What would MacGyver do? An excerpt from the revised edition of Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide (2016)


Angus MacGyver thought when he retired from the secret service, he’d put his days of danger behind him. But MacGyver was forever getting caught in life and death situations. Fortunately, MacGyver had a preternatural knack for improvising his way out of them. Since Richard Dean Anderson played MacGyver in the eponymous TV series (originally screening on ABC television between 1985 and 1992), MacGyver has become synonymous with seat-of-you-pants, DIY innovation. In each episode of the show, MacGyver gets caught in at least one life threatening situation, only to escape it, Houdini-like, by applying his knowledge and cobbling together an improbable solution using whatever happens to be lying around.

MacGyver’s indefatigable knowledge and resourcefulness became a running gag on the show. As the episodes rolled by, MacGyver revealed extraordinary insights into medicine, engineering, chemistry, physics, and a host of other disciplines beyond the ken of your average secret agent. The show’s writers would drop MacGyver into increasingly desperate situations only to have him invent ever more outlandish ways to escape them. MacGyver treated every situation with his trademark cool. While other people panicked and despaired, MacGyver would cobble together a parachute, a rocket launcher, some plastic explosive, or a jerry-rigged jet ski that would enable him to avert the crisis and save the day.

Most of the time, it was ludicrous. Still, audiences loved it. Such was the success of the show that one still hears talk of people ‘MacGyvering’ their way out difficult situations today.

Thirty years on, MacGyver is more a cultural icon than ever before. The recent announcement of a movie reboot of the show is not surprising. MacGyver personifies the agile, entrepreneurial, innovative ideal of contemporary startup culture. He represents the hacker genius we’d all like to be – the nimble, resourceful, visionary individual who is always changing and inventing things, never standing still. MacGyver is a hero for our times.

MacGyver is a hero for readers of this book – or should be, at least. Consider the attitude MacGyver displays towards change. MacGyver is never stumped by a situation. He confronts each new challenge head on and reveals it as an opportunity to apply his knowledge and skills. MacGyver doesn’t worry about what is out of his hands. He is too Stoic for that. He focuses on his resources and what he can do with them. Drawing on his full range of powers, and applying them in creative ways, MacGyver transforms crises into moments of glory. He flourishes in contexts of change. Calamitous situations bring out the best in him. Given the regularity with which MacGyver finds himself in peril, one can only assume he pursues these situations to put himself to the test.

Life Changing is a handbook for philosophical MacGyvers. Obviously, the point of this book is not to teach you how to devise unlikely gadgets to escape life or death situations. The aim is to show you how to cultivate the essential skills needed to transform the experience of change, and turning it around, to make it an adventure. With resilience, agility and vision, it is possible to ‘MacGyver’ change by revealing new opportunities in unexpected situations.

Next time you find yourself in a difficult situation without any idea how to proceed, ask: ‘What would MacGyver do?’ MacGyver would get a grip on himself, tap into his powers, and project a solution that transformed everything. MacGyver would rethink the situation and turn the moment of change into a life-changing moment of vision. [Read more…]

Life Changing (2nd ed). Coming March ’16!


Philosophy at the foot of Mt. Blank. Photo courtesy of Con Georgiou

News flash! A revised edition of Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide will be available soon. This is a sharper, clearer, and more satisfying version of the first. I decided to revise the book to bring it into line with the content of another manuscript I am preparing for publication on hacker innovation culture. Software programs have versions – why not books?

Life Changing is based on a workshop I ran at the University of Sydney between 2007 and 2013, called ‘Philosophy for Change’. Many good things in my life have emerged from it, including Coalition of the Willing and the many exciting projects that followed from that film.

I’d like to thank the readers of this blog and the 500+ people who have purchased a copy of Life Changing since it came out in 2012. I couldn’t have written this new edition without your comments and support. I had to publish something that was done but not perfect, and learn to use it and understand it, before I could write the new and improved version.

