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Episode 100 – Transcript

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

 

April 14, 2017

 

Philosophize This!
with Stephen West

 

Episode 100: Heidegger Pt. 1

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What does it mean to be a human being?

How can we define that?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Question is, where do you put that foot first?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But all that doesn’t matter.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What does it mean to exist?

What does it mean to be a human being?

These ontological question we were talking about.

 

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

 

No question about it, things would look very different.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What is it to be a human being?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Being is something that we’re engaged in.

 

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

 

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

 

How different would the world look today?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Episode 100 – Heidegger pt. 1 – Phenomenology and Dasein

Heidegger_1955

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)


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

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

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

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Episode 99 – Transcript

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

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

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Episode 99 – Schopenhauer pt. 2 – Ethics


Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)


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

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

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Episode 98 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #098 on Arthur Schopenhauer. Check out the episode page HERE.

So today is the first episode in a series on Arthur Schopenhauer. Notoriously a guy that thinks this world is a pretty miserable place, notoriously a guy that sees our everday lives as similar to being on a sunny plain with a dark cloud over your head that follows you around…you see the sunlight all around you and you try to get to it but you never will…he’s notoriously a guy that sees the pinnacle of human virtue…or a sage in his philosophical system is someone that rejects any sort of worldly, human desire and spends their days living like an ascetic monk…depriving themselves of everything.
Now I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the majority of people listening to this, probably don’t view their lives in the same sort of pessimistic way that Schopenhauer does…probably a little confused right now. Why… would he say that? In this series we’ll ask the hard hitting questions: Is Arthur Schopenhauer just a drama queen…is this the world’s oldest thirteen year old kid that didn’t get an iPad for Christmas? Or is there maybe something…that Schopenhauer presents as a foundation for why all these things aren’t as dramatic as they might initially seem?
Quick spoiler…uh one of the things that makes Schopenhauer super interesting when it comes to the history of human thought… is that he’s the first major philosopher to use only the work of western thinkers before him and independently arrive at conclusions… that start to look eerily similar to the conclusions laid out in the lot of eastern philosophy, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the like.
So anyway…probably the best place to start is to talk about the sort of… metaphysical bedrock that he builds this philosophical system on top of…and the way he CONSTRUCTS this foundation is by building off of the work of someone I’m proud to call a friend…friend of the show, love to have him on again sometime to catch up…I’m of course talking about Mr. Immanuel Kant.
So, Kant’s big famous distinction that he made. I get it, we probably talk about it a little too much on this show and you can always go back to the Kant episodes if you want a more comprehensive refresher course…but just in case this is the first time someone’s ever listened to the show…really briefly I want to go over it again.
Look around you right now. Look at the world around you. What exactly is going on for you to be able to have these images inside of your head, this picture of the world that you have? Well if you’re Kant…what’s happening is your senses are receiving raw information…you’re seeing things, hearing things, smelling things…and you’re filtering this raw information through your brain that organizes and makes sense of it by using various mental faculties. Cause and effect, Space and Time, how things relate to eachother. In other words, your senses and mental faculties come together in a coalition…and combine their forces to be able to create for you the crude map of the world that allows you to navigate it.
But is this crude map of the world a total picture of reality? For example, you can have experiences with things…you can be walking through the part and come across a rock…right? You can pick that rock up…you can turn it from side to side, look at it…you can smell it…spread some breadcrumbs on the ground…throw it at a group of pidgeons…save some money. You can do all kinds of different things with a rock, but your human experience of that rock… is not the totality of what that rock is. For any number of reasons, for example you certainly wouldn’t deny that while you see the rock as a solid, static and unchanging thing… if we took that rock and looked at it under an electron microscope… you’d see that it was actually 99.9% empty space and constantly moving. Point is… there’s a disconnect between this crude map that we draw in our human experience of the world… and how things actually are in reality. There’s something out there that is feeding our senses that raw information. Raw information that is then filtered through our mental faculties and transmuted into this picture of the world that we have, so what is it?
Kant says that there are two worlds…the world of human experience…thats the world that you see around you that we have access to…and the world of what he called “things in themselves” or the way that reality is… independent of human experience.
Now if you’re Kant…no matter how hard we try… we will never be able to directly access this world of things in themselves…all we’ll ever be able to do is understand our human experience of that world. Now if you’re Schopenhauer on the other hand…you agree with Kant to a large extent…but Schopenhauer thinks Kant’s making a few braizen assumptions… that might be preventing us from knowing more about this other world out there.
First of all…Kant…when you say something like, The World of Things in Themselves…isn’t that sort of pidgeon holing it a bit? Isn’t that sort of… shading the way that we think about this other world out there…isn’t that sort of biasing us towards assuming that whatever it is that does exist out there… is a collection of things? Seems like a harmless assumption to make…but it’s a good question: Is what lies on the other side of this veil of perception… a collection of things necessarily? I mean, certainly in our human experience of the world we see things like dogs, trees, people, rocks…and certainly whatever it is on the other side manifests itself in our human experience as a bunch of things…but isn’t that just another way we categorize things in our human experience of the world? Why does that say anything for certain about this other world?
Schopenhauer would say…think about what you’re implying when you say Things in themselves. You’re sort of assuming… that plurality is a thing in this other world. You’re assuming that all these things that seem to be seperate in our human experience of the world…rocks, trees, people…are actually seperate in this other world. But can we safely assume that? Couldn’t it easily be that this other world is made up of one singular thing. A singular thing that we humans just mistake as a bunch of seperate things because… that’s just how our brains can make sense of it?
