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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.

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Episode #105 – Sartre and Camus pt. 6 – The Self

camus-and-sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980)


On this episode, we look at Sartre and his views on the Self. See the full transcript of this episode here.

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

Continue reading Episode #105 – Sartre and Camus pt. 6 – The Self

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Episode 104 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #104 on Sartre. Check out the episode page HERE.

Hello Everyone, I’m Stephen West. This is philosophize this! Thank you to everyone that supports the show on Patreon. I could never do this without you, thanks for making it possible for the show to continue. To people that buy things on Amazon, there is a banner located on the front page of the website philosophizethis.org that you can click through that in absolutely zero way, supports me or this show. Just saying…it’s there. Today’s episode is number five in a series on Sartre and Camus. I hope you love the show today.
So consciousness…is freedom. What exactly was it that Sartre meant… when he said that because it’s not obvious, right? I mean it sounds like one of those things you’d say Consciousness is Freedom and people would be like, hmm yeah no I totally get where he’s coming from there….but do you really? Do you? Let’s talk about it for an episode and let’s also talk about…if Sartre is correct here…that consciousness is freedom…how do human beings typically respond to that reality and what does it mean…for us personally…when it comes to how we approach the world?
You know we talked about a LOT of stuff on the last episode but I hope one of the major takeaways was that throughout the history of philosophy…we’ve had this pretty stubborn recurring problem that just doesn’t seem to go away. Turns out it’s a little more difficult than you might initially think to actually prove the existence of the external, physical world. Tons of thinkers have taken a crack at it but their problems all seem to begin at the same exact place, the problem is: once you make that distinction between consciousness and the world…it becomes extremely difficult to say with any level of certainty…that what you’re perceiving is really the world… and not just the world as it appears to you.
Remember Descartes…talking about how our senses often deceive us…the stick in the water looks bent…we don’t have a direct awareness of the objects of the world, just how they appear to us. And this has created this dynamic throughout the history philosophy… where philosophers are kind of like these prisoners in a cage trapped up inside of their own minds. Imagine a prisoner in a cell, right outside of this cell are four walls so you can never directly see what’s going on outside of the cell, but in the floor of the cell there’s a hatch that opens up once a day and gives you a newspaper that tells you everything that’s going on in the world outside. Solipsism would say, wait a second. How do we know this newspaper is fair and balanced? How can we know this is an accurate representation of what’s going on and not written by somebody that’s just trying to deceive us into thinking what they WANT us to think out there? We can’t know ANYTHING about what’s going on outside these four walls…
An Idealist might say something like, alright… well maybe we can’t be certain about what’s going on, out there…but one thing we can be certain of is the fact that we have this newspaper. Let’s make sure we’re careful, let’s make sure we understand the biases we’re bringing to this paper as the prisoner reading it…let’s make sure we try to understand the biases of the people writing the paper…the ultimate point is: let’s take this newspaper seriously…because at least we have a newspaper… and it seems like the contents of it may be all that we ever have access to.
Husserl would be doing some psycho thing…maybe studying the structural integrity of the cell…what holds it together…he’d be studying the hatch in the floor that delivers the newspaper…
Well Sartre would be the guy on the prison monitor looking at them through a security camera wondering how they all don’t see the key hanging around their neck. Because see, TONS of thinkers over the years have tried to come up with ALL KINDS of prison break techniques to get out of this cage…but Sartre would say what if consciousness is not some realm or some cage we’re trapped in up in our heads…what if we don’t have some secondary level of awareness of the things in the world, what if consciousness and the world are a unified thing and when you LOOK at consciousness closely enough…this is his way of escaping the cell…what if consciousness is essentially… nothingness. Again, it’s not exactly obvious what he means when it says that, but it’s the reason he calls his seminal work Being and Nothingness. To understand what he means by consciousness is freedom, we have to understand what he means by consciousness is nothingness…so let’s get into it.
So part of the reason there’s so much word play and qualifying going on here is that Sartre’s trying to do something really difficult…he’s trying to merge these two ways of thinking we’ve been talking about on one hand… delineating things in a very Cartesian way between consciousness and the world… while also trying to preserve Heidegger’s point that being and the world are a unified thing. Now just living in the western world…we’re a little bit sabotaged when it comes to understanding this concept…and it makes sense, when you live in a world where every sentence you say is structured in terms of subjects acting upon objects…where every piece of information is framed in these subject/object terms…this whole concept that Heidegger introduces about being and the world as a unified thing can be kind of confusing to wrap your head around, but try to think about it like anything ELSE that’s fundamentally interconnected.
Not that this is a perfect metaphor, because it’s certainly NOT what Sartre and Heidegger are saying…but just to get us thinking in these terms…think about the way people conventionally talk about the mind and body as being interconnected. You know you can meditate…and your body feels relaxed. You can constantly focus your mind on all the things you’re miserable about and it’s going to produce in your body a feeling of misery. In other words you can change the state of your mind…and it goes on to change the state of your body. But it goes the other way too, right? We’ve all seen that Ted talk where they talk about the power poses. Stand in front of a mirror…hold your hands over your head like you just won a race…and it feels like you just won a race…you can change your posture and you feel better about yourself…tons of ways to change the state of your body to change the state of your mind but the point is if you were trying to write a book about either ONE of these things…if you tried to write a book about the mind without ever referencing the body once…you can imagine how the book might be massively incomplete when you finish it…almost DOOMED to failure from the start.
Well to Sartre this is what philosophers have been doing for hundreds of years with these elaborate books written about JUST consciousness or JUST the world. Again, consciousness and the world are a unified thing… we can never comprehensively talk about either one of them without directly referencing the other… but still nonetheless, we do NEED names for them so that we can talk about the details of what they are and the names Sartre gives them are on the one hand Being-in-itself (the world) and on the other… Being-For-itself (consciousness).
Being in itself and Being for itself. Let’s talk first about Being-in-itself.
You know, when teachers try to explain this concept of Being-in-itself they’ll often times say to think of it as almost the same as the concept… of matter…and it’s not because Sartre is a scientist or that he thinks Being-in-itself is just a combination of molecules…they use this word “matter” because it’s a general, vague term about something physical that exists without giving any details about it.
The way that Sartre describes Being-in-itself… is extremely similar to a description given by a guy we talked about on the first or second episode of this show…a guy named Parmenides.
Parmenides famously argues really quite simply, that what is, is. And what is not, is not. Something either exists…or it doesn’t exist. Seems pretty reasonable. What follows from this if you’re him is that something can never come into being… because in order to do that…where did it come from? Non-being? That doesn’t exist. But it goes the other way too, something can never go out of being because where would it be going to? Something that doesn’t exist?
Things coming and going out of being, to Parmenides… is an illusion created by our feeble senses. Things changing and time moving and even things being separate from each other are all…illusions created by the senses. What follows from this for Parmenides is that what being actually is…is this giant, featureless, unmoving, unchanging, inert sphere of existence…and that anything else we humans try to say about it is just us imposing our feeble senses onto it. He describes it:
“… it is uncreated and imperishable, for it is entire, immovable and without
end. It was not in the past, nor shall it be, since it is now, all at once, one,
continuous; for what creation wilt thou seek for it? how and whence did it
grow? Nor shall I allow thee to say or to think, ‘from that which is not’; for
it is not to be said or thought that it is not. And what need would have
driven it on to grow, starting from nothing, at a later time rather than an
earlier?”

