Total Work Newsletter #12: 6 Ways Of Speaking About Work

Total Work Newsletter: How Work Took Over the World

Total Work, a term coined by the philosopher Josef Pieper, is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers as work, like a total solar eclipse symbolized in the logo above, comes to occlude all other aspects of life. In these newsletters, I’ll be documenting, reflecting upon, and seeking to understand this world historical process, one that started at least as far back as 1800 and quite possibly well before then.

Announcements: The TEDxBinghamton Talk I gave on total work on Sunday should be coming online in a week or two; I’ll post it when it is. Also, I recently set up a Patreon account. If you feel called to help support my philosophical life, you can do so here. You needn’t feel obliged, though; only if you feel so called.


Sadly, Calvin Grows Up...

As tweeted by @4Day_Week

An updated, gentler version of Catcher in the Rye?

From Disobedience to Acceptance

From Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots (1952, English translation):

Death and labour are things of necessity and not of choice. The world only gives itself to Man in the form of food and warmth if Man gives himself to the world in the form of labour. But death and labour can be submitted to either in an attitude of revolt or else one of consent. They can be submitted to either in their naked truth or wrapped in lies … .


Man placed himself outside the current of Obedience. God chose as his punishment labour and death. Consequently labour and death, if Man undergoes them in a spirit of willingness, constitute a transference back into the current of Supreme Good which is Obedience to God.

Accepting death and labor “in a spirit of willingness,” Weil argues, is the key to salvation.

#1: New Attention | The Future of Leisure | 9 min. | Democracy Journal | Opinion

Democracy J Sum: “It is past time we rediscover the lost art of leisure. Doing so, however, will also mean teaching people how to find fulfillment in their free time.”

Quotes: “Eventually, Robert C. Wolcott of Northwestern University tells me, people may ‘transition to seeing their limited attention as the primary asset.’ And at the same time, more goods and services will become ’"free” and automated, so people will become less concerned with competing for them.’ For Wolcott, the objective, then, will be 'for 100% of sentient beings to find purpose for at least some of their attention.’

“In the meantime, [the author Whatley concludes] many people might resent the idea of more leisure for more people because they believe that everyone has a duty to contribute to society through traditional employment. But paid labor is only one part of our larger political economy, the health of which depends just as much on cultural and artistic expression, civic engagement, and the kind of social and human capital that is developed during well-spent leisure time.”

#2: Work Sucks, So Have a Beer? | Workaday Woes | Baffler | 10 min. | Essay

Baffler Sum: “The alternative to lives centered on consumption or work is lives centered on experiences and activities entered into for their own sake.”


Twitter: Whatley wrote both pieces (#1 and #2). During an online exchange with Stuart Whatley, he pointed me to this piece. While I appreciate his critique of lives centered on work, I find the alternative doesn’t actually supply us with a robust conception of non-work. “Experiences and activities” are not enough to point us to what I’ll call our ‘birthright,’ the very reason why we’re here.

A Modest Proposal

If you want to see what leisure could be like, then you can at least cut out a few major sources of distraction and maybe add in some awareness.

1. #DeleteFacebook. My Facebook account was active from 2009-2012. Keep only social media that is minimally interesting. (LinkedIn, for example, is just too dull to grab your attention for long.)

2. Downgrade to a Dumb Phone. I had a flip phone from 2007-11 and then got rid of it. (I was living in New York City at the time.) Since 2018, I’ve had an emergency and travel phone that most of the time is turned off and sitting in the corner. I think there’s a slow-building counter-movement toward shifting to dumb phones. Be an early adopter.

3. Follow Tristan Harris’s Advice. On the front of my iPad (which in time I think I’d do well to recycle), I have a handwritten sign: “Do not open without intention.” Am I tired? Listless? Not sure what do do with myself? Are these good reasons to open it?

4. Begin Meditating 10 Minutes a Day. You need to break the looping thought patterns, attachments, and aversions. Be careful, though: if you do meditate regularly, you may quickly realize how lonely you are and how easy, therefore, it’s been to cling to social media.

