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Episode 100 – Transcript

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


April 14, 2017


Philosophize This!
with Stephen West


Episode 100: Heidegger Pt. 1




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


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


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




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


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


What does it mean to be a human being?

How can we define that?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Question is, where do you put that foot first?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


But all that doesn’t matter.


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


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


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


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


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


What does it mean to exist?

What does it mean to be a human being?

These ontological question we were talking about.


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


No question about it, things would look very different.


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


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


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


What is it to be a human being?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Being is something that we’re engaged in.


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


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


How different would the world look today?


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


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


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


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


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


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

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Episode 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 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 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 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.”

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Episode 79 Transcript

Well, we’re going to talk a lot about what Kierkegaard MEANS when he is saying that today…but I think to understand what he’s saying in its entirety…it’s necessary for us to look at another quote by Kierkegaard…written years apart in a completely different work of his…and um…for the sake of it appealing to our modern ears that are accustomed to…you know…NOT talking like we’re wearing a coon skin hat in the 1800’s…I’m gonna paraphrase it a bit and it goes like this:
The biggest danger one can face in this life…is losing ones self. The reason why is that it can leave you…it can as he says “pass off in the world” without you even realzing it. Everything else you lose…five bucks…your wife…your phone…it’s immediately evident to you that you’ve lost it…you know you’re getting in your pajamas…pat down your pockets and say OH NO! i left my phone at Applebees!…when you lose your SELF though…you could go months or even YEARS without even realizing it!
This is why it’s a particularly nefarious situation to be in…you might not even realize that you’re in it…see to Kierkegaard, most people living today…probably in the upwards of 90% of people that are alive at any given time…are not actually being true to their “selves”…like we talked about last time…a lotta people are lost…a lotta people find themselves either lost in the finite…you know conferring their identity onto social conventions or whatever culture happened to fall into their lap when they were born…or lost in the infinite…stuck in a state of analysis paralysis about the truly infinite possibilities that they can choose from and never really acting on one.
And as we were talking about last time…truly being a self… requires you to have the realization that… yeah there are an infinite number of things I can do, but it also requires you to actually make a choice and act on one that corresponds with who you truly are.
See, when we find ourselves in this balancing act between the two…the finite and the infinite as Kierkegaard calls them…we experience what he calls a state of “dizziness”… dizziness caused by the fact that we look at the sheer magnitude of possibilities we have… coupled with the fact that eventually…we gotta choose one of them.
As you can probably imagine, our heads get filled with all of these questions…we start catastrophizing…what if I’m wrong? what if this is a huge mistake? what if I wake up when I’m 60 a retired Navy Admiral with a prosthetic hip and realize I did everything all wrong?? And this is the essence of anxiety…to fear some future outcome, that we really have little control over anyway. You know Kierkegaard says:
“Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eyes as in the abyss…anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”
See it’s really important to make this part of Kierkegaards thinking clear…at the risk of sounding redundant…what hes saying is that anxiety is the reaction… to the idea that you have freedom to choose from millions of options but you have to eventually choose one and act on it. Now, it’s interesting…this freedom that we have…you’d have to acknowledge as a fellow human being… it can be both a blessing and a curse…. I mean, on one hand, were free hooray! we can do anything we want! on the other hand…wow…im free to do anything…what if I make a mistake? This is like Barry Scwartz’s lecture on the paradox of choice. We seem to be happier as human beings when we have LESS options rather than more. He gives the example of salad dressings in the grocery store I think.
You know imagine if there were only three bottles of salad dressing to choose from when you walked down the aisle at the grocery store…ranch, blue cheese and bar b que. Not that anyone…uses bar b que dressing. Anyway imagine if there was somebody in the world that actually used bar b que dressing…they would walk down that hypothetical aisle in the grocery store and they would be pleasantly surprised to find BBQ dressing…easy choice over the ranch and blue cheese to that… guy or gal.
But that’s not the reality we live in is it. You go down the salad dressing aisle…GOOD LUCK. You got BBQ, spicy BBQ, honey BBQ, mesquite BBQ, low fat BBQ, lousiana BBQ…the more options you have, the harder the decision is to make and the more likely it is you’re gonna go home and put your loosiana BBQ salad dressing on your salad and think…maybe I should’ve gotten the spicy BBQ instead. Now snap back to Kierkegaard…we’re not talking about salad dressings here…we’re talking about your LIFE…and we’re not talking about 10 options to choose from in the grocery store…we’re talking about practically and INFINITE number!
It’s no wonder he talks about how when we find ourselves in this is a weird limbo state between freedom being really good for us and really bad for us …that we might feel a little uncomfortable…we might feel A LOT uncomfortable…this emotional state…is something that he repeatedly refers to as a state known as “dread”.
Now you know I don’t like to make assumptions on this show, but I’m going to assume when everyone woke up this morning they didn’t say to themselves…you know…let’s be in a state of dread today…yeah that sounds good…no. Dread is horrible, dread is agonizing. And if we’re just talking statistically here…what do most human beings do when they find themselves in an incredibly uncomfortable situation? They get away from it…they find a way to run from it. This is the reason many people don’t exercise…it’s the reason many people don’t have difficult but necessary conversations with people…it’s the reason most people to Kierkegaard desperately look for some way to avoid this tough road to becoming a self.
Now I like to think of this whole process that Kierkegaard lays out of becoming a self as sort of a descension down a staircase. Right? We started out completely lost either in the finite or the infinite…once we were made aware of that we took a step down the staircase to a state of dread…and once we found ourselves in that uncomfortable situation we take another step down the staircase into a state that Kierkegaard calls “despair”.
Now, despair is where most people spend their entire lives. He says despair comes from the attempt to rid yourself OF yourself. He calls despair a “sickness of the spirit”.
Now maybe you believe in an incorporeal spirit that inhabits your body that is responsible for your emotional state and all sorts of other things…but for the rest of you godless monsters that are just treading water on this planet until you inevitably end up in a chain gang in one of the seven circles of hell…for the rest of you…the word “spirit” doesn’t have to alienate you. Think of spirit in the context of how it’s often used in within casual conversation, “I don’t feel in good spirits today.” Think of the sickness of the spirit as a disease that is afflicting your emotional state.
And these words that he uses…sickness…disease…this is really how Kierkegaard views this state of despair…like a latent disease. Or actually, not a latent disease but a disease that is symptomless but still always quietly inside of you waiting to strike. It’s like having herpes of the spirit.
We can relate this to any other undiagnosed disease. I mean, if you don’t go in for your regular checkups and take an inventory of your body every once in a while…you might just collapse on the ground one day and find out youve been living symptomless with cancer for the last nine months of your life…find out this disease has been doing tons of damage without you even realizing it. same thing with despair to Kierkegaard.
See, because when you’re in a state of despair it’s not like you’re necessarily walking around pouting like a seven year old that didn’t get what they want for christmas. No, you can seem like the happiest person in the world and still have this void of despair inside of you that is just waiting to rear its ugly head.
See if despair is a disease, then the problem is with diagnosing the disease. Not only is the person afflicted by it often unable to even know whether they’re a victim of it, but remember despair is that next stair on the staircase when you’re running from that state of dread…people run from that sense of dread in thousands of different ways, where do you even begin to look?
Kierkegaard has a great quote that’s always stuck with me over the years:
“Most men are subjective toward themselves and objective toward all others, fightfully objective sometimes – but the task is precisely to be objective toward oneself and subjective toward all others.”
The problem is with being sufficiently self aware and honest enough with yourself to realize what exact type of despair you’ve gotten yourself locked into to avoid that state of the dizziness of anxiety and dread. There’s no way we can go over all of the different kinds of despair here today, but the one type of despair that Kierkegaard thought was the most common for people to fall into is what he called “a sickness of despair over something earthly”.
We’ve all seen this one before. It’s essentially conflating your identity and your self worth with something external to you in the world… that you really have no control over. I can wax on forever about how Kierkegaard describes it…best way to help you understand what he means is just to give you some examples.
Let’s say you come of age in the world you realize you’re lost in the finite…you step down the staircase into a state of anxiety and dread…you run from it, step down to the next stair and you find yourself in a state of despair…now, when youre in the state of despair you should be feeling intense anxiety, but to distract yourself away from this monumental task of being a true self you dedicate all of your life to swimming. You refer to yourself as a swimmer. You go down to the pool…every single day and…swim. You identify with this activity so much that you even say things like, “man, if I got into an accident and for some reason couldn’t swim any more, what am I at that point? I’m nothing. I would just kill myself.”
Now let’s say you get into a horrible accident at the zoo. An elephant has a seizure and falls on your legs…your legs are mangled…beyond repair…the doctor has to amputate them. Let’s say you can never swim again. How would you feel? Well you’d probably feel like your life was over…like a giant piece of who you were was taken from you by an epileptic elephant…you’d probably feel empty inside.
But what Kierkegaard would say is that that emptiness that you’re feeling was there all along, you had just been distracting yourself away from the task of being true to yourself by attaching yourself to this earthly activity and making THAT into who you are.
It has echoes of the episode we did a while ago about Kant’s idea of “What is enlightenment?” You know it’s so easy to outsource your understanding of a particular subject to a book and just parrot lines out of it whenever that topic comes up…it’s so easy to outsource your morality to a pastor or your diet to a diet guru. What Kierkegaard is saying here is that it’s really an alluring concept to even outsource who we are as individuals! Our values, our priorities…everything that makes you…you! But if we’re outsourcing it to swimming or to hiking or to ping pong…that’s not necessarily you, right? You could just be running from the discomfort of this state of despair.
Another thing that Kierkegaard says might keep us in this state of despair a lot longer than we have to be is the transient nature of things that we have no control over. Example: Somebody loves their significant other…immensely. They’re the love of their life. They can’t imagine their lives without them. They couldn’t live without them. If they ever found out this person in their life met a tragic demise…I would clasp the smiling cold steel of this dagger and drive it deep into my breast so as to feel at least something…one last time.
Yeah, yet another example of someone avoiding this process of being a true individual. But imagine they didn’t die. Imagine things were going great…you felt whole inside and then you guys broke up…and you felt agony…you felt empty inside…but then you guys got back together and you felt great again…but then you broke up again and you felt empty. Kierkegaard would say that the emptiness that you feel was inside of you through the good times AND the bad, and that to be a true self requires you to contend with the anxiety and emptiness inside of you.
It’s kind of funny. A lot of us spend tons of energy trying to not ever have to deal with this anxiety that comes along with becoming a true self, when in reality, at least to Kierkegaard…feeling intense anxiety means you’re on the right track.
See think of this staircase we’ve been descending down…what is the point of all of these different steps? Well it’s to get away from anxiety…the anxiety that you’re faced with when you find yourself needing to choose from an infinite number of options and act on one of them. We’ve RUN from this anxiety the whole time, but Kierkegaard thinks we should embrace it. It’s a necessary part of being a human being. Ironically, as negative of a connotation as anxiety typically has associated with it, the more intense anxiety you feel about making this choice…the closer you probably are to arriving at your true self.
Instead of just outsourcing who you are to some culture you can’t control or some person you can’t control or whatever you’re doing…embrace your freedom. Kierkegaard sees the process of becoming an individual as sort of a baptism by fire; yes you will experience anxiety and dread and all of these temporary feelings…but just like the discomfort you feel when you’re lifting weights at the gym…that adversity is a catalyst for growth.
I know this isn’t a revolutionary concept or anything, but that’s how I’ve always viewed going out for a run or lifting weights at the gym…it’s directly analogous to life itself. The same way you’re met with resistance and you don’t want to do it and you feel like quitting but you push through it in the gym…life throws you resistance…life  things you don’t want to do and I think because of that training… you are much less likely to quit.
Now some of you are probably saying…I’m already an individual. I don’t follow anyone’s rules not even my own. I don’t outsource my self. In fact this whole process sounds really easy…who’s this Kierkegaard guy talking like he’s so enlightened…oooh I’m a self! Look at me!
I would implore you…not to undersell how difficult this is…in fact Kierkegaard writes extensively about how difficult it was for him to become an individual even after he understood the process of becoming one. He said:
“What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I must know…what matters is to find a purpose…to find a truth that is true for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die…This is what my soul thirts for as the African desert thirsts for water.”
Listen to that…a truth that is true for me. As weird as it seems living in this millenium…Kierkegaard was uncovering something here in philosophy that had gone largely unexplored up until this point in history. You know…for so long in philosophy we’d concerned ourselves with trying to use reason or our senses to try to find some sort of objective TRUTHS about the universe that we live in…arguing the whole way about what the most reliable means of doing so is.
But as we’ve learned over the course of 80 episodes or so is that since antiquity… no matter how brilliant of a person is trying to take on this task…objective truth is a very slippery thing…not only do we not know if it’s possible to attain, but would we know the truth if we saw it? Would it bring us any sort of enlightenment when it comes to what it means to be a human being?
See a huge reason WHY Kierkegaard does so much work talking about these things like…the process of how we make choices, how important it is to take action on those choices, the freedom of our will that we all possess…the reason he talks about this so much is that he is rejecting the notion that Hegel had just laid out…that ultimately our choices are mostly a byproduct of whereever we happened to be born within the framework of that historical process of change. Kierkegaard is trying to make the case that the choices we make are free choices, and that we need to remain vigilant in keeping an inventory of ourselves because these choices are OUR responsibility…not some manifistation of something out of our control.
Again, what is that historical process of change other than the conglomeration of billions of individual subjective existences. This would be the first shot fired towards a target that would eventually be called “existentialism.”
That said, if you despise me right now is the time to turn the podcast off. For everyone else I want to thank you all for the outpouring of support. I went hiking a couple days into the woods trying to emerge on the other side with some sort of new perspective or at least hopefully pushing a figurative reset button. I was just walking along, completely oblivious…i’m by no means a skillful hiker or somebody that understands the land…and I came across this black bear…it was probably 40 feet away from me and it just stared at me. And because I’m a genius I didn’t have bear spray or really any idea of how to deal with the situation at all…so I just stared back. And it felt like time was moving in slow motion and as it was happening there was just this bird chirping…singing a song…like nothing was going on.
Anyway, maybe I’ll write about it in length…a free audio book or something if enough people wanna hear about it but in that moment something changed for me and I don’t think of myself as cured of anxiety but I had a thought that has made me not feel it since that moment. For that, for you guys and for that black bear I am grateful. Thank you for listening…i’ll talk to you next time.

