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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


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


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


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.

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Episode 93 – Nietzsche part 4 – Love


Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)

On this episode, we take a look at Friedrich Nietzsche and his thoughts on the concept of love. See the full transcript of this episode here.

Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher of the late 19th century who challenged the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality. He was interested in the enhancement of individual and cultural health, and believed in life, creativity, power, and down-to-earth realities, rather than those situated in a world beyond.

Continue reading Episode 93 – Nietzsche part 4 – Love

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Episode 93 Transcript

So by now you’re probably realizing something about Nietzsche…you’re probably realizing, if for no other reason than just cause I’ve… needlessly rambled about it throughout the course of this series…but what you probably realize by now is that Nietzsche’s not writing his philosophy so that every single person in the world can take a little something from it…he’s writing his philosophy for a select few people that are actually going to try at existence…he’s writing it for a very small handful of people that aren’t interested in FEELING like they know everything about the world…but people that are actually going to try to understand things deeper than they’ve been led to believe about things over the course of their life.
I mean, at any stage of life… it’s very easy to be coaxed into complacency about how you look at the world…I mean I’m sure we can all imagine some 45 year old person…listening to some passionate 21, 22 year old person with strong, reinforced convictions about how people are and how the world works and all kinds of things…and they say to themselves look, I’ve been there before. I too used to think I knew everything about the world…but you know what… you live a couple years longer…few failed marriages later…a few heated discussions at a PTA meeting…you’re eventually going to wake up and realize how the world ACTUALLY works. Believe me…I’ve been where you are before.
Well whenever I read Nietzsche’s philosophy I always feel like he’s this guy that’s 120 years old and he’s talking to that 45 year old and he’s saying you know what…i’ve been where you are…but if you see a few more presidential elections…play some badmitton down at the YMCA…you watch a few more seasons of the price is right…THEN you’ll understand how the world actually works or maybe…you’ll come to terms with the fact that this whole life thing…is much bigger than that, that maybe 100 years is not enough time to become as well versed in things as you want to believe you are.
Well there are certain subjects that people like to tell themselves they’ve arrived at a destination about. Some subjects are more common than others. And one of the MOST common ones…is the concept… of love. We all feel like we know what love is…we’ve all felt it. Powerful concept…love. Probably not a big surprise that so many philosophers over the years have tried to take a closer look at it and understand it. Given how good it feels to EXPERIENCE love…probably not a surprise that so many people build their lives around feeling or giving or spending time with the people they love…the most.
Some people even take this to the extreme…some people say…that all you need…is…love. You know they look around them…understandably…and they think man…there’s people stealing from other people…people are killing eachother…cyber bullying is the pandemic scourge of our time…all these philosophers try to complicate things so much it’s actually very simple…everyone just needs to love eachother. If only we could show everyone how great it is to love everyone around you. These people say love…is some sort of panacea for all of the worlds problems. Instead of dropping nukes…we should be dropping giant canisters of DVDs of When Harry Met Sally. If only the whole world understood love like I do…then everything would be fixed.
But the way you treat somebody that you love hasn’t always been the way harry treated sally.  No, the things we do in the NAME of love…have changed drastically over the course of history and they can easily change in the future. I mean 100 years ago…my kid may have…i dont know…gone down to the grocery store and bought an ice cream cone for 4/10ths of a cent without permission…and when he comes home and I see all the chocolate on his face…I may say to myself…you know what…I love this kid…I love him dearly…I am not going to allow him to become a person who doesn’t understand the value of discipline for the rest of his life…I don’t want to…but I have to beat him…in the name of love I have to beat em.
Tons of other examples of this but the point is: the way that people treat the ones they love is highly influenced by the cultural backdrop that they were born into. St. Augustines man burning in a building comes to mind. In other words…even if everyone in the world loved eachother…people might still steal from people they love in the name of feeding others that they love who are starving…people may still assault other people in the name of love…maybe love is actually a pretty complex thing that needs to be unpacked. I mean love is far from a static thing…right? We use the word love to describe any number of different emotional states…we say things like I love my dog, I love my children, I love my parents, I love my domestic life partner, I love this pizza that I just ate from Chuck E Cheese….in all these contexts the same word is describing emotional states that are extremely different from eachother…so what exactly do we mean when we say love? Maybe there’s something similar about all of these different scenarios that we describe?
