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Episode 110 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #110 on The Frankfurt School. Check out the episode page HERE.

So it’s been said about the workers in the United States post WW2… that they found themselves in a very unique situation in terms of what options are made available to them. Capitalism… massive improvements that come along with it in technology and efficiency…has made it possible for the average person, to do things only the super rich had been able to do throughout human history.

 

That for consumers in this post WW2 world…people no longer need to live together under one roof like it’s little house on the prairie, sharing a communal horse and doing shadow puppetry on the walls for entertainment…no we live in a new world now. We live in a world where, it is entirely feasible for the average consumer, to buy their own house (far better than a shack on a prairie) buy their own car (with the power 300 of those communal horses) and through the advent of mass media and entertainment broadcasting have instant access to MOUNTAINS of art and cultural artifacts to consume with the push of a button. (little bit better than trying to make your hand look like an alligator chomping on the wall)

 

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, two members of the Frankfurt School who co-wrote the book The Dialectic of Enlightenment, would no doubt agree that Capitalism is responsible for these changes in what is possible for the average person. But they’d want to ask the question: Why is it… that there seems to be such a strong correlation between the trappings of Capitalism, and the alienation of society? In other words, when people get the house and they get the car and they have access to more art than they could ever consume…why is it that the worker in the 20th century seems to be the most alienated from other people around them, and the most alienated from the process of creating world they’re living in… in human history?

 

That another way to think of that house that everyone’s able to buy now…is that it’s a box. That instead of being a member of a local community and feeling like an integral part of a group of people…now, practically nobody knows their neighbors, they just go home and shut themselves away in this box, and here’s the important part: it’s a product that was sold to you… that house is a product…that if you aren’t mindful and take effort to prevent it from happening, it’s a product that aids in this process of alienation from other people. But that’s not the only box we live in…think about it, instead of sharing a communal horse where you might have to talk to some people…you might have to figure out who gets the horse when, you might have a conversation with a fellow traveler on the road…now, nobody talks to other drivers going down the freeway…again, they just get in their car and shut themselves away in this box, a product that was sold to them where if they’re not careful aids in this process of alienation. What Adorno and Horkheimer are going to go on to say here…is that this other box in your front room that delivers you all the TV shows and movies and music and all the other culture that you consume…that these things are ALSO products that are sold to you, that serve this process of alienation. 

 

See where they’re coming from is an old Marxist critique of capitalist society…that in a more simple, non-capitalist structure people do work and there’s a very obvious connection between the specific task they’re doing and some benefit either to themselves or to the community they’re involved in. Let’s give two examples, one more simple one less simple. Let’s say your community needs water and you have to dig a well. Now, nobody out there is passionate about well digging. Digging that well may be horrible work, it may take you all day…you may be sweating and covered in dirt and want a back rub at the end of the day…but at least as you are digging that well…you feel a connection to the work that you’re doing. You know that you are digging that well so that you, your family and the families living around you that you care about will have drinking water. Not only do you feel connected to the work though, but there’s a sense in which you are creating the world that you’re living in, alright everybody we have a problem: we don’t have any water…the solution to this problem is we’re going to dig a well…grab a shovel and let’s do this. You’re not profiting in terms of green paper, you’re profiting in terms of social recognition…when you’re walking around town…you’re the person who dug the well so that everyone else could have drinking water. 

 

Now new example…let’s say you were a part of a non-capitalistic trading based culture. Say you’re an artisan that specializes in making clocks. Well in that sort of world it is still likely you feel a sense of connection to the work that you’re doing. I mean, being able to tell the time is an absolutely crucial thing for society to function properly. Say I need a job to do…and it turns out I’m really good at making clocks… I’m Steve the clockmaker…now in that world my work may not be fun and games all the time I may dropkick a clock or two across my shop…But later on when I go out in public…when I see my clocks all over town helping people…keeping society in sync and on time…I feel like I’m a part of what makes this town work…I feel like I play a small role in the creation and maintenance of this town. 

 

Now how does Marx think this dynamic changes in a Capitalist society? Well what do we love about Capitalism? Not only are people in competition to constantly build a better mousetrap…but they’re in competition to build that mousetrap more efficiently than the people they’re competing with. Hyper efficiency becomes an extremely important aspect of how goods and services are produced. Marx would say this is dangerous…that when an economic system stops looking at people as ends in themselves and starts looking at them in terms of being a means to some end of hyper technological progress and efficiency…there is no guarantee you’re going to be doing work that you feel connected to. 

 

See because let’s say I’m clockmaker Steve and I’m really good at making clocks, I have a system and on a good day I can produce around 10 clocks start to finish. Well take 100 people and put them on an assembly line…make their job when the clock comes by you put this piece of metal into this groove and send it down the line…those people can make 10,000 clocks in a day. Now that’s super efficient. That satisfies the needs of capitalism perfectly. But Marx would ask at what cost? What that does is alienate the worker from feeling connected to the purpose of their work. They don’t feel like they’re part of the process of creating the world they’re living in…there’s just this product being given to them by designers on high that they’ve never met… and their job is to put a piece of metal in a groove and fuel this process of churning out products as efficiently as possible. 

 

Sure many of you out there can relate to this with your job. So I used to work in a Grocery Warehouse. What you’d expect…long days…physical labor…stores order the food they need and the job was stacking cases of food onto pallets that then get shipped off to the store. Now doing that job, technically you are doing work that performs an important function for society, you’re delivering people their food, but I can tell you none of the people working there thought of the job like they were Farmer Brown and I’m bringing the people of the world the nutritious food they need nourish their bodies. No, it just becomes an 8-10 hour drone of stacking heavy boxes onto a pallet. The people working there would say things all the time like, yeah the job is boring and it’s hard and it is kind of grunt work…but it pays well, we have a really good union and great benefits. 

 

And that’s the argument against Marx on the Capitalist side, right? Well, there are many arguments against Marx that we’ll get into but one of the primary ones is that yeah, the reality of the world is that some people have to do jobs that they don’t necessarily like that need to get done…but those people that do those jobs generally get paid more to do those jobs that nobody else wants to do! Which then in turn allows them to go home, yes run down from a days work, but able to experience a higher quality of life that most other people don’t get to experience. It all balances itself out!

 

What Adorno and Horkheimer would say to that is, cool so for eight hours a day, a third of their life these people get to go to a job that alienates them and sucks the life out of them…and their reward for doing that is more of this green paper that allows them to go home and consume stuff that makes them feel just good enough to get up and do it again the next day…in other words, perpetuating the cycle of working and consumption. That’s what you are when it all comes down to it. Work and consume. Work and consume. Work in an environment that alienates you…then go home and feel even MORE alienated as you try to spiritually lift yourself up by going into consumption mode. 

 

See that’s the thing they’d want to underscore and it’s going to be an important point when it comes to their views on TV and movies and music so I wanna mention it briefly now…when you are a consumer…you don’t have an unbridled level of freedom when it comes to choosing what things you’re going to be consuming. I mean I guess in theory you could choose to just never buy anything for your entire life, but short of looking like Tom Hanks in castaway, actually even HE had Wilson. 99.9% of people buy stuff… and there’s this subtle, alienating dynamic of the fact… that the life you build for yourself in our modern culture is highly connected to the things you’re able to consume… and the choices you have for what you’re gonna consume are always given to you by somebody else, again by some designer on high that you’ve never met. Because of this in a strange way, the products that are available for you to consume, set up the parameters for what you can do with your life. That as a consumer it can start to feel alienating…almost like what building your life even is at a fundamental level…is just navigating a world that doesn’t feel like your own…you’re just this consumer in world full of products that were designed by a handful of people for the sake of mass appeal, your role is just to pick which of these products you’re going to consume each day. 

 

Now we’ll expand on that in a sec, but the thing I really want to make clear here is how strongly Adorno and Horkheimer want to call into question the concept of “leisure time”. Remember, the ultimate goal of the Frankfurt School during this time is to get to the bottom of how workers in the west can be in the conditions they’re in but still not feel as though they’re a member of an exploited class of people…and one of the first places they look to try to find an answer to this is to look at how workers spend their time after they get off of work.

 

What they notice is that people tend to look at their lives in terms of this constant interplay between work time and leisure time. You’re either at work doing what you have to do to sustain life…or you’re enjoying some well deserved leisure time doing the things you actually want to be doing. They’d point out how in capitalist societies there’s often this attitude of…work…well that’s just something you gotta do, we ALL gotta earn a living…It’s not fun, but it’s gotta get done! I gotta wake up early…yeah it’s pretty much the same thing day after day at work nothing really new…I can act like a version of myself there but I can’t REALLY be myself I have to paint on a smile for Brenda in accounting…I have to use all the right politically correct terms that a professional decorum requires…certainly is a sacrifice, but look all that I have to sacrifice in terms of individuality and novelty in my work life…is more than made up for by the stuff I get to do in my leisure time…that’s when I TRULY get to be who I am! That’s the attitude people often have. 

 

Well Adorno would ask: how are people in these modern, industrialized societies typically spending their leisure time? Well I’ll tell you what they’re NOT doing. They’re not learning a foreign language or doing a biblical exegesis or memorizing the encyclopedia…in other words they’re not doing things that are highly mentally taxing that make them into a better person more aware of the world around them…what do they usually do? They do stuff that requires little to no effort…they do stuff that’s relaxing…and who could possibly blame them…they just worked all day. What do you want them to do? Come home and work more? Is that what life is? Constant working until you die of a heart attack when you’re 33 years old? No, they want to relax. They want to be entertained…they don’t want to have to entertain themselves. 

 

Now real quick just because I’m talking to THIS audience in particular…this is one of the few audiences where there might be a considerable number of people confused like what do you mean? I’m learning a language in my spare time…I’m actually doing a biblical exegsesis while listening to this episode…Adorno and Horkheimer would say you’re in the EXTREME minority and in my personal experience those people are usually people that love their work so they don’t feel drained after working all day…they come home and want to challenge themselves with other stuff. Consider the fact that those people are the EXTREME minority in our culture…the typical response when someone gets off of work is a sigh of relief. Finally, it’s over! Now I can go home and relax and be entertained. 

 

Well Adorno and Horkheimer would say: here’s another great thing about Capitalist society: when there’s a serious demand for something…somebody out there is going to find a way to create a product that meets that demand. Just so happens in this particular society there’s a giant percentage of people that think of their lives in terms of work time vs leisure time…a giant percentage of people that the minute they clock out of their job have a strong desire go and do stuff that doesn’t require much effort so that they can relax and recharge their batteries having been alienated at work all day. What this dynamic creates is a HUGE DEMAND for some product I can consume that allows me to just relax and be entertained. 

 

Now in the early 20th century… there was a brand new invention brought to market that turned out to be INCREDIBLE at solving this problem. Mass media. Widely disseminated. Convenient…you don’t even have to go to the store to consume this product…it’s in the front room of nearly everyone’s house. You can listen to the radio in your box as you drive back to your other box that has a third box filled with shows that you can just relax and be entertained by, take the edge off. 

 

That’s the kind of TV show and movie and song that people are going to have a demand for in a capitalist society…think about it: if you’re somebody creating a TV show that is a media product designed to fulfill a demand of what the masses want to watch during their leisure time…what kind of show do you make? What’s gonna make you the most money? Do you do a public access show deconstructing quantum physics? Or do you do something like duck dynasty. Which product is going to be demanded more by the working class? 

 

Here’s where they’re going with this. It’s not that there’s some evil dude named Edward J House that invented the house so that people would become more alienated from each other. It’s not that there’s some cabal of people at the top of the entertainment industry that are hand-selecting shows that are going to keep people working and consuming. No when you have a society where the masses are told from birth to think of themselves as workers and consumers…existing in a world that they are alienated from…evangelized to about how crucial their own personal financial success is…in that world, things like the house, a private box I can go to and watch these entertaining shows and wind down from work…thats the natural product that people have a demand for and want to consume. Movies about superheroes or science fiction that take you out of this world and insert you into another world where you can forget about the problems of this one. Video games that immerse you into a fictitious world an escape from the trials of life. Novels about a thumpin’ good wizard named Harry Potter and some bald dude without a nose. We want to focus on THESE worlds that don’t really exist so we can escape having to think about the one we’re actually living in. That’s the product workers of a Capitalist society have a huge demand for. 

 

Now if that sounds a lot like Nietzsche’s concept of true world theories and the tactic used by mythology and religion to get people focused on a different world to distract them away from the problems of this one…that’s exactly what they’re saying mass media has become for people.

 

Adorno says: 

 

“In an age of spiritual disenchantment, the individual experiences the need for substitute images of the ‘divine’. It obtains these through pseudo-culture. Hollywood idols, soaps, novels, pop tunes, lyrics and film genres such as the Wild West or the Mafia movie, fashion substitute mythologies for the masses.”

 

Hollywood idols! We like to exalt these celebrities onto a pedestal and look at them as these messiah-like figures. Oh, its George Clooney! He’s practically GLOWING! Formerly you may have walked in the path of some anointed figure described in a Holy Book…but now I’m gonna walk in the path of Clooney…if I just wear that jacket that he’s wearing or I buy that special curling iron so I can do my hair like the girl from that other show or if I buy the same brand of soda they’re drinking in that movie maybe I can be more like my idol! 

 

Note that there’s always some product that you have to consume that is what’s stopping you from walking in the path of Clooney. Imagine if to walk in the path of Christ you had to buy the sandals he was wearing. Consumption has been written in to the very moral fabric of this media age. That as fundamentally a worker and consumer…what your life IS within this culture is when you have a problem…you buy a product to solve that problem. After a while of that message being reinforced…people start to believe the fact that no matter what problem you have…there’s some product out there that’s going to be able to solve it. Advertisers realize this.  

 

They realize that most people feel alienated from other people around them. They realize that what most people crave that they don’t have is close human interaction. So they use it to their benefit…they make ads that send you the message that if you buy this beverage product you’re all of a sudden going to have a close knit group of friends that sit in a circle laughing, drinking it together like on the commercial. That if you buy this car…some really attractive person is going to make constant eye contact with you and smile. That if you buy this BBQ…all of a sudden there’s going to be a close community of families in your back yard socializing and working together and your mom and dad haven’t been in a loveless marriage for over 20 years. 

 

Now of course there’s no guarantee once you get these products that any of these things are going to happen. There’s not even a reasonable likelihood given how prone to alienation the average worker is. So what ends up happening is people get caught in this perpetual cycle of feeling empty inside, craving true close human interaction, seeing some advertisement for a product on TV that seems to have worked for the people on the commercial, buying that product, still feeling empty inside, and there’s always ANOTHER product that if only I work even harder at my job and make more money, THAT’S gonna put me over the edge. 

