According to “the Passion of Michel Foucault” Foucault said if he won the French lottery he would like to spend the money to endow a string of sexy S&M hospices where people who wanted to die could go and die having anonymous sex orgies. This raises a couple of questions:
1)Was he serious or kidding around?
2)Is this such a bad idea? If people are going to die in hospice, maybe some people would rather go out in some wild blow-out, rather than with a bunch of serious-faced family members and boring clergy gathered around.
3)What does it mean for a thinker to be “serious” and does it matter?
I don’t know enough about Foucault to answer (1) and I don’t have much more to say about (2) so I want to focus on (3).
Thinkers are a little bit like engineers. An engineer can put forward a proposal in at least two spirits — as speculative or as actual. In a speculative proposal the engineer proposes something that could work, and that enlarges our understanding of the possible, but he or she doesn’t know exactly how to do it. It’s helpful though if the engineer can be pretty clear about what problems might arise, and think through as much of the details as he or she can. So for example it’s helpful that Clarke (or whoever Clarke was cribbing from) suggested a geosynchronous satellite with an elevator connecting it to Earth. It’s okay that when he did so nobody knew a strong enough material to build it. The tethered geosynchronous satellite was still a helpful, albeit speculative suggestion. It helped us think about what it would take to build a space station and suggested an alternative to rocket flight.
But it wouldn’t have been helpful if he said “maybe we could build a ladder to the moon”. That’s too speculative — there are too many problems and not enough constructive thinking. It’s essentially frivolous.
A practical proposal gives the details for something the engineer believes could actually be built, right now. It’s meant to persuade us that it’s feasible and in the best case scenario the engineer has already proved it can be done by doing it.
I think thinkers are solving two variables — what is the world like and what kind of person to be. A good thinker is putting forward either a speculative proposal or a practical proposal. If the thinker is serious he makes it clear which it is.
A thinker can fail to be serious in two ways: by being hypocritical or by being frivolous.
A thinker is hypocritical if he says he lives a certain way but really doesn’t. That would be like an engineer saying he built a suspension bridge out of a certain substance when he really didn’t. It’s a lie and a trick. Hypocritical thinkers waste people’s time and energy. They are charlatans.
A thinker is frivolous if he puts forward a speculative proposal that does so little to address obvious objections and has so little hard work put into it that it is essentially a ladder to the moon.
Was Foucault hypocritical or frivolous with his wild crazy suicide parties? I don’t know. But I don’t think so!