Therefore, since divine or absolute concepts cannot answer the query of life’s significance, any response has to come from the finite and fallible human experience. What kind of response could that be?

SC suggested that the only way to begin to answer the question of the meaning of life is to acknowledge our human finitude and vulnerability. In his book, Very Little … Almost Nothing, he argued that we should accept meaninglessness as the achievement of the everyday.

He believes that we inherit a situation of meaninglessness, but from it, we can create meaning in relationship to the mundane aspects of our lives. SC encourages us to focus on the ordinary, the common and the near, as it is from these things that we can make a meaning out of the meaninglessness of our existence.

The current and past state of the world is often dominated by violence, injustice, and indifference to the suffering of others. If we create our own meanings, then our links to morality and ethics are tenuous and can be renounced. Is it possible for something beneficial to emerge from this situation? Can philosophy offer hope of justice and significance?

SC: A very complex query. Unfortunately, my response will not be satisfying. We must start with the sad admission that possibly nothing positive arises from human activity.

The narrative I was taught as a kid, which was part of the logic behind the nuclear standoff between the US and former USSR, was that war had been conquered. This might have been true to an extent.

However, the current reality is that war is a constant, with all its horrible and cruel components. Thinking is and always has been, and is now even more so, a response to the political distress.

We are living in dark times; our leaders are disconnected and their plans are disheartening. Thus, I am highly pessimistic about the current situation.

There is no need to wallow in a despondent state of nothingness.

SC: No, far from wanting to abandon it, the opposite is true–connecting to your initial inquiry–philosophy starts from a place of political disillusionment, the injustice of our reality. In facing this truth, we can create and act in an ethical and lawful manner.

I look to the antiwar and antiglobalization movements as examples of what people can do in the face of the current state of affairs. To me, these movements are a form of philosophy in action.

Despite my pessimism, I am confident in the potential of people when they come together and act collectively, without the influence of government. Hope is the only thing left to us, though it should not be a passive hope; it should be active. We can take initiative, create just laws and constitutions, and engage in teaching.

The phrase by Gillian Rose, “keep your mind in hell and despair not,” comes to mind; it is about staying focused on the present and not giving up, continuing to create and affirm.

JS proposed that accepting philosophy as atheism does not mean that we have no hope for something better than the world as it is. Instead, it requires us to recognize that there is no higher or external order to our existence.

SC: Absolutely. In my opinion, there is a profound distinction between philosophy–the effort of being a philosopher, someone who ponders–and a spiritual viewpoint. A philosopher is someone who does not possess knowledge, yet desires to discover.

This is why Socrates was proclaimed the most educated individual in Greece. The inscription above the oracle at Delphi states: Know Thyself. The reality is, we do not have self-knowledge. The most enlightened of us accept our ignorance.

Philosophy is the exploration into that predicament. Yet, the religious person knows the purpose of life.

Religion or faith is a topic that does not require further investigation.

SC: It’s possible that I could have a religious experience, but that hasn’t happened yet. If it did, I’d certainly give up philosophy and take part in activities associated with religion, like teaching classes and preaching in a church.

For now, I’m stuck philosophizing in the absence of any religious knowledge. I don’t feel that I’m entitled to know things like whether God is in his heaven or if redemption will be possible, like a religious person would.

Still, I suppose I hold out the hope that one day, I’ll turn to Jesus, Allah, or the Torah and everything will be different. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The philosopher does not possess a surety of knowledge, whereas a religious individual trusts in a power higher than human existence, providing them with an assurance of a positive outcome.

Therefore, the philosopher’s morality, expectations, or ideals are more delicate than those of a religious person. They are rather fragile and could possibly not function. However, this is what we have to depend on if we are to make alterations to the world right now instead of later.

Humans are the only ones who can take action and make a change, yet they might not do so.

SC: When asking me about the implication of the statement that philosophy begins in disappointment, I did not want to differentiate between philosophers and human beings. I view philosophy as an elucidation of the intuitions that all individuals share.

This is a way of comprehending the world in a more comprehensive way, which is shared by humans and non-humans alike. I see it as an activity of thought that is reserved for human beings in their most reflective moments.

To use Stanley Cavell’s words, philosophy is the education of adults.

JS: To live in a secular society, one must overcome nihilism and strive to be more mature, as the lack of one unified belief or power creates an unstructured and unpredictable environment.

SC: It’s true. Many people are discussing secularism, with thinkers such as William Connolly, author of the book Why I Am Not a Secularist. Currently, a resurgence of religion is happening, often appearing as postmodernism. I find this depressing and off-putting. This sentiment is not directed at Connolly, of course.

In Connolly’s work, I perceive that he is offering guidance on how to be a sound secularist in accordance with his own criteria. What is the nature of faith in the postmodernist setting?

