An interview with Reyes Mate

This post is also available in: Spanish

Have philosophers abandoned the more substantial topics in Philosophy in order to embrace some of a more methodological character?

The problem of Philosophy is that, for a long time, it has been talking to itself. Its object was the history of Philosophy, that is, what philosophers had said. In history, the subject of metaphysics was fundamental, but that approach has been somewhat exhausted. A moment has come in which Philosophy has become adjective: it has become a philosophy of politics, a philosophy of morals, a philosophy of aesthetics. The metaphysical aspects weren’t shunned, but the ultimate questions where directed towards real problems, the problems in life which Philosophy had to face. There hasn’t been a loss of substance but a revitalization of Philosophy, looking to face more specific problems.

Maybe Philosophy has been more focused on discourses about reality than on reality itself.

Philosophy always has a problem there. All of Philosophy depends on thought about reality, but the concept of reality is not defined by Philosophy itself. It is given by experience or by science. Philosophy and have specialized and become cultures unknown to each other, which has weakened both. But, beyond the knowledge about reality that Science grants us, there are a series of questions that humanity asks itself and that go through the different states of technical-scientific knowledge. These Kantian questions are still valid: what can we know? What should we do? What should we expect? They happen within a rural world, an industrial world and a telematic world such as ours.

Postmodern thought has attacked the first issue and even questioned the possibility of forming an image of the world.

The fact that we ask the same questions doesn’t mean our answers have to be the same. When we ask ourselves about what we can know, we don’t only ask about the conditions of knowledge, as Kant already did. He told us knowing doesn’t mean understanding the relationship between the human mind and reality, as if the former was some kind of mirror in which reality was reflected. Instead, he made us see that knowing means to interpret reality according to the characteristics of a human being that has certain handicaps. For example: time and space. In order to know, humans need to take into account time and space and a series of conditioning factors which explain that what they perceive of reality has an evident subjective load. Kant asks himself this question and removes us somewhat from the realist naivety of the scholastic period, which thought the mind was a reflection of the world, so he enlightens us about the conditions of possibility of knowledge. And today this question, given the importance of science, has to be asked differently. If we ask ourselves about what we can know, we have to ask whether we must know all we can know, whether there is no priority in the research about reality, or if there are things which shouldn’t be known, even if we could. The questions are the same but, due to the differences in our environments and the evolution of technical and scientific knowledge, are posed in a different way.

Some people claim knowledge is nothing but a subjective construction, independent from reality.

That is some kind of Kantianism, taken to the extreme. Of course, knowledge is impossible without hermeneutics, which modulate reality to fit our capabilities. From the hermeneutic perspective, every knowledge of reality is an interpretation and even that which we interpret may not be coincidental with the awareness of what we interpret. Sometimes we say things that escape our own awareness and which others may be able to interpret better than ourselves. In knowledge, the interpretative chain is fundamental.

You speak about consciousness. What is it?

Consciousness, in Hegelian terms, is understanding that thinking about reality is thinking about oneself. The world is the objects which are given to us, which we name. For example “stone.” We understand that this object has many characteristics of which one is essential: hardness. So the word stone takes us to that characteristic we define as its essence. This doesn’t mean the stone is hard, just that we call it “hard” because it’s what the human subject -which is the one who knows- is interested in. The human subject can only know if he reduces the complex world, made of objects, to an essence, which is what is knowable. Deep down, we turn the objects into the fuel of knowledge. The world only exists as long as it feeds our knowledge. Consciousness is, precisely, the result of this process of appropriating the world through knowledge. Deep down, it’s a subjective outlook on reality.

Consciousness is, therefore, clearly separated from self-consciousness.

Self-consciousness is the second moment. When the subject turns on itself to see its own contents. But what’s important about consciousness is this phenomenon of appropriating the world in a violent way which is disrespectful towards reality. Knowing is not respecting the plurality of characteristics reality possesses We reduce reality to the knowable, which we call essence. The essence is not the objective and fundamental data about the thing, it’s what knowledge needs in order to obtain it. In all the knowledge in Philosophy there is an idealist background we still haven’t got rid of.

