Last Friday concluded the “informal discussion” phase of the course. Personally, I really enjoyed this first week, and I hope it has set a different tone for our upcoming discussions.
Unfortunately, I didn’t write keywords from the discussion on the board, so the below summary comes from memory. If I leave anything out that you think is important, please chime in with a comment.
The first item of business that we decided upon was regarding course-work. A few people asked for writing assignments, because they have found the challenge of writing about ideas to be helpful in clarifying their own thoughts. Others emphasized that it was in discussion that they really felt engaged with the ideas of others. Obviously, we can do both. For next week, I’ll have a writing assignment that we can test out. Those who wish to explore the readings and ideas through other media (i.e., film, music, poetry, performance, perhaps even focused dialogue) should contact me to figure out how we can best come up with an assignment that works with your learning and thinking style.
One person mentioned that this was their first philosophy class, and others noted — particularly in response to the discussion of “The Witch’s Child” — that philosophical questions often overlapped with (or even “came back to”) religious questions. In response to this, I gave a brief characterization of various ways philosophy can be done. For example, there are some approaches to philosophy that attempt to begin from self-evident, universal truths. If that were our approach, we might dismiss religious traditions from the outset, saying that they rely upon assertions that cannot be demonstrated to be true. The Bible, from this perspective, is just another book, and has no more authority than any other book.
From my perspective, there is a lot to be gained from this kind of thinking. It is harsh, it is dismissive, it is not concerned about hurting the feelings of whole groups of people. There can be something refreshing in all that. And, for some, it can pressure them to take a hard look at their lives, making them ask “why do I believe what I believe?” and even “who benefits from my believing what I do? Does it help me? Does it help powerful institutions?”
Still, that’s not really the approach I hope to take in this class. I described my approach to philosophy as one that has to begin “where we’re at.” We are a group of people who have, for various reasons, found ourselves sharing a room together three days a week, and embarking on a class together. It will be what we make of it, and I would much rather help create an environment where lots of different perspectives and traditions can be drawn upon. I’d like us to start from a shared respect, and use our thinking and discussion to gently push ourselves into new, unexpected terrain.
The discussion of religion sparked by “The Witch’s Child” led someone to claim that, more or less, all religions shared the same basic truths. “Thou shalt not steal” was one that was mentioned. I asked whether or not everyone agreed with that supposedly basic truth, and most people — but not everyone — raised their hand. Some people believed there were times and places when stealing was justified (suppose you or your family were starving but didn’t have money. If there was a huge store with copious amounts of extra food, would theft be morally justified? Suppose it wasn’t you or your family, but a stranger who was starving?).
Another student who had lived in a number of islands in the Southeast Pacific said that she did not believe in the legal institution of private property. Having lived among people who organize their lives differently, who do not make claims of ownership over things like food, but instead share it freely and openly with everyone who is in need, she seems to have become convinced that the way our own system operates is unjust. It is, for her, based on the false assumption that private property is the only way to organize social life. The commandment “thou shalt not steal” seems to rest on that assumption as well (though perhaps we will discuss different conceptions of “ownership” in the future).
I then wrote the slogan “Property is theft” on the board. This formula was put forward by the anarchist philosopher Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865). Here is a short description of its meaning:
“This maxim works in two related ways. Firstly, it recognizes the fact that the earth and its resources, the common inheritance of all, have been monopolized by a few. Secondly, it argues that, as a consequence of this, those who own property exploit those who do not. This is because those who do not own have to pay or sell their labor to those who do own in order to get access to the resources they need to live and work (such as workplaces, machinery, land, credit, housing, products under patents, and such like.)” (Iain McKay, An Anarchist FAQ, p.157)
If the earth and its resources are “the common inheritance of all,” then claims to ownership that leave others without access to the earth and its resources are legalized theft. From this perspective, the institution of private property is fundamentally unjust — it simply sustains the power of the wealthy to control the earth and its resources, and therefore also the labor of most people (who will do what they’re told in order to gain access to those resources for themselves and their families). I present this perspective because, my guess is, very few people have ever been exposed to it. As a way of understanding our social life, it has more or less been erased from our culture. But, as we’ll see, it is actually quite powerful.
I then pointed to the story of “The Witch’s Child,” suggesting that the history it is relating is a history of this theft — of driving from the land people who do not have the cultural practice of private property. I then returned to the issue of “beginning where we’re at” and said what often goes unsaid: that the American society that we are a part of was founded on the backs of kidnapped people whose labor was exploited (African slaves and poor people of European descent) as well as the genocide of indigenous people who had been living on this land for thousands of years. This history is usually not spoken of.
Which brings me to the final point, the theme that I think emerged from the whole class: the idea that we all bring a “working history” to the table. There is a kind of story that we tell ourselves about how we got where we’re at, which informs our sense of where we’re going. I’m going to keep this idea in mind for a writing assignment. Perhaps we can all write our working histories, and then use the class to challenge or re-evaluate them in light of our readings, writings, and discussions?
Sorry this is so long, but I really enjoyed our discussion.
As you know, the assigned reading is David Graeber’s “The Myth of Barter,” ch. 2 of his Debt: The First 5000 Years. It is available in pdf on the Readings page. Please let me know if you are unable to access it for any reason.