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Episode 113 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #113 on The Frankfurt School. Check out the episode page HERE.

So hypothetical situation: let’s say you listened to these last five episodes on the Frankfurt school…let’s say you took it upon yourself to do a little more research on your own… and let’s say you pulled up an overview of all the works Herbert Marcuse ever produced. What you would see…and this applies to many of the key players in the Frankfurt School at the time as well..what you’d see is a very clear, repeated presence of books and essays concerned with the subject of art and aesthetics. 


Now seeing that…this can be kind of confusing at first…like, why would that be the case? I mean if the task of the Frankfurt School was to find out what went wrong during the thinking of the Enlightenment, to examine the effects of advanced capitalism in the west, to try to figure out why the revolution Marx prophesied never came…if that’s your goal, why are you wasting even a second of your time talking about something like…you know, the form of a piece of artwork…or how people and works of art interface with each other in the world…why are we talking about any of this stuff? 


Now the extension to that…and it’s a very common, understandable, natural human reaction to what we’ve talked about so far…ok, say Marcuse’s right. I now realize I’m living in a totalitarian society…I mean, is that something we should be taking lightly here? Like really if what the Frankfurt School’s saying is true, why should we be concerned with art right now? Why make a movie about how bad things are? Why are we gonna write a catchy little jingle about how we’re needlessly repressed? No, how about we DO something about it. Let’s go. Let’s get out into the streets and take back the country that apparently was never ours to begin with! Let’s string politicians up with chicken wire if we have to! It’s time to CHANGE things! Right now. 


Marcuse would look at this person and he would understand their anger…he would understand their passion for wanting to change the world for the better…but he’d probably say to them… that when it comes to the process of liberation, from forces of domination that are AS entrenched as these one are…don’t mistake movement, for progress. That being angry and screaming at people and taking to the streets may make you FEEL like you’re doing something that’s changing the world for the better…but you have to examine and re-examine your tactics…are you really changing anything there? 


Because again, Marxist revolutions throughout history have shown time and time again that you can’t implement these ideas into a capitalist society by force. And again, if something is ever gonna happen that even remotely resembles this kind of revolution that’s being suggested…it’s not gonna come by people taking to the streets…it’s going to come by way of a slow shifting of class consciousness. It’s going to come by educating people. It’s going to come by getting people to see themselves and their place in the world in a different way. It’s going to come by explaining to people how it’s even possible, that every day up until the point they heard this stuff they lived immersed in a system like this without ever realizing it. In other words, in the language of Marcuse, it’s going to come by changing the way that people view their subjectivity.


Now let’s explain that a bit…subjectivity’s one of those words that’s easy for people to bring their own definitions to it…and it may cause some confusion. A bit of foreshadowing here, but when we eventually get to covering the second half of the 20th century on this show, what we’re going to see is a lot of philosophers focusing on this concept in philosophy called subjectivity. Or in other words, where do we get all the ideas we have up in our heads about ourselves, our place in the world and what is going on all around us in our version of reality? 


That’s a key distinction to make there…our version of reality…because as we’re all aware what a particular human being believes is going on all around them is not necessarily connected to what’s actually going on around them…we can see countless examples of this throughout history: If you lived two-thousand years ago as a Platonist you might have had an Essentialist perception of your world. The essence of what you are is that you are a rational animal…navigating the universe of Plato’s Timaeus the world made up of these tetrahedrons and octohedrons that are too small for you to see. 


Say you lived a little later in history you might have a subjectivity that was much more informed by religion…a little later than that maybe you’d be informed by idealism and some version of Kant. Flash forward in history from there and you could have a structuralist version of subjectivity…that in the same way…you know if you wanted to explain to someone what a free-throw was in a basketball game…for you to be able to explain to them what a free throw was, they would first have to have an understanding of tons of other things that are related to it, right?…what basketball is…of what a game is…of what sports are at all…but it goes the other way too…they’d also have to have an understanding of what a basketball is….what a hoop is…what the lines on the floor denote…but even then they’d have to have FURTHER more FUNDAMENTAL knowledge of measurement and distance to be able to understand the concept of 15 feet away from the backboard…this goes on indefinitely in both directions…to explain the concept of a free throw is really to just explain the relationships between a free throw and all of the concepts around it in a given system…the meaning of a free throw…IS the set of relationships it has to other things within a larger system. Well, what if our subjectivity is the same way? That everything about who you are and where you fit into the world is dictated by some system that you’re a part of? 


Now that’s not where this discussion of subjectivity ends…even beyond that there are post-structuralists that would say…that the very concept of subjectivity is something that we’ve imposed upon discourse…mostly just because it corresponds with language and the subject/object way that we speak about things…but also because of the practical benefits it provides, when we impose this illusion of subjectivity onto ourselves… now we can do all kinds of cool stuff…we can make truth claims based on a subjective position…now we can construct philosophical systems, tons of stuff…the point is: there are a lot of theories about subjectivity out there, and it’s crucial for us to understand how important this question is to the philosophers doing their work at this time. 


So in the case of Marcuse…the shifting of class consciousness is the shifting of people’s subjectivity. Where does the average american worker get their subjectivity? Where do they get their ideas about who they are…how they fit into the world…how America fits into the world and everything else? Well, after they graduate school, from the culture industry. Many people get their version of reality from distorted, oversimplified pictures of the world, that are really just products served up to workers to appease them after a long day at a job they don’t feel connected to. 


See that’s the thing…the culture industry is kind of like the world’s worst psycho-therapist. Like imagine you go in to therapy, you sit down, the person asks you how your week was and you say, gah it was horrible. Horrible. My boss still has it out for me. She’s jealous, she scared I’m gonna take her job and she persecutes me every day. It’s misery. Then I go home and my domestic life partner is just constantly annoying me…and what’s worse: they’re doing it on purpose, doctor! They’re slowly trying to make me slip into madness so that they can lock me away in an institution and get the life insurance money! What if when you said that to the therapist they replied back and said, wow. What a perfectly accurate depiction of what’s going on in your world! I mean, your life is horrible! 


No…that would be the worst therapist in the world. The therapists job among many other things is to help get you to see the black and white ways you are looking at the world and present you with alternative version of reality that may be more accurate. Well what does the culture industry do? REINFORCE the black and white ways you’re looking at the world and NOT present you with alternative versions of reality. The culture industry produces masses of people with this type of subjectivity. Masses of people that when they hear a more nuanced, deep discussion… an alternative view of the world they live in… they run in the other direction, exhausted and intimidated. Oh, I hear a lot of big words and smart people stuff…I don’t like that…I’m gonna go watch that storage TV show where they find the lost sarcophagus of Ramses the second in Cleveland somewhere.  


This is the reason why people like Marcuse are so concerned with art and aesthetics. Because the reality of the world we live in… is that Marcuse and one of his colleagues can sit around and have discussions all day long about this alternative picture of the average american’s subjectivity…but if the average american worker would rather jump off a building than have to do the work of challenging the way they see things…those words and ideas are effectively doing nothing when it comes to shifting class consciousness. What tools do we have that can get through to people? 


Well to Marcuse, one of the answers is art. Great works of art have the ability to deliver people a message that normal speech just can’t deliver on it’s own. Great works of art have the ability… to make people feel…and feel intensely…masses of people…not just people that happen to be a graduate student under Marcuse. Works of art have the ability to show the average person an alternative view of themselves, the way the world is, their subjectivity…and because of this…to Marcuse…works of art have the potential to be a tool for liberation. Liberation from the narrow subjectivity given to Americans by the culture industry. 


Marcuse says:


“The truth of art lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality to define what is real.”


The truth of art. See, in a way Marcuse’s looking at great works of art the same way WE might look at a great science experiment. What’s a great science experiment? Well they’re all equally great, I’m not playing favorites…but how about the ones that lead us to what seems like a more accurate picture of the universe? What happens? Formerly, before we did this science experiment, knowledge about a piece of the universe was obscured from us. Now it should be said, the result of this experiment has ALWAYS been the way that things are…I lived every day of my life up until that point ignorant of this little piece of the universe…and now here I am. A little more enlightened…my view of things around me a little more accurate thanks to this great science experiment. Well to Marcuse, works of art have the ability to do this very same thing at a cultural level. They can show people pieces of reality that were going on all around them that they never noticed before because they were immersed in it. Works of art have the ability to actually SHIFT a person’s subjectivity, and broaden it. 


