Technology, Mass-Culture, and the Prospects of Human Liberation

Cultural evolution is arguably just as fascinating as biological evolution (if not more so), with new ideas and behaviors stemming from the same kinds of natural selective pressures that lead to new species along with their novel morphologies and capacities.  And as with biological evolution where it, in a sense, takes off on its own unbeknownst to the new organisms it produces and independent of the intentions they may have (with our species being the notable exception given our awareness of evolutionary history and our ever-growing control over genetics), so too cultural evolution takes off on its own, where cultural changes are made manifest through a number of causal influences that we’re largely unaware of, despite our having some conscious influence over this vastly transformative process.

Alongside these cultural changes, human civilizations have striven to find new means of manipulating nature and to better predict the causal structure that makes up our reality.  One unfortunate consequence of this is that, as history has shown us, within any particular culture’s time and place, people have a decidedly biased overconfidence in the perceived level of truth or justification for the status quo and their present world view (both on an individual and collective level).  Undoubtedly, the “group-think” or “herd mentality” that precipitates from our simply having social groups often reinforces this overconfidence, and this is so in spite of the fact that what actually influences a mass of people to believe certain things or to behave as they do is highly contingent, unstable, and amenable to irrational forms of persuasion including emotive, sensationalist propaganda that prey on our cognitive biases.

While we as a society have an unprecedented amount of control over the world around us, this type of control is perhaps best described as a system of bureaucratic organization and automated information processing, that gives less and less individual autonomy, liberty, and basic freedom, as it further expands its reach.  How much control do we as individuals really have in terms of the information we have access to, and given the implied picture of reality that is concomitant with this information in the way it’s presented to us?  How much control do we have in terms of the number of life trajectories and occupations made available to us, what educational and socioeconomic resources we have access to given the particular family, culture, and geographical location we’re born and raised in?

As more layers of control have been added to our way of life and as certain criteria for organizational efficiency are continually implemented, our lives have become externally defined by increasing layers of abstraction, and our modes of existence are further separated cognitively and emotionally from an aesthetically and otherwise psychologically valuable sense of meaning and purpose.

While the Enlightenment slowly dragged our species, kicking and screaming, out of the theocratic, anti-intellectual epistemologies of the Medieval period of human history, the same forces that unearthed a long overdue appreciation for (and development of) rationality and technological progress, unknowingly engendered a vulnerability to our misusing this newfound power.  There was an overcompensation of rationality when it was deployed to (justifiably) respond to the authoritarian dogmatism of Christianity and to the demonstrably unreliable nature of superstitious beliefs and of many of our intuitions.

This overcompensatory effect was in many ways accounted for, or anticipated within the dialectical theory of historical development as delineated by the German philosopher Georg Hegel, and within some relevant reformulations of this dialectical process as theorized by the German philosopher Karl Marx (among others).  Throughout history, we’ve had an endless clash of ideas whereby the prevailing worldviews are shown to be inadequate in some way, failing to account for some notable aspect of our perceived reality, or shown to be insufficient for meeting our basic psychological or socioeconomic needs.  With respect to any problem we’ve encountered, we search for a solution (or wait for one to present itself to us), and then we become overconfident in the efficacy of the solution.  Eventually we end up overgeneralizing its applicability, and then the pendulum swings too far the other way, thereby creating new problems in need of a solution, with this process seemingly repeating itself ad infinitum.

Despite the various woes of modernity, as explicated by the modern existentialist movement, it does seem that history, from a long-term perspective at least, has been moving in the right direction, not only with respect to our heightened capacity of improving our standard of living, but also in terms of the evolution of our social contracts and our conceptions of basic and universal human rights.  And we should be able to plausibly reconcile this generally positive historical trend with the Hegelian view of historical development, and the conflicts that arise in human history, by noting that we often seem to take one step backward followed by taking two steps forward in terms of our moral and epistemological progress.

Regardless of the progress we’ve made, we seem to be at a crucial point in our history where the same freedom-limiting authoritarian reach that plagued humanity (especially during the Middle Ages) has undergone a kind of morphogenesis, having been reinstantiated albeit in a different form.  The elements of authoritarianism have become built into the very structure of mass-culture, with an anti-individualistic corporatocracy largely mediating the flow of information throughout this mass-culture, and also mediating its evolution over time as it becomes more globalized, interconnected, and cybernetically integrated into our day-to-day lives.

Coming back to the kinds of parallels in biology that I opened up with, we can see human autonomy and our culture (ideas and behaviors) as having evolved in ways that are strikingly similar to the biological jump that life made long ago, where single-celled organisms eventually joined forces with one another to become multi-cellular.  This biological jump is analogous to the jump we made during the early onset of civilization, where we employed an increasingly complex distribution of labor and occupational specialization, allowing us to survive many more environmental hurdles than ever before.  Once civilization began, the spread of culture became much more effective for transmitting ideas both laterally within a culture and longitudinally from generation to generation, with this process heavily enhanced by our having adopted various forms of written language, allowing us to store and transmit information in much more robust ways, similar to genetic information storage and transfer via DNA, RNA, and proteins.

Although the single-celled bacterium or amoeba (for example) may be thought of as having more “autonomy” than a cell that is forcefully interconnected within a multi-cellular organism, we can see how the range of capacities available to single cells were far more limited before making the symbiotic jump, just as humans living before the onset of civilization had more “freedom” (at least of a certain type) and yet the number of possible life trajectories and experiences was minuscule when compared to a human living in a post-cultural world.  But once multi-cellular organisms began to form a nervous system and eventually a brain, the entire collection of cells making up an organism became ultimately subservient to a centralized form of executive power — just as humans have become subservient to the executive authority of the state or government (along with various social pressures of conformity).

And just as the fates of each cell in a multi-cellular organism became predetermined and predictable by its particular set of available resources and the specific information it received from neighboring cells, similarly our own lives are becoming increasingly predetermined and predictable by the socioeconomic resources made available to us and the information we’re given which constitutes our mass-culture.  We are slowly morphing from individual brains into something akin to individual neurons within a global brain of mass-consciousness and mass-culture, having our critical thinking skills and creative aspirations exchanged for rehearsed responses and docile expectations that maintain the status quo and which continually transfers our autonomy to an oligarchic power structure.

We might wonder if this shift has been inevitable, possibly being yet another example of a “fractal pattern” recapitulated in sociological form out of the very same freely floating rationales that biological evolution has been making use of for eons.  In any case, it’s critically important that we become aware of this change, so we can try and actively achieve and effectively maintain the liberties and level of individual autonomy that we so highly cherish.  We ought to be thinking about what kinds of ways we can remain cognizant of, and critical to, our culture and its products; how we can reconcile or transform technological rationality and progress with a future world comprised of truly liberated individuals; and how to transform our corporatocratic capitalist society into one that is based on a mixed economy with a social safety net that even the wealthiest citizens would be content with living under, so as to maximize the actual creative freedom people have once their basic existential needs have been met.

Will unchecked capitalism, social-media, mass-media, and the false needs and epistemological bubbles they’re forming lead to our undoing and destruction?  Or will we find a way to rise above this technologically-induced setback, and take advantage of the opportunities it has afforded us, to make the world and our technology truly compatible with our human psychology?  Whatever the future holds for us, it is undoubtedly going to depend on how many of us begin to critically think about how we can seriously restructure our educational system and how we disseminate information, how we can re-prioritize and better reflect on what our personal goals ought to be, and also how we ought to identify ourselves as free and unique individuals.

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Book Review: Niles Schwartz’s “Off the Map: Freedom, Control, and the Future in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies”

Elijah Davidson begins his foreword to Niles Schwartz’s book titled Off the Map: Freedom, Control, and the Future in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies with a reference to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, where he mentions how that book was, among other things, about God.  While it wasn’t a spiritual text in any traditional sense of the term, it nevertheless pointed to the finitude of human beings, to our heavy reliance on one another, and highlighted the fact that the natural world we live in is entirely indifferent to our needs and desires at best if not outright threatening to our imperative of self-preservation.  Davidson also points out another theme present in Moby Dick, the idea that people corrupt institutions rather than the other way around—a theme that we’ll soon see as relevant to Michael Mann’s Public Enemies.  But beyond this human attribute of fallibility, and in some ways what reinforces its instantiation, is our incessant desire to find satisfaction in something greater than ourselves, often taken to be some kind of conception of God.  It is in this way that Davidson refers to Melville’s classic as “a spiritual treatise par excellence.”

When considering Mann’s films, which are often a cinematic dichotomous interplay of “cops and robbers” or “predator and prey,” they are, on a much more basic level, about “freedom and control.”  We also see his filmography as colored with a dejection of, or feeling of malaise with respect to, the modern world.  And here, Mann’s films can also be seen as spiritual in the sense that they make manifest a form of perspectivism centered around a denunciation of modernity, or at least a disdain for the many depersonalizing or externally imposed meta-narratives that it’s generated.  Schwartz explores this spiritual aspect of Mann’s work, most especially as it relates to PE, but also connecting it to the (more explicitly spiritual) works of directors like Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life, to name a few).  Schwartz proceeds to give us his own understanding of what Mann had accomplished in PE, and this is despite there being a problematic, irreconcilable set of interpretations as he himself admits: “Interpreting Public Enemies is troubling because it has theological and philosophical precepts that are rife with contradictions.”  This should be entirely expected however when PE is considered within the broader context of Michael Mann’s work generally, for Mann’s entire milieu is formulated on paradox:

“Michael Mann is a director of contradictions: aesthetic and didactive, abstract and concrete, phantasmagorical and brutally tactile, expressionistic and anthropological, heralding the individual and demanding social responsibility, bold experimenter and studio genre administrator, romantic and futurist, Dillinger freedom seeker and Hoover control freak, outsider and insider.”

Regardless of this paradoxical nature that is ubiquitous throughout Mann’s filmography, Schwartz provides a light to take us through a poetic journey of Mann’s work and his vision, most especially through a meticulous view of PE, and all within a rich and vividly structured context centered on the significance of, and relation between, freedom, control, and of course, the future.  His reference to “the future” in OTM is multi-dimensional to say the least, and the one I personally find the most interesting, cohesive, and salient.  Among other things, it’s referring to John Dillinger’s hyper-focused projection toward the future, where his identity is much more defined by where he wants to be (an abstract, utopian future that is “off the map,” or free from the world of control and surveillance) rather than defined by where he’s been (fueled by the obvious fact that he’s always on the run), and this is so even if he also seems to be stuck in the present, with Dillinger’s phenomenology as well as the film’s structure often traversing from one fleeting moment to the next.  But I think we can take Dillinger at his own word as he tells his true love, Billie Frechette, after whisking her away to dine in a high-class restaurant: “That’s ‘cuz they’re all about where people come from.  The only thing that’s important, is where somebody’s going.” 

This conception of “the future” is also referencing the transcendent quality of being human, where our identity is likewise defined in large part by the future, our life projects, and our striving to become a future version of ourselves, however idealized or mythologized that future-self conception may be (I think it’s fair to say Dillinger’s was, to a considerable degree).  The future is a reference to where our society is heading, how our society is becoming increasingly automated, taken over by a celeritously expanding cybernetic infrastructure of control, evolving and expanding in parallel with technology and our internet-catalyzed global interconnectedness.  Our lives are being built upon increasing layers of abstraction as our form of organized life continues to trudge along its chaotic arc of cultural evolution, and we’re losing more and more of our personal freedom as a result of evermore external influences, operating on a number of different levels (socially, politically, technologically), known and unknown, consciously and unconsciously.  In PE, the expanding influences were best exemplified by the media, the mass-surveillance, and of course Hoover’s Bureau and administration, along with the arms race taking place between Dillinger’s crew and the FBI (where the former gave the latter a run for their money).

As Schwartz explains about J. Edgar’s overreach of power: “Hoover’s Bureau is increasingly amoral as it reaches for a kind of Hobbesian, sovereign super control.”  Here of course we get our first glimpse of a noteworthy dualism, namely freedom and control, and the myriad of ways that people corrupt institutions (as Davidson explored in his foreword), though contrary to Davidson’s claim, it seems undeniable to surmise that once an institution has become corrupted by certain people, that institution is more likely to corrupt other individuals, both internally and externally (and thus, institutions do corrupt individuals, not merely the other way around).  If bad ideas are engineered into our government’s structure, our laws, our norms, our capitalist market, or any other societal system, they can seemingly take off on their own, reinforced by the structure itself and the automated information processing that’s inherent to bureaucracies, the media, our social networks, and even inherent to us as individuals who are so often submerged in a barrage of information.

Relating Hoover to the power and influence of the media, Schwartz not only mentions the fact that PE is undoubtedly “conscientious of how media semiotics affect and control people,” but he also mentions a piece of dialogue that stood out to me as well, where FBI Director Hoover (Billy Crudup) just got out of the Congressional Hearing Room, having been chastised by Senator McKellar (Ed Bruce), and he says to his deputy, Clyde Tolson (Chandler Williams): “If we will not contest him in his committee room, we will fight him on the front page,” showing us a glimpse of the present day where news (whether “fake” news or not), and the overall sensationalism of a story is shown to be incredibly powerful at manipulating the masses and profoundly altering our trajectory, one (believed) story at a time.  If you can get somebody to believe the story, whether based on truth or deception, the battle is half won already.  Even Dillinger himself, who’s own persona is wrapped in a cloud of mythology, built up by Hollywood and the media’s portrayal of his life and image, shows us in a very concrete way, just how far deception can get you.

For example, Schwartz reminds us of how Dillinger managed to escape through six doors of Crown Point jail with nothing other than a mock gun made of wood.  Well, nothing but a mock gun and a hell of a good performance, which is the key point here, since the gun was for all practical purposes real.  By the time Dillinger breaks into Warden Baker’s office to steal some Tommy guns before finishing his escape, Warden Baker (David Warshofsky) even says to him “That wasn’t real was it?,” which resonated with the idea of how powerful persuasion and illusion can be in our lives, and maybe indirectly showing us that what is real to us in the ways that matter most is defined by what’s salient to us in our raw experience and what we believe to be true since that’s all that affects our behavior anyway.  The guards believed Dillinger’s mock gun was real, and so it was real, just as a false political campaign promise is real, or a bluffed winning-hand in poker, or any other force, whether operating under the pretenses of honesty or deception, pushing us individually and collectively in one direction or another.

The future is also a reference to Michael Mann’s 2015 cyberthriller Blackhat—a movie that Mann had been building up to, and a grossly underappreciated one at that, with various degrees of its foreshadowing in PE.  This progression and relation between PE and Blackhat is in fact central to Schwartz’s principle aim in OTM:

“My aim in this book is to explore Public Enemies as an extraordinary accomplishment against a backdrop of other digital films, its meditations on the form precipitating Blackhat, Mann’s stunning and widely ignored cyberthriller that converts the movie-house celluloid of its predecessors into a beguiling labyrinth of code that’s colonized the heretofore tangible firmament right under our noses.”

And what an extraordinary accomplishment it is; and fortunately for us we’re in a better position to appreciate it after reading Schwartz’s highly perceptive analysis of such a phenomenal artist.  In PE, the future is essentially projected into the past, which is interesting to me in its own right, since this is also the case with human memory, where we reconstruct our memories upon recall in ways that are augmented by, and amalgamated with, our present knowledge, despite not having such knowledge when the memory itself was first formed.  So too in PE, we see a number of questions posed especially as it relates to the existentialist movement, which hadn’t been well-developed or nearly as influential until some time after the 1930s (especially after WWII, with the advent of existential philosophers including Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger), and as it relates to the critical theory stemming from the Frankfurt School of social research (Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, et al.), neither of which being nearly as pertinent or socially and politically relevant then as they are now in the present day.  And this is where Blackhat becomes decidedly apropos.

So what future world was foreshadowed in PE?  Schwartz describes the world in Blackhat as an utterly subliminal and cybernetic realm: “The world is pattern recognition and automatic information processing, the stuff of advertising.”  Though I would argue that our entire phenomenology is fundamentally based on pattern recognition where our perception, imagination, actions, and even desires are mediated by the models of the world’s causal structure that our brains create and infer through our experiences.  But this doesn’t mean that our general schema of pattern recognition hasn’t been influenced by modernity such that we’ve become noticeably more automated, and where many have seemingly lost their capacity for contemplative reflection and lost the historically less-hindered psychological channel between reason and emotion.  The Blackhat world Schwartz is describing here is one where the way information is being processed is relatively alien to the more traditional conceptions of what it means to be human.  And this cybernetic world is a world where cultural and technological evolution are accelerating far faster than our biological evolution ever could (though genetic engineering has the potential to re-synchronize the two if we dedicate ourselves to such an ambitious project), and this bio-cultural desynchronization has made us increasingly maladapted to the Digital Age we’ve now entered.  Furthermore, this new world has made us far more susceptible to subliminal, corporatocratic and sociopolitical influences, and it has driven us toward an increasing reliance on a cybernetically controlled way of life.

The social relevance of these conceptions makes Blackhat a much-needed lens for fully appreciating our current existential predicament, and as Schwartz says of Mann’s (perhaps unavoidably ironic) digital implementation of this somewhat polemical techno-thriller:

“Conversely, Mann’s embrace of the digital is a paradoxical realization of tactile historical and spatial phenomenology, lucidly picturing an end of identity, while leaping, as through faith, toward the possibility of individuation in nature, free from institutional conscriptions and the negative assignments of cybernetics.”

Schwartz illustrates that concomitant with identity, “… the film prompts us to ask where nature ends and the virtual begins,” though perhaps we could also infer that in Blackhat there’s somewhat of a dissolution of the boundary (or at least a feeling of arbitrariness regarding how the boundary is actually defined) between the real and the virtual, the natural and the artificial, the human and the transhuman.  And maybe each of these fuzzy boundaries implies how best to resolve the contradictions in Mann’s work that Schwartz describes in OTM, with this possible resolution coming about through a process of symbiotic fusion or some kind of memetic “speciation” transitionally connecting what seem to be distinct concepts through a brilliantly structured narrative.

And to take the speciation analogy even further, I think it can also be applied to the changes in filmmaking and culture (including the many changes that Schwartz covers in his tour de force), where many of the changes are happening so gradually that we simply fail to notice them, at least not until a threshold of change has occurred.  But there’s also a punctuated equilibrium form of speciation in filmmaking, where occasionally a filmmaker does something extraordinary in one fell swoop, setting the bar for a new genre of cinema, just as James Cameron arguably did with the heavily CGI-amalgamated world in Avatar (with his planet Pandora “doubling for the future of cinema [itself]…” as Schwartz mentions), and to a somewhat lesser technological extent, in Michael Mann’s PE, where even though the analog to digital leap had already been made by others, “Mann’s distinctly idiosyncratic use of HD cameras rattled viewers with its alien video-ness, explicating to viewers that they were perched on a separate filmic architecture that may require a new way of seeing.”

Similarly in Blackhat, Mann takes us through seamless transitions of multiple scales of both time and space, opening up a window that allows us to see how mechanized and deterministic our modern world is, from the highest cosmological scales, down to cities populated with an innumerable number of complex yet predictable humans, and finally down to the digital information processing schema at the micro and nanotechnological scales of transistors.  Within each perspective level, we fail to notice the causal influences operating at the levels above or below, and yet Mann seamlessly joins these together, showing us a kind of fractal recapitulation that we wouldn’t otherwise fully appreciate.  After reflecting on many of the references to freedom Schwartz posits in OTM, I’ve begun to more seriously ponder over the idea that human freedom is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, dependent on one’s awareness of what is being controlled by another, what is predictable and what isn’t, and one’s perception of what constitutes self-authored behavior or a causa sui formulation of free will.  Once we realize that, at the smallest scales, existence is governed by deterministic processes infused with quantum randomness, it is less surprising to see the same kind of organized, predictable causal structure at biological, sociological, and even cosmological scales.

Aside from Blackhat, Schwartz seamlessly ties together a number of Mann’s other films including Thief, Miami Vice, and my personal favorite, Heat.  There’s also a notable progression or at least an underlying and evolving conceptual structure connecting characters and ideas from one film to the next (above and beyond the transition from PE to Blackhat), as Schwartz eloquently points out, which I see as illustrating how various salient psychological and sociological forces and manifestations are so often reiterated in multiple contexts varying in time and space.  Clearly Mann is building off of his previous work, adapting previous ideas to new narratives, and doing so while continuously trying to use, as Schwartz puts it: “alchemic cinema tools to open a window and transform our perception,” thus giving us a new way to view the world and our own existential status.

An important dynamic that Schwartz mentions, not only as it pertains to Mann’s films, but of (especially well-crafted) films in general, is the notable interplay between the audience and the film or “the image.”  The image changes us, which in turn changes the image ad infinitum, establishing a feedback loop and a co-evolution between the viewer’s interpretation of the film as it relates to their own experiences, and the ongoing evolution of every new cinematic product.  There may be some indoctrinatory danger in this cycle if the movie you’re engaging with is a mass-produced product, since this product is, insofar as it’s mass-produced, deeply connected to “the system”, indeed the very same system trying to capture John Dillinger in PE.  And yet, even though the mass-produced product is a part of the system, and despite its being a cog in the wheel of what we might call a cybernetic infrastructure of control, Schwartz highlights an important potentiality in film viewing that is often taken for granted:

“…The staggering climax inside the Biograph beseeches us to aspire to the images conscientiously, reconciling the mass-produced product with our private histories and elevating the picture and our lives with the media.”

