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

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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.

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

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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.

Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 2, Chapter 4: “The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition”)

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In the previous post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I explored Part 1, Chapter 3: The Testimony of Modern Art, where Barrett illustrates how existentialist thought is best exemplified in modern art.  The feelings of alienation, discontent, and meaninglessness pervade a number of modern expressions, and so as is so often the case throughout history, we can use artistic expression as a window to peer inside our evolving psyche and witness the prevailing views of the world at any point in time.

In this post, I’m going to explore Part II, Chapter 4: The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition.  This chapter has a lot of content and is quite dense, and so naturally this fact is reflected in the length of this post.

Part II: “The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition”

Ch. 4 – Hebraism and Hellenism

Barrett begins this chapter by pointing out two forces governing the historical trajectory of Western civilization and Western thought: Hebraism and Hellenism.  He mentions an excerpt of Matthew Arnold’s, in his book Culture and Anarchy; a book that was concerned with the contemporary situation occurring in nineteenth-century England, where Arnold writes:

“We may regard this energy driving at practice, this paramount sense of the obligation of duty, self-control, and work, this earnestness in going manfully with the best light we have, as one force.  And we may regard the intelligence driving at those ideas which are, after all, the basis of right practice, the ardent sense for all the new and changing combinations of them which man’s development brings with it, the indomitable impulse to know and adjust them perfectly, as another force.  And these two forces we may regard as in some sense rivals–rivals not by the necessity of their own nature, but as exhibited in man and his history–and rivals dividing the empire of the world between them.  And to give these forces names from the two races of men who have supplied the most splendid manifestations of them, we may call them respectively the forces of Hebraism and Hellenism…and it ought to be, though it never is, evenly and happily balanced between them.”

And while we may have felt a stronger attraction to one force over the other at different points in our history, both forces have played an important role in how we’ve structured our individual lives and society at large.  What distinguishes these two forces ultimately comes down to the difference between doing and knowing; between the Hebrew’s concern for practice and right conduct, and the Greek’s concern for knowledge and right thinking.  I can’t help but notice this Hebraistic influence in one of the earliest expressions of existentialist thought when Soren Kierkegaard (in one of his earlier journals) had said: “What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act”.  Here we see that some set of moral virtues are what form the fundamental substance and meaning of life within Hebraism (and by extension, Kierkegaard’s philosophy), in contrast with the Hellenistic subordination of the moral virtues to those of the intellectual variety.

I for one am tempted to mention Aristotle here, since he was a Greek philosopher, yet one who formulated and extolled moral virtues, forming the foundation for most if not all modern systems of virtue ethics; despite all of his work on science, logic and epistemology.  And sure enough, Arnold does mention Aristotle briefly, but he says that for Aristotle the moral virtues are “but the porch and access to the intellectual (virtues), and with these last is blessedness.”  So it’s still fair to say that the intellectual virtues were given priority over the moral virtues within Greek thought, even if moral virtues were an important element, serving as a moral means to a combined moral-intellectual end.  We’re still left then with a distinction of what is prioritized or what the ultimate teleology is for Hebraism and Hellenism: moral man versus intellectual man.

One perception of Arnold’s that colors his overall thesis is a form of uneasiness that he sees as lurking within the Hebrew conception of man; an uneasiness stemming from a conception of man that has been infused with the idea of sin, which is simply not found in Greek philosophy.  Furthermore, this idea of sin that pervades the Hebraistic view of man is not limited to one’s moral or immoral actions; rather it penetrates into the core being of man.  As Barrett puts it:

“But the sinfulness that man experiences in the Bible…cannot be confined to a supposed compartment of the individual’s being that has to do with his moral acts.  This sinfulness pervades the whole being of man: it is indeed man’s being, insofar as in his feebleness and finiteness as a creature he stands naked in the presence of God.”

So we have a predominantly moral conception of man within Hebraism, but one that is amalgamated with an essential finitude, an acknowledgement of imperfection, and the expectation of our being morally flawed human beings.  Now when we compare this to the philosophers of Ancient Greece, who had a more idealistic conception of man, where humans were believed to have the capacity to access and understand the universe in its entirety, then we can see the groundwork that was laid for somewhat rivalrous but nevertheless important motivations and contributions to the cultural evolution of Western civilization: science and philosophy from the Greeks, and a conception of “the Law” entrenched in religion and religious practice from the Hebrews.