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Episode 87 Transcript


This is a transcript of episode #087 on Albert Camus. Check out the episode page HERE.


So as you probably know by now…philosophy…more specifically the more abstract, out there ideas in philosophy can be a pretty tough thing to just cannonball into and fully understand them right off the bat…and I think most educators realize this…and a useful tool that i think a lot of them use to sort of…set up a skeleton of an idea that they can flesh out later with more of the details… is they try to take big ideas or even entire branches of philosophy and distill them down into a single sentence…or a single question.


For example, epistemology…notoriously referred to as the branch of philosophy that asks: how do we know what we know? Now, that’s great as a working definition of epistemology if you need a frame of reference as you’re learning about it…but the more you DO learn about it the more you realize that… that’s really only a fraction of what epistemology actually deals with.


Metaphysics…notoriously referred to as the branch of philosophy that asks: what is everything made out of and how did it get here. Again, great definition for educational purposes, but the more you look into it the more you realize all of the metaphysics that definition is leaving out. 


Now the guy we’re going to be talking about today, Albert Camus, he thought that he had found the most fundamental question in all of philosophy…a question that he thought…no matter what other philosophical question you could ever come up with…it was ultimately going to be a follow up question to THIS question…but the problem is if I just SAY the question…uh i’ve I’ve found that a lot of people initially disagree with him and end up poised waiting to disagree with everything else the guys saying.


So what I wanted to do to give some context to this question…just so we can better understand where Camus is coming from when he’s asking it…is I wanted to tell you a story from Greek Mythology about a King named Sisyphus. Sisyphus was the kinda king…he wasn’t really feeling the whole Pantheon of Gods thing…you know the whole I’m gonna rape you and then blast you all over the cosmos and make you into the big dipper…no Sisyphus was known as someone all throughout his life that didn’t really march to the beat of the drum of the God’s so it came as no surprise when one day…when it was his time to die…Hades…LORD OF THE UNDERWORLD came to get Sisyphus, wrap him up in chains, and suck him down into the blackened recesses of his realm. 


Now Sisyphus…cunning as he was…when death shows up to take him…he starts talking to the lord of the underworld…and somehow convinces him of testing the chains out on himself before he uses them on him…so when death’s all tied up and says yep these chains definitely seem to be in working order!…Sisyphus just throws him in his closet and goes on about his business. Now as you can imagine…there are some consequences when death doesn’t show up to work…for one thing…people can’t die. Throughout the myth of Sisyphus they give all kinds of examples of how people would get killed on the battlefield and still show up to dinner that night…people would get like run over by a horse and just stand up and dust themselves off. Point is: the Gods soon realized what had happened. Now as you can ALSO imagine…for Sisyphus…kidnapping the lord of the underworld and hiding him in your closet has some serious consequences as well. So the God’s sentenced him to one of the most horrible fates imaginable…it’s a motif we’ve all probably seen at some point in our lives…Sisyphus is the guy condemned by the gods to a lifetime… of rolling a boulder up a hill…back breaking, grueling labor…only to reach the top of the hill and have the boulder inevitably roll back down to the bottom for him to start over again. Condemned to a lifetime of pain and anguish and working hard only to have his efforts be completely futile in the end…the boulder will always roll back down to the bottom of the hill.


Now Camus would say…what a wonderful metaphor for your life. Now I’ll explain his reasoning in a second but just imagine…if this is true…imagine If the life you live right now is comparable to rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it inevitably fall back down again…if that is true…then as Albert Camus says, “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is the decision of whether or not to commit suicide.” This is his fundamental philosophical question that I was talking about…this is the question that underlies EVERYTHING else. Should we commit suicide?


Now hold on at this point you might be saying…alright…don’t you think that’s just a little bit melodramatic…Camus? My life isn’t that bad…I’m not condemned by the Gods…I’m not rolling a boulder up a hill everyday…I don’t even like boulders. 


Well it’s a metaphor…Camus would say: look. we’re born, we grow up, we get a job and it’s so easy in this modern life for people to fall into this momentum of living the same exact day over and over again…up, work, home, TV, bed, up, work, home, TV, bed, up work…you get it. 


This isn’t how human beings were meant to live…it’s monotonous, it’s tremendously unfulfilling, it’s practically devoid of anything that feels even remotely rewarding. Saddest part about it to Camus is that most people just go along with it and don’t ever really question it. This is just the way life is! I’ve resigned myself to a life of sleeping pills and caramel macchiatos. 


But not everybody ends up this way. Camus would say if you’re not one of these people that just sort of sheepishly goes along with it and never questions it…well…then you’re one of the lucky few that get to have your very own existential crisis! Congratulations. Because what happens when you really take a look at that lifestyle…that up, work, home, TV, bed…lifestyle…is you start to wonder if any of this stuff you’re doing everyday matters at all. You start to feel isolated…alienated. You start to look at death looming on the horizon, you start to wonder…am I wasting this gift of life… and you can’t help but feel really uncomfortable. 


So IN an attempt to alleviate this discomfort…You start to ask yourself some really tough questions…questions that are trying to get some clarity about this existence: what is the purpose of my life or the universe for that matter…what is the meaning…is life really just me watching netflix until I go casket shopping one day? 


Camus talks about how when we find ourselves in this uncomfortable place we seem to have this longing for happiness…and this appetite for clarity…or an appetite for being able to make sense of everything…trying to find the purpose that we serve…and an extremely common place people start LOOKING for that purpose…just given the last several thousand years of human thought…is that they try to look for some sort of preordained cosmically prescribed meaning to it all. They look at their place within the universe and they start to ask…what plan did this universe have for me? What function do I serve in the grand scheme of things?


They ask these questions and what do they get? Silence. Nothing answers you back as a human being when you ask those questions. It’s not like some customer service rep from the universe call center picks up. Well Camus would say…given that fact…that leaves you with a very real problem on your hands……Because if nobodies picking up at the call center for the universe……we don't KNOW what the purpose of the universe is. We don’t KNOW what our purpose is…or if we even have one…and what’s worse is that…you’re just a human being. The only tools you have…to arrive at the MEANING OF THE UNIVERSE…are your eyes, ears…you know your sensory experience…and your ability to reason. That’s it!


The fact that you’re met with silence…when you ask those fundamental questions of your existence…probably means your tools aren’t doing the job that well. Now you can draw any number of conclusions from this…a common one is that…maybe we DO in fact have a purpose…but TO whatever prescribed that purpose…it’s just not very important for us to know for certain what that purpose is…or maybe…if we KNEW what our purpose was…it would sabotage our ability to fulfill that purpose. 


For example Genesis 1:28. God tells Adam rule over all the fish and fowl and every living creature that moves on the ground. Which I just realized doesn’t really cover underground animals…maybe moles are onto something…uh…point is if you believe that the purpose of every animal in the world is for us to rule over them, part of that being that God allows us to eat these creatures…A cow doesn’t know it’s purpose…and you can imagine how if that cow KNEW it’s purpose…it might inhibit its ability to fulfill that purpose…it would be trying to stay away from us lucky humans as much as possible so it can survive. Maybe… it’s the same way for human beings…maybe if we were able to know for certain what our purpose was…it would sabotage our ability to accomplish it. 