See it’s so tempting to only look at what Kant’s saying through the lens of materialism…to hear this distinction about how limited our human experience is and to be like you know what…he’s right. I admit it. oly oly oxenfree!…I am but a feeble human…my senses and mental faculties are horrible…but you know…maybe this is just a crude map of what actually exists…but lets just be real…when I’m looking at a tree…whatever it is on the other side pretty much looks like a tree. Right…I mean sure maybe if I had some better eyes… I could see it different?…sure if I had the eyes of a pelican I’d be able to see things a little better congratulations…you know maybe if I had some super human level of mental factulties…if I had the mental factulties of… Captain Crunch…you know if I was a Captain Crunch looking…pelican seeing kind of guy…maybe id order things a little more clearly…but ultimately…if I somehow had access to this world of things in themselves…trees would still pretty much look like trees…they just wouldnt be the crude outline of it that I have right now…
But Schopenhauer would ask…why is that necessarily the case? And doesn’t that just sound like what a human being would tell themselves if they wanted to feel super special? Like if they wanted to tell themselves that these senses and mental faculties… that really only depict the world in the way that they do because they gave some mutated fish with a gimp leg a reproductive advantage in a completely random set of atmospheric conditions…yeah, these senses must have just a vice grip on the fabric of reality…right?
Starts to make you wonder about what this world of things in themselves is like. What might it be like? Another question…how strange of a place might this be? Given the fact that we’re really only basing what seems likely aabout it on our human intuitions.
Again, Kant thought we’d never be able to directly access this world of things in themselves…we’d only be able to access our human experience of it. And again, Schopenhauer agrees with Kant to a large extent…but he thinks Kant’s overlooking something that is extremely importanthere . See, philosophers since Kant have all tried to figure out stuff about this world of things in themselves by studying things in our human experience…they’d look at things like rocks, and trees and people…you know all these external things that appear to be seperate from eachother in our human experience of then…and a common strategy is they try to somehow subtract… our human experience from them…goal being to hopefully learn something about the things in themselves. But Schopenhauer thought, instead of looking outside of ourselves to find an answer…why not look inside? Why not turn inward… and try to understand something that we have a much more intimate understanding of than anything outside of ourselves. Our…selves.
He says it here:
“Consequently, a way from within stands open to us to that real inner nature of things to which we cannot penetrate from without. It is, so to speak, a subterranean passage, a secret alliance, which, as if by treachery, places us all at once in the fortress that cannot be taken by attack from without.”
Schopenhauer would want you to ask yourself…what are you at your core? Look inward. When you truly…endeavor fearlessly into understanding the nature of your being…what do you come face to face with? What are you? Well you seem to be… a bag of skin and bones…but it’s a bag of skin and bones that seems to be animated by something, right? Now, he’s not talking about a soul or a spirit or anything here…he’s an atheist…what he’s saying is that from the moment we come out of the womb… for some reason…there seems to be this force…that’s directing us…a force that 99% of us take for granted because it’s the only life we’ve ever known…but it’s what he calls this sub conscious…restless…striving for things. This restless striving for your next meal…or a new car…or a better job…if you’re a baby it’s for your next bottle…or to roll across the room and stick your maraca toy into a light socket, they seem to like to do that.
Point is, why does the default state of human being seem to be animated by a constant restless striving for things? Always wanting…always reaching and trying to get something. You get your new baseball hat…and then what? You’re done? You just spend the rest of your life sitting around staring at it and stroking it…like you’re Golem? No, you find something else to restlessly strive for. We’ll talk a lot more about this dynamic next episode, but the explanation for all of this restless striving if you’re Schopenhauer…is that the world of things in themselves…is not a world of things at all…that what exists on the other side of this veil of perception… is a single force that he calls the will to life. Sometimes he just calls it Will. Personally I don’t really like calling it that…little bit misleading…reason being…in the philosophy departments of major universities calling it Will in that context just makes it kind of confusing because that’s the great philosopher Jaden Smith’s dad’s name. And everybody gets confused.
What follows from this if you’re Schopenhauer…is that what you are…what you’ve always been…is a manifestation of this force. A thing cast into this realm condemned to restlessly strive. And what follows from THAT if you’re Schopenhauer… is that it’s not just you…everything in the ENTIRE UNIVERSE is also a manifestation of this force. An asteroid has a will to be an asteroid. A raccoon has a will to be a raccoon. Although in our human experience of the world we make sense of things by thinking in terms of things being seperate from eachother, space, time, cause and effect…although we do that…thats only the way we make sense of it from our point of view and that the reality is that everything in the entire universe is actually one… we’re all one thing…a force…that’s manifesting itself in countless different ways in our human experience.
Now at first glance you may think: Hooray! We’re all one! I knew it! What an amazing thing to believe! Now we can all start being nice to eachother. Uh, no. Think of the implications… of the metaphysical picture Schopenhauer just laid out. If everything in the universe is one…and everybody has their own restless striving that they’re working on…I gotta eat eventually, dont I? Slowly the reality sets in that an inexorable part of my existence… is that I must destroy another thing that is restlessly striving so that I can continue restlessly striving. In other words…I’m a manifestation of this force…this plant is a manifestation of this force…we are one…that means I have to cannabalize myself in order to continue restlessly striving. In fact, that’s not even the word for it…what’s the word for when you eat yourself? Actually if you know the answer to that question…please please…do not send me an email I want to stay as far away from you as I possibly can.
Now imagine what our lives navigating this universe become if you’re Schopenhauer. We essentially live in a giant realm, directed by this constant desire to restlessly strive for things, living alongside everything else in existence that also is restlessly striving for things. Now imagine there’s no divine providence. It’s easy if you try. In other words imagine there’s nothing governing the universe that cares whether you get hit by a commuter train, or whether your mom gets her medication or whether an asteroid the size of Europe wants to occupy the same place in space Europe wants to occupy. For all intents and purposes…we exist in a massive completely disinterested realm with a varitable infinity of wills that are potentially competing with ours. We’re condemned to a life of nuerotically, restlessly striving for things…forced to self-mutilate just for the luxury of being able to continue restlessly striving for things. To top it off…once you’re aware of the reality of the fact that we’re all one…now you get to look around you and see the massive amount of suffering that’s visited every second of every day and you realize that that’s ultimately YOU suffering.
Schopenhauer asks…what thing what person would ever choose to live in such a miserable place? Yet we persist because of that force we’re all manifestations of…it’s too strong…most people go their entire lives not even considering it…just restlessly striving until they die one day. He actually thinks it’s being aware of how miserable this universe is that ultimately prompts people to do any kind of philosophy. He seems to think there’s some kind of connection between how miserable you think the world is and your level of intellect.
“The lower a man is in an intellectual respect, the less puzzling and mysterious existence is to him. On the contrary, everything, how it is and that it is, seems to him a matter of course.”
In other words if you’re Schopenhauer, you spend your entire life wrapping your head around this force that we’re all manifestations of, while some other dude just never even thinks about it…or I guess a better example…if you’re of a high intellect and existence is mysterious and interesting to you you seek out stuff like the philosophize this! podcast with stephen west…while everyone else sits at home slowly dying watching Larry the Cable Guy.