I think when somebody says that all people need to do is love eachother… its one of those statements most philosophers would hear and say it sounds great…but they probably wouldn’t think it’s a very useful synopsis when it comes to actually getting to the bottom of the cause of these problems or how to actually solve them…in other words in practice, how do you get… everyone in the world to love eachother? I mean it’s a little like walking into a hospital… and seeing all the different kinds of pain and suffering in a hospital…you know you see people in the cardiac ward, you see a guy with a broken leg, you see someone with hypertension and you say you know what? These doctors try to complicate things all the time…but in reality it’s actually very simple: all these people need are drugs. All they need is drugs. Yeah, but what KIND of drugs? How high of a dose? When do they need them? Is giving them drugs really a solution or is it just temporarily masking the problem? There’s more to it than just saying drugs: case closed.
Well the point of this episode is to eventually talk about how Nietzsche sees love…but I think it’ll give his views some context if we take a look at some other notable philosophers throughout history and how THEY viewed love…and when it comes to philosophers writing about love…by far the most famous account of love ever written has to be Plato in his work the Symposium.
Now we talked a little about this on the Plato episode, but…come on…that was three years ago…I was horrible back then. I’ll make it quick. The Symposium is a fictional book written by the Greek philosopher Plato about a dinner party…where various noteworthy figures from Athens at the time meet up to talk about a particular subject…apparently they DID that kind of stuff back then…and the subject of this particular night’s dinner party is love. Everybody takes turns getting up in front of the group giving their thoughts on love. Now, barring the funny, pretty ridiculous theory given by Aristophenes which was probably just Plato getting back at him for slandering Socrates in one of his plays…besides that…in terms of philosophy the book is pretty slow up until we start hearing what Socrates has to say about what he heard about love from a philosopher named Diotima.
Now Diotima…nobody knows whether she actually existed…but its one of those things like: everyone else in the Symposium existed, why wouldn’t this be a real person…but Diotima told Socrates about how she sees love as sort of a progression. A progression…ascending up rungs of a ladder…where throughout your various experiences with love in your life…you go through a number of phases…each one of them a rung on this ladder… where you become more and more aware of what love truly is. Seeing as how this is one of the most famous accounts of love ever given, let’s talk about these rungs a little.
So Diotima would say that when you come of age in this world and you enter into a romantic relationship of some sort…the first type of love that you’re going to experience…the first rung on this ladder… is what she calls bodily love…now…bodily love…is exactly what you’d expect it to be…a love of someone’s body…an infatuation with another person…maybe they make you smile a lot maybe you have this uncontrollable desire to touch the person when you’re around them. But, either way…we all know about this one…we’ve all seen this one before so I won’t waste your time giving examples of it…but the interesting thing is that Diotima says that once you’re in this place… where you love somebody for their body…if you start to look closer at that feeling that you have towards this person…in other words if you think about what exactly it is that you love about their body…what inevitably happens is that you start to notice…the things you like about this persons body… are not exclusive to them in any way…there’s a lot of other bodies out there that have these exact same qualities. You eventually realize there are thousands if not millions of bodies out there that you might potentially love. Now much like Socrates does…where he goes into the public square…asks people for their definition of courage…and he looks at all of them and tries to find our what’s similar about them to hopefully arive at a better understanding of what courage is…maybe you take a look at all of these millions of bodies and try to find out what is similar between them…and at the end of that process…you’re left with a certain type of person…you know I like people with brown hair and blue eyes…for example…a type.
But remember this is only the first rung… on the ladder…Diotima says once you get to this place THEN what happens…this person whose body you’re in love with…well, it’s inevitable…you’re gonna be spending a considerable amount of time with them. Eventually what you HAVE to realize…is that this person is more than just a piece of meat. No, they’re a person…they have feelings too…they have all their own thoughts, opinions, ideas…eeek. Diotima says that what eventually happens after we’ve had enough conversations with them about their thoughts on stuff…eventually you start to realize that love is not as shallow as you first thought it was…that body…sure it looks good now…but i dont care if you’re dwayne the rock johnson…in 50 years…you’re gonna look like a sun dried tomato out there…Diotima says you realize….that there’s a deeper form of love available to you by loving someone’s personality…or as she refers to it: the soul.
Now it’s in these first two stages that most people spend their entire lives. I mean you think about the progression of the average person’s love life…throughout their twenties maybe they have a few debaucherous relationships…maybe they’re with the wrong people personality wise but they overlook it because they think they’re attractive…maybe eventually they want someone more mature…maybe they end up finding someone who’s personality they admire and decide to get married to that person. But still… even if… you find yourself admiring something about the personality of someone you’re married to…when it comes to most people’s relationships…you still have one foot in the door of this bodily love…i mean it doesn’t matter if somebody has the BEST personality in the world, most people aren’t going to marry them if they look like Golem from Lord of the Rings. Most people sort of settle into a mixture between what Diotima describes as this bodily love and the love of the soul.