Well just listen… to how Sartre describes Being-in-itself at the beginning of Being and Nothingness:

“Transition, becoming, anything that permits us to say that being is not yet what it will be and that it is already what it is not — all that is forbidden on principle…. It is full positivity. It knows no otherness; it never posits itself as other-than-another-being…it is not
subject to temporality”

So, this picture that Sartre presents of being-in-itself…is not much different than the way Parmenides describes being as a giant, timeless, featureless, unchanging, inert blob of existence. When Sartre says in that quote that being-in-itself is FULL positivity…he means more or less the same thing Parmenides means when he says what is, is and what is not, is not. Being-in-itself is what is…any talk about what is not has nothing to do with it. In other words, Being-in-itself is fully positive or affirmative in it’s existence, it doesn’t depend on anything for it’s existence, it doesn’t exist AS OPPOSED to some OTHER being out there…hypothetically speaking you could fully describe Being-in-itself without ever using the word “not” or ever referencing something that isn’t the case.

When it comes to Being-in-itself, what is, is. And what is not, is not. Things like motion and change and time are all… NOT… aspects of this Being-in-itself. And while BOTH Parmenides and Sartre arrive at this same place…the DIFFERENCE between them… is that while… Parmenides arrives at this place, sees all this motion and change and things seemingly coming and going out of being in the world, and HE writes all this stuff off as a paradoxical illusion created by the senses…Sartre explains all these things… as the WAYS that consciousness interacts with the world. Or in other words: the way that Being-For-Itself interacts with Being-in-itself.

