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Episode 108 – Transcript

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

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

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Episode 106 – Transcript

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

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

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

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Episode 105 – Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Episode 104 – Transcript

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

Hello Everyone, I’m Stephen West. This is philosophize this! Thank you to everyone that supports the show on Patreon. I could never do this without you, thanks for making it possible for the show to continue. To people that buy things on Amazon, there is a banner located on the front page of the website 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.