Now an important thing to note I think is that getting stuck in any of these rungs of the ladder for your entire life doesn’t make you a bad person. Plato would say, all of this love is ultimately a good thing…the question just becomes…how much of a good thing do you experience throughout your life. Because what inevitably happens once you love a collection of personality traits that somebody has…is that just like in the case of the bodily love…you realize… that these characteristics you love about someone aren’t somehow exclusive to them. No, you realize there are thousands of other people out there that embody these very same characteristics…now the GREATER implication of realizing this…to Diotima…is that realizing this… removes this visage that has been clouding your ability to move on to the third rung of the ladder…that to TRULY understand love is to understand that love is not this interpersonal exchange between two people that can ONLY exist between two people. What you realize is that what you love about this other person really has nothing to do with them as people…what you love are concepts that they embody.
Now again, to Diotima, once you realize this…the next step is to realize… that person you love, wasn’t born in a vaccuum. This person wasn’t floated down the river Nile in a basket and raised as one of their own by a pack of hippos. This person was born into a very specific cultural context by a very specific group of people who all had ideas of their own…and what you realize at this point… is that everything about this personality that you love so much really was forged by certain aspects of culture…laws and institutions that cultivated these personality traits that this person embodies that you love. The ultimate point is: the next few rungs on the ladder are loving the laws and institutions that create the people or things that you love, then a love of knowledge of those laws and institutions, then a love of knowledge itself, finally culminating in a love of the Platonic form of beauty or the good itself.
Tons of interesting conversations to be had about these last three rungs but I think the most important thing that I want to repeat is that…lets say you never get to the top rung of this ladder where you understand the form of beauty itself…that doesn’t make you a dumb person…that doesn’t make you a bad person…Diotima’s just saying that the good feelings you feel when you’re experiencing love GREATLY increase with each rung that you move up on this ladder…and that much like a dog…when they’ve gotten a little taste of human blood…once they’ve tasted it…they can never go back to lamb and rice alpo. That once you’ve tasted that forbidden fruit of the next rung on the ladder, all the other forms of love just sort of lose their appeal they’re not as good as what you’ve experienced. I mean I’m sure we can all imagine…if for your whole life you’ve just loved people for their body and then you get together with some pelican looking podcaster dude…and he dies in some tragic podcasting related accident…after experiencing that higher level of love on this ladder, it stands to reason that having a relationship after that where it’s all about the body again…it would probably feel like something’s missing. At least that’s what I tell myself everyday.
Well as you know if you’ve listened to this podcast from the beginning…is that this hierarchical conception of love laid out in the Symposium paved the way for love as it was laid out in the middle ages. That love…in it’s most basic flawed form… is love of the body…some people even say it can’t even be considered love…it’s actually lust. That moves onto a love of your fellow human beings, that moves onto a love of truth, all of which is inferior to the ultimate love…the love of God.
And this became the dominant perception for what love is for quite some time, and although there was work done on love before this: something very interesting happens to the concept of love right about the mid 18th century. More specifically, with the way that you treat somebody that you love. What happened was…well, Romanticism happened. Romanticism is a cultural movement…some would even say codified doctrine of ideas…about the way human beings should be interacting with various aspects of the world that they live in…falling underneath that umbrella of course…is the way that we treat people that we love. Romanticism is often seen as a pushback to an era that came before it where there was a lot of emphasis put on reason as the way to arrive at conclusions about things. Too much reason.
Maybe a good place to start is to say that: historically speaking…being in a relationship with somebody that you love or getting married…hasn’t always been about…what we would often call today…romantic feelings that you have towards the other person. People used to get married for all KINDS of practical reasons…because it was financially prudent to do so…because they had a relative that could help you greatly advance your career…any number of reasons. Now in today’s world… if you got married to somebody simply because it was a good financial move for you…people wouldn’t really take too kindly to that…they’d tell you that you’re getting married for all the wrong reasons that something’s missing. Well where did that come come from? A big part of it… comes from is this movement of romanticism in the mid 1700’s.
