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Episode 103 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #103 on Sartre. Check out the episode page HERE.

So if you don’t follow the show on Facebook or you don’t follow me on Twitter you may be a little out of the loop in terms of the requests I’ve been receiving and what this show’s gonna focus on for the next several episodes. So I wanna fill you in.
You know, at the end of one of the Heidegger episodes I said that the state of the world is always contingent upon the state of human thought that came before it…and what I meant by that was…whether we realize it or not…every single one of us exists…as a single point…on a massive continuum…known as the history of human thought. Whether we realize it or not…so many of the strong convictions that we have… things that we think are parts of our personality and the personalities of people around us…have been shaped and in many ways determined… by the history of philosophical insights within this history of human thought.
You know everybody has a particular way that they look at the world…a way that they look at economics and government and human psychology and God and relationships…and if you’re an honest person this way of looking at things is always changing it’s always growing…but the fact remains…at any one point in time… we all have a particular way that we look at the world that we’ve deemed to be a sort of best practices in that moment…and for years of MY life, at least, whenever I thought about this particular way that I looked at the world…I walked around talking about it like I had come up with it. Like it was all me, like as if at some point I locked myself in a closet and just thought about stuff REALLY REALLY hard for twenty years… and then emerged with MY way of looking at the world.
But what I realized is that so much of the way we look at the world is actually this complex…patchwork…of philosophical insights that we’ve gleaned from the books that we’ve read, the teachers that we’ve had, the people that we’ve met, tons of different things, the point is…whether we realize it or not…we were all born into a particular philosophical…Facticity like we talked about last episode…and this Facticity greatly influences the way that we look at the world.
Now maybe you’ve listened to this show before…maybe you’ve come across some thinker that embodies some aspect of the way that you look at the world, you know a single piece of that complex patchwork of ideas that you have. But just statistically speaking…if you’re a human being alive in the year 2017…a significant portion of the way that you look at the world is going to be based on the main philosophical lines of thinking that occurred throughout the 20th century…and when you understand the origins of these philosophical lines of thinking…you’re given…a pretty substantial gift that is two fold at least that’s how it was for me
First of all I felt humbled…because finally I didn’t have to look at my set of beliefs as this elaborate art project I’ve been working on for twenty years…and if somebody criticizes my beliefs… they’re essentially criticizing me…and second of all I felt this weird sense of clarity…because when you turn on the TV…and you see the way that people are behaving…and you take a step back in Plato’s cave and you see the shadows on the cave wall for what they are…when you see what’s going on as a sort of a ripple effect of a… philosophical stone that was thrown into a pond last century…it starts to all be way less confusing.
This is the gift that I would like to give to you over the course of this next series of episodes…and when I thought about where to begin…the first thing I realized we’re going to need is a much deeper understanding of Sartre…much deeper than we got on the…you know, the one episode I did on him where I touched briefly on Freedom and Responsibility. Look bottom line is, to fully understand his concept of radical freedom and responsibility, we have to understand his Phenomenology…to understand his phenomenology we have to understand Husserl and to understand Husserl…we have to understand a long standing, quasi-annoying tradition in the history of philosophy, that people were starting to get very skeptical of around the time of Sartre and Husserl.
This episode is a story from philosophy that I’d like to tell you. It’s a story to bring context to everything we’ve learned so far…context I could never give when I was just doing an episode on these thinkers in chronological order…but nonetheless it’s context we NEED…to be able to understand the questions that Sartre thought were worth answering during his time.
The story begins with Descartes…godfather of modern philosophy…now in many ways, the story of Descartes is as old as philosophy itself…he’s a mathematician turned philosopher…a mathematician fascinated by the level of certainty we can have when we say things like 1+1 = 2, and he wants to try to emulate this process of mathematical certainty and apply it to thinking the goal being: to arrive at certainty about things.
You know, in his book Rules For The Direction of the Mind, he talks about taking clear and distinct propositions and linking them together in the same sort of way a mathematician might say something like: ok well 1+1=2. Alright now 2 + 5 = 7. we know that. Ok now 7 x 4 = 28. Alright now lets bracket all these clear and distinct propositions together that have allowed us to progress up until this point…now imagine this same method… applied to thinking…except instead of chaining numbers, you’re chaining together clear and distinct ideas arriving at a level of certainty comparable to 7 x 4 = 28. That was the goal…at least.
See it’s important to understand where Descartes coming from with all this…Descartes takes a look back at the almost 2000 years of philosophy that had been done before he was alive, and he’s embarrassed..quite frankly. Nobody agrees on anything…nobody has any sort of solid foundation for what they’re writing…it’s all just a bunch of smart people spewing out volume after volume of unverifiable speculation about things…is this really what we want philosophy to be?
Descartes thinks that where these philosophers all wen’t wrong is in their method…and by the way this same exact sentiment applies more generally just to us in our personal lives…but he says that it’s so easy to fall into the trap…where you’re super interested in something…you want to feel like you know about a topic so badly…that you research it and think about it for a while and you talk to people about it…and then this strange, very human, thirst for knowledge… takes over…you want to feel like you know about it so badly that you end up getting impatient… and just ASSUMING that you know everything about it when there was really a lot more to consider if you dug deeper. You know to continue the math metaphor…this is like you want to be done with the test so badly.. that you just write a bunch of answers that seem like they’re about right, but you don’t actually go through and show your work of exactly how you got there.
Well, enough of that. Enough speculation, enough chaos in philosophy, we need CERTAINTY about things. And Descartes thought if we are ever going to arrive at certainty about things…we need to be taking a much more RIGOROUS look at the METHODS that we’re using to arrive at it…he even uses that word, you know he often talks about how philosophy should be looked at as what he calls a rigorous discipline…and what we’ve been doing so far…uh, it’s been FAR from rigorous. So Descartes lays down the guantlet. From this point forward…let’s all just agree on a couple things. Under penalty of being laughed at, cast out of the room and relegated to the childrens table at the next family reunion…a philosopher truly concerned with the quest for certainty shall henceforth never make any claim that is not: 1, so clear that there is nothing obscure about it and 2, so distinct that there is nothing confused about it.
Clear and distinct. As clear and distinct as 1+1=2…you know you can imagine some of these hypothetical chains of ideas linked together by these earlier philosophers…you can imagine propositions within their thinking that look to Descartes like 2+2=5…and then what happens is all the rest of the ideas that are built on top of that proposition…. come crumbling down. This is what has happened all throughout history…this is the world Descartes is living in…and here’s him throwing down the gauntlet… trying to make sure it never has to happen again.
We need to arrive at certainty. But here’s the thing about certainty…it’s no joke. It’s not enough to just say 2+2…is basically 4.01…no, there’s no close enough when it comes to certainty. And if were TRULY going to be rigorous…if we’re going to arrive at a philosophical system based on certainty…we need to build it completely from scratch we can’t assume ANYTHING about it… just as a given.
Descartes says we need to doubt everything even things… that may seem a little bit silly when you’re initially doubting them…things, for example, like whether or not we actually exist. Can’t even take THAT for granted. And lucky for Descartes he gets past that one pretty easily with his famous I think, therefore I am. See if you’re Descartes… and many philosophers before him for that matter… the c riteria for knowing something clearly and distinctly… lies in whether we have direct a awareness of it, rather than some secondary level of awareness of it… given to us by some other source, For example.
To Descartes…when we ask the question whether or not we actually exist…simply based on the observation that we’re thinking about anything at all…to him, at the very least, we must be some sort of thinking thing that exists…in other words…we have this sort of… direct awareness of our existence present within our minds. But as you can imagine…not everything is this straight forward…even things that may seem…very straightforward.
Because on the other hand, to Descartes, take something like the existence of the physical world,…I mean, sure it looks like there’s a physical world out there full of things that we’re interacting with…but can we be certain… about the things that we’re looking at? After all, we know our minds trick us all the time…right? I mean you get stranded in the desert long enough…dehydrated…it happens…you start hallucenating…you start seeing a McDonalds on the horizon…that McDonalds isn’t actually there…you put a stick in some water, the stick looks bent, but the stick isn’t actually bent.
The conclusion here, Descartes says, is that when it comes to the existence of the external world…we’re not directly aware of the things that exist in the world…we’re only directly aware of the way that they appear to us…or the phenomena as they appear to us…important word there…in this story from history…phenomena.
In other words if we want to stay in keeping with this rigorous criteria that Descartes laid out trying to get to certainty about things, all we can really give with certainty… is a description of the phenomena…not the actual external objects of world. Though, Descartes himself never talks about this process of describing phenomena, he just marks the distinction between phenomena and the objects of the world…that’s his contribution…
Now this idea…that we are something that’s aware of our own existence that can’t be certain about anything else OUTSIDE of our own existence…is a textbook example of way of looking at things that in philosophy is referred to as Solipsism. Now Descartes never would have looked at himself as a champion of Solipsism…he has ways around it…he had an argument where the existence of God was a certainty and that therefore, God would never deceive us by putting all these thoughts in our heads about a world existing if there wasn’t actually one…but, uh…everyone else wasn’t buying that. And I guess the important part is: Descartes got us back on track…he laid down the guantlet of certainty. Finally, for the first time ever, philosophy had been turned into a truly rigorous discipline…and yeah, maybe Descartes didn’t get too far at arriving at these clear and distinct propositions, but at least now, we’re on the right track. Right?
Well the story of philosophy goes on…time goes on. Thinkers come and go presenting theory after theory…and they certainly make some progress when it comes to these things that we can say with absolute certainty, but the next big breakthrough occurs… when a guy comes along that we’ve talked about many times on this show before: Mr. Immanuel Kant.
Again, for the full explanation go back and listen to the Kant episodes… but because most of you probably already know what I’m talking about, here’s the lighting round edition just to frame things in this discussion: All of us listening to this look at the world around us and see a world that is solid, static and unchanging…when in reality if we put that table in front of you under an electron microscope you’d see that it was 99.9% empty space and constantly moving. What this tells us… is that our senses… weren’t necessarily evolved to be able to understand the fabric of reality itself…but really… just to be able to create a map of reality that does a good enough job that we can survive and reproduce better than others in a particular set of climate conditions.
See, Descartes made a mistake in Kant’s eyes. Descartes made the assumption that the mind didn’t contribute anything to the phenomena it was looking at…he saw us as kind of passive observers just taking it all in. Kant on the other hand says that when you take a closer look at the mind… how it receives these phenomena, the mind actually contributes… a LOT to them.
Kant says that for all intents and purposes…there are two distinct worlds that exist. There’s the world of things in themselves…or the world out there…beyond our basic map of reality that we are reading with our senses…and then theres the world of human experience…which is our map of the world…or a world where our senses perceive these things in themselves and create phenomena that we organize through various mental faculties to be able to make sense of them…this whole process producing for us…our human experience of the world. In other words, we are ACTIVE observers organizing and governing the raw phenomena, not just taking them in…and to Kant, we can never know anything about this world of things in themselves…only the world of human experience.
But the NEXT chapter in the story… is that you have post-Kantians coming along saying, ok…well if we can’t ever know anything about this world of things in themselves…how can we know for certain that there’s more than one thing responsible for all these phenomena? How can we know that these things actually cause the phenomena…isn’t causality a category of the mind? Actually…how can we know for certain that this world of things in themselves exists at all?
And the answer is folks, at this point in philosophy: we can’t. This is why Kant is referred to as a Transcendental Idealist…he’s one of the first members in the long standing tradition in philosophy known as Idealism…or the idea that all of reality, or at least as we can possibly know it… is non-material and a construction of the mind.
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In other words: We can’t know for certain…we can’t just assume that there are these material objects existing in some hypothetical external world… that are causing the phenomena we’re experiencing. All that we can be certain about…is going on in our minds.
Again, CERTAINTY is what we’re going for…we have to adhere to this rigorous set of criteria descartes laid out.
Now at this point some of you out there might be thinking…ok…what are we doing here? What EXACTLY are we doing with philosophy? Look, when Descartes questioned whether we really exist or not, it was a fun thought experiment…when Kant did it…I respected the mans tenacity. But at a certain point…what we can’t KNOW whether physical things exist in the world? How ridiculous is that? What, did Kant’s dad never take him aside sit him down and say son…you’re upstairs in your room all day doing your fingerpainting questioning whether the world actually exists…news flash…it does…look see table…its real hey NEWS paper! look it’s the classified section…now you can get a REAL job! oh it’s real…you like THAT don’t you!
Now of course this isn’t how it went…but it can start to make you think…look I admire the whole quest for certainty thing…I understand what you guys are trying to do and I appreciate it…but at a certain point: I have a life to lead. I have kids to play football with…I have a job to go to. I can’t sit around all day wondering whether a material world actually exists or not…look I’m all for certainty…and I understand you may be right, we may only have our thoughts…the universe itself…may in fact be just one giant thought…but the fact that it’s been this long and you can’t even confirm…. one of the most intuitively obvious things about existence…I’m worried you might be wasting your time and more importantly…I’m worried you might be wasting MY time.
Now if any of you have ever felt this way over the course of listening to this show: you’re not alone. Because as the story continues…right around the 19th century thinkers started to emerge that were very skeptical of… not only this longstanding tradition of looking for certainty about things…but more generally… this long tradition of philosophers assuming that it’s possible to use reason…to just…reason our way to the solutions about every problem we could ever face as a species. Reason to certainty about things, reason to the ideal form of government, reason to a complete scientific world picture.
There was a sense at the time that this kind of thinking was… sort of outdated, kind of nostalgic, old philosophy…for so long we’ve tried to reduce everything into these pre-packaged little rational categories…and we’ve done it so much that these categories have become more important to philosophers than the things that make them up…even human beings for example…I mean, along with this old philosophy went an outdated way of rationally categorizing human beings…this long tradition of seeing people as merely aspects of some larger whole…as merely children of God’s kingdom…or merely members of a state…out went that way of thinking… and we started to see thinkers emerge like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche… that looked at what it is to be a human being much more in terms of what it is to be an individual…a relatively modern concept in human history.
Now of course this wasn’t the only way people were looking at the history of philosophy, but this is the way Sartre was looking at it: there was this feeling… that maybe this trajectory of philosophy brought about in the 17th century… had been off the rails for a long time and was utterly devoid of value…there was this feeling that if we ever wanted to make ANY sort of progress in the future we needed to do something radical…something fundamentally different than we have been doing.
Then along comes a character into history to shake things up…the mad scientist philosopher Husserl…early in his career on the same page as these 19th century thinkers that believe something radical needs to be done…and this is EXACTLY what he’s trying to do with his early work. He’s not SATISFIED with idealism being some sort of final destination…he wants to tweak our methods of looking at these phenomena, study the very structure of consciousness and arrive at a certainty that includes an external, physical world among other things.
In other words: this rigorous discipline of philosophy… just got an extreme makeover. And yeah Husserl would agree…you definitely don’t want to spend every second of your life doubting whether the external world exists or not just because philosophers haven’t arrived at some definitive proof of it. That’d be ridiculous I mean just think if everybody adopted that strategy…nobody in that history of the world would have ever conducted a single scientific experiment…how can you do an experiment on a world that you have no reason to believe actually exists?
Think about that…just imagine if we never conducted science just because philosophy had never arrived at a method that was going to guarantee we were never mistaken. No, science doesn’t agonize over the idea of never being mistaken like Descartes did…science isn’t in the business of certainty…it’s in the business of coming up a yes largely incomplete, tremendously flawed but PROFOUNDLY USEFUL set of insights that help us understand things a little bit better. Just because it’s not certainty doesn’t make it not useful…and again in a weird way… if scientists WERE out there looking for complete certainty, they wouldn’t be able to get anything done.
Husserl makes a distinction between these two very different ways of orienting yourself to the world…BOTH OF WHICH are useful in his eyes. On one hand we have the Phenomenological attitude sometimes called the philosophical attitude…this is Descartes Gauntlet…this is the rigorous method of looking for certainty that Husserl’s made drastic improvements upon…the, I guess, 100% honest way of looking at things doubting everything including your own existence and then proceeding with caution from there…there’s that and then on the other hand we have what he calls the Natural Attitude…or the sort of default way of orientating yourself to the world…the way of looking at things that all science is conducted through…or as Husserl says the way of looking at things that starts with several big presuppositions but nonetheless allows us to continue on with our daily lives or scientific inquiry without being paralyzed by this quest for certainty.
These are two different ways of approaching the world. Scientists don’t doubt the kind of things Husserl doubts when he’s looking for certainty… they don’t doubt things like whether there’s actually a correspondence between the thoughts they’re having and the object they’re perceiving…they don’t DOUBT things like whether the mind is the kind of thing that’s even capable of arriving at OBJECTIVE FACTS…yet they conduct scientific experiments assuming these things are in their favor…and it makes sense…Husserl would say… that it’s just simply not useful when you’re doing a scientific experiment to doubt whether the mind is something even capable of arriving at objectivity…if you get too caught up on certainty…it sabotages your very ability to do science. Science is not certainty.
This is the point Husserl’s making. The phenomenological attitude and the natural attitude are mutually exclusive. You can’t look at the world in both ways simultaneously. For example, a normal everyday person immersed in the natural attitude… might go down to the library pick up some Husserl…they might read him… they might contemplate how they can know anything for certain…maybe they even employ a few of his methods and take a sort of recreational swim in the Phenomenological attitude. But when they’re done reading the book, they leave the library and go on about their day…they’re not still doubting whether the world actually exists or not. On that same note…even the most die hard Phenomenologist…let’s say you work 9-5 as a professional Phenomenologist…the second that bell rings and you take your union standardized break…you’re not sitting around the break room wondering whether the vending machine is just a mental construction or not.
Practicing Phenomenology is practicing a new way of seeing the world and the things that make seeing the world possible at all…and Husserl would say…yeah it’s possible for someone to get too far down the rabbit hole of the philosophical attitude…sitting around all day yellin’ at people, well YOU don’t even know if any of this stuff exists…so PROVE it! YOU don’t even know if YOU exist! And that certainly would be a waste of time…but be careful cause you can go too far in the other direction too…you can spend your entire life writing off these sort of… pointless armchair philosopher questions and going on for the rest of your days…never really considering all the presuppositions that come along with the natural attitude.. and honestly believing that what you’re looking at as you walk around every day is OBJECTIVE reality. There are people that talk about what we see as human beings as though it is…objective reality.
Example everyone will know: there are certain big famous, celebrity proponents of science who are.. by their own admission…proudly willfully ignorant of philosophy who say that philosophy is essentially useless in today’s world..because it’s been replaced by a better, more dynamic system called science… that does everything philosophy used to do except better.
These people are a perfect example… of what it looks like to go way too far down the rabbit hole of the natural attitude…I mean does Bill Nye realize that if it wasn’t for philosophy he would just be Bill Nye…the guy. I mean seriously. But Bill Nye, NDT, Stephen Hawking, all these people that are proud of the fact they’ve never read philosophy… and they cavalierly just in normal conversation throw around these terms like Objective Reality and Objective Truth and Facts…one of a few things has to be true about them…either they’ve never considered the limitations of their own senses…the limitations of human knowledge…the assumptions present in the natural attitude…which given how little philosophy they’ve claimed to have read is worrying…or the more charitable reading of this…the reading I force myself to believe as I sit in the corner and neurotically rocking…is that maybe they have considered all these boundaries between themselves and objectivity…but they use words like Objective Truth because they see themselves engaged in a war against religion and they feel like they have to be a direct substitute to it.
In other words…maybe it’s all a strategy…maybe they’re not so lost in the natural attitude…maybe they see that human beings are really attracted to this idea of having all the answers and of harnessing objective truth…and religion tells them they can find those answers in the book of genesis…so in order to compete with that…let’s sort of gloss over all the limitations of science and the human beings that ultimately have to conduct science and let’s proceed as though our method is the REAL method of arriving at Objective truth. What I’m saying is…when you go too far down this natural attitude rabbit hole and you start looking at this stuff as though it’s objective truth…it starts to look eerily familiar. You know in the 1400’s you had a priest that wore a big robe and conducted a ritual at an altar spoke to God and told you what the objective truth of the universe was. In today’s world you have a scientist…wearing a big robe (labcoat)…conducting a ritual (experiement) at an altar (a labratory) speaking to the universe and telling you the objective truth about it is.
You never go full Natural Attitude…is what I’m saying.
But back to the story…as you can imagine…when word gets out that Husserl’s come up with a new method of Phenomenology that may give us certainty about an external, physical world and much more by the way…it attracts a lot of aspiring philosophers that see it as one piece of this radical change that we’re going to have to make in philosophy if we want to move forward…one of these thinkers that became a student of Husserl was named Martin Heidegger…another was named Jean Paul Sartre.
Now… in an unexpected turn of events…a turn that many of Husserl’s students couldn’t even fully understand…right around the middle of Husserl’s life he does sort of an about face with his Phenomenology…he takes it in the same direction so many other thinkers before him took it…he loses faith in his work and becomes an Idealist.
Now some students followed along with Husserl adopting his new work…but other students were like, mm..no. No, no. Sure, Husserl this early work is far from perfect…but look all it needs is a little more development in this area and some further clarifications over there… and then…then it’s gonna be solid. Two of the thinkers that were part of this group…were Heidegger and Sartre.
Now Heidegger…as we talked about…disagreed with some pretty critical aspects of Husserl…not the least of which was the entire idea of consciousness at all. Again, why do we need to think about ourselves like Descartes did back in the 17th century? Like we’re subjects acting upon objects…or a more modern spin…consciousness acting upon things in the world? No, to Heidegger… we have no reasonable basis for making that sort of assumption. Being… and the world… are a unified thing and are fundamentally inseparable from eachother.
Well Sartre reads Heidegger and he’s convinced…Heidegger’s right… we have no basis for assuming that we’re subjects acting upon objects…he’s right that being and the world are a unified thing…but Sartre leaves room for consciousness. To Sartre…it’s consciousness…and the world…that are fundamentally inseparable.
See Sartre takes a look at this long history in philosophy we’ve been talking about for this entire episode and he realizes something…the problem everyone seems to have… is being able to explain how things work up in this strange…box inside of their head that they seem to be trapped in. They have this factory up in their heads called consciousness or whatever word they use for it…and they have this receiving dock that takes in these semi-trucks full of phenomena… and these phenomena are sent down conveyor belts and the disenfranchised blue collar workers organize them and categorize them and turn them into this crude map of the world that they ship out the other side of the factory to us so we can perceive the world.
But think about what we talked about last time…consciousness is not some empty container…or some empty factory up in our heads waiting to be filled up with perceptions. The more these Phenomenologists look at consciousness the more they see it more of an activity than a thing up in our heads…remember consciousness is always actional (doing something) and referential (pointing towards something)…there’s no such thing as some empty consciousness out there.
See Sartre is different from Husserl. When Husserl does his Phenomenology… he’s super focused on the task of figuring out what everything is…and the way he DOES that is through various methods like the Eidetic Reduction that we talked about on Heidegger part 1.
What… Husserl’s interested in doing…is describing things in the world in terms of these universal essences that he arrives at through the Eidetic reduction…but remember… Sartre doesn’t come from that school of thought he would see this whole process as just a misguided extension of this outdated, old philosophy where we thought we could think about everything in terms of these neat categories and universals. No, Sartre’s more focused on the individual…and he thinks you can’t ever know everything about an individual simply by looking at them in terms of what universal essences intersect by them.
For example…you know it’s so tempting to think that if we figure out the essence of something…we know what it is…that if we had a piece of wax…we did the Eidetic reduction and arrived at it’s universal essences…that we have essentially figured out…what it is to be that thing. But Sartre says, this never tells us the full story. Sartre has a famous argument in his most famous work Being and Nothingness… where he quotes a passage from the biography of the French Author Gustave Flaubert…and here he’s pointing out how ridiculous it is that the biographer is trying to explain the psychology of Flaubert, the psychology of a human being by using this sort of process…by just appealing to a bunch of universals.
He says:
“… A critic, for example, wishing to explain the “psychology” of Flaubert,
will write that he “appeared in his early youth to know as his normal state,
a continual exaltation resulting from the twofold feeling of his grandiose
ambition and his invincible power …. The effervescence of his young
blood was then turned into literary passion as happens about the
eighteenth year in precocious souls who find in the energy of style or the
intensities of fiction some way of escaping from the need of violent action
or of intense feeling, which torments them.”