I plan to make the 2nd ed. nice and cheap, so that people who bought a copy of the original book don’t feel too ripped off. I trust that readers will see value in it. In 2016, Life Changing is more relevant than ever. I wrote this book for people who are looking for change. It is not a manifesto. It is a handbook for personal transformation. It is philosophy for change.

More updates are on the way. Until then: don’t change – keep changing.

Who is Foucault’s Heidegger? An introduction to transformative philosophy


A new species of philosopher is appearing: I venture to baptize these philosophers with a name not without danger in it. As I divine them, as they let themselves be divined – for it pertains to their nature to want to remain a riddle in some respects – these philosophers of the future might rightly, but perhaps also wrongly, be described as attempters. This name itself is in the end only an attempt and, if you will, a temptation.

–Friedrich Nietzsche

Martin Heidegger (1888-1976) and Michel Foucault (1926-1984) are two of the most important philosophers in the history of twentieth century European thought. There is clearly much that divides them. Heidegger devoted his life to a single question, the question of being. Foucault was mercurial in the transformability of his questions, which ranged from madness, literature, discourse and knowledge, to power, sexuality, ethics and truth (roughly in this order). Heidegger was a political conservative – notoriously, a member of the Nazi Party through the 1930s and until the end of the war. Insofar as Foucault can be positioned anywhere on the political spectrum, he is most accurately associated with the anarchist left. Heidegger was a thinker of primordial origins and world-historical recommencements, and saw the present as a unique moment in time in which history has come to an end and stands the chance of beginning anew. Foucault defended a Nietzschean genealogical approach to history that emphasizes radical historical breaks while refusing to assume that the present is any more significant than yesterday or tomorrow.

Given these and other differences, it is hard, on the face of it, to see how Foucault and Heidegger might be related in the manner suggested by the title of this post. It seems improbable that there would be any relationship between these philosophers at all. The fact remains, however, that in his final interview, in 1984, Foucault claimed that Heidegger was an ‘essential philosopher’ for his work. This statement took Foucault scholarship by surprise. Foucault is usually seen as France’s primary Nietzschean export. While Foucault concedes that Nietzsche was ultimately the most important philosopher for his work, he insists that his ‘whole philosophical development’ was determined by his reading of Heidegger. Foucault’s final remarks on Heidegger have provoked much disagreement among readers of Foucault. Many readers prefer to ignore these remarks entirely. Those relatively few attempts to productively engage the question of Foucault’s debt to Heidegger have produced little by way of conclusion and much in the manner of debate.

This post will not attempt to close these debates. Rather, it seeks to place them on a new footing. Foucault and Heidegger’s work, I argue, reflects a common vision of philosophy as a transformative exercise. To understand Foucault’s debt to Heidegger, we need to read these philosophers on the level of transformative practice. [Read more…]

Spinoza in principle: ethics, affect, and friendship

Spinoza_3One hundred years ago, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a famous philosopher, oft-quoted and respected, if notorious for his relationship with the authorities of his time. It is unclear why he fell out of fashion. We may have seen Spinoza’s statue in Amsterdam, or heard his name mentioned by another philosopher, but of Spinoza himself, we know nothing. This is unfortunate seeing as Spinoza is one of the most practical and relevant philosophers there is. There are all sorts of ways that we can apply Spinoza’s philosophy today. Henri Bergson, writing in the early 20th century, saw Spinoza as a philosopher of intuition. The Italian political theorist Antonio Negri argues that Spinoza is the key to understanding globalization and the postmodern age.