Consciousness as being for itself…the world, matter, as Being-in-itself.

Now given the fact that Being-in-itself is FULL positivity. Fully affirmative. Consciousness…or Being-For-Itself…is what allows us to consider the other side of that…what is not. Now let’s get out of describing this stuff in this “is and is not” way the point is… that if consciousness allows us to consider what is not…you can start to see the direction this is heading in of consciousness being nothingness.

Consciousness, to Sartre, is not a box…it’s not a cage up in our heads that we’re trapped in…consciousness is an activity…an activity of pure directedness towards Being-in-itself…pure intentionality. The big move here…is that unlike Descartes…who talks about us not having access to the things of the world but only the way that they appear to us…and how that whole strategy effectively locks us up in our heads trying to decipher these mere APPEARANCES of things…you know it’s a three step process…there’s the actual things, the appearances of the things and then there’s us sitting up in our head trying to decode them. Sartre cuts out the middle man. Yes, things still APPEAR to consciousness in a particular way, but the OBJECTS of consciousness ARE the things in the world, not this sort of internal picture being projected up in our heads that was CAUSED by the things outside of our heads like so many philosophers have assumed.

So let’s just try to picture consciousness then. Picture rays of light, coming out of a flashlight, illuminating a little circle of things in an otherwise dark room, except…here’s where it get’s weird. Picture there’s no flashlight causing these light rays, that was an assumption too…and consider the fact that consciousness doesn’t just passively reveal things in the dark room like the light-rays do, consciousness reveals things based on a very particular scheme that we can study. Picture light-rays… as if they were animated by something that gives them a particular structure…but it’s even WEIRDER than that…because to even picture light-rays is to be picturing some…thing…this apparatus made up of photons interacting with the objects in the room. But consciousness isn’t some…thing. It’s an activity of pure awareness and what follows from that if you’re Sartre is that other than this strange relationship between consciousness and the objects it’s revealing…consciousness…is nothing really. Consciousness…is nothingness.

But it’s nothingness in another sense too, it’s nothingness in that… it’s the source of all nothingness… in our experience of the world to Sartre…the feeling that something’s lacking, of what is not…it’s the source of something about the way we interpret the world that at this point is an age old problem in philosophy… called The Problem of Negation.

Here’s an example Sartre uses: Let’s say you were going to meet your friend Pierre at a bar. Let’s say you get there and Pierre hasn’t gotten there yet, and when you get there and you turn your consciousness towards the bar and you examine whether Pierre’s there or not…you don’t go ok I see 5 tables, 10 chairs, some glasses, some pictures on the wall, tiles on the floor, lights, a man in a nice hat, some alcohol behind the counter…you know I’ve taken a pretty exhaustive inventory of this place and I just don’t see Pierre on this list of things.

No, what actually happens is…you look around and you perceive a sort of…lack of Pierre. In other words, if you walked in the bar and Pierre was sitting there…it would be a FULL positivity, affirmative, being-in-itself style fact that Pierre is sitting in the bar. But when Pierre isn’t there, what you end up getting access to is a weird sort of “negative fact”. An awareness of a non-Pierreness. An absence of Pierre, but what is that really, what exactly are we conscious of there? These sort of “negative facts” as they’re called deeply worried thinkers like Parmenides who went so far as to say that you can’t even SPEAK of what is not without being contradictory. For Sartre one things for certain…this awareness of what is not DIDN’T come from being-in-itself…no, to be able to see this lack or negation or nothingness… of non-Pierre in the bar, we get that from consciousness. Consciousness is the source of nothingness in our awareness of the world.

Now if you’re someone out there saying, OK, this is all very interesting but it’s also all very deep and analytical. Look…you can explain it ’til you’re blue in the face Sartre, but if consciousness is this way on this fundamental level…is there any way on a more practical level I can experience this nothingness of consciousness? And it’s almost like I wrote that question ahead of time…it turns out…THERE IS! Several different situations that we can ALL relate to.

I’ll talk about a couple of them. Two of the more famous ones are often called The Gambler and Vertigo. Let’s talk about the gambler.