Now some of you are probably saying aw come on Schopenhauer…it’s.. not… that.. bad…the world is not some miserable place neccessarily…what about all the good stuff? Maybe you’re miserable…maybe you didn’t design your life in a way where you have amazing people and things surrounding you all the time…but I did…and I can tell you from experience the universe is not a miserable place.
To Schopenhauer…we do this don’t we? We plan and design our lives around trying to drown out that constant hum of misery that’s in the back of our minds. We sit around and think about what we thinks gonna make us happy…and we tell ourselves that we ultimately do the things we do because we think it’s going to make us happy. Now what’s a really common prescription that somebody writes very early on in life about what is going to make them happy? What is a common thing that people want at some point in their life that they think is going to fill their life with joy? Well I want to graduate college, I want to get a job, live in the city…I want to meet somebody…fall in love…get married…have kids and live happily ever after.
Now if you’re somebody listening to this that has this dream of falling in love getting married and having kids…or if you’re somebody that has had this dream at some point in the past…Schopenhauer would probably ask you…why do think you have this dream? Specifically…this one in particular? Why do you think so many other people have this very same dream? Why are you so sure that getting married and having kids is going to bring you happiness? And intuitively as human beings the answer seems pretty straightforward. Companionship, someones always gonna be there for you, you have these rugrats running around with mammilian brains…they can’t even choose to hate me if they wanted to. Sounds like a pretty good deal.
Schopenhauer would say that that may be the story you tell yourself in your head of why you want love in your life but it’s not why you’re actually doing it. And look love to Schopenhauer is no question one of the greatest things in life…he’s just saying understand…the TRUE reason…you have such a strong desire to fall in love during your lifetime. He’s thinks that love is an elaborate scam. Run from the altars! Call the Attorney General! You’re being CONNED people. You’re not getting married and having kids because you think it’s going to make you happy…no, the will to life…this force we are all enslaved to… is subconsciously compelling you… to want kids… for the sake of the propogation of the species.
Just think about the decision to have kids. Think about ALL the costs associated with it. The financial cost, diapers are expensive. The emotional cost, cleaning crayon off the wall. The opportunity cost, all the things you could be doing. The cost of sleep deprivation. The cost of fearing for their safety. The cost of getting frustrated with them. Having a kid is an absolutely MASSIVE resposibility to take on, nobody would disagree with that.
Schopenhauer thinks… that if you truly considered all the costs associated with having kids before having them…no rational being… would ever have kids! No person thinking clearly would ever trade 10-15 minutes of feeling good for a lifetime of costs and responsibilities. He says that the will to life REALIZES this…and it needs some powerful feeling that it can evoke in you… and make you into a completely irrational person for a short period of time so that you will have kids and keep the species going…we call this feeling of irrationality…love. Love feels so good and people want it so badly in their lives…but to Schopenhauer it is the vehicle driving you to commit some crime that you’ll later plead temporary insanity to.
I mean think of all the irrational things people have done in the name of love. Think of the blinders they put on. Think of the stories they tell themselves the games that they play. They’re sick people. Now some of you may be asking ok Schopenhauer…if Love really is just a force that’s enslaving me with the sole task of propogating the species…why don’t I love everyone? Couldn’t I have kids with basically anyone walking down the street barring them having had some sort of tragic, tragic accident? Well yeah, you could. But the propogation of the species is not just concerned with sheer numbers, there are other criteria involved…and that whether you realize it or not…the reason you fall in love with the people you do…is not because you actually like things about their personality or feel comfortable with them…it’s because you’re subconsciously reading something about them. You’re reading that they have strengths in areas you have weaknesses, and they’re reading that you have strengths where THEY have weaknesses. Aspects of your character and appearance balance out eachother…the end product of this entire exchange being…more balanced and healthy children that are more likely to go on and reproduce.
Schopenhauer thought that people who are tall tend to end up with people who are short. People who are meek tend to end up with people who are more courageous. Even though to you it feels like you are making a free choice… and that you just really like this person…what is actually going on is that you are being sub consciously manipulat ed… by the will to life to be attracted to a person that will create balanced children. Now this really just leaves one question…if you’re someone that’s unfortunate enough to be a person that is a 1 out of 10 on the attractive scale…where are these hoardes of supermodels that are helplessly attracted to me schopenhauer…where are they?! I’m walking proof you’re wrong Schopenhauer…but he does bring up an interesting point.
Maybe this is the reason so many people have the experience where they meet someone fall in love get married have kids…and then either get divorced or remain emiserated in a relationship for decades staying together for the kids. Why is that such a common thing that people do? Schopenhauer says getting married is like grasping blind into a sack of snakes and hoping to find an eel.
This is a passage from his work The World As Will and Representation:
“A girl who rejects the proposal of a wealthy and not old man, against her parents’ convenience according to her instinctive inclination, sacrifices her individual welfare to that of the species. But on this very account, we cannot withhold a certain approbation; for she has preferred what is more important and has acted in the spirit of nature (more precisely of the species), whereas the parents advised her in the spirit of individual egoism. In consequence of all this, it seems as if, in making a marriage, either the individual or the interest of the species must come off badly. Often this must be the case, for that convenience and passionate love should go hand in hand is the rarest stroke of good fortune.”
What he’s saying is, if you’re with someone…in his view you’re with them because the will to life is subconsciouly coercing you into having balanced children and propogating the species. And that may render you in a state of temporary insanity…but just know that once you have that kid…you aren’t with somebody that is necessarily emotionally compatible to you…once you propogate the species…once that haze of insanity lifts off of you…you very well may find yourself in a relationship with someone that you actually despise. One things for sure to Schopenhauer…MUCH of the time people find themselves fighting a battle to stay together… and that it is EXTREMELY rare to have happened to fall in love with someone that you’re compatible with…because…the criteria you were using initially had nothing to do with compatibility.
Anyway, Schopenhauer was a huge fan of love despite not having much of it himself throughout his life. I think the key thing about love he’d want people to realize preferably as early in life as possible…is that we often sit around thinking about how our lives are going to play out…we know that we want to be happy…and we often mistakenly conflate falling in love and being a happy person. We often think that there is some sort of direct connection between the two. Schopenhauer wanted us to realize that the process of falling in love and the process of being a happy person are COMPLETELY seperate from eachother. You can be happy without love and you can love someone without being happy. Understand love for what it truly is…an extreme feeling that is needed to temporarily convince perfectly rational beings to do the most irrational thing they could ever do in their lives. Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.