SC argues that secularism has yet to be achieved. He believes that modernity has not been accomplished, and that the philosophical, political, ethical, and legal task at hand is the creation of a secular society.

He then goes on to note that the Iraq War is an entirely religious conflict between two metaphysical versions.

Consequently, he believes people should strive to get rid of not only the terrorist metaphysics of Al-Qaeda but also the reactionary metaphysics of George W. Bush, which has changed political discourse into a religious one due to the latter’s use of terms such as “evil.”

Drawing on the thought of his friend Jay Bernstein, SC believes that this is the issue that needs to be addressed.

JS inquires: In the absence of any ultimate authority above the products of human creation, how can principles of right and wrong be established? What solidity can be found in the classifications of reason? Likewise, on what grounds can justice and morality exist in such a construct?

SC: These are significant questions. It seems that you are looking for a form of authority that simply is not accessible to us. When there is no higher power than what humans are capable of creating, then we are the ones who determine what is right and wrong.

Ethics, justice, and law are not given to us on tablets; we need to take it upon ourselves to create them. We must become mature.

The issue that your inquiry raises is what is the justification for one moral view over another? The problem of lacking religious beliefs is the problem of moral skepticism: I say good, you say bad… or you say good, I say bad, morality becomes increasingly unclear. How do we address this? There are multiple approaches.

Some may decide to draw on the life of a community, whether that be a nation or a small group like a monastery or school. Others may decide to base right and wrong on a universalization concept, meaning that we can only act on rules that all humans could justifiably take part in.

Contemporary moral theories, dominated by the three standard theories of justification–deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics–come from understanding our current situation. My current work is on ethics and I am attempting to answer this question. One must recognize that moral argumentation has a limit.

My next book is titled Ethics… My Way which implies the realization that while I can try to make a rational and coherent ethical theory, I cannot convince the skeptic. All I can do is recommend a certain perspective with the most persuasive terms and hope it is accepted.

Do you have anything else to add to support your opinion?

SC suggests that the common focus of ethics on questions of justification can be likened to a student game, which can be seen in the extremes of applied ethics. Instead of justification, he says the issue is motivation and how it can aid in a self’s acting on a conception of the good.

He believes that ethics has become too fixated on how to justify different norms of action, either through universalizing, the greatest happiness for the greatest number, or by referring to the virtues of a particular community.

JS: Rather than starting out by seeking justification, concentrate on a person’s dedication to ethics or any other type of good.

In order to explain how a self binds itself to its good, SC proposes an account of what is referred to as the existential matrix of ethics. To illustrate this, SC’s Ethics … My Way focuses on the concept of commitment, and argues that the ethical subject is devoted to a demand that is never attainable, unilateral, and extreme.

This demand, which is sensed when one encounters another person and is called “the face” by Emmanuel Levinas, is what shapes the ethical subject.

For Levinas, this is not a metaphysical concept but rather a tangible demand. Why else would I experience grief for the suffering of others that I had no part in causing? I am affected by an ethical duty before I am able to choose to accept it.

I think that it is impossible to ever completely meet the demands that the face of another imposes on us. Still, this demands us to take ethical action in the world. It is a responsibility that will always push us to go beyond what is necessary for this specific person, and to strive for the betterment of all.

JS: This contradicts the idea that a duty only exists if there is a relinquishing of freedom. “It is because I chose to” is what the duty is based on. But the demand you are referencing is more powerful; it cannot be dismissed and is not reliant on any kind of volition or previous will.

SC: Ethics is a weighty burden, and it automatically has political implications. Gramsci referred to this as “hegemony.” I am currently in the process of tackling the challenging task of writing a book on the connection between ethics and politics. I will keep you informed on how it goes.

Do you still maintain the idea that signficance is generated in the usual and the mundane?

SC: Indeed, I am currently in the process of authoring a volume about poetry entitled Poetry … My Way.

Joking around was the reaction.

SC: Just kidding. The book I’m writing is about the idea of meaning and its connection to the everyday and the ordinary. The poet I’m studying is Wallace Stevens, an American poet in the 20th century who I believe is particularly philosophically interesting.

My book is an explanation of why that is. Stevens is exploring how we create a world with our words. In his poem “The Idea of Order in Key West”, he speaks of a woman walking along the Atlantic coast, saying “there never was a world for her / Except for the one she sang and, singing, made” and “She was the single artificer of the world / In which she in sang.” By this, he means that we create our own world through our language. The world is what we make of it.

JS: He’s not a nihilist.

SC: As I’m pondering the poetic creation of the world, I’m also considering how the world persists to defy us. There is a recurring concept in the later poetry of Stevens that deals with the defiance of things to the poetic mind.

The defiance of actuality is something I’m attempting to understand and explain by analyzing the progression of the later works of Stevens.