 

So again, let’s consider: are these advertisers an evil group that want people to constantly feel empty and alienated looking to products to fill that void inside of them? No! They’re just trying to make as much money as possible…they’re just living within a capitalist system where profit is the ultimate goal. Fact is, no matter what you think about whether Capitalism is causing it, a need that a LOT of people have that isn’t being filled is feeling like a loved and important member of a community. Why NOT link products to people having that feeling, it’s an effective strategy!

 

Now these cultural products in particular…TV shows, Movies, Radio…these new products available to people during the 20th century changed everything. You know, it’s one thing to own a peanut butter business and to sit down with a team of designers and try to figure out how we can get this peanut butter to so line up with what consumers want…that whenever somebody goes to the grocery store they buy your peanut butter. There’s a sense in which… the linking of popular demand… to the process of making the best peanut butter in the world is beneficial to the vast, vast majority of people. But Adorno and Horkheimer would ask: what happens when ART becomes the product that’s being sold? What happens when the ultimate goal of producing cultural artifacts like movies, tv shows and radio…becomes how much money we can make?

 

What happens, they would say, is the birth of The Culture Industry. We are in the business of producing for the masses cultural artifacts that they already have a demand for, so that we can make as much money as possible. 

 

See there’s this thing we do…we reference this thing called pop-culture all the time. We reference popular culture…and there’s this implication that the things that are popular are popular because they arose out of some demand from the masses. But if your favorite show is The Walking Dead…the people that wrote The Walking Dead didn’t write it because they got millions of calls from people clamoring We want a zombie apocalypse show that showcases the bonds that human beings from different cultures form in times of stress! No, whoever wrote The Walking Dead designed a product that they thought enough people would want to watch that they could make money from it. This is a subtle, but important distinction to make for Adorno and Horkheimer…because when it comes to the art you can consume…it always you choosing from the limited number of selections that the culture industry has produced for you, the first and foremost purpose behind the creation of the art being, to make money and correspond with mass appeal. 

 

But this isn’t what art should BE to Theodor Adorno. The popularity of art shouldn’t be determined by how much it corresponds to social norms. True art should get you to think. It should get you to consider an alternative way of looking at the world. True art shouldn’t be easy to consume necessarily…you should have to concentrate hard to appreciate the depth of it…not veg out on the couch and get a thimble full of substance in a three hour movie. 

 

There’s no stopping it in a Capitalist system though. When you link the market to culture, When you turn works of art into products the market is going to consume, cultural products… start to resemble all the ways OTHER products are. They undergo a process of standardization. The people making the products figure out a formula they can use to create a product they know the masses are going to buy…and then essentially just produce the same products over and over again with slight little details changed to create the illusion of novelty for the consumer. 

 

For example…what really is the difference between the 2016 model of a car and the 2017 model? Not much. The car company knows there’s gonna be enough consumers that want a mid-sized sedan that has the features this car has. So what do they do? They essentially sell the exact same car next year…with some minor cosmetic changes to the outside maybe a better GPS system inside to make the consumer feel like this is a new and exciting thing, when in reality the form of the car overall is the same thing. 

 

When you get a new phone…the screen may be a little bigger, it may be a little easier to do certain things on it and you may look at those details and see them as big improvements, but in reality the overall form of the phone you just bought and the function it serves hasn’t changed. 

 

Now neither of those things may bother you. So what? I like my new phone better than my old one. Call me a Capitalist pig, but I like having a better GPS system than the 2016 model. But what happens when this same dynamic is applied to TV Shows, Movies and Music? What you get…is the same song written over and over again, following some formula they know is going to correspond with mass demand, with slight little details changed to create the illusion of novelty. The overall FORM of the song is the same thing…it’s still you bragging for three minutes about your most recent big financial purchase…but the beat is a little different and it’s a different person saying the words. Maybe in a different genre…the song is still about worshiping the Devil and how your step-dad doesn’t understand you…but you switch the order that you play the three chords in and add a different guitar riff at the beginning and it allows consumers to get the same product that they know they like without actually experiencing any sort of real novelty.

 

Theodor Adorno talks about how when judging a piece of art there’s this emphasis we put on the details of the piece of art…oh the cinematography was AMAZING…or the dialogue was so tense right there! But it’s the same movie that’s been released every year for the last ten years. We focus on those little details because it’s the only differentiation there IS between works of art in our time, that in general it’s the exact same product warmed over spoon fed to us time and time again. 

 

Rom-coms. There may be little details switched around in an individual plot…but overall in form a Romantic comedy is the exact same movie performing the exact same function time and time again. Same thing with Westerns. Same thing with Sit-coms. Same thing with horror movies. These are formulaic templates… that we go into the theater KNOWING exactly what to expect and how it’s going to turn out before we even see it.  

 

Now some of you out there may be saying…well, yeah that’s kind of part of the overall charm of these kinds of movies, right? Yeah I know it’s not Schindler’s list…and in the back of my mind I know where it’s going in the end…but look, somebody can love chocolate ice cream as a product because of how it makes them feel…can’t they like Rom-coms as a product because of how they make them feel? 

 

Theodor Adorno would say, yeah…but understand that life imitates art. Don’t underestimate the level of impact the consumption of these products is having on the way you look at the world. That we watch these movies and TV shows and listen to these songs…and there’s a part of us that inserts ourselves into the story…and makes it real. Like have you ever watched a horror movie about some demon that’s possessing some object…and then later on that night or the next day you’re in a dark room and you feel just a little bit more creeped out than you would otherwise be because what if the demon’s haunting MY condo now. Yeah, you have to believe DEMONS are a possibility for that movie to affect how you see reality…let alone a Rom-com taking place in a world that greatly resembles yours. 

 

That’s another thing Adorno points out…that in almost every movie, tv show, book, play and many songs…there is always a love interest. There are always two people romantically interested in each other, they work together to beat the bad guy, make out and live happily ever after together. What he says is that this sets people up to think of their life and the figurative movie that is playing out in terms of finding that one and only someone. That the arc of the story of my life is complete when I find that person that I love, they move all their IKEA furniture into my box that I live in and we live the rest of our lives out together isolated in a box. What he says is that this conditions people to think of this individual romantic involvement as the ultimate goal of life…all the while missing out on all the joy and satisfaction that could come by filling that void created by their alienation from other people…in other words, instead of being loved and appreciated by one person…being a loved and appreciated member of a community. People don’t even consider that. 

 

See because again…it’s not that there’s an evil group of writers at the top of the culture industry that write what they do SO THAT people stay alienated living in a box happily ever after…it’s that when you’re writing a story…and you want to make the most money…the characters and plots of those stories naturally become characters and plots that the masses can relate to.  

 

People want to be able to easily relate to the characters and immerse themselves in the story. Which then creates this cycle of life imitating art and art imitating life. And because the average worker in this country doesn’t get home from work and put on their Che Guevara beret…you know they’re not a revolutionary constantly looking to be critical of injustices and alternative ways of doing things…no they just wind down from work and passively go along with the life they have…because of that dynamic, the characters in the movies they relate to are going to be generally the same kind of person. The plots of these movies are going to resemble a sort of: stay in your own lane…dont become an antagonist in the movie of your life because the bad guy always loses…when life gives you lemons make lemonade and just enjoy your life as much as you can. This becomes the attitude portrayed by art that life begins to imitate. The culture industry is constantly working to turn everyone into the same person, so that they’ll buy the cultural products that it produces.

 

What’s even crazier Adorno and Horkheimer point out…is that all this stuff…is not a mystery to most people. Most people realize at some point in their life that this is going on, that people are just sort of doing their best impression of a conglomeration of different characters they’ve seen on all the movies and TV shows they’ve watched. Just like music and movies all become the same warmed over product with slight differences in detail…people follow the same pattern. They say that in 20th century America:

 

“personality scarcely signifies anything more than shining white teeth and freedom from body odour and emotions. The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.”

 

Why would somebody do that? Why would people that see through what’s going on with the culture industry still choose to participate in the game? Horkheimer would say, because they consider the alternative…what can an average worker REALLY do when it comes to changing it? They’re not gonna run for president. They’re not going to incite revolution. The only change that would come for them if they chose to not participate…is that now they work eight hours a day…and they have NO escape from the exploitation and alienation they face. 

 

This is why Adorno has such a vitriol for what The Culture Industry has become. He thinks that when you turn art into a commodity, you instantly hijack it and direct its creation towards mass appeal. But this isn’t what art should be. Works of art have the power to give people a different perspective on things without violence. Works of art have the power to change the world. Theodor Adorno wouldn’t agree with Simone De Beauvoir…that in order to overthrow an oppressive person you need to become an oppressor of that person yourself. What so a group of people oppress another group of people for 200 years…and then what…the oppressed group gets to oppress the other group now? And then this whole cycle just continues over again and again until the end of time? What if true art…not the garbage that the Culture Industry pumps out…but TRUE art. What if that’s the tool for change that is needed the most… in a world where there is not much of it? We’ll talk about that next time on the Philosophize This! podcast.

 

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

 

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Episode 110 – The Frankfurt School pt. 3 – The Culture Industry


The Frankfurt School


On this episode, we continue our discussion of The Frankfurt School. See the full transcript of this episode here.

The Frankfurt School, also known as the Institute of Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), is a social and political philosophical movement of thought located in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. It is the original source of what is known as Critical Theory. The Institute was founded, thanks to a donation by Felix Weil in 1923, with the aim of developing Marxist studies in Germany. The Institute eventually generated a specific school of thought after 1933 when the Nazis forced it to close and move to the United States, where it found hospitality at Columbia University, New York.


Further Reading on The Frankfurt School:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Recommended Reading


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Episode 109 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #109 on The Frankfurt School. Check out the episode page HERE.

So whenever you’re navigating the waters of a set of ideas that you disagree with…which seems inevitable for all of us given the next couple months of this show…one thing that’s really important to consider is to put yourself in the shoes of the people that you disagree with…and try to consider where THEY’RE coming from with all this. One thing I like to do is I like to imagine myself AS that other person…I like to imagine I woke up this morning and I sat down with my family at breakfast and I held ALL the strong convictions that they hold about a particular subject that I disagree with…then I like to imagine…if I was this person, how would I see my actual self and the views that I have about things? In other words, where do they think I’m coming from with my views being someone who disagrees with them?
See the reason I do this exercise is because I know that what Nietzsche said is true. I realize how strong of an incentive I have as a person to attach myself to some group or some cause that’s bigger than myself. Glean a sense of identity from the process…feel all the good feelings that come along with fighting against some evil out there in the world. But a necessary part of that whole process…is identifying some evil that you’re fighting against…and what that often looks like in practice is finding some group of evil people…that you’re fighting against. But here’s an important question to ask…if you were them…would YOU think you were evil?
Do these evil people…view themselves as villains cackling and twirling their mustache in some super hero movie? Or do these people believe that they are acting as a force of good in the world? Almost always it’s going to be the latter, and it’s an important distinction to make. Because if there’s some group of people that you’ve deemed to be evil that you want to do away with…you have to examine your tactics…it’s not enough to just be a bundle of emotion screaming at people in the streets, or punching someone in the face, or bombing them out of existence. Ideas live on long after any nuclear fallout.
You don’t do away with an evil idea… until you fight and win a war of ideas. And human psychology 101 says that you don’t change people’s minds by coming to the conversation labeling them as evil right off the bat, condescending them and screaming at them. They’re gonna clam up and not even consider your ideas. That’s just not how ideas spread or most people change their minds. Ideas spread… over millions of conversations between individual human beings coming together with a genuine interest in where the other one is coming from and a desire to show this quote evil group of people, how their true interests align with yours.
What I mean is: it’s so easy for a capitalist to look at a Marxist and say: look at this utopianistic, lazy, evil moron. You’re either too lazy to work…or aren’t clever enough to compete and provide value to people so what do you wanna do? You want to watch the world burn and bring about your evil, totally GENIUS system that’s failed every time it’s been tried and get ANOTHER 100 million people killed.
It’s so easy for a Marxist to look at a capitalist and say: look at this gluttonous, evil pig living a life of excess on the backs of 100 million people? Try hundreds of millions of miserable workers sewing sleeves onto shirts and making dollar store figurines all over the globe… just so you can sit on your yacht, evilly taking advantage of the surplus made possible by their exploitation and then wrap yourself in the flag of hard work as your way of doing it.
Now no matter what side of that you fall on you realize that this isn’t an accurate depiction of where you’re coming from……as someone participating in a capitalist system that’s not what you’re about…for example, hi…I’m not evil… my names bruce and I have a peanut butter business. I was born into a world where you need to make money to survive…I bring thousands of people enjoyment every day by making this peanut butter that they love…and not only do I get to use that money to buy stuff I want, but I get to employ other people which allows them to go on and buy stuff that THEY want and support their families. This is a symbiotic, beautiful system where we help each other as people.
If you’re a Marxist, you’re not some lazy, evil hippie. Think about it from a Marxist perspective, they live every day of their lives seeing millions of people all around them being exploited, underpaid to go do work that they hate every single day because they’re trapped in an economic system that’s based on an outdated style of thinking from the 1700’s. A Marxist talking to a worker in a capitalist society would be very similar to talking to a peasant in the feudal system…and you can imagine how no matter how many arguments the peasant gave you about how, hey well at least I had it better than my grandfather who got sold into slavery…and at least I have my family around me and get to work the land…look, it’s a symbiotic, beautiful system…they own the land…I work the land…no matter how many arguments the peasant gave you… you can imagine wanting to make them aware that things can be better than being a peasant in the middle ages.
What I’m saying is: somebody can be mistaken, misinformed or just not agree with you and not be an evil person. We have such a strong tendency to do it, but when you just label somebody evil for some belief they hold…It shuts down discourse. It robs you of the opportunity to potentially learn something from that person or from finding out where they’re coming from and helping them see a different perspective. Simone De Beauvoir would have a lot to say about not turning other human beings into these objects, of evil and instead thinking of them first as fellow human beings going through the same thing you are.
Anyway, continuing from last time. The Frankfurt School was a group of thinkers looking at western, industrialized society confused as to why Marx’s prophecy wasn’t coming true. If the exploited class… always rises up and overthrows the ruling class… why hadn’t there been a workers revolution in the west by the time of the interwar years in Germany? The answer to this question that the Frankfurt School gives…is that Marx was wrong. Marx oversimplified the whole situation. His problem… was that he tried to explain the entire history and future of the world solely in terms of economics…in terms of this inevitable, dialectical process of change where it’s just a matter of time until the exploited class overthrows the ruling class…but much in keeping with the thinking of his time, he fails to take into account the variables of individual human psychology…in other words, what if members of the exploited class…didn’t feel like they’re being exploited? What if there was somehow a way to convince the peasants in the feudal system, that everything around them was great and that they were totally free…would we see any peasant revolts in that world?