In other words, even in the case of mass-produced cinema, we as viewers stand to potentially gain a valuable experience, and possibly a spiritual or philosophical one at that by our forming a personal relationship with the film, synthesizing the external stimuli with our inner sense of self, coalescing with the characters and integrating them into our own relationships and to ourselves, thus expanding our set of perspectives by connecting to someone “off the map”.  On the other hand, Schwartz also mentions Herbert Marcuse’s views, which aptly describes the inherent problem of art insofar as it becomes a part of “the system”:

“…Herbert Marcuse writes that as long as art has become part of the system, it ceases in questioning it, and thus impedes social change.  Poetic language must transcend the “real” world of the society, and in order to transcend that world it must stand opposed to it, questioning it, quelling us out of it.”

But we need also realize that art will inevitably be influenced by the system, because there are simply too many subliminal or even explicit system-orchestrated ideas that the artist (and everyone else in society) has been instilled with, even if entirely unbeknownst to them.  It seems that the capacity for poetic language to transcend the real world of the society lies in its simply providing any new perspective at all, making use of allegory, metaphor, and the crossing of contextual boundaries, and it can do so even if this new perspective doesn’t necessarily or explicitly oppose some other (even mainstream) perspective.

This is most definitely not to in any way discount Marcuse’s overarching point of how art’s connection to the system is a factor that limits its efficacy in enacting social change and its ability to positively feed the public’s collective stream of consciousness, but merely to point out that art’s propensity for transcending the status quo isn’t entirely inhibited from its unavoidable connection to the system.  And to once again bring us back to the scene in PE where Dillinger is fully absorbing (or being fully absorbed by) his viewing of Manhattan Melodrama in the Biograph theater, Schwartz seems to describe the artistic value of a film as something at least partially dependent on whether or not it facilitates a personal and transcendent experience in any of the viewers:

“Cinema is elevated to a ceremony of transubstantiation where fixed bodies are resurrected through the mercurial alchemy of speed and light, contradicting the consumption we saw earlier during the newsreel.  Dillinger’s connection to cinema is a meditative and private one…”

I think it’s fair to say that, if there’s anything that can elevate our own experience of Mann’s work in particular, and film viewing more generally, Schwartz’s Off the Map is a great philosophical and spiritual primer to help get us there.  Both comprehensive and brilliantly written, Schwartz’s contribution to film scholarship should become required reading for anybody interested in cinema and film viewing.

Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 4, Chapter 11: The Place of the Furies)

In my last post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I examined some of the work of existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, which concluded part 3 of Barrett’s book.  The final chapter, Ch. 11: The Place of the Furies, will be briefly examined here and this will conclude my eleven part post-series.  I’ve enjoyed this very much, but it’s time to move on to new areas of interest, so let’s begin.

1. The Crystal Palace Unmanned

“The fact is that a good dose of intellectualism-genuine intellectualism-would be a very helpful thing in American life.  But the essence of the existential protest is that rationalism can pervade a whole civilization, to the point where the individuals in that civilization do less and less thinking, and perhaps wind up doing none at all.  It can bring this about by dictating the fundamental ways and routines by which life itself moves.  Technology is one material incarnation of rationalism, since it derives from science; bureaucracy is another, since it aims at the rational control and ordering of social life; and the two-technology and bureaucracy-have come more and more to rule our lives.”

Regarding the importance and need for more intellectualism in our society, I think this can be better described as the need for more critical thinking skills and the need for people to be able to discern fact from fiction, to recognize their own cognitive biases, and to respect the adage that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  At the same time, in order to appreciate the existentialist’s concerns, we ought to recognize that there are aspects of human psychology including certain psychological needs that are inherently irrational, including with respect to how we structure our lives, how we express our emotions and creativity, how we maintain a balance in our psyche, etc.  But, since technology is not only a material incarnation of rationalism, but also an outlet for our creativity, there has to be a compromise here where we shouldn’t want to abandon technology, but simply to keep it in check such that it doesn’t impede our psychological health and our ability to live a fulfilling life.

“But it is not so much rationalism as abstractness that is the existentialists’ target; and the abstractness of life in this technological and bureaucratic age is now indeed something to reckon with.  The last gigantic step forward in the spread of technologism has been the development of mass art and mass media of communication: the machine no longer fabricates only material products; it also makes minds. (stereotypes, etc.).”

Sure enough, we’re living in a world where many of our occupations are but one of many layers of abstraction constituting our modern “machine of civilization”.  And the military industrial complex that has taken over the modern world has certainly gone beyond the mass production of physical stuff to be consumed by the populace, and now includes the mass production and viral dissemination of memes as well.  Ideas can spread like viruses and in our current globally interconnected world (which Barrett hadn’t yet seen to the same degree when writing this book), the spread of these ideas is much faster and influential on culture than ever before.  The degree of indoctrination, and the perpetuated cycles of co-dependence between citizens and the corporatocratic, sociopolitical forces ruling our lives from above, have resulted in making our way of life and our thinking much more collective and less personal than at any other time in human history.

“Kierkegaard condemned the abstractness of his time, calling it an Age of Reflection, but what he seems chiefly to have had in mind was the abstractness of the professorial intellectual, seeing not real life but the reflection of it in his own mind.”

Aside from the increasingly abstract nature of modern living then, there’s also the abstractness that pervades our thinking about life, which detracts from our ability to actually experience life.  Kierkegaard had a legitimate point here, by pointing out the fact that theory cannot be a complete substitute for practice; that thought cannot be a complete substitute for action.  We certainly don’t want the reverse either, since action without sufficient forethought leads to foolishness and bad consequences.

I think the main point here is that we don’t want to miss out on living life by thinking about it too much.  Since living a philosophically examined life is beneficial, it remains an open question exactly what balance is best for any particular individual to live the most fulfilling life.  In the mean time we ought to simply recognize that there is the potential for an imbalance, and to try our best to avoid it.

“To be rational is not the same as to be reasonable.  In my time I have heard the most hair-raising and crazy things from very rational men, advanced in a perfectly rational way; no insight or feelings had been used to check the reasoning at any point.”

If you ignore our biologically-grounded psychological traits, or ignore the fact that there’s a finite range of sociological conditions for achieving human psychological health and well-being, then you can’t develop any theory that’s supposed to apply to humans and expect it to be reasonable or tenable.  I would argue that ignoring this subjective part of ourselves when making theories that are supposed to guide our behavior in any way is irrational, at least within the greater context of aiming to have not only logically valid arguments but logically sound arguments as well.  But, if we’re going to exclude the necessity for logical soundness in our conception of rationality, then the point is well taken.  Rationality is a key asset in responsible decision making but it should be used in a way that relies on or seeks to rely on true premises, taking our psychology and sociology into account.

“The incident (making hydrogen bombs without questioning why) makes us suspect that, despite the increase in the rational ordering of life in modern times, men have not become the least bit more reasonable in the human sense of the word.  A perfect rationality might not even be incompatible with psychosis; it might, in fact, even lead to the latter.”

Again, I disagree with Barrett’s use or conception of rationality here, but semantics aside, his main point still stands.  I think that we’ve been primarily using our intelligence as a species to continue to amplify our own power and maximize our ability to manipulate the environment in any way we see fit.  But as our technological capacity advances, our cultural evolution is getting increasingly out of sync with our biological evolution, and we haven’t been anywhere close to sufficient in taking our psychological needs and limitations into account as we continue to engineer the world of tomorrow.

What we need is rationality that relies on true or at least probable premises, as this combination should actually lead a person to what is reasonable or likely to be reasonable.  I have no doubt that without making use of a virtue such as reasonableness, rationality can become dangerous and destructive, but this is the case with every tool we use whether it’s rationality or other capacities both mental and material; tools can always be harmful when misused.

“If, as the Existentialists hold, an authentic life is not handed to us on a platter but involves our own act of self-determination (self-finitization) within our time and place, then we have got to know and face up to that time, both in its (unique) threats and its promises.”

And our use of rationality on an individual level should be used to help reach this goal of self-finitization, so that we can balance the benefits of the collective with the freedom of each individual that makes up that collective.

“I for one am personally convinced that man will not take his next great step forward until he has drained to the lees the bitter cup of his own powerlessness.”

And when a certain kind of change is perceived as something to be avoided, the only way to go through with it is by perceiving the status quo as something that needs to be avoided even more so, so that a foray out of our comfort zone is perceived as an actual improvement to our way of life.  But as long as we see ourselves as already all powerful and masters over our domain, we won’t take any major leap in a new direction of self and collective improvement.  We need to come to terms with our current position in the modern world so that we can truly see what needs repair.  Whether or not we succumb to one or both of the two major existential threats facing our species, climate change and nuclear war, is contingent on whether or not we set our eyes on a new prize.

“Sartre recounts a conversation he had with an American while visiting in this country.  The American insisted that all international problems could be solved if men would just get together and be rational; Sartre disagreed and after a while discussion between them became impossible.  “I believe in the existence of evil,” says Sartre, “and he does not.” What the American has not yet become aware of is the shadow that surrounds all human Enlightenment.”

Once again, if rationality is accompanied with true premises that take our psychology into account, then international problems could be solved (or many of them at least), but Sartre is also right insofar as there are bad ideas that exist, and people that have cultivated their lives around them.  It’s not enough to have people thinking logically, nor is some kind of rational idealism up to the task of dealing with human emotion, cognitive biases, psychopathy, and other complications in human behavior that exist.

The crux of the matter is that some ideas hurt us and other ideas help us, with our perception of these effects being the main arbiter driving our conception of what is good and evil; but there’s also a disparity between what people think is good or bad for them and what is actually good or bad for them.  I think that one could very plausibly argue that if people really knew what was good or bad for them, then applying rationality (with true or plausible premises) would likely work to solve a number of issues plaguing the world at large.

“…echoing the Enlightenment’s optimistic assumption that, since man is a rational animal, the only obstacles to his fulfillment must be objective and social ones.”

And here’s an assumption that’s certainly difficult to ground since it’s based on false premises, namely that humans are inherently rational.  We are unique in the animal kingdom in the sense that we are the only animal (or one of only a few animals) that have the capacity for rational thought, foresight, and the complex level of organization made possible from its use.  I also think that the obstacles to fulfillment are objective since they can be described as facts pertaining to our psychology, sociology, and biology, even if our psychology (for example) is instantiated in a subjective way.  In other words, our subjectivity and conscious experiences are grounded on or describable in objective terms relating to how our particular brains function, how humans as a social species interact with one another, etc.  But, fulfillment can never be reached let alone maximized without taking our psychological traits and idiosyncrasies into account, for these are the ultimate constraints on what can make us happy, satisfied, fulfilled, and so on.

“Behind the problem of politics, in the present age, lies the problem of man, and this is what makes all thinking about contemporary problems so thorny and difficult…anyone who wishes to meddle in politics today had better come to some prior conclusions as to what man is and what, in the end, human life is all about…The speeches of our politicians show no recognition of this; and yet in the hands of these men, on both sides of the Atlantic, lies the catastrophic power of atomic energy.”

And as of 2018, we’ve seen the Doomsday clock now reach two minutes to midnight, having inched one minute closer to our own destruction since 2017.  The dominance hierarchy being led and reinforced by the corporatocratic plutocracy are locked into a narrow form of tunnel vision, hell bent on maintaining if not exacerbating the wealth and power disparities that plague our country and the world as a whole, despite the fact that this is not sustainable in the long run, nor best for the fulfillment of those promoting it.

We the people do share a common goal of trying to live a good, fulfilling life; to have our basic needs met, and to have no fewer rights than anybody else in society.  You’d hardly know that this common ground exists between us when looking at the state of our political sphere, likely as polarized now in the U.S. (if not more so) than even during the Civil War.  Clearly, we have a lot of work to do to reevaluate what our goals ought to be, what our priorities ought to be, and we need a realistic and informed view of what it means to be human before any of these goals can be realized.

“Existentialism is the counter-Enlightenment come at last to philosophic expression; and it demonstrates beyond anything else that the ideology of the Enlightenment is thin, abstract, and therefore dangerous.”

Yes, but the Enlightenment has also been one of the main driving forces leading us out of theocracy, out of scientific illiteracy, and towards an appreciation of reason and evidence (something the U.S. at least, is in short supply of these days), and thus it has been crucial in giving us the means for increasing our standard of living, and solving many of our problems.  While the technological advancements derived from the Enlightenment have also been a large contributor to many of our problems, the current existential threats we face including climate change and nuclear war are more likely to be solved by new technologies, not an abolition of technology nor an abolition of the Enlightenment-brand of thinking that led to technological progress.  We simply need to better inform our technological goals of the actual needs and constraints of human beings, our psychology, and so on.

“The finitude of man, as established by Heidegger, is perhaps the death blow to the ideology of the Enlightenment, for to recognize this finitude is to acknowledge that man will always exist in untruth as well as truth.  Utopians who still look forward to a future when all shadows will be dispersed and mankind will dwell in a resplendent Crystal Palace will find this recognition disheartening.  But on second thought, it may not be such a bad thing to free ourselves once and for all from the worship of the idol of progress; for utopianism-whether the brand of Marx or or Nietzsche-by locating the meaning of man in the future leaves human beings here and how, as well as all mankind up to this point, without their own meaning.  If man is to be given meaning, the Existentialists have shown us, it must be here and now; and to think this insight through is to recast the whole tradition of Western thought.”

And we ought to take our cue from Heidegger, at the very least, to admit that we are finite, our knowledge is limited, and it always will be.  We will not be able to solve every problem, and we would do ourselves and the world a lot better if we admitted our own limitations.  But to avoid being overly cynical and simply damning progress altogether, we need to look for new ways of solving our existential problems.  Part of the solution that I see for humanity moving forward is going to be a combination of advancements in a few different fields.

By making better use of genetic engineering, we’ll one day have the ability to change ourselves in remarkable ways in order to become better adapted to our current world.  We will be able to re-sync our biological evolution with our cultural evolution so we no longer feel uprooted, like a fish out of water.  Continuing research in neuroscience will allow us to learn more about how our brains function and how to optimize that functioning.  Finally, the strides we make in computing and artificial intelligence should allow us to vastly improve our simulation power and arm us with greater intelligence for solving all the problems that we face.

Overall, I don’t see progress as the enemy, but rather that we have an alignment problem between our current measures of progress, and what will actually lead to maximally fulfilling lives.

“The realization that all human truth must not only shine against an enveloping darkness, but that such truth is even shot through with its own darkness may be depressing, and not only to utopians…But it has the virtue of restoring to man his sense of the primal mystery surrounding all things, a sense of mystery from which the glittering world of his technology estranges him, but without which he is not truly human.”

And if we actually use technology to change who we are as human beings, by altering the course of natural selection and our ongoing evolution (which is bound to happen with or without our influence, for better or worse), then it’s difficult to say what the future really holds for us.  There are cultural and technological forces that are leading to transhumanism, and this may mean that one day “human beings” (or whatever name is chosen for the new species that replaces us) will be inherently rational, or whatever we’d like our future species to be.  We’ve stumbled upon the power to change our very nature, and so it’s far too naive, simplistic, unimaginative, and short-sighted to say that humans will “always” or “never” be one way or another.  Even if this were true, it wouldn’t negate the fact that one day modern humans will be replaced by a superseding species which has different qualities than what we have now.

2. The Furies

“…Existentialism, as we have seen, seeks to bring the whole man-the concrete individual in the whole context of his everyday life, and in his total mystery and questionableness-into philosophy.”

This is certainly an admirable goal to combat simplistic abstractions of what it means to be human.  We shouldn’t expect to be able to abstract a certain capacity of human beings (such as rationality), consider it in isolation (no consideration of context), formulate a theory around that capacity, and then expect to get a result that is applicable to human beings as they actually exist in the world.  Furthermore, all of the uncertainties and complexities in our human experiences, no matter how difficult they may be to define or describe, should be given their due consideration in any comprehensive philosophical system.

“In modern philosophy particularly (philosophy since Descartes), man has figured almost exclusively as an epistemological subject-as an intellect that registers sense-data, makes propositions, reasons, and seeks the certainty of intellectual knowledge, but not as the man underneath all this, who is born, suffers, and dies…But the whole man is not whole without such unpleasant things as death, anxiety, guilt, fear and trembling, and despair, even though journalists and the populace have shown what they think of these things by labeling any philosophy that looks at such aspects of human life as “gloomy” or “merely a mood of despair.”  We are still so rooted in the Enlightenment-or uprooted in it-that these unpleasant aspects of life are like Furies for us: hostile forces from which we would escape (the easiest way is to deny that the Furies exist).”

My take on all of this is simply that multiple descriptions of human existence are needed to account for all of our experiences, thoughts, values, and behavior.  And it is what we value given our particular subjectivity that needs to be primary in these descriptions, and primary with respect to how we choose to engineer the world we live in.  Who we are as a species is a complex mixture of good and bad, lightness and darkness, and stability and chaos; and we shouldn’t deny any of these attributes nor repress them simply because they make us uncomfortable.  Instead, we would do much better to face who we are head on, and then try to make our lives better while taking our limitations into account.

“We are the children of an enlightenment, one which we would like to preserve; but we can do so only by making a pact with the old goddesses.  The centuries-long evolution of human reason is one of man’s greatest triumphs, but it is still in process, still incomplete, still to be.  Contrary to the rationalist tradition, we now know that it is not his reason that makes man man, but rather that reason is a consequence of that which really makes him man.  For it is man’s existence as a self-transcending self that has forged and formed reason as one of its projects.”

This is well said, although I’d prefer to couch this in different terms: it is ultimately our capacity to imagine that makes us human and able to transcend our present selves by pointing toward a future self and a future world.  We do this in part by updating our models of the world, simulating new worlds, and trying to better understand the world we live in by engaging with it, re-shaping it, and finding ways of better predicting its causal structure.  Reason and rationality have been integral in updating our models of the world, but they’ve also been high-jacked to some degree by a kind of super-normal stimuli reinforced by technology and our living in a world that is entirely alien to our evolutionary niche, and which have largely dominated our lives in a way that overlooks our individualism, emotions, and feelings.

Abandoning reason and rationality is certainly not the answer to this existential problem; rather, we just need to ensure that they’re being applied in a way that aligns with our moral imperatives and that they’re ultimately grounded on our subjective human psychology.

Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 3, Chapter 10: Sartre)

In the previous post from this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I delved into some of Martin Heidegger’s work, particularly his philosophy as represented in his most seminal work, Being and Time.  Jean-Paul Sartre was heavily influenced by Heidegger and so it’s fortunate for us that Barrett explores him in the very next chapter.  As such, Sartre will be the person of interest in this post.

To get a better sense of Sartre’s philosophy, we should start by considering what life was like in the French Resistance from 1940-45.  Sartre’s idea of human freedom from an existentialist perspective is made clear in his The Republic of Silence where he describes the mode of human existence for the French during the Nazi German occupation of France:

“…And because of all this we were free.  Because the Nazi venom seeped into our thoughts, every accurate thought was a conquest.  Because an all-powerful police tried to force us to hold our tongues, every word took on the value of a declaration of principles.  Because we were hunted down, every one of our gestures had the weight of a solemn commitment…”

I think we can interpret this as describing the brute authenticity of all the most salient features of our existence that can result in the face of severe forces of oppression.  By living knee-deep in an oppressive atmosphere with little if any libertarian freedom, one may inevitably reevaluate what they consider to be most important; they may exercise a great deal more care in terms of deciding what to think about, what to say, or what to do at any given time; and all of this may serve to make that which is thought about, said, or done, to be far more meaningful and free of the noise and superficiality that usually accompanies our day-to-day goings on.  Putting it this way is not to diminish the heinousness of any kind of violent oppression, but merely to point out that oppression can make one consider every part of their existence with a lot more care and concern, taking absolutely nothing for granted while living in such a precarious position.

And when standing in the face of death day after day, not only is the radical contingency of human existence made more clear than ever, but so is that which is intrinsically most valuable to us:

“Exile, captivity, and especially death (which we usually shrink from facing at all in happier days) became for us the habitual objects of our concern…And the choice that each of us made of his life was an authentic choice because it was made face to face with death, because it could always have been expressed in these terms: “Rather death than…”

This is certainly a powerful way of defining authenticity, or at least setting its upper bound; by saying that you’d rather die than abstain from some particular thought, speech, or action is to make a declaration of what’s truly the most meaningful to any individual given their current knowledge and the conditions of their own existence; and this is true even if their thoughts or actions are immoral or uninformed, for nothing matters other than the fact that one has done so with an unparalleled amount of care and personal significance.

While all of this was going on, the French government and the bourgeoisie were seemingly powerless, undetermined, and incapable of any significant recourse:

“…’Les salauds’ became a potent term for Sartre in those days-the salauds, the stinkers, the stuffy and self-righteous people congealed in the insincerity of their virtues and vices.  This atmosphere of decay breathes through Sartre’s first novel, Nausea, and it is no accident that the quotation on the flyleaf is from Celine, the poet of the abyss, of the nihilism and disgust of that period.  The nausea in Sartre’s book is the nausea of existence itself; and to those who are ready to use this as an excuse for tossing out the whole of Sartrian philosophy, we may point out that it is better to encounter one’s existence in disgust than never to encounter it at all-as the salaud in his academic or bourgeois or party-leader strait jacket never does.”

