It is one of those quotable quotes- “that philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.” It looks good on a T-shirt and a bumper sticker, and its too clever by half. The irony of course, is that this interpretation of philosophers interpreting the world is also an interpretation.
The sleight of hand is to make you think that changing the world is different from changing what the world means. Yet, what great minds like Marx or Freud or Darwin do is not that much in terms of heroic action. Take a voyage to the Galapagos Islands and come home and write a book- see women with various forms of hysteria and write a case study, study the economies of the industrializing world at the British Library, and write a few hefty tomes- Yes, Marx does change the world but he changes it by seeing it through a different lens, understanding it as a hidden process of consciousness and liberation, and therefore ripe for revolution. He did what any good philosopher does, reinterpret the world, and thereby he changed it. He makes his own saying into a lie.
Nothing helps change more than the story that we invent that tells us that we are on the brink of it, or that it is urgent because things are broken and desperate. Sound familiar? Washington is broken. Wall Street is running the show. Government is corrupt and bloated. Its what narrative practitioners so enjoy about any election year- that the headlines of any or all of the candidates echo the cliches that are as old as Plato and as hackneyed as Jefferson and Hamilton. Imagine a candidate saying, “Nothing needs to change, that we are changing too much, that we need to get back to what we used to do in the 1950’s.” Won’t happen.
To change the world is the reverse of what Marx said because it means changing how we interpret it, just as he did. If we, like him, interpret it as ripe for change, and we convince people that we are reading history right, we too can muster the masses to our cause.
Finally, this might make a good memo to the Presidential Candidates for 2016- if you want to change the world, help us change the way we see it. Don’t pander to our lazy habits of mind that don’t want to think too hard about the hard issues. Stop feeding our messianic delusions by promising that you and only you can save us from Mexicans, Martians and Marxists. You might not change our hearts, but why not at least try changing our minds.