Now if you think Marcuse’s gonna follow up with hey, everyone! Make a bunch of art that shows people how horrible Capitalism is! No, actually his scope is much larger than that…economics is not the only area art has the potential for liberation. See, Marcuse notices a problem in Marx…when Marx looks back at history and sees the exploited class of people in the varying economic systems, he mistakenly spends the majority of his work thinking about the domination and oppression of people, solely in terms of what economic role they play. 


Marcuse would want to point out, well we obviously know people have been oppressed based on other factors outside of what economic role they play. In the case of the United States specifically… on racial grounds, predominantly African Americans. Gender grounds, predominantly women. Grounds of sexual orientation, predominantly anything that isn’t heterosexual. Great works of art not only have the ability to show people a different perspective of the world they live in in terms of economics…they also have the ability to show people the struggle and reality of other groups that are repressed for different reasons. The potential for liberation, still there. 


For example, when NWA comes out with the song F the Police in 1988. That song is an opportunity for the average american immersed in their everyday life of work and consumption to see a piece of reality that they don’t necessarily have to see every day in 1988. To hear the pain and anger of a historically repressed group of people. Human beings living in these cordoned off neighborhoods looked at as the other, largely ignored by the governments that serve them, left to fend for themselves, and among all the other problems they have, they’re left to contend with the fact that if they ever have a reason to call the police, they can’t even trust them to enforce the law in a way that doesn’t discriminate against them. 


This song is an opportunity for the average American worker in 1988… to see a reality of the world around them that existed the whole time, but they were blocked from seeing it because of the narrow subjectivity the culture industry had given them. Just like with a great science experiment, this song has the potential to deliver to people a slightly more accurate picture of the world they live in, in other words: to change their subjectivity. 


Now you may hear that and think, well what happened? I mean everyone’s heard that song…and it doesn’t seem like it sparked some sort of national discussion and a shifting of class consciousness. Marcuse would probably say, don’t get me wrong. Art is not a panacea. Art may be a tool for liberation but it’s not a tool that’s as effective as a hammer at hammering in a nail. It’s kind of like using a screwdriver to hammer in a nail. It’s janky…and part of the reason why is because Capitalism is just SO resilient, and capable of absorbing any sort of potential liberation and turning it into a money making product for the masses to consume. 


Sure, that song has the potential to change the way people think about the relationship between police and minorities, but it also has the potential to become co-opted by Capitalism, turned into a hit song, played at the Super Bowl and then eventually the genre being filled with artists worshipping Capitalism constantly talking about what Lamborghini they’re going to buy next. How many people that hear that song hear the cries of historical oppression and how many say, oh man that’s a sick beat. Yeah, I have that song on my phone…anytime the cops pull me over and give me a ticket I blast that song…I get what Ice Cube’s talking about there! No liberation…it just becomes…a product in the consumers infinite landscape of products. 



See because as Marcuse would say, liberation always occurs dialectically. What he means by that is, that if art, in any way, ever, leads to the liberation of people…one of the problems you run in to is that it always needs to liberate people while being created and distributed within the current system of domination and the tools that are available. For example if you wanted to try to liberate people from Capitalism, you would need to operate within the system of Capitalism to do that. Same as if you wanted to liberate women, you would have to do so from within a world where women are oppressed and need to be liberated. But don’t take these two examples as a prescription from Marcuse, he’s making a larger point here about liberation in general. That the forces of domination always give rise to the forces of liberation. But one thing we should ALL understand and take EXTREMELY seriously…is that it goes the other way too…the forces of liberation always give rise to the new forces of domination in what appears to be a constant historical cycle that we’re locked in. Marcuse thinks it’s possible to bring about a world where the people being liberated don’t feel the need to dominate and oppress another group of people once they’re liberated. The goal shouldn’t be just taking turns repressing each other for the rest of time. That strategy is EQUALLY ignorant, outdated and from a bygone era of history. 


Marcuse would say, sure, art is far from perfect. But what better tool do we have within Capitalism to peacefully bring about this world and end this constant dialectic of oppressing each other? What other tools do we have for liberation? What the political system? Marcuse would say, uh, yeah…maybe at ONE point in this country’s history…maybe if this wasn’t AS advanced a version of monopoly capitalism. Good luck unless you have 8 trillion dollars and enough money to outspend all the companies that currently fund the campaigns of politicians in exchange for influence on legislation; no the revolutionary potential of politics has been corroded and disintegrated by Capitalism. 



Again, this is why art and aesthetics are so important to many members of the Frankfurt School, not just Marcuse. Because we’re living in an advanced version of monopoly capitalism that has defused and co-opted all of the liberating potential we USED to have…art is one of the only things we have left. 


Marcuse has a quote: 


“Art doesn’t change the world, but it may change the consciousness of people who CAN change the world.”


Now at first that may seem like an applause break point…art doesn’t change the world WE CHANGE IT! But it’s actually referencing something that isn’t immediately on the surface…something that goes hand in hand with his idea of The Great Refusal. 


So art all by itself, no matter how revolutionary and liberating it may be…doesn’t really do anything. I mean I’m serious if you look at it, it really doesn’t do anything…it’s this inert thing that just kind of hangs there on the museum wall until it decomposes and the sun explodes in 4 billion years. In other words, how revolutionary a piece of artwork is comes down not to the intentions of the artist, not how great of a person they are…but to the answer to the question: how many minds has this piece of artwork changed? To how many people has this piece of art delivered an alternative way of viewing the world that they’re receptive to and hadn’t thought of before? Marcuse would say that if the goal is a shifting of class consciousness….You can have the most revolutionary piece of art ever in terms of intent by the artist…but if it just hangs there and never inspires any change in people…what has that work of art really done to change things for the better?


What Marcuse’s getting at here is a distinction he makes repeatedly in his middle to late work…the difference between theory and praxis. The dictionary definition being actual practice, as distinguished from theory. So you can understand what he’s getting at. You know, theory…you can listen to these theories from the Frankfurt school all day long…replay this series over and over again. You can buy a bunch more books on these theories…you can dedicate you entire life to these theories about the Capitalist Totalitarian society Marcuse thinks we’re living in, but if you never change anything about the way that you live, if you never actually change anything about society for the better…what good were any of these theories just sitting up in your head? Just like the piece of art that just hangs on the wall…if nobody ever hears these ideas and takes action on them, what was the point?


Marcuse says that the point of theory SHOULD be to inform and direct praxis. Not to sit around in academic institutions theorizing about things until the end of time. Not just to understand the ideas we’ve talked about in this series, but to actually make The Great Refusal and live in opposition to affluent society. There’s a reason he refers to The Great Refusal as a form of radical subjectivity. There’s a reason he thinks of true art as a physical embodiment of radical subjectivity. Because you can have the best intentions in the world with your art, you can take to the streets and scream at people all you want, but if you’re not getting through to people, changing their minds, broadening their subjectivity…you might be mistaking movement with progress. 


Like we talked about, if any of this stuff the Frankfurt School says has any validity, it’s a natural human reaction to want to be angry and scream at people in the street… but if progress is defined by a shifting of class consciousness, and you can count on one hand the number of people whose subjectivity has been broadened by your screaming, Marcuse would say maybe it’s best to reexamine your strategy. 


No Marcuse’s not a fan of getting angry, screaming, being condescending towards these “dumb” people that just don’t realize the truth. To Marcuse, this isn’t the fault of the working class for going along with it. These are not evil people…these are people that should be treated with compassion…people who were born against their will…into a culture they had no control over…educated by teachers and programs that they had no ultimate say in…spat out into a alienated workforce that they didn’t sign off on. These aren’t people you should be mad at and blame, to Marcuse, they’re byproducts of historical forces that were out of their control. Why be pompous and condescending and call them dumb?


The path forward to Marcuse is not anger and blame…it is theory and praxis. Praxis would be misguided, out of control screaming in the streets if it didn’t have a good strategy and theory behind it, and theory without praxis would just be a bunch of people talking about things and never actually doing anything.  


