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Episode 104 – Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Police talking to you:

Sir, what happened here?

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

Police talking to you again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Episode 103 – Transcript

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

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

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

Sartre goes on:

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

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

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

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

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

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Episode 102 – Transcript

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Episode 101 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #101 on Martin Heidegger. Check out the episode page HERE.

So just like last episode, I want to begin today all the way back in antiquity. Back in the days when it all began…the days when Heidegger thinks so many of these wrong ways of looking at…the world…and our existence and so many other things…this is back when the seeds were planted for all of those ideas that eventually got us so far off track.
Now let’s assume for a second… that Heidegger’s right… and that philosophers have been making massive assumptions from the very beginning that have been clouding our ability to see existence clearly…you know…shame on you Descartes…but should we really be shaming Descartes? Should that be our attitude? Looking back, can we really be so disappointed with these thinkers and the conclusions that they arrived at?
Quick thought experiment: put yourself in the open-toed sandals of somebody living all the way back in antiquity. What would that be like? What would it feel like to be a human being back then? When you’re in a thinking mood and you go on a walk… and you look around yourself pondering all things existence. Think of how absolutely chaotic and random the natural world might seem like to you not knowing what we know now. On the other hand, think of how well-ordered and obviously governed… the natural world might seem like to you. You know it’s so easy to conflate our experience of the world in 2017 with theirs in 400 BC…it’s so easy when you try to imagine yourself as someone living back in antiquity to just assume that what it would be like for me to live in ancient Greece…basically the same as my experience of the world right now…except I’d be an olive farmer…or working at one of them gyro stands.
But seriously put yourself in the shoes of Plato and Aristotle for a second…they don’t have encyclopedia Britannica, they don’t have Google when they’re confused about something, they don’t even have Plato and Aristotle. No, what happens is they just find themselves… immersed in this profoundly mysterious, enormously complex framework of existence…of being. So…what do they do about it?
What are you gonna do if you find yourself in this place…sit around and marvel at it the rest of your life? Well what THEY did…is they created these very human methods of being able to make sense of what we’re all experiencing….things like philosophy and science…and over the years up until Heidegger…people have all had pretty much the same sort of strategy…and while on one hand… science is great at making sense of things and helping us feel a little less confused about the universe…but considering that it’s a method created by humans…is it a method of inquiry that’s necessarily…capable of fully understanding this, again, profoundly mysterious, enormously complex thing known as being that we find ourselves in?
Well if the answer to that question’s even potentially no…doesn’t take away the value of science as the best thing we’ve come up with so far…doesn’t inspire vitriol towards Plato or Aristotle or anyone else throughout history that’s used science and philosophy to try to make sense of things. But I’ll tell you what it does inspire…it inspires a thought in Heidegger’s mind…that in the beginning…in a desperate attempt to try to make sense of all the mystery of being…people just did the best thing they could think of…they created things like philosophy and science and conducted these traditional philosophical and scientific experiments…the goal being to try to understand the world around them in this… existence thing that they’re a part of. And they measure things and they find out what this thing’s made of and how it relates to that thing over there and they record the shapes of things and the mass and the volume… and all sorts of other stuff… and then all of that’s combined into an ever-changing, ever-evolving scientific picture of being.
But Heidegger would ask: is there something more to being than just how much something weighs or what velocity it’s traveling..is what were doing truly understanding the totality of being? Or… is this us conferring some cold, mathematical human method of inquiry in a desperate attempt to try to make sense of the mystery out there not unlike a Plato or an Aristotle? Is science really helping us understand being? Or is it just giving us this temporary set of empirical facts that make us FEEL like we understand being more?
Again, love me some science. Nobodies saying we shouldn’t do science, but we have to understand what we’re doing when we conduct science. Science…and philosophy as it’s conventionally been done… have certainly produced useful results in their own way…but in terms of truly understanding existence or being…all they’ve really done to Heidegger…is produce this set of facts… you can tell kids in school that give them this false sense that we’ve come so far in our understanding of being… hey, because look! now we understand how entities relate to each other…in other words Heidegger thinks…science and philosophy… the longer they’ve gone on… have progressively alienated us from that original state where we questioned the true extent of the mystery of being…and they’ve replaced that state with a state of…sort of arrogance clinging on to the rudimentary description of being… that science and traditional philosophy can give us.