1. The Hebraic Man of Faith

Barrett begins here by explaining how the Law, though important for its effects on having bound the Jewish community together for centuries despite their many tribulations as a people, the Law is not central to Hebraism but rather the basis of the Law is what lies at its center.  To see what this basis is, we are directed to reread the Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible:

“…reread it in a way that takes us beyond Arnold and into our own time, reread it with an historical sense of the primitive or primary mode of existence of the people who gave expression to this work.  For earlier man, the outcome of the Book of Job was not such a foregone conclusion as it is for us later readers, for whom centuries of familiarity and forgetfulness have dulled the violence of the confrontation between man and God that is central to the narrative.”

Rather than simply taking the commandments of one’s religion for granted and following them without pause, Job’s face-to-face confrontation with his Creator and his demand for justification was in some sense the first time the door had been opened to theological critique and reflection.  The Greeks did something similar where eventually they began to apply reason and rationality to examine religion, stepping outside the confines of simply blindly following religious traditions and rituals.  But unlike the Greek, the Hebrew does not proceed with this demand of justification through the use of reason but rather by a direct encounter of the person as a whole (Job, and his violence, passion, and all the rest) with an unknowable and awe-inspiring God.  Job doesn’t solve his problem with any rational resolution, but rather by changing his entire character.  His relation to God involves a mutual confrontation of two beings in their entirety; not just a rational facet of each being looking for a reasonable explanation from one another, but each complete being facing one another, prepared to defend their entire character and identity.

Barrett mentions the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber here to help clarify things a little, by noting that this relation between Job and God is a relation between an I and a Thou (or a You).  Since Barrett doesn’t explain Buber’s work in much detail, I’ll briefly digress here to explain a few key points.  For those unfamiliar with Buber’s work, the I-Thou relation is a mode of living that is contrasted with another mode centered on the connection between an I and an It.  Both modes of living, the I-Thou and the I-It, are, according to Buber, the two ways that human beings can address existence; the two modes of living required for a complete and fulfilled human being.  The I-It mode encompasses the world of experience and sensation; treating entities as discrete objects to know about or to serve some use.  The I-Thou mode on the other hand encompasses the world of relations itself, where the entities involved are not separated by some discrete boundary, and where a living relationship is acknowledged to exist between the two; this mode of existence requires one to be an active participant rather than merely an objective observer.

It is Buber’s contention that modern life has entirely ignored the I-Thou relation, which has led to a feeling of unfulfillment and alienation from the world around us.   The first mode of existence, that of the I-It, involves our acquiring data from the world, analyzing and categorizing it, and then theorizing about it; and this leads to a subject-object separation, or an objectification of what is being experienced.  According to Buber, modern society almost exclusively uses this mode to engage with the world.  In contrast, with the I-Thou relation the I encounters the object or entity such that both are transformed by the relation; and there is a type of holism at play here where the You or Thou is not simply encountered as a sum of its parts but in its entirety.  To put it another way, it’s as if the You encountered were the entire universe, or that somehow the universe existed through this You.

Since this concept is a little nebulous, I think the best way to summarize Buber’s main philosophical point here is to say that we human beings find meaning in our lives through our relationships, and so we need to find ways of engaging the world such as to maximize our relationships with it; and this is not limited to forming relationships with fellow human beings, but with other animals, inanimate objects, etc., even if these relationships differ from one another in any number of ways.

I actually find some relevance between Buber’s “I and Thou” conception and Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence: the idea that given an infinite amount of time and a finite number of ways that matter and energy can be arranged, anything that has ever happened or that ever will happen, will recur an infinite number of times.  In Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, he mentions how the concept of eternal recurrence was, to him, horrifying and paralyzing.  But, he also concluded that the desire for an eternal return or recurrence would show the ultimate affirmation of one’s life:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?  Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.

The reason I find this relevant to Buber’s conception is two-fold: first of all, the fact that the universe is causally connected makes the universe inseparable to some degree, where each object or entity could be seen to, in some sense, represent the rest of the whole; and secondly, if one is to wish for the eternal recurrence, then they have an attitude toward the world that is non-resistant, and that can learn to accept the things that are out of one’s control.  The universe effectively takes on the character of fate itself, and offers an opportunity to a being such as ourselves, to have a kind of “faith in fate”; to have a relation of trust with the universe as it is, as it once was, and as it will be in the future.

