Relevance and Immanence

Philosophers worry about most everything, but one of their favorite things to worry about is the relevance of philosophy to life. At a recent conference blogging was brought up as a way of connecting philosophy to "life." While this thought reminded me that I have been neglecting this blog and is part of the reason I am posting today, it also made me wonder a bit, as philosophers do, just what was meant by "relevant to life."

If a blog is what gets you closer to life, then you must be pretty far away to begin with. Which means of course that you are not in life at all. This is actually a strange thought, but it is also true. We are always alive, but we are not always in life.

So what is this thing called a life?

Deleuze says this: "A life is the immanence of immanence, absolute immanence: it is complete power, complete bliss." A life is thus that which has no outside. It is pure immanence: that which refuses to judge or reflect or act from a position that is not implicated through these activities. A life happens when its effects are transformations of itself, when there are no moments that come from far away, from positions of irrelevance.

Yes, I know. The above is, I'm sure, exactly the sort of overly erudite bloviating that calls the relevance of philosophy to life into question.

But I think I can draw on my running to put the same point in another way. There are many attitudes that one can take towards running. It is possible to instrumentalize running--to make it into a means to all sorts of ends that lie out of the experience of running. So, you can run to lose weight. You can run to make yourself happy. You can run for the friendships. You can run to try to achieve a new PR. You can run because it makes you feel strong and in control of your life. I've run for all these reasons and many more.

However, there is a point beyond this when running becomes more than relevant to life. Running is no longer something you do for a variety of reasons, but something you are. At this point, running finds its immanence to life, and this immanence is marked by the scrambling of means and ends. Am I happy because I'm running or am I running because I'm happy? Am I losing weight to run or am I running to lose weight? Am I running to have control over my life or do I control my life in order to make time to run? The running gets woven so intimately into everything else that as far as your life goes "there is no outside to running."

This all sounds, I'll admit, sort of oppressive. We need space apart from even our most beloved activities. There is another way to read this immanence, though. It provides a way of understanding how an activity that can seem totally absurd and irrelevant becomes meaningful. It does so by being intimately connected up with the other aspects of lived experience. Running becomes more than a means to certain desired ends. More than a way of controlling the other aspect of life or producing certain desired results. Instead, running shades these other aspects of life; it colors them in vivid ways, working not towards them, but through them, making them more meaningful. Through those intimate colorings, running becomes more meaningful as well.

In the same way, philosophy has to find its relevance through immanence. There is a way of thinking philosophy as a set of texts, an academic discipline, or as a set of inquiries in to abstract and intractable problems like "What is Real?" "Is there a God?" and "What is the Best Political System?" All of these ways of construing philosophy seem somewhat hollow to me. If we are asking how to make these things more relevant to life, we are asking the wrong question.

Relevant philosophy is of a different sort. Its relevance is immanence--the older, more connected, and more ordinary task of trying to be a bit wiser, to live a bit better. This philosophy is oriented towards the problems of ordinary living. Once it begins asking the question of how to get back to life, it's already too far gone, having been taken over by the hollow more bureaucratic forms.

The great philosophers were communicating, thinking, writing, and living in response to difficult and meaningful problems. Their philosophies were woven out of the vibrant strands of difficult lives, and their value can only be measured in so far as their philosophy contributes to making our own lives a little wiser, and little better, a little more alive. Philosophy done well gives us faith that a life shot through with intelligence and thought and reflection is better than one which is not. That these are qualities immanent to the good life, not merely means to an end. Like running, intelligence is best when it is the color of experience, when it is immanent to it, not standing outside of it in judgment or in reflection.

When philosophy can remind us of this: that intelligence completes life, giving it its complete power and complete bliss, it can affirm without shame its relevance. Running can also remind us, in small and probably incomplete ways, that the body, movement, sweat, and effort are not mere means, but also inextricably wrapped up in whatever strange and unimagined meanings our lives turn out, every now and again, to have.


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