The real trick to Marcuse is finding a balance between the two and being honest enough with yourself to take a true assessment of how much good you’re really doing. But that said… he and other members of the Frankfurt School… would want to point out that is much easier said than done. 


I mean, you’re not fighting against a sweet little, fluffy kitten here…you’re fighting against, monopoly Capitalism. This enemy is resilient. This enemy sees you coming and has dozens, hundreds of traps for you to fall into that silence radical subjectivity and transform you into somebody that just perpetuates the system. Living the Great Refusal, saying no to affluent society and that which is…Capitalism looks at you as a human being the same way it looks at a piece of artwork. What I mean is, again, a great piece of artwork is a physical embodiment of radical subjectivity… where sometimes the forces of Capitalism step in, take control over it, remove it’s potential for liberation and turn it into just a product. Well so too, if you’re living as an embodiment of radical subjectivity, Capitalism has ways of removing your potential for liberation… and turning YOU into someone who just keeps the status-quo going. 



See, truly living the great refusal… can sometimes take an enormous amount of sacrifice. The people who have made the choice to fight against the way that things are…many of them have uprooted their entire existence, these aren’t just ideas to them…they suffer and grind on a daily basis for the cause of liberation, many of them have even given their own life. We can do an episode on the Great Refusal once again I’m going to leave it up to the demand I receive, but the point I want to make is that there is a big difference between people that hear the ideas of the Frankfurt School, think they’re making good points and complain about how messed up the system is, and these people that are actually making The Great Refusal. It’s not the Good Refusal. Not the fair to midland refusal. These traps that Capitalism sets for you to fall into…they’re so alluring. When you’ve structured your life around and lived so long in work mode and consumption mode…such an easy trap to fall into is to hear these theories, get angry, feel indignant and self-righteous, and then spend the rest of your life screaming and chanting and pepper spraying your way to never changing a single person’s subjectivity. Such an easy trap…to have all the theories right, but the wrong kind of praxis. What’s ironic to Marcuse, because of the power of Capitalism…is how easy it is to know the theories of the Frankfurt School and become as complicit in the way that things are as the people you’re screaming at. 


When average american goes to their job, feel alienated, never question anything, and consume products by the culture industry that reinforce their idea that nothing is wrong with the United States, they will go on to change the subjectivity of a grand total of zero people. Doesn’t matter how right your theories are…if your method of praxis is not actually changing people’s minds…if it’s not finding a way to relate to your fellow people as a human beings and convey a message…if it’s only serving to scratch some personal itch you have of feeling like something drastic needs to change about the world…you’re not changing people’s subjectivity…you’re being selfish…all the while perpetuating the vice grip Capitalism has on the country, where in your own small way you ensure that people will continue to be polarized in this country, dogmatic about their beliefs, talking towards each other, talking past each other…but never talking with each other.   


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

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Episode 112 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #112 on The Frankfurt School. Check out the episode page HERE.

So let’s assume for a second that Marcuse’s right. That in a country where many of the citizens see freedom as the fundamental thing the United States embodies… in reality, the population’s actually living under an advanced version of monopoly capitalism, that has sort of metastasized and taken control of everything from art, to politics, to government, all of this amounting to what’s probably the most clever, insidious totalitarian system in history. Let’s say you’re living in that…how would you know that you were living in it? What sort of clues would you see around you if you did…would you even notice them? Or would you frame who you are so much in relation to that totalitarian system, that nothing would ever seem out of the ordinary to you?

Herbert Marcuse would probably say that if you want to figure out the answers to these questions…maybe it would be useful to put yourself in the shoes of a member of an overtly totalitarian society to see what’s similar. Let’s say 1930’s Nazi Germany for the sake of the example…what would it be like to be a citizen living under the Third Reich? Well one things for sure if you’re the government…for any of this Third Reich business to be going on for any length of time…one thing you’re going to need is approval from the population to continue doing the things you’re doing. Now in totalitarian societies…this is typically done by having some sort of propaganda machine in place that gets people thinking about their lives and their country’s place in the world in a distorted way…often times it gives them a piece of reality, a version of it…but it obscures other things so that they never get the full picture.

See that’s the thing about propaganda…there’s layers of nuance to it. Like, no one in 1930’s Germany was tied to a chair with a belt and forced to watch 1000 episodes of Sponge Bob Squarepants and then they came out the other side worshipping Hitler. No propaganda wouldn’t work if it was that obvious it was being administered. Part of the art, of propaganda… is getting people to believe that they arrived at this set of conclusions all by themselves. When you look at different examples of the great propaganda campaigns throughout history…you start to see certain tactics being used over and over again because they’re just so effective at shaping the way that people see the world.

Fear…is an effective tactic. Appealing to people’s tribal tendencies is effective…us vs. them thinking…Manufacturing false news stories or events that fit a particular narrative. Manipulating the way that a story is delivered, blowing certain details out of proportion that tells the story you want it to tell. These have been used time and time again, and in 1930’s Germany there was a handful of people whose job it was to use these tactics to ensure that the average German citizen remained a good foot soldier…had a view of Germany and the rest of the world that made them behave the way a GOOD German behaves. That was the goal of propaganda.

Marcuse would ask: when you take a look at the culture industry… and the role it plays in shaping the way that people see themselves and the world…by the way, the delivery system for most people on the American way of life…life imitates art…where selfless hard work is one of the most admired qualities, where every day is a transaction between work time and consumption time, where people chase the American dream which is defined by your relationship to materialistic stuff, two cars a house and a white picket fence…a fence that in a really aesthetically pleasing way keeps out other human beings, so that you can sit in your box being entertained in isolation…do you think it’s possible, Marcuse would ask, that the culture industry keeps people thinking in a narrow American capitalistic sort of way that keeps things moving forward, the same way Nazi Propaganda kept German citizens thinking in a narrow way that kept THEIR interests moving forward?

See because again, and I’m talking to you America, let’s say that we’re all these citizens immersed in a totalitarian society…what is the propaganda that gets fed to us every day? Where do most people get their views on what’s going on in the world and their place within it? Maybe you watch the news. Maybe you read a news paper…maybe it’s the radio or podcasts or a blog…regardless, the point is to Marcuse: they’re all products…products that are created to correspond with existing consumer demand. The news is not broadcasted by some diety or some philosopher king that just wants to deliver an objective view of what’s going on out there…no, the news is delivered the way it is…because it most effectively gets the eyeballs of the average American to come back the next day and watch commercials…which is not necessarily in ANY way connected to what’s actually going on.

Let’s brainstorm and design a product that delivers people the news…what kind of product is going to be profitable? What’s gonna make the average American worker tune in the next day? Well like we talked about on the culture industry episode…when your life from the cradle to the grave is to go to a job eight hours a day that sucks the life out of you…and then go home and consume products to feel better…understandably…the average American is not going to want to go home and do a grueling study of quantum mechanics in their free time…no, they’re going to want something easy to consume that entertains them. Well, so too…with where they get their news! That if you were creating a product that delivers the average person the news…one of the worst things you could do is to make a show that gets people to constantly challenge their beliefs…gets them to think about the assumptions they may have been making for decades, that’s a lot of thinking…that’s hard work. You wouldn’t want to make a show that goes into a really deep nuanced, for most people boring, investigation of any of these highly complex topics the news passes off as simple… no, that would be exhausting to listen to for most people. What most Americans want after an exhausting day at work is not to put in even more work in improving themselves. They want something easy. They want a product that tells them, you’re right. No more work to do here, you’ve got the world ALL figured out…and just like many propaganda campaigns throughout history this product then delivers to them a simplified, distorted view of reality that reinforces this world picture. Marcuse would say: that it’s not a coincidence these products created to deliver the news often times use the same sort of tactics to get people to tune in that have been used in propaganda campaigns throughout history!

We can go right down the line of the examples we gave: Fear. This just in! There have been 16 mountain lion attacks in your area in the last two weeks. Now, in the mind of the consumer: OMG, THANK YOU! Where would I be if I didn’t watch this news segment that told me of this imminent danger in my life? I’ll tell you where I’d be I’d be passing through the small intestine of a mountain lion right about now! I need to tune in tomorrow to learn about the NEXT thing I need to be scared of! Appealing to tribal tendencies: back in the 1930’s it was…here’s this group of people that’s responsible for most of the ills of society! If only we could find a way to get rid of them things would be great! Turn on your news station today and they’ll give you a tribe and talk about how the other party is responsible for all the bad in the world. Manufacturing false news stories…do I even need to expand on that one? Manipulating headlines and phrasing using words that they know will trigger a certain negative or positive response from people…this is being done, right out in the open. To Marcuse, these are products being sold to people that are designed to validate a limited world view…that scratch the itch of feeling politically involved, but never require people to do the actual work of challenging their beliefs on things and understanding the world at a deeper level.