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Episode 98 – Schopenhauer pt. 1 – Metaphysics and Love

Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)


On this episode, we take a look at the the metaphysics of Arthur Schopenhauer and touch briefly on his views on love. See the full transcript of this episode here.

Among 19th century philosophers, Arthur Schopenhauer was among the first to contend that at its core, the universe is not a rational place. Inspired by Plato and Kant, both of whom regarded the world as being more amenable to reason, Schopenhauer developed their philosophies into an instinct-recognizing and ultimately ascetic outlook, emphasizing that in the face of a world filled with endless strife, we ought to minimize our natural desires for the sake of achieving a more tranquil frame of mind and a disposition towards universal beneficence. Continue reading Episode 98 – Schopenhauer pt. 1 – Metaphysics and Love

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Episode 97 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #097 on Ludwig Wittgenstein. Check out the episode page HERE.

 

So I want to start today by talking about a very strange ritual that all of you engage in, most of you dont even really think about it, you just do it. I’ve seen you. I’ve kept my mouth shut for a while but I’m not going to let it destroy this family. I’ve seen you pull out a piece of a dead tree…get your little stick with your carbon ink in it and squiggle lines on a piece of paper trying to convey meaning. Yeah, I was in the closet. I’ve heard you make sounds with your throat and mouth trying to take an idea that is up in your head and put it into the head of another person. I don’t like to put labels on things..but I’m going to need to refer to it as something moving forward with the episode and I think I’m going to call it language.
Now the good news is, you’re in good company with all of this bizarre behavior. Practically every human being alive engages in the same ritual. In fact, practically every human being that’s been alive for the last 100,000 years has made a similar choice, and just for the sake of the show today…there’s some important figures that fall into this class of people that have chosen to use language to communicate ideas…like every philosopher we’ve ever talked about on this show. Just think about how important language is…whether you’re Aristotle, Sir Francis Bacon, Karl Popper, whenever you are conducting philosophy, ultimately, you are a human being that is conducting philosophy from within the confines of a language.
Think about it, It’s really the only tool that we have to be able to communicate the ideas that are inside our head. Now, one thing that naturally follows from that if you’re a philosopher, is you have to eventually ask yourself the question: what are these languages that we’re all using? Where’d they come from? Who invented them? Alexander Graham Bell? Was it Tesla that did that? More seriously: was it a philosopher king… who sat around for decades pondering and assigning meaning to each and every word… which he then compiled into a giant tome that he called webster’s dictionary?
No, that’s not how languages form. Language, and there’s many theories about the origins of language but it’s pretty clear it wasn’t ever a philosopher king…generally speaking language is this patchwork of mutually agreed upon names that a group of people sort of stumble upon… mostly to be able to communicate with each other about everyday things. You know, language is great if you want to order a double quarter pounder with cheese. It’s great if you want to tell someone no I would NOT like to donate a dollar to help starving lizards in the congo. But if you’re a philosopher, and you’re in the business of being as clear and distinct with your ideas as possible, in the business of communicating those ideas as effectively as possible. Is this language that we use, this thing really just created by a bunch of people ordering cheeseburgers over the years a thing that is constantly being tweaked…is this language necessarily capable… of perfectly describing every possible thing that can exist? Any idea a philosopher could ever have?
Seems unlikely. Seems like language has these sort of built in limitations. Limitations that are almost certainly having a drastic effect on every philosopher’s work having conveyed their ideas through it. Now in that world that philosophers operate in…understanding language becomes incredibly important, and philosophers over the years realized this. And even though we haven’t really talked about it much on this show…there’s actually been a lot of work done analyzing language. People have asked all kinds of questions…fun questions…in fact I’m gonna give you a cheat sheet…here’s some good criteria if you ever want to know whether something’s a good philosophical question…it has to make you instantly intrigued and want to think about it, but simultaneously it has to make some average person next to you jump off the nearest bridge. Questions like: what is a word? what is a sentence? what is a proposition? what does it mean to mean something?
Well another one of these questions that philosophers have asked over the years trying to get to the bottom of language is how do words get their definitions. Who or what assigns these definitions? What criteria do they use to know whether something is a complete definition or not? Today we’re talking about Ludwig Wittgenstein…and around the time he’s coming of age in the world…early 1900’s…the prevailing theory when it comes to this question of how we arrive at the definitions of words… is that the definition of a word is discovered when you understand the conditions for what’s called both necessity and sufficiency. Or when you understand the necessary conditions and sufficient conditions that makes the thing whatever it is that you’re talking about.
For example…a necessary condition is some thing that needs to be present in order for a thing to be whatever it is…for example…a necessary condition for being a triangle… is that you must have three sides. If you don’t have three sides, you’re not a triangle. You’re just a jealous parralelogram…get some therapy. That’s a necessary condition…a sufficient condition… is something that is sufficient for a thing to be whatever it is, but it’s not a mandatory property. For example, having an RSS feed that is posted to the podcast section of iTunes is a sufficient condition for being a podcast, but it isn’t a necessary condition because somebody could easily create a podcast, upload it to Spotify, Google Play, Soundcloud but just never upload it to iTunes. So again the prevailing theory around the time Wittgenstein started doing his work was that if you understood all of the necessary and sufficient conditions of any one thing, you’d be able to provide the definition of that thing.
Well Wittgenstein didn’t agree. But to understand why he didn’t agree with this…I think it’s important to have a little context. It’s important to understand how fascinated he was with mathematics.