Sometimes that Platonism has taken shelter in language.

This is one of the interpretations: at the end, the only reality is language. But there have been attempts -Heidegger is one of them- to break idealism, to come out of that hellish circle in which what’s important is to reduce the world to the fuel of knowledge. This is what Heidegger criticizes of the philosophy from Plato and it can be applied today. There are attempts -which are, strangely, related to Jewish thought in the 19th century- in which, against that idealist view of reality, an experiential view is formulated. Against a philosophy of vision, a philosophy of listening. Every idealism is a philosophy of vision, because deep down we treat reality with the light that we cast. We don’t see on objects anything but the results of our lighting. That is theory (theoreiein). In the other view, hearing doesn’t prevail, but listening. There has to be an external reality which is not alien and somehow unreachable, from which we get calls, demands. It is possible to understand Philosophy as an answer to this world which calls to us. Philosophy as a calling, as listening and not as vision. This is the attempt initiated by the German Philosophy of the 19th century with Rosenzweig, who deeply influenced Heidegger. And who later, in the first Frankfurt school, had great weight.

Could it be defined as an ordering process of the world’s diversity?

Somewhat fragmentary. When we grant that the world has unreachable diversity, we have to think it is very fragmentary. Let’s imagine, for example, a theory of justice. From a theory of vision, idealism, we can think that we can define what justice is. We define it and then we apply it. In this second view, in a Philosophy of listening, it’s impossible to understand justice this way. Justice would be the answer to injustice. It would be impossible to place injustices in order because they don’t stop and we don’t have enough memory to see them all in front of us, to put them in order. This way, we would have to understand justice as a constant answer to the questions stemming from injustice.

Wouldn’t this be the subject of a moral or political conscience?

Political conscience, which Kant calls practical conscience, forces consciousness to come out of itself. It would seem that consciousness is an individual concept and it is, fundamentally. But the individual doesn’t live alone but in the world, and the relationship with the world makes it come out of itself. Come out of its consciousness. Calling this conscience and talking about a political conscience would be to force the concept, since conscience is mainly individual. We would have to use a more appropriate concept: responsibility. Political conscience tries to interpret that which is political: the world of the others, the problems of society from the perspective of the self. The thing which gives entity to the political is the assumption that this world of relationships has a life of its own, with its demands, its questions, which affect the individual conscience through responsibility. Political conscience tries to modulate the world according to its own criteria, whereas responsibility would rather listen to the problems of society in order to answer them. They are two different perspectives. A political philosophy of conscience or a political philosophy of responsibility.

In both cases we take free will for granted.

Modernity and postmodernity cannot be imagined without the subject’s autonomy. There have always been deterministic temptations but, if there’s something that makes the Enlightenment great, it’s the discovery of the subject’s autonomy. The idea that the moral, political, even aesthetic construction of the world cannot be determined by wills which are alien to the individual’s, such as Nature, religion or myths. Ethics and politics are constructions from freedom, from the subject’s autonomy. This is the great legacy of modernity. If today we speak about postmodernity it’s because something’s happened. That enlightened, European project of building a world from reason and freedom has not happened. Postmodernism is born in the 20th century when history proves that the enlightened project ends up in the most barbaric of experiences. The 20th century has been the most violent in history. Postmodernity is really born between wars. As a reflection on World War I. Which, unlike the second, is seen by European culture -philosophers, but also writers and artists- as the failure of Enlightenment. They envisioned a universal, peaceful, emancipating project and the result was a war of nationalisms. That is, exactly the opposite. Rosenzweig, who is key to interpret the 20th century, said that in the first World War the Enlightened project is consumed. It’s consumed in the double meaning: it is exhausted and realized. The realization of the European project is its exhaustion. And there begins the great postmodern reflection: what to do with a project which was built on the idea of freedom and autonomy of the subject and which has failed. There are two lines: one suggests not giving up on the ideas of autonomy of the subject and universality which were the characteristics of Enlightenment, but to think about them in a different way (fundamentally this is what the Frankfurt school suggests); the other suggests ending the universalist aim of the Enlightenment. This is similar to the postmodernity we know now: definitely this world is fragmentary, particular (because the concept of universality always ends up being particular). Therefore, let’s say goodbye to the pretensions of universality of the European project. In the core of this current, modern history is the subject’s autonomy.