This post does not explore the work of these thinkers. I want to focus on Spinoza himself.

oude_kerk_amsterdamSpinoza was the son of a Portuguese merchant who had fled to Amsterdam with his family to escape the Catholic Inquisition. Spinoza senior couldn’t have picked a better place to have moved the family business. It was the height of the Dutch Golden Age and Amsterdam was the trading capital of the world. Amsterdam, moreover, was an excellent spot for Spinoza to begin a philosophical education. Through the seventeenth century, the liberal climate of Amsterdam drew a hoard of political and religious refugees from other parts of Europe, stimulating a lively intellectual culture. Strolling through Dam Square, Spinoza would have rubbed shoulders with French Huguenots, German Anabaptists, Spanish heretics, and Scottish freethinkers amidst the hustle and bustle of the markets and trade. Spinoza formed the principles of his philosophy long before he considered himself a philosopher, as a young man on the streets of Amsterdam.

[Read more…]

Hooked on a feeling: how a chance encounter can change your life

I met a man named AJ Emmanuel as I was walking down the main street of my town. AJ was enlisting supporters for the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. He spotted me coming from a distance and lured me in with a parody of my loping stride. By the time we met, I was laughing and he was laughing too.

‘You are wasting your time with me!’ I told him. I explained how my partner and I give a set amount of money each month to a rolling roster of aid organizations. The UNHCR was somewhere on the list. ‘A good conversation is never a waste of time’, AJ replied. It was a sunny day and I was out for a walk – why not take the opportunity to chat?

I liked AJ immediately. He was confident and upbeat. There was mischief in his eyes, but seriousness, too – a tone of gravity underlying everything that he said. I sensed that I was in the presence of a kindred spirit – a street philosopher, of sorts – a man who had seen suffering enough to know that life has no guarantees, yet who is wise enough to appreciate that the only appropriate response is to celebrate each moment.

[Read more…]

Promises to myself: ten philosophical resolutions

Dandelion Clock

Don’t you love the feeling when you realise that your work for the year is done and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t kick up your heels and relax? I woke up with that feeling this morning. I’m off to Vietnam at the end of the week and I can feel myself being drawn towards the plane.

Bon voyage, friends and fellow philosophers, wherever you may venture this holiday season! I’ll see you again in 2014 with more adventures of the cerebral kind.

I’ll leave you with a list of philosophical resolutions for 2014. I’ve lifted them from some of my favourite posts on this blog. I’ll be taking them with me on holiday. Promises to keep.

1. I will say ‘yes’ to life.

‘To complete Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses, the lion must become a child. ‎Maturity, for Nietzsche, means rediscovering the seriousness one had as a child at play.

A child-like spirit is vital to happiness, health, and well-being. “The child”, Nietzsche says, “is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a Sacred Yes”. The lion becomes a child when the individual who says “I will” ceases to affirm their values contrary to the law of “Thou Shalt”, and affirms them instead “for the sport of creation: the spirit now wills its own will, … its own world”. Life is no longer a reactive struggle to defeat other forces. Life is a celebration of one’s powers – a sustained act of pure affirmation. The child-like spirit knows the joy of life and the innocence of perpetual creation’.

From Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses (February 2010)

2. I will grow collective.

‘Love is a disruptive event that opens people to a new terrain of possibilities and a common vision of what they might be together. I find this aspect of Badiou’s argument tremendously interesting. When people find love, they realise life offers them more together than it does alone. They realise that they can do more together, and thereby discover a tremendous responsibility and risk. Can they be worthy of this common possibility? What level of dedication and trust is required to realise it? Love, Badiou claims, requires that we reinvent ourselves – together. It is a project of co-construction – the kind of event that we need to constantly work at in order to sustain’.

From Life changing love: Badiou and the birth of possibility (January 2013) [Read more…]

Sceptical thinking: the five modes of Agrippa

sceptic‘What if?’ These are possibly the most disruptive words in the English language. If ‘why?’ stops us in our tracks, ‘what if?’ fills the mind with possibilities. Politics, innovation, and art would be impossible without ‘what if?’ ‘What if we tried talking, instead of fighting all the time?’ ‘What if we put a computer in the mobile phone?’ ‘What if the natives on Skull Island worshipped a giant ape called Kong?’ Start a sentence with ‘what if?’ and anything can ensue.