So if you look at the life of Wittgenstein, very early on in his life he is fascinated with mechanical engineering…actually starts going to school thinking THAT’s the field he’s eventually going to work in…but then something happens…Bertrand Russell, another philosopher, publishes a book in 1903 called The Principles of Mathematics that was so influential…that it changes Wittgenstein’s entire outlook on what he should be doing with his life. That’s how big it was. He quits mechanical engineering…transfers to Cambridge so that he can study under Bertrand Russell who was teaching there at the time.
Trying to think of where to start. When you think about it, math is a pretty fascinating thing…especially if you’re a philosopher. I mean, it’s not a coincidence that so many of the great philosophers throughout history have also been mathematicians. Think about what you’re doing there. When you’re doing math…you have these propositions that you can state…and you can say these things with about as much certainty as you’re ever going to get as a human being that’s making propositions. For example, 1+1=2. You can say, with pretty much complete certainty, that 1+1=2. To doubt the validity of that statement, is to either be mistaken or to not understand the definitions of the things being questioned…to not understand the definition of, for example, the concept of “one” or “addition” or “resolving an equation”.
Now the thing that’s so interesting about math…the thing that’s typically intriguing to philosophers about math…is that… here we have this equation…this equation that we can state with absolute certainty…yet when it comes to things that actually exist in the real world…what is the concept of one? I mean what is that…what is the concept of three…where is that? Is that down there in that crack on the driver’s side between the seat and the door where everything else gets lost? Where is this concept of three located?
No, the concept of three doesn’t exist physically, we can’t hold onto it or empirically study it…so what happens is…math becomes this very strange realm where we can arrive at certainty about stuff…but it’s all stuff that doesn’t actually exist in the world we navigate our lives through…but…as I’m sure you can imagine…if you’re somebody that’s interested in arriving at certainty about things that DO physically exist…a promising place to start… might be to try to emulate what people are doing in mathematics…to try to apply that process to things that DO physically exist…and see if we can get the same level of certainty.
This has been tried dozens of times all throughout history, but it’s still an intriguing prospect in 1903 when Wittgenstein reads Bertrand Russell’s book on the principles of mathematics. Now the problem with mathematics just by itself… is that it’s kind of its own institution…it’s not really useful at informing decision making or helping us think correctly or anything like that. However, Wittgenstein thinks that there’s something else… that we do… that has to do with human thought…and when you put it side by side next to mathematics…starts to look incredibly similar. The thing he’s talking about…is formal logic.
Think about it. In the same way we can arrive at certainty about the notion that 1+1=2…we can arrive at certainty about the notion that if all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal. If all A’s are B’s…and some B’s are C’s…then Some A’s must be C’s.
Logic provides us with parameters for our thinking so that we can be sure that we’re thinking clearly…but on the other hand when it comes to math…really, when was the last time…barring you working in some sort of profession that requires advanced math on a daily basis…which I respect tremendously…tremendous amount of respect for those good, good people…you wouldn’t believe how much I respect these people it’s incredible…barring that, when was the last time you ever used anything beyond basic arithmetic in your every day life? When was the last time you triangulated the position of the oatmeal in your pantry?
Point is, it may not often be very practically useful to know that the circumfrence of a circle is pi r squared, just like it may not be very useful to know that some b’s are c’s and some A’s must be c’s…and logic and math may resemble eachother in this way, but a key difference between them…is that unlike math, at least logic can be applied directly to our thinking and help us determine if we’re thinking correctly.
Now what naturally follows from this…when you say something like all men are mortal, socrates is a man, therefore socrates is mortal…the thing that is implied when you say that is that there must be some sort of fundamental logical structure to all thought. Otherwise what are we referening when we use formal logic. And what follows from THAT if you’re wittgenstein…is that if there’s a logical structure to all clear thinking, there must be a logical structure to communicating those thoughts. We have a name for this logical structure of communication…it’s called language.
This is the central task of Wittgenstein’s entire body of work…to try to understand how language is even possible between human beings. To understand the function of language, to understand errors that people make in communication that inevitably lead to errors in their thinking. But in order to fully understand these things, you can’t just look at language. Not only do you have to look at the relationship between language and the things it’s describing, but also the relationship between our thoughts and language.
Wittgenstein has two major works that cover this territory…one published after he died called Philosophical Investigations and one published earlier in his life called the Tractatus. Just to give you an idea…despite the fact that his later work tries to refute a lot of the stuff he laid out in the Tractatus…despite the fact the Tractatus is only 75 pages long…if you had a list of the top ten greatest works in history on the philosophy of language, both of these books would be on that list.
So in the Tractatus, Wittgenstein lays out what is more commonly known as the picture theory of language. Famous story…apparently he had kind of a Eureka moment when he was reading the paper about a court case where they were going to reinact the scene of the accident using fake people and fake cars to give the jury the clearest picture possible of what happened. It was in that moment that he realized… that the function of proper, effective language is descriptive. It describes states of affairs occuring in the world.
See, practically everybody doesn’t use language in a way that’s as precise as Wittgenstein thinks is necessary in the Tractatus. Most of us just sort of, cavalierly throw around words and never really think about it because it does the job well enough. For example, I could be telling you a story about how I was walking through the park the other day and I saw this naked dude wearing a sanwich board that had “capture nicki minaj” written across it, and he was screaming about how she is an ancient shapeshifting mythical creature that has lived for thousands of years and terrorized every society that has ever existed and now shes doing it to us. We gotta stop her.