The sheer lack of personal commitment and passion plaguing so many would certainly help to reinforce a feeling of disgust or even propagate feelings of nihilism and helplessness.  And the kind of superficiality that Sartre perceived around him was (and of course, still is) in so many ways the norm; it’s the general way that people conduct themselves, and not only socially but even personally in the sense that one’s view of themselves and who they ought to be is heavily and externally imposed from collective norms and expectations.

“The essential freedom, the ultimate and final freedom that cannot be taken from a man, is to say No.  This is the basic premise in Sartre’s view of human freedom: freedom is in its very essence negative, though this negativity is also creative.”

This is an interesting conception, thinking of the essence of freedom as having a negative character, although perhaps we can compare this to or analogize this with the general concept of negative liberty (freedom from interference from others) as opposed to positive liberty (having the means and freedom to achieve one’s goals).  Since there are a number of contingencies that can prevent positive liberty from being realized, negative liberty (which could include the freedom to say ‘No’) seems to be the more fundamental or basic of the two.  It makes sense to think of this as the final freedom too, as Sartre does, since physical force and contingency can take away anyone’s ability to do all else, except to say ‘No’ or at the very least to think ‘No’ (in the event that one is coerced to say ‘Yes’).  In other words, one can have a number of freedoms taken away, but nobody can take away your freedom to desire one outcome over another, even if that desire can never be satisfied.

At this point it’s also worth mentioning that Sartre’s writings seem to reflect conflicting views on what constitutes human freedom.  His views on freedom may have changed over the course of his written works or he may just have had two different conceptions in mind.  On the one hand, in his earlier works, he seemed to refer to freedom in an ontological sense, as a property of human consciousness.  In this conception, he seemed to view freedom as the ability of a conscious agent to choose the attitude they hold and how they react toward the circumstances they find themselves in.  This would mean that everybody, even a prisoner held captive, is free insofar as they have the freedom to choose if they’ll accept or resist their situation.  Later on, Sartre began to focus on material freedom, that is, freedom from coercion.  In any case, both of these conceptions of freedom still seem to resonate with the concept of negative liberty mentioned earlier.  The only distinction would be that ontological freedom is the one form of negative liberty that is truly inalienable and final:

“Where all the avenues of action are blocked for a man, this freedom may seem a tiny and unimportant thing; but it is in fact total and absolute, and Sartre is right to insist upon it as such, for it affords man his final dignity, that of being man.”

Along with this equating human freedom with consciousness (or at least with conscious will) is the consideration that consciousness is the only epistemological certainty we have:

“He (Descartes) proposes to reject all beliefs so long as they can in any way be doubted, to resist all temptations to say Yes until his understanding is convinced according to its own light; so he rejects belief in the existence of an external world, of minds other than his own, of his own body, of his memories and sensations.  What he cannot doubt is his own consciousness, for to doubt is to be conscious, and therefore by doubting its existence he would affirm it.  “

Sartre takes this Cartesian position to the nth degree, by constraining his interpretation of human beings with his interpretation of Cartesian skepticism:

“But before this certitude shone for him (Descartes), (and even after it, before he passed on to other truths), he was a nothingness, a negativity, existing outside of nature and history, for he had temporarily abolished all belief in a world of bodies and memories.  Thus man cannot be interpreted, Sartre says, as a solid substantial thing existing amid the plenitude of things that make up a world; he is beyond nature because in his negative capability he transcends it.  Man’s freedom is to say No, and this means that he is the being by whom nothingness comes into being.”

To conclude that one is in fact a nothingness, even within the context of Cartesian doubt is, I think, going a bit too far.  While I can agree that consciousness in many ways transcends physical objects and the kind of essence we ascribe to them, it doesn’t transcend existence itself; and what is a nothingness really other than a lack of existence?

And one can think of consciousness as having some attribute of negativity, in the sense that we can think of things and even think of ourselves as being not this or not that; we can think of our desires in terms of what we don’t want; but I think this quality of negation can only serve to differentiate our conscious will (or perhaps ego) from the rest of our experience.  Since our consciousness can’t negate itself, I don’t think that this quality can negate us such that we become an actual nothingness.

“For Sartre there is no unalterable structure of essences or values given prior to man’s own existence.  That existence has meaning, finally, only as the liberty to say No, and by saying No to create a world.  If we remove God from the picture, the liberty which reveals itself in the Cartesian doubt is total and absolute; but thereby also the more anguished, and this anguish is the irreducible destiny and dignity of man.”

And here we see that common element within existentialism: the idea that existence precedes essence, where human beings are thought to have no inherent essence but only an essence that is derived from one’s own existence and one’s own consciousness.  Going back to Sartre’s conception of human freedom, perhaps the idea of saying No to create a world is grounded on the principle of our setting boundaries or limits to the world we make for ourselves; an idea that I can certainly get behind.

However, even if we remove God from the equation, which is certainly justified from the perspective of Cartesian skepticism, let alone from the lack of empirical evidence to support such a belief, we still can’t get around our having some essential human character or qualities (even if no God existed to conceive of such an essence).  While I agree that of the possible lives that you or I can have, it shouldn’t be up to others to choose which life that should be, nor what its ultimate meaning or purpose is, if we agree that there are a finite number of possible lives to choose from (individually and collectively as a species), given our constraints as finite beings (a thoroughly existential claim at that), then I think we can say that we do have an inherent essence that is defined by these biological and physical limitations.

So I do share Sartre’s view that our lives shouldn’t be defined by others, by social norms, nor defined by qualities found in only some of the possible lives one has access to; but it needs to be said that there are still only a finite number of possible life trajectories which will necessarily exclude some of the possibilities given to other types of organisms, and which will exclude any options that are not physically or logically possible.  In other words, I think human beings do have an inherent essence that is defined to some degree by the possibility space we as a species exist within; we just tend to think of essence as something that has to be well-defined, like some short list of properties or functions (which I think is too limited a view).

“Thus Sartre ends by allotting to man the kind of freedom that Descartes has ascribed only to God.  It is, he says, the freedom Descartes secretly would have given to man had he not been limited by the theological convictions of his time and place.”

And this is certainly a valid point.  What’s interesting to me with respect to the whole Cartesian experiment was that Descartes began by doubting the external world and only by introducing an ad hoc conception of a deity, let alone a benevolent deity, could he trust that his senses weren’t deceiving him.  This is despite the fact that this belief in God would be just as likely to be a deception as any other belief (and so Descartes attempted to solve this problem through invalid circular reasoning).

More to the point however is the fact that we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a “real” external world and one that is imagined or illusory (unbeknownst to us) anyway, and so we might as well simply stick with the fewest assumptions that yield the best predictions of future experiences.  And this includes the assumption of our having some degree of human freedom that directs our conscious will and desires; a view of our having some control over what trajectory we take in life:

“He is not subordinate to a realm of essences: rather, He creates essences and causes them to be what they are.  Hence such a God transcends the laws of logic and mathematics.  As His (God’s) existence precedes all essences, so man’s existence precedes his essence: he exists, and out of the free project which his existence can be he makes himself what he is.  “

It’s worth considering the psychological motivations for positing and defining a God that has qualities reminiscent of human creativity and teleological intentionality; that is to say, we often project our human capacity for creation and goal-directedness onto some idealized being conception that accounts for our existence in the same way that we see ourselves as accounting for the existence of any and all human constructs, be they watches, paintings, or entire cities.  We see ourselves giving purpose and functional descriptions to the things we make and then can’t help but ask what our own purposes may be; and if so, then we feel inclined to assume it must be someone other than ourselves that gives us this purpose, finally arriving at a God-concept of some kind.  And lo and behold, throughout history the gods we see in all the religions have been remarkably human with their anger, jealousy, pettiness, impulsiveness, and retributive sense of justice, thus illustrating that gods are made in man’s image as opposed to the contrary.  But this kind of thinking only leads to our diminishing our own degree of personal freedom, bestowing it to a concept instead (whether bestowed to “society” or to a “deity”), and thus it abstracts away our own individuality and responsibility.

Despite the God concept permeating much of human history, we eventually challenged it with the greatest challenges precipitating from the Enlightenment, causing many of us to discover the freedom we had all along:

“When God dies, man takes the place of God.  Such had been the prophecy of Dostoevski and Nietzsche, and Sartre on this point is their heir.  The difference, however, is that Dostoevski and Nietzsche were frenzied prophets, whereas Sartre advances his view with all the lucidity of Cartesian reason and advances it, moreover, as a basis for humanitarian and democratic social action.  To put man in the place of God may seem, to traditionalists, an unspeakable piece of diabolism; but in Sartre’s case it is done by a thinker who, to judge from his writings, is a man of overwhelming good will and generosity.”

And this idea of human beings taking the place of God, is really nothing more than the realization of our having projected qualities that were ours from the very beginning.  This may make some people uncomfortable because they think that by eliminating the God concept, that humans are somehow seeing ourselves as a God; but we still have the same limitations that human beings have always had, with our limited knowledge and our existing in a world with many forces out of our control.  But now we have an added sense of freedom that further empowers us as individuals to do the most we can with our lives and to give our lives meaning on our own terms, rather than having them externally imposed on us (see the previous post on Heidegger, and the concept of Das Man or the “They” self).  Sartre’s appreciation and promotion of this idea is admirable to say the least, as it seeks to preferentially value human beings over ideas, to value consciousness over abstractions, and to maximize each person having a voice that they can call their own.

1.  Being-for-itself and Being-in-itself

“Being-for-itself (coextensive with the realm of consciousness) is perpetually beyond itself.  Our thought goes beyond itself, toward tomorrow or yesterday, and toward the outer edges of the world.  Human existence is thus a perpetual self-transcendence: in existing we are always beyond ourselves.  Consequently we never possess our being as we possess a thing.”

This definitely resonates with Heidegger’s conception of temporality, where our understanding of our world is constrained by our past experiences and is always projecting into the future in terms of our always wanting to become a certain kind of person (even if this vision of our future self changes over time).  And here, Sartre’s conception of Being-for-itself is meant to be contrasted with his concept of Being-in-itself; where the former represents consciousness and the latter non-conscious or unconscious material objects.

As mentioned in my last post, I agree with there being a temporally transcendent quality of consciousness, and I think it can be best explained by the fact that our perception of the world is operating under a schema of prediction: our brains are always trying to predict what will happen next in terms of our sensations and these predictions are what we actually experience (as opposed to sensory information itself), where we experience a kind of controlled hallucination that evolves its modeling in response to any prediction error encountered.  We try to make these perceptual predictions come true and reduce the prediction error by either changing our mental models of the world’s causal structure to better account for the incoming sensory information or through a series of actions involving our manipulating the world in some way or another.

“This notion of the For-itself may seem obscure, but we encounter it on the most ordinary occasions.  I have been to a party; I come away, and with a momentary pang of sadness I say, “I am not myself.”  It is necessary to take this proposition quite literally as something that only man can say of himself, because only man can say it to himself.  I have the feeling of coming to myself after having lost or mislaid my being momentarily in a social encounter that estranged me from myself.  This is the first and immediate level on which the term yields its meaning.”

And here’s where the For-itself concept shows the distinction between our individual self (what Heidegger would likely call our authentic self) and the externalized self that is more or less a product of social norms and expectations stemming from the human collective.

“But the next and deeper level of meaning occurs when the feeling of sadness leads me to think in a spirit of self-reproach that I am not myself in a still more fundamental sense: I have not realized so many of the plans or projects that make up my being; I am not myself because I do not measure up to myself. “

So aside from what society expects of us, we also have our own expectations and goals, many of which that never come into fruition.  Sartre sees this as a kind of comparison where we’re evaluating our current view of ourselves with the more idealized view of ourselves that we’re constantly striving for.  And we can see this anytime we think or say something like “I shouldn’t have done that because I’m better than that…”  We’re obviously not better than ourselves, but it’s because we’re always comparing our perspective to the ideal model we hold of ourselves that we in some sense transcend any present sense of self, and this view allows us to better understand Sartre’s idea that we’re always existing beyond ourselves.

Barrett describes Sartre’s view in more detail:

“Beneath this level too there is still another and deeper meaning, rooted in the very nature of my being: I am not myself, and I can never be myself, because my being stretching out beyond itself at any given moment exceeds itself.  I am always simultaneously more and less than I am.  Herein lies the fundamental uneasiness, or anxiety, of the human condition, for Sartre.  Because we are perpetually flitting beyond ourselves, or falling behind our possibilities, we seek to ground our existence, to make it more secure.”

We might even say that we conjure up a kind of essence of who we are because we’re trying to solidify our existence such that we’re more or less like the objects we interact with in our world.  And we do this through our imagination by projecting our identity into the future, effectively defining ourselves in terms of the person we want to become rather than the person we are now.  However, our imagination is both a blessing and a curse, for it is through imagination that we express our creativity, simulating new worlds for ourselves that we can choose from; but, our imagination is also a means of comparing our current state of affairs to some ideal model, in many cases showing us what we don’t have (yet want) and showing us a number of lost opportunities which can further constrain our future space of possibilities.  Whether we love it or hate it, our capacity for imagination is both the cause and the cure for our suffering; and it is a capacity that is fundamental to our existence as human beings.

“The For-itself struggles to become the In-itself, to attain the rocklike and unshakable solidity of a thing.  But this is can never do so long as it is conscious and alive.  Man is doomed to the radical insecurity and contingency of his being; for without it he would not be man but merely a thing and would not have the human capacity for transcendence of his given situation.”

It seems then that our projection into the future, equating our self-hood with some preconceived future self, not only serves as an attempt to objectify our subjectivity, but it may also be psychologically motivated by the uncertainty that we recognize in both our short-term and long-term lives.  We feel uncomfortable and anxious about the contingency of our lives and the sheer number of possible future life trajectories, and so we conceptualize one path as if it were a fixed object and simply refer to it as “me”.

“With enormous ingenuity and virtuosity Sartre interweaves these two notions-Being-in-itself and Being-for-itself-to elucidate the complexities of human psychology.”

Sartre’s conception of Being-in-itself and Being-for-itself are largely grounded on the distinction between consciousness and that which is not conscious.  On the surface, it looks like merely another way of expressing the distinction between mind and matter, but the distinction is far more nuanced and complex.  Being-for-itself is defined by its relation to Being-in-itself, where, for Sartre, Being-for-itself is, among other things, in a constant state of want for synthesis with Being-in-itself, despite the fact that Being-for-itself involves a kind of knowledge that it is not in-itself.  Being-for-itself is in a constant state of incompleteness, where a lack of some kind permeates its mode of being; it’s constantly aware of what it is not, and whatever it may be, lacking any essential structure to build off of, is created out of nothingness.  In other words, Being-for-itself creates its own being with a blank canvas.

As I mentioned above, I don’t particularly agree with Sartre’s conception here, that we as conscious human beings create our being or our essence with a blank canvas, as there are (to stick with the artistic analogy) a limited number of ways that the canvas can be “painted”, there are a limited number of existential “colors” to work with, and while the future may be undetermined or unpredictable to some degree, this doesn’t mean that any possible future that comes to mind can come into being.  As human beings that have evolved from other forms of life on this planet, we have a number of innate or biologically-constrained predispositions including: our instincts and basic behavioral drives, the kinds of conditioning that actually work to modify our behavior, and a psychology that can only thrive within a finite range of behavioral and environmental conditions.

I see this “blank canvas” analogy as just another version of the blank slate or tabula rasa model of human knowledge within the social sciences.  But this model has been falsified with findings in behavioral genetics, psychology, and neurobiology, where various forms of evidence have shown that human beings are pre-wired for social interaction, and have genetically dependent capacities such as intelligence, memory, and reason.  And even taking into account the complicated relation between genes and environment, where the expression of the former is dependent on the latter, we still have environmental conditions that are finite, contingent, externally imposed, and which drastically shape our behavior whether we realize it or not.

On top of this, as I’ve argued elsewhere, we don’t have a libertarian form of free will either, which means that if we could go back in time to some set of initial conditions (where we had made a conscious choice of some kind, and perhaps a significant life altering choice at that), we wouldn’t be able to choose an alternative course of action, barring any quantum randomness.  This doesn’t mean that we can’t still make use of some compatibilist conceptions of free will, nor does it mean that we shouldn’t be held accountable for our actions, as these are all important for maintaining effective behavioral conditioning; but it does mean that we don’t have the kind of blank canvas that Sartre had envisioned.

The role that nothingness plays in Sartre’s philosophy goes beyond the incompleteness resulting from a self that is in some sense defined by our projection into the future.

“The Self, indeed, is in Sartre’s treatment, as in Buddhism, a bubble, and a bubble has nothing at its center. (but not nihilism)…For Sartre, on the other hand, the nothingness of the Self is the basis for the will to action: the bubble is empty and will collapse, and so what is left us but the energy and passion to spin that bubble out?”

I can certainly see some parallels between Buddhism and Sartre’s conception of the Self, where, for example, the fact that we lack a persistent identity, instead having a mode of being that’s dynamic and based on a projection into an uncertain future, is analogous to or at least consistent with the Buddhist conception of the Self being a kind of illusion.  I also tend to agree with the basic idea that we don’t have any ultimate control or ownership over our thoughts and feelings even if we feel like we do from time to time, and our experiences seem to be just one infinitesimal, fleeting moment after another.  Our attention and behavior are absorbed and shaped by the world around us, and it’s only when we fixate or identify ourselves as a concept, a thought, or a feeling, or a certain combination of these elements, that we conjure up a seemingly objective and essential sense of Self.  While Sartre’s philosophy appears to grant us a greater level of free will and human freedom than that of Buddhist thought, it’s this essential self, this eternal self or identity, interrelated with the concept of a permanent soul that both Sartre and Buddhism reject.

“Man’s existence is absurd in the midst of a cosmos that knows him not; the only meaning he can give himself is through the free project that he launches out of his own nothingness.”

This is one of the core ideas in existentialism, and also in Sartre’s own work, that I most appreciate: the idea that we (have to) give our own lives their meaning and purpose, as opposed to their being externally imposed on us from a religion, a deity (whether real or imagined), a culture, or any other source aside from ourselves, if we’re to avoid submitting the core of our being to some kind of authoritarian tyranny.

Human beings were not designed for some particular purpose, aside from natural selection having “designed” us for survival, and perhaps a thermodynamic argument could be made that all life serves the “purpose” of generating more entropy than if our planet had no life at all (which means that life actually speeds up the inevitable heat death of the universe).  But, because our intelligence and the kind of consciousness we’ve gained through evolution grants us a kind of open-ended creativity and imagination, with technology and cultural or memetic evolution effectively superseding our “selfish genes”, we no longer have to live with survival as our primary directive.  We now have the power to realize that our existence transcends our evolutionary past, and we have the ability to define ourselves based on our primary goals in life, whatever they may be, given the constraints of the world we find ourselves born into or embedded within at the present moment.  And it’s this transcendent quality that we find in a lot of Sartre’s work.

“He (Sartre) misses the very root of all of Heidegger’s thinking, which is Being itself.  There is, in Sartre, Being-for-itself and Being-in-itself but there is no Being…Sartre has advanced as the fundamental thesis of his Existentialism the proposition that existence precedes essence.  This thesis is true for Heidegger as well, in the historical, social, and biographical sense that man comes into existence and makes himself to be what he is.  But for Heidegger another proposition is even more basic than this: namely, Being precedes existence.”

In contrast with Sartre then, with Heidegger we see an ontological requirement for Being itself, prior to even having the possibility for Sartre’s distinction between Being-for-itself and Being-in-itself.  That is to say, these kinds of distinctions would, for Heidegger at least, require a more basic field of Being within which one may be able to posit distinctive types of Being.  It would seem that some ultimate region of Being would be necessary in order for the transcendent quality of consciousness to manifest in any way whatsoever:

“To be sure, Sartre has gone a considerable step beyond Descartes by making the essence of human consciousness to be transcendence: that is, to be conscious is, immediately and as such, to point beyond that isolated act of consciousness and therefore to be beyond or above it…But this step forward by Sartre is not so considerable if the transcending subject has nowhere to transcend himself: if there is not an open field or region of Being in which the fateful dualism of subject and object ceases to be.”

One might also wonder how this all fits in with the question of how a conscious subject can ever truly know an object in its entirety.  For example, Kant believed that any object in itself, which he referred to more generally as the noumenon (as opposed to the phenomenon, the object as we perceive it), was inherently unknowable.  Nietzsche thought that it didn’t matter whether or not we could know the object in itself, if such an inaccessible realm of knowledge pertaining to any object even existed in the first place.  Rather, he thought the only thing that mattered was our ability to master the object, to manipulate it and use it according to our own will (the will to power).  For Sartre, the only thing that really mattered was the will to action, which was primarily a will to some form of revolutionary action, so he doesn’t really address the problem of knowledge with respect to the subject truly knowing some object or other (nor does he specify whether or not there even is any problem, at least within his seminal work Being and Nothingness).