Now another possibility you might arrive at when you ask these questions and are met back with silence…is that maybe…the universe has no meaning…or even if it does…maybe just because of these crude tools these eyes ears and ability to reason…maybe it’s impossible for you to ever discover that meaning with certainty at all. 


But you know what? when you’re asking these questions…who really wants to believe all that? I’m not gonna let some existential crisis ruin my day…so you hold out hope! Maybe I DO have a purpose! After all…sure I’m just a human being…but the flip side of that is…I’m just a human being…who am I to make some proclamation about there being no meaning to everything in the universe. So you reserve judgement…keep your eyes peeled for that meaning…and go on with your life…usually with a set of idealistic expectations about how the universe in gonna be treating you…after all…if you DO play some sort of role in the grand scheme of things…easy assumption to make from there is that the universe must have some way to protect that investment. 


So you go on throughout your life armed with that set of exceptions keeping your eyes open!…and then…inevitably…the universe smacks you in the face…life happens…your sister gets hit by a car…you don’t get the job that you wanted…these things happen all the time. What we see as horrible tragedies…lives are completely destroyed. Human suffering is visited on a scale that is hard to comprehend. When these things happen to us…and they DO happen just less frequently than they otherwise would because you live in the luxury of the modern world…when these things happen to us…one thing seems clear in that moment…whatever purpose the universe has for you…it doesn’t seem to insure that you’re going to be financially stable…or surrounded by a big family at Thanksgiving…in that moment…the universe seems pretty uninterested in whether you’re going to be happy…in that moment…the universe seems pretty uninterested in you.


Now Camus says we find ourselves in these moments a lot…especially when we’re young… And because we’re so desperately trying to find this cosmic meaning to our life that we swear must be out there somewhere…we start to get confused and scared…we start to have this inner monologue. Why is this happening to me? All of this tragedy seems to be so random…I’m not a bad person…why are all these terrible things happening to me and this criminal over there never has anything bad happen to them…maybe the way I act doesn’t have any bearing at all on whether the universe allows some tragic course of events to unfold in my life. Maybe it all is just random…But if that’s true…I still have my original question…what is the meaning of my life?


Now listening to that inner monologue there…there’s a lot of tension. Tension between expectations that person has about what SHOULD be happening to them and the reality of what actually DID happen to them. Camus would say this tension…tension that he thought we all face at some point and i’m sure we’ve all had a similar inner monologue to the one we just heard at SOME point in our lives…that tension is explained… by the contrast between the fact that you’re running around searching for some cosmically determined meaning to your life that the universe is going to guarantee for you…when the reality is…the universe doesn’t seem to have a meaning…or at least if it does…we don’t know what it is, and it’s impossible for us to know what it is…at least right at this second. 


What this means if this is true…is that all that desire to find some cosmic meaning…all of the anxiety and regret…the pain you feel when you see your loved ones in pain or however the universe decides to smack you in the face at that moment…that is the pain of you rolling the boulder up the hill like Sisyphus and watching the boulder tumble back down to the bottom…all of your efforts for nothing. 


See ultimately to Camus…it doesn’t matter how hard you push the boulder…it doesn’t matter how much you agonize over trying to find that cosmic meaning…eventually…you’re gonna die…everyone you've ever known is going to die…your name is gonna be forgotten…Wal Mart is gonna take over the world…the sun is going to inflate and explode and destroy any trace of you that could possibly be left…ultimately, because you didn’t choose to be born… you have been condemned to a lifetime pushing a boulder up a hill only to find out that it was all pointless.  


Now if this sounds pretty ridiculous…this is why Camus describes this existence as “absurd”. He says:


“Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”



Now if you’re saying to yourself wow Camus thank you…no no thank you for that wonderful speech…you just made the whole family feel really depressed…you know call me crazy Camus…but I don’t WANT to feel like this…I don’t want to feel like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill for the rest of my life for no reason! .. And he would probably say back, Yeah, No kidding…NO ONE DOES. You’re living in a constant state of absurdity with the universe. But whether you want to acknowledge it right now or just shove your head in the sand… the fact remains you ARE like Sisyphus…and that uncomfortable feeling that you want to avoid for the rest of your life…EVERYONE ELSE wants to avoid it too! And Camus would say that people have no shortage of creative ways that they’ve come up with over the years…to escape this state of acknowledging the way that things actually are. 


Now one of the go to ways that might come to mind is to just, to commit suicide. After all, if you’re condemned to a life of the painful and agonizing work of pushing a boulder up a hill…and you know that all that pain, effort and sacrifice isn’t really leading to anything…why wouldn’t you just cling onto the boulder like a koala baby…and uh…let gravity do the rest. Certainly does solve your problem right? Well Camus would say, no it actually doesn’t. 


Somebody that commits suicide as a response to the absurdity of the world is looking at the problem in a really misguided way. The problem is not with the fact that you’re alive. The TRUE problem is with the disparity between your search for meaning and how the universe doesn’t seem to have one that you can arrive at. If this is truly a problem, any solution to that problem is going to have to do with repairing that disparity. All you’re really doing by committing suicide is running away from the ACTUAL problem. It’s like fixing a leaky faucet by moving to a different house…got news for you…that things still in there drippin. 


There must be a better way! 


Now I know what you're saying…wow that was it? That was the answer to the most fundamental philosophical question? That was like three sentences! Well no. See because to Camus…that is not the only way that you can commit suicide in this existence. There’s another type of suicide. The one we just talked about is what he called physical suicide…the other kind is what he calls philosophical suicide. 


So at the risk of sounding redundant I just wanna reiterate something real quick so you can see just how similar these two types of suicide are to Camus. You find yourself in a state of the absurd…the reality of this world that we live in is that you want to be able to make sense of it and find meaning in it, but you don’t know that meaning, you don’t know how to find that meaning and it may ultimately be either entirely meaningless or impossible for you to ever find the meaning. So when you live in that world…one way to leave that world… is to commit physical suicide… but as we just talked about you don’t really solve the problem…the faucet is still leaking inside of your house…you just live in a different house…Now ANOTHER way to leave this world that doesn’t really solve the problem is to commit philosophical suicide…or to focus your attention on some OTHER world that doesn’t actually exist…a world where this anxiety and tension that comes along with the reality of this absurdity no longer exists. This is like living in a house with a leaky faucet…and it’s dripping all day…driving you insane…you can’t sleep because there’s this leaky faucet that’s constantly dripping in your ears…so instead of fixing the faucet you put in earplugs and pretend like faucets don’t actually exist. 


Now, the most obvious example of this from human history would be religion, I mean, common to most denominations at least in our modern world…they literally focus their attention on another world, one devoid of anxiety, one that provides meaning to everything you do in your life… but make no mistake followers of religion are not even close to the only people guilty of philosophical suicide to Camus. Though I think it’s interesting to pause on them for a second to notice something unique about Camus. 


Camus uses the word meaningless a lot…but let’s not misunderstand where he’s coming from. Camus doesn’t see himself as some sort of…you know…anti Thomas Aquinas…who’s goes into great detail and writes entire books presenting how he has a philosophical proof of how the universe has no meaning. No, he sort of comes at it from the other side…he just tries to explain the reasons why there is such a huge incentive to create and confer that meaning onto the universe. That state of the absurd is a pretty horrible place…if somebody’s willing to PHYSICALLY commit suicide…Camus would say they’re DEFINITELY going to be willing to adopt some awesome meaning for their lives where they get to live forever… and then walk around with a confirmation bias. 


Now as I said…followers of religion aren’t the only people out there looking to another world to alleviate this feeling of the absurd. What I mean by another world is simply some pre-manufactured system of beliefs that doesn’t really reflect THIS worlds reality…it’s really just an attempt to simplify the world down into terms that are easily understandable so that you don’t have to contend with the true, unbridled ambiguity of it all. 


This could be any number of things: nationalism, racism, sexism, your political outlook…even things like watching sports or playing video games with every free second. Again, the goal of committing philosophical suicide is to sort of revel in a state of certainty that somebody else gave you…a state of certainty that doesn’t actually exist so that you can get rid of the uncomfortable feeling of answering those fundamental questions about your existence. Again, it’s putting earplugs in and pretending like faucets don’t exist…and if that’s a funny visual…look around you…most people are doing it right now. 


Now for Camus…this runs into the same problem as physical suicide. It doesn’t actually solve the problem…it just deludes you into believing that you already know everything about existence. Now if you’re out there saying, what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with a little hope Camus? 


Hope? Stop hoping…stop looking at some other world that doesn’t exist in a TV screen or a book or in your reductionist view of the way things are…stop looking at that other world and start looking at this one! That hope, that constant looking to some other world robs you of so much in this one. Hope may be calming to that state of absurdity…but think of the cost! It robs us of the here and now. Everything we COULD be experiencing now, but aren’t.


See Camus didn’t think suicide was the answer to this existential crisis. Physical Suicide and Philosophical Suicide are just two ways of RUNNING from the problem…but Camus thought how bout instead of RUNNING from the problem…you welcome the problem with open arms…you EMBRACE the problem. CHAIN yourself to the problem. Find comfort in the uncomfortable.


See what Camus thought people that commit philosophical suicide never understood…is that not running from the absurd…but facing your existence head on and acknowledging it…that makes you a pretty amazing person. That’s a pretty awesome accomplishment. How many other people are brave enough to do something like that? And he thinks you should think of it this way…to Camus someone that is able to be aware of the absurd and not run and hide from is known to him as an absurd hero. See because to be aware of the absurd in a strange way is to be superior to it. 


Take the absurd head on…stop hoping and looking to another world that may not ever exist and spend your time in the wealth of the here and now…which seems to Camus to be sensory in nature. 


Camus talks about enjoying the little things…enjoying the company of family and friends and good food and just sort of appreciating the sensory experience we were given.


Do things that make you feel good. If you love spending time with your family…enjoy them and appreciate them…because you never know when this disinterested universe is going to take them away…Enjoy your food…you never know when this disinterested universe is going to throw a world wide dustbowl our way and you’ll be fighting to the death for a bag of peanuts. 


Yeah, maybe we ARE like Sisyphus…maybe nothing we do will ever live on eternally and maybe all the anxiety and regret and hard work we put into this life ultimately has no meaning. But the Gods only condemned Sisyphus to push the boulder…they didn’t condemn him to resent the process. Camus says we should imagine Sisyphus smiling while pushing the boulder…understanding the ultimate futility of his efforts, but enjoying it anyway as much as he can. 


This is a model of how we should live our lives. You don’t have to hate or run away from the absurd…you can embrace it and smile anyway. Imagine if you were 13 years old again and your parents grounded you for staying out too late…the only reason that punishment works is because you hate the idea of being grounded, the only reason your parents use it is precisely BECAUSE you don't like it. I mean, how much sense would it make for your parents to say you're grounded…go to Disneyland! It wouldn’t work. Imagine enjoying every second of being grounded. Wouldn’t have been that bad! This is what we have to do with the absurd…push our meaningless boulder, but smile and enjoy it as much as we possibly can. 


