Today’s lingua franca of “social knowledge” is so steeped in the promise of technology and the digital world that sometimes one wonders what happened to the foundational idioms of thought itself. I mean, does social media define “social” itself? Thought, and the ideas of who and how we behave as people, was discussed and put to pen and prose long before the era of the silicon chip made its debut by Robert Noyce fifty-odd years back.
Since the beginning of modern man, we have, as a people, wondered “what does it all mean?” Such a discipline is more commonly referred to as philosophy. Remember that class in college? Important talk, kids slumped over their chairs, ardent professor growling big thoughts to earnest yet slumped over kids, i.e., “what does it all mean?” Maybe not. However, it’s a lot less esoteric an activity – thinking – than you may think, and can have just as important an effect on today’s world as all the time you spend sharing things in your social (sic) space.
I recently came upon Nicolas Berggruen and his recent foray into establishing the Berggruen Institute. It appears that Berggruen is a billionaire was an active conscience, meaning he’s trying to do something devoid of profit, solely for good to better the world, right now; not just “pledging” what he’ll do later on, like many other enlightened yet prudent billionaires choose to do.
Berggruen’s main thesis is that some of the solutions required for today’s world can be found in age-old thinking, nee philosophical discourse. He posits that “we’re still shaped by ideas and the people that created them thousands of years past.” Therefore, he recommends we might want to spend a bit of time studying, discussing, and seeking solutions based on the works of traditions laid down by the likes of Socrates, Zoroaster, and Buddha. These masters of thought, he believes, may provide the key to current world problems that these philosophers could never have even imagined ever existing. In other words, the basic principles of ‘thought,’ and the algorithms of problem-solving these great minds lay out, are capable of unlocking all types of problems. Problems are simply problems, regardless of their nature or context. Furthermore, these solutions may be even more powerful than ideas concocted today, for they were developed in a much less cluttered world, devoid of the dynamic complexity of modern life. New ideas live half-lives, for they derive from diluted thought; the powerful stuff is undiluted, of simple structure.
In order to create a place to apply these solutions to problems Berggruen is currently creating a “secular monastery” where a few dozen thinkers at a time will reside on a few hundred acres of prime land in the hills of Los Angeles. There they will think, devise, and put forth solution sets to some of today’s complexities.
So, while many companies and governments, long lauded for innovation and visionary thinking, keep developing more sophisticated approaches to tackle ever-increasingly complex problems, it’s a breath of fresh air to see someone focusing their attention on what appear to be insurmountable issues such as the role of government, democracy, and the issues surrounding immigration, based on the foundational groundings of who we are as a civil society. We can only hope people are civil enough to listen to what Berggruen and his thinkers say.