Romanticism pushes the idea…that it is possible…and even expected…to meet someone…get to know them…feel these intense, romantic feelings that you often feel in the initial stages of a relationship…and you should expect this heightened emotional state to persist indefinitely all throughout the course of your lives together…a life long love story, as it’s often put. That the litmus test, for who you should love or who you should marry…shouldn’t be based on practical considerations like how good it is for your career or something like that…but that these initial feelings that we have will decide for us. When you meet someone, and they make you feel this way…you’ve done it. You have now found your soul mate. You’ve found the one and only someone for you…from this point forward…you and your soul mate are going to enjoy an all expenses paid vacation where every day of your lives you fall deeper and deeper in love with them with each passing day. Any boredom within the relationship, any longings for somebody else or novelty within that relationship, is not something that should be EXPECTED in a long term relationship…it’s a sign that the relationship is not going well…its demon that’s tormenting the relationship that needs to be exorcised.
Now in many traditional conceptions of romanticism, and there’s some variance here because we’re talking about a very large period of time, but the general idea is that when you love someone deeply enough…if you can’t accept them at their worst you don’t deserve them at their best…that to truly love someone…is to be tolerant of all of their shortcomings as people…you know love is patient, love is kind, love is understanding…corinthians 13.
If someone comes home from work and a lot of times they’re in a bad mood and they’re not really reciprocating the love in that moment…you know what…I love this person…I understand this isn’t the entirety of who they are I understand this isn’t about me right now…sure, the way they’re treating me right now makes me feel bad, but I’m gonna go find something else to do while they work through these emotions. Another example: if someone quits their job and pursues their dream of becoming a street performer…a mime. And they go out miming the streets for three years and people just don’t like their act that much…you know your box is horrible. Someone might say you know what…we may not have that much money…and yes they could easily go back and get their other job and help out, but I don’t care if we have to live in squalor for the rest of our lives at least we’ll be together with these strong feelings that we have.
What’s intersting to think about is that many of these romantic ideas of love ask you to be TOTALLY tolerant about some things, but TOTALLY intolerant about other things. I mean if the person you love has romantic feelings for somebody else, or if they’re telling you tons of things you need to change about yourself or if they’re not fornicating with you on a regular basis…these are all signs that the there’s something seriously wrong with the relationship, not things you need to be tolerant of. Again, love should be this highly intuitive thing…this feeling that you have…you know you spent 6 years at the university learning to become a dentist…but when it comes to asking how to love or who to love or why to love or anything like that…that you’ll just kind of wing it…I’ll figure it out…remember romanticism was a movement that was the antithesis to a world where they thought we were reasoning too we much about the ways we behave…no forget reasoning…what really matters is how you FEEL about this person.
Like have you ever seen the Bachelor…I haven’t of course…but if I ever had I would have to say man…look at what this show’s become. Oh how the mighty have fallen. First episode. I think I could definitely fall in love with this guy. Third episode. I think I might be falling for him. 5th episode. Okay now I’ve definitely started the falling process, I tripped on something, I’m off balance, gravity is definitely pulling my trajectory in the downward motion but I haven’t quite fallen yet…what are these people even talking about? This is what you get when you fully eradicate reason from this process…vague emotional states, waiting for some other vague emotional state to arise and people can’t even tell you whether they’re actually in them or not.
But here’s the thing…this isn’t their fault! This is just what they’ve been told to expect when it comes to finding a life long relationship by every TV show, RomCom and Disney Movie they’ve ever come across from the moment they were born. Nobody should feel bad about having this expectation…it’s not their fault…it’s culture’s fault. And even on that note, there’s nothing wrong with bringing this expectation into your relationships…I just think a lot of modern commentators would say that if you DO bring in these expectations…barring a level of luck comparable to winning the lottery…you’re probably going to be largely dissapointed by your relationships…it’s such a tall order to fill. Most people are probably going to stick it out in a relationship far too long, telling themselves this person’s their soul mate…and then one day when it all goes up in flames they’ll tell themselves well looking back…the signs were there all along…maybe this NEXT person’s my one and only someone…where’s my Ryan Gosling? Either that or they’ll find themselves six months in saying man…I just not getting those butterflies that I used to get…maybe they’re not the one…and they spend their whole lives looking for this 60 year love affair that might not ever come.
Now it’s because of this, that when most modern thinkers talk about love they usually start from this point in the discussion. You know one of the most famous accounts of love ever was by a guy named Arthur Schopenhaur…he has this parable…where he compares marriage to two porcupines trying to huddle together to keep warm…and that the art of being with someone you love is trying to find the right distance where you’re still keeping eachother warm, but you’re not SO close that your  porcupine spikes are stabbing eachother. You know to Schopenhaur everything is about this survival oriented will to life and that when we get married and we have these romantic relationships…what we’re attracted to in someone else are REALLY what we see as our shortcomings…the hope being…that if your counterpart makes up for some of these areas that you’re weaker in…that those weaknesses are probably gonna be less likely to prevent you from prospering…as a unit…you guys are better off together.