So you can see what the biographers trying to do here…he’s trying to give his own psychoanalysis of Gustave Flaubert and the things that happened in his youth that caused him to get into writing.

Sartre goes on:

“In this passage there is an effort to reduce the complex personality of an
adolescent to a few basic desires, as the chemist reduces compound bodies
to merely a combination of simple bodies. The primitive givens will be
grandiose ambition, the need of violent action and of intense feeling; these
elements, when they enter into combination, produce a permanent
exaltation.”

Listen to that…look at that comparison he draws…we’re trying to break this person down… the same methodical way a chemist reduces compound bodies to merely a combination of simple bodies. He says:

“At each state in the description just quoted, we meet with a hiatus. Why
did ambition and the feeling of his power produce in Flaubert exaltation
rather than tranquil waiting or gloomy impatience? Why did this exaltation
express itself specifically in the need to act violently and feel intensely? Or
rather why does this need make a sudden appearance by spontaneous
generation at the end of the paragraph? And why does this need instead of
seeking to appease itself in acts of violence, by amorous adventures, or in
debauch, choose precisely to satisfy itself symbolically? And why does
Flaubert turn to writing rather than to painting or music for this symbolic
satisfaction; he could just as well not resort to the artistic field at all (there
is also mysticism, for example). “I could have been a great actor,” wrote
Flaubert somewhere. Why did he not try to be one? In a word, we have
understood nothing; we have seen a succession of accidental happenings,
of desire springing forth fully armed, one from the other, with no
possibility for us to grasp their genesis. ”

This… brings us to the end of the story…to the place Sartre is writing his philosophy from. What if this old style of philosophy was severely misguided? What if understanding the universal essences of things isn’t enough to fully understand them? What if we don’t have some consciousness factory up in our heads with these mysterious phenomena that leave us unable to be certain about anything but ideas? What if consciousness and the world are a unified thing fundamentally inseparable?

And when you think about it in that way…what if consciousness…is like shining a flashlight into a dark room revealing only a small portion of what would otherwise be concealed. Except it’s more than that…imagine there was no flashlight causing the light rays. Metaphorically speaking…what if what we are…are the lightrays…revealing a portion of an otherwise dark room? Pure awareness of things in the world…what if the idea that we needed a flashlight or that there was a barrier between us and the world…what if that was an assumption we’d been making all along? And as we prepare for next episode when we’ll talk more of the details of Sartre’s phenomenology and more importantly how it effects how we should look at our selves, our lives and the things we care about…Sartre would want us to consider… what if we are consciousness…and what if consciousness…IS… radical freedom and responsibility. Thank you for listening, I’ll talk to you next time.

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Episode 103 – Sartre and Camus pt. 4 – The Quest For Certainty

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Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980)


On this episode, we take a look at a story from the history of philosophy preparing us to understand the Phenomenology of Sartre. See the full transcript of this episode here.

Sartre (1905–1980) is arguably the best known philosopher of the twentieth century. His indefatigable pursuit of philosophical reflection, literary creativity and, in the second half of his life, active political commitment gained him worldwide renown, if not admiration. He is commonly considered the father of Existentialist philosophy, whose writings set the tone for intellectual life in the decade immediately following the Second World War. Among the many ironies that permeate his life, not the least is the immense popularity of his scandalous public lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism,” delivered to an enthusiastic Parisian crowd October 28, 1945.

Continue reading Episode 103 – Sartre and Camus pt. 4 – The Quest For Certainty

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Episode 102 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #102 on Martin Heidegger. Check out the episode page HERE.