Now the kind of faith I’m speaking of here isn’t a brand that contradicts reason or evidence, but rather is simply a form of optimism and acceptance that colors one’s expectations and overall experience.  And since we are a part of this universe too, our attitude towards it should in many ways reflect our overall relation to it; which brings us back to Buber, where any encounter I might have with the universe (or any “part” of it) is an encounter with a You, that is to say, it is an I-Thou relation.

This “faith in fate” concept I just alluded to is a good segue to return back to the relation between Job and his God within Hebraism, as it was a relation of never-ending faith.  But importantly, as Barrett points out, this faith of Job’s takes on many shapes including that of anger, dismay, revolt, and confusion.  For Job says, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him…but I will maintain my own ways before him.”  So Job’s faith is his maintaining a form of trust in his Creator, even though he says that he will also retain his own identity, his dispositions, and his entire being while doing so.  And this trust ultimately forms the relation between the two.  Barrett describes the kind of faith at play here as more fundamental and primary than that which many modern-day religious proponents would lay claim to.

“Faith is trust before it is belief-belief in the articles, creeds, and tenets of a Church with which later religious history obscures this primary meaning of the word.  As trust, in the sense of the opening up of one being toward another, faith does not involve any philosophical problem about its position relative to faith and reason.  That problem comes up only later when faith has become, so to speak, propositional, when it has expressed itself in statements, creeds, systems.  Faith as a concrete mode of being of the human person precedes faith as the intellectual assent to a proposition, just as truth as a concrete mode of human being precedes the truth of any proposition.”

Although I see faith as belief as fundamentally flawed and dangerous, I can certainly respect the idea of faith as trust, and consequently I can respect the idea of faith as a concrete mode of being; where this mode of being is effectively an attitude of openness taken towards another.  But, whereas I agree with Barrett’s claim that truth as a concrete mode of human being precedes the truth of any proposition, in the sense that a basis and desire for truth are needed prior to evaluating the truth value of any proposition, I don’t believe one can ever justifiably make the succession from faith as trust to faith as belief for the simple reason that if one has good reason to trust another, then they don’t need faith to mediate any beliefs stemming from that trust.  And of course, what matters most here is describing and evaluating what the “Hebrew man of faith” consists of, rather than criticizing the concept of faith itself.

Another interesting historical development stemming from Hebraism pertains to the concept of faith as it evolved within Protestantism.  As Barrett tells us:

“Protestantism later sought to revive this face-to-face confrontation of man with his God, but could produce only a pallid replica of the simplicity, vigor, and wholeness of this original Biblical faith…Protestant man would never have dared confront God and demand an accounting of His ways.  That era in history had long since passed by the time we come to the Reformation.”

As an aside, it’s worth mentioning here that Christianity actually developed as a syncretism between Hebraism and Hellenism; the two very cultures under analysis in this chapter.  By combining Jewish elements (e.g. monotheism, the substitutionary atonement of sins through blood-magic, apocalyptic-messianic resurrection, interpretation of Jewish scriptures, etc.) with Hellenistic religious elements (e.g. dying-and-rising savior gods, virgin birth of a deity, fictive kinship, etc.), the cultural diffusion that occurred resulted in a religion that was basically a cosmopolitan personal salvation cult.

But eventually Christianity became a state religion (after the age of Constantine), resulting in a theocracy that heavily enforced a particular conception of God onto the people.  Once this occurred, the religion was now fully contained within a culture that made it very difficult to question or confront anyone about these conceptions, in order to seek justification for them.  And it may be that the intimidation propagated by the prevailing religious authorities became conflated with an attribute of God; where a fear of questioning any conception of God became integrated in a theological belief about God.

Perhaps it was because the primary conceptions of God, once Christianity entered the Medieval Period, were more externally imposed on everybody rather than discovered in a more personal and introspective way (even if unavoidably initiated and reinforced by the external culture), thus externalizing the attributes of God such that they became more heavily influenced by the perceptibly unquestionable claims of those in power.  Either way, the historical contingencies surrounding the advent of Christianity involved sectarian battles with the winning sect using their dogmatic authority to suppress the views (and the Christian Gospels/scriptures) of the other sects.  And this may have inhibited people from ever questioning their God or demanding justification for what they interpreted to be God’s actions.

One final point in this section that I’d like to highlight is in regard to the concept of knowledge as it relates to Hebraism.  Barrett distinguishes this knowledge from that of the Greeks:

“We have to insist on a noetic content in Hebraism: Biblical man too had his knowledge, though it is not the intellectual knowledge of the Greek.  It is not the kind of knowledge that man can have through reason alone, or perhaps not through reason at all; he has it rather through body and blood, bones and bowels, through trust and anger and confusion and love and fear; through his passionate adhesion in faith to the Being whom he can never intellectually know.  This kind of knowledge a man has only through living, not reasoning, and perhaps in the end he cannot even say what it is he knows; yet it is knowledge all the same, and Hebraism at its source had this knowledge.”

