One of the reasons for intellectual and material progress of the West is the tradition of debate. Unfortunately, in our society polemics (manazira) has become a culture. Debate is not all about indulging in disputation ad hominem, rather it is, in true Socratic spirit, a dialectical conversation that paves the way for a new dialectical horizon for mind. In fact, it is the debate that enables philosophy to question anew and explore the hitherto unexplored dimensions of life and the world. For this reason, Friedrich Nietzsche enjoins philosophers to philosophise with a hammer to smash false idols. It helps debunk the corrupting idols, ideals and ideas.
Among the philosophical debates in modern period is the encounter between Ernst Alfred Cassirer and Martin Heidegger in the second annual meeting of the International Davos Conference in March 1929 in Switzerland. The central question for the discussion was, “What is it to be a human being?” The debate was held in a famous place immortalised by Thomas Mann in his novel The Magic Mountain published in 1924. Based in a surreal setting of Swiss Alps, Mann’s novel captures atmosphere, the morbid climate, illness and search for health through the figure of Hans Castorp. It portrays the intellectual mood of Europe in microcosm of the sanitarium where Castorp’s soul becomes a battleground for conflicting ideas, inhibitions, desires, dreams and fears. While visiting his ailing cousin suffering from tuberculosis, he contracted tuberculosis and spent seven years in sanatorium to recuperate. It is a surreal prognosis about the West contracting disease of war in the shape of WWII because of ideas it harboured.
The colloquy between Cassirer and Heideggerin Davos reflects the moods and tensions depicted by Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain. The purpose of Davos debate was to promote peace and understanding in the wake of WWI. It is termed a fight between two archetypal philosophies where one, in case of Cassirer, favours spontaneity and symbolic ordering of experience, and the other — Heidegger — explicates the idea of thrown-ness into the world. Their way of approaching the questions about temporality and eternity of being, universal and temporal nature of truth and spontaneous creation of the world and thrown-ness of being into existing world determines the nature of their ideas regarding being, time and the world.
Part of the charm of Davos deputation of 1929 stemmed from the topic and speaker, Albert Einstein, in the previous year (1928). It was natural for Cassirer and Heidegger to dig deep to unravel the philosophical issues with profundity that matches Einstein’s. The reflection of two philosophical giants of Germany contained seedlings of sickness from the past and bruises of WWI. In other words, the encounter between Cassirer and Heidegger can be seen as a desperate attempt to rescue humans from the disintegration of unified sense of being, and total domination of life.
In the debate, there was a lingering sense of festering past, and premonition of emergence of even more dangerous monsters in the future because of creation of political myths and technological engulfment of world. It is irony that Heidegger’s ideas were incarnated in the shape of fascism of Hitler.
Continuing the tradition of debate, on April 9, 2019, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson engaged in a debate titled “happiness: capitalism vs. Marxism” in Toronto, Canada. Although, it was dubbed as a ‘debate of the century’ and ‘the rumble in the realm of the mind’, it lacked the profundity and atmosphere of Davos debate of 1929.
Jordan Peterson started his speech referring to the state thinking in the time of reactionary politics and degraded public discourse. However, he failed to elaborate the nature of thinking in post-normal times and reasons for degenerated public discourse when capitalism is in ascendancy since the end of cold war.
Peterson treats the monumental work “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels like a self-help book by reducing dialectical nature of its argument to 10 points. His choice of clichés, trite statements and absence of novel vocabulary to explain the human condition and happiness in post-normal times is symptomatic of lack of engagement with emerging factors and actors that radically transform the meaning of good, evil, freedom, communism, happiness, alienation, progress and capitalism.
Peterson criticises Marx for his binary approach, but he himself seems trapped in the typical capitalist binary paradigm. He is perspicuous about locating the source of the idea of evil in Marxism in its binary view of society. Peterson terms differentiation of people into the categories of bourgeoisie and proletariat a bad idea. To lend legitimacy for existing economic order of capitalism, Jordan Peterson claims that hierarchy precedes capitalism. In order to make his argument cogent, he brings forth the analogy of lobster. It is rejected by Žižek for extrapolating an example of animal domain into human beings because it is non-starter to define human condition. Unlike, animal kingdom human beings have ideas like freedom, ideas, rights, relations etc.
The failure of analogy provides a lesson for the writers engaged in creating a cogent logic by comparing one entity with another. When facts and existential affinities of a certain entity are incommensurate with other, then the comparison fails. This is not to claim that use of analogy from animal world is always wrong, but to emphasis the need to fulfill prerequisites of analogy, which is investment of intellectual energy to turn analogy into a theory or metaphor to explain a certain situation or condition.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their book A Thousand Plateaus propounded the philosophical concept of Rhizome to explicate multiplicities, interstices, and non-hierarchical networks in social, philosophical, cultural and political domains. Deleuze calls it “image of thought”. It is an example of how well thought out concept has the potential to unpack interpretative possibilities to explain our self and the world. From Peterson’s analogy of lobster, it can be surmised that he has not done the required intellectual homework.
Peterson claims that Marx has ignored nature in his theoretical scheme. He deploys the issue of absence or minimal presence of nature in Marxism theoretical edifice to provide upper hand to his latent basis of his predilection for social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and “struggle for existence” underlying classical capitalism.
