Philosophy and Masturbation: Anatomy of a Metaphor

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:

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.

The Analogy:

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.

Defences:

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:

  1. Philosophy is stupid and pointless, like masturbation is
  2. Philosophy is potent and pregnant, unlike masturbation
  3. Philosophy is an useful auxiliary activity to science/politics/life, as masturbation is to sex
  4. Philosophy is just an idle, innocent amusement, like masturbation, and none the worse for it
  5. 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.

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7 Responses to Philosophy and Masturbation: Anatomy of a Metaphor

  1. Craig Martin says:

    Derrida writes about “that dangerous supplement” in a non-negative way!

  2. Pingback: There is not enough serious blogging about this subject « The Great Whatsit

  3. Daniel says:

    Philosophy serves both as the expansive, pre-experiment phase of the scientific method and as a treatment or supplement to subjects not empirically testable.
    Maybe theoretical physicists should be considered philosophers then, and materialist philosophers should indeed be considered scientists even if they don’t participate in direct experimentation…

    I prefer to use the model of the 4 steps of creation from the kabbalistic tradition when thinking about episteme: inspiration, imagination, discrimination, and manifestation. Philosophers are experts in performing the second role, scientists at the third, and engineers at the fourth. You might also compare that to a quadrivium of: spontaneous arousal, masturbation and heavy petting, sex, and making babies.

    In any event, I suspect there are a plenty of secret philosophers out there of all ages and denominations to whom I say: it’s alright, to philosophize in public.

  4. James Norholt says:

    Interesting article. First of all I would turn the analogy around, and ask what it teaches about masturbation. Regarding masturbation, Kant wrote, “That such an unnatural use (and so misuse) of one’s sexual attributes is a violation of one’s duty to himself and is certainly in the highest degree opposed to morality strikes everyone upon his thinking of it.” But when it came to explaining exactly why this was so, he admitted, “it is not so easy to produce a rational demonstration of the inadmissibility of that unnatural use, and even of the mere unpurposive use, of one’s natural attributes as being a violation of one’s duty to himself”. I agree with your point that metaphors are an important part of everyday thinking, sometimes our intuition knows that the metaphor ‘rings true’, in the same way that we might be able to use a word correctly in a sentence to express our thought without being able to clearly define the word itself.

    My point is that the metaphor you have written about may help us to understand what exactly ‘strikes everyone thinking about’ masturbation. It would not be circular to then turn the lens back on philosophy. I propose that, generally, when philosophy is denigrated as mutual masturbation the word ‘philosophy’ is often just used as a handle, emptied of much of it’s meaning. The thought or conversation being denigrated is defined by the metaphor itself, rather than by the word ‘philosophy’. Just as the quote from Marx is far too general and vague to convey anything significant, this phrase is often employed in too precise a manner to be considered a comment on philosophy per se. Better understand, then, the nuance of this phrase – then ask whether it rings true if applied to philosophy. This is not circular.

    When thought or speech is denigrated as mental masturbation or, when with an interlocutor, mutual masturbation, in my experience the idea being communicated is this: That the thoughts or speech serve the sole purpose of benefiting the feelings of the one[s] engaged in them. For example, making one feel superior, right, wise etc. But the crux of the implied criticism is not just that this is indulgent but, more seriously, that it is self-serving. The idea of an intelligent, rational being using those faculties, not to pursue reality or truth but, rather, to pacify itself at the expense of reality and truth really is, I think, abhorrent.

    What is this saying about how we innately perceive actual masturbation? Yes, that it is indulgent and self-serving. But that it is expressively shameful because it also subjugates reality and truth. Reality, yes, inasmuch as masturbation is generally considered successful by the subject inasmuch as it succeeds in putting fantasy in the place or reality. But truth? How could masturbation subjugate truth?

    I suggest that we sense that it does so, because the innate need of an individual – I am tempted to say purpose – is not to propagate but to love. This ‘truth’ is my premise. The fantasy created during masturbation differs from reality in this respect – in fantasy, the object of sexual desire exists for the sole purpose of gratifying the subject. Therefore, even if one fantasizes about giving pleasure to the object of the fantasy, such a fantasy can neither be loving or engender love. On the contrary, it is an expression of selfishness and so is an exercise of selfishness. Masturbation is perceived to be shameful, then, because we instinctively perceive it as greed.

    Acknowledging the premises and assumptions made here, can I turn the lens back on philosophy and discern anything of interest. I don’t know, let me try…

    if philosophy is denigrated as masturbation, the central claim is that philosophy is a kind of gluttony. This assumes that the act of philosophizing is necessarily pleasurable or rewarding in itself AND AT THE SAME TIME either serves no additional purpose or is expressly negative in its consequences. For the analogy to be true, the truth of a both assumptions must be demonstrated. I reject all the suppositions which underpin this analogy. It cannot be assumed that all philosophy is pleasurable or rewarding in itself. Philosophy clearly serves an additional purpose beyond the act of philosophizing, and cannot be negative by definition.

  5. Johan Schou Jansen says:

    I have a small elaboration, to the diverting article and following discussion:

    Even though i agree with James Norholt’s argument about the whence the salience of metaphors come, i still think that it’s validity is generated though, what in the article is being called, the third possible view on philosphy. If Philosophy is done as a skill-making process, then this analogy is worth understanding.

    Therefore i would like to elaborate a little on the third view. It is my belief that masturbation/Philosophy is not only improving to better usage of a more ‘real kind’ of practice. I believe it to be a worthy practice on it’s own, and not only as a means –
    it can be a goal in itself so to speak. if you want to change the world, that IS (partly) understanding it in a different way.This changes my first assumption a little on how this analogy is still relevant at all, but the point is that this discussion forms a new linkage between logics, that not only will come to use i later disussions, but also forms a truth about the nature of mastubation.

    Philosophy has an authority that is made out of the history of its truths and logic and that is not only an authority to change the world, but is also a part of an already changed world. Like masturbation forms a sexuality on its own, so does philosophy constitutes a ontological world on its own.

  6. Johan Schou Jansen says:

    I have a small elaboration to a point in the diverting article and the following discussion:

    Even though i agree with James Norholt’s argument about the whence the salience of metaphors come, i still think that it’s validity is generated though, what in the article is being called, the third possible view on philosphy. If Philosophy is done as a skill-making process, then this analogy is worth understanding.

    Therefore i would like to elaborate a little on the third view. It is my belief that masturbation/Philosophy is not only improving to better usage of a more ‘real kind’ of practice. I believe it to be a worthy practice on it’s own, and not only as a means – it can be a goal in itself so to speak. If you want to change the world, that IS (partly) understanding it in a different way. This changes my first assumption a little on how this analogy is relevant at all. But this is altered in an endorsing manner by that this discussion forms a new linkage between logics, that not only will come to use i later disussions, but also forms a truth about the nature of mastubation.

    Philosophy has an authority that is made out of the history of its truths and logic and that is not only an authority to change the world, but is also a part of an already changed world. Like masturbation forms a sexuality on its own, so does philosophy constitute a ontological world on its own.

  7. a.g.soble says:

    From an essay I’m polishing for publication: Note 2. A famous example of this figurative use of “masturbation” occurs in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s The German Ideology (ed. C. Arthur; New York: International Publishers, 1970, p. 103): “Philosophy and the study of the actual world have the same relation to one another as masturbation and sexual love.” For an admirably clear and detailed discussion of this passage, see Luke Roelofs (blog), “Philosophy and Masturbation: Anatomy of a Metaphor,” https://majesticequality.wordpress.com/2011/08/04/philosophy-and-masturbation-anatomy-of-a-metaphor/.

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