Now the last two episodes have been on Sartre and Camus…two people that for part of their life were practically best friends and for the other part of their life were worst enemies. The next episode is going to be on one of the most famous back and forth debates in the history of the world…between Sartre and Camus. Thank you for listening…I’ll talk to you next time. 

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Episode 85 Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #085 on Peter Singer. Check out the episode page HERE.



So I want us all to imagine something. Imagine you went out to dinner with your friends or family. Imagine you had a good time…it was a good meal…the staff of the restaurant only sung happy happy birthday to seven people around you on this particular occasion. And as you exiting the restaurant and you’re heading out to your car you hear a sound and you look over to your right and you’re shocked to see a little girl…maybe four…five years old…lying in the gutter…crying…bleeding out of her head…looks terrified…you look around nobodies helping…she doesn’t seem to have any parents around. 


What would you do if you were in this situation? Would you stop and help the girl? Or would you look at her…continue walking to your car and just go on about your day? I think somewhere around 99% of people would say that they would stop and help the girl. 


Now…new situation…imagine instead you were watching this on the news…there’s a story about a four year old girl that died in front of a restaurant and they were showing security footage of 10…20 people coming out of the restaurant…looking at this little girl lying in the gutter who could be dying…and they just kinda shrug say oh well and keep going to their car. 


What would you think of those people? Well again, I think most of us would say…how could they possibly do that? More than that…how could you possibly live with yourself for the rest of your life knowing that you COULD have saved this little girl’s life…you COULD have done something about it…but instead you decided to just turn a blind eye and go on about your day? What was so important that a human life couldn’t be saved?


Peter Singer points out: we currently live in a world where 6.9 million children die a year of completely preventable, poverty related causes. That boils down to about 19,000 children every single day. We currently live in a world where each and every one of the people that were negatively judging those other people walking past the little girl dying on the news…have resources AND access to charities that could decrease that number…yet they choose not to. Now given that we’ve already established that we care about the cause of children dying when we could have done something about it, why are we so willing to help the girl in front of the restaurant and simultaneously so willing to turn a blind eye to the millions dying a year when we could do something about it?


Maybe the best place to start…maybe the place Peter Singer would start…is to congratulate you. Peter Singer would like to personally congratulate you on winning the lottery. You know its funny whenever you see people in the United States lining up down the block…waiting to get their powerball ticket because its up to 1.7 trillion dollars or whatever it is…its surpassed the national debt and these people are trying to see if their piece of paper will win! But just think about what they’re doing…they’re essentially asking the universe to let them win the lottery twice in one lifetime…because I got news for you…for reasons we’ve talked about all throughout the history of this show…if you’re born into modern western civilization…in relation to every other human being that has walked the face of the planet…you have already won the lottery. The efficiency your money commands…the amount of money you get paid for the job that you do…the benefits you have…the access to fresh food, water, entertainment, healthcare…of course every ONE of these things could be better, but from a historical context you are the sultan of bernai. 


Ah yes…modern civilization is pretty great. It’s become almost an inexorable fact of life that you go to work…you make money…you bring it home and then you use it buy things that you don’t necessarily need. Just think of how AMAZING that is! Think of the scarcity that’s haunted practically every generation of human being that has ever lived…We’re not tribespeople anymore…we’re not peasants trying to scrape by enough to barely feed ourselves with…every single person listening to this right now buys stuff…they do no need. Let me tell you…as someone that was homeless at the age of nine…living off of bread for three months of my life before child protective services came and got me…you COULD be spending less than you do. And that doesn’t make you a bad person! That’s the point! Peter Singer thinks this is actually a really exciting thing!


Think of the opportunity that you have… that no other human in the history of the world has ever had! You have the resources at your disposal to save lives! Maybe a key point to mention is that we should all understand…that there is a direct relationship between the resources you have at your disposal and your moral culpability in situations you find yourself in. 


For example…imagine there’s a person drowning in a lake. Now let’s say you’re wearing clothes…not that strange of a situation to imagine…you COULD take off your shirt…hold the shirt out to the person in the water and pull them to safety.  OR you could stand there and watch them drown…because that’s your favorite shirt. You just saw them over there eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos…you’re not gonna let them get their greasy red fingers all over your favorite shirt! They don’t even make this shirt anymore!


Now a lot of people there would say that you were wrong for not sacrificing your shirt to save a human life…now imagine you’re in the exact same situation except now you’re a member of some nudist brigade…nobodies gonna say you did anything wrong…you didn’t have a T-shirt that you could sacrifice in the first place. 


This is an example of how the resources at our disposal sometimes change whether we’re seen as morally reprehensible. Now you might be thinking this isn’t fair…I didn’t actually DO anything.  Sure, I didn’t donate…but it’s not like I karate chopped one of these starving kids in the neck…in fact I didn’t do anything…how can you say I’m a bad person when I really haven’t done…anything…on either side of the issue. 


Well in the words of Peter Singer, being a good person or leading an ethical life…is not only about staying away from the “thou shalt nots”…sometimes there are things that we are morally obligated to act on…the “thou…shalts” I guess. And there is a direct relationship between the resources at your disposal and how many of these thou shalts we have to consider during our time on this planet…and this really shouldn’t come as a surprise…I mean, on episode 59 of this show called Categorical Trolley Cars we talk about the famous ethical dilemma where a train is barreling down the tracks towards five people…all of them are going to die…the only way to save them is to pull a lever that would switch the train onto a different track where only one person is going to die. The question is: do you pull the lever to save the five over the one. 


Well think of the lever in that ethical dilemma as resources at your disposal. Fact is, if you didn’t HAVE a lever that could switch the train onto a different track…you wouldn’t be at a moral decision’d just be some weird person that hangs around train tracks and likes to watch people die.


The fact that you have the resource of the lever…changes everything. It gives you more potential choices to pick from on the multiple choice choose your own ending book of living an ethical life. Peter Singer would say that inaction does not absolve you of all guilt. No, by choosing NOT to pull the lever…by choosing NOT to use resources at your disposal…you’re still making a choice. And you’d have to ask yourself…as someone who’s already established themselves as a person who cares about the child dying in front of the restaurant…someone who cares to the extent that they feel it would be wrong NOT to intervene…someone who certainly wouldn’t give someone a free pass if they said what? I didn’t do anything…I just walked past the kid to my car! You’d have to ask yourself…why aren’t we giving more to these causes? Is it just because they’re far away from us and we don’t have to look the suffering in the eyes ourselves?


Peter Singer talks about a sprightly young chap named Toby Ord. Toby Ord was a graduate student in philosophy at Oxford when he asked himself this question. He calculated how much money he needed to live comfortably…about 18000 pounds a year..and subtracted that from the total amount of money he was going to make over the course of his career…and what he realized was that on top of living a totally comfortable lifestyle..he could also give enough back to cure roughly 80,000 people of blindness in countries rife with poverty. There’s a bacterial infection called trachoma…gets under your eyelids…pus starts oozing out…gross…point is…it’s completely treatable…costs about 40 bucks to do, but if you don’t treat it fast enough…you go blind. Blind for the rest of your life because you didn’t have 40 dollars. Estimates are that around 6 million people have gone blind from trachoma…and this is the cause Toby Ord wanted to do the most he could to help. 


Now Peter Singer would say…sure it’s great that Toby Ord wanted to give so much, but we don’t all have to give MASSIVE portions of our income to be able to make a difference…we don’t all have to be Toby Ords. In Peter Singer’s book: The Most Good You Can Do…he advocates 10%. Most churches ask you to donate 10% of your income…for most people it’s not a life ending amount of money to give…but it IS a life SAVING amount of money to give. Plus think of where that money is going…if you give it to your church…what are they gonna do with it…fix up the rec room? Maybe print up more of those glossy colorful pamphlets they like to leave on everyone’s front door step? No question they’re using it for the most good they can, but that money would accomplish SO MUCH MORE in Africa than it ever could in the United States. What he’s saying is…It’s not enough just to give to charity…we have to be smart about it…we have to use our capacity to reason to find not just where our resources will help, but where our resources will do the most good they possibly can. 


This is the “effective” part of effective altruism…and it’s extremely important. We all have known somebody that meant well and they really wanted to try to help someone…but the stuff they did to try to help ended up doing more harm than good…we can all imagine someone who has great intentions…tons of heart…they feel so strongly for a cause…but if they don’t think through what they’re going to do…they’re just this big bundle of emotions with zero direction. If you feel like donating money to try to make the world a better place…instead of donating it to your alma mater…or to the church down the street so they can buy more lemon cookies for fellowship…Peter Singer’s saying use that ability to reason to find where the money is going to do the most good it can. 


Something interesting that struck me as I was reading this is that this commitment to use that capacity to reason to find how you can effectively do the most good possible for a cause that you care about…it extends beyond just the resource of money and the cause of eliminating poverty. Like, I realize I’m not…you know…curing the blind in Africa…but as you guys know I think philosophical thinking is a very important thing to spread around in the world…i think there’s nothing that affects everything quite like philosophy…it’s a cause I care about a lot. 


Now I’m not getting rich doing this show, I love doing it…and about a year into doing the show I had a pretty strong influx of people that were telling me…people I respected…that I obviously like to explain things…why don’t I go back and get my teaching certification…would take two years…and quit the show and go be a teacher somewhere…maybe I could work my way up to that prestigious job at a community college I’ve always wanted! Their point was…I’d be making a lot more money teaching at a college…not to mention the wonders it would do on my self esteem to be able to have people groveling at my feet for a grade. I could walk around with a sense of entitlement on campus…it’d be great!


And I gotta be honest I thought about it a lot…but then I thought of something and I haven’t thought about it since. Yeah, professors make a lot more money…but they also charge their students tuition, which is extremely limiting. This podcast is free. How many people am I going to be spreading this message to as a teacher? 200 students in a class…5 classes? What 1000 people a semester? 1000 people download this show in an hour. Point is…much like Peter Singer talking about reasoning to the way of contributing to a cause that you care about that’s going to do the most good…this show is a much more effective way of getting this message that I care about so much out to as many people as possible. I guess I just want to make the point that whatever cause you care about, personally, is there a way you might be able to sacrifice a little bit of personal comfort in the name of doing the most good you can do. 



Ok so we’ve established that we care about the dying little girl…we’ve established we WOULD intervene and morally condemn others who did NOT choose to intervene…we’ve established that we DO in fact have at least a dollar that we COULD give and that inaction is not a get out of jail free card. We’ve established all that and yet…I’m gonna guess…there probably are tons of people out there still listening to this that really want to disagree with Peter Singer. A lot of people feel attacked…and it’s easy to understand where they’re coming from.