The Frankfurt School…pulling ideas from Marx, Hegel and more recent revelations in Freudian Psychology…makes the case…that the only reason there hasn’t been a workers revolution in the west…lies in a problem of what they call “class consciousness”. The workers of the west, were sort of bewitched and beguiled when they saw all the cool new stuff humans are able to do now that capitalism is responsible for…the power of industry…increased levels of efficiency…the scientific and technological progress that capitalism produces…they’ve seen these changes, have been raised to believe that this stuff is the measure of progress and that this is just HOW the world is now and to not question it…all the while immersed in a system that from birth tells them they are first and foremost a worker and consumer, through media tells them how to act, think and feel, programs into them false needs, sells them one product after another to satisfy these false needs, socially alienates them, keeps them confused and scared, provides them with an illusion of political freedom and through many different types of coercion gets them never to question the fact that all of this rapid technological progress is only made possible by the exploitation of other human beings. In other words, the workers of the west no longer resemble the free-thinking proletariat that Marx talked about rising up…they’ve been indoctrinated to love their chains in a sense.
Now that’s a big accusation and it’s gonna take a couple episodes to unpack where they’re coming from. Maybe the best place to start is to talk about their critique of enlightenment style thinking in general…now keep in mind…The members of the Frankfurt School…are FANS of enlightenment style thinking. They’re not saying that reason is bad or science is bad…they’re just saying there are certain consequences to enlightenment style thinking that as a species we’re not adequately accounting for.
Flashback to the beginning of the enlightenment. Western Europe…it’s been over a thousand years of religious dogma, and some thinkers are committed to the task of producing an understanding of the world that’s based on reason instead of faith. The Age of Reason, it’s often called. Certain thinkers of the Frankfurt School would ask the question…what exactly is it that we’re doing when we use our faculty of reason to arrive at an understanding of the world? For example, when you conduct an experiment on a plant and you arrive at the conclusion that, hey if I rub this plant over here on this cut, it makes it heal twice as quickly! What we’re ultimately doing there…is yes, reasoning to knowledge about things…but it’s always reasoning to knowledge about how we as human beings can control nature to our benefit. In other words, instead of being totally at the mercy of nature like we’ve been in the past…instead of believing that lightning bolt, hit that horse over there, cause Zeus is mad the Bronco’s beat the Cowboys on Sunday…we instead use reason… to try to understand things in nature like weather and clouds and electricity…the hope being…that we can control them to our benefit, as human beings.
See this is the point they’d want to underscore…it’s easy to miss that underlying motivation that we have…you can be that person all day: oh, I’m a lover of knowledge, all kinds…I’m a voracious reader…I never even use the word voracious unless it’s about my reading…but what the Frankfurt School would point out is that there’s a reason you’re not reading and memorizing the phone book. Why? Because you’re not an indiscriminate lover of knowledge whatever it is…you’re a lover of knowledge that is useful to you, and that has a huge effect on the questions you ask and the areas you focus on. Well, so too with thinkers and scientists back during the enlightenment. When we use reason to arrive at knowledge it’s not indiscriminate…it is by its very nature, anthropocentric and humanistic…it’s always us trying to understand nature…SO THAT we can control it and use it to our benefit. But here’s thing: human beings are ALSO a part of nature…they’re in no way exempt from this process of using reason to try to understand them better so that we can control them. And this has been a GOOD THING historically speaking!
When Jean Jacques Rousseau makes the claim that the true nature of human beings is to be noble savages that are then corrupted by certain aspects of civilization…that is him using reason to arrive at an understanding about human beings…SO THAT he can then build his political philosophy on top of it and arrive at a system of government that yes, controls human beings in some ways…but benefits everyone overall. This is a reason based approach to the problem of government…it’s FAR superior to a faith based approach to solving that problem like, for example, the Divine Right of Kings…but we have to be aware of the fact that reason itself is pretty narrow in scope and in the business of controlling nature for the benefit of the people doing the reasoning…and that when it’s applied to the task of trying to decide how people should be oriented economically and politically…even brilliant thinkers reasoning with the best intentions historically often have arrived at systems that harness control over this “human being” section of nature…and reduce them into rational categories that fit within a larger system that they think is gonna benefit everyone.
For example, members of a state within Rousseau’s political system. Workers and consumers within a capitalist system. Thinkers of the Frankfurt School are making the case that these systems no doubt helped make the world a better place than it was before in the 1700’s…but here’s the thing…it’s not the 1700’s anymore. It is an outdated, lost cause to try to use reason to break down and define some giant classification that every human being should think of themselves as from birth. Reason is great…but it has its limitations and tendencies. It’s not that we shouldn’t use reason to best organize our society economically…but we need to be self-aware of these limitations and tendencies.
This is the point…what some thinkers in the Frankfurt School are getting at here…is that because reason is always aiming towards harnessing control over aspects of nature that benefit the person doing the reasoning…you can imagine how easily when it’s applied to the control of human beings…that it can devolve into fascism. This is the explanation for how it was possible for the world to be technologically and culturally more advanced than we had ever been in human history…only to devolve into the most inhuman crisis in history in WW2. That the natural end game…of Enlightenment Style, reason based thinking…is fascism. The more enlightened of a person that you become…the more you use reason to ground your beliefs in things…the LESS you believe in cosmically determined ways that human beings must behave. This is familiar…God is dead, right? In a post enlightenment world, in a world where there are no moral substrates and people have a tendency to harness control over nature in a way that benefits them…all it takes is one Adolph Hitler…one person that had a bad childhood and never went to therapy that likes the idea of people chanting their name and posters of their face and controlling people. All it takes is ONE OF THOSE… for fascism to potentially emerge.
Now of course I’m joking about the bad childhood thing, but it’s actually not that far off the way that the Frankfurt School thought we should be looking at someone like an Adolph Hitler. Theodor Adorno… one of the thinkers of the Frankfurt School actually devised a personality test called The California F-Scale…F standing for fascism. It’s essentially just a bunch of questions designed to determine how fascist or likely to support a fascist you are. Now, that personality test in particular was heavily criticized, but the point Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt school want to make… is that fascism may be NATURALLY where enlightenment style thinking goes…but it’s not NECESSARILY where it has to go. And that as a species living in this post-enlightenment world…we need to be aware of the increased risk level we’re at for fascist movements emerging and we should probably be taking steps towards identifying the Adolph Hitlers…when they’re in art school…before they become the Adolph hitlers invading Czechoslovakia where we have to fight a bloody war where tens of millions of people die. The thinking behind the F-Scale… was that it takes a pretty extreme psychological outlook on the world to think that it’s a good idea for you to become the next Adolph Hitler…maybe if we mandated that everyone took this F-Scale test throughout their life…we’d be able to catch that sort of black and white thinking that leads to you BECOMING an Adolph Hitler. So again, we shouldn’t do AWAY with enlightenment style thinking just because it leads to fascism…it’s kind of like having a pool installed in your backyard and you have small children around. It’s not that pools are bad because there’s this new danger we have to consider…it’s not that you can’t have a pool…we just need to make sure we put up a good fence around the pool…we need to make sure we develop some fascism safeguards to make sure things don’t get super out of control like they did in 1930’s Germany.
Now let’s move on to some of the actual critique of modern, Western society particularly in the United States. One of the most influential thinkers of the Frankfurt School was a guy named Herbert Marcuse…he wrote a book called One Dimensional Man that would go on to be massively influential in the New Left protests of the 1960’s.
Marcuse comes out swinging in chapter one, he says:
“By virtue of the way it has organized its technological base, contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian. For “totalitarian” is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests.”
Now, you may hear that and think…well that seems a little extreme. The United States is not even CLOSE to being a totalitarian society…what’s Marcuse talking about?
Here’s the definition of Totalitarian as given to me by dictionary.com:
adjective
1.
of or relating to a centralized government that does not tolerate parties of differing opinion and that exercises dictatorial control over many aspects of life.
2.
exercising control over the freedom, will, or thought of others;authoritarian; autocratic.

What Marcuse would say is that you can have your sort of run of the mill, cliché Totalitarian society where the government forces citizens to do things, centralized political power… typically in a one-party system… and any political opposition that gets too loud is immediately introduced to the bottom of the nearest lake. You can have that.
You can also have a government that claims not to be Totalitarian, but any reasonable person looking at them from the outside would OBVIOUSLY call what they’re doing Totalitarianism. Look we’re not FORCING upon you what you do all day…you have a choice!…you can dig ditches all day, you can crush rocks…you can help build this statue that’s a monument to our supreme leader, you can be in the military. Look, we WELCOME political opposition in our great land…that’s why we have democratic elections every year…yeah 99% of the vote always comes in for one guy, but that just speaks to how great of a candidate he is. In other words, a society that masquerades as though it’s NOT totalitarian…gives its citizens the ILLUSION of freedom without them actually having a choice in the matter at all.
Marcuse says that when you take a close look at the United States…when you look at the government and culture exerting control over the behavior of the citizens…when you look at the illusion of political involvement that is given to people…when you look at the barriers put in place to keep any extreme dissenting ideas out…the United States starts to resemble one of these Totalitarian societies enslaving its people…but instead of the ultimate goal being so that the Supreme Leader can hang out with Dennis Rodman…the goal of THIS particular totalitarian society is hyper-technological progress.
Let’s break this down, let’s first talk about the illusion of political involvement Marcuses referencing. Marcuse would say that one of the inevitable byproducts of a Capitalist system…is the conflation of political power with money. You see it all around you…you wonder why nobody ever changes anything. Marcuse says the reason why is because that’s… just… capitalism. It’s always going to happen, even if it’s just in private. The people and companies with the most money are always going to be able to pay politicians to influence legislation in their favor. These are the people that REALLY have political influence. Couple that with the fact that there is a real, demonstrable connection between the number of advertising dollars spent on a political campaign, and the number of people voting for the candidate. People get their political opinions…from that box in their front room that gives them all their other opinions. Even if you were the most well intentioned individual in the world that wanted to run for Congress and change things from the inside…to even be able to sit on the committees influential enough to change these things, you’d need 20 years in Congress…that’s 20 years of spending your days fundraising because you need money…because the way you win elections is by spending more money on smear ads than the person you’re running against. It’s a system designed around linking money to political influence. I mean if you were some billionaire…and you had NEVER been in politics ever…NO idea how it works on the inside…if you had enough money…you could theoretically self fund most of your own campaign and there’s a very REAL chance you could convince enough people to vote for you just because you ran a lot of TV ads and the people only had two choices.
That’s another thing Marcuse talks about…the whole two party structure. These two parties seem to disagree on a lot of stuff…they disagree on stem cells and illegal immigration and whether or not we should legalize marijuana. But Marcuse would want to direct your attention to all the things these two parties DO agree on that leave you as a voter, effectively without a choice in the matter. Any time you have a bi-partisan consensus on anything…as a voter…you essentially don’t have a choice. Marcuse would say the two parties are just competing to preserve the existing framework…not exploring real alternatives that may be better for people. And you may say, what are you talking about…we have third party candidates! Marcuse would say: right…they’re just not allowed at the prime time televised debates…not covered by any major news outlets…it would require a voter to do some digging to even know who they are…there’s of course the feeling that you’re throwing away your vote when it should be used on the REAL election going on. The existence of these third parties provides the illusion of a diverse array of political opinions to choose from…when in reality everyone’s gonna go to Fox News and CNN to reinforce their outlook on the world anyway.
Marcuse would say that you’re living in a society… where from the moment you’re born you are conditioned with the idea that you are first and foremost a worker and a consumer. When you’re a kid, people ask you what you want to be when you grow up…the implication there being, what work are you going to be doing that will allow you to get money to consume the things you want to consume. Our whole public school system is designed around the idea that it benefits us as a nation if our children have a baseline of an understanding that will turn them into tax-paying productive citizens. Paying taxes on earned income from working 8 hours a day…paying taxes on consumption. When somebody says to you, tell me about yourself. The first thing most people offer up that describes who they are…is their work. When they’re done telling you about their work…they’ll often go on to tell you all the things they like to consume in their free time. Your job in this world is to wake up…work for the majority of your day…then come home, and consume things that make you feel just good enough to go back to your job the next day…all so that this engine of hyper-technological advancement keeps powering forward. Some of you out there may love your job…the reality of the global population is that most people don’t. Most people don’t hate their job…they’ve learned to accept it as an inevitability…but they’d never be doing this stuff if it wasn’t required of them to earn enough green paper to sustain a living. Right there…Marcuse would say…life, isn’t an end in itself in the United States…no, in this society you have to EARN the right to life by providing some good or service to people around you in your society.
You know it’s been said of Capitalism that it’s a beautiful system because it’s sort of like a forced altruism. You give the people around you something they like, or else you starve to death. We’re just human beings engaging in mutually beneficial transactions giving each other what we want. Marcuse would say…yeah exactly…it’s FORCED altruism. Look at how the very structure of Capitalism FORCES people to conform to the way that things already are and not change anything too much. What he means is: that in a society where people didn’t have to earn green paper or else starve to death…in a society where people just do whatever interests them each day…no idea or activity is too far outside of what the status quo is for them to be able to explore it…whereas in a Capitalist society where you give me something I want or else you starve to death…the existing culture and what people want… dictates the limitations of what you can do and serves to reinforce the way things already are. For example imagine a culture where nobody saw value in reading and interpreting philosophy. Marcuse would say…no matter how much you think it would benefit the world to give people access to philosophy…you’re not gonna be doing a philosophy podcast…you need people on Patreon that believe in the cause as well or else you’re gonna starve to death. And Marcuse says in reality what happens is you don’t want to be a social outcast and so you just conform to provide some good or service that is endorsed by the current way that the culture is. It perpetuates itself.
Some of you out there may be saying: ok I don’t think of myself as fundamentally a worker and consumer…and I don’t feel this enormous sense of pressure to work or else I’m going to starve to death. And by the way all of this is sounding very conspiratorial…like who’s enforcing this world you’re talking about…what are you gonna tell me next? The bankers or the illuminati are pulling the puppet strings making sure I stay conditioned to love my chains so much that I don’t even FEEL like I’m being enslaved as I’m BEING enslaved?
No, Marcuse would say: it’s far more insidious than that. The reality is: good people with good intentions every day are perpetuating the system without even realizing it because they’re immersed in it. Next time we’re going to be talking about something the Frankfurt School calls The Culture Industry…Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer…we’re gonna talk about all the different ways they think movies, TV Shows, advertising, social media program you to feel like you need things you don’t actually need, keeping you alienated from other people chasing something to consume that’s going to solve your problems if only you work hard enough to afford it, to keep you working and consuming.
Another response you may have to Marcuse is, ok…let’s say I’m just some wage slave that’s been indoctrinated to love my chains. Is there nothing to be said for the fact that the system works? In other words…there’s no guarantee in this universe that a political or economic system is going to work when it’s tried…even if you see me as a slave, even if I’m just living in some really clever and insidious totalitarian society…you can’t deny the system WORKS, Marcuse. Technology is improving at a rapid rate. Society 99% of the time functions well. For most people, at least in the United States, there’s the possibility of economic mobility, the benefits OF this focus on technological progress are distributed to the consumers…is there nothing to be said for any of that?
Marcuse would say…you’re right! That’s one of the most diabolical parts of all of this…that attitude is based on rational thought, but it’s that attitude that sustains the way things are. Marcuse would say, sure…rapid technological progress IS being made…but is that progress overall as a species? Is having the iPhone 12 more important than the people putting it together that are jumping off the factories committing suicide during their lunch break? Yes, the system works…but what do we have to sacrifice as a species to be able to achieve that world?
By the way, Marcuse’s not saying we should throw out capitalism tomorrow and implement Marxism and everything would be great. He’s not advocating for some revolution to occur. He explicitly says that if you instantly did away with Capitalism it would probably be the greatest catastrophe in the history of the world. You can’t just take people…that have been conditioned from birth to look at every aspect of their lives in terms of socially isolated labor and consumption…drop them in a Marxist society and expect them to do well. Nobody’s going to work…everyone’s gonna be looking for happiness in the wrong places they’ve been conditioned to look for it. It would be a disaster. No, if this country ever does away with the Capitalist model…Marcuse says it’s going to happen slowly over the course of generations. It’s gonna be a slow awakening and re-education of people to be aware of the chains…to be aware of the suffering of the people that make the system possible…to be aware of the ways their behavior is conditioned and maintained. Marcuse would ask, is this true freedom?