I may not entirely agree with Barrett here, but any disagreement is only likely to be a quibble over semantics, relating to how he and I define noetic and how we each define knowledge.  The word noetic actually derives from the Greek adjective noētikos which means “intellectual”, and thus we are presumably considering the intellectual knowledge found in Hebraism.  Though this knowledge may not be derived from reason alone, I don’t think (as Barrett implies above) that it’s even possible to have any noetic content without at least some minimal use of reason.  It may be that the kind of intellectual content he’s alluding to is that which results from a kind of synthesis between reason and emotion or intuition, but it would seem that reason would still have to be involved, even if it isn’t as primary or dominant as in the intellectual knowledge of the Greek.

With regard to how Barrett and I are each defining knowledge, I must say that just as most other philosophers have done, including those going all the way back to Plato, one must distinguish between knowledge and all other beliefs because knowledge is merely a subset of all of one’s beliefs (otherwise one would be saying that any belief whatsoever is considered knowledge).  To distinguish knowledge as a subset of one’s beliefs, my definition of knowledge can be roughly defined as:

“Recognized patterns of causality that are stored into memory for later recall and use, that positively and consistently correlate with reality, and for which that correlation has been validated by having made successful predictions and/or successfully accomplishing goals through the use of said recalled patterns.”

My conception of knowledge also takes what one might call unconscious knowledge into account (which may operate more automatically and less explicitly than conscious knowledge); as long as it is acquired information that allows you to accomplish goals and make successful predictions about the causal structure of your experience (whether internal feelings or other mental states, or perceptions of the external world), it counts as knowledge nevertheless.  Now there may be different degrees of reliability and usefulness of different kinds of knowledge (such as intuitive knowledge versus rational or scientific knowledge), but those distinctions don’t need to be parsed out here.

What Barrett seems to be describing here as a Hebraistic form of knowledge is something that is deeply embodied in the human being; in the ways that one lives their life that don’t involve, or aren’t dominated by, reason or conscious abstractions.  Instead, there seems to be a more organic process involved of viewing the world and interacting with it in a manner relying more heavily on intuition and emotionally-driven forms of expression.  But, in order to give rise to beliefs that cohere with one another to some degree, to form some kind of overarching narrative, reason (I would argue) is still employed.  There’s still some logical structure to the web of beliefs found therein, even if reason and logic could be used more rigorously and explicitly to turn many of those beliefs on their head.

And when it comes to the Hebraistic conception of God, including the passionate adhesion in faith to a Being whom one can never intellectually know (as Barrett puts it), I think this can be better explained by the fact that we do have reason and rationality, unlike most other animals, as well as cognitive biases such as hyperactive agency detection.  It seems to me that the Hebraistic God concept is more or less derived from an agglomeration of the unknown sources of one’s emotional experiences (especially those involving an experience of the transcendent) and the unpredictable attributes of life itself, then ascribing agency to that ensemble of properties, and (to use Buber’s terms) establishing a relationship with that perceived agency; and in this case, the agent is simply referred to as God (Yahweh).

But in order to infer the existence of such an ensemble, it would seem to require a process of abstracting from particular emotional and unpredictable elements and instances of one’s experience to conclude some universal source for all of them.  Perhaps if this process is entirely unconscious we can say that reason wasn’t at all involved in it, but I suspect that the ascription of agency to something that is on par with the universe itself and its large conjunction of properties which vary over space and time, including its unknowable character, is more likely mediated by a combination of cognitive biases, intuition, emotion, and some degree of rational conscious inference.  But Barrett’s point still stands that the noetic content in Hebraism isn’t dominated by reason as in the case of the Greeks.

2. Greek Reason

Even though existential philosophy is largely a rebellion against the Platonic ideas that have permeated Western thought, Barrett reminds us that there is still some existential aspect to Plato’s works.  Perhaps this isn’t surprising once one realizes that he actually began his adult life aspiring to be a dramatic poet.  Eventually he abandoned this dream undergoing a sort of conversion and decided to dedicate the rest of his life toward a search for wisdom as per the inspiration of Socrates.  Even though he engaged in a life long war against the poets, he still maintained a piece of his poetic character in his writings, including up to the end when he wrote about the great creation myth, Timaeus.

