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.