#3: For Now, Cooperativeness | FedEx Follows Amazon Into the Robotic Future | 5 min. | NYT | News HT Alexandra Taggart

NYT Sum: “Humans will have to get used to their machine co-workers. But the robot next to you may not be ready to be your replacement. At least, not yet.”

For Now: For now, FedEx workers are being employed in larger numbers as FedEx is purchasing robots.

#4: The Meme Marches On | I Work Therefore I Am: Why Businesses are Hiring Philosophers | Business to business | The Guardian

Guardian Sum: “Companies are turning to professional thinkers [professional thinkers?] to help them reflect and work through difficult decisions.”

Meme: The meme about philosophy and business continues. I was interviewed for this piece (whose headline, you noticed, is very total work-y). “Doing philosophy as a way of life is inherently challenging and can, at times, be deeply puzzling,” he [Taggart] says. “I see it as my responsibility to push you to think harder and much more clearly about yourself and the world.”

Strangeness: It’s also a strange piece for the Guardian to publish: it presents a dark picture of business (all businesses are myopically profit-driven only) while philosophers may be the ‘better angels’ ensuring that evil is not spread so far and wide.

#5: Is Capitalism Bad for You?

3 min. | Wise Crack | YouTube HT Ernesto Oyarbide

Is Capitalism Bad For You? – 8-Bit Philosophy - YouTube

As Ernesto pointed out to me, “It’s a silly video” that “I might like.” I did. It’s not an excellent exposition of Weber’s ideas about how the Protestant ethos could be the intellectual foundations of modern capitalism. And yet, for those unfamiliar with Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, this is a fun primer to start with.

#6: The 5th Leading Cause of Death | The Workplace Is Killing People and Nobody Cares | 5 min. | Stanford Graduate School of Business | Interview HT Pete Sims

Stanford Sum: “A new book examines the massive health care toll today’s work culture exacts on employees.

My Take: The author compares environmental pollution to social pollution. Suggests that work is the ”fifth leading cause of death in the United States. And, by the way, when I talk to HR people, they say the numbers we have are certainly wrong: They are too low.“

You Eat Coffee for Lunch

Fiverr Advertisement

More evidence that reality is stranger than fiction these days. From Fiverr’s website: “Fiverr is the world’s largest freelance services marketplace for lean entrepreneurs to focus on growth & create a successful business at affordable costs.” Thanks for making the case for burnout, Fiverr.

Six Ways of Speaking about Work

Work as an Open Concept

While I was finishing an article for Quartz at Work on the right to work, I saw more clearly than I had before how different authors were drawing on different concepts of work.

I’ve come to think that work is a family resemblance (or open) concept. A twentieth century philosopher named Ludvig Wittgenstein is given credit for showing, in his book Philosophical Investigations, that not all concepts can be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. That is, not every concept can be defined in such a way that it allows us to pick out only instances of that thing while excluding what it is not.

The famous example he used to illustrate his point was games. If we take any set (e.g., baseball, poker, chess, and charades), we could find properties that they all have (e.g., “following rules,” “trying to win”), yet those properties would also apply to other things (such as warfare, which we don’t take to be a game). And so, Wittgenstein recommended that we simply try to get good at seeing vivid examples of the concept in question, training our attention that way. (Some art theorists have also argued for a family resemblance approach to understanding what art is.)

My hunch is that we’ll not be able to pin down some closed concept of work either. What I’d like to do instead, then, is to simply begin examining a few ways in which we speak about work below.

Six Senses

I’ll write just about six senses in which we use the concept of work below. I have no doubt that there are many others.

1. Work is how we survive. This is my own view, which combines a doctrine of sufficiency with doctrines of abundance and maintenance. I think that it’s a good start but also that it doesn’t get at all the ways in which work is spoken about. Helpful, then, as a starting point but not sufficient.

  • The Doctrine of Sufficiency.– To work just is to apply deliberate, concerted efforts in order to meet one’s material needs as well as those of your dependents.