In other words, the culture industry serves the same purpose as a propaganda machine in a totalitarian society…but there’s no evil cabal of fascists at the top that are pulling the puppet strings of this one. No, the people that produce the products in the culture industry aren’t evil…in reality…they’re just trying to keep the lights on like everybody else. They’re just trying to create a product…that turns a profit and keeps them in business…what can you do if this is just the type of programming that the average person wants?

So, what’s another example of a clue we might see around us if we were really living in a covert totalitarian society? You know, a common misconception of the Frankfurt School and many Neo-Marxists for that matter is that they are all big government types…that they want to bring about a world where the government has an inordinate amount of control over the life of the average person. On the contrary…there are sections of the Frankfurt School’s work that almost sound like a neo-conservative critique of FDR’s new deal. You want to talk about clues that are all around you…they would say it is not a coincidence that there has been such a massive increase in the size and scope of the Federal Government over the years. That people in capitalist societies are often educated to think about the public and private sectors as two things that are divorced, separate and regulating each other. That may be somewhat true in a traditional capitalist society, but in a monopoly capitalist society they’re just two arms on the giant leviathan of capitalism that controls everything. Giant bailouts and government programs that artificially prop up the weaknesses of a capitalist system that should have failed long ago. So what happens is: instead of having a national discussion about the boom and crash nature of capitalism and the suffering it causes…we just accept it as the norm…it’s unfortunate we’re in a down period…then use massive government encroachment into people’s lives to save ourselves…in the case of FDR, hey everybody’s got a job now! You’re all working for the government…forget your own personal freedom and individuality…we’re in an economic depression right now…times are tough! You need to fall in line, be THANKFUL for the job we give you and become a cog in a machine. Does that sound at all familiar to other forms of totalitarianism?

But there’s a lot of ways the Frankfurt School thinks the government props up capitalism from failing: Not that they think welfare checks are something to be abolished, but they would say that an unintended consequence of having them available to people is that it sort of sweeps under the rug another failure of capitalism. That Capitalism produces sick, alienated people. People get depressed. People get addicted to substances to cope with feeling bad. People develop mental illness. That if Capitalism just naturally ran its course…people would be dying and starving to death…we’d have bodies in the streets…and maybe if we had bodies in the streets people would be outraged and we’d have to contend with just how many of the problems we have are direct results of our economic system. Instead, we give people a check, keep them alive just dead inside…give them some pills and say you’re gonna start feeling better soon, the important thing now is let’s get you off the dole and get you back to working and buying stuff! That’s the important thing!

Marcuse would want us to consider: if you could go back in time and talk to a citizen of germany under the government of the Third Reich…these people weren’t just mindless robots blabbering on…if you asked them why Adolf Hitler was the best thing for them and the future of the world, they would have arguments primed and ready that they believe they arrived at on their own…talking points marinated into them over years of propaganda. Many of which designed to undercut a more nuanced conversation before it even begins. Marcuse would ask: is it possible that a lot of Americans are not too different from this just with different talking points that justify capitalism and undercut a deeper conversation?

Now in this next section I don’t want this to seem like I’m offering up a strawman argument on the Capitalist side and am making that the response to the Frankfurt School. There are many more great Capitalist responses to come on this show. But that said, in keeping with the thought experiment today that Americans are citizens of a totalitarian society…if the problem in America is one of class consciousness as the Frankfurt School says…then in that world, the argument the average person is going to give for why Capitalism is good and Marxism is bad…is not going to be some deep, complex argument that’s come from years of thoroughly educating themselves…it’s going to be a weak argument they’ve picked up over the years from these products they consume every day that give them the illusion of having a deep understanding of the world.

And just like in 1930’s Germany… where many of the talking points aimed to end a more nuanced conversation before it even began…Marcuse would say there’s a type of person in America who just dismisses all of Marxism and parrots some variation of, Marx…Neo-Marxists…post-Marxists…all of those Marxists types…their problem is that they just don’t understand THIS thing about the way that the world works…or THAT thing about how human beings are…if they just understood this thing like I do…then they’d realize that their entire lives were wasted trying to rescue Marx from faulty premises. Have I read any of these people…no. There’s no point in me reading and arriving at a deep understanding of their work…Marxism ruins any chance they have of being legitimate before I even open the book.

Marcuse would ask this person: what do you think is more likely? That 100’s of Marxist thinkers that have come since Marx did his work, many of them critical of Marx, some savagely critical, that spent their entire lives reading and interpreting these ideas…Do you think it’s more likely Marcuse would ask that they have all missed out on this nugget of wisdom that you have that instantly destroys Marxism, or that maybe it’s more complex than that. That maybe your unwillingness to do the work of doing a deep reading and truly understanding is the reason you haven’t heard the argument against that talking point…and that the reality is much more exciting than that…there’s actually a deeper, more interesting discourse being had between Capitalists and Marxists that you could potentially enjoy?

Let’s look at a common example of one of these and how Marcuse would respond in Eros and Civilization. The problem with Marxism…and any society structured around Marxism…is that it just doesn’t understand human nature. That we, just by our nature as human beings, take the path of least resistance. We’re as lazy as we’re allowed to be. This goes down to the very roots of our instinct to survive. For example, if you needed water to stay alive…and there’s a stream five feet away from you and another one 500 miles away from you…which stream are you going to get your water from? Of course the one five feet away. Sure, it would be great if we could have a society where everyone’s basic needs are taken care of and people just did what interested them…but it doesn’t matter how much window dressing you put on Marxism: ultimately we’re dealing with human beings here…and when people are given the choice to work or not to work. It’s just a matter of time until people stop working, don’t do anything and just take advantage of the people around them that ARE working.

Marcuse would want to call into question the premise that human nature is as simple as just “taking the path of least resistance.” He’d probably start by giving an example of how people often DON’T take the path of least resistance. Maybe he’d bring up someone like a Steve Jobs or an Elon Musk. These are people that very clearly aren’t doing just the bare minimum required to survive and then sitting around all day. These are people that are very clearly not putting in all the hours they’re putting in for the sake of money. These aren’t people that are extrinsically motivated by money, they’re people intrinsically motivated by a creative vision they have for changing the world for the better. So if it really is just human nature to take the path of least resistance, why do people like this exist?

And the person may respond to Marcuse..well those guys are the exceptions to the rule. These guys are the outliers on the Bell Curve…but let’s not forget about the rest of the Bell Curve. For every one Steve Jobs you have you’re going to get 10,000 people that want to laze about all day doing nothing taking advantage of the work Steve Jobs is putting in.

Marcuse might respond by saying: well why does this psychology exist in larger numbers just not by people as powerful as Steve Jobs or Elon Musk? What I mean is: what about everyone smiling and awkwardly high fiving on Shark Tank every week? I mean, there are a lot of people out there right now hustling and grinding trying to bring a new product to market, or make it as a musician, or start their own landscaping business or whatever it is and they’re doing these things not because they want to make tons of money but because they have a creative vision that they’re passionate about? I mean, some people DO create only for the money…and even if you’re not the money certainly needs to come in and Marcuse’s not calling into question the ability of money to motivate people…what he’s countering is the extreme claim that it is part of the nature of human beings to take the path of least resistance. Why do we have so many people resembling Steve Jobs and Elon Musk expending so much energy to create something they’re passionate about…why do we have so many people beyond that…where even if they aren’t actively hustling to create something right now…can relate to this part of their psychology…have at some point in their life tried something like this and just failed?