 

So the last couple episodes have been setting the stage for this one. Descartes…whose by no means the only guy responsible for this…but in the sense he’s the Godfather of philosophy proper…in the sense that so many subsequent philosophers commented on his work and responses to his work…you know…in the sense…Heidegger thinks…that he essentially just took a medieval, Dualistic way of looking at being, threw a little pizzazz on it…added some sprinkles and called it Cartesian subjectivity…in that sense Descartes is sort of the poster-boy for this subject/object way of looking at the world and all the assumptions about how to look at things in the world that come along with it.
He took things off the rails…Heidegger thinks…and it eventually led to all kinds of different outcomes…from thinking about ourselves as agents fundamentally separate from being…from treating these entities within nature as merely resources at our disposal as human beings…but one of the most important assumptions…an assumption that may not seem very sinister on the surface…is the assumption… that this realm that we all seemingly navigate…is primarily…just something to be known. The world is something to be known. Our job is to look at the world, examine it, study it…and arrive at knowledge about it. You see this way of thinking all throughout the history of science…you see the history of philosophy filled to the brim… with these elaborate, analytical systems produced by philosopher after philosopher trying to get at the foundation of what grounds knowledge, what makes knowledge possible, how do we use the faculties of our human minds to get to this knowledge about things in the world.
And the cool thing about Heidegger is that he doesn’t have a problem…with this whole process that people are entranced by that they’d call arriving at knowledge about being…he certainly thinks this is one TYPE of way that you can look at a single PIECE of being…but he returns to the question: is this the totality of what being is? Do these facts answer the question: what is being?
Well what IS being, Heidegger? Unfortunately we can’t really science this question away quite yet…I mean, you don’t point the hubble telescope towards the andromeda galaxy… and when you look through it you don’t see some fluffy cloud with a smiley face, Hey Guys, I’m Being! Wanna study? No, so the question becomes…how DO we study being? Well Heidegger thinks because there’s no fluffy smiling cloud, you don’t study Being…you study beings. And again, the best way to do that is not to come at it from an outsiders perspective and ask a question like, “What is a human being?” The better way is to ask the question from a Phenomenological perspective…a question that’s more like: What is it LIKE to be a human being?
Well to begin to answer that question, Heidegger would want us to look at what is unique about our situation as human beings. What is it about the being of a Dasein…that distinguishes it from all the other types of beings out there like rocks or trees or anything else.
There are two… primary features of a Dasein that distinguish it from other beings… and the beautiful thing is that these two things… do this whether that Dasein’s living in 2017 or 1492 or 10,000 BC…here it is a Dasein…Heidegger says is a being that one…”takes it’s own being as an issue.” or takes a particular stance on its being. In other words, a Dasein is fundamentally an ontological being… or the type of being that asks questions about its own existence… and then all the other questions that sort of blossom out of that pursuit…that’s one…and two…is that to be a Dasein…is to be a being constantly engaged in tasks or activities that we care about. Now we’re going to unpack this further…but let’s just talk for a second about this concept of being constantly engaged…you know…just like Husserl and many others talk about consciousness…and they say that there’s no such thing as some neutral, disinterested consciousness floating around out there…that consciousness is always what they call actional and referential…or that consciousness is always doing something and pointing toward something.
For example, throughout the years philosophers have often times looked at consciousness like it’s this empty, container that we sort of fill up with perceptions…you know the theory being that you’re in a room…you engage in the act of analyzing the room around you…your senses pick up information and sort of populate this otherwise empty container of consciouness.
But these phenomenologists realize something as they start to take a closer look at consciousness…they realize that consciousness doesn’t seem to be like an empty container that you fill up with perceptions…it seems to be something that you’re engaged in…that when you’re engaged in the act of analyzing the things in the room around you…your consciousness is always actional…doing something…in this case analyzing…and it’s always referential…or pointing towards something…in this case the things in the room.
Well obviously Heidegger doesn’t believe in this notion of consciousness…but here’s him saying in a similar sort of way…that there’s no such thing as some neutral, disinterested Dasein out there…there’s no human being that’s just completely devoid of intentionality…an empty container…you know backlit at a museum exhibit somewhere for scientists to study what a human being is at its core. No, to be a Dasein is to always be doing something and pointing towards something…more specifically, to be a being that is constantly engaged in tasks or activities that we care about.
This relates back to that notion that the world to Human Beings is NOT primarily something to be known. Heidegger uses the example of a hammer. When we look at a hammer…is our initial experience of that hammer to analyze it and break it down into what elements it’s made out of and how much it weighs and what color it is? No as human beings, our base level experience with a hammer is to look at it as…equipment to be able to carry out tasks. It’s not until, as he says, the hammer breaks…that we start thinking about it in terms of being a separate thing that we can arrive at knowledge about…in other words, we weren’t able to engage in the process of knowing things about that hammer… if we weren’t already, more fundamentally being in what it’s like to be a human being, to be engaged in tasks.
Now if we accept this premise…if we accept the premise that a Dasein is fundamentally an ontological being that is constantly engaged in tasks that it cares about…then what explains the vast chasm of behavioral differences between someone born in 10,000 BC…you know…literally sharpening their teeth with rocks…and someone born in 2017…sharpening the contrast of their pictures on Facebook?
What explains it? After all, we’re both ontological beings…we’re both beings constantly engaged in the world….turns out it comes down to the last part…ontological beings constantly engaged in tasks…that we CARE about.
The things we care about…and the various things that dictate the things we choose to care about, many of which that are ENTIRELY out of our control…this overall concept of “care”…becomes a central focus in Heideggers philosophy. And the way he breaks down what a Dasein ultimately chooses to care about is commonly explained in terms of three major factors, the group of which is sometimes called: The Care Structure.
What a Dasein ultimately chooses to care about comes down to three things: its Facticity, its Fallenness and its Existentiality.
Now understand that when Heidegger uses the word care…he’s not talking about care in the sense that… you know you care about your new born baby or you care for your Grandma Beatrice when she gets the chicken pox…no, when you love something…you care about it. when you hate something…you care about it. when you’re envious of something you care about it. The scope of what Heidegger means by care is much wider than the way we might conventionally use the word…and as we discuss each of these three major things that structure what it is a Dasein cares about and is ultimately going to be constantly engaged in…try to think about how this applies…to you, try to think about how your individual Facticity, Fallenness and Existentiality SHADE what it is that you care about.
So the first one…is a Dasein’s Facticity. Heidegger would say, look…it’s not like before you were born you found yourself on some cosmic game show where you got to pick when and where you were born, who your parents were, how tall you were…no what happened was one day you just found yourself sort of…thrown…into existence. Thrown into a particular historical context, a particular cultural context, a particular socio-economic class, a particular gender…none of these things are things that you explicitly chose…but ALL of these things DRASTICALLY influence the tasks you care about enough to be constantly engaged in.
This collection of things about your individual being that you had no control over…you know, the fact that you are born in 1975…the fact that you have a giant nose that scares small children…the fact that your mom and dad secretly hate eachother and that you grew up in a loveless home…whatever it is that you are…these facts and many others like them individual to you…make up the Facticity of your existence, and again this Facticity strongly influences what things you decide to care about.
For example, for a Dasein living in 10,000 BC…just based on the facticity of that Dasein’s being…there will never be point where that Dasein cares about going down to the local gym and training vigorously for two years, flying to Nepal, climbing to the top of Mt. Everest and taking pictures of how awesome their life is. Now in the same way…for you…just based on the Facticity of your being…there’s never going to be a point in your life where you feel like going out into the woods, covering yourself in mud with nothing but a spear…trying to take down a predatory buffalo or two…just playing the odds here.
Point is: Heidegger would say often times the tasks we decide to be constantly engaged in…have very little to do with us…they’re sort of decided for us by the particular Facticity that we were born into.
So the first one’s Facticity…the second one is Fallenness. Fallenness is one of these concepts…where depending on how you’re interpreting Heidegger…it can be perfectly clear what Heidegger means when he’s talking about it…or it can start to take on a bit of a mystical feel where you GENERALLY get the points he’s making about it but it always feels like there’s some other…more spiritual layer to it where you dont ever fully feel like you’re grasping the entirety of what Heidegger’s getting at…least that’s how it’s always been for me…and in the commentary I’ve read I’ve never seen someone articulate it in any sort of clear way…but again this show isn’t the place to lay out every possible interpretation of Heidegger, so I’ll go with the more common…explanation of Fallenness.
You know…because a fundamental aspect of Dasein is to be engaged in tasks…we’re always being TOWARDS something…and because there’s no Pow Wow where you, your family and your friends all sit around a fire discussing EXACTLY what tasks you’re going to engage in down to the tiniest minutia…as Daseins, as human beings…we sort of fall, into tasks by default. Where do we get this default set of tasks to be engaged in? From other people around us…who tell us how we should be behaving.
You know there’s that quote you see every now and then goes something like: Get a job. Go to work. Get married. Send your kids to school. Follow Fashion. Walk on the Pavement. Save for old age. Obey the law. Now repeat after me: I am free.
Heidegger thinks there’s so many things about our modern, technology focused, consumer driven societies that make it easy for us to just fall into a set of tasks predetermined by how other people tell us to behave. To become not one’s own self a Dasein…but a “theyself” Das Man he calls it…He’s critical of this very modern idea of people being looked at…of human beings…being looked at as primarily…just consumers…consumers of nature…he’s critical of this strange virtue of just living your life…consuming more stuff all around us. He writes in one place:
“The circularity of consumption for the sake of consumption is the sole
procedure which distinctively characterizes the history of a world which has
become an unworld.”

and this whole process of consuming for consumptions sake is sort of being bankrolled by nature, he writes elsewhere:

“Nature becomes a gigantic gasoline station, an energy source for modern
technology and industry.”

What he’s saying is…given the particular Facticity that we were all born into…it’s really easy to just fall… into this role… of being a modern technologically minded consumer…waiting around for the next thing to consume…seeing yourself as separate from the world, separate from nature, this whole way of being by the way… propogated by what Heidegger sees as the most elaborate and powerful propoganda machine in the history of the world: that magic box sitting in your front room. Or that magic screen in your hand that tells you all the stuff you need to be consuming, all the life choices you need to be making…all the tasks you need to be engaged in…as a Dasein.

He writes about it almost explicitly as it being a form of slavery, he says:
“Hourly and daily they are chained to radio and television. … All that with
which modern techniques of communication stimulate, assail, and drive man —
all that is already much closer to man today than his fields around his
farmstead, closer than the sky over the earth, closer than the change from night
to day, closer than the conventions and customs of his village, than the tradition
of his native world.”

Keep in mind Heidegger’s not writing an ethical doctrine when he’s talking about this idea of Fallenness. He’s talking about one part…of the nature of what it is to be a Dasein. Fallenness is an important part of being a Dasein, and while we may not like to admit all the ways that we’re behaving simply because other people have told us to…make no mistake, we’re ALL doing it at varying levels. We’ve all, in a sense, fallen into tasks… as Daseins it’s part of our nature.

So the first thing that has an effect on the tasks we decide to care about was our Facticity, the second thing was our Fallenness, and the last piece of this… care structure… is our Existentiality. Now another way of putting this is to say that the first thing that has an effect is the reality you were thrown into…the second thing is, what other Daseins are already doing around you…and the last thing are the possibilities that you have at your disposal.

The reality of being a Dasein…is to be a being…that has possibilities. What Heidegger’s saying is, look. You are a Dasein. You are a particular kind of being that has possibilities. You’re not a rock…you’re not a tree. You know, a rock can’t just decide one day it’s gonna pack up it’s suitcases and it wants to live at the Grand Canyon cause it’s like Mecca for Rocks. No, a rock is a particular type of being…and you…as a Dasein are ALSO a particular type of being…a type of being that has, by its very nature, possibilities.

Now when you consider these three parts of the care structure, Facticity, Fallenness and Existentiality…when you arrive at this place of realizing how they drastically effect the way you’re going to be behaving…Heidegger thinks at this point you’re left with a choice.

It’s a choice of living a certain way on a giant spectrum between what he calls: Authenticity on one end and Inauthenticity on the other. Now the sort of quintessential example of an Inauthentic person is someone who really only embodies the first two parts of the care structure…their Facticity and Fallenness. They’re thrown into existence and fall into the tasks that other people around them tell them to do, never really considering the possibilities at their disposal about other ways to live their life. Now as you can imagine…the antithesis to that…living Authentically…is to radically consider the possibilities you have and live in a way that brings about what he calls “Dasein’s own potentiality”. To be deeply engaged in asking these ontological questions about being…to examine and understand your own Facticity including…the cultural and historical context you were born into…to realize the tasks that you’ve FALLEN into simply because somebody else told you to do it. To be truly authentic…is to fully embody the statement…”being one’s own”.

Now as you can imagine…this is far from a dichotomy. It’s not like you’re either you know, a mindless drone going on with whatever other people tell you to do…or, Oh! I don’t just go along with what everyone else does…I must be AUTHENTIC! No, we all exist on different points along this spectrum of Authenticity. And even if you’re self aware enough to have corrected some of the things along the way that you realized were just… the way other people told you to act…what most people do… is they get to a point in their life where they feel they’re living Authentically enough…and then they just sort of… stop asking these ontological questions…they stop trying to arrive at a deeper understanding of the culture and time period they were born into…they stop actively examining their behavior trying to identify the things they do just because someone told them to do it…in practice what most of us do…is we arrive at these sort of rest stops on this giant road trip of life…and living out the rest of our lives laregly inauthentically…while telling ourselves stories like, well I’m more authentic than that person over there. And the interesting thing to think about…is that this too…is part of what it is to be a Dasein.

Again, Heidegger’s not writing an ethical doctrine here…he’s talking about the nature of what it is to be us. He never says that living authentically is BETTER than living inauthentically…though you get the sense when you read it…that to live inauthentically is to essentially leave out the entire.. existentiality part of the care structure…you get the sense that when you’re living at one of these authenticity rest stops along the highway, that you’re missing out on basically a third of what it is to be a Dasein.

But anyway, to truly be authentic, to truly be one’s own…is a lifestyle. You don’t dabble…in total authenticity. And Heidegger says what happens when you start living this lifestyle of authenticity…certain things start to happen. When you’re considering possibilities and asking these questions…IF you’re a Dasein like we are immersed in this modern culture…you start to notice… all the symptoms… of us being these modern Daseins immersed in a world 2000 years sick and alienated from being.

You start to see scientific inquiry…you know weighing and measuring and examining things as more like, curiosty than it is actually understanding things. Curiosity vs. Understanding. You start to hear the way people talk to each other…Well, I took timmy down to the pool, we got in the water and would you believe it…there was a flip flop floating in the water. I mean, who is this person? Is there a person walking around the world right now with one flip flop on? That reminds me…the other day at the store…I had a coupon and the machine was just not taking this coupon. This is not a long winded joke by the way…this is actually how a lot of people talk to eachother…and Heidegger thinks when you live authentically…you start to see this sort of conversation as more idle chatter than actual speech… the same way you see science as more curiosity than understanding. Tons of examples of these symptoms of our modern sickness of being…probably the most famous is the distinction he makes between thinking and calculating.

You know…in this modern world…you may be an app developer. And you may go to work day after day making that app, programming, planning, designing, troubleshooting and you may use your brain all day long and people may deeply admire…how you use your brain all day long…you may do all that… and think of yourself as a thinker…you may even say that you think for a living…but Heidegger would say in actuality…you’re not really thinking…you’re doing something different, you’re sort of calculating thing. Again, Heidegger thinks…this calculative type of thinking…is a direct result of modern society and how disconnected we are from being…and as harmless as it may seem on the surface, he thinks this type of thinking could lead to a place where:

“the approaching tide of technological revolution in the atomic age could so
captivate, bewitch, dazzle, and beguile man that calculative thinking may
someday come to be accepted and practiced as the only way of thinking.”

So when you live this truly authentic lifestyle…and you pull yourself out of this process of sitting at a rest stop being authentic enough just engaging in one task after another…you start to see the modern world for what it actually is…a world that is thousands of years disconnected..almost hopelessly disconnected… from being. This is why Heidegger uses so many Greek words throughout his philosophy…he’s returning to these ancient languages that were used to describe aspects of being…before we were so disconnected from being.

So when he looks at the Greek word for technology…Techne…and sees that it means revealing…if I came to your house and you asked me what technology was and I said, mmm technology is revealing…you’d look at me like I was crazy…at the very least like I’m some insecure person that’s trying to sound deep. Heidegger would say, that the reason I sound so crazy is because of how alienated we are from technology as an aspect of being. How convenient, he would say, that when we search for the essence of technology like we did last episode, we realize that technology IS the art of revealing. In other words, by studying these ancient languages Heidegger thinks we can gain an insight into the true essence of various aspects of being.

So living authentically…let’s go back for a second to the road trip example…some people never even leave the house on this road trip of authenticity…most of us find ourselves at various rest stops along the way satisfied with how authentic we are…and the further you travel down this road…the more work you put into being authentic…makes sense…the fewer and fewer people you’re going to see camped out at these rest stops.