Heidegger was less concerned with this issue of knowledge and was more concerned with grounding the possibility of there being a subject or object in the first place:

“For what Heidegger proposes is a more basic question than that of Descartes and Kant: namely, how is it possible for the subject to be? and for the object to be?  And his answer is: Because both stand out in the truth, or un-hiddenness, of Being.  This notion of truth of Being is absent from the philosophy of Sartre; indeed, nowhere in his vast Being and Nothingness does he deal with the problem of truth in a radical and existential way: so far as he understands truth at all, he takes it in the ordinary intellectualistic sense that has been traditional with non-existential philosophers.  In the end (as well as at his very beginning) Sartre turns out thus to be a Cartesian rationalist-one, to be sure, whose material is impassioned and existential, but for all that not any less a Cartesian in his ultimate dualism between the For-itself and the In-itself.”

I don’t think it’s fair to label Sartre a Cartesian rationalist as Barrett does here, since Sartre seems to actually depart from Descartes’ form of rationalism when it comes to evaluating the overall structure of consciousness.  And there doesn’t seem to be any ultimate dualism between Being-for-itself and Being-in-itself either, if the former is instantiated or experienced as a kind of negation of the latter.  Perhaps if Sartre had used the terms Being-in-itself and not-Being-in-itself, this would be made more clear.  In any case, it’s not as if these two instantiations of being need be separate substances, especially if, as Sartre says in Being and Nothingness, that:

“The ontological error of Cartesian rationalism is not to have seen that if the absolute is defined by the primacy of existence over essence, it cannot be conceived as a substance.”

So at the very least, it seems mistaken to say that Sartre is a substance dualist given his position on existence preceding essence, even if he may be adequately described as some kind of property dualist.

“But, again like every humanism, it leaves unasked the question: What is the root of man?  In this search for roots for man-a search that has, as we have seen, absorbed thinkers and caused the malaise of poets for the last hundred and fifty years-Sartre does not participate.  He leaves man rootless.”

Sartre may not have explicitly described any kind of truth for man that wasn’t a truth of the intellect, unlike Heidegger who had his conception of the truth of Being, but Sartre did also describe a pre-reflective aspect of consciousness that didn’t seem to be identified as either the subject nor anything about the subject.  There’s a mysterious aspect of consciousness that’s simply hard to pin down, and it may be the kind of ethereal concept that one could equate with some kind of pre-propositional realm of Being.  This may not be enough to say that Sartre, in the end, leaves us rooted (so to speak), but it seems to be a concept that implicitly pulls his philosophy in that direction.

2. Literature as a Mode of Action

Sartre places a lot of importance on literature as a means of expressing the author’s freedom in a way that depends on an interaction with the freedom of the reader.

“…the perfect example of what he believes a writer should do and what he himself tries to do in his own later fiction: that is, grapple with the problems of man in his time and milieu.”

As mentioned earlier in this post, Sartre’s personal experience during the time of the French Resistance colored his written works with an imperative to assert humanity’s radical freedom and did so in relation to the historical developments that affected the masses, the working class, and the oppressed.

“It is always to the idea, and particularly the idea as it leads to social action, that Sartre responds.  Hence he cannot do justice, either in his critical theory or in his actual practice of literary criticism, to poetry, which is precisely that form of human expression in which the poet-and the reader who would enter the poet’s world-must let Being be, to use Heidegger’s phrase, and not attempt to coerce it by the will to action or the will to intellectualization.  The absence of the poet in Sartre, as a literary man, is thus another evidence of what, on the philosophical level, leads to a deficiency in his theory of Being.”

And though Sartre may not be any kind of poet, that doesn’t mean his work doesn’t have some of the subjective, emotionally charged character that one finds in poetry.  But, Barret’s point is well taken as Sartre’s works don’t have the kind of aesthetic quality, the irrationality, nor do they make as much use of metaphor, as the majority of popular poets have.

“In discharging his freedom man also wills to accept the responsibility of it, thus becoming heavy with his own guilt.  Conscience, Heidegger has said, is the will to be guilty-that is, to accept the guilt that we know will be ours whatever course of action we take.”

Freedom and responsibility clearly go hand in hand for Sartre (and for Heidegger as well), and this very basic idea makes sense from the perspective that if one believes themselves to be free, then they must necessarily accept that they own their actions insofar as they were done freely.  As for conscience, rather than Heidegger’s conception of the will to be guilty, I’d prefer to describe it as simply a manifestation of our perception of both responsibility and duty, although one can also aptly describe conscience as a product of evolution that tends to produce in us a more pro-social set of behaviors.

The tendency for many to try and absolve themselves of their freedom, by submitting themselves to the conception of self that society or others draw up for them is addressed in Sartre’s 1944 French play No Exit.  In this play, the three main characters find themselves in Hell, being punished in a way that is analogous to that of Dante’s Inferno, in this case taunted by a symbol representing the inauthentic or superficial way they lived their lives:

“Having practiced “bad faith” in life-which, in Sartre’s terms, is the surrendering of one’s human liberty in order to possess, or try to possess, one’s being as a thing-the three characters now have what they had sought to surrender themselves to.  Having died, they cannot change anything in their past lives, which are exactly what they are, no more and no less, just like the static being of things…But this is exactly what they long for in life-to lose their own subjective being by identifying themselves with what they were in the eyes of other people.”

By defining ourselves in any essential or fixed way, for example, by defining ourselves based on the unchangeable past (as all its features are indeed fixed), we lose the freedom we’d have if our identity had been directed toward the uncertain future and the possible goals and projects contained therein.  In this case with No Exit, the characters were defining themselves based on the desires and expectations of society or at least of several members of society that these patrons of Hell deemed high in status or social clout.

And going back to the relation between freedom and responsibility, we can see how one can try and rid themselves of responsibility by holding an attitude that they have no freedom regarding who they are or what they do, that they must do what it is they do (perhaps because society or others “say so”, although it may be other reasons).  This can be a slippery thing to contemplate however, when we consider different conceptions of free will.

While it’s technically true that we don’t have any kind of causa sui free will (since it’s logically impossible to have this in a deterministic or random/indeterministic world), it’s still useful to conceive of our having a kind of freedom of the will that distinguishes between animals or people that have varying degrees of autonomy.  This is similar to the conception of free will that a court of law uses, to distinguish between instances of coercion or not being of sound mind and that of conscious intentions made with a reasonable capacity for evaluating the legality or consequences off those intentions.

It’s also important to account for the fact that we can’t predict all of our own actions (nor the actions of others), and so there’s also a folk psychological concept of free will implied by this uncertainty.  Most of these conceptions are psychologically useful, they play a positive role in maintaining the efficacy of our punishment reward systems, and overall they resonate with how we lives our lives as human beings.

In general then, I think that Sartre’s conception of tying freedom and responsibility together jives with our folk psychological conceptions of free will, and it serves a use for promoting a very functional and motivating way to live one’s life.

“As a writer Sartre is always the impassioned rhetorician of the idea; and the rhetorician, no matter how great and how eloquent his rhetoric, never has the full being of the artist.  If Sartre were really a poet and an artist, we would have from him a different philosophy…”

Although Barrett seems to be pigeonholing artists to some degree here (which isn’t entirely fair to Sartre), it’s true that what we find in Sartre’s written works are not artistic in any traditional or classical sense.  Even so, I think it’s fair to say that postmodern art has benefited from and been influenced by the works of many great thinkers including Sartre.  And the task of the artist is often informing us of our own human condition in its particular time and place, including many aspects of that condition that aren’t typically talked about or explicitly in our stream of consciousness.  Sartre’s works, both written and performed, did just that; they informed us of our modern condition and of a number of interesting perspectives of our own human psychology, and they did so in a thoroughly existential way.  Sartre was an artist then, in my mind at least.

3. Existential Psychology

“Behind all Sartre’s intellectual dialectic we perceive that the In-itself is for him the archetype of nature: excessive, fruitful, blooming nature-the woman, the female.  The For-itself, by contrast, is for Sartre the masculine aspects of human psychology: it is that in virtue of which man chooses himself in his radical liberty, makes projects, and thereby gives his life what strictly human meaning it has.”

And here some of the sexist nuances, both explicitly and implicitly in the minds of Sartre and his contemporaries, starts to become apparent.  The idea that nature has more of a female character is certainly far more justifiable and sensible because females are the only sex giving birth to new life and continuing the cycle, but the idea that the male traits subsume the human qualities of choice, freedom, and worthwhile projects, is one resulting from historical dominance hierarchies, which were traditionally patriarchal or androcentric.  But modern human life has illustrated this to be no longer applicable to humans generally.  In any case, we can still use traditional archetypes that make use of this kind of sexual categorization, as long as we’re careful to avoid taking those archetypes too seriously in terms of influencing an essentialist view of the human sexes and what our roles in society ought to be.

“The essence of man…lies not in the Oedipus complex (as Freud held) nor in the inferiority complex (as Adler maintained); it lies rather in the radical liberty of man’s existence by which he chooses himself and so makes himself what he is.”

And this of course is just a reiteration of the Sartrean existence precedes essence adage, but it’s interesting to see that Sartre seems to dismiss much of modern psychology, evolutionary psychology and any role for nature or innate predispositions in human beings.  One may wonder as well how humans can be free of traditional essentialism in Sartre’s mind while at the same time he assumes some kinds of roles or archetypes that are essentially male and female.  I don’t think we can avoid essentialism in its entirety, even if the crux of Sartre’s existential adage is valid.  And I don’t think Sartre avoids it either, even if he tries to.

“Man is not to be seen as the passive plaything of unconscious forces, which determine what he is to be.  In fact, Sartre denies the existence of an unconscious mind altogether; wherever the mind manifests itself, he holds, it is conscious.”

I’m not sure if Sartre’s denial of an unconscious mind is just a play on semantics (i.e. he’s defining “mind” exclusively as the neurological activity that directly leads to consciousness) or if he truly rejected the idea that there were any forces motivating our behavior that weren’t explicit in our consciousness.  If the latter is true, then how does Sartre account for marketing strategies, cognitive biases, denial, moral intuition, and a host of other things that rely on or operate under psychological predispositions that are largely unknown to the person who possesses them?  The totality of our behavior simply can’t be accounted for without some form of neurological processing happening under the radar (so to speak), which serves some psychological purpose.

“A human personality or human life is not to be understood in terms of some hypothetical unconscious at work behind the scenes and pulling all the wires that manipulate the puppet of consciousness.  A man is his life, says Sartre; which means that he is nothing more nor less than the totality of acts that make up that life.”

This is interesting when viewed through the lens of the future, our intended projects, and the kind of person we may strive to be.  It seems that in order for this excerpt above to be correct, according to Sartre’s (and perhaps Heidegger’s) own reasoning, that we’d have to include our intentions and goals as well; we can’t simply look at the facticity of our past, but must also look at how the self transcends into the future.  And although Sartre or others may not want to identify themselves with some of the forces operating in their unconscious, the fact of the matter is, if we want to be able to predict our own behavior and that of others as effectively as possible, then we have no choice but to make use of some concept of an unconscious mind, unconscious psychology, etc. It may not be the primary way we ought to think of ourselves, but it’s an important part of any viable model of human behavior.

Analogously, one may say that they don’t want to be identified with their brain (“I am not my brain!”), and yet if you asked them if they’d rather have a brain transplant or a body transplant (say, everything below the neck), they would undoubtedly choose the latter.  Why might this be so?  An obvious answer is because their entire personality, all that they value, believe, and know, is all made manifest in the structure of their brain.  Now we may see a brain on a table and have difficulty equating it with a person, and yet we can have an entire human body, only lacking a brain, and we have no person at all.  The only additional thing needed for personhood is that brain lying on the table, assuming it is a brain inherently capable of instantiating a personality, consciousness, etc.

Another aspect of Sartrean psychology is the conception of how the Other (some other conscious self) views us given the constraints of consciousness and our ability to see another person from that person’s own subjective point of view:

“This relation to the Other is one of the most sensational and best-known aspects of Sartre’s psychology.  To the other person, who look at me from the outside, I seem an object, a thing; my subjectivity with its inner freedom escapes his gaze.  Hence his tendency is always to convert me into the object he sees.  The gaze of the Other penetrates to the depths of my existence, freezes and congeals it.  It is this, according to Sartre, that turns love and particularly sexual love into a perpetual tension and indeed warfare.  The lover wishes to possess the beloved, but the freedom of the beloved (which is his or her human essence) cannot be possessed; hence, the lover tends to reduce the beloved to an object for the sake of possessing it.”

I think this view has merit and has a lot to do with how our brains make simplistic or heuristic models of the entities and causal structure we perceive around us.  Although we can recognize that some of those other entities are subjective beings such as ourselves, living with the same kinds of intrinsic conscious experiences that we do, it’s often easier and more automatic to treat them as if they were an object.  We can’t directly experience another person’s subjectivity, which is what makes it so easy to escape our attention and consideration.  More to the point though, Sartre was claiming how this tendency to objectify another penetrates many facets of our lives, introducing a source of conflict with our relations to one another.  Ironically, this could also be described as something we do unconsciously, where we don’t explicitly say to ourselves “this person is an object,” but rather we may explicitly see them as a person and yet treat them as an object in order to serve some implicit psychological goal (e.g. to feel that you possess your significant other).

“He is right to make the liberty of choice, which is the liberty of a conscious action, total and absolute, no matter how small the area of our power: in choosing, I have to say No somewhere, and this No, which is total and totally exclusive of other alternatives, is dreadful; but only by shutting myself up in it is any resoluteness of action possible.  “

Referring back to the beginning of this post, regarding the liberty of choice (in particular a kind of negative liberty) as the ultimate form of human freedom, we can also describe the choices we make in terms of the alternative choices we had to say no to first.  We can see our ability to say no as a means of creating a world for ourselves; a world with boundaries delineating what is and isn’t desired.  And the making of these choices, the effect that each choice has, and the world we create out of them are things that we and we alone own.  Understandably then, once this freedom and responsibility are recognized, they lead to our experiencing a kind of dread, anxiety, and perhaps a feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer space of possibilities and thus overwhelmed by the number of possibilities that we have to willfully reject:

“A friend of mine, a very intelligent and sensitive man, was over a long period in the grip of a neurosis that took the form of indecision in the fact of almost every occasion of life; sitting in a restaurant, he could not look at the printed menu to choose his lunch without seeing the abyss of the negative open before his eyes, on the page, and so falling into a sweat…(this story) confirms Sartre’s analysis of freedom, for only because freedom is what he says it is could this man have been frightened by it and have retreated into the anxiety of indecision.”

This story also reminded me of the different perspectives that can result depending on whether one is a maximizer or a sufficer: the maximizer being the person who tries to exhaustively analyze every decision they make, hoping to maximize the benefits brought about by their careful decision-making; and the sufficer being the person who is much more easily pleased, willing to make a decision fairly quickly, and not worry about whether their decision was the best possible so much as whether it was simply good enough.  On average, maximizers are far less happy as well, despite the care they take in making decisions, simply because they fret over whether the decision they landed on was really best after all, and they tend to enjoy life less than sufficers because they’re missing many experiences and missing the natural flow of those experiences as a result of their constant worrying.  The maximizer concept definitely fits in line with Sartre’s conception of the anxiety of choice brought about by the void and negation implicit in decision making.

I for one try to be a sufficer, even if I occasionally find myself trying to maximize my decision making, and I do this for the same reason that I try to be an optimist rather than a pessimist: people live happier and more satisfying lives if they try and maintain a positive attitude and if they aren’t overly concerned with every choice they make.  We don’t want to make poor decisions by making them in haste or without any care, but we also don’t want to invest too many of our psychological resources in making those decisions; we may end up at the end of our lives realizing that we’ve missed out on a good life.

“…the example points up also where Sartre’s theory is decidedly lacking: it does not show us the kind of objects in relation to which our human subjectivity can define itself in a free choice that is meaningful and not neurotic.  This is so because Sartre’s doctrine of liberty was developed out of the experience of extreme situations: the victim says to his totalitarian oppressor, No, even if you kill me; and he shuts himself up in this No and will not be shaken from it.”

I agree with Barrett entirely here.  Much of Sartre’s philosophy was developed out of an experienced oppression under the threat of violence, and this quality makes it harder to apply to an everyday life that’s not embroiled with tyranny or fascism.

“…But he who shuts himself up in the No can be demoniacal, as Kierkegaard pointed out; he can say No against himself, against his own nature.  Sartre’s doctrine of freedom does not really comprehend the concrete man who is an undivided totality of body and mind, at once, and without division, both In-itself and For-itself; but rather an isolated aspect of this total condition, the aspect of man always at the margin of his existence.”

I think the biggest element missing from Sartre’s conception of freedom or from his philosophy generally is the evolutionary and biologically grounded aspects of our psychology, the facts pertaining to our innate impulses and predispositions, our cognitive biases and other unconscious processes (which he outright denied the existence of).  This makes his specific formula of existence preceding essence far less tenable and realistic.  Barrett agrees with some of this reasoning as well when he says:

“Because Sartre’s psychology recognizes only the conscious, it cannot comprehend a form of freedom that operates in that zone of the human personality where conscious and unconscious flow into each other.  Being limited to the conscious, it inevitably becomes an ego psychology; hence freedom is understood only as the resolute project of the conscious ego.”

Indeed, the human being as a whole includes both the conscious and unconscious aspects of ourselves.  The subjective experience that defines us is a product of both sides of our psyche, not to mention the interplay of the psyche as a whole with the world around us that we’re intimately connected to (think of Heidegger’s field of Being).

The final point I’d like to bring up regarding Sartre is in regard to his atheism:

“It has been remarked that Kierkegaard’s statement of the religious position is so severe that it has turned many people who thought themselves religious to atheism.  Analogously, Sartre’s view of atheism is so stark and bleak that it seems to turn many people toward religion.  This is exactly as it should be.  The choice must be hard either way; for man, a problematic being to his depths, cannot lay hold of his ultimate commitments with a smug and easy security.”

It’s understandable that most people gravitate toward religion because of the anxiety and fear that can accompany a worldview where one has to take on the burden of making meaning for their own lives rather than having someone else or some concept “decide” this for them.  Additionally, the fear of being alone, the fear of death, the fear of having a precarious existence generally throughout our lives and also given the fact that we live in an inhospitable universe where life appears to occupy a region in space comparable to the size of a proton within a large room.

All of these reasons lend themselves to reinforcing a desire for a deity and for a narrative that defines who we ought to be, so we don’t have to decide this for ourselves.  Personally, I don’t think one can live authentically with these kinds of world views, nor is it morally responsible to live life with belief systems that inhibit the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction.  But I still understand that it’s far more difficult to reject the comforts of religion and face the radical contingencies of life and the burden of choice.  I think people can live the most fulfilling lives in the most secure way only when they have a reliable epistemology in place and only when they take the limits of human psychology seriously.  We need to understand that some ways of living, some attitudes, some ways of thinking, etc., are better than others for living sustainable, fulfilling lives.

Sartre’s atheistic philosophy is certainly bleak, but his does not represent the philosophy of atheists.  My atheistic philosophy of life, for example, takes into account the usefulness of multiple descriptions (including holistic descriptions) of our existence; the recognition of our desire to connect to the transcendent; the need for morality, meaning, and purpose; and the need for emotional channels of expression.  And regardless of it’s bleakness, Sartre’s philosophy has some useful ideas, and any philosophy that’s likely going to be successful will gather what works from a number of different schools of thought and philosophies anyway.

Well, this concludes the post on Jean-Paul Sartre (Ch. 10), and ends part 3 of this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man.  The last and final post in this series is on part 4, Integral vs. Rational Man, which consists of chapter 11, the final chapter in Barrett’s book, The Place of the Furies.  I will post the link here when that post is complete.

Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 3, Chapter 8: Nietzsche)

In the last post on this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, we began exploring Part 3: The Existentialists, beginning with chapter 7 on Kierkegaard.  In this post, we’ll be taking a look at Nietzsche’s philosophy in more detail.

Ch. 8 – Nietzsche

Nietzsche shared many of the same concerns as Kierkegaard, given the new challenges of modernity brought about by the Enlightenment; but each of these great thinkers approached this new chapter of our history from perspectives that were in many ways, diametrically opposed.  Kierkegaard had a grand goal of sharing with others what he thought it meant to be a Christian, and he tried to revive Christianity within a society that he found to be increasingly secularized.  He also saw that of the Christianity that did exist, it was largely organized and depersonalized, and he felt the need to stress the importance of a much more personal form of the religion.  Nietzsche on the other hand, an atheist, rejected Christianity and stressed the importance of re-establishing our values given the fact that modernity was now living in a godless world, albeit a culturally Christianized world, but one that was now without a Christ.

Despite their differences, both philosophers felt that discovering the true meaning of our lives was paramount to living an authentic life, and this new quest for meaning was largely related to the fact that our view of ourselves had changed significantly:

“By the middle of the nineteenth century, as we have seen, the problem of man had begun to dawn on certain minds in a new and more radical form: Man, it was seen, is a stranger to himself and must discover, or rediscover, who he is and what his meaning is.”

Nietzsche also understood and vividly illustrated the crucial differences between mankind and the rest of nature, most especially our self-awareness:

“It was Nietzsche who showed in its fullest sense how thoroughly problematical is the nature of man: he can never be understood as an animal species within the zoological order of nature, because he has broken free of nature and has thereby posed the question of his own meaning-and with it the meaning of nature as well-as his destiny.”

