Marx famously claimed that “philosophy stands in the same relation to the study of the actual world as masturbation to sexual love.” People have occasionally made similar remarks to me in the past, usually disparaging a particular type of philosophy, or the philosophy done by certain people, as ‘just mutual masturbation’.
I was reminded of this recently by reading this post about this response to this article, which don’t use the motif of masturbation at all, but do centre around the question of whether philosophy ‘matters’, whether it has any relevance to or effect on the rest of the world, or is merely, shall we say, a ‘solitary pleasure’. I was also reading this paper, about the role that metaphors play in our everyday thinking (turns out that role is: ‘big’). The disparagement of philosophy as ‘masturbatory’ is a metaphor, and I found myself wondering what exactly it was saying, and what exactly it was leaving unsaid.
The disparagement of masturbation is actually a very complex thing. There are different definitions of masturbation, contrasting it with different things, and then different rationales for disparaging it.
On the definition issue, we might first assume that ‘masturbation’ essentially means solitary sexual acts, and is thus contrasted with any kind of sexual act with another person: hence it would be disparaged for failing to ‘make contact with’ other people.
But there is this phrase ‘mutual masturbation’, which primarily means two people ‘masturbating each other’, i.e. a form of sexual contact. Not all sexual activities are ‘sex’, whatever that means. This suggests that masturbation has a wider meaning, not confined to solitary acts, which would imply that it must be disparaged for some other reason.
One possibility is that it’s disparaged as ‘sterile’, i.e. non-procreative; another possibility is that it’s disparaged as non-penetrative – it’s all very well to rub someone’s genitals but unless there’s a penis in a vagina you’re not having ‘real’ sex or ‘proper’ sex.
Then there’s the question of why any of this is disparaged. One possibility is that it’s morally objectionable – masturbating is wicked and wrong. Alternatively, it might be just less valuable or worthwhile than sex, in a non-moral sense: masturbating is not wrong but just sad, pointless, or pathetic. Thirdly, it might be the more nuanced view that masturbation is inferior to sex because you normally masturbate while thinking about sex, or at least about other people: the act itself posits (penetrative?) sex as more desirable.
Then there’s more choices to make when drawing a link with philosophy. For one, what is the contrast with? For Marx it’s “study of the actual world”, whatever that is; for Fish it’s implicitly “energy policy, trade policy, debt reduction, military strategy, domestic life” and more or less everything else. Sometimes it’s just ‘better’ philosophy. Sometimes its politics, or science.
And the way that ‘masturbation’ is understood forces further questions: if masturbation is contrasted with procreation, what are the ‘babies’ – technological advances? Revolutions? If it’s contrasted with ‘making contact’, who is a philosopher trying to make contact with – other people? Other disciplines? ‘The actual world’? And what plays the privileged role of ‘penetration’ in each of those relationships?
The big question, next, is why philosophy is to be disparaged. If masturbation is disparaged as a moral failure to use the sexual organs in the right way, then philosophy might be a moral failure to use our intellectual faculties for their ‘proper purpose’. In a less moral tone, this failure might just be sad and embarassing.
Or, if masturbation is disparaged because it involves fantasising about something else, philosophy likewise might be disparaged for fantasising about something else – perhaps fantasies of radicalism and social ‘deconstruction’, perhaps fantasies of being able to learn meaningful things.
Suppose you wanted to dispute this disparagement of philosophy. One way would be to accept the disparagement of masturbation, but deny the analogy, claiming that philosophy really is ‘penetrative’, or ‘procreative’, or whatever: it does what the disparaging analogy says it doesn’t do.
On the other hand, you might instead reject the disparagement of masturbation: sure, maybe philosophy is like masturbation, but that’s good! This, I think, will often reflect a different view of what philosophy is and what it’s for.
For instance, one might defend masturbation on the grounds that it allows us to have better sex, by making us more in touch with our bodies and feelings. The analogous defence of philosophy would be that by ‘conceptual analysis’, it puts us more in touch with (or more in command of, if that’s different) the concepts we use, the intuitions we rely on, the values we act on, etc. when we’re doing other things, like science or politics.
That, of course, still accepts that masturbation/philosophy needs to be justified by reference to something else. An alternative would be to say ‘I enjoy it, and that’s enough for it to be worthwhile, and I don’t need to justify it any further’. This makes sense on one level; but then, you might still wonder, if it’s fine to just do it just for enjoyment, why do I do so by filling my mind with thoughts that go beyond enjoyment – thoughts of the universe, the human soul, the human body, etc.
A fourth option is what we might call the ‘cynical’ view, in both its classical and its colloquial meanings. This view says that yes, masturbation/philosophy is delusional and impotent and stupid, but actually so is what it’s contrasted with. Most or all sex with other people is really you projecting your personal fantasy images onto a willing accomplice in exchange for letting them project theirs onto you. Most politics is ineffective or counter-productive posturing, and science never actually teaches us anything about how reality is.
On this view, philosophy/masturbation is the wisest activity, because at leasts it can be open about being just fantasy. The noblest thing that a person can achieve is to shout at everybody else for being hypocrites and masturbate in public.
So there’s five possible views of philosophy:
- Philosophy is stupid and pointless, like masturbation is
- Philosophy is potent and pregnant, unlike masturbation
- Philosophy is an useful auxiliary activity to science/politics/life, as masturbation is to sex
- Philosophy is just an idle, innocent amusement, like masturbation, and none the worse for it
- Philosophy is no more pointless or empty than any other discipline, but (potentially) more able to understand its own emptiness, just as masturbation is sex without the bullshit.
I leave it up to the reader to decide which they prefer.