Well I’ve got a bit of a problem Heidegger. Where is all of this going? Because as far as I can tell I’m going to keep putting in the work…I’m going to keep heading further and further down this road of authenticity until eventually one day I find myself at a rest stop…and nobodies around me. In fact, nobodies around me for a hundred miles. In other words, what if I continually work on myself I am engaged in these ontological questions, I’m listening to that voice inside of me that tells me that I can be something better, I’m learning about my Facticity and Fallenness…what if I do all that and then one day I look around me…and I feel alone. I look around me and it feels like nobody in the entire world is like me. I put in the work…and now I just see most people as willfully inauthentic Daseins…passively going along with a culture and a historical context that…now that I understand it REALLY is just arbitrary…engaging in rituals and behaviors that they DON”T really understand and aren’t bothered by that…is this really the life that I want Heidegger? To look around and feel alientated from everyone? Why not just camp at one of these rest stops with people that I like and call it a life?

Now I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there…where maybe you don’t feel completely alone…but you can certainly relate to this sentiment, right? Just being the kind of person that seeks out new information or tries to think as clearly and distinctly as you can…there’s probably already moments that you have where the average person weighs in on their thoughts on a particular matter…and it’s some variation of “it is what it is” or they parroting some talking point they heard on TV…and it’s not crazy to think you might feel a little bit alone. Well imagine this taken to the absolute extreme.

You know we can look at this same situation in a Nietzschean way…Nietzsche… huge influence on Heidegger. And if you want the full explanation go back and listen to the episode on Thus Spoke Zarathustra but I feel like most of you will know what I’m talking about when I reference his different stages of development between the Camel the Lion and the Child. We’re all born camels, most people die camels. Beasts of burden told where to go loaded on our backs are all the cultural expectations of how we should be behaving. Then we transform into the Lion…we scream out the great existential NO!…we say NO to these ways of behavior, realize them for what they are, the way everybody else does things, nothing more nothing less. Our goal eventually is to slay the dragon thou shalt, where written on every scale of the dragon is some way that we must be behaving…after slaying that dragon our goal is to transform into the child…or a state of being where we can CREATE our own values CREATE our own meaning…pick and choose which of these cultural norms we want to go along with the point being that now WE chose how to behave, it wasn’t something loaded onto our backs from birth.

And while Nietzsche would no doubt have solutions…you can at least imagine going through this entire transformation… and arriving at the end of it feeling kind of alienated from most people. After all, most people are born and die camels. Once you see them as the passive beasts of burden that they are…mindlessly going along with an arbitrary culture…is it really enough to tell yourself for the rest of your life that I’m just so awesome and so much more transformed that I can’t help but be fulfilled.

Well Heidegger has a solution to this feeling of alienation. Once you arrive at a place of true authenticity, once you ask the ontological questions and understand the Facticity you were born into and the Fallenness all around you…now it’s time to go back. Now it’s time to realize… that a fundamental aspect of what it is to be a Dasein… is to be born into a particular Facticity…more specifically a historicity…a historical context, a cultural context… with rituals and traditions…this is part of what it is to be a Dasein.

Our job at this point… is to re-immerse ourselves within our particular culture or set of traditions, embracing that Facticity, enhancing the whole process by looking at it through this authentic perspective that we’ve developed. If you live in Ancient Athens that means to embrace the legal system and become and olive farmer…if you live in 1930’s Germany, it’s to become a Nazi. Which is exactly what Heidegger did.

There’s some people out there that think Heidegger’s Nazi life should’ve been an entire episode in this series…what he did to Husserl…what he did to other public intellectuals…I don’t know to me it’s always seem like a bit of a fallacy…I mean the ideas either have merit or they don’t I don’t really care much about the mouthpiece they come out of. But I understand the other side too…the guy was a Nazi.

But anyway I want to close out the episode today with one of the most famous ideas from Heidegger’s philosophy. It’s a way of looking at your life that naturally arises out of the process of living authentically…it’s the idea of Being unto Death.

So a fundamental aspect of being a Dasein, and a crucial aspect of living authentically, is the process of looking into the future and considering different possibilities that you have. Well what’s the ultimate possibility that we all have to eventually deal with? We’re all going to die. You’re going to die, I’m going to die. Really think about it…you..listening to this…you are oing to die. Now why is that so weird when I say that? If I was talking to you about something you wanted to do in five years and I asked you, what if you die before you ever get to do that…I would be the weird one for asking. If I was at a Q&A with a WW2 vet and he’s 117 years old sitting on stage and I get up in front of the room and ask, when do you think you’re gonna die? I would be the weirdo.

But death…is a certainty. If you’re living authentically, you realize that it’s an inevitability. What if I brought up some other inevitability of being a Dasein…we’re all eventually gonna be hungry. You’re gonna be hungry I’m gonna be hungry. Why is that not weird to consider? Why is one of those weird to talk about… and the other one sounds like the beginning of an Applebees commercial?

Heidegger thinks… that most people think about death in this disconnected, sort of abstract way…they say, yeah I’m gonna die one day…can’t live forever. But do they ever stop and really consider the weight of that reality. In a strange way we live our lives as though we’re NOT going to die, but is that for the best? Heidegger thinks many modern cultures do everything they CAN to allow us to never have to think about the fact that we’re going to die someday. You’re not supposed to talk about death…it’s a very personal thing…it’s Taboo. When somebody dies that’s the absolute worst thing that ever could have happened to them. We relegate death to these distant buildings called hospitals and morgues so that nobody ever has to stare the reality of it directly in the face.

No we just sort of forget about it…go along with our lives…you go to a party and somebody asks you who are you…tell me about yourself! And what do we say? We say things like I’m an IT Consultant…I’m a psychology student…or I’m a wife or a husband…but are these things really who you are or are these just roles that you play within society? So who are you? Oh, well I’m a good singer…I’m quiet…I’m a handsome man…but aren’t those just roles you play within society too…considering the fact that when you say that someone’s handsome or pretty…all youre really doing is comparing them to how handsome or pretty every other member of society has been that you’ve seen so far. So really…who are you? Oh, well I have values…principles. Who I am is somebody that cares about people…I believe in turning the other cheek…yeah but if you took away those values…you’d ostensibly still be someone, right? If you got fired from your IT job if you got expelled from school…if you got divorced from your wife or your husband, you’d still be someone, right? Who are you really…underneath all this other stuff?

When you truly face death…most of us only do it when we’re on our deathbeds…it’s only in that moment that you think of your life as a whole. It’s so easy to get lost in the every day of just being engaged in task after task that we care about. To think of death as this distant thing that we’ll start thinking about when we’re 80 years old. But truly facing the reality of death, Heidegger thinks, makes us into true individuals. Because when you’re on your deathbed you’re not thinking to yourself, Here is the demise…of an IT consultant…a man who loves chocolate bars. No in the moment of death, you’re given a new perspective…you have a wholistic view of your life…one that can be subdivided into chapters and themes…in the moment of death you don’t think about yourself in terms of the social roles that you played…you don’t think about some job that you had…for the first time you’re thinking about who YOU are…for the first time you’re living for yourself, not spending so much energy trying to get everyone’s approval about who you are. In 1961 in a lecture, somebody raised their hand and asked Heidegger one thing we can do that would help us on our ongoing quest of living with authenticity…and he said back: spend more time in graveyards.

Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.

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Episode 102 – Heidegger pt. 3 – Authenticity

Heidegger_1955

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)


On this episode, we take a look at Martin Heidegger and his concept of Authenticity. See the full transcript of this episode here.

Martin Heidegger was born in Messkirch, Germany, on September 26, 1889. Messkirch was then a quiet, conservative, religious rural town, and as such was a formative influence on Heidegger and his philosophical thought. In 1909 he spent two weeks in the Jesuit order before leaving (probably on health grounds) to study theology at the University of Freiburg. In 1911 he switched subjects, to philosophy. He began teaching at Freiburg in 1915. In 1917 he married Elfride Petri, with whom he had two sons (Jörg and Hermann) and from whom he never parted (although his affair with the philosopher Hannah Arendt, his student at Marburg in the 1920s, is well-known). (source)

Continue reading Episode 102 – Heidegger pt. 3 – Authenticity

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Episode 101 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #101 on Martin Heidegger. Check out the episode page HERE.