And for Nietzsche, the meaning one was to find for their life included first abandoning what he saw as an oppressive and disempowering Christian morality, which he saw as severely inhibiting our potential as human beings.  He was much more sympathetic to Greek culture and morality, and even though (perhaps ironically) Christianity itself was derived from a syncretism between Judaism and Greek Hellenism, it’s moral and psychologically relevant differences were too substantial to avoid Nietzsche’s criticism.  He thought that a return to a more archaic form of Greek culture and mentality was the solution we needed to restore or at least re-validate our instincts:

“Dionysus reborn, Nietzsche thought, might become a savior-god for the whole race, which seemed everywhere to show symptoms of fatigue and decline.”

Nietzsche learned about the god Dionysus while he was studying Greek tragedy, and he gravitated toward the Dionysian symbolism, for it contained a kind of reconciliation between high culture and our primal instincts.  Dionysus was after all the patron god of the Greek tragic festivals and so was associated with beautiful works of art; but he was also the god of wine and ritual madness, bringing people together through the grape harvest and the joy of intoxication.  As Barrett describes it:

“This god thus united miraculously in himself the height of culture with the depth of instinct, bringing together the warring opposites that divided Nietzsche himself.”

It was this window into the hidden portions of our psyche that Nietzsche tried to look through and which became an integral basis for much of his philosophy.  But the chaotic nature of our species combined with our immense power to manipulate the environment also concerned him greatly; and he thought that the way modernity was repressing many of our instincts needed to be circumvented, lest we continue to build up this tension in our unconscious only to release itself in an explosive eruption of violence:

“It is no mere matter of psychological curiosity but a question of life and death for man in our time to place himself again in contact with the archaic life of his unconscious.  Without such contact he may become the Titan who slays himself.  Man, this most dangerous of the animals, as Nietzsche called him, now holds in his hands the dangerous power of blowing himself and his planet to bits; and it is not yet even clear that this problematic and complex being is really sane.”

Indeed our species has been removed from our natural evolutionary habitat; and we’ve built our modern lives around socio-cultural and technological constructs that have, in many ways at least, inhibited the open channel between our unconscious and conscious mind.  One could even say that the prefrontal cortex region of our brain, important as it is for conscious planning and decision making, has been effectively high-jacked by human culture (memetic selection) and now it’s constantly running on overtime, over-suppressing the emotional centers of the brain (such as the limbic system).

While we’ve come to realize that emotional suppression is sometimes necessary in order to function well as a cooperative social species that depends on complex long-term social relationships, we also need to maintain a healthy dose of emotional expression as well.  If we can’t release this more primal form of “psychological energy” (for lack of a better term), then it shouldn’t be surprising to see it eventually manifest into some kind of destructive behavior.

We ought not forget that we’re just like other animals in terms of our brain being best adapted to a specific balance of behaviors and cognitive functions; and if this balance is disrupted through hyperactive or hypoactive use of one region or another, doesn’t it stand to reason that we may wind up with either an impairment in brain function or less healthy behavior?  If we’re not making a sufficient use of our emotional capacities, shouldn’t we expect them to diminish or atrophy in some way or other?  And if some neurological version of the competitive exclusion principle exists, then this would further reinforce the idea that our suppression of emotion by other capacities may cause those other capacities to become permanently dominant.  We can only imagine the kinds of consequences that ensue when this psychological impairment falls upon a species with our level of power.

1.  Ecce Homo

“In the end one experiences only oneself,” Nietzsche observes in his Zarathustra, and elsewhere he remarks, in the same vein, that all the systems of the philosophers are just so many forms of personal confession, if we but had eyes to see it.”

Here Nietzsche is expressing one of his central ideas, by pointing out the fact that we can’t separate ourselves from our thoughts, and therefore the ideas put forward by any philosopher are really betraying some set of values they hold whether unconsciously or explicitly, and they also betray one’s individual perspective; an unavoidable perspective stemming from our subjective experience which colors our interpretation of those experiences.  Perspectivism, or the view that reality and our ideas about what’s true and what we value can be mapped onto many different possible conceptual schemes, was a big part of Nietzsche’s overall philosophy, and it was interwoven into his ideas on meaning, epistemology, and ontology.

As enlightening as Nietzsche was in giving us a much needed glimpse into some of the important psychological forces that give our lives the shape they have (for better or worse), his written works show little if any psychoanalytical insight applied to himself, in terms of the darker and less pleasant side of his own psyche.

“Nietzsche’s systematic shielding of himself from the other side is relevant to his explanation of the death of God: Man killed God, he says, because he could not bear to have anyone looking at his ugliest side.”

But even if he didn’t turn his psychoanalytical eye inward toward his own unconscious, he was still very effective in shining a light on the collective unconscious of humanity as a whole.  It’s not enough that we marvel over the better angels of our nature, even though it’s important to acknowledge and understand our capacities and our potential for bettering ourselves and the world we live in; we also have to acknowledge our flaws and shortcomings and while we may try to overcome these weaknesses in one way or another, some of them are simply a part of our nature and we should accept them as such even if we may not like them.

One of the prevailing theories stemming from Western Rationalism (mentioned earlier in Barrett’s book) was that human beings were inherently perfect and rational, and it was within the realm of possibility to realize that potential; but this kind of wishful thinking was relying on a fundamental denial of an essential part of the kind of animal we really are.  And Nietzsche did a good job of putting this fact out in the limelight, and explaining how we couldn’t truly realize our potential until we came to terms with this fairly ugly side of ourselves.

Barrett distinguishes between the attitudes stemming from various forms of atheism, including that of Nietzsche’s:

“The urbane atheism of Bertrand Russell, for example, presupposes the existence of believers against whom he can score points in an argument and get off some of his best quips.  The atheism of Sartre is a more somber affair, and indeed borrows some of its color from Nietzsche: Sartre relentlessly works out the atheistic conclusion that in a universe without God man is absurd, unjustified, and without reason, as Being itself is.”

In fact Nietzsche was more concerned with the atheists that hadn’t yet accepted the full ramifications of a Godless world, rather than believers themselves.  He felt that those who believed in God still had a more coherent belief system given many of their moral values and the meaning they attached to their lives, since they were largely derived from their religious beliefs (even if the religious beliefs were unwarranted or harmful).  Those that were atheists, many of them at least, hadn’t yet taken the time to build a new foundation for their previously held values and the meaning in their lives; and if they couldn’t rebuild this foundation then they’d have to change those values and what they find to be meaningful to reflect that shift in foundation.

Overall, Nietzsche even changes the game a little in terms of how the conception of God was to be understood in philosophy:

“If God is taken as a metaphysical object whose existence has to be proved, then the position held by scientifically minded philosophers like Russell must inevitably be valid: the existence of such an object can never be empirically proved.  Therefore, God must be a superstition held by primitive and childish minds.  But both these alternative views are abstract, whereas the reality of God is concrete, a thoroughly autonomous presence that takes hold of men but of which, of course, some men are more conscious than others.  Nietzsche’s atheism reveals the true meaning of God-and does so, we might add, more effectively than a good many official forms of theism.”

Even though God may not actually exist as a conscious being, the idea of God and the feelings associated with what one labels as an experience of God, is as real as any other idea or experience and so it should still be taken seriously even in a world where no gods exist.  As an atheist myself (formerly a born-again Protestant Christian), I’ve come to appreciate the real breadth of possible meaning attached to the term “God”.  Even though the God or gods described in various forms of theism do not track onto objective reality as was pointed out by Russell, this doesn’t negate the subjective reality underlying theism.  People ascribe the label “God” to a set of certain feelings and forces that they feel are controlling their lives, their values, and their overall vision of the world.  Nietzsche had his own vision of the world as well, and so one could label this as his “god”, despite the confusion that this may cause when discussing God on metaphysical terms.

2. What Happens In “Zarathustra”; Nietzsche as Moralist

One of the greatest benefits of producing art is our ability to tap into multiple perspectives that we might otherwise never explore.  And by doing this, we stand a better chance of creating a window into our own unconscious:

“[Thus Spoke Zarathustra] was Nietzsche’s poetic work and because of this he could allow the unconscious to take over in it, to break through the restraints imposed elsewhere by the philosophic intellect. [in poetry] One loses all perception of what is imagery and simile-that is to say, the symbol itself supersedes thought, because it is richer in meaning.”

By avoiding the common philosophical trap of submitting oneself to a preconceived structure and template for processing information, poetry and other works of art can inspire new ideas and novel perspectives through the use of metaphor and allegory, emotion, and the seemingly infinite powers of our own imagination.  Not only is this true for the artist herself, but also for the spectator who stands in a unique position to interpret what they see and to make sense of it the best they can.  And in the rarest of cases, one may be able to experience something in a work of art that fundamentally changes themselves in the process.  Either way, by presenting someone with an unusual and ambiguous stimulus that they are left to interpret, they can hope to gain at least some access into their unconscious and to inspire an expression of their creativity.

In his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche was focusing on how human beings could ever hope to regain a feeling of completeness; for modernity had fractured the individual and placed too much emphasis on collective specialization:

“For man, says Schiller, the problem is one of forming individuals.  Modern life has departmentalized, specialized, and thereby fragmented the being of man.  We now face the problem of putting the fragments together into a whole.  In the course of his exposition, Schiller even referred back, as did Nietzsche, to the example of the Greeks, who produced real individuals and not mere learned abstract men like those of the modern age.”

A part of this reassembly process would necessarily involve reincorporating what Nietzsche thought of as the various attributes of our human nature, which many of us are in denial of (to go back to the point raised earlier in this post).  For Nietzsche, this meant taking on some characteristics that may seem inherently immoral:

“Man must incorporate his devil or, as he put it, man must become better and more evil; the tree that would grow taller must send its roots down deeper.”

Nietzsche seems to be saying that if there are aspects of our psychology that are normal albeit seemingly dark or evil, then we ought to structure our moral values along the same lines rather than in opposition to these more primal parts of our psyche:

“(Nietzsche) The whole of traditional morality, he believed, had no grasp of psychological reality and was therefore dangerously one-sided and false.”

And there is some truth to this though I wouldn’t go as far as Nietzsche does, as I believe that there are many basic and cross-cultural moral prescriptions that do in fact take many of our psychological needs into account.  Most cultures have some place for various virtues such as compassion, honesty, generosity, forgiveness, commitment, integrity, and many others; and these virtues have been shown within the fields of moral psychology and sociology to help us flourish and lead psychologically fulfilling lives.  We evolved as a social species that operates within some degree of a dominance hierarchy, and sure enough our psychological traits are what we’d expect given our evolutionary history.

However, it’s also true that we ought to avoid slipping into some form of a naturalistic fallacy; for we don’t want to simply assume that all the behaviors that were more common prior to modernity let alone prior to civilization were beneficial to us and our psychology.  For example, raping and stealing were far more common per capita prior to humans establishing some kind of civil state or society.  And a number of other behaviors that we’ve discovered to be good or bad for our physical or psychological health have been the result of a long process of trial and error, cultural evolution, and the cultural transmission of newfound ideas from one generation to the next.  In any case, we don’t want to assume that just because something has been a tradition or even a common instinctual behavior for many thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years, that it is therefore a moral behavior.  Quite the contrary; instead we need to look closely at which behaviors lead to more fulfilling lives and overall maximal satisfaction and then aim to maximize those behaviors over those that detract from this goal.

Nietzsche did raise a good point however, and one that’s supported by modern moral psychology; namely, the fact that what we think we want or need isn’t always in agreement with our actual wants and needs, once we dive below the surface.  Psychology has been an indispensable tool in discovering many of our unconscious desires and the best moral theories are going to be those that take both our conscious and unconscious motivations and traits into account.  Only then can we have a moral theory that is truly going to be sufficiently motivating to follow in the long term as well as most beneficial to us psychologically.  If one is basing their moral theory on wishful thinking rather than facts about their psychology, then they aren’t likely to develop a viable moral theory.  Nietzsche realized this and promoted it in his writings, and this was an important contribution as it bridged human psychology with a number of important topics in philosophy:

“On this point Nietzsche has a perfectly sober and straightforward case against all those idealists, from Plato onward, who have set universal ideas over and above the individual’s psychological needs.  Morality itself is blind to the tangle of its own psychological motives, as Nietzsche showed in one of his most powerful book, The Genealogy of Morals, which traces the source of morality back to the drives of power and resentment.”

I’m sure that drives of power and resentment have played some role in certain moral prescriptions and moral systems, but I doubt that this is likely to be true generally speaking; and even in cases where a moral prescription or system arose out of one of these unconscious drives, such as resentment, this doesn’t negate it’s validity nor demonstrate whether or not it’s warranted or psychologically beneficial.  The source of morality isn’t as important as whether or not the moral system itself works, though the sources of morality can be both psychologically relevant and revealing.

Our ego certainly has a lot to do with our moral behavior and whether or not we choose to face our inner demons:

“Precisely what is hardest for us to take is the devil as the personification of the pettiest, paltriest, meanest part of our personality…the one that most cruelly deflates ones egotism.”

If one is able to accept both the brighter and darker sides of themselves, they’ll also be more likely to willingly accept Nietzsche’s idea of the Eternal Return:

“The idea of the Eternal Return thus expresses, as Unamuno has pointed out, Nietzsche’s own aspirations toward eternal and immortal life…For Nietzsche the idea of the Eternal Return becomes the supreme test of courage: If Nietzsche the man must return to life again and again, with the same burden of ill health and suffering, would it not require the greatest affirmation and love of life to say Yes to this absolutely hopeless prospect?”

Although I wouldn’t expect most people to embrace this idea, because it goes against our teleological intuitions of time and causation leading to some final state or goal, it does provide a valuable means of establishing whether or not someone is really able to accept this life for what it is with all of its absurdities, pains and pleasures.  If someone willingly accepts the idea, then by extension they likely accept themselves, their lives, and the rest of human history (and even the history of life on this planet, no less).  This doesn’t mean that by accepting the idea of the Eternal Return, that people have to put every action, event, or behavior on equal footing, for example, by condoning slavery or the death of millions as a result of countless wars, just because these events are to be repeated for eternity.  But one is still accepting that all of these events were necessary in some sense; that they couldn’t have been any other way, and this acceptance should translate to one’s attitude toward life reflecting this by some kind of overarching contentment.

I think that the more common reaction to this kind of idea is slipping into some kind of nihilism, where a person no longer cares about anything, and no longer finds any meaning or purpose in their lives.  And this reaction is perfectly understandable given our teleological intuitions; most people don’t or wouldn’t want to invest time and effort into some goal if they knew that the goal would never be accomplished or knew that it would eventually be undone.  But, oddly enough, even if the Eternal Return isn’t an actual fact of our universe, we still run into the same basic situation within our own lifetimes whereby we know that there are a number of goals that will never be achieved because of our own inevitable death.

There’s also the fact that even if we did achieve a number of goals, once we die, we can no longer reap any benefits from them.  There may be other people that can benefit from our own past accomplishments, but eventually they will die as well.  Eventually all life in the universe will expire, and this is bound to happen long before the inevitable heat death of the universe transpires; and once it happens, there won’t be anybody experiencing anything at all let alone reaping the benefits of a goal from someone’s distant past.  Once this is taken into account, Nietzsche’s idea doesn’t sound all that bad, does it?  If we knew that there would always be time and some amount of conscious experience for eternity, then there will always be some form of immortality for consciousness; and if it’s eternally recurring, then we end up becoming immortal in some sense.

Perhaps the idea of the Eternal Return (or Recurrence), even though this idea began many hundreds if not a few thousand years before Nietzsche, was motivated by Nietzsche’s own fear of death.  Even though he thought of the idea as horrifying and paralyzing (not least because of all the undesirable parts of our own personal existence), since he didn’t believe in a traditional afterlife, maybe the fear of death motivated him to adopt such an idea, even though he also saw it as a physically plausible consequence of probability and the laws of physics.  But either way, beyond it being far more plausible an idea compared to that of an eternal paradise after death, it’s also a very different idea; not only because one’s memory or identity isn’t preserved such that one actually experiences immortality when the “temporal loop” defining their lifetime starts all over again (i.e. the “movie” of one’s life is just played over and over again, unbeknownst to the person in the movie), but this idea is also different because it involves accepting the world the way it is for all eternity rather than an idea revolving around the way they wish it was.  The Eternal Return fully engages with the existentialist reality of human life with all its absurdities, contingencies, and the rest.

3. Power and Nihilism

Nietzsche, like Kierkegaard before him, was considered to be an unsystematic thinker by many, though Barrett points out that this view is mistaken when it comes to Nietzsche; a common view resulting from the form his writings took which were largely aphoristic.  Nietzsche himself even said that he was viewing science and philosophy through the eyes of art, but nevertheless his work eventually revealed a systematic structure:

“As thinking gradually took over the whole person, and everything else in his life being starved out, it was inevitable that this thought should tend to close itself off in a system.”

This systematization of his philosophy was revealed in the notes he was making for The Will to Power, a work he never finished but one that was more or less assembled and published posthumously by his sister Elisabeth.  The systematization was centered on the idea that a will to power was the underlying force that ultimately guided our behavior, striving to achieve the highest possible position in life as opposed to being fundamentally driven by some biological imperative to survive.  But it’s worth pointing out here that Nietzsche didn’t seem to be merely talking about a driving force behind human behavior, but rather he seemed to be referencing an even more fundamental driving force that was in some sense driving all of reality; and this more inclusive view would be analogous to Schopenhauer’s will to live.

It’s interesting to consider this perspective from the lens of biology, where if we try and reconcile this with a Darwinian account of evolution in which survival is key, we could surmise that a will to power is but a mechanism for survival.  If we grant Nietzsche’s position and the position of the various anti-Darwinian thinkers that influenced him, that is, that a will to survive or survival more generally is somehow secondary to a will to power, then we run into a problem: if survival is a secondary drive or goal, then we’d expect survival to be less important than power; but without survival you can’t have power and thus it makes far more evolutionary sense that a will to survive is more basic than a will to power.

However, I am willing to grant that as soon as organisms began evolving brains along with the rest of their nervous system, the will to power (or something analogous to it) became increasingly important; and by the time humans came on the scene with their highly complex brains, the will to power may have become manifest in our neurological drive to better predict our environment over time.  I wrote about this idea in a previous post where I had explored Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, where I explained what I saw as a correlation between Nietzsche’s will to power and the idea of the brain as a predictive processor:

“…I’d like to build on it a little and suggest that both expressions of a will to power can be seen as complementary strategies to fulfill one’s desire for maximal autonomy, but with the added caveat that this autonomy serves to fulfill a desire for maximal causal power by harnessing as much control over our experience and understanding of the world as possible.  On the one hand, we can try and change the world in certain ways to fulfill this desire (including through the domination of other wills to power), or we can try and change ourselves and our view of the world (up to and including changing our desires if we find them to be misdirecting us away from our greatest goal).  We may even change our desires such that they are compatible with an external force attempting to dominate us, thus rendering the external domination powerless (or at least less powerful than it was), and then we could conceivably regain a form of power over our experience and understanding of the world.

I’ve argued elsewhere that I think that our view of the world as well as our actions and desires can be properly described as predictions of various causal relations (this is based on my personal view of knowledge combined with a Predictive Processing account of brain function).  Reconciling this train of thought with Nietzsche’s basic idea of a will to power, I think we could…equate maximal autonomy with maximal predictive success (including the predictions pertaining to our desires). Looking at autonomy and a will to power in this way, we can see that one is more likely to make successful predictions about the actions of another if they subjugate the other’s will to power by their own.  And one can also increase the success of their predictions by changing them in the right ways, including increasing their complexity to better match the causal structure of the world, and by changing our desires and actions as well.”

On the other hand, if we treat the brain’s predictive activity as a kind of mechanistic description of how the brain works rather than a type of drive per se, and if we treat our underlying drives as something that merely falls under this umbrella of description, then we might want to consider whether or not any of the drives that are typically posited in psychological theory (such as power, sex, or a will to live) are actually more basic than any other or typically dominant over the others.  Barrett suggests an alternative, saying that we ought to look at these elements more holistically:

“What if the human psyche cannot be carved up into compartments and one compartment wedged in under another as being more basic?  What if such dichotomizing really overlooks the organic unity of the human psyche, which is such that a single impulse can be just as much an impulse toward love on the one hand as it is toward power on the other?”

I agree with Barrett at least in the sense that these drives seem to be operating together much of the time, and when they aren’t in unison, they often seem to be operating on the same level at least.  Another way to put this could be to say that as a social species, we’ve evolved a number of different modular behavioral strategies that are typically best suited for particular social circumstances, though some circumstances may be such that multiple strategies will work and thus multiple strategies may be used simultaneously without working against each other.

But I also think that our conscious attention plays a role as well where the primary drive(s) used to produce the subsequent behavior may be affected by thinking about certain things or in a certain way, such as how much you love someone, what you think you can gain from them, etc.  And this would mean that the various underlying drives for our behavior are individually selected or prioritized based on one’s current experiences and where their attention is directed at any particular moment.  It may still be the case that some drives are typically dominant over others, such as a will to power, even if certain circumstances can lead to another drive temporarily taking over, however short-lived that may be.

The will to power, even if it’s not primary, would still help to explain some of the enormous advancements we’ve made in our scientific and technological progress, while also explaining (at least to some degree) the apparent disparity between our standard of living and overall physio-psychological health on the one hand, and our immense power to manipulate the environment on the other:

“Technology in the twentieth century has taken such enormous strides beyond that of the nineteenth that it now bulks larger as an instrument of naked power than as an instrument for human well-being.”