Picture that scene. Now consider the fact that every person who just pictured that scene pictured a scene that was similar to others in some ways, but very different in others. And the reason there’s so much variance between the pictures that I put in your heads is because I didn’t respect the function of language, which is descriptive. Think of how many details I left out. Was it night time or day time? What was the weather like? How tall was this man? What color was the sandwich board? Are the police officers that are arresting this man state patrol or local precinct?
I told you a story… and the arrangement of words I used worked well enough to relay to you a fun, educational anecdote about Nicki Minaj, but imagine somebody much more skilled than I at describing things that was capable of using the exact right words in the exact right configuration that could put the exact picture they have in their head into yours. In this way, language when used properly, PICTURES the world into somebody else’s head.
Wittgenstein thought if you analyze any sentence closely enough, you could eventually break it down into two primary parts…things he called “names”…which are terms that describe things in the world…things like the sandwich board, the trees and grass in the park, the police officers cat-o-nine-tails whip…whipping him into submission…and the second part is how these names are specifically configured within the sentence. He thought that in same way there is a logical structure to the world and our thinking, whats the relationship to language? There must be some logical way that we can configure these names, some order, that directly mirrors the relationships between what actually happened in reality. Thereby, creating a PICTURE of the scene.
But it’s not enough just to know how reality actually is, we want to be able to speak clearly about every possible way that reality can be, right? So what follows from this if you’re Wittgenstein, is that whenever you state a proposition, anything…it falls into one of three classes. If the proposition does picture reality as it truly is, then the proposition is true. If it doesn’t accurately describe reality but describes a state of affairs that is theoretically possible, say that it was a girl wearing a sandwich board…then that statement is false. If the proposition describes something that is impossible or goes beyond the limits of language, the proposition is meaningless.
Now Wittgenstein writes this 75 page book…and does he kick his feet up on the desk and have a keg party like every other philosopher does…no…he publishes the book…and then proceeds to quit philosophy. He quit because he thought the book solves every philosophical dispute that had ever existed. See people have been wasting their time in his eyes. From the very beggining people are asking questions like what is the meaning of my life? What is a life well lived? What is beauty? They’ve talked about this stuff they’ve argued back and forth and they cant seem to come to a consensus on any of it.
Well, what if the reason this has always been the case… is because philosophers are using the wrong tool for the job? Asking things like what is beauty? What is the meaning of my life…these are transcendental questions. You’re trying to use language…this thing designed to describe states of affairs in the world…this thing haphazardly thrown together by people ordering cheeseburgers over the years, you’re trying to use language to contemplate what the meaning of your life is? Remember, language wasn’t created in a lab by a philosopher king who made sure to include all kinds of neat words to be able to describe anything regardless of how transcendent it is…what if language is just incapable of describing these things…what if the reason “what is the meaning of my life” is such a perplexing question, is because we’re always trying to find an answer to it while using language? It’s just not the right tool for the job…it’s like trying to hammer in some drywall with a water bottle. It’s just not gonna work.
It should be noted Wittgenstein thinks you CAN find an answer to the question, “What is the meaning of my life.” it’s just not going to be through language, and you wont ever really be able to describe it through language. If it’s possible to get an answer, it’s something you have to experience. He says in one of his most famous lines:
“The truth shows itself. It is not said or even expressed in thought. What can be said can be said clearly. Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent.”
That’s his famous line…and so many people out there hear it out of context and they think he’s just saying, Well if you don’t know what you’re talking about you should probably keep your mouth shut! No, he’s not parroting some warmed over truism there…he’s saying that language is insufficient at describing these transcendental concepts, and that all these questions that philosophers have been agonizing over like what is the meaning of my life…this is just a result of their thinking being tangled up and confused about the limitations of language.
The question what is the meaning of my life…is nonsensical to Wittgenstein…it’s comopletely devoid of meaning. To even ask a question like that, to someone that truly understands the limits of language…would just confuse them.
For example…when I say 1+1=4…people that understand basic math instantly know that something is wrong there. Like I said before, for me to say something like 1+1=4… that implies that I am either mistaken or don’t understand the definitions of what I’m talking about.
To Wittgenstein, asking a question like what is the meaning of my life is like asking a question like: How much red paint would it take to be funnier than sound waves? It just instantly shows the person’s hand as someone that is confused about the limitations of language. And just how if I asked you that ridiculous question, you wouldn’t respond back with an answer to me…oh it’s gonna take a half gallon of red paint to do that kinda job!…no, you’d be like wait what? what are you talking about right now? Funnier than sound waves? In other words, you’d ask questions and try to clarify and unpack this very tangled, confused view that I have about the limits of language. This is the role of philosophy to Wittgenstein, to undo these misconceptions that people have about the limitations of language and what happens at the end of that process, as the famous line goes…is that you are like a fly being let out of a fly bottle.
Don’t worry I didn’t know what a fly bottle was either. Apparently it’s a really old way people used to trap flies and then they sit there and watch it in its little prison as entertainment. Watch it do pushups. Sometimes flies group together and form gangs. We’re trapped in a metaphorical fly bottle is what he’s saying, philosophy’s job is to show us the way out. We eventually realize that all these things we used to agonize over like what is the meaning of my life aren’t actually problems that need to be solved at all.