You know as we talked about last episode…throughout the history of science and philosophy…existence has pretty much always been looked at as this spatial and temporal realm that we all exist in that’s FULL of entities…entities like buffalo and mountains and nebulae… all spatially and temporally relating to one another…the strategy for understanding existence…was to try to understand everything about… these entities and how they relate to each other.
Now traditionally, to be a human being was to be just another one of these entities in this realm spatially and temporally relating to things…and TRADITIONALLY…this assumption… has raised a lot of questions about this mysterious thing that we often refer to as consciousness…in other words…if what existence is…is just a bunch of spatio-temporal entities relating to each other…where does consciousness fit into that? Is consciousness an entity? Are thoughts entities?
These questions… have been mysteries in science and philosophy from the very beginning…and look, it doesn’t really bother the average person that consciousness doesn’t seem to fit that paradigm…you know it’s easy to tell ourselves…look, scientists are out there…they’re working on it…alright, they’re gonna figure it out eventually…you know, deepak chopra and eckhart tolle are gonna have a baby and it’s gonna solve all the mysteries of the universe…first word’s gonna be quantum. But Heidegger would ask: What if this idea of existence being this realm of entities relating to each other…you know an idea that at one point… it was just some human being coming up with it desperately trying to make sense of things…what if that’s wrong?
See, Heidegger never uses words like consciousness…or subjective experience…because to even use words like consciousness to describe what we have… is to imply that consciousness… is it’s own thing separate from the world…no being and the world are a united thing…dasein…and that if we’re going to try to understand the answer to this question: what is being? Maybe we shouldn’t be trying to come up with an objective, mathematical way of looking at the entities of the world coming at it from an outsiders perspective. Maybe we should approach it from a more insider’s perspective…instead of analyzing entities…maybe…as the famous line goes “We are ourselves the entities to be analyzed.”
Again, instead of asking a question as an outsider like philosophers have always done…asking a question like, “What is a human being?” A more insiders approach…a Phenomenological approach to answering that question would be to ask, “What is it like…to be a human being?” In other words, what is it like to be the being for whom being is an issue at all?
Now this question is much easier asked than answered. We’re all human beings, we all feel like we understand what it’s like to be a human being. But when you ask that question it’s so easy to confuse what it’s like to be a human being with what it’s like to be you. To think it’s asking…you know…what kinds of activities to you like or not like to do…or what do you think right and wrong are?…you know these things that have been culturally conditioned into us since birth that wouldn’t apply to all human beings that have ever lived. Now, make no mistake…understanding that cultural context that you’re born into IS extremely important to Heidegger, we’re going to talk about it next episode…but when you remove the culture…when you remove all the conditioning…what is common about what it’s like to be a human being between someone born today…versus the 1200’s…versus 10000 BC? What is the Dasein that underlies all of the other stuff?
Now an easy assumption to make is to say, ok well the way I live my life right now isn’t tantamount to what it’s like to be a human being…I’m just one iteration of what it’s like to be a human being…but look I’m still a human being…all I gotta do is look at the person from 10,000 BC…find the similarities between us… and I will have arrived at what it’s like to be a human being. But Heidegger thought this was a mistaken way of looking at it because it doesn’t account for the possibility of you being robbed of what it means to be a human being.
Heidegger thought…that there are various aspects of our modern world… that have rendered us… kind of sick at the level of being…not well…and I’m not calling out any particular way of looking at the world or lifestyle or set of behaviors…but you can at least look around at people in the modern world… and you can see that often times the behaviors that people engage in seem to be trying to fill some void that they have…as though they’re not living the sort of life they were intended to live and there’s something missing.
They seem sort of spiritually sick. Most of us seem sick to Heidegger…and because I’m doing this episode in 2017 and not in 10,000 BC…before we even BEGIN trying to talk about the nature of Dasein and what it’s truly like to be a human being…I need to explain to you why Heidegger thinks our modern societies have alienated you… from what it is to be a human being…one of the primary culprits to Heidegger: our immersion into and fixation with Modern Technology.
Few common ways of looking at modern technology that Heidegger wouldn’t agree with…one’s the sort of techno-Jesus attitude of, well we have all these problems as a species…people are killing each other, widespread poverty, ice caps are melting…but you know what? I have faith…there will be a second coming of Steve Jobs…and given enough time technology and the internet will save everything. Heidegger wouldn’t agree, in fact… he’d think that in a weird way…technology’s a co-conspirator when it comes to why we have these problems in the first place. Another common way of looking at technology’s that it’s not inherently bad not inherently good…technology’s sort of this… neutral, disinterested thing that happens and that technology can be used for good or it can be used for evil, our choice..our job’s to try our hardest to make sure it’s used mostly for good. Heidegger wouldn’t agree with that either.
