By Emre Kazim
LONDON CALLING BACK, by Emre Kazim, is a series about philosophy, society, and politics, from a British and non-North-American point of view, emphasizing a new critical-dignitarian, edgy, and thoroughly push-backarian philosophical, social, and political ferment on the rise in London, recalling the heady days of politicized punk and The Clash.
During my undergraduate years I had the opportunity to spend a year abroad in an exchange program with a university on the other side of the Atlantic.
I chose the University of Toronto, and duly spent the 2007/08 academic year in Canada.
Living there, I had many new experiences; I travelled to many new places; and I met many new people in a context that was very alien to my London upbringing.
All of this caused me to think deeply about the nature of my own beliefs — just how arbitrary and unexamined they were.
As a Muslim, I looked to the Islamic tradition to find sources of information and inspiration regarding the justification of my faith.
In this quest I came across a scholar called Ghazali (died 1111) who wrote on the necessity of validating one’s own beliefs.
He motivated this necessity by rhetorically asking, why it always seemed to turn out that the child of Muslims was Muslim and the child of Christians was Christians — and worst of all, he pointed out that those who belong to the respective communities almost always believed that they held the absolute truth (rather than a relative truth about their particular subjective upbringing).
All of these forced me to think about the friends I had made and the life of the people in Canada that I had witnessed.
— Not to say that this manifest pluralism was not also present in London: rather, in London things were “normalised,” and thus although they were always right there in front of me, it nonetheless took stepping altogether out of my “normalised space” in order to reflect critically on them.
In short, I was extremely confused and disoriented.
And in this confusion and disorientation, I sought refuge in literature and philosophy: it turns out these question of self-understanding is as universal as it comes.
However, all the reading simply confused and disoriented me further.
I spoke about this to a friend of mine named “Steve D.,” who told me that he had experienced the same feeling, akin to a weight or burden, by all the reading he too was doing.
In a rather carnal analogy, he likened all the conceptual frameworks of philosophy (the Sartrean, the Heideggerian, the Hegelian, the Kantian, etc…) to a room littered with used condoms.
Nevertheless, this image stuck with me — it captured how my ferocious reading and industrious churning of the canon was philosophical promiscuity, and like so many intellectual quests, that this is a superficial approach to truth, or to the seeking of truth.
This line of thinking in turn drew me to Kierkegaard and his existential leap of faith by virtue of the absurd, which I took to be commitment: to affirm with one’s will, indeed with one’s entire being, a truth; and then to exist with commitment even despite living without certainty.
Again, however, I was extremely confused and disoriented.
First, I had to deal with the question of the arbitrariness of my entire world view, second, I had to grapple with the literary and philosophical canons, then third I had to figure out how to choose between them, and now concepts like existential commitment came into play.
It was like being in a whirlpool, knowing that you are progressing into an inky black watery grave, but being too dazed to do anything about it.
And so I called my friend Khalid, aka “The Sufi.”
He was known as The Sufi because of his preoccupation with Islamic spirituality and mysticism.
Khalid had as sharp an intellect as any I had come across, and this comforted me, because my own predilections prevented me from indulging in what I take to be the irrational, shallow, commodified new-ageism of “bourgeois Buddhism.”
So I told Khalid that I was utterly confused and disoriented, that I could see that he was an intelligent gent, always reading and yet seemingly at peace, and that all of this must mean that the path to contentment was his brand of spirituality.
He laughed and told me that he knows people with radically different world views to him, people who don’t care much for reading or spirituality, who are perfectly contented.
This truly troubled me, because he was, I thought, my last hope.
So I told him “OK, fine, if it isn’t the belief system, then it must be the way of life–I know you often fast and retreat from the world, that must be it!”
And I then asked him to help me find a village in Sudan (from which his parents had emigrated to the UK) for me to spend some time away from everything: my dream was to go there and find “enlightenment” and achieve this elusive contentment.
Khalid laughed once again: “Sorry man, I will not help you with this: within a few days you will be bored out of your mind, hungry, and very likely experiencing diarrhoea.”
How awful! Now all of my thinking was being punctured like a child’s balloon!
Finally, I told him that I was really struggling to find my place in the world, and that it seemed that even the very spirituality that gave him solace wasn’t available to me.
Khalid then explained that the contentment he witnessed in others, with all their different world views and diverse ways of life, he found one commonality: all of them were sincere people.
He then unpacked the concept of sincerity as being about people who were honest with themselves and with the world around them.
In this period of isolation, I have been thinking a lot about that early phase of my life.
I have been thinking about the need to be earnest, and about how being honest with oneself is the most difficult of things.
Although I didn’t understand it then, I know now that my quest for truth was actually a quest for belonging to something; that I sought to rationalise and “justify” my own arbitrary subjectivity in order to reap the benefits of the “herd”; and that I sought to anaesthetize my intellect and soul by wickedly instrumentalising my own intellect for the sake of my soul’s quest for truth.
Truthfulness, in fact, is a form of self-isolation: it is to come to terms with one’s self.
It is to sit in that village in Sudan, in a barren land, disempowered, and in pain — and then to realize how this can be an affirmation.
For this is a liberation from the “herd,” from the arbitrary, and from the anaesthetizing illusion of belonging.
Now I understand the solidarity that Khalid found with people from such radically different worldviews and life experiences: the common thread was their self-awareness of the particularity of their existence, and how that consciousness of this allowed them to empathise, and to see the inherent unity of humanity in its quest for self-awareness and a liberation from oppressions of all-too-many different kinds.
So I am hoping, hoping, hoping that this forced isolation will bring about a correspondingly greater self-awareness and a liberation within myself; and I am also fervently hoping it will do so for the rest of humanity too.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 429
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 19 May 2020
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