We could fully grasp Barrett’s point here by thinking about the opening scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where “The Dawn of Man” was essentially made manifest with the discovery of tools, specifically weapons.  Once this seemingly insignificant discovery was made, it completely changed the game for our species.  While it gave us a new means of defending ourselves and an ability to hunt other animals, thus providing us with the requisite surplus of protein and calories needed for brain development and enhanced intelligence, it also catalyzed an arms race.  And with the advent of human civilization, our historical trajectory around the globe became largely dominated by our differential means of destruction; whoever had the biggest stick, the largest army, the best projectiles, and ultimately the most concentrated form of energy, would likely win the battle, forever changing the fate of the parties involved.

Indeed war has been such a core part of human history, so it’s no wonder Nietzsche stumbled upon such an idea; and even if he hadn’t, someone else likely would have even if they wouldn’t have done so with the same level of creativity and intellectual rigor.  If our history has been so colored with war, which is a physical instantiation of a will to power in order to dominate another group, then we should expect many to see it as a fundamental part of who we are.  Personally, I don’t think we’re fundamentally war-driven creatures but rather that war results from our ability to engage in it combined with a perceived lack of and desire for resources, freedom, and stability in our lives; but many of these goods, freedom in particular, imply a particular level of power over oneself and their environment, so even a fight for freedom is in one way or another a kind of will to power as well.

And what are we to make of our quest for power in terms of the big picture?  Theoretically, there is an upper limit to the amount of power any individual or group can possibly attain, and if one gets to a point where they are seeking power for power’s sake, and using their newly acquired power to harness even more power, then what will happen when we eventually hit that ceiling?  If our values become centered around power, and we lose any anchor we once had to provide meaning for our lives, then it seems we would be on a direct path toward nihilism:

“For Nietzsche, the problem of nihilism arose out of the discovery that “God is dead.” “God” here means the historical God of the Christian faith.  But in a wider philosophical sense it means also the whole realm of supersensible reality-Platonic Ideas, the Absolute, or what not-that philosophy has traditionally posited beyond the sensible realm, and in which it has located man’s highest values.  Now that this other, higher, eternal realm is gone, Nietzsche declared, man’s highest values lose their value…The only value Nietzsche can set up to take the place of these highest values that have lost their value for contemporary man is: Power.”

As Barrett explains, Nietzsche seemed to think that power was the only thing that could replace the eternal realm that we valued so much; but of course this does nothing to alleviate the problem of nihilism in the long term since the infinite void still awaits those at the end of the finite road to maximal power.

“If this moment in Western history is but the fateful outcome of the fundamental ways of thought that lie at the very basis of our civilization-and particularly of that way of thought that sunders man from nature, sees nature as a realm of objects to be mastered and conquered, and can therefore end only with the exaltation of the will to power-then we have to find out how this one-sided and ultimately nihilistic emphasis upon the power over things may be corrected.”

I think the answer to this problem lies in a combination of strategies, but with the overarching goal of maximizing life fulfillment.  We need to reprogram our general attitude toward power such that it is truly instrumental rather than perceived as intrinsically valuable; and this means that our basic goal becomes accumulating power such that we can maximize our personal satisfaction and life fulfillment, and nothing more.  Among other things, the power we acquire should be centered around a power over ourselves and our own psychology; finding ways of living and thinking which are likely to include the fostering of a more respectful relationship with the nature that created us in the first place.

And now that we’re knee deep in the Information Age, we will be able to harness the potential of genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and artificial reality; and within these avenues of research we will be able to change our own biology such that we can quickly adapt our psychology to the ever-changing cultural environment of the modern world, and we’ll be able to free up our time to create any world we want.  We just need to keep the ultimate goal in mind, fulfillment and contentment, and direct our increasing power towards this goal in particular instead of merely chipping away at it in the background as some secondary priority.  If we don’t prioritize it, then we may simply perpetuate and amplify the meaningless sources of distraction in our lives, eventually getting lost in the chaos, and forgetting about our ultimate potential and the imperatives needed to realize it.

I’ll be posting a link here to part 9 of this post-series, exploring Heidegger’s philosophy, once it has been completed.

Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 2, Chapter 6: “The Flight From Laputa”)

In the last post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, we looked at some of the Christian sources of existentialism within the Western Tradition, from the contributions of Christian authors like Tertullian, to the works of Christian theologians like Augustine and Pascal.  There are a lot of other writers as well, particularly a number of poets and novelists that existed during, and shortly after, the Age of Enlightenment, which all had a substantial impact on existentialism.  In this chapter, Barrett mentions several of these writers, many putting out a number of literary works throughout the period of Romanticism and also the two most prolific Russian authors, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, who wrote their most influential works in the mid to late 19th century.

Barrett opens up this chapter with some brilliant commentary on Jonathan Swift’s most famous book, the English classic Gulliver’s Travels.  He brings our attention to a particular episode in that book, namely the unforgettable voyage to Laputa: a large island that hovers above the earth, floating and navigating in the sky through the use of an enormous magnet and earth’s own magnetic field.  Once Gulliver is shipwrecked and brought up to the island, he finds the people living there to be incredibly strange-looking and also behaving in some odd ways.  One particularly creepy detail is the fact that the people don’t ever focus on the eyes of the person they are speaking with; instead they have one eye turned upward toward the sky, as if in some kind of perpetual contemplation of the cosmos; and the other eye points inward as if in some kind of perpetual introverted state.  Their foods are cut into a variety of geometric shapes and their clothes are rather ill-fitting garments resulting from a tailoring process that relies exclusively on strict geometries, and they are decorated with shapes of the sun, moon, stars, and a plethora of musical instruments.

Swift’s intention here was to create an imaginary world that was a kind of manifestation of reason incarnate, where the inhabitants have completely structured their lives around reason and are lost in a perpetual state of mental abstraction and disconnectedness.  To further solidify the intended historically-relevant metaphor, we’re also told about the ordinary earth dwellers living below the Laputans, who also happen to be subject to the ruling of the Laputans living overhead.  And these ordinary earth-dwellers are described as being far happier than their Laputan rulers for a number of reasons.  The Laputans are unable to have a normal human conversation nor have the interpersonal emotional connection that may accompany such an interaction, because these absent-minded intellectuals have almost completely lost any sense of who’s around them at the moment, requiring constant reminders from servant-boys about when it is time to talk or to listen (as the case may be) lest they might slip away into some kind of philosophical speculation in mid-conversation.  So despite the Laputans standing on a pedestal of superiority, perhaps implied metaphorically by their floating on an island “above” everyone else (which may also be a metaphor for their lack of grounding in Being or in being fully human), they seem to be missing a core part of their humanity.

Clearly we are meant to be given a description of a world showing how reason is insufficient to fulfill many of our psychological needs as human beings; and its blatant lack of emotional expression, interpersonal relationships, and, for lack of a better word any “organic” form or structure at all, has been fueled by some kind of post-Enlightenment belief that reason can fix all of mankind’s problems.  We’re also meant to see how the resulting cultural sterilization brought on by reason (such as that within Laputa) has created an aversion to such a mode of living for many, such that some people begin to seek out passion any way that they can get it (for better or worse):

“The men and movements of which it does stand as a prediction will find themselves at times in the desperate quandary of the prime minister’s wife, ready to throw themselves into the arms of a drunken footman if that is the only way out of the sterile kingdom of reason.  In the search for the Dionysian, after all, one cannot always be expected to be bound by good taste.”

Here, I believe Barrett’s brief reference to the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy to be paramount to understanding the historical-cultural impetus underlying the clash between reason and emotion, and ultimately between rationalism and existentialism.  By creating an imbalance in this dichotomy, for example by not giving enough resources or importance in finding a means of “Dionysian expression” in a society, a kind of tension begins to build up until the proverbial “bubble” bursts and the Dionysian portion of our being is over-expressed leading to another imbalance albeit one going the other way.  As much as one would hope to be able to prevent this kind of explosive feedback, it may be the case that we’re not able to sense an imbalance of this sort until it’s become so drastic that a violent outburst (or an overcompensation of some kind) is the only way to tip the scales back to equilibrium.

Then again, perhaps the signs of an imbalance are always there and we just need to look a bit more closely at how our culture is expressing itself (and not just at a superficial level).  We ought to look closer at the artists, the writers, and the changes occurring to how our identities are shaped compared to those of the preceding generations.  As an example, one sign of this imbalance in the post-Enlightenment Western world, furthering existential development, was exemplified very powerfully by the artistic works of the romantics, which Barrett explores in this chapter.

1.  The Romantics

“However we choose to characterize Romanticism-as a protest of the individual against the universal laws of classicism, or as the protest of feeling against reason, or again as the protest on behalf of nature against the encroachments of an industrial society-what is clear is that it is, in every case, a drive toward that fullness and naturalness of Being that the modern world threatens to let sink into oblivion.”

This characterization of romanticism reminds me of an important theme that I mentioned in my last post, and one that I think is absolutely worth reiterating here; namely, what I call the desynchronization between our cultural and biological evolution.  This fact is, as I see it anyway, the simplest way of describing and explaining the psychological motivations for the advent of existentialism.  Industrialization, mass production, capitalism, and the maximization of efficiency have led to a world that is entirely alien to the one we evolved within.  And again, it would be entirely surprising if we found ourselves living in the modern world without these existential problems.

The fruits of modernity as well as the plethora of super-normal stimuli that have precipitated from our technology have in some sense fooled our brains over the course of many generations such that our evolutionarily-endowed strategies for survival have inadvertently led us to the psychologically inhospitable world we now live in.  Our situation is analogous to a group of people having made incredible strides in a field like chemistry such that they are now able to refine, purify, and concentrate chemicals like never before; but eventually a product like heroin is created which ends up consuming the lives of the people living in that world, drastically diminishing their happiness, and yet the attraction to the drug has already taken hold of their way of life, inclining them to make ever more powerful versions of these drugs eventually leading to their own self-destruction.

Similarly, we’ve gained a lot of amenities and a vast power of manipulating our environment through the use of reason.  It has allowed us to discover more facts about the world than ever before, in turn enabling us to make technological gains at an exponential rate, perhaps leading to our getting lost in the novelty and the positive changes made to our standards of living.  But once this genie was let out of the bottle, a runaway situation occurred where the benefits we were paying attention to distracted us from the fact that it was also generating and exacerbating a psychological imbalance.

I believe our best chance of resolving this problem is going to rely on a combination of genetically engineering our species to feel better-adapted to our ever-changing culture and by restructuring the world in ways that better resonate with our evolutionary environmental niche, and yet still do so in ways that are technologically innovative so as to not take a huge step backward in the amenities that modernity has provided us.

In looking at some of the poets that had a distaste for much of modernization, Barrett mentions the poet William Blake:

“Blake is recognized easily enough as the poet against the industrial revolution…”The atoms of Democritus, And Newton’s particles of light, Are sands upon the Red sea shore, Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.”

This excerpt is from Blake’s Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau”, a poem written by Blake that appears to be more or less a defense of his religious views against those of science generally, rather than a protest against the industrial revolution specifically.  In this poem, he seems to suggest that any mockery of faith and religion such as that originating from Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau is somewhat of an exercise of futility as the society is largely unwilling to accept their ideas anyway.  And the mechanistic ideas espoused by brilliant scientific thinkers such as Democritus and Newton are small and insignificant compared to the breadth and power of religion and the belief in God, let alone the belief in God as the Creator that subsumes any paltry discoveries that man might make.

Another way to interpret this poem is to say that Blake is simply emphasizing the importance of using imagination along with reason, and he may be pointing out that human beings seek mythological constructs and grand designs of their world alongside the numerous facts that are discoverable through science.  If creative imagination is integral to being human, and if this integral component inevitably results in religious myth-making, then we should be careful in how we assess the apparent collision between reason and religion.

It seems to me that it is the failure to accept various facts about the world that has many proponents of reason opposed to religion, including many existing during the Age of Enlightenment.  The conflict however has largely been a tug of war over what I believe is a false dichotomy: choosing either reason or religion as exclusive modes of living or being.  Just as the religious don’t entirely discount reason (because they have to use it in much of their day-to-day lives, many who do so willingly), similarly the champions of reason shouldn’t entirely discount all that is involved in or accomplished with religion.  I think that human beings need an outlet for their creative imagination and emotional expression and they can and ought to produce mythological constructs and other allegorical narratives in stories, poetry, novels, cinema, and music, in order to serve as outlets for this creativity.

I for one want people to be able to express themselves, even if this is done through creative myth-making such as that found within religion; but the difficulty arises when the myths are actually believed as true and then this can interfere with accepting actual facts about the world which can subsequently impair one’s moral decision making.  Unfortunately, the myths that have been produced for millennia have most often been treated as truths and facts within those cultures rather than simply intuitive stories trying to make an important point through allegory and metaphor.  Perhaps we can have the latter without requiring the former; finding a way to appeal to our intuitions, emotions, and imagination, yet without having to sacrifice a reliable epistemology in the process.  This may allow reason to more harmoniously coexist with the deeper roots of our humanity.

Early on, Barrett also mentions some specifics concerning why Blake was opposed to industrialization:

“Mills and furnaces are evil, to Blake, because they are the external manifestations of the abstract and mechanical mind which means the death of man.”

Similarly, I can see how he would have been opposed to other means of mass production such as the assembly line, the distribution of labor in general, and processes involved in mass chemical synthesis such as distillation; all of which that can be seen as externalizations of the hyper-use of reason, logic, and reductionism.  Even ignoring the textile industry’s role in producing a person’s clothing, an explicit artifact of this kind of externalization would be recognized whenever a person living in Blake’s own time pulled out their pocket watch; a purely mechanical device that also illustrates the degree of precision and efficiency in an industrialized world that rations every minute of a person’s life as it sees fit.  No longer are we informed of the progression of our day by noting the whereabouts of the sun in the sky, as our ancestors once did and just as the rest of nature is apt to do; instead our time has become far too precious in maintaining our busy schedules than to conform to a more natural account of our time and existence.  We’ve each become an “Alice” in a wonderland of abstraction with no time to simply breath; instead we’re inclined to follow the example of the March Hare, chasing him down the rabbit hole of modernity as he shouts “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”

I suppose we could say that we’ve been cut off from nature insofar as we’re no longer like other animals living in the present moment; instead, we seem to be forever living in the future, where even our own existence and identity have become an abstraction centered around the relatively meaningless goals that we’ve been indoctrinated to value.  Now this shouldn’t be taken to mean that our consideration of the future isn’t also an important part of our being human, for it is, and in fact a vision of the future of human possibilities is a central driving force within Romanticism as well even if it seems more heavily inclined toward a return to the past.  But in our modern world, we’re pressured into the idea of being defined by what society wants us to become, in large part based on expectations that are not conducive to a fulfilling life.  Some of these expectations have included directing our attention away from a more natural way of life and towards a life that glorifies artificial metrics of success that have no intrinsic value to us as human beings.

It is apparent and obvious that something has happened to modernity’s connection to nature; which is easily recognized by looking at all of our artificial environments, functions, and modern concerns.  And Barrett actually mentions the concept of Being as implied in the poet William Wordsworth’s works, as one relying on a deep connection to nature.  Wordsworth unsurprisingly criticizes the intellect as something that severs us from this connection in his poem “The Tables Turned” :

Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things:
We murder to dissect.

Rather than simply being in nature and receiving what she has to offer by effortlessly taking in one’s surroundings as a whole, humans (most especially modern humans) often distance themselves from their raw experiences by analyzing them and breaking them down into very abstract concepts.  And we learn many of the abstract concepts used in this kind of analysis not from our own experience per se but from books and other derivative sources of information, thus further distancing ourselves from the original felt experience.  So it should come as no surprise to hear that Wordsworth was partial to the idea that learning directly from nature is far more effective than traditional learning from books and so forth, even though (perhaps ironically) he still wanted people to read his writings and he continued to make use of books himself.  But I think the driving point here is that even though books are important for a lot of reasons and even though we shouldn’t dispense of them nor should we dispense with analyzing our experience from time to time, we ought to spend more time living in the moment and not parsing everything out into abstractions that take away from the holistic attributes of the experience.

Whereas Wordsworth was grieving over the disconnection from nature that he saw taking place with regards to many of his contemporaries, he didn’t feel this way about himself.  It is here that Barrett turns to some of the works of Coleridge, for he commented on the same predicament but he was also writing about his own feelings, where he found himself no longer finding any happiness in nature.  Coleridge was perhaps the first poet to explore some of these existential feelings from his own perspective; encountering the void itself and all the anxiety it brings along with it:

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear–

This excerpt from Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode,” was a personal confession of his having lost his sense of feeling, even wishing for a violent storm to erupt at one point in this poem such that he could feel something.  He describes his experience in some vivid detail and points to the fact that the degeneration of his feelings has a correlation with a degradation of his own imagination.  And he alludes to there being an inherent separation between man’s feelings and the forms found in nature; where the feelings have to be created from within rather than given to us from our simply being in nature.

One interesting trait within Coleridge’s work, and which may help to explain some sentiments in the poem referenced above, is the fact that he makes use of imaginative flights where he leaves the present time and place and substitutes them for a setting that’s entirely manufactured from his own creativity.  And this quality of Coleridge contrasts a bit with the sentiments of Wordsworth, where the former often makes use of separating himself from the nature around him in its present state and the latter emphasizes the importance of taking in nature as it is in the here-and-now.  Both strategies maintain a connection to nature in one way or another but one uses imagination to augment it potentially into a surreal experience whereas the other is more of an experiential realist that simply “receives” nature directly.

Barrett compares Coleridge’s melancholy to that of Faust in Goethe’s poetic drama:

“Both are in or near the condition of breakdown, trapped in a paralysis of feeling in which everything has turned to dust and ashes, including the meddling intellect that has tyrannized over both.”

Even though Goethe set out to distance himself from Romanticism later in his life, Faust represents Goethe at his most romantic.  And it is in Faust-Goethe that we see a strong tie to humanity as a collective being with an essential yearning to both live and grow, even if this is only accomplished by an amalgamation of the Dionysian-Apollonian dichotomy; a fusion of stability and chaos; a marriage between self-restraint and personal freedom.

Freedom is a concept that Barrett also touches on with respect to Goethe’s interest in alchemy, where he ties the concept to “the dark halo of magic around him,” which served as a kind of sign of man’s lust to transcend his own limitations.  And what better place to incorporate the problem of free will, than with the desire to harness magical power in order to manipulate anything at your command.  Most people haven’t pondered over the free will conundrum in any philosophical way, for example, by considering the logical contradiction between causation or randomness and a human freedom that is self-caused or causa sui.  But the fact of the matter is, the only way for people to have a libertarian form of free will would be by some kind of magic, where the logically impossible is made possible, and so it seems to be no coincidence that the figure of the magician is, as Barrett puts it: “…the primitive image of human freedom.”  He also reminds us of the fact that magic and alchemy are recurring elements throughout the history of Romanticism where they betray our personal aspirations of becoming something more than we are.

Tying all of this together, Barrett reveals a more profound quality or role of the poet:

“Poetry is no longer an art merely of making verses, but a magical means of arriving at some truer and more real sphere of Being.  Poetry becomes a substitute for a religion.”

And this may be true in the sense that poetry allows one to open the channel between reason and emotion, or between reality and imagination.  In any case, whether one is drawn toward a form of expression offered through poetry or religion, it is the search for a way of transcending humanity or at the very least in overcoming our estrangement to Being itself, that drives us into these modes of living.

2. The Russians: Dostoevski and Tolstoy (realist fiction)

One prominent theme within Russian literature is the contrasting of the intellectual class with the rest of humanity, and Barrett points out a relation between the two:

“Intellectuals as a class suffer to the degree that they are cut off from the rest of mankind.  But intellectuals are the embodiment of reason, and reason itself if cut off from the concrete life of ordinary mankind is bound to decay.”

This is an interesting conclusion that the intellectuals in Russia were in a unique position to see, for they had a physical and cultural separation from the primary beneficiaries of the Enlightenment: namely, the West.  Even though they could examine this period in history as intellectuals, they did so with the desire to establish or maintain their own identity, allowing them to see what was happening in their society from a different perspective than the intellectual classes in Europe and the U.S.  The fact that Russia had a more conservative culture than the West also inhibited the cultural diffusion that would have otherwise further fused Western culture with that of Russia.

There were historical contingencies as well that facilitated a burst of philosophical contemplation, some of which Barrett mentions as relating to a disruption in the stability of society:

“A society that is going through a process of dislocation and upheaval, or of revolution, is bound to cause suffering to individuals, but this suffering itself can bring one closer to one’s own existence.  Habit and routine are great veils over our existence.  As long as they are securely in place, we need not consider what life means; its meaning seems sufficiently incarnate in the triumph of the daily habit.  When the social fabric is rent, however, man is suddenly thrust outside, away from the habits and norms he once accepted automatically.  There, on the outside, his questioning begins.”

You may notice the mention of habit and routine here, a recurring theme from the last post (on chapter 5), which included Pascal’s mention of our escaping from a close consideration of the human condition through the two “sovereign anodynes” of habit and diversion:

“Both habit and diversion, so long as they work, conceal from man “his nothingness, his forlornness, his inadequacy, his impotence and his emptiness.” 