So as I said before, Wittgenstein writes the Tractatus… and then quits philosophy thinking that he had solved every major philosophical problem. Later in life he came to believe that he had drastically oversimplified what language is in the Tractatus…I heard it said beautifully once…in the beginning of Wittgensteins life he was concerned with the relationship between language and reality…and towards the end of his life he was more concerned with the relationship between language and us as human beings.
Probably one of the biggest changes between Wittgenstein in the Tractatus and Wittgenstein in his book Philosophical Investigations comes down to how he views the definitions of words and where words derive their meaning. What did people used to do when they were trying to get to the bottom of a definition? Well, let’s go back to our old pal Socrates…he would go into the public square asking people to give him a definition of the word beauty or justice…he’d have conversations ad nausium with his fellow philosophers trying desperately to get to a perfect definition that includes any example of beauty you can come up with. If you remember, so often in these dialogues a person will TRY to give an example of a perfect definition, but Socrates is somehow always able to find an example that doesn’t fit the definition, or an example that fits the definition that no one would agree should be part of it.
Wittgenstein would see Socrates spending his entire life looking for these definitions as yet another example of someone wasting their life because they didn’t understand the nature of language. Wittgenstein would say that the meaning of words…it just doesn’t work that way…that if Socrates lived a thousand lifetimes he would always be able to point out these exceptions to these strict definitions that people like to throw out.
He uses the example of the word “game”. What is a game? Can we get a definition? Is it a competition between two or more people? Well solataire’s a game. Is it just a fun activity someone engages in? Well, riding a roller coaster is fun, but we wouldn’t call THAT a game really. What criteria do we use to determine what a game is? Wittgenstein would say that the problem with us looking for this strict definition of the word game, is that we’re looking at definitions in the same way that people have for centuries…we’re trying to find necessary and sufficient conditions that define every example of a game that we can possibly think of.
But what if it doesn’t work that way? Wittgenstein would say, stop trying to find a perfect set of necessary and sufficient conditions…you’re never gonna do it…and instead reflect on the strange fact…that everybody knows what a game is. When I said solitaire, somehow everybody knew it was a game. When I said going on a roller coaster, somehow everybody knew that shouldn’t be classified as a game. What does that mean? How is that possible if we don’t have the definition somewhere up in our heads?
What it means to Wittgenstein is that the meaning of a word comes down to how it is being used in a particular linguistic community…and that unearthing the meanings of the words we use is a process of observing the way that people use the word. The meaning of a word isn’t something that can be simplified into necessary and sufficient conditions…language is a complex, vibrant, living organism that’s constantly shifting and changing. And that if literally everyone literally started using the word literally to just mean the same thing that “seriously” means. The meaning of the word literally would change entirely.
In this sense… its impossible… to ever come up with a dusty tome filled with the end all be all definitions of words…a perfect definition for the word game…for instance. But that what actually happens is we see things like basketball and bowling and call of duty and hopskotch and we hear the people around us use the word “game” to classify all these different activities…and our brain at some level recognizes similarities between all these games and we can sense it. Wittgenstein calls these “family resemblences” between things.
Kind of like how you might look like your mom but not really your dad, or your second cousin might look like your uncle but not your mom, or your grandpa may have the same male pattern baldness that your sister has…there are very distinct differences, but you guys all share the same family, and even if you don’t look like your dad, you look a lot more like him than I do, coming from a different family. Same thing goes with the meaning of words to Wittgenstein. It’s not that theres a single set of necessary and sufficient conditions that describes every game out there…there are just some games that resemble eachother more, like some family members resemble eachother more. Basketball, Football, Baseball…all very similar. Two teams play against eachother and they have a ball. Monopoly is also a game…there’s no ball in it, but it shares certain characteristics with Football right? Like millionaires fighting against eachother.
What Wittgenstein’s trying to do is illustrate how crucial culture and people are in the process of forming or developing a language. He thinks Descartes sitting around wondering if anybody else exists is absolutely preposterous…because to even be able to articulate yourself through language is evidence of a giant gift you’ve inherited from many people before and around you.
He has a famous example called the Beetle in the Box Analogy. Do you have any friends or coworkers where you guys have inside jokes and refer to things as a code name? If anybody else heard you talking about it they would be confused, but it has an established meaning between the two of you? This is a perfect example of how meaning is derived from use…and that a language can’t be created in a vaccuum by a single person, because words get their meaning from an understanding between speakers.
He goes the other way. He says imagine everybody in the entire world had a box that they carry around. Inside of this box is something everyone refers to as a “beetle”. Problem is, no matter what…no one can ever look inside of anyone else’s box and see what they’re referencing as a beetle. In that world, there’s no way for you to ever be able to use the word “beetle” in any sort of meaningful way. You have no idea what they refer to as a beetle, and they have no idea the meaning you attach to the word beetle. So what happens is…the word beetle just becomes kind of meaningless. You need at least one other person who knows what you’re referencing when you say beetle for this language you’ve come up with to get off the ground.
Anyway, hopefully some thought provoking stuff for you this week. Thank you for your patience regarding the infrequency, and the abrupt ending… just got done moving. I won’t take up any more of your time. Thank you for listening, I’ll talk to you next time.