What Marcuse’s going to reference in Eros and Civilization is a concept from Freudian Psychology commonly referred to as the Dual Instinct Theory. For a lot of Freud’s work, he heavily emphasizes the impact that libido has on what drives our behavior, even if it’s just at an unconscious level. But in the beginning of his 1920 book Beyond the Pleasure Principle he recounts working with soldiers from WW1 that seem to be suffering from what we would call today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They have recurring dreams and thoughts reenacting how close they came to death. He works with children who lost a parent and continuously, almost impulsively throw a toy and then retrieve it over and over again simulating the loss of their parent. What Freud theorizes is that human behavior is not as simple as just a drive towards life and a removal of tension, that we all exist in our psychology in a constant, irreconciliable conflict between two drives: Eros, which you may recognize as the Greek god of sexual desire or attraction…and Thanatos, the figure in Greek mythology that represented death.

Now Eros may be the god of sexual desire and attraction, but to Marcuse it goes much deeper than that…that the desire to sexually reproduce with someone is at its core an act of creation…and this drive of Eros extends to, and is the part of our psychology that’s responsible for, why we have a drive to produce all other forms of creation. In other words, the same drive that is responsible for the frequent desire you feel to have a baby with someone you’re attracted to…is the same part of your psychology that makes you want to create OTHER close bonds with people…to put in the work to create deep friendships, to put in the work to create a family life in your home that is close and loving, to put in the work of creating a close community…that’s not all though…it’s also the part of your psychology that makes you want to create, a great symphony that lives on after your death, or create a company that you pass down over generations, or start a blog that’s impact lives on long after you die. This drive of Eros is a fixation we all have on life, survival and creation both on an individual level AND a societal level…Thanatos is a fixation we all have on death, at an individual and societal level. To Freud, the two of these are in constant conflict and are irreconcilable. Marcuse doesn’t agree…he thinks one thing Freud failed to consider is that Eros and Thanatos are always developed in the mind of the individual within a particular social framework…a social framework that has a huge effect on how we see ourselves and what we desire to do as people…and that the battle between these two drives is actually something that has been created historically by us for the benefit of society.

Let’s explain that further…building on what we talked about last episode: throughout history…the repression of certain human instincts has been necessary for civilization to function well. Throughout history, we’ve always needed people 8, 9, 10 hours a day working just to be able to produce the bare minimum required for most people to have food, water, shelter and other basic needs. Another way of putting that…is that throughout history…all of the creative drives that people had in the realm of Eros, needed to be repressed for the sake of the world continuing.

Look, when we need people working 10 hours a day just to be able to persist as a species, we don’t have time for people to spend all day being some kind of sexual explorer like they’re Vasco Da Gama. We don’t have time for you to spend hours and hours every day connecting with people, creating tons of super close friends, spending 14 hours a day with your family just because you enjoy it. We don’t have time for you to sit around and write a symphony or create some blog that interests you…we got work to do…and it doesn’t matter how often you have that desire towards creation and life…you need to push it down…repress it…and fall into your role within the economic system of your time. This benefitted us tremendously throughout history.

Well in today’s world…we’re still doing it. For our society to keep moving at the rate it’s moving we need the majority of people to go to work 8 hours a day…all the while from birth told to be reasonable, get a real job and push down and repress that drive of Eros that’s gonna take up too much of your time. Marcuse would ask: why are we doing this? The argument we talked about last time was that we need to repress certain human instincts and freedom for the sake of the benefit it provides to society. Well in the past the benefit has been clear: we are repressing the Eros of people so that we can provide the bare necessities of living. What benefit are we getting from repressing that today? A hedonic treadmill of products that satisfy false needs? The ability to get the next plasma TV? To get the next car in a more efficient manner than it would otherwise get created? Marcuse would ask about the United States in particular: What? The ability to buy stuff…throw it away two months later where it ends up in the ocean…and then continue to suck the earth dry of resources? Colonize the globe with hundreds of military bases so we can make sure we have control over those resources when we need them to continue this process?

To the person that makes the claim that it is just human nature to take the path of least resistance… and that when given the choice to work or to sit around and just consume all the time, people are often going to sit around, do nothing and consume… Marcuse would ask: how much do you think that’s affected by the fact that people are conditioned from birth to think of themselves in terms of work mode vs consumption mode? How much do you think people are affected by the fact, that before they even enter the workforce…whenever that Eros voice in their head starts speaking they’re told to silence it and repress it because we just NEED workers…we NEED workers to continue this capitalist vision? In other words, how much are we programming into people’s heads this forced work vs consumption dichotomy that you call a part of human nature?

Like if you gave the average worker in the United States $100 million dollars and said you no longer need to work anymore. Do whatever you want. You’re free! Let’s say they won the lottery. Marcuse wouldn’t be surprised that the average person probably wouldn’t take that $100 million dollars and do things with it like they’re Elon Musk…no, every day of their life up until that point has been framed in terms of I work when I have to work…and when I’m not working…I’m consuming as much as I can to recharge my batteries because I know in the back of my mind have to go back to work the next day. These are my two modes: work and consume. Marcuse wouldn’t be shocked that if they’re given $100 million and don’t need to work anymore…they would go into consumption mode…buy a bunch of cars they don’t need, clothes they don’t need, give their brother 80 grand to open his vape store…in other words, they’re gonna do what they did any other time they didn’t have to work in a capitalist society…sit around, do nothing productive and consume stuff until the money’s gone and they have to work again. But is this human nature? Or historical conditioning to keep Capitalism going?

Marcuse would say maybe the reason there’s such a difference between what Elon Musk feels like doing with $100 million dollars and what the average person feels like doing with it comes down to the level of repression society has required for them to place on that desire to create in their Eros. What would the average person be like if instead of repressing Eros from birth…we nurtured it and tried to develop it? Not that everyone would be Elon Musk, far from it, but you’d have to acknowledge that this repression has a real effect on how often this muscle of creativity is used in the average person. We all know the people that if they were given $100 million dollars and someone asked them what sort of creative desires do you have? What’s your Eros? What needs to be said that isn’t being said, what do you want to bring into existence with this money? And they respond with…nothing. Nothing really interests me…don’t really care about creating anything. How much of that can be explained by them silencing that voice inside of them every time its spoken up throughout their life? It’s a muscle that’s atrophied for the sake of an economic role they play, not a lazy consumption mode that is imbued into human nature.

What would happen if we didn’t ground our society in this repression of these creative drives just so that we can keep making plasma TVs? What if it wasn’t about efficiency at all costs anymore? What if we had a simulation… picture a simulated world where we could change certain elements about society and watch it play out…instead of 40 hours a week, we slowly dial back the work week to a point where machines did the majority of the work, people only had to work two hours a week and spent the rest of the time doing what they want and exploring this Eros part of their psychology. What would that society look like? What would the average person BE like?

Now, there’s a reason we’re doing this in a simulation and not in the real world. Like if you’re rolling your eyes at this…Really Marcuse? oh boy! the whole world’s gonna go home early from work on friday and write symphonies together! Do some finger painting. That’s what you think people are going to do with their free time?

Marcuse fully realized that the solution is not as simple as us just dialing back the number of hours people work and saying, “You’re free!” “Check out that Eros thing I was talking about if you get a chance!” Like we talked about in another episode…Marcuse says that you never just implement by force some sort of sweeping change like this…that everything about the way an average worker views themselves is in terms of being a worker and consumer. The absolute worst thing you could ever do is throw out Capitalism today and implement Marxism tomorrow. He’s actually highly critical of people that try to force a Marxist revolution… in a country that’s not currently in a state of revolution or pre-revolution. To him, that’s one of the big mistakes Marxist revolutions have made in the past. You can’t just take people that have repressed this Eros their entire life… and expect them to be able to do some sort of psychological about-face just because you’ve given them a new economic role to play.

Marcuse’s not saying that we should all work as little as possible and spend more time doing arts and crafts with friends and the world’s going to fix itself. No, it’s more that, here’s an interesting point: Here’s an entire part of our psychology as human beings that all throughout history we’ve had to repress for the sake of survival that we no longer NECESSARILY need to repress. What would the world look like if we didn’t? How much suffering is being caused world wide every second that we don’t? Are there particular genders and races that have been historically repressed for the sake of society more than others? Marcuse asks us to consider a lot of questions. Should we ignore the negative effects Capitalism has on the mental health of people through its tendency to alienate? Should we ignore the negative effects it has on the planet with its over production and waste that just ends up at a landfill? Should we ignore how the culture industry naturally serves up products that keep people ignorant and complacent about their views on things? Here’s the most important question to Marcuse: Do we have a moral imperative to stand against the systems that dominate and repress people to keep Capitalism going on the backs of billions of people suffering? This is why Marcuse titles another one of his books One Dimensional Man: this advanced, totalitarian capitalist structure is maintaining a one-dimensional society…one that “conforms to existing thought and behavior and lacks a critical dimension and a dimension of potentialities that transcend the existing society.”