To understand why he doesn’t agree with these outlooks on Modern technology…we have to understand a distinction he makes right there…between technology in general…and MODERN technology.
So I guess the place to start is just to ask the question: what is technology? Well when we think of it we think of iPhones and rocket ships and nuclear power plants…but it really goes all the way back to the very first crude tools that human beings created…Heidegger says the sort of agreed upon definition about what’s similar between technology like the wheel and technology like the computer…is that all technology… is a tool that provides a means to complete some task…and means to some end… usually having to do with human activity. A cup, for example… is a piece of technology…and you can use it as a means to bring about various sorts of ends, most commonly… to drink liquid out of it, but you can do other things too…you can stack things on top of it, you can roll it down the driveway, anything you wanna do with that cup.
In fact if you’re indoors right now…look around you and just consider for a second…practically everything you see at one point… was cutting edge technology. Most of us live our lives completely immersed in this soup of technology without even realizing it…we’re absolutely surrounded by things that are means to bring about some end for us. But that said…important thing to realize: just because a chair’s a tool that provides a means to complete some task… and a computer’s a tool that provides a means to complete some task…that doesn’t mean that they’re the same type of thing.
No, Heidegger thinks there’s something VERY different… about these two types of technology…and while he would agree with that definition… that technology’s a tool that’s a means to carry out some task… that definition may be correct…but it’s not complete… it’s not sufficient…and that to understand why Modern technology… is so different from other technology… and’s ultimately contributing to a sickness we have at the level of being…we have to look deeper…we have to look at what the ESSENCE of technology is.
Heidegger says that where ever you have the notion of something being a means to some end…one presupposition there is the notion of causality. In the case of technology: Something causes some technology to come into being… and that technology’s used as a means to some end.
Now for Heidegger’s next trick: to try to dismantle YET ANOTHER assumption about the world… that seems to stem from the time period of Descartes…if you remember it was right around that time that people largely stopped thinking about causality in terms of Aristotle’s four causes… and started thinking about it only in terms of the efficient cause of things. For example. If there was a cup. Sitting on a table in front of you. And I asked you what is the cause of that cup…the vast, vast majority of us would say…well, it was whoever or whatever made the cup. In other words… we would point to only one of Aristotle’s four causes… the efficient cause… or the thing that brought the cup into being. The other three causes that we’re leaving out would be the material cause, or what the cup’s made of…the formal cause, or the appearance or shape of the cup…and the final cause or the function or purpose the cup was created for…but we don’t really think of these other three causes as…causes…right?
I mean, first and foremost we have the efficient cause…the dude that whittled this cup out of wood. Then in the middle we have these formal and material causes but these aren’t causes…what the cups made of and what form it takes didn’t CAUSE that cup. And then beyond that we have the even MORE distant FINAL cause… which really doesn’t have anything to do with the physical cup at all…it’s just the reason… the efficient cause decided one day to cause this cup to come into existence. But Heidegger would say, hold on…think about what we just said there. If it wasn’t for the final cause…the efficient cause would never have had the slightest motivation to bring this thing into being… in other words…if you weren’t able to drink liquid out of it or stack stuff on top of it or roll it down your driveway…what person…no matter how crazy they are whittling wood in 2017…what person would ever whittle something into the shape of a cup?
Point is, in a strange way…in terms of what caused the cup to be…the final cause starts to seem more important than the efficient cause…but… this isn’t the point Heidegger’s ultimately trying to make…he’s saying that it’s insufficient to only think about that cup in terms of its efficient cause… and that if you look closely at all four of these causes…not only are all of them necessary but there’s an interconnectedness to them…they’re all “responsible” for each-other he says and that in a world before cups ever existed, it wasn’t until… a Dasein conceived of the final cause of a cup… in correspondence with the formal and material causes…it wasn’t until that coalition of four was born… that the idea of a cup… was revealed… as something that can potentially be.
This is an interesting way to think about it. I mean look around you at all the trees, all the metals…all the rocks. Look at this stuff all around you and consider the fact that lying latent within all of these things…lying latent within nature…are seemingly endless potentialities to be revealed. I mean consider the fact that at one point in history in fact the MAJORITY of human history…nobody ever looked at a tree…imagined the final cause of a rolling pin…and then transmuted it into being from the tree. For the vast majority of the time human beings have been looking at trees…the final cause of a wooden rolling pin…wasn’t even on the table…yet at some level… that rolling pin has always been a possibility…at some level the potentiality for a piece of that tree to become a rolling pin… has always been there hidden within nature. Also consider the fact…that in the extremely unlikely event we don’t destroy ourselves in the next 300 years…think of how much more we’re going to be able to do with trees that we have no idea about right now…think of all the possibilities that are latent, hidden within these trees all around us.