I’m not a bad person…I volunteer down at the food bank…this old lady dropped her change purse the other day…I picked it up and gave it back to her…I don’t FEEL like a bad person…yet here I am Peter Singer being told by you that I’m doing something wrong! This sort of dynamic is a perfect recipe if you want to get people to come up with arguments for why they act the way they do that aren’t necessarily philosophically sound…but are attempts at trying to justify the way they already behave. You see this same sort of behavior when you talk to people about why they treat their significant other the way they do like in our insecurity episode…when you talk to people about the reasons they give for why killing animals for food is morally justifiable…and unsurprisingly another area that Peter Singer specializes in: the life of an effective altruist in today’s extremely unique world. Now because of this dynamic…he spends most of the works that he’s done on this subject answering common questions and counterarguments that people commonly throw his way whenever he has conversations about it. So let’s take a look at some of the most common ones…


One argument that always seems to come up is…alright Peter Singer…you care about the children? Do you REALLY care about the children? Well I think if you honestly cared about them…you wouldn’t spend your time writing books about how everyone else should be helping them…you’d quit your job as a philosopher and go down there yourself and provide aid to these people. And on that same note…where do we draw the line? Let’s say I really feel compelled now to help end global poverty…can there be too much of a good thing? Why shouldn’t I conclude that I too should uproot me and my family’s life and move somewhere where I can constantly help? The core thinking here being that if I want to help out with a particular cause…the MOST good I could ever do is to be something like a Mother Theresa dedicating every second that I have.


At this point Peter Singer would probably direct your attention back to that amazing and very unique life that you were born into… and he’d say…that because of the tools you have at your disposal…you can really do the MOST good…by just being a highly productive citizen living in the United States. 


There’s actually people out there that are much more extreme than Peter Singer that say that we, as citizens with this sort of opportunity available to us, we have a moral obligation to work really hard towards making MORE money in our careers, so that we can give all of that additional money to these causes. Again, that’s a more extreme position to take…but the sentiment still remains in Peter Singer’s point. 


What he’s saying is: sure you could quit your job, move to Africa, and spend all day every day handing out sack lunches to people…or you could continue living your life as you do, and eventually donate enough money for a charity to employ…three aid workers…five aid workers….all of which are going to do the same job you would have done, but that didn’t have this unique opportunity like you do…to have their skills pay for the work of multiple people. 


Another common argument people will come back with is: ok, so I want to help…I want to sacrifice so that other people don’t have to die. Why do I even need to be comfortable? Why would any comfort of modern existence ever be more important than those dollars being spent to potentially save another life? Why shouldn’t I go all in and donate every penny I possibly can? Why Shouldn’t I live in a box? Why shouldn’t I eat once a week and in between meals crush up some rocks and water into a thick paste that serves as a benign mass inside my stomach tricking it into thinking that I am full? Why shouldn’t I do that?


Again, because you were born into a such a unique set of circumstances, one where you can use your opportunity to work to contribute truckloads of money to these causes…it actually is counterproductive for you to not be comfortably living. It’s a little bit like when they say on a plane…secure your oxygen mask before you secure the mask of the child next to you. The thinking being…if you're not breathing…it’s probably going to inhibit your oxygen mask fastening abilities. Now in the same way…if you’re weak and mentally foggy because you’re not getting your caloric needs met, if you’re sick because you get your drinking water from that communal hose on the side of your apartment complex…even if you’re not able to maintain a professional veneer and follow the dress code of your workplace…all of these things inhibit your ability to make money to donate…if in fact you wanted to truly do the most good you could possibly do.


Another argument that people commonly give is that, look everything you’re saying is true…I WANT to donate…but unfortunately…another thing that makes the time period I live in unique is that we live in a world where charities are often wasteful, ineffective or even downright corrupt. I wish I could give my money more directly so that it doesn’t have to go through this middle man where I have no idea if the funds are actually going to the people I want to help!


It’s a good point. There was a poll that Peter Singer cites in his book…70% of Americans that give to charity do absolutely ZERO research into where the money is actually going…and around 29% of that remaining thirty do a very cursory look over of things, usually looking for a single criteria to be met…like what percentage of the money actually goes to the people vs. administrative costs. But even THAT statistic can be misleading…even though it sounds great oh, they’re giving 98% of all money to the actual people in need…often times…the fact that they only use 2% to cover administrative costs makes them less effective at providing the help than some other charity that used say 5%…also, because they have such a low budget to operate on…often times the service they’re providing isn’t the most effective way to help the people they want to help. 


For example…imagine a charity that has a very low operating cost and they use 2% percent of the money to travel to places where people are dying of Malaria and give them Malaria vaccine…pretty simple operation…versus ANOTHER charity that sends teams of people to these communities and teaches everyone how to make their own nets that prevent mosquitos from biting them in the first place. Now, the second operation might cost a bit more to execute, but think of how much more GOOD is being done as a result of it.


So no question it can be tough to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to finding what charities are actually going to be doing good, but again…a hallmark of the time period that we live in is that we have access to information. There are independent groups that do nothing but audit charities…exposing any waste…exposing any corruption…showing where every dollar goes…they even give them a ranking so you can see very quickly which ones are actually doing good. Again, this goes back to the “effective” part of effective altruism…it’s not enough to have a knee-jerk emotional response to something…we need to be willing to do a little digging to find out what organization is going to do the most good with our money.


But probably THE MOST common argument that people give back when they’re faced with this thought experiment about the little girl dying in front of the restaurant…is that it’s not that I don’t want to help…for me it’s the problem of: how much good can I actually do? I mean, I’m not a billionaire…I don’t have millions of dollars to be throwing around…yeah I COULD give a dollar a month five dollars a month…but how much good is that actually doing? 


Well what if…five million people had that same outlook? There’s the millions of dollars that could have made a huge impact. By the way real quick…I’m walking proof of how big of a difference the dollar…five dollar donations make. I pay my bills and survive from the one…two dollars an episode that people give on Patreon…so for all of you out there that didn’t say, oh what good could I possibly do…thank you because you make this show possible. 


The same dynamic applies to people dying in developing countries. You know Peter Singer talks about how…were born into a world that tells us hard work is a virtue…and the paradigm that you’re supposed to strive for is to make more money…so that you can spend more money. You know, it’s exciting when you get a raise at work or when grandma beatrice leaves you a huge inheritance because now…you get to buy that nicer car you’ve always wanted…you get to have a bigger and better house…you make more…to be able to spend more. But what often happens is you find yourself on this hedonic treadmill where you’re always thinking about what you’re going to buy next and once you get it…it’s onto the NEXT thing you’re going to buy…and so on and so forth until you realize that the stuff is never going to bring you satisfaction…the satisfaction has to come from the inside. 


Peter Singer asks…why does it have to be this way? Why, hypothetically speaking, couldn’t we live in a world where we have the same idea that hard work is a virtue…but instead of making more so that you can spend more…you make more so that you can give more?


When it’s all said and done…you’re 80 years old…you’re looking back on your life…Peter Singer would ask you…which would you rather look back on…a lifetime where you made tons of money you didn’t need and bought stuff you didn’t need…stuff that’s all sitting in a landfill somewhere now…or would you rather look back and say…I made more money that I needed and with that money I was able to save 100,000 lives. 100,000 people are alive today that otherwise would have died…and that’s because of me…that’s because of this guy.


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


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Episode 84 Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #084 on William James. Check out the episode page HERE.


So it seems clear…we live in an age of empiricism. What I mean by that is that …Science at it’s core is an empirical…realm…ultimately any experiment you’re gonna do as a scientist… is going to be a PERSON …looking through something like a microscope with their eyes…or a person listening to wavelengths with their ears…this person’s going to be organizing all of this information through very feeble and really a completely arbitrary set of mental faculties that they have…the hope being…that having done this science experiment with our senses…we’ll be a little bit closer to knowing the way that things are in the universe….the truth! 


We think about the truth that way…the truth is this objective thing out there exterior to humans…that we’re trying to come into contact with…the way that things actually are…for example, if every human and every animal was eradicated from the planet tomorrow…and no sentient being was even attempting to try to find out what the truth was…it makes sense that in that universe there’d still be a way that things are…we’re just not around at that point to try to access it.  


But that’s the thing…even if we WERE around to try to access it…the chips are stacked against us…We realize our senses are not the greatest tools you could ever have if you’re trying to arrive at this TRUTH that’s out there…that’s the reason we USE things like microscopes and telescopes…to augment our senses and try to access this TRUTH out there. This sort of…cosmic Wikipedia that is fully filled out…now currently the best way we have to access this is through Science…but it didn't always used to be that way…


Let’s all grab our togas and head back to antiquity for a second. Remember Plato’s dialogues? Remember hearing about Socrates accosting people in the Athenian agora begging people to help him arrive at a better idea of what justice is…or what beauty is…and someone who was really confident that they understood what justice was would give Socrates an answer like, “oh, justice is the balancing of the scales. when someone or something wrongs you and takes something away, justice concerns itself with taking something away from that other party so that the scales of justice are balanced out again.”…at which point socrates would execute socraticmethod.exe and would proceed to show them every exception to their rule in existence…the goal being to illustrate to them that they actually DON’T understand what justice is in its entirety, and that more thinking and more discussion about the subject needed to be had.


Now, Socrates didn’t just do this with everyday people…he did it with his contemporary philosophers as well and if you remember, his reason for doing this…for trying to arrive at the end all be all ultimate definition of the concept of…for example…beauty or good…is that how can we ever begin philosophizing honestly about beauty…if we don’t even fully understand what it is were talking about? The hope was…if we just have enough of these intelligent conversations with each other talking about beauty…asking people for their definitions…finding the exceptions…refining the definitions…finding exceptions to those…that eventually we will have done it: we will have arrived at the true…objective definition of beauty! 


Now if this is what you’re doing…the primary assumption that you’re operating under is that these objective definitions of things exist at all… and what we’re left with after all these years we’ve been having these conversations is not a Webster’s dictionary with the perfect definition of beauty in it…what we’re left with are common figures of speech like, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” We say things like…each culture has their own set of ethics…their own idea of what “good” is to them. 


In other words…these concepts of Beauty and Good and many others…we don’t think of them as nouns anymore…we think of them as adjectives. We don’t think of them as an objective thing we’re trying to access like Socrates did back in antiquity…we think of them as subjective value judgements that really just describe a particular type of experience that a human being is having in a particular moment. For example, when I say that a song is beautiful, What i’m talking about is a particular way that song makes me feel…a particular human experience that I’m having that that song is producing in me…I’m not talking about it being representative of some cosmically defined beauty that I’ve gained access to through pondering the concept of beauty. 