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Episode 109 – The Frankfurt School pt. 2 – The Enlightenment


The Frankfurt School


On this episode, we continue our discussion of The Frankfurt School. See the full transcript of this episode here.

The Frankfurt School, also known as the Institute of Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), is a social and political philosophical movement of thought located in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. It is the original source of what is known as Critical Theory. The Institute was founded, thanks to a donation by Felix Weil in 1923, with the aim of developing Marxist studies in Germany. The Institute eventually generated a specific school of thought after 1933 when the Nazis forced it to close and move to the United States, where it found hospitality at Columbia University, New York.


Further Reading on The Frankfurt School:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Recommended Reading


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Episode 108 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #108 on The Frankfurt School. Check out the episode page HERE.

So we’re going to be talking about individual philosophers on most shows, but let’s never forget the fact that our ultimate goal throughout this current arc of the show is to tell some of the MAIN philosophical stories of the twentieth century. And realistically, you could never tell the FULL story on a show like this.
But the point is we’re talking about more than just individuals now…we’re talking about movements, we’re talking about massive historical events that thinkers are living within and reacting to…we’re telling a STORY, here. And whenever you’re telling a story…sometimes you need a narrator that takes a step back from the individual characters and what they’re saying… and talks about what’s going on on a larger scale so that you can understand the behavior of the characters better.
Why is it…that freedom and responsibility are so important to Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir, specifically in the time they’re living, what were they responding to? Why is Bertrand Russell so concerned with mathematics…why is Wittgenstein SO concerned with language…specifically…during the time he was living in the early 20th century?
We have a lot of people to talk about. But one thing I think you’ll find the further we get along this journey…is just how revolutionary of a moment it was in modern human history… when Nietzsche wrote the words: God is dead. Seriously, if there was a page one of this story that we’re telling…it wouldn’t be once upon a time in that giant Declaration of Independence font…it would be God is dead. He remains dead, and we have killed him.
Now when Nietzsche says this…a way someone might misinterpret Nietzsche here is to think oh, he said God is dead…here’s this anti-religious nihilist philosopher triumphantly proclaiming that God is dead calling for us to move onward into a better age where we can get away from the scourge of religion! Not even close to who Nietzsche was or what he was saying…and I think it’s going to be useful for us to talk a little more about what he WAS saying… at least more than we did in Nietzsche pt. 1…real quick, just to get back to where we were in that episode:
Think of any universal human problem. Think of a problem where no matter what area of the world your particular ancestors decided to settle…they were going to be faced with this problem and were going to be forced to come up with some creative invention that DEALS with this problem. Carrying a lot of heavy stuff around. No matter where you’re from…your ancestors had to invent something to cope with carrying around heavy stuff. And historically, what we see, are different cultures coming up with slightly different solutions to this problem based on a lot of different factors individual to them…what resources they had, what landmarks were around them, what their lives were like…for example if you were a culture of animal husbandry…some sort of herding culture…maybe you used animals to solve this problem of carrying around heavy stuff. If you were part of a culture that had a lot of trees around you… maybe you rolled things around on logs…maybe you make a cart or a wagon or a rickshaw, any one of these inventions that ALL are slightly different from each other… but ultimately were all created by human beings with the same goal in mind: to solve this universal human problem of carrying heavy stuff.
Well what’s another universal human problem? What’s a question that every human being asks at some point in their life? What is the meaning of my life? How do I fit into the grand picture of the universe? How can I feel like my life has meaning? In other words, in the same way cultures throughout history have all come up with their own personalized, slightly different, clever inventions that solve the problem of carrying around heavy stuff…Nietzsche would say that all the varying forms of mythology and religion throughout history, have been the same thing: clever human inventions to solve a universal human problem of answering these existential questions.
Now fast forward to Nietzsche saying God is Dead. Nietzsche himself is not really doing anything when he just says the words God is Dead…the significance of those words… lies in him pointing out a reality of the world that’s come to pass.
He’s pointing out… that our understanding of the world has come a long way since the scientific revolution. That science has no doubt given us a lot of incredible things…but we have to start to think about, at what cost has that come? Nietzsche would say that being a human being in this new scientific world we have…is just a totally different situation than any other situation a human has had to face before…that for us…living in a world post-Copernicus, post-Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Freud…living in that world as a human being…it has become next to impossible to simultaneously be both a reasonable person…while also believing that there’s a guy up in the clouds named Zeus with lightning bolts that’s going to zap you if you do something wrong…or that there’s a guy that used to walk on water and cure blind people. In other words, it’s become next to impossible to use one of these clever human inventions… that solve this universal human problem of searching for meaning.
When Nietzsche says God is dead. He’s not saying that in a happy tone, at all. He’s saying it regretfully…FEARFULLY even. Think about the situation we’re in as people: we are TRIBAL creatures. We have such a strong tendency to attach ourselves to some group or some cause…and then the meaning of our life becomes to advance the agenda of OUR group, label some other group as the enemy, and then go to war with that other group. Think of all the OTHER incentives we have to act this way…how good it feels to seemingly have a vice-grip on the way that things are in the world, no further questions, no more cognitive dissonance for me. How good it feels…to derive a sense of identity from these beliefs that you hold…to escape that ambiguity about who you are. Given the reality of human psychology…think of how many barriers are naturally in the way if you want to try to budge somebody OFF of one of these positions…and for tens of thousands of years whenever people have asked what tribe they should be a part of, what their sense of identity should be or where they can get a convenient vice-grip on the truth…for tens of thousands of years mythology and religion has given them those answers.
You know, Nietzsche would say that the sort of naïve way of looking at religion is to say, hey…look back at history! Look at all the wars that have been carried out in the name of religion. In the name of these fairy tales people used to believe in…you know what? We need to do away with all this religion nonsense and get rid of this unnecessary bloodshed. Nietzsche would say, ok…let’s do away with religion and start over. Do you think the history of the world is going to be a bunch of science fairs and meditation seminars? No…it would still be a violent and bloody clash… of people organizing into groups, thinking in terms of us vs. them, exercising their will to power…it just wouldn’t be religious groups carrying it out. In fact there’s people that make the case that religion may have been a moderating influence on the violence throughout history…because at least it allowed people to organize into these MASSIVE groups of millions people…as opposed to the world being much more fragmented and volatile.
When Nietzsche says God is dead he’s not talking about the literal death of some deity. He’s talking about the death of humanity’s pursuit for moral objectivity. He’s talking about the death…of people having a ready-made answer that fills that void within them that craves meaning. Nietzsche’s asking: what are people going to do now that they don’t have that answer? Remember, to Nietzsche, 95% of people are the mob…they’re camels, beasts of burden, all of their beliefs and values loaded onto their backs by other people…they’re scared and lazy and generally speaking are just not the kind of people that are going to read up on some existentialism and fill this void in other ways. And it’s not like when you cut the legs out from underneath religion science just naturally fills that void….people aren’t sitting around saying, well there’s no meaning to anything I do…but I got a large Hadron collider for Christmas…that’ll be fun. Just got a new iPhone…spiritual guidance…I think I’m good for a while! No that void doesn’t just magically disappear…and they’re GOING to fill it with something…the question becomes: now that it’s a near impossibility to fill it with religion… what are people going to fill it with?
Nietzsche predicts in his book The Will to Power…very ominously…that in the next 100 years after writing that book…tens of millions of people are going to die because of the position we’ve worked ourselves into. Nietzsche saw the beginning of the twentieth century before it even happened. In many ways, he saw the world we still live in today before it even happened. Out went religion and in came ideology. Nationalism…Marxism…Capitalism…tons of other isms you could throw in there. The story of the 20th century is in large part a story of competing ideologies living in the wake of the death of God.
When the French Existentialists…Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Camus…are writing their work…part of the reason why they’re so focused on making a case for individuality… is because they’re living in the middle of Nazi occupied France. They’re living in a world where people are thinking of themselves first, and primarily as a member of some group… and THEN as an individual human being.
I am a German. Germany is one of the great nations of the world. If we’re ever going to assume our rightful place as a world power we’re going to have to take back some of the land THEY took from US through the treaty of Versailles. Us vs. Them. People identifying themselves in terms of their GROUP identity rather than their individuality. The reason freedom and responsibility is so important to the French Existentialists…is because people were using this group identity, as a justification for doing horrible things… and then pretending they had no choice in the matter because this is what their group is doing.
For example, look…I’m a just Nazi Soldier…if one of the higher ups orders me to go round up those kids over there and put a bullet in their head…I’m just a soldier following orders. I had no choice in the matter. Or on the other side…hey, I’m just a citizen of France I didn’t want to go to war. Those Nazi people have guns…what can I do but just sit around weave flowers together so I can throw them on whoever comes and saves me? I don’t have a choice in the matter.
The existentialists are responding to this thinking by saying, no…in both cases, you didn’t need to kill those kids and you could’ve been actively part of the resistance…in other words: you DID have a choice, and you are responsible for what you have done. The consequences for making that different choice may have been dire for you, but one thing the existentialists aren’t going to allow… is to let you get away with pretending to be some droning, mindless member of a group that’s devoid of individual autonomy. But, on the other hand…again, an integral part of being a human being is FEELING like you’re a member of some group that is fighting for good. That’s the sort of ambiguity that we have to navigate as people in this new post-scientific revolution world. And if you’re not an EXTREMELY self-aware and HONEST person…as Simone De Beauvoir warns about…you can very easily find yourself a foot soldier for some tyrannical group…all the while feeling TOTALLY morally justified…feeling like you’re a good person while doing it. As people that are alive today…JUST like the people of Germany in the 1930’s…we all carry this burden of potentially reducing ourselves to just a foot soldier of an ideological group, but we CAN’T forget our individuality.
Now one of the main ideologies that people attached themselves to and worked to advance throughout the 20th century… was neo-Marxism and its varying forms. In fact, at the same time Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir and Camus are doing their work in France…there’s a group of Marxists that had been working on their own projects since the 1920’s that would come to be known as The Frankfurt School. Now this needs a bit of a setup…to understand where the mindset of a western Marxist was during this time period… we have to talk about a couple prophesies that were made by Marx himself back in his time.
Remember Hegel’s Dialectic? The idea is that the process of change throughout history can be understood in terms of a repetition of three stages that Hegel calls the Thesis, the Antithesis and the Synthesis. There’s a way that things are…that’s the Thesis…some competing interest comes along and overthrows that way of doing things, but inevitably the pendulum swings too far in that other direction and eventually finds a resting point somewhere in the middle of the Thesis and Antithesis in a place Hegel calls the Synthesis. The Synthesis then becomes the new Thesis and so on and so forth throughout the history of time. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept and want more of an explanation, you can always go back and listen to the Hegel episodes.
Well, as Marx famously writes, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” In other words, during his time Marx looks back at the history of the world and points out that when people go to war, or there’s some sort of bloody revolution or civil war, people primarily tend to go to war for economic reasons. The history of the world to Marx seems to be, in a way that resembles Hegel’s dialectic, a revolving door of a ruling class exerting control over an exploited class of people (the thesis), the exploited class of people rising up and overthrowing that ruling class (the antithesis), and then a new ruling class being elected that appears to be slightly better for the formerly exploited class (the synthesis). That new ruling class becomes the new thesis… and the whole process repeats itself over and over again. Marx points out how in every single economic system that’s ever been implemented throughout history…you always have this dynamic…there always seems to be a ruling class and an exploited class. During the Feudal System there was the peasantry and the Aristocracy. In a slave based economy there are the slaves and the slave owners. To Karl Marx, capitalism is the same way. There are the people that control the resources and the means of production, and then there’s the working class.
During his time, Marx asks a question that would go on to change the course of human history. Why does it have to be this way? Does it? Do you think…even potentially…that there might be some sort of economic system we could put in place that doesn’t have to involve this dialectic of class struggles? How many people need to die before we start to try to come up with some way that people don’t need to be exploited… and there doesn’t need to be this inevitable process of revolution and bloodshed?
Well, after realizing this…there’s good news and bad news says Marx at this point. The bad news is people are currently being exploited…right now…but the good news is: we know exactly where this is going, because it’s happened all throughout history. Here’s the prophecy he makes: There’s an industrial revolution going on in Europe at the time he’s alive… and it’s in these high production areas that the ruling vs exploited class dynamic of capitalism is going to be the most pronounced. Just like the peasants immiserated under the Feudal system, the working class in this capitalist system is eventually going to rise up, take over the means of production… and it’s at that point that we should implement a system that DOESN’T have this exploitation built into it.
Well fast forward to Germany in the 1920’s in what’s known as the “interwar period”, or the years in between the end of WW1 and the beginning of WW2. At this point in time there’s a lot of Marxist thinkers sitting around waiting for this revolution to come about…but strangely…it hasn’t happened yet. In fact, it seems like its not coming. There’s an attempt immediately following the end of WW1 and all the turmoil that came with that…but the Weimar Republic ends up winning and assuming control of Germany and a lot of thinkers were starting to doubt whether Marx was right with this whole grand prophecy of his.
Not only that, they took look at the only country that’s HAD a communist revolution at the time…NOT an industrial society like Marx predicted but a predominantly AGRICULTURAL society at the time in Russia…they see Marxism become this Leninist Authoritarianism that’s going on there in the 1920’s…and what happens is this general attitude of skepticism towards Marx and his original theories… starts to creep in. Was Marx correct? Has this just been a massive failed experiment based on a misunderstanding of history?