See because if we were all in a totalitarian society right now and everybody wanted to get out…Marcuse would say the way out of it is never going to be a revolution by way of force…it’s most likely gonna come slowly over the course of generations through a shifting of class consciousness. This shift, to Marcuse, is only going to happen if the citizens, as individuals, look in the mirror, become self aware of their participation in the way that things are and makes a resolution towards an extreme type of radical subjectivity against the current system that represses people. He calls this resolution that he thinks we all have to make, “The Great Refusal”. or as he puts it briefly: “the protest against that which is.” Doug Kellner describes it like this:

“Marcuse, on the other hand, constantly advocated the “Great Refusal” as the proper political response to any form of irrational repression, and indeed this seems to be at least the starting point for political activism in the contemporary era: refusal of all forms of oppression and domination, relentless criticism of all policies that impact negatively on working people and progressive social programs, and militant opposition to any and all acts of aggression against Third World countries. Indeed, in an era of “positive thinking,” conformity, and Yuppies who “go for it,” it seems that Marcuse’s emphasis on negative thinking, refusal, and opposition provides at least a starting point and part of a renewal of radical politics in the contemporary era.”

Now this leaves the individual with a bit of a problem, and it’s not a trivial problem. Lets say I want to do what I can to ensure that people aren’t being needlessly repressed in today’s world because of thinking from another time in history. This leaves you in a bit of a weird spot. Because any change you want to make to the current system and way that things are…has to be brought about using the tools from within the current system and the way that things are. For example, say you wanted to do something about money being connected to political power. The problem is that the people who would have to pass legislation to fix the problem of money in politics, are the very people who benefit from there being money in politics. Or lets say you wanted to change the mind of the average worker and show them the propaganda that the culture industry feeds them every day…you would have to use the tools of the culture industry to subvert the culture industry. This goes down to even the most fundamental level…even the language and the syntax and examples you use have to come from this existing one-dimensional society that doesn’t see itself that way.

Marcuse acknowledges that the change can be gradual at times, but that certain catalysts for change emerge historically and the goal should be to take advantage of them as much as possible…the student revolts of the 1960’s and the women’s liberation movement were two during his lifetime that he really tried to help realize the potential of.

The personal commitment to The Great Refusal and the use of Art as a weapon of revolution to show people an alternative way that the world can be are two of the main tools Marcuse suggests people use to slowly make a shift in the way that Americans and others view themselves. And this leaves me at a bit of an impasse with the Frankfurt School. Do you want to hear more about them? Do you want to move on? I’m leaving it up to you people.

So if you have a few seconds in the next couple days send me an email, facebook, on twitter I’m @iamstephenwest let me know how you’re feeling. Just want to make sure I’m doing shows most of the audience is excited to hear. But given the fact that this may be the last episode we do on the Frankfurt School, I want to end today with a quote that has stuck with me over the years from Marcuse and it has nothing to do with the political point its making…for me I think about this quote whenever I catch myself having any sort of strong aversion to a particular set of ideas. Gets me thinking: maybe the ideas that I’m most hostile towards can tell me something really important about myself.

It is the most advanced industrial society which feels most directly threatened by the rebellion, because it is here that the social necessity of repression and alienation, of servitude and heteronomy is most transparently unnecessary, and unproductive in terms of human progress. Therefore the cruelty and violence mobilized in the struggle against the threat, therefore the monotonous regularity with which the people are made familiar with, and accustomed to inhuman attitudes and behavior-to wholesale killing as patriotic act.

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

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Episode 111 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #111 on The Frankfurt School. Check out the episode page HERE.

So it’s taken me a while to figure out exactly where I want to go with the rest of the Frankfurt School series. You know, distilling the work of one thinker down into a few episodes is impossible enough, when you have a whole group of people it becomes exponentially more difficult…but I think I found a way and I want to start the show today by talking about a Capitalist response to all this…it’s a response that over the years talking to people seems to be a common rebuttal from people who hear everything the Frankfurt School has said so far, but still believe that Capitalism is the best way to be doing things. It’s kind of a nuanced way of being a proponent of Capitalism and it goes like this: What if everything the Frankfurt School has said about Capitalism…is true? What if they’re right? What if from birth I have been programmed to think of myself as fundamentally a worker and consumer. I go to a job that sucks the life out of me, I buy things to make me feel better. What if I’m not close to the other human beings around me, what if I’m among the most alienated people that has ever lived? And what IF money is intrinsically connected to political power and what I have is a choice between two people peddling the status quo?


Let’s use your word, Frankfurt School, let’s say that I’m a member of an “exploited” class of people…just like a slave in a slave based economy, just like a peasant in the feudal system, I am exploited. Ok. Well pardon me if I’m nitpicking here…but isn’t it not very useful for you to use the word “exploited” interchangeably there? As though the life of a peasant in the feudal system…and my life in a modern capitalist society…well, exploited…pretty much the same thing. No, you’d have to acknowledge if you’re being intellectually honest that there are huge differences between those two states of affairs. In terms of almost every metric you could use to measure it…my life is massively better than the life of a peasant in the 1300’s. It just is. You can label us both exploited…but just as a preliminary argument… I want to point out that things have at least been moving in the right direction since the 1300s…ok, now, consider that positive trajectory, and now ALSO consider for a second the fact, that when Marx looks back at history… and sees that every economic system that has functioned well for any length of time has this ruling vs. exploited class dynamic about it…maybe there’s a good reason for that!


That as you, the thinkers of the Frankfurt School have aptly pointed out, harnessing control over nature is fundamentally what we’re trying to do when we construct systems using enlightenment style thinking. Look, nobody out there is TOTALLY free. Nobody just does whatever they want to do all the time…to be a human being is necessarily to be repressed in certain ways. We used to be viciously repressed by nature famine, dehydration, disease, extreme cold or heat…that’s what life used to be for us and we got tired of it…that’s why, right around the 17th century we doubled down and got very serious about figuring out a way to control nature and be repressed a little more on our terms. What a coincidence…these people would say…that in the exact same span of time since we started doing this… there’s been this massive increase in terms of the quality of life of the average person born into a western culture! Harnessing control over nature is what we’re trying to do here…and yes…the volatility of totally unregulated human behavior is as much a part of nature as a hurricane is…and it benefits everyone to protect against it.


What I’m saying is, these political and economic and ethical systems that we’ve set up over the last few hundred years…have been forged in the fires of controlling nature and along with it, controlling human behavior…and that maybe the ONLY way these systems work well, the reason Marx sees it in every successful economic system in history…is that the recipe for making these systems function requires this regulating influence over people’s behavior. You know, it would be great in a perfect world if we could have a society where everybody just wakes up and does whatever interests them each day, that would be amazing.


But what if the only way we can ever experience the benefits of an advanced economic system…is if the average person out there…has a clear role within that economic system that they fall into at birth? What if when you take into account certain aspects of individual human psychology, which Marx did not, what if the average person just needs to be coerced into a role that they play or else we run the risk of things being too directionless? Or people not doing anything at all?


You can call filling this role “exploitation” if you want…you can call it “repression” of human freedom, but what if our goal shouldn’t be to remove this exploitation altogether, the system can’t function without it…what if INSTEAD our goal should be to strive to make the life of the average “exploited” person so prosperous, so abundant, so free in terms of the options available to them…that only a maniac would feel like they were actually being exploited. This is what Capitalism does and continues to strive towards better than any other system devised in history..and what if limiting your freedom slightly and becoming a worker and consumer is the price of admission for experiencing all the benefits that come along with being a member of an advanced economic system?