In this same line, René Girard claims that current nihilism is a consequence of the Enlightenment’s failure. But, for him, the way out is religion.

For him and for many. Girard’s -and Benjamin’s- problem is how to rethink the enlightened universality, after acknowledging its failure. Benjamin realizes that rethinking the Enlightenment means rethinking the relationship between reason and religion. Historical 18th century Enlightenment is content with a settling of old scores between reason and religion. Religion becomes a private matter and reason becomes the axis of the rational and free construction of history. After its failure, Benjamin considers rethinking these relationships. What does he expect from religion to save reason? -because what Benjamin wants is to save reason, not religion-. He says a there are a series of experiences which are fundamental to rebuild rationality and which were rejected by reason, but which have been left in religion. Those are the worries about the meaning of failure, of death, justice towards the victims, the meaning of a logic of progress on which history has been built but which can only advance by sacrificing (the idea of sacrifice is the link to Girard’s thought). The enlightened reason did not consider some experiences, which are now deemed crucial to rebuilt a reason that’s failed, as necessary.

Life as a value.

It may be worth remembering the distinction between bios and zoe. Material life, animal life, bodily, and bios, social life, historical, human. There has been an increasing importance of the body. I am not so sure this has been a defense of the bios. The experience of dehumanization in the 20th century has left deep scars in society. One does not kill with impunity. The murderer is also dehumanized when destroying life. Hegel already say that in a writing from his youth, The spirit of Christianity and its fate. It’s the clearest experience in the extermination camps. The subject of the body is fundamental here. Borges has a short story, Deutsches requiem, in which he tells the story of a Nazi official who is going to be executed by the allies. The night before he dies he goes over his life and sees he has en impeccable service record. He has been in the service of the new man, the Reich, Hitler, and he has performed his duty. When analyzing in more detail, he realizes there’s a little stain: one day, performing his role of judging and condemning, he found a man who was clearly innocent. An old man, a poet called Jersualem. He almost spared his life. That was his stain: the weakness of thinking about sparing someone he had to kill, just because he was innocent. But he overcame temptation and he ordered him killed, in order to fulfill his service record. When he is going to die he asks himself if Jerusalem ever understood why he had died, but he knew clearly: “I had to kill”, he tells himself, “the compassion which started to re-emerge in me.” Here’s an idea programmed by the Nazis: one had to kill the feeling of compassion, of humanity. And the best why to do that was to kill the other physically. And there was an actual strategy for Hitlerian youths to kill and thus numb that compassionate feeling which was part of a millenarian humanitarian culture. Primo Levi says in one of his books that in extermination camps not only the Jews died; also humankind, the humanity of humans. This can be seen in the 20th century: people worry about the body while ignoring the person. Economic globalization has a lot to do with that. We created the conditions for a humanitarian treatment of the human being and the only result was the globalization of the market. I think in 20th century philosophy hasn’t been up to the threats humanity had to face, and that a great deal of the blame lies on the anesthesia produced by barbarity. It is becoming harder to understand humanity because we are victims of our own violence.

Seen in this life, the question about the meaning of life would be better answered by humorists.

Yes, because the sense of irony lies in realizing what’s not there. That question is posed by humorists and by the witnesses of barbarity. They aren’t only survivors of a catastrophe: they are survivors of what’s human.

What are the main problems Philosophy should deal with today?