Now it should be said: there are people that just ignore everything that’s going on and trudge forward with Marxism version 1.0…there’s other people that abandon Marxism thinking that it’s failed. But there’s a strong contingency of thinkers in the middle, The Frankfurt School among others…thinkers in the middle that are still Marxists…they still strongly believe in the world that Marxism is trying to bring about, but they’re highly critical of Marx for a few different reasons. Many critiques but two of the major ones are that Marx doesn’t talk enough about the concept of personal liberty within his system and he doesn’t do enough to consider the individual. Remember, the thinkers of the Frankfurt School are living right around the same time as Husserl and Heidegger and Sartre… and all these other thinkers that, like we talked about, are highly skeptical of enlightenment style thinking…of exalting reason onto this pedestal above everything else and trying to reduce everything, including human beings within a society down into these convenient, rational categories. During the time Karl Marx wrote his work, the concept of the individual just wasn’t being considered in the same way it was during the time of the Frankfurt School, and the thinkers OF the Frankfurt School saw that as a huge blind spot within Marxism.
Just to keep this organized: The Frankfurt School was a collection of neo-Marxists…convinced that Marxism was still correct overall…but that it needed some serious reworking…especially if it was ever going to work where they eventually wanted to implement it… in western countries including but not limited to: the United States.
Now, researchers in the Soviet Union compiled a collection of Marx’s notes that was never before published called: economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844. Now, not only did this book provide a never before seen more Hegelian interpretation of Marx…but this book was published in 1932…perfect timing if you’re someone who is a western Marxist and you want a fresh perspective on the whole situation. Couple this with the fact that basically every thinker in the first generation of the Frankfurt School was of Jewish descent…living in Germany during the interwar years…seeing the rising tide of anti-Semitism and Nazism all around them…they saw the writing on the wall: first they moved the school out of Frankfurt to Geneva and then ultimately to New York City for several years where they embedded themselves into Columbia University.
So what were the goals of the Frankfurt School? Well, their short term goals were to take a deep look at enlightenment style thinking and try to figure out how it was possible…for the world to go from a place technologically and culturally more advanced than it had ever been in history…only to instantly devolve into the most barbaric, brutal, hateful event in human history… in WW2. The Frankfurt school wanted to understand…how was that even possible? What it is about this post enlightenment world that makes that possible? The conclusions they arrive at range from interesting to downright scary. We’ll talk about them in the upcoming episodes of the show.
Later works of the Frankfurt School focus on a critique of Capitalism. Which naturally extends to a critique of the people they think are being exploited, Frankfurt School pointing at the invisible chains they say people unknowingly wear around each day and how they manifest into their lives. Which naturally extends to a critique of various traditions and institutions within those cultures.
Now, some of these critiques are scathing to the point that they take things that are long standing institutions within western culture and they shine a light on them that makes people never see them in the same way again…and when it comes to these critiques…how people say you should interpret them and what the ultimate goals of the Frankfurt School were, is all over the map. Some people think this is just naturally what happens when Marxist thought clashes with Capitalist thought. That Capitalism, is an antiquated system…founded on traditions that by their very nature are oppressive, don’t stand up to scrutiny and that certain western traditions involving the church, lack of community, views on family among other things…those traditions are what was necessary for the ruling vs exploited class dynamic to ever get off the ground in the first place. These people say this scathing critique is just Marxism holding a candle to weak traditions.
There are other people more in the middle that think both Marxism and Capitalism are viable systems if implemented correctly. That the critiques of the Frankfurt School, if they did anything, point out certain weak points that we, as a Capitalist society, should keep in mind moving forward when refining our systems and continuing to make things better.
There are other people that believe that the Frankfurt School is a group of Neo-Marxist thinkers engaged in a direct attack, the goal being to subvert western values, weaken the foundations of every aspect of western culture, then watch as the foundation eventually crumbles making it much easier to bring about a Marxist revolution in the west.
Point is: this conversation about how to interpret the critiques of the Frankfurt School can go on for days, and I’m not interested in being the one that makes the final proclamation. So I’ll leave you to make your own determination about what was going on inside the heads of the people that talk about these ideas, all I’m interested in is the merit of the ideas and what’s interesting about them.
Which brings me to a point I want to make. Just some things I want to put out there because I feel like they need to be said. I fully realize how political the world has become in the last year. I fully realize that there are podcasts and shows out there that used to do great content that now have become first and foremost a soapbox for some political ideology and secondarily content for their listeners. I just want to iterate that even though subject matters in the near future may trespass into places that are still relevant to modern politics…this is not the show becoming some bullhorn for who the next president should be…not that I even have strong enough political views to warrant doing a show on them…and maybe that makes me the perfect person to do this series.
Look, I come from poverty. I absolutely CHERISH being able to do this podcast for a living. The idea that I would dilute the show down and waste your time like that…I mean if you knew me personally you’d know that that’s the furthest thing from who I am. I approach every episode of this show with the same question: how can I give the people listening to me the most value possible… in these 30 minutes of their time they’ve given me? To me, it’s an unselfish way of approaching the show that I think is a big reason why I’ve been able to do this as long as I have. I respect your time…and I guess I just want to plant a flag in the ground here and make a couple promises moving forward.
I promise to cover these issues as fairly as I can. And I’m not just talking about the typical binary left/right way of looking at things…I plan on covering these subjects from multiple different angles that are interesting…if I can’t be comprehensive, I just won’t cover it.
Secondly, my hunch is that the majority of you listening, even if you’re a hardcore capitalist or Marxist, my hunch is that you’d welcome and be excited to hear a deep reading of the philosophy that underlies the other side respectively. They may ask questions you don’t have answers to that you can look into…at the very least you come out having strengthened your views from seeing the best the other side has to offer. But even if you’re not that open minded and you’ve already joined the tribe…even if in this world where God is Dead you’ve labeled one of those groups your mortal enemy that you have to fight against for the rest of your life…I promise I’m going to do these episodes in a way where you’re still going to get something out of it.
Now onto the question some of you are probably wondering: where’s Camus? You said on Facebook Camus would be here, where is he?! Camus’ coming, he’s stuck in traffic he’s going to be here soon. No, here’s the thing about Camus. Throughout the next several episodes, we’re not just going to be talking about Marxism and Capitalism from the perspective of the Frankfurt School…we’re going to be looking at it through the lens of thinkers that are critical of Marxism…of which…Camus is one of them and he’s a particularly interesting one because he’s a French Existentialist who’s NOT a Marxist, unlike Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir…AND he has a really interesting take on how Marxism starts to look like a direct mirror of Christianity…you know with the dialectic as this absolute governing force moving us providentially into a particular direction…the idea of this dialectic moving us toward some sort of ultimate end…there being notable figures throughout its history that resemble saints and bishops…heresy trials…there are many parallels that we’ll talk about more in depth when we get there.
Anyway, to bring this full circle there are a couple ideas from Camus I want to expand on that I didn’t get to finish in the last Camus episode because I was pressed for time. Nietzsche talks about this void that we have inside of us that craves meaning…this void that’s such a default, universal part of what it is to be a human being that some people aren’t even aware that they have it…they just fill it up with something immediately around them and then assume their role as a tribal zealot for the rest of their life. But what I love about Camus in the Myth of Sisyphus is that he talks about the process of discovering that void for the first time. When exactly do we realize there’s something lacking in that department?
Remember, Sisyphus is a man condemned by the Gods to an eternity of pushing a boulder up a hill, only to reach the top and watch as the boulder rolls back down to the bottom of the hill, at which point he walks back down to the bottom of the hill to start the process over again…THE ULTIMATE EXAMPLE…of struggling and straining and feeling pain and exerting yourself only to have all of your efforts ultimately be for nothing. This is a metaphor…for life, to Camus. We live in a universe that is so inconceivably large and complex and of a scope that we as humans can’t even wrap our heads around. We live our lives…with every step we take we fight against a tidal wave of things trying to kill us all the time…we coast through good times struggle through bad ones…only to reach the end of our lives to have to accept our fate that the universe really doesn’t care about anything that you did. Certainly in a humanistic sense what you do matters…it matters to the microscopic scaffolding that we’ve set up on this dust speck out in the boonies of an ordinary galaxy, but on the level of the universe? Sun’s going to blow up in 5 billion years, where’s this podcast going to be then? Where’s your stamp collection going to be that you’ve worked so hard to complete?
We’re all a little like Sisyphus in that regard…we’re all rolling these boulders up our respective hills only to have it ultimately be for nothing…and at the end of the last episode on Camus I made the point that maybe we ARE all like Sisyphus in a way, but that Camus says we’re only condemned by the Gods to push the boulder, not to agonize over the process…and that we should strive to enjoy the process of pushing the boulder as much as we can…that we should imagine Sisyphus smiling. I said all that, but I never really got to go into how Camus thinks you should be going about doing that.
Camus gives two main strategies that Sisyphus uses to remain happy…you know, even though… he’s condemned for all eternity to push a boulder up a hill. Camus would say that as outsiders…if we could sit on the sidelines and somehow watch Sisyphus push the boulder up the hill over and over again… it would no doubt look to us like a totally meaningless, tortuous, insane thing that Sisyphus is being forced to do. But at what point does Sisyphus realize that it’s all meaningless? It’s only when Sisyphus STOPS being present…takes a step back and says: wait a second…why am I pushing this boulder anyway? Looks around him…can’t make sense of it and deems it all to be meaningless, it’s only at that point that this concept of meaning comes into play at all.
10 seconds ago he was just pushing a boulder. It wasn’t until he stopped and reflected on the fact that he was pushing the boulder… that he started feeling like something was lacking. This is an example of a recurring theme that comes up in every single one of Camus’ books. It’s the contrast between reflection and lived experience. Camus would say think about what you’re doing whenever you stop to reflect on something. You stop doing whatever it is you’re doing… and you use your capacity to reason to try to make sense of things by asking a bunch of questions. Why am I pushing this boulder up the hill? Why am I here? Why do my actions matter?
Well consider for a second just how presumptuous and arrogant that whole reasoning process is. I’m going to take this narrow, human, rational scope that I have called reason…a scope that is limited and biased and existing really only because its sufficient at allowing my ancestors to pick mangos and reproduce…and I’m going to use this tool and impose this rationality onto the UNIVERSE…and see what conclusions I arrive at when it comes to what the whole purpose of it is. Right. What if reason is not the right tool for the job? What if you had some rusty hammer held together by string and some old Allen wrench from IKEA and someone told you to put together a space shuttle. You’d say, are you serious? I mean, I can try…I guess. The same way an Allen wrench is not the right tool for putting together a space shuttle, reflection and the human capacity to reason is not the right tool for understanding things like the meaning or non-meaning of the things that you do.
Again, keep in mind that this critique of reason is very popular among the thinkers of this era… and it’s the first thing we’re going to talk about with the Frankfurt School. But anyway, the way Sisyphus deals with this absurdity of the universe…the way he deals with the fact that bad sometimes triumphs over good and that my grandma died and I didn’t want her to and that my car broke down and that Santa Claus isn’t real, the way that he deals with all this stuff…Camus says Sisyphus makes his rock his thing.
What he means is Sisyphus is happy…because he chooses to fully engage himself in his work. So if reflecting on what the ultimate meaning of pushing the boulder is is never going to leave us with a satisfactory answer…why not focus ALL of your effort on being engaged in the task you’re currently doing? See to Camus…reflection is good…it certainly is a necessary part of life…but there’s a point of diminishing returns. You can reflect too much…and all it’s going to do at that point is deteriorate the quality of your lived experience.
No, accept the absurdity of the universe…and then immerse yourself back into being more fully engaged in the tasks you care about. What Sisyphus does…is he learns to love his rock that he pushes up the hill. He studies all the little grooves in the rock…all the different ways the grooves interact with the soil underneath. He pays attention to his posture and form when guiding the rock. He studies patterns in the ways the rock rolls back down the hill. He tries to find the most efficient way of getting back down the hill to start over. He makes the rock his thing.
Camus says that one strategy WE can use… is to be as engaged in the tasks of our lives… as Sisyphus is with his rock. Maybe for you that’s appreciating your family more deeply. Maybe it’s eating great food…maybe it’s working on contemplative stuff to get your mental game on another level. Point is: sometimes…if we spend too much time reflecting, looking at things from the outside all the time…we can lose sight of the significance and the beauty of these moments because we’re just not as engaged as we could be.
Kierkegaard has an example he uses where he talks about a couple out in public showing some strong levels of affection for each other. They’re making out…rubbing all over each other…breathing heavy…gross. And he says that if you just look at what they’re doing from the sidelines and reflect on it…if you REALLY look at what it is they’re doing…it’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever seen in your life. I want to put my lips up against your lips and feel a tickly feeling as I move them around and I want to hold you in one place and rub my hands all over your clothes to feel what kind of cotton/polyester blend you’re wearing today. It’s completely ridiculous.
The whole process can seem that way when you’re reflecting on it…no it’s only when…you’re the one doing the kissing, that you understand it. It’s only when you’re fully engaged in the act itself that any of the significance and the meaning starts to make sense to you. So too with the things we do in life.
I’ll leave the second strategy Sisyphus uses for our response to the Frankfurt School.
Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.

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Episode 108 – The Frankfurt School – Introduction


The Frankfurt School


On this episode, we begin our discussion of The Frankfurt School. See the full transcript of this episode here.

The Frankfurt School, also known as the Institute of Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), is a social and political philosophical movement of thought located in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. It is the original source of what is known as Critical Theory. The Institute was founded, thanks to a donation by Felix Weil in 1923, with the aim of developing Marxist studies in Germany. The Institute eventually generated a specific school of thought after 1933 when the Nazis forced it to close and move to the United States, where it found hospitality at Columbia University, New York.


Further Reading on The Frankfurt School:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Recommended Reading


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Episode 107 – The Ethics of Ambiguity

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Simone De Beauvoir (1908–1986)


On this episode, we take a look at Simone De Beauvoir and her book The Ethics of Ambiguity. See the full transcript of this episode here.

There are some thinkers who are, from the very beginning, unambiguously identified as philosophers (e.g., Plato). There are others whose philosophical place is forever contested (e.g., Nietzsche); and there are those who have gradually won the right to be admitted into the philosophical fold. Simone de Beauvoir is one of these belatedly acknowledged philosophers. Identifying herself as an author rather than as a philosopher and calling herself the midwife of Sartre’s existential ethics rather than a thinker in her own right, Beauvoir’s place in philosophy had to be won against her word.

Continue reading Episode 107 – The Ethics of Ambiguity

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Episode 106 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #106 on Simone De Beauvoir. Check out the episode page HERE.