By far, Plato’s biggest contribution to Western thought was his differentiating rational consciousness from the rest of our human psyche.  Prior to this move, rationality was in some sense subsumed under the same umbrella as emotion and intuition.  And this may be one of the biggest changes to how we think, and one that is so often taken for granted.  Barrett describes the position we’re in quite well:

“We are so used today to taking our rational consciousness for granted, in the ways of our daily life we are so immersed in its operations, this it is hard at first for us to imagine how momentous was this historical happening among the Greeks.  Steeped as our age is in the ideas of evolution, we have not yet become accustomed to the idea that consciousness itself is something that has evolved through long centuries and that even today, with us, is still evolving.  Only in this century, through modern psychology, have we learned how precarious a hold consciousness may exert upon life, and we are more acutely aware therefore what a precious deal of history, and of effort, was required for its elaboration, and what creative leaps were necessary at certain times to extend it beyond its habitual territory.”

Barrett’s mention of evolution is important here, because I think we ought to distinguish between the two forms of evolution that have affected how we think and experience the world.  On the one hand, we have our biological evolution to consider, where our brains have undergone dramatic changes in terms of the level of consciousness we actually experience and the degree of causal complexity that the brain can model; and on the other hand, we have our cultural evolution to consider, where our brains have undergone a number of changes in terms of the kinds of “programs” we run on it, how those programs are run and prioritized, and how we process and store information in various forms of external hardware.

In regard to biological evolution, long before our ancestors evolved into humans, the brain had nothing more than a protoself representation of our body and self (to use the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s terminology); it had nothing more than an unconscious state that served as a sort of basic map in the brain tracking the overall state of the body as a single entity in order to accomplish homeostasis.  Then, beyond this protoself there evolved a more sophisticated level of core consciousness where the organism became conscious of the feelings and emotions associated with the body’s internal states, and also became conscious that her feelings and thoughts were her own, further enhancing the sense of self, although still limited to the here-and-now or the present moment.  Finally, beyond this layer of self there evolved an extended consciousness: a form of consciousness that required far more memory, but which brought the organism into an awareness of the past and future, forming an autobiographical self with a perceptual simulator (imagination) that transcended space and time in some sense.

Once humans developed language, then we began to undergo our second form of evolution, namely culture.  After cultural evolution took off, human civilization led to a plethora of new words, concepts, skills, interests, and ways of looking at and structuring the world.  And this evolutionary step was vastly accelerated by written language, the scientific method, and eventually the invention of computers.  But in the time leading up to the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and finally the advent of computers and the information age, it was arguably Plato’s conceptualization of rational consciousness that paved the way forward to eventually reach those technological and epistemological feats.

It was Plato’s analysis of the human psyche and his effectively distilling the process of reason and rationality from the rest of our thought processes that allowed us to manipulate it, to enhance it, and to explore the true possibilities of this markedly human cognitive capacity.  Aristotle and many others since have merely built upon Plato’s monumental work, developing formal logic, computation, and other means of abstract analysis and information processing.  With the explicit use of reason, we’ve been able to overcome many of our cognitive biases (serving as a kind of “software patch” to our cognitive bugs) in order to discover many true facts about the world, allowing us to unlock a wealth of knowledge that had previously been inaccessible to us.  And it’s important to recognize that Plato’s impact on the history of philosophy has highlighted, more than anything else, our overall psychic evolution as a species.

Despite all the benefits that culture has brought us, there has been one inherent problem with the cultural evolution we’ve undergone: a large desynchronization between our cultural and biological evolution.  That is to say, our culture has evolved far, far faster than our biology ever could, and thus our biology hasn’t kept up with, or adapted us to, the cultural environment we’ve been creating.  And I believe this is a large source of our existential woes; for we have become a “fish out of water” (so to speak) where modern civilization and the way we’ve structured our day-to-day lives is incredibly artificial, filled with a plethora of supernormal stimuli and other factors that aren’t as compatible with our natural psychology.  It makes perfect sense then that many people living in the modern world have had feelings of alienation, loneliness, meaninglessness, anxiety, and disorientation.  And in my opinion, there’s no good or pragmatic way to fix this aside from engineering our genes such that our biology is able to catch up to our ever-changing cultural environment.