What I’m saying is: Led Zeppelin is not inherently more beautiful than Justin Bieber…just as a class system is not inherently more “good” than egalitarianism. How good we think egalitarianism is or how beautiful we think Justin Bieber’s music is largely comes down to a very subjective judgement that we’re making based on all of the prior experiences we’ve had and what sort of feeling is evoked within our bodies…our human experience of something.


Well if you agree with the statement that beauty is in the eye of the beholder or that there is no cosmically defined “good” that we can arrive at…the guy we’re gonna be talking about today would probably ask you the question: what if truth…was the exact same way. What if truth isn’t some thing out there that we should be trying to access…what if truth is not a noun…but an adjective we use to describe a particular type of human experience? 


Now on the surface this may seem pretty counterintuitive…so let’s give some context so we understand where this guy’s coming from. This guy…is william james…psychologist…philosopher…1842-1910…and what william james thought is that if you look back throughout history at the different types of people and why they believe that certain things are true…they can mostly be broken down into being one of two types of people. Two types of people in the world: what he calls tender minded and tough minded. 


Quick breakdown…these two types of people often find themselves falling into very predictable categories…a tough minded person is typically somebody that is skeptical…placing a high priority on something being proven for it to be true…a tough minded person tends to be more deterministic…not believing in things like free will…a tough minded person is more likely to be an Atheist…they prefer to learn things through experience rather than reasoning to conclusions. 


Now a tender minded person would be the opposite of all those…a tender minded person prefers to learn about things A priori…by thinking about things rather than conducting experiments…a tender minded person tends to be more dogmatic…more willing to accept things to be true without a strong PROOF they can point to…they tend to be more religious, etc. 


Now historically, William James would say…this has caused a great deal of tension. When you have one of these tough minded people butting heads with one of these tender minded people and they’re trying to arrive at a conclusion about what the truth is…not much productive conversation usually gets done…they usually can’t even begin having a conversation at all because they disagree so fundamentally with what makes something true…how can they?


Well, William James thought the philosophical line of thinking known as pragmatism solved this problem and united the tender and tough minded. But before we can understand why James felt that way…we have to understand what’s known as the Pragmatic maxim…an idea laid out initially by a friend of James’ Mr. Charles Sanders Peirce…and it begins like this: 


Peirce asks the question: what is wrong with the following statement? A diamond is actually soft, and only becomes hard when it is touched. As opposed to the diamond just always being hard regardless as to whether we’re touching it…What is wrong with that statement? 


I mean really, how do you know that the diamond isn’t soft when a human being’s not touching it? How can you honestly prove that it’s not? Now on the surface this may seem somewhat pedantic…but it’s actually a good point he’s making here. 


The answer to that question what’s wrong with that statement…is that…there’s NOTHING wrong with that statement…nothing is FALSE about it… that’s the whole point. Think about it…whether you believe that the diamond was soft until you touched it…or whether you believe that the diamond is hard in perpetuity…absolutely nothing changes about your experience of that diamond, how others will experience that diamond, whether you’re able to put that diamond into a ring as a token of submission to your significant other/overseer. Nothing changes about how we experience that diamond at all…so our belief about this diamond and whether it was soft when we weren’t touching it really ends up not mattering. And think about what that means…it doesn’t matter if you believe that an invisible leprechaun is keeping that diamond hard…nothing changes about the way a human being orients themselves to it. 


This is the pragmatic maxim…that the meaning of a concept…is the sensory effect of its object.


William James has a really famous example that I think illustrates the concept a little bit better…he says pretend you are walking through the woods and you come across a beautiful little squirrel clinging to the side of a tree…and it looks at you…and you make eye contact…and the squirrel decides to scurry around the tree clinging from the bark on the other side of the tree as though it’s trying to hide from you and you say no, no squirrel…i’m not done with you…that’s a beautiful squirrel…i gotta see it again…so you sort of crane your neck trying to catch a glimpse of it’s fluffy tail…you can’t see it…so you begin walking in a circle around the tree trying to see it…but this squirrel has a vendetta…this squirrel isn’t your show pony…it’s not gonna trot around for your viewing pleasure…it decides…its gonna use its psychic powers to just always know where you are and its gonna just always stay on the opposite side of the tree that you’re on. But you’re not going down without a fight…you start running…as fast as you CAN around this tree…but the squirrel prevails…his plan is working…no matter how many times you go around…you can’t see the squirrel. 


Now here’s the question: having circled the tree now four or five times…would you say that you had gone AROUND the squirrel? Seems like there’s two ways you can think about it: you could say…yes…I’ve gone around the tree…the squirrel is in between me and the tree…of course i’ve gone around the squirrel i just didn't see it…or you could say…no…i didn’t go around the squirrel it’s face was always facing me the whole time. What would you say?


Well just like the diamond example…whether you think you DID go around the squirrel or DIDN’T go around the squirrel…neither of these accounts about what happened are actually “false statements”… it really just comes down to how you define “going around” the squirrel…if going around means passing to the north south east and west of the squirrel then yes we’ve gone around the squirrel…but if it means passing in front of, to the left right and then behind the squirrel…then no we haven’t gone around the squirrel. 


Point is: whether you believe you went around the squirrel or not…nothing changes about what actually happened in reality…you’re still having the same human experience of that event. William James thought this goes beyond just vindictive squirrels in the middle of the woods…us not understanding the practical definitions the other person is using for certain arguments leads us to disagree with people that actually agree with us about what is going on in reality. He said that so many of the disagreements that we have in philosophy or any of the natural sciences…are not really disagreements about reality, but debates about the specific words that are being used. 


Now this leads us to the question: what IS reality? what IS truth? And if you were having this conversation with William James…he’d probably start by saying ok, let’s talk about this popular concept of objective truth…let’s establish a baseline here: no one listening to this actually believes in things because they think they are objectively true facts about the universe. 


Even if you fancy yourself one of those skeptical, atheistic, tough minded people guided by the evidence and the evidence alone…even if you were the most tough minded person ever and you only believe in the most unbiased, repeatable, triple checked scientific synopsis of the way that things are…you still know that one day many of the things that you believe are gonna be replaced by better science…just look at history…the one constant of science is that it keeps improving upon itself…so in the sense that you don’t believe in things because you think they’re objective truths about the universe, but really just the closest facsimile of that truth available to you during the years you are alive…really you believe in the stuff you do because you see it as the most useful set of beliefs a person can have…it really has nothing to do with whether they’re  actually true or not. And as better science comes out and disproves one of your beliefs and gives you a more useful belief…one a little bit closer to that truth hopefully…you’ll adjust your beliefs accordingly and believe in THAT useful belief. 


This is what leads william James to make the claim that how truthful an idea is…comes down to how useful it is…or whether it serves the function its meant to serve. He says…much like our belief about whether we actually went around the evil squirrel or not…if we have a belief that doesn’t contradict what we already know…and it serves the purpose of explaining the way that things are and predicts things well that are going to happen in the future…there’s no reason NOT to consider it to be true. Again, think of truth NOT as a noun like Socrates did, but as an adjective describing a certain human experience that we have. 



True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False ideas are those we cannot. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that therefore is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known as.

The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process, the process namely of verifying itself, its verification. Its validity is the process of its validation. “


So an idea is a “true” idea if it serves the purpose of giving us a particular useful human experience…just as a piece of artwork is “beautiful” if it serves the purpose of giving us a particular type of human experience. Now a common question people ask here is: okay, I’m on board with you when it comes to the inevitable progression of science…but what about things that are just true by virtue of definition. Like that a triangle has three sides or that all bachelors are unmarried…can’t you say that these statements are just…true statements…objectively? You don’t really need someone to have a useful human experience to be able to define these as true…William James would say…Those aren’t “true” statements…they simply just are the case. 


This is a really interesting part of James’s philosophy…remember what were talking about whenever were talking about truth. What William James would say is that whenever we’re talking about something being true…all that we can EVER be talking about is our human experience of some thing. Now, you may say well all he’s doing there is switching the definition of truth! But it starts to make a lot more sense when you look at this connection he thinks there is between belief and what he considers a true idea to be. 


So for an idea to be true it needs to be useful…and for an idea to be useful…you actually have to believe in it. I mean, if you don’t believe that the big bang was the event that marked the inception of the universe…how can it ever be an adequate or useful explanation to you? His point there is: you BELIEVING that something is true…is a huge factor in determining whether it’s actually going to be useful to you or not. He gives an example of someone lost in the woods…they have no idea where they are…the only thing they really have to go on is this path that they’re following. Now at this point that person can believe in a couple things, they can believe that the path is going to lead them back to safety and civilization…or they can believe the path is leading them deeper and deeper into the woods making their situation worse. 


Now William James would ask: think of how your beliefs determine the outcome of that situation. On one hand, if you believe that the trail is leading you deeper into the woods getting you more lost…why follow it? Why not do nothing or walk in another random direction…the USEFUL way to use that belief is to not follow the trail. Maybe you stay lost out there for days and eventually starve to death. Now on the other hand…if you believe that the trail is going to lead you back to safety…think about it: just as we hold beliefs about science that are incredibly useful to us and we consider them to be true…even though in reality we’re “figuratively speaking” effectively…lost in the woods our whole life…by believing that those scientifically founded beliefs are accurate…by believing that the path leads to safety…it becomes useful and therefore becomes true to William James.


This is his basis for the quote: “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”


Now let’s clear some things up because I already know what many of you are saying: so no matter WHAT I believe…no matter what idea I can come up with…as long as I act on it and it becomes useful to me…it’s therefore is true? 


Well, no… there are certain criteria that William James thinks need to be met by any belief for it to be considered justifiable…let’s talk about them…one…is that there needs to be evidence in its favor. there needs to be some discernible thing that you can point to as evidence of why this is a reasonable idea…but James would say more realistically this usually manifests itself as…the majority of the evidence available to you during your time needs to indicate that it is true…


Two…the idea needs to be strong enough to be able to stand up to counterarguments. What he means is…If someone can just walk up to you, criticize the idea and leave you speechless in terms of an explanation…it’s probably not passing the test. 


Three…once you believe in the idea…the idea isn’t just… off the hook at that point. It needs to keep proving its worth as something that is useful to you…and part of doing that is consistently predicting future results…if its not doing that…James Would say probably time to believe in something else that’s a little more useful. 


Now, the great thing about these three criteria, is that they account for both types of people…the tender minded AND the tough minded. They account for all different time periods…for people living in today’s world or people living in medieval superstition. For example if you were living in Western Europe in the 1400s and you believed it to be true that the earth is flat…William James would say that even though we know now that it’s a sphere…your belief that the earth was flat was a true belief back then because remember, truth is an adjective describing a specific type of human experience… the experience someone had with that belief back in the 1400’s is the same as the experience we have today with the idea that the earth is a sphere.


Just to make this more clear…let’s look at this example through the lens all three criteria so we can see how similar our experiences really are. 