So last episode we talked about Sartre’s idea that at the foundation of who we are… there’s a constant tug of war that’s going on between what he calls our Facticity and our Transcendence. Our Facticity being the facts that are true about us at any given moment and our Transcendence being the possibilities that we have at our disposal. Last episode, what followed from this, for Sartre…is that people are made massively uncomfortable by this constant tug of war that’s going on… and we all tend to gravitate towards removing one side of the people pulling on the rope… we either want to ignore the facts that are true about us or ignore the possibilities that we have so that one side will just fall into the mud pit already and we can all stop pulling on this stupid rope.
But unfortunately… Sartre would say… the game never actually ends. Despite the fact you may view yourself as some sort of completed project…the reality is that through your actions… you are constantly creating and re-creating yourself in each passing moment….every second, that passes you change in some small way…the reality is: we all exist in this place of tension…this tug of war that’s going on between two sides of a duality called our Facticity and Transcendence.
But Simone De Beauvoir is going to take that one step further. The implications of which form the basis of her book The Ethics of Ambiguity. Just listen for second to the very first paragraph of the book and then we’ll talk about what she’s getting at:
“THE continuous work of our life,” says Montaigne, “is to build death.” Man knows and thinks this tragic ambivalence which the animal and the plant merely undergo. A new paradox is thereby introduced into his destiny. “Rational animal,” “thinking reed,” he escapes from his natural condition without, however, freeing himself from it. He is still a part of this world of which he is a consciousness. He asserts himself as a pure internality against which no external power can take hold, and he also experiences himself as a thing crushed by the dark weight of other things. At every moment he can grasp the non-temporal truth of his existence. But between the past which no longer is and the future which is not yet, this moment when he exists is nothing. This privilege, which he alone possesses, of being a sovereign and unique subject amidst a universe of objects, is what he shares with all his fellow-men. In turn an object for others, he is nothing more than an individual in the collectivity on which he depends.”
Now you can just hear in that passage… she’s describing what she’s later going to go on to call the Ambiguity of human existence. Let’s talk about what she means by that. She’d say sure, Sartre at any given moment we are both Facticity and Transcendence…it’s a duality we exist within…like we talked about last episode, when you take an honest look at what it is to be me…I am what I am…but simultaneously I also am what I am not yet. And if somebody asked you…so… which one are you really are you the facts about who you are right now, or are you the possibilities you’re currently bringing about? That’d be kind of a confusing question because the answer is: I’m BOTH. Yes, people commonly fall into bad faith and try to remove one side of it…but the reality is I am BOTH Facticity and Transcendence simultaneously and that reality creates a certain tension for me.

But Simone De Beauvoir would point out…that when you take a closer look at human existence…it starts to look like we’re not just engaged in a single game of tug of war that’s going on…it’s not just Facticity and Transcendence…we seem to be engaged… in MANY different games of tug of war all at the same time.
See because yes, I am both Facticity and Transcendence. But what else am I? Lots of things she would say. For example… at any given moment, I am simultaneously both a subject navigating the world and an object within other people’s subjective view of the world. So what am I? Am I a subject or an object? What if I’m both of them simultaneously and that existing within that duality creates a certain level of tension for me? Another example…at any given moment, I am both an individual person and a member of a collective group, family, nation-state, species, whatever. So what am I? Am I an individual or a part of a larger group? What if I’m both simultaneously and that existing within that duality creates a certain level of tension for me? Mind and matter. Self and other. The examples of these dualities that we exist between go on over the horizon…and Simone De Beauvoir would say that when you look back at the history of philosophy and religion…so many of the ideas that have been laid out over the years have been people trying to reduce one side of these dualities… so that we can simplify the world down into terms that are less ambiguous. To escape the true reality of the Ambiguity of being a human in this world. Whether it was to think of the world as merely an earthly shadow of flawed forms…whether it was to think of ourselves as a mind perched up within a brain, or a soul inhabiting a body…or as a member of a state with a duty to fulfill that transcends your individual desires…within each and every one of these and many more… you can see what Simone De Beauvoir says is an attempt to over-simplify our human condition, and escape the true Ambiguity of existence. The ethics of Ambiguity is just filled with iconic quotes that are unforgettable…about this point she says: `
“At the present time there still exist many doctrines which choose to leave in the shadow certain troubling aspects of a too complex situation. But their attempt to lie to us is in vain. Cowardice does not pay. Those reasonable metaphysics, those consoling ethics with which they would like to entice us only accentuate the disorder from which we suffer.”
Just listen to that quote…those REASONABLE metaphysics, those CONSOLING ethics with which they would like to entice us…that is just great writing. And shots fired at Philosophers and Theologians throughout history…Simone De Beauvoir’s saying they start to look guilty of what your average person does when they fall into Bad Faith…how is what they’re doing any different than reducing one side of your Facticity and Transcendence to try to escape a state of tension.
No…to be an honest human being…is to be in a state of tension…it’s to BE in a state of ambiguity. Simone De Beauvoir’s saying…we feel the effects of this ambiguity…and our kneejerk response throughout history has been to feel like something’s missing…she says we recognize a “lack” in ourselves (important word)…we feel like somethings missing and that if only we can come up with the right philosophical rationalization to make us feel like we understand the world perfectly…then the ambiguity’s gonna go away…then we’re going to be COMPLETE as people.
What Simone De Beauvoir is asking here is what if we’re never meant to be completed as people? And that no matter what story you decide tell yourself to run from the ambiguity…what if it’s just not as simple as I am purely a spirit…or I’m PURE energy…or PURELY an American…what if the world, what if being a human being is not black and white like that…what if it’s black, white and grey simultaneously and that we purposefully look at it through a very small lens to make us feel like its more simple than it really is? What would happen… if somebody stopped running from this Ambiguity and just embraced it, what would that person look like? Could you ever be happy living within that ambiguity? Is there any reasonable foundation that you can approach how to best behave within that ambiguity? This is the task of the ethics of ambiguity.
Now if you’re gonna be an existentialist writing an approach to ethics like Simone De Beauvoir is…there’re going to be certain classic questions that arise that you’ll have to address at some point. One of them is that…. if existence precedes essence…if it is the job of the individual to create their own values and meaning to life…how can anyone ever say that the values I arrive at are any less or more valid than anyone else’s. What I mean is, if someone arrived at a set of values that said raping and murdering people was a good thing…if I’m not appealing to some standard of good and evil behavior, if existence precedes essence…how can I ever say that worldview is wrong?
Well to begin answering this question…Simone De Beauvoir’s going to cite a famous line that Sartre writes in Being and Nothingness…it’s the idea that “Man is condemned to be free.” Where she’s going with this is that…even if there’s no objective good and evil written into the universe…that doesn’t mean there’s not certain, fundamental aspects about the human condition that we have to consider when navigating our lives…we are condemned to breath, we are condemned to forage for food, we are condemned to turn read receipts off on our cellphones…but she’d say more important than all of those things, we are condemned to be free…we are condemned without our prior consent, to a life where we have to be constantly making choices…she points out how…even if you try to deny this reality… even if you just sit around or fall into bad faith and do nothing your whole life…the choice to do nothing… is still a choice you’re making, The fact that we’re condemned to freedom…the fact that we can make practically any choice we want is the very thing that allows us to create the meaning to our lives…in other words…this essence we’re talking about ultimately relies on this more fundamental aspect of the human condition that we are free…and if you examine this freedom closely, she thinks there are certain essences (like raping and murdering people) that are just flat out contradictory to arrive at.
See because, the very idea of morality relies on the idea that people are free enough to choose between at least two different alternatives. Right, I mean if somebody was truly powerless over acting in a particular way, the whole concept of morality evaporates. For example if you were down at the beach and you lost control of your skateboard…and it was rolling towards the edge of the boardwalk about to go into the ocean…and your friend was near the edge and could easily put their foot out and stop the skateboard, but let’s say they don’t…let’s say they look at you…look at the skateboard…hands on their knees smiling as they stare at the skateboard plummeting into the ocean…you might call their behavior into question.
Now same situation, but this time you lost control of your 18-wheeler semi-truck…you’re probably not gonna wonder why they didn’t dive in front of it like they’re superman…they were powerless, there was nothing they could do about it in that situation. This is an example of how the whole idea… of what we’re morally obligated to do… is directly connected to the amount of freedom we have in a given situation…or as Simone De Beauvoir puts it you don’t offer an ethics to a God…you don’t offer ethics to someone who thinks they can’t make mistakes or on the other hand to anyone who thinks they’re powerless to the point they can’t make choices. Good news for us is: in actuality we’re neither of these things, people just tell themselves they are…and because this whole discussion of ethics and what we’re morally accountable for… is ultimately contingent upon our level of freedom…it follows to Simone De Beauvoir…that any serious discussion about what we’re morally accountable to do at the VERY least… needs to begin from a place that maximizes that default state that we’re born into: condemned to be free.
In other words: in the same way we shouldn’t deny one side of these dualities we exist between in an attempt to run from the ambiguity of existence…we shouldn’t deny that we are condemned to be free. We should recognize the fundamental aspect of our being THAT we are free, embrace it and then move in the direction of behaviors that MAXIMIZE that freedom rather than run from it. Now the extension of this…and one of the highly unique aspects of her Ethics we’re gonna talk a lot more about next episode…is that to TRULY maximize your freedom to Simone De Beauvoir requires the maximization of the freedom of others…that for many reasons, you can’t really be totally free unless if other people around you are totally free.
Again, we’re gonna talk all about it next episode because that’s the third and final part of the Ethics of Ambiguity… and what we’ve been talking about so far is what she lays out in part one. So what does that leave us with? Part two…I guess I just want to talk for a second about how this book is structured…it’s pretty brilliant what she does and I didn’t really realize what exactly she was doing when I first read it years ago. So, part one lays out this whole idea of the Ambiguity of existence and the maximization of freedom…part three lays out how we should actually be behaving in practice, and part two can read like a sort of a tangential aside where she wants to put certain people on blast for not being free enough…but the genius of what she’s doing in part two is that she foresees the people coming along reading her work mistakenly thinking they have it all figured out…she foresees people saying stuff like, ambiguity? Oh yeah…WAY ahead of you Ms. De Beauvoir, way ahead of you…LONG AGO I accepted the true ambiguity of existence and even LONGER BEFORE THAT when I was but a child I realized how free I am to choose anything I want. Sometimes it gets lonely…you know …being so smart…being so much more free than everyone else around me…but it’s not all bad I find humor in their feeble attempts to deny their freedom…
This is what’s so awesome about part two…Simone De Beauvoir lays out like 12 different personality types of people that she sees around her…personalities that you still see EVERYWHERE in today’s world…some very simple, some very nuanced, but ALL OF WHICH are examples of tactics people use to convince themselves they are free when they actually could be much more free…not only that though…when you look at these types of people that she talks about… Simone De Beauvoir thinks all of these different approaches to looking at life… are reactions to when we were children…they’re reaction to when we were first faced with the reality, the true freedom and responsibility that’s required of us, in adulthood.
She says two things happen when we’re kids: one, we’re born…and we look at adults as these authoritative sources of information… people that have grasped the ultimate values of life and we need to be more like them. We seem them as these…COMPLETED people…these people that have figured out what’s lacking like we talked about before and have COMPLETED themselves. But again, what if in reality…we NEVER complete ourselves. What are THEY doing then?
The second thing that happens is that throughout the entire time you’re a kid, you live in a state… of never having to deal with the ambiguity of existence…your parents…protect you from that and what you end up doing is running around, playing and just being a kid. In other words, what Simone De Beauvoir’s saying is that for the first 16 years of your life or so…you don’t even KNOW about the ambiguity of existence…you don’t even know about this constant state of tension that life truly is. You know, there’s people that have emailed me and asked why do you think we have such a tendency to gravitate towards bad faith, as opposed to embracing our freedom? Well, how can you blame people? You’re faced the reality of the freedom and responsibility of adulthood…and when you look around you at the role models you have at your disposal…they’re all people that claim to have this whole life thing figured out. They’re all people using one of these strategies she talks about, convincing themselves that they’ve COMPLETED themselves.
Kind of like Nietzsche and the whole Camel, Lion and Child progression he lays out in Thus Spoke Zarathustra…Simone De Beauvoir structures all these different types of people in part two in a similar sort of way where there’s a progression…a progression from the least free to the most free. Now, the LEAST free person…the absolute bottom of the barrel in terms of freedom…is what Simone De Beauvoir calls the “sub-man”. The sub-man is that guy working at Subway making sandwiches all day…what a loser says Simone De Beauvoir…just kidding she’s talking about a different kind of sub…sub meaning below.
Simone De Beauvoir describes this person as the kind of person who’s sort of apathetic about everything all the time. She says they feel “ like nothing merits desire or effort”. That everything’s dull…nothing is really that impressive ever…they see things other people do…they shrug a lot…meh…okay. Nothing really is worth their time.
Simone De Beauvoir says that what this is… is a child that saw just how much freedom adulthood had in store for them…they saw the sheer number of possible projects they could work on throughout their life…they felt really uncomfortable… and then in an attempt to ease their discomfort and return to that…safe, unambiguous cocoon of childhood…they sort of retreated and closed themselves off from the world.
People with a lot of different interests and a lot of capability are at a higher risk for becoming a sub-man…reason being because they look at all the possibilities and say man I could do anything…I could be a Veterinarian, I could be a news anchor, I could be a scientist…you know what…who cares about any of it? They deny that there’s any sort of tension or lack within themselves that requires action… and they COMPLETE themselves… by choosing, nothing…De Beauvoir says…and the problem with someone choosing nothing on a social level… is that they become potential members of a mob. They become malleable fodder for the projects that other people are working on… as long as those people can persuade the sub-men to be temporarily emboldened by whatever cause they give them to support. Sub-man’s often referred to as what people call a “sheep”.
The second rung on this ladder of types of people…little more free than the Sub-man, but still deeply enslaved and running from the ambiguity of existence… is what she calls the Serious-man. The serious-man makes up probably around… 70% of people…this is by far the most common tactic people use to remove themselves from ambiguity. The Serious man is any version of somebody that denies their transcendence and turns themselves into pure facticity for the sake of a cause. This is the child facing the freedom of adulthood… all grown up now saying something like: I am a life long democrat and I’m always going to be a democrat. I’ve harnessed the ultimate values of life and completed myself like my parents did. I am an evangelical Christian and I will be that way until the day I die. I have discovered a set of absolute values.
Make no mistake…Simone De Beauvoir’s not saying that being any of these things is wrong…it’s your relationship to how you view the title. Do you live your life as though being a democrat or being a Christian is some sort of permanent, irreversible aspect about who you are? If so, then Simone De Beauvoir would say you are a Serious man, trying to give yourself an essence and escape the true ambiguity of your life…and if you look back at history even just to the 20th century…you don’t gotta look very long to see the bloodshed that often comes when people think they’ve harnessed an ultimate set of values… that’s what Simone de Beauvoir’s worried about.
Now another important rung on this ladder a little higher up…is a response to the freedom of adulthood…that’s a true classic. We’ve all heard of this one before. I’m talking about Nihilism.
Quick recap of the ladder up until this point: The sub man either doesn’t realize there’s a lack in their being… or denies the whole idea of there being something lacking…the serious man acknowledges that there’s a lack… and then believes a story about something that will complete him as a person. And, the nihilist… realizes there’s a lack and that nothing can complete them…so they ask themselves question, why bother doing anything at all?
Now Nihilism is a particularly dangerous place to be if you’re Simone De Beauvoir…and the reason why is because the Nihilist…is partially right. They’ve arrived at the truth about the ambiguity of existence…but they’re making a big assumption after arriving at that conclusion that blinds them from the fact that they aren’t seeing the WHOLE truth about existence…and it’s dangerous because it’s a very easy trap to fall into and then convince yourself that you’re right, citing that piece of truth you’ve accessed as justification.
I want to read you a passage out of the ethics of ambiguity where Simone De Beauvoir talks about why the Nihilist is wrong. Full disclosure, I have this passage hanging in the front room of my house…it’s one of my favorite passages from all of existentialism. We’ll read it and then we’ll talk about what she means by it:
“The nihilist attitude manifests a certain truth. In this attitude one experiences the ambiguity of the human condition. But the mistake is that it defines man not as the positive existence of a lack, but as a lack at the heart of existence, whereas the truth is that existence is not a lack as such. And if freedom is experienced in this case in the form of rejection, it is not genuinely fulfilled. The nihilist is right in thinking that the world possesses no justification and that he himself is nothing. But he forgets that it is up to him to justify the world and to make himself exist validly. Instead of integrating death into life, he sees in it the only truth of the life, which appears to him as a disguised death. However, there is life, and the nihilist knows that he is alive. That’s where his failure lies. He rejects existence without managing to eliminate it. He denies any meaning to his transcendence, and yet he transcends himself. A man who delights in freedom can find an ally in the nihilist because they contest the serious world together, but he also sees in him an enemy insofar as the nihilist is a systematic rejection of the world and man, and if this rejection ends up in a positive desire destruction, it then establishes a tyranny which freedom must stand up against.”
I guess a good place to start unpacking that is to say that if it weren’t for the Nihilist being partially right…and recognizing the true ambiguity of things…they would be no different than the serious man. Because just like the serious man… who might say something like, ok I am a Morman…and I possess certain ultimate values that are written into the cosmos, I am complete…a Nihilist is making the same kind of proclamation by saying “there is no cosmically written meaning to my life”, I am complete. In other words, why are we both speaking on behalf of the universe here? I mean at least the Mormon believes in a God that gave them this information…what is the Nihilists based on? The way it intuitively seems to me as a human being in an ambiguous world?
I’m not saying this because there IS some cosmically written meaning necessarily…the point is: where did this expectation of the Nihilist come from? Lot of people think it’s an another one of those things we talked about last time…it’s an extension of generation after generation of people thinking of themselves as something born into a realm…that doesn’t belong to them. This universe is private property…God built this place…he’s bestowed upon you the gift of life… and as long as you’re staying here…there’s some chores he wants you to do. When the Nihilist realizes this way of thinking is a relic of a bygone era…they mistakenly assume that because there’s no God out there to confer a meaning onto them…that therefore…there must be no meaning to ANYTHING that I do!
But what if that whole dream of being handed some pre-packaged meaning to your life was never how it worked at all? What if that was an assumption? What is meaning anyway…it’s just a human construct…a word. What if the same way you have to choose a career…and the same way you have to choose a life partner…and these things take years of thought to fully realize…what if it’s your responsibility to choose a meaning to your life?
What I’m saying is: what if there IS a meaning to your life? And I’m not saying that like I’m some late night pastor…what Simone De Beauvoir would ask is what if when you make a grandiose proclamation like “there is no meaning to my life”…you just did it…right there…you just declared the meaning of your life to be that you’re going to sit around making proclamations about how nothing matters on a cosmic level (genius) and then use it as justification never take action on anything. You can’t HELP but have a meaning to your life to Simone De Beauvoir…it is created and recreated by your actions in each passing moment.
The question is: what’s the meaning of your life gonna be? To sit around on the couch doing nothing? Or to transcend. To get out of that job that sucks the life out of you…or to travel the world or to help maximize the freedom of others? To leave the house…feel the fires of hell on your skin as sunlight hits it for the first time in eight months? What is the meaning gonna be?
Next time we’ll talk more about more of the rungs of the ladder, more of these= types of ways children respond to the startling level of freedom and responsibility required in adulthood… as well as the importance of maximizing the freedom of others, why we can never be truly free unless if others are free around us and the wisdom that lies in living a life in the service of others. You know whenever I read part three of the Ethics of Ambiguity and I get all excited about the importance of finding a way to serve others in this miserable existence it always brings me back to ironically ANOTHER quote that I have on my wall by Rabandranath Tagore…and I’ll leave you today with it:
I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.
Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.