So just like last episode, I want to begin today all the way back in antiquity. Back in the days when it all began…the days when Heidegger thinks so many of these wrong ways of looking at…the world…and our existence and so many other things…this is back when the seeds were planted for all of those ideas that eventually got us so far off track.
Now let’s assume for a second… that Heidegger’s right… and that philosophers have been making massive assumptions from the very beginning that have been clouding our ability to see existence clearly…you know…shame on you Descartes…but should we really be shaming Descartes? Should that be our attitude? Looking back, can we really be so disappointed with these thinkers and the conclusions that they arrived at?
Quick thought experiment: put yourself in the open-toed sandals of somebody living all the way back in antiquity. What would that be like? What would it feel like to be a human being back then? When you’re in a thinking mood and you go on a walk… and you look around yourself pondering all things existence. Think of how absolutely chaotic and random the natural world might seem like to you not knowing what we know now. On the other hand, think of how well-ordered and obviously governed… the natural world might seem like to you. You know it’s so easy to conflate our experience of the world in 2017 with theirs in 400 BC…it’s so easy when you try to imagine yourself as someone living back in antiquity to just assume that what it would be like for me to live in ancient Greece…basically the same as my experience of the world right now…except I’d be an olive farmer…or working at one of them gyro stands.
But seriously put yourself in the shoes of Plato and Aristotle for a second…they don’t have encyclopedia Britannica, they don’t have Google when they’re confused about something, they don’t even have Plato and Aristotle. No, what happens is they just find themselves… immersed in this profoundly mysterious, enormously complex framework of existence…of being. So…what do they do about it?
What are you gonna do if you find yourself in this place…sit around and marvel at it the rest of your life? Well what THEY did…is they created these very human methods of being able to make sense of what we’re all experiencing….things like philosophy and science…and over the years up until Heidegger…people have all had pretty much the same sort of strategy…and while on one hand… science is great at making sense of things and helping us feel a little less confused about the universe…but considering that it’s a method created by humans…is it a method of inquiry that’s necessarily…capable of fully understanding this, again, profoundly mysterious, enormously complex thing known as being that we find ourselves in?
Well if the answer to that question’s even potentially no…doesn’t take away the value of science as the best thing we’ve come up with so far…doesn’t inspire vitriol towards Plato or Aristotle or anyone else throughout history that’s used science and philosophy to try to make sense of things. But I’ll tell you what it does inspire…it inspires a thought in Heidegger’s mind…that in the beginning…in a desperate attempt to try to make sense of all the mystery of being…people just did the best thing they could think of…they created things like philosophy and science and conducted these traditional philosophical and scientific experiments…the goal being to try to understand the world around them in this… existence thing that they’re a part of. And they measure things and they find out what this thing’s made of and how it relates to that thing over there and they record the shapes of things and the mass and the volume… and all sorts of other stuff… and then all of that’s combined into an ever-changing, ever-evolving scientific picture of being.
But Heidegger would ask: is there something more to being than just how much something weighs or what velocity it’s traveling..is what were doing truly understanding the totality of being? Or… is this us conferring some cold, mathematical human method of inquiry in a desperate attempt to try to make sense of the mystery out there not unlike a Plato or an Aristotle? Is science really helping us understand being? Or is it just giving us this temporary set of empirical facts that make us FEEL like we understand being more?
Again, love me some science. Nobodies saying we shouldn’t do science, but we have to understand what we’re doing when we conduct science. Science…and philosophy as it’s conventionally been done… have certainly produced useful results in their own way…but in terms of truly understanding existence or being…all they’ve really done to Heidegger…is produce this set of facts… you can tell kids in school that give them this false sense that we’ve come so far in our understanding of being… hey, because look! now we understand how entities relate to each other…in other words Heidegger thinks…science and philosophy… the longer they’ve gone on… have progressively alienated us from that original state where we questioned the true extent of the mystery of being…and they’ve replaced that state with a state of…sort of arrogance clinging on to the rudimentary description of being… that science and traditional philosophy can give us.
You know as we talked about last episode…throughout the history of science and philosophy…existence has pretty much always been looked at as this spatial and temporal realm that we all exist in that’s FULL of entities…entities like buffalo and mountains and nebulae… all spatially and temporally relating to one another…the strategy for understanding existence…was to try to understand everything about… these entities and how they relate to each other.
Now traditionally, to be a human being was to be just another one of these entities in this realm spatially and temporally relating to things…and TRADITIONALLY…this assumption… has raised a lot of questions about this mysterious thing that we often refer to as consciousness…in other words…if what existence is…is just a bunch of spatio-temporal entities relating to each other…where does consciousness fit into that? Is consciousness an entity? Are thoughts entities?
These questions… have been mysteries in science and philosophy from the very beginning…and look, it doesn’t really bother the average person that consciousness doesn’t seem to fit that paradigm…you know it’s easy to tell ourselves…look, scientists are out there…they’re working on it…alright, they’re gonna figure it out eventually…you know, deepak chopra and eckhart tolle are gonna have a baby and it’s gonna solve all the mysteries of the universe…first word’s gonna be quantum. But Heidegger would ask: What if this idea of existence being this realm of entities relating to each other…you know an idea that at one point… it was just some human being coming up with it desperately trying to make sense of things…what if that’s wrong?
See, Heidegger never uses words like consciousness…or subjective experience…because to even use words like consciousness to describe what we have… is to imply that consciousness… is it’s own thing separate from the world…no being and the world are a united thing…dasein…and that if we’re going to try to understand the answer to this question: what is being? Maybe we shouldn’t be trying to come up with an objective, mathematical way of looking at the entities of the world coming at it from an outsiders perspective. Maybe we should approach it from a more insider’s perspective…instead of analyzing entities…maybe…as the famous line goes “We are ourselves the entities to be analyzed.”
Again, instead of asking a question as an outsider like philosophers have always done…asking a question like, “What is a human being?” A more insiders approach…a Phenomenological approach to answering that question would be to ask, “What is it like…to be a human being?” In other words, what is it like to be the being for whom being is an issue at all?
Now this question is much easier asked than answered. We’re all human beings, we all feel like we understand what it’s like to be a human being. But when you ask that question it’s so easy to confuse what it’s like to be a human being with what it’s like to be you. To think it’s asking…you know…what kinds of activities to you like or not like to do…or what do you think right and wrong are?…you know these things that have been culturally conditioned into us since birth that wouldn’t apply to all human beings that have ever lived. Now, make no mistake…understanding that cultural context that you’re born into IS extremely important to Heidegger, we’re going to talk about it next episode…but when you remove the culture…when you remove all the conditioning…what is common about what it’s like to be a human being between someone born today…versus the 1200’s…versus 10000 BC? What is the Dasein that underlies all of the other stuff?
Now an easy assumption to make is to say, ok well the way I live my life right now isn’t tantamount to what it’s like to be a human being…I’m just one iteration of what it’s like to be a human being…but look I’m still a human being…all I gotta do is look at the person from 10,000 BC…find the similarities between us… and I will have arrived at what it’s like to be a human being. But Heidegger thought this was a mistaken way of looking at it because it doesn’t account for the possibility of you being robbed of what it means to be a human being.
Heidegger thought…that there are various aspects of our modern world… that have rendered us… kind of sick at the level of being…not well…and I’m not calling out any particular way of looking at the world or lifestyle or set of behaviors…but you can at least look around at people in the modern world… and you can see that often times the behaviors that people engage in seem to be trying to fill some void that they have…as though they’re not living the sort of life they were intended to live and there’s something missing.
They seem sort of spiritually sick. Most of us seem sick to Heidegger…and because I’m doing this episode in 2017 and not in 10,000 BC…before we even BEGIN trying to talk about the nature of Dasein and what it’s truly like to be a human being…I need to explain to you why Heidegger thinks our modern societies have alienated you… from what it is to be a human being…one of the primary culprits to Heidegger: our immersion into and fixation with Modern Technology.
Few common ways of looking at modern technology that Heidegger wouldn’t agree with…one’s the sort of techno-Jesus attitude of, well we have all these problems as a species…people are killing each other, widespread poverty, ice caps are melting…but you know what? I have faith…there will be a second coming of Steve Jobs…and given enough time technology and the internet will save everything. Heidegger wouldn’t agree, in fact… he’d think that in a weird way…technology’s a co-conspirator when it comes to why we have these problems in the first place. Another common way of looking at technology’s that it’s not inherently bad not inherently good…technology’s sort of this… neutral, disinterested thing that happens and that technology can be used for good or it can be used for evil, our choice..our job’s to try our hardest to make sure it’s used mostly for good. Heidegger wouldn’t agree with that either.
To understand why he doesn’t agree with these outlooks on Modern technology…we have to understand a distinction he makes right there…between technology in general…and MODERN technology.
So I guess the place to start is just to ask the question: what is technology? Well when we think of it we think of iPhones and rocket ships and nuclear power plants…but it really goes all the way back to the very first crude tools that human beings created…Heidegger says the sort of agreed upon definition about what’s similar between technology like the wheel and technology like the computer…is that all technology… is a tool that provides a means to complete some task…and means to some end… usually having to do with human activity. A cup, for example… is a piece of technology…and you can use it as a means to bring about various sorts of ends, most commonly… to drink liquid out of it, but you can do other things too…you can stack things on top of it, you can roll it down the driveway, anything you wanna do with that cup.
In fact if you’re indoors right now…look around you and just consider for a second…practically everything you see at one point… was cutting edge technology. Most of us live our lives completely immersed in this soup of technology without even realizing it…we’re absolutely surrounded by things that are means to bring about some end for us. But that said…important thing to realize: just because a chair’s a tool that provides a means to complete some task… and a computer’s a tool that provides a means to complete some task…that doesn’t mean that they’re the same type of thing.
No, Heidegger thinks there’s something VERY different… about these two types of technology…and while he would agree with that definition… that technology’s a tool that’s a means to carry out some task… that definition may be correct…but it’s not complete… it’s not sufficient…and that to understand why Modern technology… is so different from other technology… and’s ultimately contributing to a sickness we have at the level of being…we have to look deeper…we have to look at what the ESSENCE of technology is.
Heidegger says that where ever you have the notion of something being a means to some end…one presupposition there is the notion of causality. In the case of technology: Something causes some technology to come into being… and that technology’s used as a means to some end.
Now for Heidegger’s next trick: to try to dismantle YET ANOTHER assumption about the world… that seems to stem from the time period of Descartes…if you remember it was right around that time that people largely stopped thinking about causality in terms of Aristotle’s four causes… and started thinking about it only in terms of the efficient cause of things. For example. If there was a cup. Sitting on a table in front of you. And I asked you what is the cause of that cup…the vast, vast majority of us would say…well, it was whoever or whatever made the cup. In other words… we would point to only one of Aristotle’s four causes… the efficient cause… or the thing that brought the cup into being. The other three causes that we’re leaving out would be the material cause, or what the cup’s made of…the formal cause, or the appearance or shape of the cup…and the final cause or the function or purpose the cup was created for…but we don’t really think of these other three causes as…causes…right?
I mean, first and foremost we have the efficient cause…the dude that whittled this cup out of wood. Then in the middle we have these formal and material causes but these aren’t causes…what the cups made of and what form it takes didn’t CAUSE that cup. And then beyond that we have the even MORE distant FINAL cause… which really doesn’t have anything to do with the physical cup at all…it’s just the reason… the efficient cause decided one day to cause this cup to come into existence. But Heidegger would say, hold on…think about what we just said there. If it wasn’t for the final cause…the efficient cause would never have had the slightest motivation to bring this thing into being… in other words…if you weren’t able to drink liquid out of it or stack stuff on top of it or roll it down your driveway…what person…no matter how crazy they are whittling wood in 2017…what person would ever whittle something into the shape of a cup?
Point is, in a strange way…in terms of what caused the cup to be…the final cause starts to seem more important than the efficient cause…but… this isn’t the point Heidegger’s ultimately trying to make…he’s saying that it’s insufficient to only think about that cup in terms of its efficient cause… and that if you look closely at all four of these causes…not only are all of them necessary but there’s an interconnectedness to them…they’re all “responsible” for each-other he says and that in a world before cups ever existed, it wasn’t until… a Dasein conceived of the final cause of a cup… in correspondence with the formal and material causes…it wasn’t until that coalition of four was born… that the idea of a cup… was revealed… as something that can potentially be.
This is an interesting way to think about it. I mean look around you at all the trees, all the metals…all the rocks. Look at this stuff all around you and consider the fact that lying latent within all of these things…lying latent within nature…are seemingly endless potentialities to be revealed. I mean consider the fact that at one point in history in fact the MAJORITY of human history…nobody ever looked at a tree…imagined the final cause of a rolling pin…and then transmuted it into being from the tree. For the vast majority of the time human beings have been looking at trees…the final cause of a wooden rolling pin…wasn’t even on the table…yet at some level… that rolling pin has always been a possibility…at some level the potentiality for a piece of that tree to become a rolling pin… has always been there hidden within nature. Also consider the fact…that in the extremely unlikely event we don’t destroy ourselves in the next 300 years…think of how much more we’re going to be able to do with trees that we have no idea about right now…think of all the possibilities that are latent, hidden within these trees all around us.
Now I chose a tree as an example on purpose…it’s a bit of foreshadowing of what’s to come and let’s be honest…none of you people ever get emotionally attached to rocks…you’re just not as compassionate no matter how delicate of a geode it is…although to Heidegger there is an attachment we should feel with both rocks AND trees all of us united under the common umbrella of being….but anyway, we’ve arrived at the essence of technology in the sense of the Greek word Techne…the essence of technology is revealing…revealing the things in the world that already do exist and can potentially exist in the future…technology is the art of bringing forth… the potentiality of the wooden rolling pin latent within the tree…or bringing forth… the potentiality of the marble statue latent within the giant piece of rock. This is as true of the wheel as it is of the iPhone…but something’s very different about this process of revealing in modern technology.
Heidegger writes:
“The revealing that holds sway in modern technology does not unfold of a bringing forth in the sense of Poiesis.”
Poiesis is a Greek word derived from the term that means “to make”. And the distinction that he’s marking there is he’s saying that for the majority of human history, the relationship between human beings, technology and nature… has been almost like an artisan producing something…it’s a craftsmanship. A Dasein will have certain raw materials…they’ll have a certain final cause in mind…and they’ll arrange or dissect these raw materials in order to bring about a chair or a cup or any new piece of technology. There was a special, personal relationship between Dasein and tree where the tree was looked at in a particular way as a being.
But in the case of modern technology, we’ve fundamentally shifted the way we look at the natural world…when it comes to modern technology…
Heidegger says:
“It’s a challenging…which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such.”
and that Science and technology:
“Sets upon Nature… Agriculture is now the mechanized food industry. Air is now set upon to yield oxygen, the earth to yield uranium… Even the Rhine itself appears to be something at our command … the revealing that rules throughout modern technology has the character of setting upon.”
In other words…Heidegger’s not against modern technology like he’s your grandpa saying in my day you looked a man in the eye when you face timed him…no he’s saying modern technology has fundamentally shifted the way that we look at and ACT UPON the natural world.
Remember at the beginning when we talked about science being something that no question makes the world a much more intelligible and understandable place…but the more we measure and weigh things and understand how entities relate to each-other…the more we have this false sense of understanding of what being is and the more progressively alienated we become to the true mystery of being…modern technology to Heidegger.. can be seen as a natural byproduct of that process. We’ve assigned such a cold, detached value to these other beings like rocks and trees and the oceans…that we don’t even look at them as beings anymore… we look at them as just…objects…that we can study…and manipulate and then exploit for commercial purposes. Technology CHALLENGES nature in a way.
He says:
“The work of the peasant does not challenge the soil of the field.”
And what he’s pointing out is that we used to have a much more respectful, almost symbiotic relationship with the world whereas now we “enframe” the world…that’s the word he uses and it means to look at the natural world only in terms of how much utility it has for human purposes…don’t worry about the soil…question should be how can I process this soil so that it produces the maximum YIELD for me as a human being. The world is valuable only insofar as its valuable to human beings.
We turn the natural world… into what he calls a “standing reserve”…or a sort of back-stock of inventory just sitting there waiting to be used and consumed by human beings. Now you may be saying, well what’s wrong with that? We’re human beings…fact is.. we have to consume nature to survive…whats the problem with having a little extra lying around? Heidegger would say there’s nothing wrong with it…no question a peasant probably has a little extra firewood than they need…it’s the way we’re LOOKING at the natural world that’s the problem…the peasant looks at that additional firewood and sees it as pieces of a tree that bring warmth into their existence…modern technology looks at that tree… and goes, okay is there any way we can grind the tree up, cut it with some baking powder and get 612 IKEA coffee tables out of it instead of only 588? It’s seen MERELY as a resource at our disposal. And while I don’t think Heidegger ever explicitly predicts this happening, you can kind of see where this is going. If were willing to look at the natural world as merely a resource at our disposal…aren’t human beings… a part of the natural world too? Doesn’t this outlook on being get us uncomfortably close to treating human beings as merely an exploited resource? Don’t we see glimmers of this already… when it comes to how some companies view an employees work and production? Is it that crazy to think it might one day extend onto humans beings as people?
This is another example of how the answers to these pointless, completely academic ontological questions about being…have VERY REAL impacts on the way that human beings are treated and engage with the world.
Now when it comes to science and technology being a 2000 year process of alienation…there are of course philosophers who disagree with this. John Dewey, contemporary of Heidegger’s…little bit older than him…he sees the progression of technology not as a process of alienation, but one of LIBERATION! You know, where was your bleeding heart when we were being controlled by NATURE. Remember my grandma’s feet? Black from frostbite? Yeah, rubbing them together really fast didn’t work. Nature did that. Look…the metaphysical reality of nature… is that it can be studied, understood and manipulated for strengthening human potential! That should be exciting to you! Look at how much more we can do! Look at the infant mortality rates! Look at my phone! I have instant contact with practically anyone in the world…I can call my grandma… on thanksgiving…I can have the same disingenuous conversation with her for the four hundredth time…I don’t even gotta get off the couch. That’s incredible…
Heidegger would agree…all that stuff is pretty incredible…he’d agree that technology has liberated us from the shackles of nature…but at what cost? Yeah, technology’s liberated us from nature…but it’s also liberated us from a piece of what it means to be a human being. Not all liberations deserve a statue in their honor.
Heidegger thinks that at our core we are ontological beings…we’re the kind of beings that ask questions about what it means to be or why things are the way they are…we’ve all been there before. We’ve all been out on a walk…stopped…looked at a mountain…or a lamppost or something… and just been smacked in the face by the profound mystery of being. Why things are they way they are…why things exist at all…how we fit into that picture…we’ve all been there.
So let’s return to the example at the beginning of the episode: if you lived in antiquity as opposed to 2017…in fact lets go back even more just to further illustrate the point…if you were a human being born in the year 10,000 BC and you find yourself thrown into this…thing that were all thrown into called being. Your experience of being…in a pre-science, pre-philosophy world…would be MASSIVELY different than your experience of being in 2017.
Think about it…when you’re walking along one day… and you look out at the horizon… and suddenly there’s this giant explosion and lava is spewing everywhere or giant columns of ash are shooting into the sky and blotting out the sun…10,000 BC…you cant just go to google and type in what in God’s name was that? When you’re sitting around and it’s pouring rain…and all of a sudden this giant bolt of electricity shoots down from the heavens and destroys a tree right in front of you and you can smell the ozone. 10,000 BC…You can’t just go down to the library and ask, what did that tree do wrong to deserve that?
In a pre-science, pre-philosophy world…your existence would be a constant face to face encounter with the profound mystery and enormous complexity of being. And faced with that mystery, by default as an ontological being, you would ask these sorts of ontological questions.
Maybe this is what’s missing, maybe this is part of the reason we seem so sick. We’ve forgotten to be engaged in the world and aware of the profound mystery of being that is all around us, constantly, and we’ve replaced it with 2000 years of philosophical speculation and scientific measurements.
Maybe the reason we seem so sick is because instead of seeing ourselves as beings in the world… a world full of other beings that we are fundamentally united with under our common being… a world with deep mystery that goes far beyond mass and volume and velocity and cogito ergo sum…maybe instead of that world we’ve been born into a world that tells us we’re a consciousness…navigating a seemingly disinterested universe…full of entities…entities that are separate from us… objectified entities that we study and manipulate for whatever we humans want to do next. If you’re young and you look at a tree and your confused about some element of it don’t worry…don’t sit there in that confusion don’t go too deep down that ontological rabbit hole…here’s how much it weighs, here’s what color the leaves are and hey here’s a family of trees that we’ve decided it’s a part of! Maybe the way we look at being…changes everything.
Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.

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Episode 101 – Heidegger pt. 2 – Science and Technology

Heidegger_1955

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)


On this episode, we take a look at Martin Heidegger and his views on modern technology and the history of science and philosophy. See the full transcript of this episode here.

Martin Heidegger was born in Messkirch, Germany, on September 26, 1889. Messkirch was then a quiet, conservative, religious rural town, and as such was a formative influence on Heidegger and his philosophical thought. In 1909 he spent two weeks in the Jesuit order before leaving (probably on health grounds) to study theology at the University of Freiburg. In 1911 he switched subjects, to philosophy. He began teaching at Freiburg in 1915. In 1917 he married Elfride Petri, with whom he had two sons (Jörg and Hermann) and from whom he never parted (although his affair with the philosopher Hannah Arendt, his student at Marburg in the 1920s, is well-known). (source)

Continue reading Episode 101 – Heidegger pt. 2 – Science and Technology

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Episode 100 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #100 on Martin Heidegger. Check out the episode page HERE.

 

April 14, 2017

 

Philosophize This!
with Stephen West

 

Episode 100: Heidegger Pt. 1

 

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Hello everyone! I’m Stephen West. This is Philosophize This! Thank to you to all the people that support the show on Patreon. Thank you to the people who go through the Amazon banner.