Sartre says to imagine a guy that’s a compulsive gambler. He goes down to the casino every day and gambles all of his money away. His family’s struggling…his children are starving and he realizes something has to change about this whole scenario…so he makes a resolution to never gamble again for the rest of his life. But then the next day he goes down to the casino…always a wise move…he walks past the gambling table, and that demon… that demon starts talking to him, oh maybe we could gamble a little bit. No, no I need to stop. This is ruining my family, this is ruining my life…but maybe if I just made a really small bet…

Sartre writes about his inner monologue as he looks back at the compulsive gambler he used to be he says:

“That man back there in the past is me. It’s not someone else, after all; I
recognize myself in that past man. And yet, in the sense that matters right
now, that man is not me. That man has good resolutions that speak to him
and are persuasive. But those resolutions do not affect me one bit, unless I
make those resolutions anew — now. I do not find his resolutions affecting
me.”

What he’s saying here is here’s this compulsive gambler that’s trying to stop…looking into the past at the man he used to be…thinking about the moment he decided to stop gambling and all the resolutions he made to himself never going to do it again. But now he finds himself in THIS moment…and while in one sense that person in the past that decided to stop gambling IS him…but for all intents and purposes…that guy that made those resolutions… is essentially a different person in a different time and place.

He realizes that all those resolutions he made that day… mean NOTHING… if he doesn’t in each and every moment make those very SAME resolutions. Now you can imagine this with weight loss or drinking or meditating twice a day but the point is: Sartre would want us to ask…when we make these changes for the better in our lives…and we look back at the person we used to be…what is stopping us, in this very moment, from going back and becoming that person again? What’s stopping us from going back to the gambling table or the bar or the fast food drive through? Well Sartre would say…nothing. Nothing…is stopping you. And it’s THAT realization…that at any moment you could choose to go back to living in your own little personal hell that you created…that reality produces in us a feeling that Sartre calls Anguish. Not a good feeling.

We’ll talk more about it in a second but let’s talk about Vertigo. New story.

A person’s going on a walk one day… and they come to the edge of a giant cliff…and they look down…400 foot drop…they see the ravine below…jagged rocks…and all of a sudden their palms start sweating and tingling and they get a little dizzy and so they back up away from the edge don’t look down there. Well, what just went on there, why did their body react that way?

Well the default answer might be to say that, look…I’m at the edge of a cliff…I looked down and it doesn’t look very fun down there…I was scared I was going to fall. But Sartre would say, it wasn’t that you were scared to fall…it was that you were scared about the possibility that you could JUMP.

Just like the Gambler looked into the past…what happened was you looked into the future…you saw yourself laying there at the bottom of the cliff looking like a human swatstika…just mangled from the fall…you looked at that person in the future…and while in one sense that person is a completely different person in a different time and place…in another sense…all it would take is one choice, about 15 seconds and the effects of gravity to TURN you into that person. In other words, what’s stopping you in this moment from hurling yourself off the cliff to your death…nothing. Nothing is stopping you.

Look, if there was some essence that preceded your existence maybe you wouldn’t have the CHOICE to jump off the cliff, but the fact is you DO have a choice. We ALWAYS have a choice. And the fact that NOTHING stops the gambler from going back to the tables and NOTHING stops the person from throwing themselves off the cliff and that NOTHING is stopping anyone listening to this from being the best or worst person they could ever possibly be…this nothingness…when you think about it, it ends up just being another word for freedom. Consciousness…is freedom. And when we’re hit with this reality…that every second of every day is a choice moving in the direction of our potential bad OR good selves…when we TRULY face that fact…it doesn’t make us happy like we just got out of jail…it’s terrifying to us. It produces in us that feeling that Sartre calls Anguish.

We feel a sense of Anguish…when we truly consider just how much freedom we have to choose and how responsible we are for our actions…and Sartre says most people spend their entire lives coming up with all kinds of creative ways to tell themselves a story… blaming their behavior on something other than themselves, all in an attempt to ESCAPE, this feeling of anguish.

Let’s talk about a few of the ways… Sartre thinks people shift this blame off themselves and pretend like they didn’t have a choice…one of them happens to be a prevailing idea in the field of psychology during Sartre’s life…it’s the Freudian idea of the unconscious mind people will tell themselves…I did something…but it wasn’t really fully ME that made the choice to do it…see I have this thing called my unconscious mind up in my brain that affects and sometimes even GOVERNS my decision making.

Sartre uses an example like…say you were walking out of a restaurant and you see a little girl bleeding out of her head on the sidewalk looking for help. Now most of us… when faced with this situation… consciously think…oh, here’s a girl that needs help. I care about this girl. I’m a good person. The right thing to do here is to help this little girl. And then we do it.

Now a common criticism of this description of what’s going on there is that what really happened…is that you saw a little girl bleeding out of her head…that visual produced in you a very unpleasant feeling of distress and worry…and you went over to help the girl really on a self-interested mission to get rid of that distress and worry. In other words, consciously you told yourself that you’re a good person and what you like to do is help people who are in need…but unconsciously…you were acting in a self-interested way.