Now I chose a tree as an example on purpose…it’s a bit of foreshadowing of what’s to come and let’s be honest…none of you people ever get emotionally attached to rocks…you’re just not as compassionate no matter how delicate of a geode it is…although to Heidegger there is an attachment we should feel with both rocks AND trees all of us united under the common umbrella of being….but anyway, we’ve arrived at the essence of technology in the sense of the Greek word Techne…the essence of technology is revealing…revealing the things in the world that already do exist and can potentially exist in the future…technology is the art of bringing forth… the potentiality of the wooden rolling pin latent within the tree…or bringing forth… the potentiality of the marble statue latent within the giant piece of rock. This is as true of the wheel as it is of the iPhone…but something’s very different about this process of revealing in modern technology.
Heidegger writes:
“The revealing that holds sway in modern technology does not unfold of a bringing forth in the sense of Poiesis.”
Poiesis is a Greek word derived from the term that means “to make”. And the distinction that he’s marking there is he’s saying that for the majority of human history, the relationship between human beings, technology and nature… has been almost like an artisan producing something…it’s a craftsmanship. A Dasein will have certain raw materials…they’ll have a certain final cause in mind…and they’ll arrange or dissect these raw materials in order to bring about a chair or a cup or any new piece of technology. There was a special, personal relationship between Dasein and tree where the tree was looked at in a particular way as a being.
But in the case of modern technology, we’ve fundamentally shifted the way we look at the natural world…when it comes to modern technology…
Heidegger says:
“It’s a challenging…which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such.”
and that Science and technology:
“Sets upon Nature… Agriculture is now the mechanized food industry. Air is now set upon to yield oxygen, the earth to yield uranium… Even the Rhine itself appears to be something at our command … the revealing that rules throughout modern technology has the character of setting upon.”
In other words…Heidegger’s not against modern technology like he’s your grandpa saying in my day you looked a man in the eye when you face timed him…no he’s saying modern technology has fundamentally shifted the way that we look at and ACT UPON the natural world.
Remember at the beginning when we talked about science being something that no question makes the world a much more intelligible and understandable place…but the more we measure and weigh things and understand how entities relate to each-other…the more we have this false sense of understanding of what being is and the more progressively alienated we become to the true mystery of being…modern technology to Heidegger.. can be seen as a natural byproduct of that process. We’ve assigned such a cold, detached value to these other beings like rocks and trees and the oceans…that we don’t even look at them as beings anymore… we look at them as just…objects…that we can study…and manipulate and then exploit for commercial purposes. Technology CHALLENGES nature in a way.
He says:
“The work of the peasant does not challenge the soil of the field.”
And what he’s pointing out is that we used to have a much more respectful, almost symbiotic relationship with the world whereas now we “enframe” the world…that’s the word he uses and it means to look at the natural world only in terms of how much utility it has for human purposes…don’t worry about the soil…question should be how can I process this soil so that it produces the maximum YIELD for me as a human being. The world is valuable only insofar as its valuable to human beings.
We turn the natural world… into what he calls a “standing reserve”…or a sort of back-stock of inventory just sitting there waiting to be used and consumed by human beings. Now you may be saying, well what’s wrong with that? We’re human beings…fact is.. we have to consume nature to survive…whats the problem with having a little extra lying around? Heidegger would say there’s nothing wrong with it…no question a peasant probably has a little extra firewood than they need…it’s the way we’re LOOKING at the natural world that’s the problem…the peasant looks at that additional firewood and sees it as pieces of a tree that bring warmth into their existence…modern technology looks at that tree… and goes, okay is there any way we can grind the tree up, cut it with some baking powder and get 612 IKEA coffee tables out of it instead of only 588? It’s seen MERELY as a resource at our disposal. And while I don’t think Heidegger ever explicitly predicts this happening, you can kind of see where this is going. If were willing to look at the natural world as merely a resource at our disposal…aren’t human beings… a part of the natural world too? Doesn’t this outlook on being get us uncomfortably close to treating human beings as merely an exploited resource? Don’t we see glimmers of this already… when it comes to how some companies view an employees work and production? Is it that crazy to think it might one day extend onto humans beings as people?
This is another example of how the answers to these pointless, completely academic ontological questions about being…have VERY REAL impacts on the way that human beings are treated and engage with the world.