‘What if?’ also clutters the mind with troubles and anxiety. ‘What if it rains on the day of our wedding?’ ‘What if there is a God (or a demon!) watching and judging me right now?’ ‘What if I’m wrong about everything I believe in – what then?

‘What if?’ is a semantic stick thrust into a hornet’s nest of possibilities. Endless ideas fly buzzing about our heads, occasionally inspiring us but mostly distracting us from challenges and tasks.

There are numerous approaches one can take to relieving the effects of ‘what if?’ Some people explore meditation. Others deaden their senses with alcohol and drugs. Too many people simply choose to stop thinking. They give themselves over to the tedious routines of life, ‘blink’ rather than think, and select ‘brain off’ entertainment that enables them to maintain a zombified state through evening until sleep claims them. The approach that I recommend is the opposite of this. Instead of thinking less, I believe that we should be thinking more about the possibilities of life, but to do so in a sceptical way, so that we dispel the irrelevant and immaterial ‘what ifs?’ and focus instead on genuinely valuable and thought-provoking possibilities.

In the last post, we explored scepticism as a way of life. This post provides you with a set of thinking tools to help you engage life in a sceptical manner. Learning to live in a sceptical way takes practice, but it is worth it. By learning to think sceptically about things, we are not only better able to identify things that have real meaning, relevance, and value in life, we are enabled to identify the things that lack meaning, relevance, and value, and thereby declutter our minds by setting these things to one side, zeroing in on the things that count.

Decluttering the mind is every bit as valuable as defragging your computer. Decluttering helps you stop worrying about all the meaningless, irrelevant, and absurd thoughts that clog up your mental bandwidth. It gives you space to think. It gives you back your freedom. [Read more…]

Question everything: scepticism as a way of life

Question-everythingIn 155BC, Carneades the Sceptic travelled to Rome to give an important speech to the Roman Senate. Carneades was the head of the Athenian Academy and the most dignified philosopher of his day. He was known as a brillant speaker with a whip-sharp mind and a mastery of sceptical techniques that was second to none. In Rome, there were mixed feelings about Carneades’ speech. Some people were concerned about Carneades’ brand of sceptical philosophy and the effect it might have on the Roman youth. Others, however, were curious to learn what Carnaedes had to offer. Greek scepticism was a mystery to the Romans, yet to immigrate across the Ionian Sea. Carnaedes was an ambassador from the land of skeptikos. Was this a land worth visiting?

Introducing Sceptic philosophy to the Romans was not Carneades’ main objective. Carneades came to Rome as a diplomat, tasked with convincing the Senate to reduce a fine that had been imposed on Athens for the invasion of Oropus. The Romans believed the fine was just, while the Athenians thought it was wildly inappropriate. Carneades had promised to take a sceptical approach to the debate, to see if it were possible to transform the way that both parties thought about things. To achieve this, he’d deliver two speeches in the course of two days, both on the topic of justice.

On the first day, Carneades wowed his audience with a stunning review of Platonic and Aristotelian arguments in favour of justice. Justice, Carneades declared, was the supreme virtue, the Archimedian point that should guide all thought and discussion. The Roman senators were impressed. That evening, there was much talk of Carneades’ oratorical power and persuasiveness. How would he top it on the second day, people wondered?

When Carneades turned up the next day, the Senate was packed with the best and brightest of Rome, ready to imbibe his wisdom. Carneades stood at the podium and calmly refuted everything that he’d said the day before. The senators listened aghast as the great philosopher enumerated the virtues of injustice, which Carneades presented as a natural law that any reasonable person should adhere to. He wound up with some practical advice for the senators. ‘Rome has won her empire by injustice both to gods and men’, Carneades declared. And such is the course that Rome should maintain. Heaven forbid that the capital should explore the virtues of justice. How foolish! Carnaedes claimed: ‘A policy of justice would make Rome again what she was originally – a miserable poverty-stricken village’.