This brings us to Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s view on love has multiple layers to it, which is actually what makes it so interesting. On one hand…just like he tries to do with everything else we tell ourselves we have strong convictions about…love is no different…he’s trying to show us…that when we love someone…maybe we’re a little more selfish than we like to give ourselves credit for…but on the other hand, he’s not denouncing anyone for BEING in love and he’s certainly not saying that no one should BE in love.
See, Nietzsche…as we’ve talked about before…huge fan of Heraclitus. Loves the idea of looking at two things that we commonly think of as opposites, and finding ways that they are actually the same thing manifesting itself in two different ways. For example, day and night. Are they opposites? Or are we talking about the same thing just in two different states.
Same thing goes when he breaks down the psychology of love. Often times people talk about loving someone…they say love is caring about someone more than you care about yourself…i love this person…i would sacrifice anything for them…i am completely selflessly committed to this other being. Now…Nietzsche would say…how convenient that this person is trying so hard to paint themselves as such a selfless person…you know what love TRULY is? When you look at it close enough…love starts to strongly resemble greed. He says:
“Greed and love: what different feeling these two terms evoke! Nevertheless, it could be the same instinct that has two names – once deprecated by those who have, in whom the instinct has calmed down to some extent, and who are afraid for their ‘possessions’, and the other time seen from the point of view of those who are not satisfied but still thirsty, and who therefore glorify the instinct as ‘good’.”
In other words, we love to pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves how great we are for doing things in the name of loving this other person…and we often like to think of someone who’s greedy in a negative light…but what if love and greed are the same instinct manifesting itself in different ways…that at the root of either of these words is this instinct or this desire that some thing will be ours…as he puts it “to change something new into ourselves”. He says love and greed…these are the same thing…the only difference between whether we classify it as love or as greed just comes down to how satisfied somebody is with what they already have. For example, let’s say you’re a huge fan of italian sportcars…and you save up and you finally get one…sitting in the driveway. Somebody else comes along, maybe he likes italian sportcars too…and he wants THAT italian sportcar, yours!
Let’s say there’s nothing he wants more in this entire world than to have your italian sportscar sitting in his half vacant warehouse where it will live out the rest of its sportcar days with this guy. But you say  no, no, you love that car…you don’t want it to go anywhere. Let’s say this guy doesn’t give up…this guys gonna write a pursuasive essay to that car begging it to come to his warehouse…this guy doing whatever it takes to make it his…maybe he’s trying to find some way to convince the state to take your sports car away from you so he can have it…not crazy to think you might feel like the guy was being a little greedy. Yet, being a lover of cars yourself…if in your travels YOU came across this very same car…you would certainly want it…and in THAT context you’d just think about how much you wanted that car as your love of cars, not as you being greedy. Replace an italian sports car with your significant other and take note of the similarities.
Now here’s the interesting part: even if we can agree upon the idea that love is greed…let’s just say that it is…Nietzsche’s not judging you for that…he’s not saying this makes you a bad person for loving someone. He thinks that love, just like everything else, is a will to power….and in this case…love is sort of a mutually beneficial will to power…when two people are in love…yes to Nietzsche they are both just greedily desiring to change something new into ourselves…but greed or no greed…Nietzsche thinks love and friendship are some of the most amazing things life has to offer. He says you should find someone, love them, enjoy all the very real benefits of loving someone…just take a closer look at why it is that you’re doing these things and don’t try to justify your actions with a nice sounding story that you like to tell yourself about how it’s really all about this other person.
Now, the reason I chose love as the topic of today’s episode…well…two parts to it. One, this is a perfect example of one of these concepts that everyone has strong opinions on coming into the episode that Nietzsche tries to get us to question our deepest assumptions about. And two, this is a perfect example of one of Nietzsche’s ideas that if you just heard the first line: love is greed…you might be tempted to think that Nietzsche was just this empty, joyless, become powerful, take advantage of people kind of guy… but then when you understand where he’s coming from, though it’s still abrasive…his point is alot more nuanced than you might first think.
I think this is the reason why so many people misunderstand Nietzsche. They read a single line out of context and they make tons of sweeping generalizations about the guy as a person. This is the reason, as we talked about, why his work could so easily be distorted by his sister after his death when she was bumping elbows with Hitler and the Third Reich. But one of the most chilling passages I’ve ever read from Nietzsche is not from any of his philosophy…it’s a line out of his autobiography. It’s a line where he seems to foreshadow exactly what happened with his work after he died. He seems to predict how impactful his work was going to be. He says:
“I know my fate. One day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous — a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a decision that was conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far. I am no man, I am dynamite.”