It’s also important to recognize that Plato’s idea of the universal, explicated in his theory of Forms, was one of the main impetuses for contemporary existential philosophy; not for its endorsement but rather because the idea that a universal such as “humanity” was somehow more real than any actual individual person fueled a revolt against such notions.  And it wasn’t until Kierkegaard and Nietzsche appeared on the scene in the nineteenth century where we saw an explicit attempt to reverse this Platonic idea; where the individual was finally given precedence and priority over the universal, and where a philosophy of existence was given priority over one of essence.  But one thing the existentialists maintained, as derived from Plato, was his conception that philosophizing was a personal means of salvation, transformation, and a concrete way of living (though this was, according to Plato, best exemplified by his teacher Socrates).

As for the modern existentialists, it was Kierkegaard who eventually brought the figure of Socrates back to life, long after Plato’s later portrayal of Socrates, which had effectively dehumanized him:

“The figure of Socrates as a living human presence dominates all the earlier dialogues because, for the young Plato, Socrates the man was the very incarnation of philosophy as a concrete way of life, a personal calling and search.  It is in this sense too that Kierkegaard, more than two thousand years later, was to revive the figure of Socrates-the thinker who lived his thought and was not merely a professor in an academy-as his precursor in existential thinking…In the earlier, so-called “Socratic”, dialogues the personality of Socrates is rendered in vivid and dramatic strokes; gradually, however, he becomes merely a name, a mouthpiece for Plato’s increasingly systematic views…”

By the time we get to Plato’s student, Aristotle, philosophy had become a purely theoretical undertaking, effectively replacing the subjective qualities of a self-examined life with a far less visceral objective analysis.  Indeed, by this point in time, as Barrett puts it: “…the ghost of the existential Socrates had at last been put to rest.”

As in all cases throughout history, we must take the good with the bad.  And we very likely wouldn’t have the sciences today had it not been for Plato detaching reason from the poetic, religious, and mythological elements of culture and thought, thus giving reason its own identity for the first time in history.  Whatever may have happened, we need to try and understand Greek rationalism as best we can such that we can understand the motivations of those that later objected to it, especially within modern existentialism.

When we look back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, for example, we find a fairly balanced perspective of human nature and the many motivations that drive our behavior.  But, in evaluating all the possible goods that humans can aim for, in order to derive an answer to the ethical question of what one ought to do above all else, Aristotle claimed that the highest life one could attain was the life of pure reason, the life of the philosopher and the theoretical scientist.  Aristotle thought that reason was the highest part of our personality, where one’s capacity for reason was treated as the center of one’s real self and the core of their identity.  It is this stark description of rationalism that diffused through Western philosophy until bumping heads with modern existentialist thought.

Aristotle’s rationalism even permeated the Christianity of the Medieval period, where it maintained an albeit uneasy relationship between faith and reason as the center of the human personality.  And the quest for a complete view of the cosmos further propagated a valuing of reason as the highest human function.  The inherent problems with this view simply didn’t surface until some later thinkers began to see human existence and the potential of our reason as having a finite character with limitations.  Only then was the grandiose dream of having a complete knowledge of the universe and of our existence finally shattered.  Once this goal was seen as unattainable, we were left alone on an endless road of knowledge with no prospects for any kind of satisfying conclusion.

We can certainly appreciate the value of theoretical knowledge, and even develop a passion for discovering it, but we mustn’t lose sight of the embodied, subjective qualities of our human nature; nor can we successfully argue any longer that the latter can be dismissed due to a goal of reaching some absolute state of knowledge or being.  That goal is not within our reach, and so trying to make arguments that rely on its possibility is nothing more than an exercise of futility.

So now we must ask ourselves a very important question:

“If man can no longer hold before his mind’s eye the prospect of the Great Chain of Being, a cosmos rationally ordered and accessible from top to bottom to reason, what goal can philosophers set themselves that can measure up to the greatness of that old Greek ideal of the bios theoretikos, the theoretical life, which has fashioned the destiny of Western man for millennia?”

I would argue that the most important goal for philosophy has been and always will be the quest for discovering as many moral facts as possible, such that we can attain eudaimonia as Aristotle advocated for.  But rather than holding a life of reason as the greatest good to aim for, we should simply aim for maximal life fulfillment and overall satisfaction with one’s life, and not presuppose what will accomplish that.  We need to use science and subjective experience to inform us of what makes us happiest and the most fulfilled (taking advantage of the psychological sciences), rather than making assumptions about what does this best and simply arguing from the armchair.