To say that Carneades’ speech went down badly is an understatement. Carneades and his entourage were ejected from the city. Scepticism never set root in Rome and the Greeks, presumably, learned an important lesson: never enlist a philosopher in diplomatic work. [Read more…]

Swarms and norms: refiguring the multitude

globalizationA few years ago, I published an essay in the journal Radical Philosophy titled, ‘Refiguring the multitude: from exodus to the production of norms’ (2005). It was about swarms, though I didn’t know it at the time. The publication was a coup for me. I was a struggling contract academic, vying for attention. Radical Philosophy was an ‘up there’ journal in political philosophy circles, edgy but respectable. My paper was one of the first academic responses to Multitude (2004), Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s sequel to their best-selling book, Empire (1999).

The essay was a bit of dog’s breakfast. But the crux of the argument resonates today. I have pasted some paragraphs below. If you are into Deleuze and social movements, this one is for you.

Re-reading ‘Refiguring the multitude’ for the first time in years, I am struck by how much of this material has become part of my mental DNA. I didn’t realise at the time, but ‘Refiguring the multitude’ was crucial to my intellectual development. Multitude certainly resonates with the high-tech world of 2013. Empire and Multitude are books you should have on your shelf, whatever part of the political spectrum you inhabit. They are books about globalization. Hardt and Negri are essentially right. Of course, they are wrong in important respects too.

The paragraphs from ‘Refiguring the multitude’ that I’ve pasted below are the crux of a line of thought that I started developing in 2002 or 2003. It was a response to the failure of the anti-globalization movement that got started in the 1990s. I was looking for a theoretical trajectory that would enable me to continue on the line of flight that I’d experienced at the height of this movement (1999-2001), this time reflecting on how swarms and social movements could contribute to creating something, in the first case, a new set of norms.

In retrospect, it is easy to see how I stepped from this argument to write Coalition of the Willing.

[Read more…]

The meaning of philosophy

puzzledWhat is the use of philosophy? Is it simply to reinforce the value of critical thinking, or is there something more meaningful to the discipline that academic philosophers, with their passion for critical thought, have missed? I founded Philosophy for Change because I believe that philosophy has a unique vocation, which was central to ancient philosophy but which is mostly overlooked today. Philosophy is a transformative discipline. It puts us on a path to meaning and truth. Setting out on this path – or even just realising it’s there – is a life changing experience.

You don’t need a university degree to be a philosopher. All that you need is a dose of courage, a questioning mind, and a passion for meaning. Academic philosophers like to put truth at the head of the inquiry, but in fact meaning is the most important thing. Who would set out in search of truth if the search itself wasn’t a meaningful one? Ultimately, it is the desire for meaning in life that draws people to philosophy.

The ultimate goal of philosophy is not knowledge or truth. It is the rejuvenation of life itself.

Most people value happiness over meaning. It is easier to acquire. You can buy happiness at the mall, though it doesn’t last for long. Happiness tends to be shallow and fleeting. As a study in The Journal of Positive Psychology argues, happiness is focused on the here and now. It reflects the satisfaction of immediate wants and needs. Meaning, by contrast, takes a broader focus on whole-of-life experience. When we dwell on the meaningful life, we expand our horizons beyond the present moment to reflect on the significance and purpose of our existence.

Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), argued that having a sense of purpose is a great source of personal satisfaction and resilience. In the death camps in which Frankl was interned during World War II, those who had a sense of purpose were determined to endure the suffering rather than allow themselves to be overcome by it. Frankl observes:

A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’

What is the ‘why’ of your existence? What is the meaning of your life? If you are struggling for an answer, ask: ‘What do I bring to the world through my gifts? What can I give the world in order to make it better place? How am I living right now? Is there a better way?’

These are not ‘classic’ philosophical questions. But by asking these questions and staying with them, reflecting deeply and honestly on the meaning of life, you become a philosopher. It really is that simple. The meaning of philosophy is to reflect on meaning. Reflecting on meaning makes life more meaningful, which is why there has always been and will always be philosophers.