First criteria we need…evidence it is true. 


Well, just as we would point to something like satellite imagery that shows that the earth is a sphere…someone in the 1400’s would point to the…you know… eye witness testimony from the guy with a peg leg that saw an entire ship of noble fishermen get sucked down to davy jones’s locker. He swears it happened…he even saw it with his good eye! Nobody…second guesses his good eye. 


Second criteria…the idea needs to able to withstand criticism.


So…In today’s world, if someone came up to you and offered a counter argument and said something like…well if the earth is so round…why does the horizon look flat no matter how high up you go? We could no doubt argue back and talk about how things appear to the human eye and fixtures in the landscape only made possible by the curvature of the earth…our idea that the earth is a sphere is going to be able to withstand criticism…just as the average person in the 1400’s probably isn’t going to be running into many people like Sir Isaac Newton that is able to provide a compelling argument that refutes their belief that the earth is flat.


Third criteria… the idea needs to continue to help you predict future outcomes.


So…In today’s world…our idea that the earth is spherical would continue to be reinforced…right?… we’d continue to compensate for the spherical shape of the earth…we’d continue to adjust flight patterns in the interest of saving time by taking advantage of the shape of the earth…and we would continue to reap rewards from doing that. Just as…Back in the 1400’s they would continue to hear stories about people falling off the edge of the earth, they’d continue to predict that those crazy people that are going on that super long voyage near the edge of the earth…yeah they’re probably not coming back. And when they didn’t it would serve as confirmation that what they believe is true. 



Point is: just like with the squirrel…just like with the diamond…our human experience of our belief that the earth is a sphere…how useful it is to us, how well it predicts future outcomes that are relevant to us…we have the same experience with our belief that the earth is a sphere…that someone back in the 1400’s would have with their belief that the earth is flat! And to William James, both of these beliefs would be worthy of the adjective true when describing them, given their respective contexts and how they allow people to orient themselves to the world.


You know…many people take issue with James because they think he’s being far too tolerant of these beliefs like…the earth is flat. We shouldn’t allow that to be called true…but keep in mind…this is entirely contingent upon them living in a different time when other evidence was unavailable. He would no doubt take issue with that belief in today’s world given how it doesn’t stand up to his three criteria…and in that sense he is FAR from tolerant of people just believing in whatever they want. By the way…that extends on to you as well…once a more useful, for most of us more accurate, interpretation of some subject comes out…if your beliefs no longer hold up to scrutiny…he would be equally as abrasive to your beliefs as well.


Maybe the best thing to reiterate at this point is that William James sees truth not as something inside of objects themselves, but our experience of how we orient ourselves to things in the world. You know, he wrote a book called the varieties of religious experience where he dissects…basically every type of religious idea that people can have and tries to find similarities between them…and the interesting thing is…William James doesn’t think of religion the same way many of us do…he doesn’t think religion is limited to only things like Christianity…Hinduism…Orphism…no William James thinks that ANY fundamentalist interpretation of life should be considered a religion…because it’s ultimately the same type of thinking going on. 


That could include any number of things…unbridled nationalism…racism…sexism…religion to William James is better described as, “man’s total reaction upon life.”


There’s a great quote in the introduction of the book: 


“We must therefore, from the experiential point of view, call these godless or quasi-godless creeds ‘religions’; and accordingly when in our definition of religion we speak of the individual’s relation to ‘what he considers the divine,’ we must interpret the term ‘divine’ very broadly, as denoting any object that is godlike, whether it be a concrete deity or not.”


Beautifully worded…obviously what he’s saying here is look: just because someone’s simplified way they look at things doesn’t have a ten headed deity with horns involved, don’t think that the “divine” qualities many traditional religions place on that thing are incapable of being conferred onto something like…you know the founding fathers…or David Duke. 


By the way real quick…i realize there’s people alive today that strongly believe that the earth is flat…and they have tons of evidence to support why that has to be the case. I’d just like to ask for you to be understanding of me having to find an example for this episode…you must realize you’re part of a small handful of intellectual elites that have watched the same YouTube videos you have…and you certainly must realize that the vast, vast majority of us listening to this episode are uneducated sheep that are victims of propaganda. The point was not to continue my covert shilling for the CIA…it was to try my best to explain some William James. By the way, if you’re out there…please reach out to me! I really want to know why all the governments of the world benefit from concealing that the earth is flat. 


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

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Episode 83 Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #083 on Henry David Thoreau. Check out the episode page HERE.



