Thursday, June 18, 2015


I say to myself that all my life I’ve sought only to understand the world, but it’s not true.

Marx said philosophers have always sought only to understand the world, when the point is to change it. As a theorist of revolution who was never himself a revolutionary, he should have known that, for even the most contemplative, understanding is never an end in itself but only a means to an end. 

As soon as we become aware of the world, we are dissatisfied with it and want to change it for the better. But in order to do so, we must first understand why the world is as it is. 

How much do we need to know about the world in order to be sure we are changing it for the better, and not the worse? Those whom we used to call conservative said we can never know enough.

They said we are finite beings, with limited understanding; therefore we can never be sure our actions will have the results we intend. Indeed history shows that, even if they do have the results we intend, our actions usually have unintended results as well, whose evil may be as great or even greater than whatever good we accomplished. 

Because we can never be sure that our efforts to change the world for the better will not change it for the worse, those whom we used to call conservative said we should avoid change as much as possible. But they didn’t imagine they could prevent change altogether. Nor did they strive to reverse it, and return to some previous state, as do the reactionaries whom we now call, and call themselves, conservative. They knew that was impossible. Those whom we used to call conservative sought only to slow change to a manageable pace in order  to control it and minimize its harmful effects.

There are few if any conservatives today. As our power to act upon the world grew greater, so also did our attempts to change it for the better, until we found ourselves in a world of changes so revolutionary that those who tried to understand it were overwhelmed and either accepted change uncritically or opposed it uncritically. 

Most people no longer try to understand the world because they believe that, even if they did, they are powerless to change it. Those who do try to understand the world do so because they still believe they can change it for the better.

Those who seek to make the world better for everyone usually fail. Those who seek to make it better only for themselves, who use their knowledge of the world to enrich themselves at the expense of the ignorant, usually succeed because their goal is more modest. 

The philosopher often admires the man of action, as Marx admired the capitalist, however much he deplores his actions. He may so envy the warrior his victory that he makes the mistake of imitating him, using force to win his own ends, thus insuring that his actions will have unintended results. 

We never know enough to be sure that we are doing the right thing. Is it better to do nothing for fear of doing the wrong thing, or to act and hope for the best?     

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