In his flamboyant style, Slavoj Žižek sounded more convincing than Peterson. This is not due to cogency of his arguments but because of his inter-disciplinary approach that allows him to marshal wide range of arguments than the confines of psychology as manifested by Peterson. Žižek starts with probalematising the notion of happiness as goal. He identified sites that have not been explored yet. For the people who deem free market capitalism and communism mutually exclusive, the Chinese model negates their exclusivist view by marrying capitalism with authoritarian bureaucracy. Most of the human sufferings and miseries are created not in the name of sadness but for the achievement of happiness. According to Žižek, Chinese government does it in the name of happiness.
However, Žižek does not go beyond the binaries to unpack the nature of emerging realities in the shape of symbiosis between capitalism and communism, democracy and populism, media and untruth, religion and globalization etc.
Žižek thinks that humans are very creative in sabotaging pursuit of happiness. Here he seems to unconsciously agree with historian Yuval Harari who said, “humans are very creative in sabotaging pursuit of happiness.” Žižek provides intuitive insights into changing nature of idea of happiness that has been socially and culturally rooted in particular spaces. For example, he claims that Dalai Lama advocates happiness in Western terms. This points to postmodern condition wherein decontexulised and uprooted practice and idea makes home in an alien but conducive soil. Given the current political situation of Tibet, it can be said that Buddhism is practiced and represented more in its deterritorialised forms.
Since Žižek declares himself an ardent opponent of postmodernism, he did not explore the condition of today’s world in the vocabulary compatible with the realities of time. Žižek rejected the category use of term ‘cultural Marxist’ by Peterson. It is in continuation with the tradition of declaring dissenting views within communism as apostasy. Žižek had the upper hand on Peterson on the meaning of cultural Marxist because the latter has not invested much reading and thought into this category.
Žižek claims that liberal failure gives birth to characters like Trump. Logically, someone’s failure should be someone else’s success. But this axiom is not working today. Such situation compels one to question, what is the reason that after the two centuries of dominance of liberalism and seventy years of communism in Soviet Union we have produced leaders like Donald Trump and Boris Yeltsin in the United States and Russia respectively?
Explaining away Donald Trump as a postmodern president does not explains the complex phenomena. He is more a president of post-truth era inaugurated by relegating facts and expert views into oblivion or ridicule, and giving importance to emotional appeal and populism. Žižek’s opposition of giving all power of decisions to expert, like communists, puts him closer to populism of post-truth era than to other schools of thought. Post-truth era emerges from the vacuum created by failure of capitalism and communism to create a vocabulary to explicate the world in post-ideology period.
Language is home of being, but today it has become refuge for absconders from the land of thinking. With the passage of time the liberating words become prison houses. It seems that the words we employ and deploy to define our world have become too dogmatic and empty to define our reality. Today the world has become prisoner of words vying for domination of mind and soul.
In the end of debate, Peterson and Žižek appeared to agree on the adverse impacts of climate change caused by consumerist culture. Environmental degradation and global warming are not caused by traditional worldviews or social structures, but by the very modernity of which both communism and capitalism are by-products. In fact, they have become source of bloodshed, division, global warming and environmental degradation. Now religious fundamentalism is riding on the waves of globalisation to rejuvenate itself. Therefore, even the very theme ‘happiness: capitalism vs. Marxism’ for debate in itself is a philosophical aporia.
In a Jungian mode, Peterson proposes to face the ugly facts caused by our worldview, but he dares not question the premises of the very worldview of capitalism. Similarly, Žižek favours allowing creativity to flourish to avert global catastrophes, but he forgets that today we live in the age of unprecedented creativity in human history in the shape of scientific inventions and technological innovations. Creativity without ethical lens is as blind as fascism. The kind of patronage for scientific research today given by not only democratic countries but also the most tyrannical regimes in the world is astonishing. It is the scientific creativity that has made humans capable for the first time in history to annihilate our planet within minutes.
As world becomes complex and complicated our thinking lapses into simplistic binaries. In the debate, Peterson seemed to falter when he steps outside his domain. On the contrary, Žižek easily straddles between politics, psycho-analysis, philosophy, cultural studies, history and literature. Nevertheless, both intellectuals were hamstrung by their ideologies because they tried to marshal diversity of situations into the straightjacket of capitalism and Marxism. It reveals ossification of the thinking minds. Also, they failed to dig deep to see the simmering lava beneath the crust of globalisation and modernity.
Given the gravity of situation of the world on the one hand, and lopsided thinking in the debate between Peterson and Žižekon the other, it is need of the hour to diagnose the modern mind. Our mind suffers from sickness, but alas it cannot find a sanatorium for intellectual convalescence. We lack literary and philosophical surgeons who can dissect morbidity lurking in the dark recess of our mind and soul, but covered by the galore of progress and veneer of civilisation.
To explore the dark facets of our existence and mind thoroughly, there is a need to philosophise with hammer so that every ideology, narrative, entity, institution, character and system looks like a nail. Both Peterson and Žižek in the debate tried to protect nail from hammer. Hence, they have failed to hammer in their ideas and create any rumble in the stagnant minds of today.
The content of debate between Slavoj Žižek and Jordan B. Peterson is incommensurate with the grandeur of titles of the debate. In a nutshell, the debate of the century turned into intellectual debacle. It is sad that we have started our journey of the third millennium with philosophical debacle.