Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Philosophy and Fashion show.

There are many fashion shows held every year in cities such as Paris, London, Milan, New York, and Tokyo. Some people might have a cynical and "nothing to do with me" attitude towards the cutting edge styles carried by the models, which display instances of clothing quite impossible to be worn in everyday life. Some even point out that the fashion trends are nothing but a cleverly crafted marketing device to make people buy clothes that they really do not need, a convention quite doubtful in today's carbon footprint conscious Zeitgeist. From this viewpoint. it would appear that the truly valuable style is to be found in those unchanging standard outfits. Impressions from my own experience is that such an anti-fashion sentiment is quite strong, for example, among the hard working, no-nonsense businessmen.

However, the idea that fashions are useless appear to be politically and ethically correct on the surface but is ultimately wrong. It is important to recognize that the standard "ensemble" of clothes that a "normal" men from the street wear had to be invented somewhere, somehow, sometime. When the convention of wearing the jacket and the tie was invented in, say, London, there might not have been a well-organized fashion shows like the ones we know. It is probably safe to say that, when these now "normal" manner of clothing was introduced, they were very novel. The very idea of a respectable grown-up man "hanging" a long piece of colorful cloth from the neck! The very idea!

It is not just the jacket and tie. Every fashion had to somehow justify itself and make it into the mainstream of society at the time of invention and reception. Every cultural cliche in the way we dress ourselves used to be one of the "latest" fashions at one time of human history. Those man, who say "I don't care anything more than wearing just a normal clothing" are actually benefiting from innovations in the past.

In this sense, I think that philosophy is something like a fashion show. To claim that philosophy is a "luxury" for people who idle away their time, departed from the realities of society, is quite alluring and on the surface sober. But this is ultimately a very wrong idea. To take philosophy as something alien to the daily living of people is also wrong. The often intractable and enigmatic problems at the frontiers of philosophy would lead to certain sets of concepts and world views after many years of hard work by the leading thinkers. These ideas, in turn, would later be assimilated into the society at large, and become the "common senses" and "cliches" for the general public. These things that become taken for granted in the hearts of people then serve as necessary wisdoms of living for people on the street, in the procession of their daily lives.

For example. the thesis that "I" am here because "I" think and feel various things is something that is taken for granted even by an elementary school pupil today. However, when Rene Descartes arrived at the thesis of "Cogito Ergo Sum", it was far from being self-evident.

Among the intellectuals, the belief in a God with human-like personalities might now be an minority. However, when Friedrich Nietzsche cried out that "God was dead!", he had to fight the phantom of a personified God, who would punish and reward the humans according to their conducts, with a "free transportation" to the heaven or the hell offered as the ultimate verdict.

Today, the idea that the trading of words is essential in the cultivation and maintenance of human culture is wide-spread, something that even a high school student can write an essay on. However, it was Wittgenstein's creative genius which gave birth to the idea of a "language game".

The frontiers of intellect, which haven been opened by the endeavors by leading philosophers over many years, would be appreciated by the people at large only after some period of reception. Conversely, the modes of thoughts that are so familiar to the ordinary people in today's world were once problems at the frontiers of philosophy. Philosophers at the edges of thought sometimes even risking insanity. And then they become commonplace knowledge looked upon disdainfully by the ordinary people as something belonging to a yawning cliche.

Today, many people would think that there is no afterlife. People like Dr. Richard Dawkins have been campaigning for many years for the merits of scientific ways of thinking. Thanks to those efforts, and the trends in the world in general, men from the streets are starting to think that there is no life after death, and all that concerns us happen "here and now" while we are alive on this earth. All our earthly efforts are consequently focused on improving the conditions of our earthly lives.

There are less and less people, who make a point of enduring things while living so that they can make encounter better things in the afterlife, or the "next life" after the "reincarnation".

This modern "mindset" of trying to make better the daily life on this earth would surely have the danger of leading to an overdriven materialism. On the other hand, setting oneself free from the religious modes of thinking which stress the importance of the afterlife was a necessary condition to build a civilization as we know it today. If people are too concerned about the afterlife, practical senses directed towards the development of technologies which make the earthly lives better would simply not be nurtured. In a sense, the establishment of the system of philosophy in which one believes that the earthly life is everything functioned as a part of "infrastructure" towards the development of civilization, just as the invention of steam engine and batteries.

Needless to say, it is not that everything is "cool" from the point of view of aesthetics. There are modes of quite normal clothing for which we need not use the word "fashion" ostensibly. Likewise, philosophers have their shares of "trivial" ways of thinking, not venturing far off from what have been already accepted. Such philosophers, to use the term familiar in the world of fashion, are not "cool". Thinkers who endeavor to open a new intellectual frontier would be "cool" and "sexy".

Once, I read in a U.K. men's magazine an article on how to be popular with girls. One of the advise that the editors gave away for the love hopefuls was "how to pretend that you know Jacques Derrida". The basic assumption is that the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, just like the latest modes of fashion, can be considered as "cool" and "sexy". To encounter and don the ways of thinking and modes of sensitivities which might "descend" to the daily lives of ordinary people in the years to come is tantamount to looking into the future. And nothing is as cool as the future.

"Philosophy equals a fashion show."

However strange this equation might look, therein lies the key significance of thinking creatively about life and death, and arriving at a conceptual solution.

Translated from the original Japanese essay in Ken Mogi, "Ikite Shinu Watashi" ("I live, I die") published from Tokuma Shoten, Tokyo, 1998. Translation by the author.

The cover of "Ikite Shinu Watashi"


Anonymous said...

Very insightful! I throughly enjoyed reading this and look forward to reading more of your work.

Greg said...

Your comment about some regarding philosophy as a "luxury" reminded me of an anecdote that one of my friends, who teaches composition at a local university, told me. During freshman orientation week, he was advising incoming students on the course offerings within the composition division. He overheard one father telling his child not to take any English courses beyond the minimum requirements and to sign up for only those courses that would lead to a job. For most, that advice sounds reasonable and pragmatic, especially since fees have risen approximately 25% in the past three years at that university. However, it also suggests an attitude that looks at education as a commodity signified by a piece of paper. I imagine for someone like that, learning may be seen as the accumulation of declarative knowledge rather than the nurturing of procedural knowledge that can be demonstrated not only by the application of theories to actual problems, but also by reflection, sound reasoning, and compassion and respect for others. Ultimately, for the institution, the value of that diploma depends on the qualities of the person who is sent forth.

砂山鉄夫(Tetsu Sunayama) said...

I was an admirer of Jacques Derrida. be precise, I was good at pretending to know J.Derrida. Yes, that was a fashion show to me and my friends.

The show was glittering. It was like the bubble economy of Japan.I recall both of them were just in the same period. It was fun in itself.

I sometimes wonder where the show has gone...

yuzu said...

I realized that what is your fashion style. You are doing everything proving or demonstrating. It is amazing. I respect and admire your realism of philosophy in your life which is so powerful.

renpoo said...

Hi Dr. Mogi!
Interesting article.

And then, what is your "new fashion" for nowadays? (^^;)

And also for "Stockholm syndrome" in Japan. It seems it is nation-wide one. The victims are clear. But the criminal"s" will be at least some groups. And I think they forms "the implicit Leviathan". Do you have any opinion? (^^)