Sigmund Freud made an argument very similar to this but not just at an economic level…he took it even further to the foundations of civilization itself. He writes about it in his book, “Civilization and its Discontents” and it puts the members of the Frankfurt School in a bit of a precarious situation during their time. On one hand…as you remember: their entire project of critiquing western culture is centered around looking at society through a different lens… which includes, among other things, Freudian Psychoanalysis. They’re huge fans of Freud. But on the other hand, here’s Freud making a claim that seems to justify domination and control over human behavior as an unavoidable and necessary part of society. Herbert Marcuse, who we talked about on another episode of this series writes what he considers the most important work of his life in response to Freud titled “Eros and Civilization”. What I want to do is talk about where Marcuse thinks Freud is coming from with his argument.


What I don’t want to get too hung up on here are all the complex innerworkings of Freudian Psychoanalysis. Not only because it’s been done so many times before…not only because they aren’t necessary to understand Marcuse’s goals in Eros and Civilization, but also just because interpreting Freud’s work is a notoriously complex and polarizing thing to do…I mean there are people out there that practically worship at the guy’s altar…there are other people that think he was so off-base he shouldn’t even be taught in schools. That’s not my determination to make, and I think it just is going to distract from the point of this episode to talk about it…but the good news is, the general point Freud is making is his book Civilization and its Discontents doesn’t require us to understand all the controversy surrounding his work.


The absolute basic point that’s important for us to understand this particular work…is that to Freud…part of being a human being is that we have certain instinctual drives that affect our behavior…sort of like a motor that’s constantly running that makes us want to do certain things…but that in actual reality, nobody ever acts on these instincts 100% of the time…that there’s another part of our psychology that has the ability to step in and say no, I may want to do this right now, but what’s best for me in the long run is to NOT act on this instinct in this moment.


Not that it’s a perfect comparison, because as I said what Freud is talking about is much more complex than this, but because this is a philosophy podcast maybe it would be useful to reference something we’ve seen in ethics since Plato and Aristotle. The idea of reason vs. the passions, right? Some variation of the idea that we have certain passions that drive our feelings about things…you want to eat a gallon of ice cream for dinner…you want to gamble away your life savings…you want to throw a temper tantrum in public and beat somebody with a stick, whatever it is…point is, these passions could take over all of our behavior if we aren’t vigilant… and that part of being a human being is using this capacity to reason to subordinate the passions. To make a decision not based on what you immediately feel like doing in this moment, but to think ahead, repress those urges to act irresponsibly and ultimately do what’s best for you in the long run.


To many of the thinkers in the early stages of western philosophy…this is what it is to be a human being: we are at our very essence rational animals. We have these animalistic, primal desires that we could act on constantly…but the only thing that separates you from all the other animals out there is that you have a choice… you can use your ability to reason and choose to NOT act on instinct. The wiser of a person you are…the BETTER of a human being you are in many cases to them…is directly connected to your ability to subordinate these passions to your rationality.


Now just think about what that’s implying for a second. Somebody that never uses their capacity to reason and just acts on instincts 100% of the time essentially isn’t even granted the status of “human”. I mean if what we are at our core are rational animals and you take away the rationality part of that equation what are you left with? You’re just an animal. This oversimplification of human psychology and how it works would go on to influence a lot of western philosophers…and don’t forget this sort of rite of passage towards being considered a human being, Marcuse’s going to bring it up later.


Freud would ask the question though, what is it that we’re talking about when we reference this ethereal thing we call civilization? I mean, we say it all the time…civilization…but what does it mean to be a human being participating in this game of civilization at all? Freud thinks that what it is at its very foundation…is a group of human beings coming together, a group that’s obviously aware of all the benefits that come along with working in coalition with other people, but they also understand how fragile something like that can be…and so to safeguard against that possibility of societal collapse… they collectively agree upon a set of cultural rules and norms… that repress certain instinctual human behaviors that would otherwise be destructive to society as a whole. In other words: what cultural norms and social taboos are when it comes down to it…are the rules a given society puts in place to repress default human behavior for the sake of the benefit to society it provides, for example.


Let’s say you lived out in the middle of the woods by yourself for your entire life…when you get a cold and you have to cough or sneeze…you’d probably just cough or sneeze the same way a walrus at the zoo coughs or sneezes…you’d sneeze with impunity, you know? But when you’re a member of a civilization…you can’t just go down to the grocery store and sneeze in someone’s face…no, we get mad at that person and tell them to cover their mouth…and why do we do that? Because it benefits society as a whole to not have a bunch of germs and disease flying around.


Let’s say you were a bear living next to Yellowstone National Park…and for your whole life you never really needed to hunt for food, whenever you were hungry you could go down to the trashcans and eat whatever the humans left behind that day. You’re probably not going to get much resistance from your bear compadres for taking advantage of this resource that’s available to you. But on the other hand if you’re a member of a civilization taking advantage of all the benefits…and you’re a 47 year old man that lives in your sister’s basement that has never worked a day in his life…cultural norms label you as a pariah because we need people being productive and participating for society to continue functioning well.


There are endless examples of this as you can imagine…and the point Freud is making here: is that the structure of civilization becomes a direct mirror of what is going on within individual human psychology. That in the same way I may want to eat a gallon of ice cream for dinner every night, but this other aspect of my psychology steps in and governs that drive for the good of my long term survival…so too there are instinctual ways human beings could behave that would be detrimental to society, so we erect these rules and taboos to repress human behavior and keep society functioning well. The bigger point Freud wants to make here is that this is not just some coincidence…this is WHAT a civilization is. The very concept of civilization REQUIRES the repression of unregulated human behavior. The price of admission for experiencing all the benefits of civilization is to play by the rules of certain cultural norms.


Marcuse would mostly agree with all this. He would agree that civilizations, especially in the past, have required a certain amount of repression to be able to function well…the question we should be asking ourselves is how much of this repression is necessary? Also, is all repression just garden variety repression…no distinction when it comes to the severity of it…it’s just a necessary part of civilization? See the thing Marcuse points out about cultural norms…is that there’s no grand arbiter that oversees where these rules begin and end. These cultural norms that we live by just sort of emerge historically…the same way it is today…what made something culturally taboo back in the 1700’s was only dictated by whether it helped society function well, not necessarily what’s ethical. So what naturally follows from that…is that if the society you’re a part of in the 1700’s is an agricultural slave based culture…there’s not going to be a social taboo for being someone that owns slaves…nobody’s going to get mad at you for owning slaves like they get mad at the person that sneezes in their face…no, on the contrary…the ownership of slaves is part of what allows the economy to function well in that society. Marcuse would ask: do you think there’s anything that allows our economy to function well that is equally as unethical?


Because just because it wasn’t a cultural taboo at the time, does that make slavery okay? No. Was slavery ever ok despite the fact there was a time when nobody thought anything of it? No. The thing Marcuse would want us to ask ourselves…is how many of the cultural norms that you’re participating in today… in 200 years are going to be seen as equally barbaric…because here’s the thing: you’re currently participating in a LOT of them. No matter how ethical or socially progressive you think you are…the fact is everything about the way that you think about things COMES from this culture that you’re a part of or the cultures you have access to. That you can’t HELP but be an instantiation of the culture you were born into…and that even if you are totally against EVERYTHING your culture stands for…who you are is still defined by your opposition to…that culture. This is bordering on an idea that was pretty popular among thinkers in the mid 20th century called structuralism, and we’re going to be talking about it soon on this show.


What Marcuse points out…is that because there is no grand arbiter determining cultural norms…and that because cultural norms and enlightenment style thinking by their very nature are in the business of repressing human freedom and behavior…yes for the benefit of society, but still in that business…it becomes incredibly easy to wake up in a society that engages in things like slavery, but never thinks twice about them because they’re culturally accepted. More than that…again, because there’s no arbiter of these things…it’s easy to find yourself living in a society that represses things that people want to do…that 200 years ago, certainly benefitted society…but only serve to needlessly repress people in today’s world.


See the Frankfurt School is not saying that we should do away with cultural norms or do away with Enlightenment style thinking just because they aim to control nature and human behavior. No, the lives we live are without question way better than the peasant in the Feudal system mostly BECAUSE of enlightenment style thinking, we can’t get rid of that. What they’re calling for is us to be more self aware of the natural destination we arrive at when we use reason to harness control over nature: the repression of human freedom.