Now nobody gets hurt in this example, but you can imagine how having this cordoned off place up in your head called “the unconscious mind”… that we have no awareness of when making choices but nonetheless sometimes governs our behavior…you can imagine how people might sometimes use that as a way of taking the blame off of themselves and not admitting that they were free to make another choice…you can imagine how Sartre might have a problem with it.

And an important thing to note is…it certainly may be true that most of the stuff we do is done without us directly reflecting on it…the thing Sartre wants to avoid is people using this “unconscious mind” as a scapegoat that they can evoke any time they want to justify horrible behavior.

Police talking to you:

Sir, what happened here?

Yes I trampled that small child…but you know when I heard the fire alarm I had this unconscious natural urge to protect myself and my kids and everything else went out the window.

Police talking to you again:

Look man I was just sitting there this guy rolled up and I said bro, you better get out of my face and then unconsciously bam! I laid him out. Unconsciously…I just had this instinct to protect myself.

This is what he’s trying to avoid…and think about it…is it absolutely necessary to have this hidden realm called the unconscious mind that we have no awareness of?

Sartre would say that sure, it is true that seeing the little girl makes me feel distressed and worried. And it’s true, that helping the little girl removes this feeling of distress and worry that I have. But what’s ALSO true…is that once I help the little girl rub some dirt on the wound and wrap it up in a giant bandage…how convenient…that I’m never surprised at that point… that I feel good about myself and that these bad feelings have left me. It’s almost like…I was always aware of the fact I was acting selfishly…I just wasn’t reflecting on it in that moment. It’s almost like this motive wasn’t hidden away in some unconscious mind that I have no awareness of…but that I was just aware of it in a different way.

Sartre makes the distinction that consciousness is not this single wave of awareness like many psychologists assume that every consciousness has what he calls both positional and non-positional awareness…but the ultimate goal… that Sartre has here is to do away with this mysterious and unnecessary realm called “the unconscious mind”… that supposedly can dictate behavior with motives that are IMPOSSIBLE to be conscious of oh, and by the way…can be evoked at any moment… to allow people to escape from the Anguish of how truly free they are.

Now the unconscious mind is just one of these clever ways people have come up with to avoid responsibility. Sartre says people do it with all kinds of other stuff…people do it with a God that has a plan for them…they’ll do it by reducing themselves to some social role…you know, I’m just a carpenter that’s all…the point is…there’s no shortage of these creative ways people have come up with to avoid how truly free they are and how responsible they are for their actions. And one of the most common things people will use as an excuse for why they behaved in a particular way that they didn’t have total control over…are their emotions. Sartre writes an ENTIRE book on emotions…talks about them in several others.

And it’s a tempting place to take issue with Sartre, right? I mean when you hear somebody make a radical claim like that…that we’re TOTALLY free and ABSOLUTELY responsible for our behavior…one of the first places you might go is to say look, I’m down with freedom and responsibility…but let’s face it…we aren’t TOTALLY free…fact is, we are emotional beings…sometimes we get overwhelmed by emotions, sometimes these emotions cause us to behave in crazy ways.

But Sartre wouldn’t agree. Sartre would say that emotions, ultimately are choices that we make.

Let me explain what he means: he’s responding to a really common way that people look at emotions. The basic idea is that what happens when we have an emotion…is that we have some perception…for example, we see a news story about someone getting stabbed…it CAUSES us to have a particular physiological response…our stomach drops, we get butterflies, blood rushes to our face…and then we become aware of that physiological response and just sort of marinate in it…until it goes away or we use some mental trickery to get rid of it. Point is: our awareness of that physiological response that was CAUSED by some perception…that is WHAT the emotion is.

But Sartre would say, it’s not that simple. The first thing he’d want to point out that isn’t explicitly stated in that theory is that emotions… are… intentional. In the same way consciousness is always consciousness OF something…it has intentionality…and that there’s no empty consciousness out there not directed at anything…emotions are the same way. Whenever you’re angry…you’re ANGRY about something that happened. Whenever you’re sad…you’re sad ABOUT something…for example, a story on the news of somebody getting stabbed. Point is: When you say that you’re sad…you’re not just in some “physiological STATE of sadness”…you’re always sad ABOUT something…some state of affairs happened in the world…and then that sadness came about.