 

By the way, if you are one of the people who’ve had trouble with your browser and the link to banner on the website, I finally got tired of waiting for the web person to fix it and I just paid somebody else to fix it. So, it’s back up. Now, look, I understand, the Amazon banner’s down. Things can get a little lonely for ya. Look, I get it. You may have been hanging out with some of the other Amazon banners in the interim. I get it. But ya know what? I’m back now. And I’m not leaving you again. It’s time to come home!

 

Thank you again. I hope you love the show today.

 

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So I want to begin the episode today by telling you all a very famous story from the history of philosophy. It’s an old story, passed down from generation after generation, from one philosopher to another. And here I am today passing it on to you. It’s a story about a day way back in antiquity, in Athens.

 

Plato and his fellow philosophers are all sitting around talking about stuff, as they normally would, questioning the definitions of things–popular thing to do if you’re a philosopher back then. I mean, afterall, how can you ever philosophize about something meaningfully if you don’t have a solid grasp on the definition of the thing? Now the topic of this particular day’s discussion was the question, “What is a human being?”

 

What does it mean to be a human being?

How can we define that?

 

Well, they sit around, they talk about it for a while, throw some theories around, and eventually they come to a conclusion that they’re all pretty satisfied with. Sitting there, nodding at each other, “Mmm, yes! Yes! Jolly good!”

 

Their answer to this question was, “A human being is a bipedal animal that doesn’t have feathers.” After all, an ostrich has feathers; a toucan has feathers. A human being seems to be the bipedal animal that doesn’t have feathers. So they’re all sittin’ around patting each other on the back, loving this definition, soaking in the glory, when all of a sudden Diogenes the cynic bursts in the door with a chicken he’s just plucked and he says “Hey everyone, look! I present to you a human being!” Everybody starts screaming.

 

[laughs] Diogenes, I miss that guy. Remember he’s kind of a character from this whole time, lived in a tub. Alexander the Great famously took a liking to him. Says to him, “You know what? If I were not Alexander, then I would want to be Diogenes.” Diogenes says back to him, “Ya know, if I were not Diogenes, I would also want to be Diogenes!” Anyway this whole story depicts one of the first times philosophers started asking questions in what would eventually become a massive branch of philosophy known as ontology.

 

Ontology is the branch of philosophy that would ask the kind of question “What does it mean to be a human being?” Not just that though, ontology would ask, What does it mean to be a thing at all? What is existence? What does it mean for something to be? At what point does something exist, versus not exist?

 

For example, let’s say one day you want down to the petting zoo, you met a goat there, and you fed it some alfalfa pellets. Now there’s a lot of people out there that would look at that goat, and they would take the existence of that goat to be a self-evident thing: It exists. And, for the sake of the discussion today, let’s just say fine, that goat definitely exists. It is!  

 

But then ontology steps in. What does it even mean to exist? What do we mean when we say that something exists? What criteria do we use?

 

This leads to other questions: What is the nature of existence itself? Is existence a property of that goat? This leaves even more questions: What foundation if there een is one makes it possible for that goat to exist in the first place? These are examples of common ontological questions. But even this is far from the end of ontology.

 

Like how ‘bout this: What if you leave the petting zoo, and later on you’re thinking about that goat. Ya know, what if you really like thinking about this goat? What if you fell in love with this goat? And now, gosh darnit, you’re daydreaming about it all the time. No matter what you do you can’t get that goat out of your head. Now, would you say that that thought about that goat exists? When you’re no longer having the thought, does it not exist anymore?  Are thoughts just patterns of, ya know, fleeting electrochemical activity? Or do thoughts exist as beings in the same way that a goat is a being, or a rock is a being?

 

I mean, think about it. What really is the difference between that thought and that goat? You may say, “Okay, well, they’re different to me, because I know one’s just a thought and that it’s not real.” Okay, well what if you took PCP, and you hallucinated that you and the goat ran off to Vegas together to get married, and when you’re walking down the aisle with that goat it feels as real to you in that moment as it did back at the petting zoo? Question is: When you eventually stop hallucinating, and you’re hearkening back to your memory of your honeymoon in Guam with your new goat companion, can that whole experience be said to have existed in some capacity?

 

We’ve all been here before. Not the goat. We’ve all been up in our heads asking these kinds of questions about what constitutes something existing or not. And philosophers all throughout history have been here as well, in this field of ontology.

 

Now, there’s definitely some of you out there that hear these sorts of questions being asked, and they just don’t really do much for you: “Look, I love learning about the existentialists and their approach to life. I love learning about the Nicomachean ethics, that’s interesting. But ultimately, I like learning about philosophy that’s actually going to enrich things in my life. What possible benefit can I get from waxing poetic about whether this hypothetical goat exists or not?  Look, personally, it’s this weird thing about me–I like to learn about stuff that’s actually going to be important to me.”

 

Well the guy we’re going to be talking about today thought that these ontological questions are not only important, they are the most important and simultaneously the most neglected questions in the history of philosophy! His name is Martin Heidegger, and for me to explain to you why he thinks these questions are so important, it’s going to take an entire series. But! I promise you, by the end of it, you won’t just have these obscure questions to think about. You’ll have an approach to life that he lays out that some consider to be the greatest existentialist approach to life ever produced.

 

But, the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step!

Question is, where do you put that foot first?

 

It makes sense to me to begin where Heidegger began, at the beginning of his career. Because to understand where he’s coming from with all these innovations in the area of ontology, we have to understand the revolutionary method that was invented by his teacher, a guy that couldn’t’ve cared less about ontology. His name was Edmund Husserl, and his revolutionary method that he invented was called phenomenology.

 

Husserl was like a mad scientist. This mad scientist that emerges at the beginning of the twentieth century just wreaking havoc on everything in philosophy. I guess technically that makes him a mad philosopher. But make no mistake! He is to philosophy and traditional philosophers what a mad scientist would be a science and traditional scientists. He’s like a mad scientist because–Yes, he still gets dressed up in the lab coat, he still conducts experiments. But they’re not the same kinds of experiments that a traditional scientist would conduct. He’s conducting these experiments in this bizarre place deep within his own mind; almost like his own personal underground lair. And, I guess most of all, he’s not doing these experiments for the same reasons a normal scientist would be doing them.

 

One of the things I love most about Edmund Husserl–just as a character within philosophy–is the way that he approaches his work. He’s not concerned with things like what is the meaning of my life, or how we should be behaving, or what the best form of government is. No, Husserl is a mathematician turned philosopher. And, while he thinks ultimately his work is gonna go on to give answers to these kinds of questions, he’s personally interested in one thing and one thing alone in his work: Certainty.

 

See, Husserl noticed something. He noticed, all these philosophers throughout history, trying to find a way to get objective truth about things–Yeah, how’s that going for you guys? I haven’t checked-in in a while. How you guys doing over there?

 

He realized that they all have basically the same strategy for doing this. They all come up with their own unique, creative ways of looking at the world in a slightly different way then the last guy did; the goal being to correct the assumptions of the past and get us a little bit closer to certainty. But maybe their lack of success can be explained by the fact that their strategy for accomplishing this massive task has been wrong from the very beginning. Maybe instead of looking at the world differently, we should be looking differently at the way that we look at the world.

 

Here’s where he’s coming from. Remember Kant? Remember Hume? Remember talking about how we get to our human experience of the world? The senses pick up a flurry of seemingly random, raw phenomena that, by themselves would be pretty chaotic, but we filter those phen through various mental faculties, categories of the mind that help us categorize and make sense of them. Things like space, time, cause-and-effect, many others. This is what makes up our subjective human experience.

 

Well, one thing’s for sure, if you’re Husserl: If we ever arrived at something method that does give us objective truth about things, it’s ultimately going to have to be filtered through this very narrow, subjective human experience that we have. Husserl’s method of phenomenology, is not about looking at the world differently–it’s not about looking at the world at all, necessarily. It’s about taking an exhaustively close look at the lens that these objects of our experience are always seen through: Human consciousness, or our subjective experience of the world.

 

Phenomenology is a method, designed to better understand the underlying structure of human thought; the hoping that we can, one day, not just merely have an understanding of these objects and our thinking that we typically call the world–the strategy of so many philosophers before him–but instead, maybe we can arrive at certainty about these raw phenomena and how they relate to each other by understanding all of the ways that our human experience of the world distorts reality.  

 

[9:45] In other words, all these philosophers over the years have tried to arrive at objectivity by sitting on the sidelines, approaching it like they’re some objective third party looking at the world. But human experience is not objective. Here’s Husserl saying that you’re never going to be able to arrive at certainty about anything unless you have a much deeper understanding of that subjective lens that you’re looking at everything through.

 

The big maxim here that I like to underscore, the question central to phenomenology that’s going to help us understand why Heidegger did what he did, is the question: Is it possible that we’re so familiar with this daily process of just perceiving the world that that familiarity is clouding our ability to see the world clearly?

 

Now, thinking about that possibility is not really the default state we find ourselves in as human beings. Right? I mean, most of us don’t sit around thinking about the underlying structure of human thought. We just think about stuff. Most of us aren’t searching for the objective truth about things, like a philosopher would. We just sort of have beliefs. If they work, they work. If they don’t, well, what really happens as a consequence of them not working? What, you go into your thinking closet and turn off all the lights. “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” And then what happens? You emerge from the closet and revise your beliefs into another flawed interpretation of the world and go on about your life until you have to revise them again.

 

This whole idea of just sort of blindly accepting from birth that there’s this other world out there, separate from us; that it’s our job to uncover the truth about that world by reading more books and having more conversations and many other base assumptions that go along with this deeply flawed attitude that we seem to have of taking so many things for granted–this whole approach is what Husserl refers to has the natural attitude. This is where most people spend their entire lives. But, it’s not a death sentence, don’t worry. Husserl thinks it is possible to develop over time a phenomenological attitude of the world.

 

We can do this by suspending our belief in the natural attitude. He calls it bracketing. The main point is to recognize the natural attitude for what it truly is. It’s a belief. A set of beliefs. He’s not saying to not believe the natural attitude. He’s just saying, Put it in check for a bit, and recognize that this default state, this natural attitude, might not be the only way of looking at things. And realize the very serious possibility that this might be an area where we’re coming to the table with a lot of assumptions about beforehand. This is where Husserl starts to sound like a mad scientist, right? This is where his hair starts to stick up like he’s Bozo the Clown.

 

Husserl thinks that when you start to examine the natural attitude closely enough, you start to see a lot of biases and assumptions. Assumptions that stem from the way the human mind categorizes and makes sense of everything. When you find these biases, he’s a fan of noticing them, acknowledging them, and then marking them with a sort of philosophical reflector tape, to help draw attention to them the next time you’re thinking about things. He says you do this for two reasons:

 

  1. You’re much less likely to make the same sort of natural attitude mistake the next time;
  2. When you start to get enough of this philosophical reflector tape cordoning off areas of these raw phenomena into different portions of thought in your mind that we’re trying to look at… Eventually what happens is the reflector tape starts to show a pattern. It starts to show you the boundary of where the natural attitude ends, and the raw phenomena begin.

 

It’s inside of these cordoned off areas, Husserl thinks, that we can more closely focus on the stuff that we’re really concerned with: the aspects of our experience that are necessary and unchanging. In other words, the essence of our experiences, devoid of all the value judgements we place on experience after the fact.

 

Now, when you’re in this place, deep within your own mind… When you’re in the lair of the mad scientist… there many methods Husserl uses to try to arrive at the essence of any given human experience. I can’t really go through all of them here, but I do want to talk about one of them, because I want you to feel this strange world that Husserl’s operating within when he does his philosophy. This bizarre method he’s using to arrive at certainty that would eventually go on to deeply influence Heidegger and the way that he conducts his work. One tactic is called using an eidetic reduction.

 

[15:0] An eidetic reduction is just one type of strategy Husserl would use to try to arrive at what the essence is of any given experience. Now how do we search for the essence of a human experience? Well, we’ve searched for the essences of things on the show before, right? We just did it with objects, not human experiences like Husserl’s doing.

 

Let’s talk about the process: Famous example passed down from Descartes is to try to find the essence of a piece of wax. You can imagine in front of you a red, cylindrical piece of wax sitting on a table. Now let’s break it down. What is the essence of a piece of wax? Well, this particular piece of wax has certain properties, right? It’s red. It’s cylindrical in shape. It may be shiny. He could’ve just bought it at the store. Then again, it may not be shiny. It could be one of those Korean War surplus candles your grandma has up in her attic. This wax has a certain way that it smells, it has a certain way that it tastes. But are any of these properties necessary and invariable–two words that are incredibly important in phenomenology–necessary and invariable components of that wax?

 

Well, we can take away the redness. Still could be a piece of wax without being red, right? The wax could smell different and it could still be a piece of wax, right? I mean, what if it wasn’t a gift to your grandma from General Douglas MacArthur? Still would be a piece of wax, it just wouldn’t smell like the 1950s. You could apply heat to the wax and it would melt down into a shape that wasn’t a cylinder anymore; it still would be wax. To find the necessary and invariable components of this wax is to find the essence of the wax.

 

An eidetic reduction is a particular technique where you use something known as imaginary variation, where the act of creatively varying different components of something, say, the wax, in order to get closer to those necessary and invariable components. For example, asking questions like, What if the wax was blue? Still’s a piece of wax. What if the wax smelled like a gingerbread man? Still wax. What if the wax was made of water? Okay there! Stop! Something changed there about the wax. Now it doesn’t appear to be wax. Now can we try to figure out what specifically needs to be replaced for it to be classified as wax again? I.e. The necessary and invariable components.

 

Now imagine conducting this whole process not on the piece of wax, something we’re all very familiar with. Imagine conducting it on an experience that human beings have. And instead of considering things like color and shape and how it smells–things, again, we’re all very familiar with changing–imagine the equivalent are the ways that your brain organizes and makes sense of that experience. You imagine that, and you can get a rough idea of this strange, mind-bending world that people like Husserl and Heidegger used to operate within. (And you can definitely get an idea of why it would take an entire series to fully explain what Husserl thinks he’s doing here.)

 

But all that doesn’t matter.

 

All that doesn’t matter. All you need to know to be able to understand where Heidegger’s coming from are the basics of this newly, introspective way of approaching philosophy and phenomenology. Keyword: Introspective. Again, instead of trying to find a new, creative way of looking at the objects of our experience, like so many philosophers have done in the past, instead, let’s take a deeper look at what that experience is at its most fundamental level.

 

But along comes Heidegger, student of Edmund Husserl, who begins his career a card-carrying phenomenologist. It’s right here that he sees phenomenology eventually running into a lot of very serious problems.

 

First of all, what exactly is it that you’re trying to do, phenomenology? You’re trying to get an exhaustive understanding of the structures of human thought? You’re gonna arrive at the structures of human thought? Heidegger thought, isn’t that kind of an extension of a mistake philosophers have been making all throughout history? Like David Hume. When David Hume writes An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, who really is to say that if David Hume lived for another few years, and could publish another book, this one called An Enquiry Concerning Squirrel Understanding, or Raccoon Understanding, who’s to say that it wouldn’t have been the exact same book? In other words, how can we know for sure that the underlying structure of human thought is not the underlying structure of mammalian thought? Or all conscious thought, for that matter?  