Henry David Thoreau was an American author and philosopher who in the year 1845 resigned himself from public life to a shack, in the woods, next to a lake…for two years, two months and two days of his life. Why? Well if you wanted to get a little closer to finding out why… might not be a bad idea to visit the actual shack that he lived in! You can do it! Well, it’s a replica shack…they rebuilt the shack…but you CAN visit the actual site where he built his shack before it got torn down…they found the hearth or the bottom of the fireplace buried just under the dirt and from there they extrapolated where the rest of the cabin had to have been…but the fact remains…to this day… you can go to concord Massachusetts and stand on the exact spot where Thoreau stood…you can see the actual views that he writes about…you can close your eyes and listen and if you can drown out the sound of the SUVs and motorcycles passing by just behind you can hear many of the same things he heard. Let’s say you did it. Let’s say you did visit Walden Pond in today’s world…what you’d see…are narrow trails… fairly dense woods all around you…and when you approached the actual site where Thoreau built his cabin you’d come to a clearing and you’d see a big piece of wood staring you in the face…and etched into this piece of wood is one of the most iconic lines from his famous account of his time out there and it goes like this: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Do you ever worry about that? Do you ever worry about what he’s talking about here? Waking up one morning…50 60 years old and having an epiphany about life that had been staring you in the face your whole life and if only you had done things just a little differently you would have realized it when you were twenty and not wasted decades of your life? Well I do. I worry about that stuff all the time. Kind of a strange thing to worry about…the worry doesn’t really solve anything…all it really does is keep you motivated to keep thinking about life and your place in the world so that at least if you DO wake up 60 years old and realize you’ve wasted it all…at least you put in all the work you could have. Well, Thoreau seems to be of a similar mindset…he wants to live deliberately…which it seems by that quote is a very active process and he wants to do this…so that he doesn’t come to the end of his life and realize that he never lived at all. Now, I don't think many people would disagree that they don’t want to come to the end of their life and feel like they wasted it…the confusion that most people have about that quote is his method of achieving that. Yeah, I don’t want to waste my life either…but when I'm brainstorming all the ways I'm gonna try to prevent that from happening…I don’t arrive at the conclusion that we should go camping for two years. Why would Thoreau go to the woods to accomplish that? Well make no mistake…the lessons that Thoreau learned in this little unassuming cabin of his would go on to change the lives of untold numbers of people, not to mention his own. But to understand why he landed on the woods…in particular…I want to briefly talk about two things that are going to help set the stage…one is the psychology of Thoreau living during the time that he did…and the other is the approach to life commonly known as Transcendentalism. So let’s get right into it: long before Thoreau ever decided to isolate himself at Walden Pond…he knew he didn’t really fit in…with the rest of the kids on the playground. He just didn’t think about things the same way as the average person that was living back then. And you'll find example after example of this if you just take a quick look at his life. For example, Thoreau had just graduated from college…went to Harvard…and he must of been under a tremendous amount of pressure from himself…his family to make this degree he just worked so hard for to actually do something for him…and he gets a job as a school teacher. Well the policy of the school at the time…what the majority of the community of people he was serving wanted him to do if the kids start misbehaving is to use corporal punishment to keep them in line. Thoreau, living during a time when that kind of thing was acceptable…didn’t like it…so he quit his job. Thoreau was a conservationist during a time when we didn’t have grisly images of evil corporations sawing down acres of trees leaving pandas with no where to live. He saw the environmental writing on the wall before most people even realized it could POTENTIALLY be a problem. Thoreau was a huge opponent of slavery…during a time when people owned slaves all around him and weren’t being morally denounced for doing so. Point is: given where society has gone since his day and age…Thoreau seemed to be way ahead of his time. But whether he KNEW he was right or wrong or not…he still has to live in a world surrounded by people that don’t see any problem with this stuff. Now this raises a very important question if you're Thoreau…what do you do about it? What do you do about the fact that you live in a society that endorses all kinds of stuff that you think is immoral? Not an easy question to answer…after all…you’re just one citizen…why are you so special? Should the rest of the country have to bend to your will so that you get what you want? And the extension of that is…democracy is majority rule…do you have an obligation to your fellow citizens to go along with what the majority has deemed to be morally acceptable? On the other hand, you might feel the exact opposite! You might feel like if you see something going on that you think is wrong…you might feel like you have an obligation to NOT keep quiet. You need to stand up for what you believe in and change the world! This was not an easy question to answer for Thoreau early in his life. But then something changed. Then it became really easy to answer that question…probably the strongest conviction Thoreau held throughout the latter stages of his life. And the seed that was planted…that would eventually grow into this strong belief about the answer to this question…was when Thoreau read an essay that was written by a good friend of his named Ralph Waldo Emerson…and the title of this essay was Self-Reliance. Self Reliance was an essay that called for everyone who read it to understand the importance of being, well…self reliant. But maybe a better way of putting it is that it called on people to understand the value of being an individual. Emerson writes: “There comes a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion.” What Emerson is saying here is that as a human being, we’re born into this very unique condition where we need to find out who we are. We need to find out what we care about…what kind of person were going to be…what sort of legacy we’re going to leave behind us. The problem is…none of us are born with a full understanding of what that’s going to be…so an alluring trap that people fall into is to look around them and just conform to the way that other people act. Certainly gives you a quick and easy answer to the question of what you’re going to be…unfortunately…as Emerson says…imitation is suicide…you going around doing your best imitation of what the people around you are doing in the interest of avoiding a difficult conversation with yourself…is effectively suicide…suicide of your individuality. No, self-reliance preaches a sort of radical non-conformity. Anyone who just blindly believes anything that’s told to them or just blindly goes along with whatever people are doing around them…are foolish to Emerson. Maybe the best way to do this crazy thing called life…is to figure it out for yourself…go out and find your OWN way. See, Thoreau and Emerson are living in a world where advances in science and philosophy show that this thing that we call objective truth…is a pretty slippery thing to define…if not entirely impossible for us to ever arrive at. So as a response to this…what Transcendentalism does…and self-reliance espouses Transcendentalist ideas…is it takes ideas from all over the world at various different points throughout history…There are ideas from Romanticism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Vedism, even further east to Confucianism…it takes all these ideas and creates an approach to life that’s not just about living wisely…but that ultimately that wisdom is something that you as an individual need to arrive at yourself…that inside of everyone there is a genius of sorts…the infinitude of the individual as Emerson writes…and that maybe you should trust your own thought…more than the thought of people that are considered “wise” by other people around you…maybe what we should all be aiming for is not objective truth about the way things are…but a personal truth about the way things are. Now at this point a certain type of person starts nodding emphatically…slowly clapping. Yes. What’s true for me…is not true for you. This is MY truth. Yes, I believe that the ghost of a witch that was wrongly convicted in the 1700’s is haunting the property lines of my house…but that’s MY truth. I’m impervious to criticism! No, it shouldn’t be like this. It shouldn’t be some get out of jail free card to not take the process seriously and then wave it around whenever someone tries to tell you what you believe is ridiculous. No doubt it will be used this way…but the point of the personal truth is to accept the illusive nature of objective truth and show who the onus is truly on….YOU! This truth is yours and yours alone…the only people it should affect should be you and the people you care about…think of how important your personal pursuit of truth becomes in that world. Now if this is what you believe…one of the things that naturally goes along with that…is that one of the worst things you can do is just look around you… see how other people are acting… and just blindly copy whatever it is they’re doing. You’re not working to try to figure it out on your own…you’re not trying to arrive at a better personal truth with that strategy…you’re just trying to get by. You’re just killing time in a waiting room…but for what? What are you killing time and waiting for…death? Ralph Waldo Emerson thinks that “society is in conspiracy against the manhood of its members”…and what he means by that is that civilization…these societies that we live in with our cities and our culdesacs and our farmers markets and all these activities that have us in close quarters with each other bound together by a social contract…these things PROMOTE this mentality of being a passive, quiet, drone that just conforms with everything going on around them and is protected from the baptism of having to take your views about the world to task. In other words, the same way society protects the physically lazy…it also protects the mentally lazy. Society, for all the good stuff it seemingly does for us…it may be the BIGGEST boulder in the way if you’re truly someone that wants to try to live deliberately. This is why…Thoreau removes society from his life. And it wasn’t long after he read Emerson’s self reliance that he went to his friend Emerson and asked if he could live in a shack on his property in concord Massachusetts…at which point Emerson said…what have I done…look when i wrote the essay i didn’t really anticipate everyone coming and wanting to live on MY property…it was more of like a personal property thing…like your PERSONAL truth. Just kidding he let him. Now as you can imagine, this move to the wilderness seems like it must have been a pretty big shock to Thoreau’s system…i mean, to go from all of the comforts of modern living to just having a desk a couple chairs and a bed…must have been a pretty rough adjustment phase, right? Well the reality was…no…it was actually kind of nice. See, Thoreau realized something as he was thinking about all the ways society is in “conspiracy against the individuality of its members.” He realized the more you own…the more your stuff owns you. He said we often find ourselves not totally happy…not feeling a strong sense of self worth…we think about what we think might bring us that self worth…and a trap that a lot of people fall into is they look OUTSIDE of themselves for the answers to whats going on on the inside of themselves. He says we tell ourselves this lie that oh, if only i get that new pair of shoes or if only I get that car I want then everything's going to be great! But he says what we should realize…is that even if you were trapped like a lost hiker underneath an avalanche of new shoes…YOU would still be there. All of the negative mental holding patterns that contribute to that lack of self worth are still there…you just now have a nike symbol imprinted into your forehead. This goes beyond just stuff by the way…it’s interesting he and Emerson talk about how people often do this with travel. You know they say whats going to finally make me feel right? When I can travel the world and meet all kinds of people and see these different cultures…that’s what’s gonna fix it. But just like the other example…he says whether you’re in China or Russia or India or where ever…the common thread in all three of those examples…is you. The solution to your problem is inside of you…not a lack of some special thing outside of you. And this is just one of the many lessons he learns by removing society from his life and just opening his eyes to what’s going on around him in nature. This is one of the hallmarks of Thoreau’s work: there’s a wisdom in nature…if you’re creative and can spot it. There’s a beautiful passage where he talks about…you know…what happens when a chestnut and an acorn fall on the ground right next to each other in the dirt? Does one of them yield to the other one? Does one decide to just not grow so the other one can grow? No, they both live in accordance with their respective natures until one day one of them overpowers the other one and it dies…one things for sure…regardless of whatever adversity was thrown that chestnut’s way…it was a chestnut through and through until the day it died. Not some facsimile of an acorn or a juniper bush or a geranium…it was a chesnut…and in that sense…we as people can learn a lot from that chestnut about how to live life. You know, personally…something I use as a means of cultivating acceptance about things that are out of my control is actually a reworking of an idea Thoreau had in Walden! You know, I live in the Pacific Northwest and if there’s something there’s a lot of up here it’s meth and trees. So no matter what direction I’m facing…pretty good chance there’s always going to be a tree within eyeshot. Think of trees not as plants for a second…think of them as living things that have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. Now how do you survive for hundreds and hundreds of years…you gotta be doing something right. Well consider the fact that 24 hours a day seven days a week…while you’re sleeping…working…watching Netflix…constantly…these trees are met with the ceaseless onslaught of the elements. Rain, wind, snow, lightning…here are these wise elders…these living things that deal with that adversity…constantly…and how do they do it? They sway. They sway in the wind. Gently back and forth. If they resist it too much, they break…if they don’t resist enough they have no foundation…they have no roots. What a cool metaphor for how we might approach the ceaseless onslaught of adversity the world throws our way. Anyway, I highly recommend Walden pond if this stuff fascinates you, but Thoreau accomplished his goal when he was out there for two years. He comes back to society looks around him and more clearly than ever before sees not individuals, but passive, ignorant subjects that constantly seek for others to define who they are in exchange for the crumbs of security that society provides them. He says man, isn’t it crazy…that when people are given the freedom to be anyone they want to be…they end up just acting like everyone else. This isn’t life…this is the opposite of life…he says a scarecrow can do everything these people are doing…but this is what the tendency is when we all decide to congregate around each other and conform to society. “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hinderances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor.” I guess another upside to Thoreau spending all this time away from people its that he found an answer to that question we talked about at the beginning of the episode…you know whether we’re obligated to keep quiet and be respectful of the majority, or whether we’re obligated to speak up and change things for the better. Well you can probably guess his answer to this now…of course we should speak up! We should never just passively go along and conform to what people are doing around us. Now this in itself is far from a novel concept…but what IS novel…probably the most influential idea given to us by Henry David Thoreau…one that would go on to shape the hunger strikes of India and Mahatma Ghandi…it would go on to shape the civil rights movement in America and countless other movements…it wasn’t THAT we should stand against society if it doesn’t stand for what is morally right…but HOW we should go about standing up to society. He wrote a book called “civil disobedience”…the opening line of which cites the quote “the government that governs best, governs least.” now often misattributed to Thomas Jefferson. But keep in mind…what Thoreau is saying there is not that the smallest government is the best government…he’s saying the government should be as simple as possible, but not any simpler and not any more complex than is necessary. See Thoreau realized that majority rule is by its very nature coercive to the individual. This wouldn’t be that big of a deal if it didn’t force that individual to live in a society that doesn’t go along with their conscience or beliefs. “. . . the government does not concern me much, and I shall bestow the fewest possible thoughts on it. It is not many moments that I live under a government, even in this world. If a man is thought-free [free in his thinking], fancy-free, imagination-free, that which is not never for a long time appearing to be to him, unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatally interrupt him.” In other words, as long as you’re living a life that corresponds with your conscience and beliefs about things…nothing can really bother you! So how do we accomplish that given the unfortunate state of affairs that the coercive nature of majority rule often forces us to not live that life…what do we do about it? Well if you’re expecting Thoreau to say to grab your pitchforks and head down to city hall…you got another thing coming. In fact, he doesn’t even think it’s your duty to actively lobby for change much at all. “It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man's shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.” So Thoreau’s position here is even more nuanced than just “stand up for what you believe in and write a letter to your congressman!” No, he makes it really clear at multiple points in Civil Disobedience…look I have a lot of other stuff to do…I didn’t come into this world to make this a good place to live in…but simply just to live in the world as an individual…whether thats a good place or a bad place. So the question then becomes, if it happens to be a bad place when you’re here…how can the individual still continue to live freely and deliberately… without having to feel morally guilty by association to all of these bad things going on? Thoreau’s answer to this question is Civil Disobedience. He asks a really interesting question at the beginning of the book: why do we necessarily need to have the government meddling in issues of morality? Look the government has a lot of stuff on their plate in addition to having to be the moral arbiter of the United States Thoreau would say…they gotta fix our crumbling roads and bridges…they have to collect taxes…why not give them a break? Better question is: why is the government in the business of legislating morality? The government’s great at doing some stuff…maybe not so much when it comes to morality. Thoreau seems to think that the government “has not the vitality and force of a single living man.” No the individual is central to any progression…and this centrality of the individual is one of the most profound ideas he’d ever give us: in the same way if you’re feeling really bad on the inside…the solution is going to come from you as an individual, not some outside intervention…so too in issues of morality…it’s the INDIVIDUAL that is central to reform…not government intervention or coercion. Best thing we can do?…to Thoreau? Non-violent protest. Now living in an age where we’ve seen non violent protest play out so seamlessly over the years…it may be tough to put ourselves in the shoes of the people living back then where it wasn’t an obvious option that they could go to in times of political strife…but really…during this time and overwhelmingly throughout human history…the torch and pitchfork approach was the go to method if you wanted to get something done. Here’s Thoreau offering a different solution. For example, Thoreau lived during the generation that gave rise to the Mexican-American war…now it was commonly seen at the time that this was a war not based on any sort of moral foundation…it wasn't a necessary war…it was a war waged for the economic expediency that came along with the eventual expansion of slave trading to a larger territory. Now if you’re Thoreau…staunch opponent to slavery…how can you in good conscience pay taxes and support a system that is taking those tax dollars and waging a war that is nurturing the positive growth of slavery as an institution? Well you can’t. So Thoreau…didn’t. He stopped paying taxes in protest of the state getting involved in issues of morality that he thought it really had no business being a part of. The beauty of this is that if enough people follow suit, the state no longer has the resources to fund the Mexican-American war. Now the significance of this is: for this change to come…no one had to bomb city hall or punch anyone in the face or worst of all…start a hashtag…no this civil disobedience has brought about a “peaceable revolution”. Yeah, Thoreau went to jail for not paying his taxes, but he didn’t see that as being so much of a bad thing. In fact, he saw it as the only way to truly be an individual. Sure he could’ve pouted…paid his taxes…complained to everyone around him…publicly attacked the leadership of the war…but he’d be doing all of this…all the while he would be monetarily contributing to a system that didn’t correspond with his conscience. It’s really interesting as we talk about these different economic models and systems of government…no question we’ve talked about at least one that you don’t agree with or that you think is immoral. Well try to put yourself in the shoes of Thoreau here: Thoreau…in a weird way…went to jail…in order to be truly free. Not the other way around. Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.