What I’ve called enlightenment style thinking so far the Frankfurt School calls Traditional Theory. The maxim that everyone in academia repeats ad naseum is that traditional theory aims to understand and control…critical theory aims to liberate. What they mean is Traditional Theory is the type of thinking we’re doing when we harness control over nature…now because we know that that’s naturally going to lead to the repression of human freedom…to safeguard against what has happened time and time again all throughout history, we need to have some different kind of theory thats sole purpose is to identify this repression that naturally occurs…and catch it before it turns into something like slavery. They call this theory: critical theory. In other words: Traditional theory aims to understand and control, that’s a good thing…Critical theory aims to liberate people from the necessary effects of us controlling nature and making the world a better place.


So again, Marcuse acknowledges that a certain amount of repression of freedom is necessary for a society to function properly…the question is: how much repression is too much, and is it wise to have certain major pieces of a society like its economy FOUNDED on extreme repression to the point it doesn’t function without it? Marcuse thinks the only way to determine what repression is necessary…and what repression is just historical baggage we’re carrying around from a bygone age, is we have to constantly reevaluate our cultural norms and figure out which ones are still helping us, and which ones just repress people for no reason.


Marcuse writes this book in the 1950’s United States. One example of a cultural taboo he thinks is outdated and only serves to repress people is the way that our culture viewed sexuality back then. He’d probably start by saying: look back at the history of the world…what is a cultural taboo that exists pretty ubiquitously across most cultures in the history of civilization? Generally speaking…it is not okay for you to have indiscriminate, wanton sex with whoever you want all the time. That’s pretty much across the board with few exceptions…now why do people typically have this rule? Well, historically speaking: monogamous, stable relationships benefit society when we’re not in a tribal setting. When society is structured in a way where it’s one family, under one roof, raising children together…generally speaking a bunch of people going around having babies with people they have no intention of raising the child with is a recipe for disaster.


This is an example of one of those areas where human instinct needs to be repressed for the sake of society functioning well. Now, keep in mind…it’s not like people can just easily flip the switch and turn instincts off…this repression goes on within the minds of people and often causes a lot of inner turmoil. Just think about that: all throughout history, we’ve had people that have had these instinctual desires of wanting to be more promiscuous, and the culture’s that they were born into have told them… that they are wrong for having those feelings. That BAD people have those feelings. Sub-human, flawed people have those feelings in some cases. Not only should you be ASHAMED for having these feelings…but you’re not gonna talk about it…and you need to live every day of your life pretending as though these thoughts aren’t going on inside of your head. I mean, just think about that…BILLIONS of people throughout history for their entire lives feeling guilty about some urge that they can’t control.


Now, Marcuse would say: historically speaking…this cultural taboo has helped us tremendously. The question we have to ask ourselves is: is it STILL helping us in 1955 in the United States? Marcuse would say, no. It doesn’t. The reality of the world that we live in now, is that technology has advanced to the point to produce many different kinds of birth control that make having a baby with someone practically impossible. In other words: advancements in technology have produced essentially a different world…it’s a world where heterosexuals don’t need to repress this part of themselves and live these lives of quiet desperation anymore. Unfortunately for others it would take more than technology for culture to legitimize their internal clash with the social norms of the time they’re living…Foucault’s coming, but this is a great example of critical theory in action: here’s a cultural taboo that was put in place at one point in time when it helped society… that in the 1950’s United States was leading to a lot of needless repression. Look to the sexual liberation movement of the 1960’s to see the direct effects of this…and this is just one example: Marcuse would say that we have a moral obligation to constantly scrutinize these cultural norms or else we run the risk of living in a much more repressive society than we need to be.


Now maybe you can see where Marcuse’s going with this. So if technology has produced a world where people no longer need to be as puritanical when it comes to their sexuality, what’s another area technology has allowed for people to not need to be needlessly repressed? You know, a common response I’ve gotten to the last few episodes is, well maybe we are workers and consumers…but we don’t seem too far away from some sort of technological singularity where AIs and machines just do all the work for us, while the life of the average person is to stay at home, receive some sort universal basic income and take advantage of all their new free time. Marcuse would respond to that and say, hey…that’s a GREAT idea! Let’s do it now! Let’s do it. We COULD do it right now…I mean, if we were willing to take our foot off the gas of hyper technological progress and efficiency, we could have a world where 99.9% of the work is done by machines. Why don’t we do it, though?


Marcuse says that throughout history it has been necessary for people to work to be able to sustain a living. The reality was that if everyone DIDN’T put in 40, 50, 60 hours a week, society would cease to produce what was necessary for everyone to survive. But that’s not the world we live in anymore…industry and technology have produced machines…that theoretically if everybody wanted to tomorrow…could produce all that we need to survive and people wouldn’t have to work. See it used to be that we go to work to provide the things we need…now we go to work to buy things that we’re told we need. I gotta work the overtime shift so I can buy that car so that the girl on the commercial will like me and I can start that family and not be so empty inside. I need to go to work so I can make the payments on that phone so that I too can become the type of person on the commercial that uses the 8000 megapixel camera to take pictures of those close friends I don’t have. This manufacturing of false needs is designed to keep people going back to work for forty hours a week chasing a ghost.


See Marcuse would hear the capitalist argument at the beginning of the episode and say, ok…let’s say that repression is necessary for society to function. Let’s say that to experience the benefits of an advanced economic society, people need to fall into this role of worker and consumer at birth. Again, some repression may be necessary…the question is: how much repression is necessary? In this case: how much work is necessary before they’ve earned the right to the benefits of Capitalism? How much work? Is it 40 hours a week? Where did that number come from? Why not 39 hours a week…is that enough? Why not five hours a week? Like if you went down to the factory and talked to the person breaking their back doing 40 hours of manual labor, would they say something like…oh yeah, I know we could be having machines doing all of this and that I could have a lot more free time…but I’m personally just a HUGE fan of hyper technological progress, so I’m willing to sacrifice my body to see what’s coming up! That’s no where even NEAR how they think about their job. When was the last time a political candidate ran on the platform of: I’m going to slow down the rate of growth of our economy so that the average person can be happier! You mean you’re not going to GROW the economy? You’d be laughed out of the primaries effectively silencing this political alternative even if possibly it might be better for people, this whole process not unlike, Marcuse would say, a Totalitarian society.


You know as I touched on before…when Marcuse says that we live in what greatly resembles a Totalitarian society…it’s really easy to write him off as being dramatic because I know what a REAL totalitarian society looks like. North Korea…that’s Totalitarian. 1930s Germany…that’s Totalitarian. Marcuse would say, absolutely…you are NOT living under a North Korean style of Totalitarianism. Because at least in that society a military coup and a public uprising has a shot. What you’re living under is the most insidious, self-perpetuating, genius totalitarianism that has ever existed. For all intents and purposes…you don’t live in a capitalist system as described by Adam Smith in the wealth of nations, I mean it loosely resembles it. You don’t live in the same kind of society that Marx offered criticisms of in the 1800s. Capitalism in the west has turned into what may as well be a completely different economic system…one where any voice of opposition to the way that things currently are becomes coopted by the system and used as a money making endeavor that keeps things going. Where even the books that directly criticize Capitalism with the faces of Marx and Engels on the cover become just mere products that are vetted and endorsed by the Capitalist system in the eyes of the consumer. Where even the most revolutionary person among us who hates the way that things are…buys all those books on Marxism, memorizes the arguments, forced to continue going to their job everyday in a constant state of self-loathing, looking around them at the naive people that just buy products like cars and trucks to make themselves feel just good enough to go back to work again the next day…that even to that person…those books are the products that they buy that pacify them. Buying those books allows them to FEEL as though they’re counter-culture and revolutionary…appeasing them just enough to go back to their job the next day feeling intellectually superior, not ever doing anything about it. We’re not living in the age of Capitalism anymore…we’re living in the age of Monopoly Capitalism. Marcuse thinks there’s a way out. We’ll talk about it next time on the show.


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

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Episode 110 – Transcript

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Adorno says: 


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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Episode 109 – Transcript

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

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

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

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

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Episode 108 – Transcript

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

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

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Episode 106 – Transcript

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

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

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

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Episode 105 – Transcript

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Episode 104 – Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Police talking to you:

Sir, what happened here?

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

Police talking to you again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Episode 103 – Transcript

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

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

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

Sartre goes on:

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

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

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

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

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