And because our happiness and life fulfillment are necessarily evaluated through subjectivity, we mustn’t make the same mistakes of positivism and simply discard our subjective experience.  Rather we should approach morality with the recognition that we are each an embodied subject with emotions, intuitions, and feelings that motivate our desires and our behavior.  But we should also ensure that we employ reason and rationality in our moral analysis, so that our irrational predispositions don’t lead us farther away from any objective moral truths waiting to be discovered.  I’m sympathetic to a quote of Kierkegaard’s that I mentioned at the beginning of this post:

“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act.”

I agree with Kierkegaard here, in that moral imperatives are the most important topic in philosophy, and should be the most important driving force in one’s life, rather than simply a drive for knowledge for it’s own sake.  But of course, in order to get clear about what one must do, one first has to know a number of facts pertaining to how any moral imperatives are best accomplished, and what those moral imperatives ought to be (as well as which are most fundamental and basic).  I think the most basic axiomatic moral imperative within any moral system that is sufficiently motivating to follow is going to be that which maximizes one’s life fulfillment; that which maximizes one’s chance of achieving eudaimonia.  I can’t imagine any greater goal for humanity than that.

Here is the link for part 5 of this post series.

Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 1, Chapter 3: “The Testimony of Modern Art”)

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In the previous post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I explored Part 1, Chapter 2: The Encounter with Nothingness, where Barrett gives an overview of some of the historical contingencies that have catalyzed the advent of existentialism: namely, the decline of religion, the rational ordering of society through capitalism and industrialization, and the finitude found within science and mathematics.  In this post, I want to explore Part I, Chapter 3: The Testimony of Modern Art.  Let’s begin…

Ch. 3 – The Testimony of Modern Art

In this chapter, Barrett expands the scope of existentialism, its drives and effects, on the content of modern art.  As he sees it, existentialist anxiety, discontent, and facing certain truths resulting from our modern understanding of the world we live in have heavily influenced if not predominated the influence on modern art.  Many find modern art to be, as he puts it:

“…too bare and bleak, too negative or nihilistic, too shocking or scandalous; it dishes out unpalatable truths.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that these kinds of qualities in much of modern art are but a product of existentialist angst, feelings of solitude, and an outright clash between traditional norms and narratives about human life and the views of those who have accepted much of what modernity has brought to light, however difficult and uncomfortable that acceptance is.

We might also be tempted to ask ourselves if modern art represents something more generally about our present state.  Barrett sheds some light on this question when he says:

“..Modern art thus begins, and sometimes ends, as a confession of spiritual poverty.  That is its greatness and its triumph, but also the needle it jabs into the Philistine’s sore spot, for the last thing he wants to be reminded of is his spiritual poverty.  In fact, his greatest poverty is not to know how impoverished he is, and so long as he mouths the empty ideals or religious phrases of the past he is but as tinkling brass.”

I can certainly see a lot of modern art as being an expression or manifestation of the spiritual poverty of our modern age.  It’s true that religion no longer serves the same stabilizing role for our society as it once did, nor can we deny that the knowledge we’ve gained since the Enlightenment has caused a compartmentalizing effect on our psyche with respect to reason and religious belief (with the latter being eliminated for many if the compartmentalization is insufficient to overcome any existing cognitive dissonance).  We can also honestly say that many in the modern world have lost a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, and feel a loss of connection to their community or to the rest of humanity in general, largely as a result of the way society (and in turn, how each life within that society) has become structured.

But, as Barrett says, the fact that many people don’t realize just how impoverished they are, is the greatest form of poverty realized by many living in modernity.  And we could perhaps summarize this spiritual poverty as simply the lack of having a well-rounded expression of one’s entire psyche.  It seems to me that this qualitative state is tied to another aspect of the overall process: in particular, our degree of critical self-reflection which affects our vision of our own personal growth, our ethical development, and ultimately our ability to define meaning for our lives on our own individual terms.

One could describe a kind of trade-off that has occurred during humanity’s transition to modernity: we once had a more common religious structure that pervaded one’s entire life and which was shared by most everyone else living in pre-modern society, and this was replaced by a secular society that encouraged new forms of conformity aside from religion; and we once had a religious structure that allowed one to connect to some of the deeper layers of their inner self, and this was replaced with more of an industrialized, consumerist structure involving psychological externalization which lended itself to the powers of conformity already present in the collective social sphere of our lives.

Since artistic expression serves as a kind of window into the predominating psychology of the people and artists living at any particular time, Barrett makes a very good point when he says:

“Even if existential philosophy had not been formulated, we would know from modern art that a new and radical conception of man was at work in this period.”