Now when it comes to science and technology being a 2000 year process of alienation…there are of course philosophers who disagree with this. John Dewey, contemporary of Heidegger’s…little bit older than him…he sees the progression of technology not as a process of alienation, but one of LIBERATION! You know, where was your bleeding heart when we were being controlled by NATURE. Remember my grandma’s feet? Black from frostbite? Yeah, rubbing them together really fast didn’t work. Nature did that. Look…the metaphysical reality of nature… is that it can be studied, understood and manipulated for strengthening human potential! That should be exciting to you! Look at how much more we can do! Look at the infant mortality rates! Look at my phone! I have instant contact with practically anyone in the world…I can call my grandma… on thanksgiving…I can have the same disingenuous conversation with her for the four hundredth time…I don’t even gotta get off the couch. That’s incredible…
Heidegger would agree…all that stuff is pretty incredible…he’d agree that technology has liberated us from the shackles of nature…but at what cost? Yeah, technology’s liberated us from nature…but it’s also liberated us from a piece of what it means to be a human being. Not all liberations deserve a statue in their honor.
Heidegger thinks that at our core we are ontological beings…we’re the kind of beings that ask questions about what it means to be or why things are the way they are…we’ve all been there before. We’ve all been out on a walk…stopped…looked at a mountain…or a lamppost or something… and just been smacked in the face by the profound mystery of being. Why things are they way they are…why things exist at all…how we fit into that picture…we’ve all been there.
So let’s return to the example at the beginning of the episode: if you lived in antiquity as opposed to 2017…in fact lets go back even more just to further illustrate the point…if you were a human being born in the year 10,000 BC and you find yourself thrown into this…thing that were all thrown into called being. Your experience of being…in a pre-science, pre-philosophy world…would be MASSIVELY different than your experience of being in 2017.
Think about it…when you’re walking along one day… and you look out at the horizon… and suddenly there’s this giant explosion and lava is spewing everywhere or giant columns of ash are shooting into the sky and blotting out the sun…10,000 BC…you cant just go to google and type in what in God’s name was that? When you’re sitting around and it’s pouring rain…and all of a sudden this giant bolt of electricity shoots down from the heavens and destroys a tree right in front of you and you can smell the ozone. 10,000 BC…You can’t just go down to the library and ask, what did that tree do wrong to deserve that?
In a pre-science, pre-philosophy world…your existence would be a constant face to face encounter with the profound mystery and enormous complexity of being. And faced with that mystery, by default as an ontological being, you would ask these sorts of ontological questions.
Maybe this is what’s missing, maybe this is part of the reason we seem so sick. We’ve forgotten to be engaged in the world and aware of the profound mystery of being that is all around us, constantly, and we’ve replaced it with 2000 years of philosophical speculation and scientific measurements.
Maybe the reason we seem so sick is because instead of seeing ourselves as beings in the world… a world full of other beings that we are fundamentally united with under our common being… a world with deep mystery that goes far beyond mass and volume and velocity and cogito ergo sum…maybe instead of that world we’ve been born into a world that tells us we’re a consciousness…navigating a seemingly disinterested universe…full of entities…entities that are separate from us… objectified entities that we study and manipulate for whatever we humans want to do next. If you’re young and you look at a tree and your confused about some element of it don’t worry…don’t sit there in that confusion don’t go too deep down that ontological rabbit hole…here’s how much it weighs, here’s what color the leaves are and hey here’s a family of trees that we’ve decided it’s a part of! Maybe the way we look at being…changes everything.
Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.

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Episode 100 – Transcript

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

 

April 14, 2017

 

Philosophize This!
with Stephen West

 

Episode 100: Heidegger Pt. 1

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What does it mean to be a human being?

How can we define that?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Question is, where do you put that foot first?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But all that doesn’t matter.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What does it mean to exist?

What does it mean to be a human being?

These ontological question we were talking about.

 

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

 

No question about it, things would look very different.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What is it to be a human being?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Being is something that we’re engaged in.

 

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

 

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

 

How different would the world look today?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Episode 99 – Transcript

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

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

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Episode 98 – Transcript

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

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

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Episode 97 – Transcript

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

 

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

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Episode 93 Transcript

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

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Episode 79 Transcript

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