Well WHY did it come about? It’s tempting to say that it was against our will…that I SAW the story on the news and it CAUSED me to be sad. But Sartre would say what’s REALLY going on…whether we realize it or not…is that we use our emotions as strategies…strategies that we employ to escape some otherwise unpleasant situation in the world…in the event we CAN’T totally escape the situation…the emotion at least makes us feel better off than we would otherwise be.

Now at first this may seem just downright counter-intuitive. My emotions aren’t strategies that I’m using…I don’t even THINK about them. Well just picture for a second what it looks like when people DO use emotions in an overtly strategic way…for example imagine a super manipulative person…you go to a restaurant…they wanted to go to a different restaurant. *sigh* I’m so sad. Look at me and how sad I am…if only someone took me to a different restaurant I might feel better. Now this isn’t what Sartre says we’re doing I’m just giving an example of how even FEIGNED emotions can be used as strategies to bring about a particular end and that maybe emotions are more than just some force within us that leads to an involuntary physiological response.

Sartre would say…that when the guy cuts you off in traffic…most likely it was an accident but for the sake of this example let’s imagine he cut you off on purpose…he was staring you directly in the eyes through the back window of his car as he cut you off…well what exactly happened there? Well this guy was really inconsiderate of you. He put your life in jeopardy…other motorists lives in jeopardy…he essentially just reduced you to this sub-human level where you don’t even deserve the space on the road as much as he does…that’s basically HIS road…and you’re this little insect that’s in the way. That guy’s preference of which lane he wants to drive in… is ESSENTIALLY more important than your overall safety and well being. That’s you now.

This is a particular state of affairs that you can possibly be faced with…and how do people sometimes respond when they’re faced with this scenario? They get ANGRY. Why do they get angry? Well to Sartre, it’s a strategy they’re using. Because let’s say you really looked at someone cutting you off in traffic in that way I just described…you’ve got a few options…you can sit there…and just revel in this new status this guy has just given you…as this insect that’s just in the way of this guy’s 1987 Honda Accord…an insect that doesn’t even deserve the consideration of their own space on the road…or, what else can you do? You can get ANGRY. Yeah. You can feel indignant! Now, instead of being this little insect…I’ve RESTORED my honor as a human being! This guy’s got expectations that THAT guy’s not living up to. And he should feel HORRIBLE for being such a worse driver than me…how DARE he be so inconsiderate of somebody that’s so much more important than an insect.

Being angry can be an uncomfortable feeling…but it’s a much MORE comfortable feeling than being sub-human and just in the way of the REAL people…to Sartre, we EVOKE the emotion of ANGER (and ALL emotions for that matter) as a strategy to ESCAPE from an unpleasant situation.

Even positive emotions…you know when somebody’s going throughout their day and they’re WALKING on sunshine…nothing can bother me today, I’m in TOO GOOD of a mood! Sartre would say That person’s doing that as a way of escaping the reality of being a human being…that we DO have responsibilities and obligations…we DO have things that annoy and inconvenience us. Emotions, whether we realize it or not, are choices. We may not have something happen to us and then say to ourselves, OK I’m going to be sad now to cope with this GO! But these ARE strategies that we’re using and how convenient…that people that HAVE alternative coping skills…are less moody people!

Again, what Sartre’s ultimately trying to get away from here are people making excuses for their behavior, blaming their emotional state and denying the true level of freedom that they have. You know, it’s so easy to say, hey sorry I acted that way, I’m an angry person. But Sartre would say: no you’re not. Where did THAT come from? There’s no essence to your being given to you by some creator that makes you a more ANGRY person than everyone else out there. Maybe you’re not Angry because you’re an Angry person, but instead… maybe you’re an angry person because you consistently choose anger as a response to cope with things that happen to you. Maybe you’re NOT a slave. Maybe you HAVE a choice. Maybe your consciousness is not something being constantly controlled by some powerful force called “emotion”…maybe in reality…consciousness is freedom.

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

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Episode 104 – Sartre and Camus pt. 5 – Consciousness is Freedom

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Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980)


On this episode, we look at Sartre and his famous statement, “Consciousness is Freedom”. See the full transcript of this episode here.

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

Continue reading Episode 104 – Sartre and Camus pt. 5 – Consciousness is Freedom

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Episode 103 – Transcript

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

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

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

Sartre goes on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980)


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

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

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

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Episode 102 – Transcript

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Episode 102 – Heidegger pt. 3 – Authenticity

Heidegger_1955

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)


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

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

Continue reading Episode 102 – Heidegger pt. 3 – Authenticity