In the case of Russia, the social fabric had been disrupted by the influx of ideas stemming from the Enlightenment, thus causing a more pressing need for many to question the old traditions and religious belief systems that had, up to this period in Russian history, withstood the tests of time.  And it was in the greatest intellectual writers of Russia, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, that we see a fresh perspective on the effects of the intellectual class on their society and in terms of an essential view of man.  Since Russia hadn’t developed any kind of philosophical tradition, the ideas that were pouring in from the West began to permeate the general populace, thus causing a less stable (more passionate, less objective) processing of these ideas.  And Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, two of the most prominent intellectuals within that populace, provided plenty of philosophical insight on their own, without the need for any philosophical professorship or the like.

Admittedly I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Tolstoy yet, but I have read all of Dostoyevsky’s major works; and one recurring theme in many of his novels is the exploration of the mind of a criminal.  He was inspired by his time in a Siberian prison camp where he spent a great deal of time with a number of criminals, gaining some insight in terms of their psychology and which led him to make some conclusions about human nature in general.  Barrett explains:

“What Dostoevski saw in the criminals he lived with is what he came finally to see at the center of man’s nature: contradiction, ambivalence, irrationality.  There was a childishness and innocence about these criminals, along with a brutality and cruelty, altogether unlike the murderous innocence of a child…In them Dostoevski was face to face with the demoniacal in human nature: perhaps man is not the rational but the demoniacal animal.”

I’m certainly sympathetic to this view, for humans not only have an intelligence that is often applied in a pre-meditated, Machiavellian fashion, but we also have our crimes of passion which seem to be derived from the irrational portion of our psyche combined with our instincts as a social animal trying to move upward within a dominance hierarchy.  We often use violence and cruelty as a means to move up the social ladder which can manifest itself in our day-to-day behavior or, if we’re privileged enough to avoid such behavior even most of the time, then a dose of poverty, a little bad luck, or simply a moment of desperation, will often bring this cruel monster hiding inside each of us out into full view.  In the end, we have to recognize what Hume said long ago: that reason is but a slave of the passions.

Hume’s point can be made clear in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment where the main protagonist, Raskolnikov, feeling alienated from the masses around him, uses reason during his bout of despair to arrive at a pre-Nietzschean theory with an imperative to rise above any ordinary moral code.  But after succumbing to this line of reasoning and putting it into practice, killing the pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, and her sister Lizaveta, he is overcome with guilt and suffers a mental and physical breakdown.  His passions clearly got the better of him and he is unable to reconcile his actions with his own conscience and thus unable to subdue the emotional roller-coaster that ensues.

Barrett describes the situation in terms of a failure of repression:

“Raskolnikov’s theory has not reckoned with his own self, and the guilt over his crime brings on a breakdown.  Precisely the feelings that had been repressed in this intellectual-the ordinary human horror at the taking of life-erupt and take their revenge.”

The problem as I see it is not Raskolnikov’s use of reason in his moral theorizing, but the fact that he didn’t incorporate his likely emotional reactions into the moral theory and plan of action that he devised for himself.  He took many of his emotions and feelings entirely for granted, which are the ultimate drives in directing one’s behavior, and which are therefore the primary underlying impetus in determining what we feel we ought to do.

All moral systems that can have any claim to being true and which are sufficiently motivating to follow will ultimately break down to hypothetical imperatives: if you want X above all else, then you ought to do Y above all else; and X is going to be a subjective criterion based on what maximizes personal satisfaction and fulfillment in one’s life.  Since human beings have certain psychological and sociological characteristics given the species that we are, there are a limited number of behaviors that are conducive to maximizing psychological health and well-being; and this means that we have to take these facts about ourselves into account in devising any moral theory that will actually work for us.  And given our differences as individuals, there are additional facts to take into account in making a moral theory that will work most effectively for any particular individual given their psychological idiosyncrasies, even if there are still some set of universal morals that apply to all psychologically healthy human beings.

Deciding to kill other people simply because one has discovered some good reasons for doing so is not likely, given our psychology, to work all that well; since it’s likely to have a negative effect on how we see ourselves as a person.  If all the reasons are taken into account, or at least a particular set of reasons that includes our emotional predispositions or our subjective experience generally, then reason can be used and ought to be used for constructing a viable moral theory.  But Raskolnikov didn’t do this, and so we can see the limits of reason here as well when the facts pertaining to our subjective experience are not given their due consideration.  If our most basic emotional tendencies are inhibited for too long or beyond a certain threshold, it’s only a matter of time before our psyche cracks under the pressure.

Barrett points out the negative role that reason plays in a number of Dostoyevsky’s literary themes:

“These destructive and even criminal possibilities of reason were the philosophic themes on which Dostoevski played his most persistent variations…In ‘The Possessed’ (Demons) a group of political intellectuals are shown as being possessed by devils, ready to scheme, lie, even kill for the abstract ideals of Progress, reason, socialism.”

Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to blame reason itself for any of the morally reprehensible behaviors that Dostoyevsky saw with the criminals around him, with his fictional characters, or even with human beings in general.  Instead, I think the lesson should be that reason can be used to fuel immorality, but only in cases where one isn’t considering all the facts (or at least isn’t considering enough of the facts) pertaining to one’s own psychology and that of the people around them, or isn’t thinking rationally about those facts.  On the other hand, with emotion or irrationality, there doesn’t even need to be a reason to act immorally and instead it may just precipitate in a kind of Dionysian, impulsive, and instinctive way.  What’s most important here, I think, is to acknowledge that reason can’t be used on its own, nor can emotion or subjectivity, when it comes to devising any effective (let alone sustainable) moral theory; both are integral and indispensable for informing us about what will maximize moral behavior and thus human happiness as well.

And if we deny ourselves the chaotic spontaneity or unpredictability that we often find adding a valuable kind of novelty in our lives, then we have another problem as well:

“In a rational utopia, he cries, man might die of boredom, or out of the violent need to escape this boredom start sticking pins in his neighbor-for no reason at all, just to assert his freedom…If science could comprehend all phenomena so that eventually in a thoroughly rational society human beings became as predictable as cogs in a machine, then man, driven by this need to know and assert his freedom, would rise up and smash the machine.”

This is reminiscent of the trip to Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels that we heard near the beginning of this chapter, where Barrett mentioned the inevitable search for the Dionysian in an attempt to avoid the sterile kingdom of reason.  Predictability and the concept of free will are also very salient here, for the intuition that leads us to believe we have a kind of libertarian free will, despite its logical impossibility, is in part an artifact of our inability to predict the future beyond a certain threshold.  More importantly, it’s the fact that we can’t predict our own behavior, or the causes of our own behavior (including those within our unconscious mind) with a high enough degree of accuracy, that causes us to feel that we are the sole authors of our actions rather than being intimately connected within a deterministic causal chain.

And even though our knowledge is limited in fundamental ways, for example by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (stemming from the quantum mechanical properties of our universe), we still have access to enough knowledge (in principle at least) whereby if we actually obtained it, our happiness and overall psychological health would suffer immensely.  Why might this be?  Well, if we consider the fact that our species evolved to thrive in a world where we didn’t have any pragmatic access to this kind of knowledge, then we might better appreciate the fact that our human psychology isn’t adapted to value such predictive power.  The irony here is that our brain operates on a fundamental principle of making more and more accurate predictions, where it wants to continuously decrease its own prediction error by updating its models of the world or behaving in ways that make those predictions come true; but it also wants to seek out new information about the world, and so in a way it’s also attracted to uncertainty, always looking to uncover more of the world’s mysteries in order to solve them.

Unfortunately, with the advent of science, formal logic, and the explicit processes of reason and the technological progress that’s we’ve gained from the use of such cognitive tools, we’re beginning to reach a level of knowledge that’s encroaching on our intuitive sense of our own freedom of the will.  This is something we should have been thinking very seriously about ever since we entered the information age.  We should have been thinking about how we ought to structure the direction of our technological progress, putting in some design constraints so as to preserve our psychological well-being given the kinds of knowledge that we’re destined to uncover and given what we don’t want to uncover.

There’s a tricky balance we have to respect and which is all too often taken for granted, where we want to continue making strides in fields like neuroscience, psychology, and sociology, such that we can inform our moral system of more and more relevant information about ourselves to further maximize our happiness; but we also want to make sure not to detract from this moral goal and so we need to continue learning what kinds of information we ought not have immediate access to.  As long as we begin to take this balancing act seriously, we can continue to make advancements in knowledge while not working against our primary objectives as human beings.

Aside from the problem of knowledge we face, we also must face the fact that as our lives are built around increasing levels of abstraction, we begin to resent it:

“What the reformers of the Enlightenment, dreaming of a perfect organization of society, had overlooked, Dostoevski saw all too plainly with the novelist’s eye: Namely, that as modern society becomes more organized and hence more bureaucratized it piles up at its joints petty figures like that of the Underground Man, who beneath their nondescript surface are monsters of frustration and resentment.”

As Nietzsche had explored in his On the Genealogy of Morality, resentment or ressentiment can serve as a creative force for change; a kind of catalyst to create a new system of morals (for better or worse), but it is often done to justify one’s own weaknesses and to divert attention away from one’s own responsibility for their lives by blaming a scapegoat instead.  So while resentment may lead to personal growth if the conditions are just right, it more often leads to a feeling of hostility towards those perceived as the cause of one’s frustrations.  If this resentment is bottled up and left to fester for too long, it may lead people to take out their anger on anyone and everyone around them; to lash out irrationally in a fit of violence.  And who could blame them for this, after perceiving that they’re inevitably trapped in a life with so many things that are out of their control?

Even in the face of resentment however, one can see the value of life when push comes to shove and one comes face to face with death itself.  The time that once seemed to flow on by, with each minute as meaningless as the one before or after it, now becomes as precious as ever as if each infinitesimal moment now stretches on through an eternity.  Dostoyevsky mentions the life changing power of such an experience in his novel The Idiot, where the character Prince Myshkin retells the story of an unidentified man (presumably representing Dostoyevsky himself):

“This man had once been led out with the others to the scaffold and a sentence of death was read over him….Twenty minutes later a reprieve was read to them, and they were condemned to another punishment instead.  Yet the interval between those two sentences, twenty minutes or at least a quarter of an hour, he passed in the fullest conviction that he would die in a few minutes….The priest went to each in turn with a cross.  He had only five minutes more to live.  He told me that those five minutes seemed to him an infinite time, a vast wealth….But he said that nothing was so dreadful at that time as the continual thought, “What if I were not to die!  What if I could go back to life–what eternity!  And it would all be mine!  I would turn every minute into an age; I would lose nothing, I would count every minute as it passed, I would not waste one!”  He said that this idea turned to such a fury at last that he longed to be shot quickly.”

Of course, the main lesson to learn here is that in the face of one’s own death, life takes on an absolute value and as Barrett says “The meaning of death is precisely its revelation of this value.”  And there will certainly be more to say about this when we get to the chapter on Heidegger and explore his concept of Being-towards-death.

As we move from Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy, we find a fairly different view of man; and this difference is in some ways like that between night and day.  Whereas the former had a more morbid or pathological view of man, the latter is more akin to expressing the better angels of our human nature.  But both men brought to light the knowledge of the Dionysian aspects of our being.  It’s useful to look at a passage from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, where her husband, the very rational and intellectually-minded Alexey Karenin, slips into a fit of jealousy over his wife:

“He felt that he was standing face to face with something illogical and irrational, and did not know what was to be done.  Alexey Alexandrovitch was standing face to face with life, with the possibility of his wife’s loving someone other than himself, and this seemed to him very irrational and incomprehensible because it was life itself.  All his life Alexey Alexandrovitch had lived and worked in official spheres, having to do with the reflection of life.  And every time he had stumbled against life itself he had shrunk away from it.  Now he experienced a feeling akin to that of a man who, while calmly crossing a bridge over a precipice, should suddenly discover that the bridge is broken, and that there is a chasm below.  That chasm was life itself, the bridge that artificial life in which Alexey Alexandrovitch had lived.  For the first time the question presented itself to him of the possibility of his wife’s loving someone else, and he was horrified at it.”

And this was Tolstoy’s goal ultimately as a novelist: the standing face to face with life, with truth, and with the way the world and our existence within it really is.  The trouble arises if we fail to accept life and instead hide ourselves from it, and what Tolstoy saw was that our own powers of intellect can be the cause of this concealment; by giving us only a reflection of what life is, through abstractions, social conventions and the comforts brought to us through our daily use of routine.

And what kind of truth did the characters in Tolstoy’s novels end up finding?  Rather than some kind of intellectual truth consisting of propositions that could be spelled out here, it was an existential truth and so a truth that’s inherently difficult to put into words.  The truth was more or less a kind of openness to Being, where one finally faced the true possibilities that may unfold in their lives, even with that inevitable “possibility of the impossibility of existence” (as Heidegger put it): death itself.  And the natural unfolding of life as seen in Tolstoy’s novels, with a predominantly organic milieu, is meant to illustrate the necessary search for truth in one’s life and the truth about life itself.

To return to a previous theme mentioned earlier (in part 5, on Christian sources), Barrett says:

“The meaning of life, if there is one, says Tolstoy, must be found in these ordinary souls and not in the great intellects of the race.  Whatever ultimate meaning there is is vital and not rational.  The peasantry are wiser in their ignorance than the savants of St. Petersburg in their learning.”

And here again, I think this highlights the importance of subjectivity and our overall feeling of contentment; something that can’t be overcome or superseded by rationality nor by the rationalizations borne out of our intellect.  The meaning of life is ultimately derived from feeling and emotion, forces that lie in the deepest parts of our being.  And while the meaning of life may still be discovered by some of the great intellects in any period of history, Tolstoy’s point is still well taken; for the intellectual class has all too often overestimated the reach of the intellect and simultaneously undervalued or entirely devalued the fundamental role of “the vital”.  In the next post in this series, I’ll be starting a survey of part 3, “The Existentialists”, beginning with chapter 7, on Kierkegaard.

Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 2, Chapter 5: “Christian Sources”)

In the previous post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, we explored some of the Hebraistic and Hellenistic contributions to the formation and onset of existentialism within Western thought.  In this post, I’m going to look at chapter 5 of Barrett’s book, which takes a look at some of the more specifically Christian sources of existentialism in the Western tradition.

1. Faith and Reason

We should expect there to be some significant overlap between Christianity and Hebraism, since the former was a dissenting sect of the latter.  One concept worth looking at is the dichotomy of faith versus reason, where in Christianity the man of faith is far and above the man of reason.  Even though faith is heavily prized within Hebraism as well, there are still some differences between the two belief systems as they relate to faith, with these differences stemming from a number of historical contingencies:

“Ancient Biblical man knew the uncertanties and waverings of faith as a matter of personal experience, but he did not yet know the full conflict of faith with reason because reason itself did not come into historical existence until later, with the Greeks.  Christian faith is therefore more intense than that of the Old Testament, and at the same time paradoxical: it is not only faith beyond reason but, if need be, against reason.”

Once again we are brought back to Plato, and his concept of rational consciousness and the explicit use of reason; a concept that had never before been articulated or developed.  Christianity no longer had reason hiding under the surface or homogeneously mixed-in with the rest of our mental traits; rather, it was now an explicit and specific way of thinking and processing information that was well known and that couldn’t simply be ignored.  Not only did the Christian have to hold faith above this now-identified capacity of thinking logically, but they also had to explicitly reject reason if it contradicted any belief that was grounded on faith.

Barrett also mentions here the problem of trying to describe the concept of faith in a language of reason, and how the opposition between the two is particularly relevant today:

“Faith can no more be described to a thoroughly rational mind than the idea of colors can be conveyed to a blind man.  Fortunately, we are able to recognize it when we see it in others, as in St. Paul, a case where faith had taken over the whole personality.  Thus vital and indescribable, faith partakes of the mystery of life itself.  The opposition between faith and reason is that between the vital and the rational-and stated in these terms, the opposition is a crucial problem today.”

I disagree with Barrett to some degree here as I don’t think it’s possible to be able to recognize a quality in others (let alone a quality that others can recognize as well) that is entirely incommunicable.  On the contrary, if you and I can both recognize some quality, then we should be able to describe it even if only in some rudimentary way.  Now this doesn’t mean that I think a description in words can do justice to every conception imaginable, but rather that, as human beings there is an inherent ability to communicate fairly well that which is involved in common modes of living and in our shared experiences; even very complex concepts that have somewhat of a fuzzy boundary.

It may be that a thoroughly rational mind will not appreciate faith in any way, nor think it is of any use, nor have had any personal experience with it; but it doesn’t mean that they can’t understand the concept, or what a mode of living dominated by faith would look like.  I also don’t think it’s fair to say that the opposition between faith and reason is that between the vital and the rational, even though this may be a real view for some.  If by vital, Barrett is alluding to what is essential to our psyche, then I don’t think he can be talking about faith, at least not in the sense of faith as belief without good reason.  But I’m willing to concede his point if instead by vital he is simply referring to an attitude that is spirited, vibrant, energetic, and thus involving some lively form of emotional expression.

He delves a little deeper into the distinction between faith and reason when he says:

“From the point of view of reason, any faith, including the faith in reason itself, is paradoxical, since faith and reason are fundamentally different functions of the human psyche.”

It seems that Barrett is guilty of making a little bit of a false equivocation here between two uses of the word faith.  I’d actually go so far as to say that the two uses of the word faith are best described in the way that Barrett himself alluded to in the last chapter: faith as trust and faith as belief.  On the one hand, we have faith as belief where some belief or set of beliefs is maintained without good reason; and on the other hand, we have faith as trust where, in the case of reason, our trust in reason is grounded on the fact that its use leads to successful predictions about the causal structure of our experience.  So there isn’t really any paradox at all when it comes to “faith” in reason, because such a faith need not involve adopting some belief without good reason, but rather there is, at most, a trust in reason based on the demonstrable and replicable success it has provided us in the past.

Barrett is right however, when he says that faith and reason are fundamentally different functions of the human psyche.  But this doesn’t mean that they are isolated from one another: for example, if one believes that having faith in God will help them to secure some afterlife in heaven, and if one also desires an afterlife in heaven, then the use of reason can actually be employed to reinforce a faith in God (as it did for me, back when I was a Christian).  This doesn’t mean that faith in God is reasonable, but rather that when certain beliefs are isolated or compartmentalized in the right way (even in the case of imagining hypothetical scenarios), reason can be used to process a logical relation between them, even if those beliefs are themselves derived from illogical cognitive biases.  To see that this is true, one need only realize that an argument can be logically valid even if the premises are not logically sound.

To be as charitable as possible with the concept of faith (at least, one that is more broadly construed), I will make one more point that I think is relevant here: having faith as a form of positivity or optimism in one’s outlook on life, given the social and personal circumstances that one finds themselves in, is perfectly rational and reasonable.  It is well known that people tend to be happier and have more fulfilling lives if they steer clear of pessimism and simply try and stay as positive as possible.  One primary reason for this has to do with what I have previously called socio-psychological feedback loops (what I would also call an evidence-based form of Karma).  Thus, one can have an empirically demonstrable good reason to have an attitude that is reminiscent of faith, yet without having to sacrifice an epistemology that is reliable and which consistently tracks on to reality.

When it comes to the motivating factors that lead people to faith, existentialist thought can shed some light on what some of these factors may be.  If we consider Paul the Apostle, for example, which Barrett mentioned earlier, he also says:

“The central fact for his faith is that Jesus did actually rise from the dead, and so that death itself is conquered-which is what in the end man most ardently longs for.”

The finite nature of man, not only with regard to the intellect but also with respect to our lives in general, is something that existentialism both recognizes and sees as an integral starting point to philosophically build off of.  And I think it should come as no surprise that the fear of death in particular is likely to be a motivating factor for most if not all supernatural beliefs found within any number of religions, including the belief in possibly resurrecting one from the dead (as in the case of St. Paul’s belief in Jesus), the belief in spirits, souls, or other disembodied minds, or any belief in an afterlife (including reincarnation).

We can see that faith is, largely anyway, a means of reducing the cognitive dissonance that results from existential elements of our experience; it is a means of countering or rejecting a number of facts surrounding the contingencies and uncertainties of our existence.  From this fact, we can then see that by examining what faith is compensating for, one can begin to extract what the existentialists eventually elaborated on.  In other words, within existentialism, it is fully accepted that we can’t escape death (for example), and that we have to face death head-on (among other things) in order to live authentically; therefore having faith in overcoming death in any way is simply a denial of at least one burden willingly taken on by the existentialist.

Within early Christianity, we can also see some parallels between an existentialist like Kierkegaard and an early Christian author like Tertullian.  Barrett gives us an excerpt from Tertullian’s De Carne Christi:

“The Son of God was crucified; I am unashamed of it because men must needs be ashamed of it.  And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.  And He was buried and rose again; the fact is certain because it is impossible.”

This sounds a lot like Kierkegaard, despite the sixteen centuries of separation between these two figures, and despite the fact that Tertullian was writing when Christianity was first expanding and most aggressive and Kierkegaard writing more towards the end of Christianity when it had already drastically receded under the pressure of secularization and modernity.  In this quote of Tertullian’s, we can see a kind of submission to paradox, where it is because a particular proposition is irrational or unreasonable that it becomes an article of faith.  It’s not enough to say that faith is simply used to arrive at a belief that is unreasonable or irrational, but rather that its attribute of violating reason is actually taken as a reason to use it and to believe that the claims of faith are in fact true.  So rather than merely seeing this as an example of irrationality, this actually makes for a good example of the kind of anti-rational attitudes that contributed to the existentialist revolt against some dominant forms of positivism; a revolt that didn’t really begin to precipitate until Kierkegaard’s time.