 

And it goes the other way too! What are we using to be able to arrive at these conclusions about the architecture of human thought? Oh yeah, our subjective experience of the world. Let’s say we arrived at a conclusion. How can we ever say that we’re positive that this is the way every human being that’s ever gonna live structures their thought? Or even every human being that’s alive today for that matter? I mean, is it that inconceivable to think that maybe something like your level of intellect effects the structure of your thought? Or, even the culture that you were born into, or the values that you possess? Is it crazy to think that those might have a drastic effect?

 

Now, if these weren’t problems enough, Heidegger thinks there’s an even bigger mistake Husserl’s making, and that, even though he’s an undeniable brilliant thinker, and recognized a mistake that so many philosophers have made in the past–Even though he recognized the fact that we shouldn’t be caring so much about the objects of the world before we have a true understanding of the lens that we view those objects through–Heidegger thought there was something massive Husserl himself was overlooking. Husserl may have understood what underlies the objects of our experience, but what underlies the ability to be able to study the structures of human thought at all? Existence.

 

What does it mean to exist?

What does it mean to be a human being?

These ontological question we were talking about.

 

Heidegger realized the answers to these questions drastically inform these other two areas that philosophers engage in. Like just imagine for a second, if every philosopher we’ve ever talked about on this show wrote their work from the ontological perspective of Plato and his buddies that we talked about at the beginning of the episode. Like, what would Kant’s work look like, if he just blindly asusmed from the beginning that a human being is just a bipedal animal with no feathers? What if there was no Diogenes to embarrass everyone and keep the conversation going with a plucked chicken?

 

No question about it, things would look very different.

 

Now, when Heidegger takes a look at the history of ontology in the western canon of philosophy, of course there’s variation among the philosophers, but he notices something. On one issue in particular, there seems to be this mutual consensus among practically every philosopher that’s ever lived, and man does a consensus like that start to look rather suspicious to Heidegger.

 

This concept goes way beyond philosophy, by the way. I mean, if you’re somebody that’s interested in making novel social commentary, or even just being the person at the party that has the most interesting take on the world, here’s a tip from your Uncle Steve: You don’t want to focus your time studying the things that everybody’s arguing about. No, don’t do that. You want to focus your time studying the things that everybody pretty much agrees on. Because, it’s in those areas that people’s ideas are the least challenged.

 

I mean, everybody knows their position on abortion and why they feel that way about it. But it’s when you start to ask questions that people tend to agree on, like, Why do you structure your relationships the way you do? Or, Why does this never-ending task of finding somebody to love you seem to be an imperative in your life? These are the kind of questions that create progress in our understanding of the world. The questions you never think about. Because, what happens is, you and your group of friends all agree on X, Y and Z, so you end up never really examining your beliefs that much about X, Y and Z. I’m talking about the beliefs that we just sort of off-handedly spout off at a party not even really thinking about it, because people around us all just hold their red cups and smile and nod in agreement. Well guess what, folks? Heidegger’s throwing a party. And practically every philosopher that’s ever lived is on the guest list right now, smiling and nodding at each other about a certain ontological bedrock that they’re all built their systems on top of. And Heidegger’s here to stop smiling and nodding.

 

What is it to be a human being?

 

It’s always been some variation of generally the same thing: We’re a rational animal, a conscious agent, temporarily and restlessly navigating this realm, this external world that’s existed for billions of years and will continue to exist with or without us. [22:50]  Now, it just so happens that in this realm, having a more comprehensive understanding of this external world leads to a lot of very real benefits. So, philosophers traditionally, from Descartes to Locke to Kant all the way up to Husserl, they’ve all dedicated a considerable amount of time to trying to understand this external world.

 

But what if this whole idea, this idea that we’re this human being thing, this conscious agent navigating this realm that’s separate from us, this subject-and-object relationship that exists–What if that’s been a giant assumption philosophers have been making from practically the very beginning? What if that’s the case?

 

Heidegger thinks, Yeah, that’s weird, people all seem to be agreeing on that. So he goes back and he looks at all the arguments people give to justify this sort of ontological position. People like Descartes, for example.

 

Descartes, we all know the story, tries to doubt everything he possibly can about his existence, and he famously arrives at the conclusion that although you can initially doubt pretty much everything about the existence of the external world, one thing is for certain by virtue of the fact that I’m thinking: I am a thinking thing, of some sort. That’s the fundamental thing that you can know about your existence, that he’s going to use as a foundation for his entire philosophical system.

 

But Heidegger says, No, hold on a second, Descartes. You skipped over something massively important there. The first thing you experience about your existence is not that you’re a thinking thing. To even be able to make an abstraction like that about what you are presupposes that something has to come before that. No, the actual first experience that you have when you exist is just, sort of, being there. Like, “Here I am, guys. Existing. Being there.”

 

Heidegger has a word he uses to describe this state: dasein. Now, the literal German translation of dasein is “being there.” Though, it should be said, Heidegger creates a lot of words all throughout his philosophy. And he’s not doing it because he gets some creepy pleasure from people using the words he invented. He’s creating words because he’s literally talking about things that no person has ever talked about before, and he doesn’t want the biases and connotations that come along with conventional words to cloud people’s understanding of the concepts he’s talking about.

 

That said, even with something as simple as the concept of dasein, so many different interpretations of Heidegger’s work. And I think my job here is not to lay out every possible interpretation of Heidegger in existence, it’s to hopefully pique your interest about his ideas enough that you go on to read more, and have your own interpretation of his work.

 

Anyway, this concept: Dasein: being there. Existence. Here’s where he departs from all the other philosophers. See, because Husserl makes a claim that he’s studying the underlying structure of thought we use to experience this world that’s separate from us. But Heidegger thought, What if this whole notion that we’re subjects navigating objects, that we’re conscious agents navigating an external world, what if that’s wrong? Afterall, our experience of the world before we even arrive at an idea–like that we’re a thinking thing navigating something–is just, being there? Dasein? Being, in the world?

 

Well how ‘bout this idea guys? What if being and the world are a united thing? That being can’t exist without the world, and the world can’t exist without being? In the English translations of Heidegger, being-in-the-world is hyphenated together, because he sees these two concepts as fundamentally inseparable.

 

This is an odd thing to consider at first for a lot of people. But, just like in phenomenology, where we become so familiar with perceiving the world every day that it’s inhibiting our ability to see it clearly, is it possible that we’ve become so familiar with being that that familiarity clouds our ability to see it clearly, too?

 

See, to even try to begin to describe this concept Heidegger’s talking about while using western languages, that’s an uphill battle in its own right because the way our languages typically structure sentences are in terms of subjects acting upon objects! That’s how deep this goes. In fact, Heidegger, in his later work, actually advocates poetry as the best form of communication. Not these sentences that continually reinforce this distorted, subject-object false dichotomy.

 

These sentences reinforce the idea that being-in-the-world is existing within some spatial dimension that’s separate from us.

 

Heidegger often talks about the overemphasis so many people place on the idea of something spatially being. What if being-in-the-world is not being within a spatial context, what if it’s more like being in love? Being in love is it’s own thing, right? Maybe being and the world are inseparable from each other for them to be what it is.

Being is something that we’re engaged in.

 

When you remove the languages, when you remove the intuition, when you look at being in a phenomenological way, this is what you find: Being is something that we’re engaged in. Being is something that we’re all engaged in: every person, every animal, every tree, every rock. We’re all united under this larger umbrella of being. We’re all on the same team. And Heidegger thinks we should think about it that way. (#TeamBeing, people!)  

 

Now, if this is kind of tough to wrap your mind around, don’t worry. More explanation next episode. We’re going to talk a lot more about what it means to be beings engaged in a world as such. But just know this: I’ve talked to a lot of people about Heidegger. Lots of fans of philosophy all the way up to philosophy professors. And a common experience people have when they first hear about this concept of dasein, is they have this sort of strange moment where they think, How in the world did nobody ever think of this before? And what’s even more interesting to think about it is, what if Being and Time–Heidegger’s primary work early in his life, where he lays out these ideas–what if that was the magnum opus of Thales? What if this was the initial ontological starting point that philosophy began on? How different would philospohy look today? How different would the world look today?

 

How different would the world look today?

 

That’s a nice segue, I guess, because if this series is me ultimately trying to convey why Heidegger thinks these ontological questions are so important, that question sort of brings me to the first point Heidegger would make about these kinds of questions. It’s so easy for us as individuals–as individuals that don’t write philosophical treatises, but just people that look to philosophy as a practical guide to life and how to think more clearly–it’s so easy for us to think of these questions–like, What does it mean to be? What does it mean to be a human?–as again sort of these redundant self-indulgent exercises, right?

 

Like, short of you being a professor that’s going through some sort of Rocky style training to become the most obscure and unrelatable professor on the face of the planet, why would you ask these questions? Why not ask some real questions? Why not ask questions like, How do we get the ice caps to stop melting? Or, How do we fix widespread poverty? Or, How do we get people to stop killing each other? Real questions!

 

Heidegger would say, those are all really great questions to ask. But, are we sabotaging our ability to ever be able to arrive at an accurate answer to any of them by ignoring questions that make those questions even possible? Not only that, but is it our lack of answers to these ontological questions that’s responsible for creating all those problems in the first place?

 

The state of the world is contingent upon the state of human thought that came before it. When you really consider that, again, think about how much changes about, for example, Nietzsche’s philosophy, if he spends his entire career with the ontological outlook that we are agents of God’s will. Think of how much changes about every single question he thinks is worth asking, and every answer he thinks is reasonable. Think about how much changes about the political philosophy of John Locke, if, for his entire career he holds the ontological position that a human being is a featherless, bipedal animal.

 

See, because Heidegger would point out that whether you’re asking geological questions about rocky beings or anthropological questions about cultural beings, or scientific questions about scientific beings, we’re all ultimately asking questions about beings. And that, maybe, if we took a closer look at these seemingly meaningless questions, and we all understood what it means to be a human being a little bit better, maybe we’d better understand why we have these sorts of problems. Or even, whether they’re problems at all.

 

Thank you for listening, I’ll talk to you next time.   

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Episode 100 – Heidegger pt. 1 – Phenomenology and Dasein

Heidegger_1955

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)


On this episode, we take a look at Martin Heidegger and his concept of Dasein. See the full transcript of this episode here.

Martin Heidegger was born in Messkirch, Germany, on September 26, 1889. Messkirch was then a quiet, conservative, religious rural town, and as such was a formative influence on Heidegger and his philosophical thought. In 1909 he spent two weeks in the Jesuit order before leaving (probably on health grounds) to study theology at the University of Freiburg. In 1911 he switched subjects, to philosophy. He began teaching at Freiburg in 1915. In 1917 he married Elfride Petri, with whom he had two sons (Jörg and Hermann) and from whom he never parted (although his affair with the philosopher Hannah Arendt, his student at Marburg in the 1920s, is well-known). (source)

Continue reading Episode 100 – Heidegger pt. 1 – Phenomenology and Dasein

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Episode 99 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #099 on Arthur Schopenhauer. Check out the episode page HERE.