In Spain, Philosophy, with some exceptions, is very academic. In universities they teach History of Philosophy, that which philosophers have said, but they don’t teach how to think. You only need to see the programs for secondary education, where they go through the whole history without ever stopping. Information is predominant over learning how to reason. And that can be seen in publications. The majority of books on Philosophy argue with their own library. They are books which talk to books. I miss an outlook on reality, I want the philosophers to shun the quotes and open their eyes. Spanish books, unlike the German ones, are full of quotes. Everybody needs to prove they have read. And what’s important is not what we’ve read, but how to think. Thinking about our time. And in our time I think time itself is a big problem. Time has conditioned every culture. Rural culture had a certain pace, industrial culture had a different one. In rural culture one had night and day, public holidays and working days, and four seasons. In the industrial world all that is reduced. There is a certain distinction between holidays and working days, but inside a single day we can distinguish between working time and free time. Today we live in the telematic era, in a new time, at the speed of light. What sets the pace today are computers, which work at the speed of light. We write an e-mail and it is instantaneously in every part of the globe. And we want all of our life to adapt to that pace. And we end up thinking time and space are unnecessary. That’s new. For the classics, time and space were conditions of possibility of experience. Today, the time we use is wasted time. When we go to a place, what we want to do is get there. We live in the time of instantaneity. We must do things faster and faster. If someone writes to you and you don’t instantly reply, it feels like you’re in debt. That’s terrible. It’s suicidal. It means a lot is dying. Benjamin didn’t know the Internet, but he studied the development of modern technology and he said we were living in a time where experience was impossible. In its place we have happenings. Experience needs for the event to have a time and to be inscribed in a vital net. Happening is instantaneous. It’s impact. It’s journalism: before, some piece of news would happen and people would follow it. It was the following that was important. Not only the verifying. Today what’s important is for the piece of news to have an impact. For it to be true or false is secondary. What matters is impact. This telematic pace is suicidal because it destroys the conditions of possibility and sacrifices achievements earned by humanity during centuries. If we keep this pace, probably a new kind of human, different from the one we know, will have to emerge. Another problem that seems fundamental is the one raised by science. I’m involved in a molecular biology project. According to scientists, genetic engineering, which up until now was fiction, is nowadays possible. It is possible to build a man á la carte. This does not only raise problems in ethics and bioethics: it raises anthropological problems. Until now, the freedom of human beings was linked to natural birth. There has to be something unconditioned in the species for freedom to be possible. But if someone manipulates the whole species, the biological setup of the human being, if there is a human being manipulating that, the resulting freedom will be conditioned by the power of the person who has organized that which was intangible before: birth. This forces us to rethink the concept of freedom itself.

See this author’s biography.

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2 comments to An interview with Reyes Mate

  • Vicente

    My interpretation of your point with respect freedom goes as follows. I agree with understanding freedom as the abscence or lack of conditioning. However, there is no freedom from all possible scopes with respect the choice of your own existence. I mean, I’m 25 years old. I have a girlfriend. She is already starting to think in schools for the kids. Is that future human (my likely son) going to be free? Free in hyper-regulated society? Free under space-time restrictions? Humans are not free since they have boundaries and conditionings. There is a framework or set up (call it biased) in which we can be or not free. I seriously think only a highly upgraded prototypes of beings which we may not be able to imagine now, could have possibilities of being free by being integrated with that set up and controlling it. I’m talking about infinite possibilities. Call it god or Neo or superman. Can you be free without really being able to rule your universe?

  • Vicente

    As an add in to the former comment: I mean, philoshophers message should stop curving (as if it was a old-fashioned institution(i.e Religion)) the future by paralizing and non evolving ethics.

    Imposing self-boundaries in what at least tends to be natural and which is the selection by evolution of a characteristic: intelligence. If we can get more skills, more functionalities…why should we stop now? If we play to replicate infinites of possibilities, skills, functions, power as if we were gods, I just say, let’s play it seriously.

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