Although anti-rationalism is often associated with existentialism, I think one would be making an error if they equivocated the two or assumed that anti-rationalism was integral or necessary to existentialism; though it should be said that this is contingent on how exactly one is defining both anti-rationalism (and by extension rationalism) and existentialism.  The two terms have a variety of definitions (as does positivism, with Barrett giving us one particularly narrow definition back in chapter one).  If by rationalism, one is referring to the very narrow view that rationality is the only means of acquiring knowledge, or a view that the only thing that matters in human thought or in human life is rationality, or even a view that humans are fundamentally or primarily rational beings; then I think it is fair to say that this is largely incompatible with existentialism, since the latter is often defined as a philosophy positing that humans are not primarily rational, and that subjective meaning (rather than rationality) plays a much more primary role in our lives.

However, if rationality is simply taken as a view that reason and rational thought are integral components (even if not the only components) for discovering much of the knowledge that exists about ourselves and the universe at large, then it is by all means perfectly compatible with most existentialist schools of thought.  But in order to remain compatible, some priority needs to be given to subjective experience in terms of where meaning is derived from, how our individual identity is established, and how we are to direct our lives and inform our system of ethics.

The importance of subjective experience, which became a primary assumption motivating existentialist thought, was also appreciated by early Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine.  In fact, Barrett goes so far as to say that the interiorization of experience and the primary focus on the individual over the collective was unknown to the Greeks and didn’t come about until Christianity had begun to take hold in Western culture:

“Where Plato and Aristotle had asked the question, What is man?, St. Augustine (in the Confessions) asks, Who am I?-and this shift is decisive.  The first question presupposed a world of objects, a fixed natural and zoological order, in which man was included; and when man’s precise place in that order had been found, the specifically differentiating characteristic of reason was added.  Augustine’s question, on the other hand, stems from an altogether different, more obscure and vital center within the questioner himself: from an acutely personal sense of dereliction and loss, rather than from the detachment with which reason surveys the world of objects in order to locate its bearer, man, zoologically within it.”

So rather than looking at man as some kind of well-defined abstraction within a categorical hierarchy of animals and objects, and one bestowed with a unique faculty of rational consciousness, man is looked at from the inside, from the perspective of, and identified as, an embodied individual with an experience that is deeply rooted and inherently emotional.  And in Augustine’s question, we also see an implication that man can’t be defined in a way that the Greeks attempted to do because in asking the question, Who am I?, man became separated from the kind of zoological order that all other animals adhered to.  It is the unique sense of self and the (often foreboding) awareness of this self then, as opposed to the faculty of reason, that Augustine highlighted during his moment of reflection.

Though Augustine was cognizant of the importance of exploring the nature of our personal, human existence (albeit for him, with a focus on religious experience in particular), he also explored aspects of human existence on the cosmic scale.  But when he went down this cosmic road of inquiry, he left the nature of personal lived existence by the wayside and instead went down a Neo-Platonist path of theodicy.  Augustine was after all a formal theologian, and one who tried to come to grips with the problem of evil in the world.  But he employed Greek metaphysics for this task, and tried to use logic mixed with irrational faith-based claims about the benevolence of God, in order to show that God’s world wasn’t evil at all.  Augustine did this by eliminating evil from his conception of existence such that all evil was simply a lack of being and hence a form of non-being and therefore non-existent.  This was supposed to be our consolation: ignore any apparent evil in the world because we’re told that it doesn’t really exist; all in the name of trying to justify the cosmos as good and thus to maintain a view that God is good.

This is such a shame in the end, for in Augustine’s attempt at theodicy, he simply downplayed and ignored the abominable and precarious aspects of our existence, which are as real a part of our experience as anything could be.  Perhaps Augustine was motivated to use rationalism here in order to feel comfort and safety in a world where many feel alienated and alone.  But as Barrett says:

“…reason cannot give that security; if it could, faith would be neither necessary nor so difficult.  In the age-old struggle between the rational and the vital, the modern revolt against theodicy (or, equally, the modern recognition of its impossibility) is on the side of the vital…”

And so once again we see that a primary motivation for faith is because many cannot get the consolation they long for through the use of reason.  They can’t psychologically deal with the way the world really is and so they either use faith to believe the world is some other way or they try to use reason along with some number of faith-based premises, in evaluating our apparent place in the world.  St. Augustine actually thought that he could harmonize faith and reason (or what Barrett referred to as the vital and the rational) and this set the stage for the next thousand years of Christian thought.  Once faith claims became more explicit in the Church’s various articles of dogma, one was left to exercise rationality as they saw fit, as long as it was within the confines of that faith and dogma.  And this of course led to many medieval thinkers to mistake faith for reason (in many cases at least), reinforced by the fact that the use of reason was operating under faith-based premises.

The problematic relation between the vital and the rational didn’t disappear even after many a philosopher assumed the two forces were in complete harmony and agreement; instead the clash resurfaced in a debate between Voluntarism and Intellectualism, with our attention now turned toward St. Thomas Aquinas.  As an intellectualist, St. Thomas tried to argue that the intellect in man is prior to the will of man because the intellect determines the will, since we can only desire what we know.  Scotus on the other hand, a voluntarist, responded to this claim and said that the will determines what ideas the intellect turns toward, and thus the will ends up determining what the intellect comes to know.

As an aside, I think that Scotus was more likely correct here, because while the intellect may inform the will (and thus help to direct the will), there is something far more fundamental and unconscious at play that drives our engagement with the world as an organism evolved to survive.  For example, we have a curiosity for both novelty (seeking new information) and familiarity (a maximal understanding of incoming information) and basic biologically-driven desires for satisfaction and homeostasis.  These drives simply don’t depend on the intellect even though they can make use of it, and these drives will continue to operate even if the intellect does not.  I also disagree with St. Thomas’ claim that one can only desire that which they already know, for one can desire knowledge for it’s own sake without knowing exactly what knowledge is yet to come (again from an independent drive, which we could call the will), and one can also desire a change in the world from the way they currently know it to be to some other as yet unspecified way (e.g. to desire a world without a specific kind of suffering, even though one may not know exactly what that would be like, having never lived such a life before).

The crux of the debate between the primacy of the will versus the intellect can perhaps be re-framed accordingly:

“…not in terms of whether will is to be given primacy over the intellect, or the intellect over the will-these functions being after all but abstract fragments of the total man-but rather in terms of the primacy of the thinker over his thoughts, of the concrete and total man himself who is doing the thinking…the fact remains that Voluntarism has always been, in intention at least, an effort to go beyond the thought to the concrete existence of the thinker who is thinking that thought.”

Here again I see the concept of an embodied and evolved organism and a reflective self at play, where the contents of consciousness cannot be taken on their own, nor as primary, but rather they require a conscious agent to become manifest, let alone to have any causal power in the world.

2. Existence vs. Essence

There is a deeper root to the problem underlying the debate between St. Thomas and Scotus and it has to do with the relation between essence and existence; a relation that Sartre (among others) emphasized as critical to existentialism.  Whereas the essence of a thing is simply what the thing is (its essential properties for example), the existence of a thing simply refers to the brute fact that the thing is.  A very common theme found throughout Sartre’s writings is the basic contention that existence precedes essence (though, for him, this only applies to the case of man).  Barrett gives a very simplified explanation of such a thesis:

“In the case of man, its meaning is not difficult to grasp.  Man exists and makes himself to be what he is; his individual essence or nature comes to be out of his existence; and in this sense it is proper to say that existence precedes essence.  Man does not have a fixed essence that is handed to him ready-made; rather, he makes his own nature out of his freedom and the historical conditions in which he is placed.”

I think this concept also makes sense when we put it into the historical context going back to ancient Greece.  Whereas the Greeks tried to put humanity within a zoological order and categorize us by some essential qualities, the existentialists that later came on the scene rejected such an idea almost as a kind of categorical error.  It was simply not possible to classify human beings like you could inanimate objects or other animals that didn’t have the behavioral complexity and a will to define themselves as we do.

Barrett also explains that the essence versus existence relation breaks down into two different but related questions:

1) Does existence have primacy over essence, or the reverse?

2) In actual existing things is there a real distinction between the two?  Or are they merely different points of view that the mind takes toward the same existing thing?

In an attempt at answering these questions, I think it’s reasonable to say that essence has more to do with potentiality (a logically possible set of abstractions or properties) and existence has more to do with actuality (a logically and physically possible past or present state of being).  I also think that existence is necessary in order for any essence to be real in any way, and not because an actual object needs to exist in order to instantiate a physical instance of some specific essence, but because any essence is merely an abstraction created by a conscious agent who inferred it in the first place.  Quite simply, there is no Platonic realm for the essence to “exist” within and so it needs an existing consciousness to produce it.  So I would say that existence has primacy over essence since an existent is needed for an essence to be conceived, let alone instantiated at all.

As for the second question, I think there is a real distinction between the two and that they are different points of view that the mind takes toward the same existing thing.  I don’t see this as an either/or dichotomy.  The mind can certainly acknowledge the existence of some object, animal, or person, without giving much thought to what its essence is (aside from its being distinct enough to consider it a thing), but it can never acknowledge the essence of an actual object, animal, or person without also acknowledging its existence.  There’s also something relevant to be said about how our minds differentiate between an actual perception and an imagined one, even between an actual life and an imagined one, or an actual person and an imagined one; something that we do all the time.

On the other side of this issue, within the debate between essentialism and existentialism, are the questions of whether or not there are any essential qualities of human beings that make them human, and if so, whether or not any of these essential qualities are fixed for human beings.  Most people are familiar with the idea of human nature, whereby there are some biologically-grounded innate predispositions that affect our behavior in some ways.  We are evolved animals after all, and the only way for evolution to work is to have genes providing different phenotypic effects on the body and behavior of a population of organisms.  Since about half of our own genes are used to code for our brain’s development, its basic structure, and functionality, it should seem obvious to anyone that we’re bound to have some set of innate behavioral tendencies as well as some biological limitations on the space of possibilities for our behavior.

Thus, any set of innate behavioral tendencies that are shared by healthy human beings would constitute our human nature.  And furthermore, this behavioral overlap would be a fixed attribute of human nature insofar as the genes coding for that innate behavioral overlap don’t evolve beyond a certain degree.  Human nature is simply an undeniable fact about us grounded in our biology.  If our biology changes enough, then we will eventually cease to be human, or if we still call ourselves “human” at that point in time then we will cease to have the same nature since we will no longer be the same species.  But as long as that biological evolution remains under a certain threshold, we will have some degree of fixity in our human nature.

But unlike most other organisms on earth, human beings have an incredibly complex brain as well as a number of culturally inherited cognitive programs that provide us with a seemingly infinite number of possible behaviors and subsequent life trajectories.  And I think this fact has fueled some of the disagreement between the existentialists and the essentialists.  The essentialists (or many of them at least) have maintained that we have a particular human nature, which I think is certainly true.  But, as per the existentialists, we must also acknowledge just how vast our space of possibilities really is and not let our human nature be the ultimate arbiter of how we define ourselves.  We have far more freedom to choose a particular life project and way of life than one would be led to believe given some preconceived notion of what is essentially human.

3. The Case of Pascal

Science brought about a dramatic change to Western society, effectively carrying us out of the Middle Ages within a century; but this change also created the very environment that made modern Existentialism possible.  Cosmology, for example, led 17th century mathematician and theologian, Blaise Pascal to say that “The silence of these infinite spaces (outer space) frightens me.”  In this statement he was expressing the general reaction of humanity to the world that science had discovered; a world that made man feel homeless and insignificant.

As a religious man, Pascal was also seeking to reconcile this world discovered by science with his own faith.  This was a difficult task, but he found some direction in looking at the wretchedness of the human condition:

“In Pascal’s universe one has to search much more desperately to find any signposts that would lead the mind in the direction of faith.  And where Pascal finds such a signpost, significantly enough, is in the radically miserable condition of man himself.  How is it that this creature who shows everywhere, in comparison with other animals and with nature itself, such evidence marks of grandeur and power is at the same time so feeble and miserable?  We can only conclude, Pascal says, that man is rather like a ruined or disinherited nobleman cast out from the kingdom which ought to have been his (his fundamental premise is the image of man as a disinherited being).”

Personally I see this as indicative of our being an evolved species, albeit one with an incredibly rich level of consciousness and intelligence.  In some sense our minds’ inherent capacities have a potential that is far and beyond what most humans ever come close to actualizing, and this may create a feeling of our having lost something that we deserve; some possible yet unrealized world that would make more sense for us to have given the level of power and potential we possess.  And perhaps this lends itself to a feeling of angst or a lack of fulfillment as well.

As Pascal himself said:

“The natural misfortune of our mortal and feeble condition is so wretched that when we consider it closely, nothing can console us.” 

Furthermore, Barrett reminds us of Pascal having mentioned the human tendency of escaping from this close consideration of our condition through the two “sovereign anodynes” of habit and diversion:

“Both habit and diversion, so long as they work, conceal from man “his nothingness, his forlornness, his inadequacy, his impotence and his emptiness.”  Religion is the only possible cure for this desperate malady that is nothing other than our ordinary mortal existence itself.”

Barrett describes our state of cultivating various habits and distractions as a kind of concealment of the ever-narrowing space of possibilities in our lives, as each day passes us by with some set of hopes and dreams forever lost in the past.  I think it would be fair to say however, that the psychological benefit we gain from at least many of our habits and distractions warrants our having them in the first place.  As an analogy, if one day I have been informed by my doctor that I’m going to die from a terminal illness in a few months (thus drastically narrowing the future space of possibilities in my life), is there really a problem with me trying to keep my mind off of such a morbid fate, such that I can make the most of the time that I have left?  I certainly wouldn’t advocate burying one’s head in the sand either, nor having irrational expectations, nor living in denial; and so I think the time will be used best if I don’t completely forget about my timeline coming to an end either, because then I can more adequately appreciate that remaining time.

Moreover, I don’t agree that religion is the only possible cure for dealing with our “ordinary mortal existence”.  I think that psychological and moral development are the ultimate answers here, where a critical look at oneself and an ongoing attempt to become a better version of oneself in order to maximize one’s life fulfillment is key.  The world can be any way that it is but that doesn’t change the fact that certain attitudes toward that world and certain behaviors can make our experience of the world, as it truly is, better or worse.  Falling back on religion to console us is, to use Pascal’s own words, nothing but another habit and form of distraction, and one where we sacrifice knowing and facing the truth of our condition for some kind of ignorant bliss that relies on false beliefs about the world.  And I don’t think we can live authentically if we don’t face the condition we’re in as a species, and more importantly as individuals; by trying to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.

When it comes to the human mind and how we deal with or process information about our everyday lives or aspects of our overall condition, it can be a rather messy process with very complicated concepts, many of which that have fuzzy boundaries and so can’t be dealt with in the same way that we deal with analyses relying strictly on logic.  In some cases of analyzing our lives, we don’t know exactly what the premises could even be, let alone how to arrange them within a logical structure to arrive at some kind of certain conclusion.  And this differs a lot from other areas of inquiry like, say, mathematics.  As Pascal was delving deeper into the study of our human condition, he realized this difference and posited that there was an interesting distinction in terms of what the mind can comprehend in these different contexts: a mathematical mind and an intuitive mind.  Within a field of study such as mathematics, it is our mind’s ability to logically comprehend various distinct and well defined ideas that we make use of, whereas in other more concrete domains of our experience, we rely quite heavily on intuition.

Not only is logic not very useful in the more concrete and complex domains of our lives, but in many cases it may actually get in the way of seeing things clearly since our intuition, though less reliable than logic, is more up to the task of dealing with complexities that haven’t yet been parsed out into well-defined ideas and concepts.  Barrett describes this a little differently than I would when he says:

“What Pascal had really seen, then, in order to have arrived at this distinction was this: that man himself is a creature of contradictions and ambivalences such as pure logic can never grasp…By delimiting a sphere of intuition over against that of logic, Pascal had of course set limits to human reason. “

In the case of logic, one is certainly limited in its use when the concepts involved are probabilistic (rather than being well-defined or “black and white”) and there are significant limitations when our attitudes toward those concepts vary contextually.  We are after all very complex creatures with a number of competing goals and with a prioritization of those goals that varies over time.  And of course we have a number of value judgments and emotional dispositions that motivate our actions in often unpredictable ways.  So it seems perfectly reasonable to me that one should acknowledge the limits we have in our use of logic and reason.

Barrett makes another interesting claim about the limits of reason when he says:

“Three centuries before Heidegger showed, through a learned and laborious exegesis, that Kant’s doctrine of the limitations of human reason really rests on the finitude of our human existence, Pascal clearly saw that the feebleness of our reason is part and parcel of the feebleness of our human condition generally.  Above all, reason does not get at the heart of religious experience.”

And I think the last sentence is most important here, where we try and understand that the limitations of reason include the inability to examine all that matters and all that is meaningful within religious experience.  Even though I am a kind of champion for reason, in the sense that I find it to be in short supply when it matters most and in the sense that I often advertise the dire need for critical thinking skills and the need for more education to combat our cognitive biases, I for one have never made the assumption that reason could ever accomplish such an arduous task of dissecting religious experience in some reductionist way while retaining or accounting for everything of value within it.  I have however used reason to analyze various religious beliefs and claims about the world in order to discover their consequences on, or incompatibilities with, a number of other beliefs.

Theologians do something similar in their attempts to prove the existence of God, by beginning with some set of presuppositions (about God or the supernatural), and then applying reason to those faith-based premises to see what would result if they were in fact true.  And Pascal saw this mental exercise as futile and misguided as well because it misses the entire point of religion:

“In any case, God as the object of a rigorous demonstration, even supposing such a demonstration were forthcoming, would have nothing to do with the living needs of religion.”

I admire the fact that Pascal was honest here about what really matters most when it comes to religion and religious beliefs.  It doesn’t matter whether or not God exists, or whether any religious claim or other is actually true or false; rather, it is the living need of religion that he perceives that ultimately motivates one to adhere to it.  Thus, theology doesn’t really matter to him because those who want to be convinced by the arguments for God’s existence will be convinced simply because they desire the conclusion insofar as they believe it will give them consolation from the human condition they find themselves in.

To add something to the bleak picture of just how contingent our existence is, Barrett mentions a personal story that Pascal shared about his having had a brush with death:

“While he was driving by the Seine one day, his carriage  suddenly swerved, the door was flung open, and Pascal almost catapulted down the embankment to his death.  The arbitrariness and suddenness of this near accident became for him another lightning flash of revelation.  Thereafter he saw Nothingness as a possibility that lurked, so to speak, beneath our feet, a gulf and an abyss into which we might tumble at any moment.  No other writer has expressed more powerfully than Pascal the radical contingency that lies at the heart of human existence-a contingency that may at any moment hurl us all unsuspecting into non-being…The idea of Nothingness or Nothing had up to this time played no role at all in Western philosophy…Nothingness had suddenly and drastically revealed itself to him.”

And here it is: the concept of Nothingness which has truly grounded a bulk of the philosophical constructs found within existentialism.  To add further to this, Pascal also saw that one’s inevitable death wasn’t the whole picture of our contingency, but only a part of it; it was our having been born at a particular time, place, and within a certain culture that vastly reduces the number of possible life trajectories one can take, and thus vastly reduces our freedom in establishing our own identity.  Our life begins with contingency and ends with it also.

Pascal also acknowledged our existence as lying in the middle of the universe, in terms of being between that of the infinitesimal and microscopic and that of the seemingly infinite lying at the cosmological scale.  Within this middle position, he saw man as being “an All in relation to Nothingness, a Nothingness in relation to the All.”  I think it’s also worth pointing out that it is because of our evolutionary history and the “middle-position” we evolved within that causes the drastic misalignment between the world we were in some sense meant to understand, and the micro and cosmic scales we discovered in the last several hundred years.

Aside from any feelings of alienation and homelessness that these different scales have precipitated, we simply don’t have an intuition that evolved a need to understand existence at the infinitesimal quantum level nor at the cosmic relativistic level, which is why these discoveries in physics are difficult to understand even by experts in the field.  We should expect these discoveries to be vastly perplexing and counter-intuitive, for our consciousness evolved to deal with life at a very finite scale; yet another example of our finitude as human beings.

It was this very same fact, that we gained so much information about our world through these kinds of discoveries, including major advancements made in mathematics, that also promoted the assumption that human nature could be perfected through the universal application of reason.

I’ll finish the post on this chapter with one final quote from Barrett that I found insightful:

“Poets are witnesses to Being before the philosophers are able to bring it into thought.  And what these particular poets were struggling to reveal, in this case, were the very conditions of Being that are ours historically today.  They were sounding, in poetic terms, the premonitory chords of our own era.”

It is the voice of the poets that we first hear lamenting about the Enlightenment and what reason seems to have done, or at least what it had begun to do.  They were some of the most important contemporary precursors to the later existentialists and philosophers that would soon begin to process (in far more detail and with far more precision) the full effects of modernity on the human psyche.