So last episode Schopenhauer presented us with a picture…a picture of what he thinks is the metaphysical reality that we all navigate. Turns out it’s a pretty grim picture…scary picture…not exactly the kind of picture you’re gonna be posting up on Instagram. …uh…I mean, you have a bad picture on Instagram it’s easy…you just put 18 filters on it until it looks halfway decent. There’s no filter that fixes this picture…you can have the worlds greatest filter…you can have that one that superimposes bunny ears on everyone…you’re not posting this picture…look, if you post this picture you’re getting three likes…your mom, your dad and some 80 year old dude that liked it by accident. I mean, think of what Schopenhauer is saying!
Although things appear to be separate in our human experience of the world, the reality is we are all manifestations of a single thing, a force, that he calls the will to life. We exist in this realm… with a subconscious motor constantly driving us forward where… the only way TO move forward… is to interfere with or destroy the other manifestations of this force that surround us. As I said last episode: We’re condemned to a life of neurotically, restlessly striving for things…and we’re forced to self-mutilate just for the luxury of being able to continue restlessly striving for things. This is the picture of your life. And Schopenhauer thought…many of us may tell ourselves a story…we may even put our very own Instagram filter, or 10 filters on this life to try to make that picture look better to us…but the reality is, figuratively speaking…you do have dark circles under your eyes, your skin DOES look disgusting in that picture and the whites of your eyes do look like you have jaundice. It’s a bad picture.
Speaking from personal experience there…anyway so Schopenhauer paints this picture of our lives…but we haven’t heard much about what he thinks this means in terms of how we should be behaving…and I think a good place to start is to take a look at how most of us typically behave…talk about why Schopenhauer THINKS we behave this way…and then talk about what he thinks is the greatest way to live. So let’s do it!
Schopenhauer thinks that because we’re all manifestations of this will to life…from the moment we come out of the womb…we’re in this constant state of restlessly striving for things. Now it’s one thing to speak about it with generalities…but in practice…what does this restless striving for things actually look like in our everyday experience of the world? Well the good news is: everybody listening to this can relate…because everybody listening to this is currently restlessly striving for something…and if you’re somebody out there that DOESN’T think you are…you know that guy…look even if you’re some monk listening to this on top of a mountain while you dust off the giant Buddha statue, extend an olive branch…you can at least look around you and relate to the fact that people don’t spend their lives in some perpetual state of contentment. No, human beings live their lives moving from one state of discontent to the next.
This is nothing new…we’ve talked about it several times on this show before. Everybody listening to this currently wants something that they don’t have…and MOST people listening to this tell themselves a story, maybe not consciously it’s not like a mantra you’re repeating to yourself everyday…but at some level most of us believe that once we get enough things that we want… or we achieve some level of status in the world…then I’m gonna be satisfied. Then I’m going to be happy and just live out the rest of my days smiling constantly…you’re gonna have a six-pack on your cheeks because you never stop smiling.
There’s almost endless possibilities of how human beings engage in this behavior. Some people do it with material possessions…once I get my dream car…I’m done. I’m just gonna spend the rest of my life driving around in my car waving at people…that will be my legacy…once I complete my extensive collection of Star Wars memorabilia…I’m just gonna sit around…the rest of my life looking at it saying things to myself like well, would you look at that. People do it with jobs, friends, romantic relationships, weight loss goals, Twitter followers…people will do it where they’ll close their eyes…and they’ll imagine the best version of themselves they can imagine…and they’ll say if only I can get rid of these bad habits that I have and replace them with this ideal collection of good habits…then I’m going to be totally satisfied with the person I am. Once I get to that point, I will be so proud of what I’ve accomplished… I won’t ever feel the need to improve anything ever again.
But what actually happens? Again, it’s nothing new, but what actually happens is you get the dream car…yeah…you ride around in it smiling and waving at people for a couple weeks…but then it just becomes…your car at a certain point. Then inevitably…there’s something else that you’re desiring every day. You improve things about yourself as a person… and yeah you feel proud for a couple weeks…and then inevitably…there’s something else you want to improve about yourself. You could have it all…you could have used your brains, cleverness, pattern recognition, relentless hard work and you could have killed it in the private sector…sitting out on your yacht with a glass of chardonnay just gazing out at the world that you essentially just conquered. But is it enough to essentially conquer the world…no…at that point you have to run for president and ACTUALLY conquer the world. This is what we are as human beings to Schopenhauer…manifestations of this will to life… that are constantly restlessly striving for things in a perpetual state of discontent.
Schopenhauer compares it to running through a sunny field…there’s sunlight all around you, but there is a single dark cloud in the sky that is hanging directly over your head. You can see sunlight in every direction…you can see happiness…it seems within reach, but no matter how fast you run this dark cloud is going to follow you around and you’re never actually get to the sunlight. This is what it means to be a human being in our default state to Schopenhauer.
Now some of you may be asking really Schopenhauer? Nobody ever gets to touch that sunlight? Even for a very brief period of time? I mean maybe you’re right that I just have these goals that I’m restlessly striving for that are never going to bring me long term happiness…but the fact is…when I get my dream car…I really DO feel great for a couple weeks. Aren’t I experiencing happiness for whatever little amount of time I can in that scenario?
Schopenhauer would say no, you’re not…look, your default state is to suffer and restlessly strive for things. When you get the car…you haven’t ascended to some new plane of existence known as “happiness”…it’s that suffering has been temporarily removed from your life as you normally experience it. That really great way that you feel when you’re in that place…getting your dream car…feeling on cloud 9…Schopenhauer thinks that’s the way you might POTENTIALLY be able to feel like all the time…if the reality of your existence wasn’t that you are a manifestation of this will to life condemned to restlessly strive and suffer. It’s not that happiness has been added…but that suffering has been subtracted.
Now another thing you might be saying is OK, so I suffer. OK, so I’m condemned to a life of restlessly striving for things…but I’m confused Schopenhauer…why don’t I feel as miserable and you’re making me feel like I should be? What if I LOVE my life. This suffering that you’re talking about…this isn’t something I’m thinking about on a daily basis. Why am I not miserable if I’m truly in this dark, depressing universe that you’re talking about?
Well imagine a war vet…stepped on a bouncin’ betty in WW2…blew part of his foot off. He gets medically discharged, sent back to the states, gets surgery…doctors do all they can…but there’s limitations, of course. Let’s say there’s permanent nerve damage…and let’s say no matter what they do…for the rest of his life whenever he puts weight on that left foot of his…whenever he takes a step…there’s just going to be a little bit of pain in that foot. Can’t fix it. Well what does the veteran do in that situation?
Does he sit around for the rest of his life agonizing about it? Does he hyper focus on the pain every time he takes a step? Does he let this injury make him miserable every day of his life? No, he just accepts the unfortunate condition that he’s in…and tries to sort of just tune out the pain as he’s walking…eventually gets to the point… that he doesn’t even notice it anymore…it’s just what life is to him. But is that pain not there just because he’s taught himself a neat trick where he doesn’t pay attention to it?
Of course it’s still there and Schopenhauer thinks we’re not so different from this war vet. Just because this suffering is the only life we’ve ever known and we’ve learned to accept it and not allow it to make us miserable…doesn’t mean that the suffering isn’t there. Most of us are so good at tuning it out that we just accept it as the only way life could ever be. But just imagine if it was possible for you to feel the way you feel when you first get your dream car or accomplish some lofty goal…what if it was possible for you to feel that way a lot more of the time, or all the time. This contrast just goes to show… how much suffering we all accept as just the only way life can be…it’s just this hum in the background that we’ve learned to deal with like the war vet has learned to deal with the pain in his foot.
Now the LAST thing I want to do when talking about Schopenhauer’s philosophy is to alienate someone out there. There’s a type of person that we haven’t talked about yet, a type of person that’s probably feeling a little left out right now. Thank you Mr. Schopenhauer for taking my question. What about me…what if you’re somebody that doesn’t have any goals or the slightest inclination to strive for anything really…and pretty much just a general feeling overall that you don’t care about anything or anyone o n this God forsaken planet and that all of this is meaningless? What about me?
Schopenhauer would say, Yep, that’ll happen. That will happen. Especially in these modern times… when we have this cushy thing we call civilization… that makes it so that we don’t really have to strive for anything if we don’t want to…didn’t always used to be that way. In hunter gatherer times…if you’re not restlessly striving for something, you’re dead in a week. Nowadays… it’s an option as a human being to just…not have any goals…or to sit around lost… wondering what you want in life and never really take action on anything.
Schopenhauer says what this type of person’s life becomes… is a life of boredom…or depression…or anxiety. They’re bored because they’re manifestations of this will to life…and they don’t have anything to restlessly strive for…they’re not doing the very thing they were put into this universe to do. They’re depressed, because, again, they don’t have anything to strive for. There’s this sense of purpose that’s missing when you don’t have any goals that you truly care about. They’re anxious…because instead of striving for some goal they want to acheive, they just sit around this engine that’s redlining…subconsciously this will to life is making them feel like this meth addict…ooh I gotta strive today I gotta strive!…and when they don’t have anything to put that energy into they end up turning that energy inward and restlessly striving over all these little things that they have no control over.
People find themselves in this situation for a lot of different reasons, but I guess the point is…after you’ve worked hard and achieved some goals… and expected happiness to be on the other side of them and you don’t get it…an alluring trap to fall into is to just not do anything…what good is doing all this work anyway? Schopenhauer says the only way out of this trap… that’s available to the general public…is you have to find some way to go back…you have to find some way to delude yourself into believing that once you accomplish some goal that you have, it’s going to make you happy. Now, the good news is, no matter how extreme of a case you are in this place…there’s hope for you because remember…you are a manifestation of the will to life…you at your core WANT to restlessly strive for things…it’s part of your nature…you just have to be open-minded and actively search for things that you want. You grind long enough, you stay open minded enough and eventually you’re going to find something…you’re gonna come across a picture of a white sandy beach with beautiful people frolicking around and you’re going to say you know what…it has been ages since I’ve had a good frolic. I want to do that. And off you go.
So two broad classes of people. You have the people that are going to ceaselessly strive and desire things for the rest of their life and try to tune out the suffering the best they can…and you have people who don’t have meaningful goals that are going to end up bored, anxious, depressed, many turn to drugs to try to soften the sting of that suffering. Schopenhauer thinks 99.9% of people are going to find themselves in these two categories and they’re going to die in these two categories. We’ve talked about his prescription for the people who are bored… but he also has a tactic for the other group… if they ever want a temporary respite from the otherwise constant suffering that they’re going to be experiencing on a daily basis. I want to ask a question…and bear with me at first this question may seem kind of tangential, but I think it’s a good way to illustrate his point here.
Why is it… that pretty much unanimously every human being loves a good view? Why do we pay so much more for property that has an amazing view in the back yard? Why do we love going on a hike, coming to the edge of a ravine and looking out at a vast expanse of trees and lakes and snow capped mountains…people call it breathtaking…why? Why does it do that to us?
Now there’s a lot of different theories about this. Some philosophers say… that everything we think is beautiful is ultimately derived from some aspect of nature…and that when we find ourselves on the edge of a cliff…from a vantage point that human beings don’t typically get to see nature…we’re hit with this tsunami of beauty and it just becomes kind of an overload to our systems. But there are other theories…heard a theory on a podcast once and thought about it for a long time…the theory was that maybe the reason we all love a really nice view is because…we have these reward systems set up in our brains…maybe over the course of hundreds of thousands of years of our ancestors trying to subsist…we’ve inherited a feel good response when we come to the edge of a ravine and see the fresh water and the trees and life flourishing…that whole scene giving our ancestors the message in theory that they’re going to live another day.
But that’s not entirely consistent, right? There’s places like the Red Rock Conservatory in Nevada…undeniably gorgeous views…it’s a barren desert wasteland though…life isn’t flourishing there…if I got lost and went on a 20 minute nature walk out there I’d come back one giant freckle. But it’s still a beautiful view.
Schopenhauer would say that the reason we all love a good view is not for any of these reasons, we love it but because it allows us…if only for a couple of minutes…to escape…this state of constantly striving and desiring and reaching for things. Think about it, when you’re on the edge of that cliff… and you’re looking out at this amazing view…what are you thinking about in that moment? Are you thinking about getting that promotion? Are you thinking about the leopard interior that you want in your dream car? No…you are totally consumed by that moment. Totally present. We love a good view because for just a couple minutes…we’re not thinking about anything but the beauty of what is in front of us.
But Schopenhauer didn’t think we only have this sort of experience when we’re staring at a beautiful view outdoors…he thought we could have this moment… with ANYTHING beautiful enough to captivate us like this. Music, have you ever had a song where you’re feeling it so much you’re not thinking of anything but the song and singing into your hairbrush in the mirror? Or how about a great movie that you feel just totally immersed in, you almost forget that you’re in the middle of a movie theater. Even our super modern forms of art…how about a video game that’s so good you can’t put the controller down. It’s in these moments, to Schopenhauer, that great art and even great philosophy can captivate us to the point that we can briefly escape this otherwise constant striving for things that is our default state as a manifestation of the will to life.
You know it’s funny…culturally…at least in the United States…working really hard every day striving towards your goals… that’s one of the most virtuous qualities you can have. Somebody that spends the vast majority of their life… listening to music and watching movies and playing video games…when that person arrives at the end of their life… and they’re 80 years old sitting around the poker table at Shady Acres…talking about what they did throughout their life…that’s not a person their peers are going to have a lot of respect for. Here’s Schopenhauer saying maybe there was some wisdom in that kind of a lifestyle that might not be immediately evident.
Another interesting thing to think about is…you know in the same way we shouldn’t relegate our teachers to people that work at a university or people that look or talk a certain way…and that if you’re looking for it…theres wisdom in every situation that you’re in…I mean the other day I learned something from Sesame Street…that’s right..the great philosopher Big Bird gave me an insight that really made me feel great about my life…you know in the same way there is wisdom in every situation…there is beauty in every situation, again, if we’re willing to look for it. Now, if by appreciating beauty we can temporarily escape from this default state of restless striving…is it maybe possible…that if someone had an extreme hypervigilance towards the beauty in every moment…in other words…if they actively sought out and appreciated the beauty all around them every second of every day…could they maybe permanently escape this default state that Schopenhauer talks about. Just interesting to think about.
So that’s your lot in life, people. Get over it. Sorry it wasn’t the answer you were hoping for…but the reality is 99.9% of us are going to be stuck in this type of existence… until we die someday.
But what is this .1% of people we keep talking about? Who are they? Schopenhauer thinks there is a third type of person out there…an extremely rare type of person…I’m certainly not one of them…it’s a person that is so special that they are capable of living a life that is in keeping with what he sees as the pinnacle of human virtue. A sage in his philosophical system.
This sage is somebody that uses their intellect to arrive at several conclusions that naturally follow from each other, if you’re Schopenhauer…conclusions that lead this person to a single lifestyle… that they share with other sages. To Schopenhauer, the first reality that a sage has to arrive at… is that everything in the universe is ultimately one. And when you arrive at that conclusion…what happens is you take a look around you…and you see all of these individual aspects of the will to life interfering with and encroaching upon… OTHER aspects of the will to life. You see a cat eating a mouse…you see a mother and her baby getting hit by a drunk driver…you see an asteroid hitting a planet…you see… the absolute maelstrom of suffering that is visited every day in this universe…and the sage realizes something…they realize that this suffering…is ultimately them suffering, because we’re all one thing. From this point, the sage searches for what is causing this suffering so that maybe they can do something about it. What is the force responsible for this entire existence and all of the suffering within it? The Will to life.
From there, there’s only one path forward. Much like waging an inner-Jihad against vice or not being the best person you can possibly be…Schopenhauer says that the sage wages an inner war against the will to life…totally rejecting all the things it compels people to do. Never having sex…not eating good food just for the sake of it being good tasting…living in solitude…denying any desires for fame or fortune…the sage in Schopenhauer’s system… wages a war against the will to life by refusing to participate… in the game that it put us here to play. The life of this sage, as you can imagine, starts to resemble the life of an ascetic monk. This, is the pinnacle of human virtue to Schopenhauer…now did HE live this way? No, but he did live more this way than most people do…he DID famously live out the rest of his life alone in an apartment with his pet poodle.
Now regardless of how you feel about never having ice cream again, selling all your stuff and spending the rest of your life sitting in your empty living room resisting this urge to strive for things…Schopenhauer does make some really valuable insights. Yes, he uses some melodramatic language to express himself at times, and yes, if you accept his world picture you may not feel as excited as you are now about getting dressed up in your suit and tie outfit and going and giving a presentation on Monday…but I think Schopenhauer DOES do a really good job of pointing out how easy it is for us…to be like that war veteran that we talked about. To find ourselves born into this existence… where suffering in an inexorable part of life… and to just tell ourselves a story… and try to do our best to forget about how much suffering we’re actually going through. Should we be just accepting it, or should we be doing more to try to eliminate that suffering? Should our ultimate goal in life be to never experience any suffering, ever?
Now on the other hand, if you’re Nietzsche…who spent much of his work responding to the work of Schopenhauer…Nietzsche agrees that suffering is an inexorable part of life, but he has a different view of it. Like we talked about on the Nietzsche series, the goal shouldn’t be to completely rid yourself of any kind of suffering…you should EMBRACE suffering…if you’re someone that’s been through a lot of bad stuff in your life…feel privileged to be a person fortunate enough to have gone through that immense suffering…because you are now a more powerful person than someone else that just had it easy their whole life…instead of getting rid of suffering recognize it for what it truly is…as his famous line goes, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”
But anyway, whether you agree with Schopenhauer’s pessimistic worldview or not, he does a great job I think of getting us to think about our human experience of reality, our place within the universe and I guess I’ll close with my favorite Schopenhauer quote that I think just encapsulates his work…he’s talking here about the biggest assumption, the biggest error that he thinks people make when they’re looking at their existence:
“There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy. So long as we persist in this inborn error…the world will seem to us full of contradictions. For at every step, in great things and small, we are bound to experience that the world and life are certainly not arranged for the purpose of being happy. That’s why the faces of almost all elderly people are deeply etched with such disappointment.”
Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.

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Episode 99 – Schopenhauer pt. 2 – Ethics


Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)


On this episode, we take a look at the ethics of Arthur Schopenhauer. See the full transcript of this episode here.

Among 19th century philosophers, Arthur Schopenhauer was among the first to contend that at its core, the universe is not a rational place. Inspired by Plato and Kant, both of whom regarded the world as being more amenable to reason, Schopenhauer developed their philosophies into an instinct-recognizing and ultimately ascetic outlook, emphasizing that in the face of a world filled with endless strife, we ought to minimize our natural desires for the sake of achieving a more tranquil frame of mind and a disposition towards universal beneficence. Continue reading Episode 99 – Schopenhauer pt. 2 – Ethics