  • The Doctrine of Abundance.– To work, in this sense, is to do whatever needs to be done to store up supplies with the aim of meeting one’s future material needs as well as those of your dependents.

  • The Doctrine of Maintenance.– To work, in this sense, is to maintain or repair what belongs to us or the infrastructure we rely upon.

Work is an instrument for survive. (Cf. the “Catholic view” I wrote about.)

2. Work is effort. One t-shirt carries this message: “Don’t wish for it, work for it.” The implicit understanding is that work is identical with effort. This is a mistaken conception carried into modern culture, one I think we should jettison. When I climb, I put in a lot of effort but I’m not working. Indeed, many forms of play require effort but are not work. And meditation requires a great deal of effort–“right effort,” according to Buddhists–but meditation is not work. So, while work requires effort, work isn’t effort.

3. Work is poesis. Work is any kind of creative making or creative manifestation. I’m not sure how I feel about this one. I incline to the conclusion that we should drive a wedge between making and work. Indeed, I would say that creation is a gift (one kind of object), but that creation can thereafter be transformed into a different kind of object (a commodity), which can be bought and sold in the marketplace. I believe that the purity of creation, the bodying forth of idea in form, should perhaps (I mean perhaps) be hived off from working and production.

4. Work is “exteriorization” or “species-being.” According to Judy Cox in “An Introduction to Marx’s Theory of Alienation,”

Working on nature [for Marx] alters not only the natural world, but also the labourer himself. Marx frequently reinforced this idea, as in the following quote from Capital: ‘By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway.’ Thus labour is a dynamic process through which the labourer shapes and moulds the world he lives in and stimulates himself to create and innovate. Marx called our capacity for conscious labour our 'species being’.

Work is not only shaping the world but reshaping the agent. Work is “transformation, development, and change” (a quote from Marx). I’m not sure how I feel about this one yet.

5. Work is a burdensome duty akin to slavery. This one may be less about what work is and more about our attitude toward work (for the ancient Greeks, for instance, work was ignoble, slavish, and contemptible), but I think it reasonable to put it here for now. (See sense 6 below.)

6. Work just is gainful employment. This is the one I’m trying to call into question. Listen often enough and you hear this identity implicit in what many people say. In my right to work article, I tried to point out that indigenous peoples have worked (they worked the land) without being gainfully employed in the work society.

“Are you working?” means: “Are you gainfully employed?” As usual, Taleb overstates his case while making a good point (HT Paul Millerd). Here’s Taleb during a recent interview:

Because we have a more complex system than need more [?]. An employee is practically a slave. I mean, you think about it in these terms. Right? He can’t say what he thinks–he’d get fired. He can[?] go on Twitter and curse at someone else. There are a lot of things he can[?] do. But it’s not there that they’re a slave, because they have to show up and give you their time, 9-5, or 9-6, or sometimes 8-10, 10 at night. So, they have to give you so much, and they are scared. With a slave, in Roman times, of course they have downsides–they could be beaten, they could be crucified–

He goes on:

But a slave at a time–if you damage a slave, you can’t sell them, so you lose market value. And with an employee, it’s not the same. So it’s quite–I haven’t written much about it in Skin In the Game, of course, there are so many other topics. But I’m certain that we have more people who are independent today than we did in Roman times.

A more moderate, reasonable version of Taleb’s argument would be that wage labor is, in some respects, akin to slavery. I think that’s right. I’m just not persuaded that gainful employment should be lauded; in fact, I find it bizarre how often it is lauded today.

Is the Sacrifice of Gainful Employment Worth it?

Gainful employment is at least a sacrifice, if not a Faustian bargain, and it neglects entirely Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a good society, one in which citizens owned their own small businesses and thus had also secured their freedom. For many in the work society, gainful employment may be an economic necessity (see the first sense about work as survival). Still, what does it feel like to have to report to bosses and managers? See how that feels each day.

Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?

Feel free to send comments, suggestions, thoughts, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <totalwork.us@gmail.com>.