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Episode 106 – Simone De Beauvoir pt. 2 – The Ethics of Ambiguity

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Simone De Beauvoir (1908–1986)


On this episode, we take a look at Simone De Beauvoir and her book The Ethics of Ambiguity. See the full transcript of this episode here.

There are some thinkers who are, from the very beginning, unambiguously identified as philosophers (e.g., Plato). There are others whose philosophical place is forever contested (e.g., Nietzsche); and there are those who have gradually won the right to be admitted into the philosophical fold. Simone de Beauvoir is one of these belatedly acknowledged philosophers. Identifying herself as an author rather than as a philosopher and calling herself the midwife of Sartre’s existential ethics rather than a thinker in her own right, Beauvoir’s place in philosophy had to be won against her word.

Continue reading Episode 106 – Simone De Beauvoir pt. 2 – The Ethics of Ambiguity

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Episode 105 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #105 on Sartre. Check out the episode page HERE.

So in a culture where there’s so much social currency connected to being a victim… and having some burden that you carry around with you throughout your life…there may be some of you out there that feel a little left out…maybe you’re the kind of person, you look at yourself…and you don’t feel like a victim…maybe you don’t sit around poised waiting to make other people aware of some bad thing that happened to you in the past…well ENOUGH of that crazy talk, get off the bench because your uncle steve’s putting you in the game. I’m here to tell you…Rest assured my friend…you ARE a victim. Turns out, we’re ALL victims just by virtue of being born because just…think…for a second about how horrible the world was for us…when we were all babies.

Think of what it’s like being a baby, imagine going through something similar today and if you made it out the other side TELL me you wouldn’t be part of some sort of advocacy group for the people that are currently going through it.

Think about it…you didn’t CHOOSE to be born. Imagine being rounded up against your will and being rocketed off to some alien planet you know nothing about. You find yourself once you get on that planet…absorbed into some tribe…you don’t speak the language…you have no idea what anything is…you think the remote control to their TV is food…and you’re completely defenseless.

And who do you have as teachers, on this journey? What…just some random man and woman that happen to look like you? They didn’t go to school for this stuff…being a baby is like going to the world’s worst community college where they don’t even have teachers…they just pull some random people off the street and say “teach these kids about rocket science, GO!” Except it’s worse than that…we’re not just learning about rocket science…we’re learning everything about what it is to exist. How we look at other people, how we look at the world, how we look at our selves within that world.

 

What I’m saying is: the struggle for us former babies…was real. And I think it’s safe to say that when you’re living in the middle of this chaotic world as a baby just trying to figure things out…no one’s really blaming you for just sort of going along with a lot of the ways people were doing things around you. There’s a lot to figure out, and a lot of these ways we’ve LEARNED to make sense of this stuff is totally arbitrary. A lot of the ways that we think about stuff…have been just sort of, almost by accident, PASSED DOWN from generation to generation.

Philosophers realized this…and at the time of Sartre, for over 300 years people had been pointing out… how MANY of the ways we look at things in the western world are largely derivative… from the way Christianity describes being a human being. That’s how entrenched religion was in the lives of people back then…and that even if you’ve never been to church, even if your family’s 15 generations removed from ever stepping foot in a church… some of these things are so foundational, that generation after generation of confused baby trying to figure things out…just went along with certain assumptions about existence that have their origins in Christianity, for example.

There’s a certain revelatory way that a lot of people look at important crossroads in life. Right, like for example they’ll say…ok, so I need to choose a career path for my life, I need to declare a major. Big decision…what do I do? Well whenever I think about it I just don’t, know what I want I certainly have it narrowed down to a few options…but I just can’t make that big decision. I don’t know exactly what I want, and yeah, I don’t spend that much time thinking about it, but I have faith it’s gonna come to me. I have faith that I’m gonna wake up one day somethings gonna happen to me, some life event…and then I’m gonna know. I’m gonna realize my calling in life in that moment.

People do this same thing with relationships. They’ll say I have this vague idea up in my head of my one and only someone…don’t know EXACTLY what they look like what they’re gonna be like…but I’m confident…one day I’m gonna meet someone… and there’s gonna be this moment when I look at them and I realize they’re the person I wanna spend the rest of my life with. People do this with anything…they’ll do it with motivational videos on YouTube…one day I’m gonna watch the right person screaming at me to be better… and from then on out it’s gonna be EASY to go to the gym and eat pine cones for the rest of my life…in other words: there’s a certain revelatory way that some people look at life choices… that some thinkers believe is a long lost relic of the revelatory way we used to think about the nature of existence. That a reasonable expectation to have when navigating your life…is that one day you’re going to wake up…and there’s going to be some event…some miracle that you witness some transcendent moment… where you realize the divinity of Jesus and if you have any further questions about the nature of existence just forward them to the Pope’s inbox. That’s a REASONABLE thing to expect, in that worldview.

Well this isn’t the only…example of these long lost remnants of Christianity in our thinking. And another major one… another one that a LOT of people in today’s world still use to make sense of things…is the way that they look at themselves and who they are. Just like in Christianity…where yes you have a body…but your TRUE self… is a soul, it’s an eternal spirit hidden deep down within that body that YOU have an intimate access to…just like that, a lot of people in today’s world think of their true SELF…or the answer to the question: who are you? As a personality… hidden deep within us that only we and our closest friends have access to…you know they’ll say things like sure…when I’m out in public I DO kind of put on a mask for the sake of social utility, I admit it. I don’t act like my 100% TRUE self in the Starbucks drivethru…I tell people things they want to hear, I play the game because look… fact is: it’s just not useful, not to mention I don’t really feel comfortable giving 100% of my true self to the person in the Starbucks drivethrough. Who am I really? Well that’s something I reserve for my closest friends. In fact even some of my closest friends don’t know everything about the depths of what it is to be me. Maybe for some of you out there…there’s only one other person in this entire WORLD that has full access to this TRUE SELF hidden deep within you.

But Sartre would say, is this really how the self works? Is the self really like the Christian soul hidden somewhere deep within you that only you have access to? Sartre would say it very well may be that you put on a mask when you go to work for the sake of pragmatism…and it very well may be that you’ve reflected on yourself and you have this idea of who you are inside your head that’s only accessed by you and your closest friends. But don’t ignore the possibility that there are multiple levels of deception going on there. Maybe you’re telling yourself a story you want to hear the same way you’re telling the Starbucks barista a story.

This concept is a common one in existentialism…it’s actually one of the main themes in Dostoyevsky’s book Crime and Punishment…the idea that, you know we often think we know a lot more about ourselves than we actually do. Two examples of this, bear with me for a second the first one’s a little cartoonish… but I think it’s a really good example to pull us out of this conditioned way we look at the self and it get’s us to honestly start asking this question: where is this self that we’re talking about REALLY located?

Imagine a guy that thinks he’s Napoleon. He spends all day every day dressing up in Parisian military garb, making a fort out of couch cushions in his front room, talking to himself agonizing over how he’s going to conquer Moscow. Now this man believes beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is Napoleon. If you asked him candidly…no but who are you really, deep down inside? He would say I am Napoleon Bonaparte. Commander of the armies of the north. Husband to a murdered wife, father to a murdered son. And I will have my vengeance. But is this man really Napoleon? WE know he’s not Napoleon. In fact in a weird way, as outsiders, we seem to have an ADVANTAGE when it comes to knowing who he really is. Interesting.

Here’s the less cartoonish example and try to think about how this applies to you. Imagine a guy sitting on the couch watching the TV with his pals. They turn on the news and there’s a story about a mass shooting that just happened at a Walmart somewhere. He hears the story, gets a little angry, turns to his friends and says you know what? That guy and people like him better HOPE he never shows up at my Walmart. Someone pulls out a gun when I’m there, I’m not gonna be one of those people on the news chopper camera screaming and running out of the store…I’m going to the Sporting Goods section. I’m gonna go up into the rafters like I’m Tom Cruise repel down and snap his neck. I’m gonna do this…because that’s just the kind of person I am, that’s me…I’d sacrifice my life for the greater good. Now he may tell his friends this…he may believe that that is who he is deep down beyond a SHADOW of a doubt…but if next Saturday he’s out shopping with his family, someone pulls out a gun and all his wife and kids see is a poof of smoke and him running out the back door…who is that guy REALLY?

In other words: when we reference this thing we call our “self”. Intuitively it can feel like well I AM my self. I know who I am, so no one can tell me who I am but me. In fact if you just recited that statement in most public settings people would be like, YEAH! You tell ‘em! Only YOU know who you are deep down inside! But is that a delusion? Is that just a narrative that we tell ourselves to simplify this concept of the self?

Sartre says that when you take a closer look at the self…it’s not a soul…it’s not a personality hidden deep within you…what we’re referencing when we talk about the self turns out to be much more complex than that with many more moving parts. And I think a good place to begin if we want to understand Sartre’s views on what the self REALLY is…is to talk about two foundational aspects of what it means to be a human being that to Sartre seem to be constantly intertwined and dependent upon each other…what he calls our Facticity and our Transcendence.

If you are a human being that is alive, right now…you have both Facticity and Transcendence, put very simply: our Facticity is the collection of facts that are true about us at any given moment…and Transcendence is our ability to change or the possibilities that we have at our disposal. Let’s break it down further though: remember last time when we talked about being-in-itself vs being-for-itself? Being in itself as being kind of like matter…this inert, featureless, blob of existence, fully affirmative. And being for itself as being consciousness…or the source of all negation. Well when Sartre’s trying to meet his monthly quota for obscure sounding philosophical descriptions…the way he DESCRIBES the relationship between these two ontological categories is that being in itself: is what it is. And being for itself: is what it is not. Well as weird as that sounds in a vacuum, after listening to last episode we all know what he means when he says it.