JS: It is usually assumed that reason and its principles are what protect us from the obscurity or thoughtlessness of faith. Yet, what you have been expressing reminds us that this conviction – that belief in the power and dependability of reason – is a faith in its own right, a faith in reason.

This conviction still holds onto the necessity of having faith in something with a higher authority beyond humanity.

SC: Nietzsche’s point about faith in reason is a good one, even if he’s not my favorite philosopher. He argues that such faith is the cause of nihilism.

This sentiment is echoed in the work of Max Weber and the Frankfurt School, specifically Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. The reason that was thought to bring about freedom has instead become a means of imprisonment, according to Kant. Foucault likewise discussed how this type of rationality leads to societies of surveillance, discipline, and control.

It appears that logic has not liberated us.

SC suggests that rather than disregard reason, it is necessary to comprehend its present relevance and to conceive of emancipatory forms of reason. This would include a more encompassing view of reason that would encompass elements of communication, dependence, and vulnerability.

His work does not focus on this, but he believes it is a worthwhile mission. This kind of reason would destroy the opposition between reason and faith, and would incorporate the emotional side of life.

JS: It appears to me that if we seek to be able to recognize communication, vulnerability, and dependence, we must ensure that ethics stays rooted in the ethical subject instead of immediately focusing on universality or utility. Communication, vulnerability, and dependence (as well as their negative effects) serve to jolt us out of the dream of universality.

A more comprehensive form of reason could cause us to re-examine the world through a phenomenological lens. Would it be worthwhile to discuss how phenomenology might be linked to ethics?

SC: “So be it,” Merleau-Ponty claims that genuine philosophy is about re-learning to observe the world. It reveals, at an intellectual level, what all ordinary people, in a sense, already know. This is also a definition of phenomenology.

Another way to define phenomenology is that it is the revelation of the basic layer of human experience that is prior to any sort of theory. We are part of a world and are existing in our everyday life. Phenomenology is a philosophical approach that attempts to bring forth this pre-theoretical layer of human experience and re-describe it.

This may sound a bit complex and uninteresting. However, if we think of the relationship between phenomenology and the scientific worldview, it becomes clearer. Science is a pervasive part of our world; this is not a bad thing in and of itself.

But one of the issues with this scientific worldview is that it causes humans to have a largely theoretical connection to the world.

For instance, instead of perceiving my place in the world and then attempting to explain that, I only see the world as colors, objects, and representations that are processed by my retina and then my brain.

Prioritization is given to the theoretical version of JS.

SC: I agree. Neurophysiological questions can certainly be asked about the brain and perception. But what I’m interested in from a philosophical point of view is grasping the obvious – that which is happening in front of us, the near, the common. This is what phenomenology allows us to do – it’s a process of relearning how to perceive the world in its immediacy and practicality.

JS: It might not be so easy to recognize the obvious. We may not perceive it until we train our eyes to see. As Heidegger could have stated, what is closest to us is often the furthest from our minds. Could we say that the gap between the scientific and phenomenological perspectives is one between a conception of the world and a living experience of it?

SC: Phenomenology is not empiricism; it is actually in opposition to it. Phenomenology is about discovering a kind of awareness of the world that we already possess, yet we tend to ignore it through our scientific and theoretical pursuits.

JS: Indeed. We mask the blatant in order to emphasize other matters. Could we declare that phenomenology is a living cognizance of the world?

SC: My interpretation is that phenomenology involves one’s ability to contemplate and ponder the experience of existing in the world.

The initiation of philosophy begins with letdown. Is there an eventual conclusion to philosophy and if so, what is the process?

SC adamantly disagrees with someone like Richard Rorty, who believes philosophy should be replaced by literary criticism, history and politics.

Despite SC’s earlier admission that philosophy could come to an end if they have a religious experience or become an anti-intellectual philistine, this is not the case. Political horror and the question of meaning still affect us, thus, philosophy is needed for reflection and thought to help individuals move from situations of unfreedom to the potential for freedom.

In the end, the responsibility is ours: human beings. We are the ones who have brought about political distress, yet we are the only beings with the capability to bring about the end of it and to establish purpose for ourselves and the people around us. Philosophy is the search for what could be.

SC: It is not innate for us to be philosophical; our society often works against it. To me, philosophy is a method of combating the apathy of the modern era by making, constructing, affirming, and continuing. Samuel Beckett’s phrase, “I can’t go on; I’ll go on,” and Pascal’s well-known quote, “Man is a reed, the weakest in nature; a virus, a vapor is enough to kill him. But man can think. And it is in this that our dignity consists.

Let us strive to think well,” both perfectly reflect the idea that philosophy is the effort to think properly. To give up on this would be to relinquish a vast part of our humanity.

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