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Episode 97 – Wittgenstein pt. 1

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Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)


On this episode, we take a look at the the limitations of language as described by Ludwig Wittgenstein. See the full transcript of this episode here.

Considered by some to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein played a central, if controversial, role in 20th-century analytic philosophy. He continues to influence current philosophical thought in topics as diverse as logic and language, perception and intention, ethics and religion, aesthetics and culture. Originally, there were two commonly recognized stages of Wittgenstein’s thought—the early and the later—both of which were taken to be pivotal in their respective periods. In more recent scholarship, this division has been questioned: some interpreters have claimed a unity between all stages of his thought, while others talk of a more nuanced division, adding stages such as the middle Wittgenstein and the third Wittgenstein. Continue reading Episode 97 – Wittgenstein pt. 1

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Episode 94 – A Look at Suffering

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Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881)


On this episode, we take a look at the concept of suffering from multiple different angles. See the full transcript of this episode here.

To call Fyodor Dostoevsky a genius may indeed be an understatement. Decade after decade, his literary brilliance continues to capture the hearts and minds of millions. Because of his legacy and intense, storied commentaries on religion, philosophy, and psychology, Dostoevsky may have been one of the most important and influential writers that ever lived. (source)

Continue reading Episode 94 – A Look at Suffering

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I Want To Read More About Philosophy…Where Do I Start?

Hello everyone.

I got an email from a listener who’s interested in reading more about philosophy, but felt that sense of dread when they gazed down into the yawning abyss of the Barnes and Noble philosophy section. The kind of dread that makes you want to watch some kind of pawn shop related reality TV show and never think about philosophy again. It’s a good question — where is the best place to start reading independently?

Here’s what they said:

 

Hi Mr. West,
I’ve been listening to your show for about a year now, and I absolutely love it! Philosophize This is the only podcast I follow religiously, and I’ve worked up the courage to ask a question. I’m a high school senior in Illinois, and my small school doesn’t have the resources to field a philosophy class. I plan on attending college next year, and I would like to practice reading some philosophy before I leave. I tried to dive right in, but I found myself getting lost in the language. Do you have any suggestions on how to get started? Thanks for making your show. I really appreciate it.

 

I’ve been there before. This is me diving into most topics:

 

When this listener told me the book they tried to pick up and read was The Prince by Machiavelli, things started to come into focus. I’ve made this mistake so many times I’m pretty sure either Barnes OR Noble has an extra wing built onto their third home thanks to me.

 

Here’s what I said:

Knowing where to start can be tough, but in my opinion one thing is for certain: don’t start with source texts! 🙂
 
What I would give to see the number of curious, open-minded youngsters over the years that decided they were going to try reading some philosophy, only to have a boring professor or a book written 400 years ago make them wish they could frisbee-throw a 400 year old book at a professor’s face.
 
My advice is to stay away from original sources for at least a good year. In reality, depending on how much you’re reading, it’s more like two years. The reason is: these books weren’t written yesterday. These things have been translated and re-translated and interpreted and honestly were originally written by people that lived hundreds of years ago that think about everything in the world in a very different way than you or I do.
 
Of course there are exceptions to this; you can point to a sporadic, exceptional thinker that tried their hardest to make their work digestable to people that weren’t necessarily philosophy professors– but you still don’t get the whole story. At best you don’t understand everything and at worst you may misunderstand everything! Most of the time to get anything meaningful and accurate out of a source text, it’s crucial you understand a TON about a lot of auxiliary stuff that may seem to have little to do with what was actually being written about. Things like:
 

What questions were being asked in philosophy at the time?
What were the specific connotations of the words used at the time?
What did the author THINK those connotations were?
What questions did the author think were worth answering?
Where did the author get their information? Was it accurate?
What major historical events were going on? What minor, highly specific events were going on locally?
What was the author’s personality like?

 

I’ll stop listing these because I think you get the point. So many times I’ve been stoked about picking up a new book and learning about a thinker and it’s so tempting to say to myself, “Oh Machiavelli is living during the age of post-Medieval city-state building and is writing a field manual for getting things off the ground…I GOT THIS!”
 
But there is so much more subtext that a modern reader is conferring onto these thinkers that they don’t realize– so many assumptions we make as though these thinkers are writing their work in the 21st century. I guess this is a long winded way of saying that reading source texts are a waste of time anyway until you reach a certain understanding of the general themes of history and philosophy– so don’t feel bad!
 
Where specifically to start I think comes down to the level of understanding you already have about philosophy.
 
If you are JUST starting out, you should read books that talk about philosophy merely as an institution. Something that looks at it broadly as the history of human thought. The reason I say this is because I’ve found it’s really helpful to have some sort of skeleton in place that you can add meat to– an understanding of the broad movements in philosophy. Otherwise, it’s almost like reading the dictionary. Nothing you read has any context. It just becomes this flurry of random facts that you don’t care about. The trick is CARING about what you’re trying to learn. A couple examples of books like this are:
 

A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

 
Once you have a general idea and want to start tackling specific topics that interest you, my advice would be to try reading modern authors who have written contemporary books about these older thinkers. Reason being: for every philosopher out there, some desperate ex-philosophy student on welfare has built a career out of knowing practically everything there is to know about them. These people throughout their entire lives have largely done the leg work that I referenced before, and they can be an enormous help when it comes to avoiding misunderstandings and knowing which ideas were important.
 
At that point, once you’ve listened to enough of these people give commentary on a topic, then I think it’s fun to go back and read the source. It’s so fun, it’s all I ever do. Just kidding, I don’t read.
 
Thank you for wanting to know more today than you did yesterday.
 
Stephen