But then Sartre points out something very, mysterious…a very strange coincidence. When you look at the relationship between these two ontological categories…two things that are easy to write off as these meaningless abstract concepts that Sartre cooked up one day…when you look at how being in itself and being for itself relate to eachother…Sartre notices there seems to be a similar sort of relationship at the foundation of who we are as people.

See because, on one hand, all of us have our Facticity….and Facticity is kind of like being in itself…it’s the fully affirmative set of facts that are true about us. You ask me who I am….and I say things like oh, well I’m 117 years old, that’s a fact. I am a horse wrangler by profession, that’s a fact. I make 28,000 dollars per year, I drive a Ford Focus and I’m scared of spiders, things like that. In other words, statements of facts that are currently true about us, this is what makes up our Facticity.

But what Sartre would want us to consider…is that while these kinds of statements are no doubt useful when it comes to describing certain pieces of who I am…they never tell us the full story right? And the reason why is because human beings are far more complex than that…to fully understand a human being…just BY DEFAULT is to understand a type of being that has possibilities…none of us are PURE Facticity…the only time a human being is PURE Facticity is when they’re DEAD…yes, we have a set of facts that are true about us right now, but we ALWAYS have the ability to change into something else…and if we’re trying to describe a self…if we’re looking at the WHOLE picture of who someone is…the choices we make about which of these possibilities we’re going to bring about, end up being JUST as important as the facts about who we are right now, for example.

If I’m going to school to become an IT consultant…or if I’m training for a marathon…or if I’m losing a bunch of weight for wedding pictures…a big part of understanding who I am is understanding the thing I’m actively trying to change into…an IT consultant, a marathon runner, the flower girl at a wedding. In other words, part of understanding the full picture of ME is understanding what I am not yet. You can start to hear the weird Sartre description creeping in…just like being in itself is what it is and being for itself is what it is not…in a sense…I am what I am, I have a Facticity…but I also am what I am not yet when I consider my transcendence.

Just like being in itself and being for itself…these two aspects of what it is to be a human being, Facticity and Transcendence, are entangled, intertwined and in some cases reliant on each other for their very existence. Your facticity and transcendence are constantly affecting each other…and that’s because the facts of your life are often times caused by what possibilities you decide to bring about and the possibilities you’ve decided to explore are almost always limited by the FACTS of your life, let’s stop with the hypotheticals and give a real example.

Me. I’ll use me as an example. I am six feet tall 172.2 pounds this morning. No matter HOW MUCH I want to…I am never going to become a horse jockey. It’s just not going to happen for me. As long as there are people out there that are 4’8” 85 lbs…the facticity that I’m a certain height and weight limits my ability to transcend…and the result of that is: I’m never winning the Kentucky Derby. This is an example of how our ability to transcend is often times limited by the facts about us. Another example…I was born with a particular face and a particular ability to put on muscle. No matter HOW MUCH I want to…I am never going to be an Instagram model. The facticity of my face…my faceticity…and all the stuff that’s going on there…I will never be the kind of person that people voluntarily want to look at and click an emoji that signifies how they’re feeling about the most recent picture of me. It’s just not gonna happen and these facts about me are the parameters I live my life and exercise my freedom within.

See because that’s the thing, and this goes for all of you out there…When Sartre talks about radical freedom…when any of us talk about being individuals that are free to act as they choose…we’re never talking about TOTAL freedom…right? It’s always freedom within certain limitations. We often say things like, “I can do whatever I want to do.” But you can’t REALLY do anything you want to do…right, I mean ultimately you’re a human being…you can’t wrap yourself in a protective cocoon and then emerge a unicorn in three days. You can’t fly to the edge of the universe and look at what’s on the other side. No, freedom is always freedom within certain limitations… and it’s those limitations that give a LOT of what you choose to do in life it’s value.

We see this… in all the various different forms of art…you know when someone writes a really good Haiku…we see it as good NOT because they’re the greatest words that could ever have possibly been strung together…the beauty of the Haiku is because we understand that we have given an artist total freedom within a set of limitations that we impose. Five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables, go. In other words, the limitations are a big part of what makes the Haiku beautiful, and this applies to life as well.

The facticity that you were born into, your own individual limitations are always going to affect the possibilities that you have and what you ultimately choose to do with your life. So try to live your life like it’s a piece of art you’re creating. That’s why I’ve just accepted that I’m never gonna be an Instagram model..I mean, it’s like anything you just learn to adjust. Like I literally wear all of my hooded sweatshirts backwards now…so that if any field trips pass by any small children come around I can just pull it over my face, nobodies gotta get scared.. So yeah, you just find little ways…but yeah, ultimately the point Sartre’s going to make here with the concepts of Facticity and Transcendence…is not only stop thinking about your self as though it’s this artifact hidden deep within you in a vault, but also stop thinking about who you are as though it’s this static, unchanging thing that you can point to.

That who you are… is always in a state… of constant change, sometimes small changes, sometimes bigger changes, but always CHANGING and in flux. But don’t go extreme in the other way…don’t start thinking of your self as this ethereal thing that can never be defined. Again, all the way up until the day you die… when you’re finally turned into TOTAL Facticity…you will always have certain facts that are true about you and certain possibilities at your disposal to bring about. Unless if you’re dead…you’ve never arrived at a destination as a human being.

Now at first glance this may seem like Sartre’s writing a self help book. No single fact about you sums up who you are! Release your inner transcendence! No. Like we touched on last time Sartre thinks that when people are truly faced with the number of these possibilities they’re free to choose from…most of the time they don’t get excited…they’re horrified by it. In fact most of the time once people realize this stuff…Sartre thinks that the secret, covert desire of everyone whether they realize it or not…is to escape this duality…it’s to turn themselves into either PURE facticity or PURE transcendence, or as Sartre says…we all secretly want to become God.

Let’s talk about what he means by that. Think about the way followers of the Abrahamic religions have traditionally looked at God, what is it like to be God? Well God is perfect. God is in this moment everything he will ever be. If God had a job interview…and the person asked him, “What’s one thing you’d change about yourself?” God LITERALLY doesn’t have an answer to that question. But then on the other hand…God is all powerful…with the snap of his fingers…he can do…anything, he wants to do. In other words, in this old style, traditional view of what God is…on one hand…God is perfect as he is…PURE facticity. But on the other hand God is all powerful and capable of bringing about ANY possibility he wants…in other words PURE transcendence. Sartre would say this is no coincidence….and it’s also no coincidence that as people navigate their lives they have all sorts of tactics they use to turn themselves… either into somebody that ignores their possibilities and are PERFECT as they are right now…or someone who ignores the very real unfortunate facts about who they are and stay lost in unattainable dreams their entire life.

This is the context we needed to understand a concept we talked about well over a year ago on the one episode we did on Sartre. The primary tactic that people use in their lives to turn themselves into PURE Facticity or PURE transcendence like God…is something that Sartre calls Bad Faith. Let’s look at the most famous example of Bad Faith Sartre gives and because we already talked about it in the other episode, I’ll keep it brief. Sartre talks about sitting in the middle of a café in Paris watching a waiter as he does his job. You can imagine a waiter in the 1940’s dressed up in his little outfit…very upright, good posture, very proper…he holds the tray in a particular way, he walks and changes direction in a very militaristic, particular way just like a good waiter does…Sartre can’t help but point out…that this guy doesn’t seem to be a “self” with Facticity and Transcendence in this moment…he seems to have relegated himself to just, playing the part of a waiter. He’s going through the motions turning himself into pure facticity…just a waiter and nothing else.

Now even though waiters don’t act like this often in today’s world…go to most restaurants and you can find some modern version of what Sartre’s talking about here…there’s so many servers out there that have fallen into bad faith and are just sort of playing the role of this same person that seems to be the modern archetype of what it is to be a server…they all say the same stuff: Hi, I’m John I’m gonna be taking care of you today. Can I get you guys started with a bottomless bucket of shrimp or some drinks? Later on, How’s everything tasting for you? You save room for desert? I’m just gonna leave this here absolutely no rush on the check I’m gonna be over here I’ll take a looksy back at you…ask yourself: is this the way this guy talks to his mom? Is this the way he talks to his best friends? No. He’s fallen into bad faith and is just playing the part of a server.

Now the point Sartre’s making here is not that waiters need to be more creative, it’s not about waiters. Sartre thinks that as human beings… we have a tendency to gravitate towards this trap… in ALL aspects of our life. We make PROCLAMATIONS about what we are! I am a stay at home mom, and that’s my identity…I am a Libertarian…I am a Mormon and that’s that…what we’re desperately trying to do is give ourselves an essence in a world where existence precedes essence.

All of these things are just us wanting to think about our “selves” as some static thing set in stone… and run from the reality of the possibilities we have. When we take an honest look at the possibilities at our disposal, it terrifies us and produces a feeling called nausea…and we use Bad Faith to quell this feeling of nausea. Now if all you ever read was Sartre’s Being and Nothingness…you might get the read from the book that this tendency we have to gravitate towards bad faith, is an inescapable condition of being a human being… and that even when we’re self aware of the Bad Faith we’re engaging in…we’re still engaging in bad faith. If all you ever read was the main text of Being and Nothingness, you might get that impression and it certainly sounds like a really sad picture…but in one of the footnotes of Being and Nothingness Sartre alludes to a way out and perhaps to an ethics that he would write later in life. Well HE never writes an ethics, and it may be because he lifelong partner and fellow existentialist Simone De Beauvoir produces what many consider to be the greatest existentialist approach to ethics called The Ethics of Ambiguity. We’ll talk all about it on the next episode.

But enough of bad faith…back to answering this question: who am I, really?

Here’s the thing. These concepts of Facticity and Transcendence we’ve been talking about. When it comes to the facts that are true about you and the possibilities that you have…those things aren’t hidden somewhere deep down within you that only you have access to. You may have a particular perspective of the facts that are true about you… and the possibilities that you have, but not only do you have an incentive to slip into bad faith and tell yourself a story about them, Sartre would say: you don’t have some privileged VIP access to the facts about you and the possibilities that you have…hypothetically, any other person if they were diligent enough has access to your Facticity and Transcendence. In fact, just like the guy that tells himself that he’s Napoleon… sometimes other people are better at telling us who we are than WE are.

But how is this possible? The reason it’s possible is because the self is not the Christian soul, to Sartre.

Just like your Facticity and Transcendence…what we’re referencing when we talk about our “selves”… is outside of us. It’s an abstraction. It’s the conglomeration of all of the things you’ve ever actually done in your life. When you want to get a solid answer to the question: who am I? You don’t reference the story that you tell yourself that’s clouded by all sorts of… bad faith and wishful thinking like the guy that thinks he would try to take down the gunman at Walmart…no, we tell ourselves stories all the time… what follows from this is that the TRUE measure of your values, and who you really are…is what you actually do…it’s the collection of what you’ve actually done thus far in your life. And Sartre says when you stop looking at the “self” as though it’s something inside of you…and you start looking at it accurately as this abstraction that’s outside of us…what you inevitably start to realize is that it’s impossible to ever get a full picture of who you are, without referencing the way that other people view you. More than that…it’s impossible to get a full picture of BEING without referencing other people…and HERE’S what he’s getting at:

So far when it comes to describing being… we’ve been presented with being in itself and being for itself… but it’s right here, FAIRLY LATE in being and nothingness… that Sartre lays out his third ontological category…what he calls “being-for-others”. Let’s talk about what he means. Sartre would say that an intrinsic part of what it is to be you… is existing alongside other people and all of the consequences that come along with that. This is Being-for-others…now how does “being-for-others” affect my answer to the question: who am I?

Well again, this concept of the self is outside of us it’s an abstractrion… and what Sartre points out is that there are many aspects about who we are that are given to us by other people. For example, whether we’re trustworthy or not. Whether or not you’re a trustworthy person is an aspect of who you are that’s mediated by other people, right? Whether I’m a nice or mean person. I may think of myself as a nice person, but if every single other person I encounter all throughout my life says that I’m mean, for all intents and purposes…I am a mean person.

This concept of the self, and how other people view us…seem to be connected, but the flip side of it being that interconnected…is that it leaves us in a perpetual state of being judged by the people around us. We’re almost constantly being turned into PURE facticity in their mind. For example, have you ever been walking around self-conscious about the way you look? Maybe you just got a new pair of shoes and you think they look weird…and as you’re walking around you feel like every person that passes you is thinking, WOW. What were THEY thinking when they picked those shoes. This is obviously a person that doesn’t care much about how they look…in other words they’re looking at you and they’re turning you into an object in their subjective view of the world…pure facticity…you will henceforth be known as the weird shoes guy in that person’s mind, this is constantly going on. But Sartre’s not saying it’s always bad, that being around other people is some sort of paranoid, everybody’s thinking bad things about me all the time thing…people very well may be thinking really good things about you all the time, the point that Sartre wants to make is that this dynamic…of other people seeing you, putting you on trial and turning you into pure Facticity in their minds… is going on all the time simply by virtue of the fact that we exist alongside other people…and that while the insights other people give us about who we are are no doubt valuable…we have to be careful not to slip into bad faith on either side of this dynamic of being for others.

What I mean is: just because somebody sees you wearing weird shoes one day doesn’t mean that you are now “weird shoes guy”. In other words, don’t slip into bad faith when it comes to what people think about you…no matter how convenient it is to prescribe yourself an essence and deny your transcendence…don’t turn yourself into PURE facticity and accept what other people tell you you are. Maybe you are weird shoes guy right now, but you don’t HAVE to be in the future. But the other side of that, is don’t deny your facticity and tell yourself that you don’t care what anyone else says and that what other people think of you doesn’t matter at all. That’s slipping into another kind of bad faith.

So to sum this up…intuitively, it may seem to us like we have a special access to knowing who we are… and that we choose to share ourselves only with our closest friends who we trust. But Sartre would say the reason it seems this way is that what you actually have is a narrative about yourself, forged from a particular biased perspective, and that the reason it seems like your friends reinforce this picture of who you are…is because the very criteria that we all use to choose who our friends are going to be…is whether or not they reinforce this picture that we have of ourselves.

That’s what we “like” about our friends, to Sartre. For example, if a BIG part of the way you view your self… is that you consider yourself a smart person…Sartre would predict… that most of your friends are going to be people that are not so smart that tell you that you’re smart all the time, or people that ask you a lot of questions that you then answer, making you FEEL smart, or other smart people that commend you on being so smart like them. We choose our friends because they reinforce the way that we view ourselves, of COURSE we we’d give them privileged access to our biased narrative of ourselves, and of course it’s going to feel validating.

Of course it would seem…that you know better than anyone who you are…but again, Sartre would say that the TRUE measure of your values, the TRUE answer to the question: who are you?…is what you actually do. Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.