And within the modern art movement, we can see a kind of compensatory effect occurring where the externalization in modern society is countered with a vast supply of subjectivity including the creation of very unique and highly imaginative abstractions.  But, underneath or within many of these abstractions lies a fundamental perspective of modern humans living as a kind of stranger to the world, surrounded by an alien environment, with a yearning to feel a sense of belonging and familiarity.

We’ve seen similar changes in artistic expression within literature as well.  Whereas literature had historically been created under the assumption of a linear temporality operating within the bounds of a well-defined beginning, middle, and end, it was beginning to show more chaotic or unpredictable qualities in its temporal structure, less intuitive plot progressions, and in many cases leaving the reader with what appeared to be an open or unresolved ending, and even a feeling of discontent or shock.  This is what we’d expect to occur if we realize the Greek roots of Western civilization, ultimately based on a culture that believed the universe to have a logical structure, with a teleological, anthropomorphic and anthropocentric order of events that cohered into an intelligible whole.  Once this view of the universe changed to one that saw the world as less predictable and indifferent to human wants and needs, the resultant psychological changes coincided with a change in literary style and expression.

In all these cases, we can see that modern art has no clear-cut image of what it means to be human or what exactly a human being is, for the simple reason that it sees human beings as lacking any fixed essence or nature; it sees humans as transcending any pre-defined identity or mold.  Lacking any fixed essence, I think that modern conceptions of humanity entail a radical form of freedom to define ourselves if we choose to do so, even though this worthwhile goal is often difficult, uncomfortable, and a project that never really ends until we die.  Actually striving to make use of this freedom is needed now more than ever, given the level of conformity and the increasingly abstract ways of living that modern society foists upon us.

Another interesting quote of Barrett’s regards the relationship between modern art and conceptions of the meaningless:

“Modern art has discarded the traditional assumptions of rational form.  The modern artist sees man not as the rational animal, in the sense handed down to the West by the Greeks, but as something else.  Reality, too, reveals itself to the artist not as the Great Chain of Being, which the tradition of Western rationalism had declared intelligible down to its smallest link and in its totality, but as much more refractory: as opaque, dense, concrete, and in the end inexplicable.  At the limits of reason one comes face to fact with the meaningless; and the artist today shows us the absurd, the inexplicable, the meaningless in our daily life.

This is interesting, especially given Barrett’s previous claim (in chapter 1) about existentialism’s opposition to the positivist position that “…the whole surrounding area in which ordinary men live from day to day and have their dealings with other men is consigned to the outer darkness of the meaningless.”  Barrett’s more recent claim above, while not necessarily in contradiction with the previous claim, suggests (at the very least) an interesting nuance within existentialist thought.  It suggests that positivism wants to keep silent about the meaningless, whereas existentialism does not; but it also suggests that there’s some agreement between positivism’s claim of what is meaningless and that of existentialism.  Both supposedly contrary schools of thought make claims to what is meaningless either implicitly or explicitly, and both have some agreement as to what falls under the umbrella of the meaningless; it’s just that existentialism accepts and promulgates this meaninglessness as a fundamental part of our human existence whereas positivism more or less rejects this as not even worth talking about, let alone worth using to help construct one’s world view.

Barrett finishes this chapter with a brief reminder of the immense technological progress we’ve made in modern times and the massive externalization of our lives that accompanied this change.  But there is a growing disparity between this external power and our inner poverty; an irony that modern art wants to expose.  Tying this all together, he says:

“The bomb reveals the dreadful and total contingency of human existence.  Existentialism is the philosophy of the atomic age.”

And that pretty much says it all.  Originally, life on this planet (eventually including our own species) was born from the sun, in terms of its elements and its ultimate source of energy.  Now we live in an age where we’ve harnessed the power that drives the sun itself (nuclear fusion); the very power that may one day lead to the end of our own existence.  I find this situation to be far more ironic than the disparity between our inner and outer lives as Barrett points out, as we are on the brink of wiping ourselves out by the very mechanism that allowed us to exist in the first place.  Nothing could be a more poetic example of the contingency of our own existence.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore Irrational Man, Part 2: The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition, Chapter 4: Hebraism and Hellenism.

Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 1, Chapter 2: “The Encounter with Nothingness”)

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In the first post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I explored Part 1, Chapter 1: The Advent of Existentialism, where Barrett gives a brief description of what he believes existentialism to be, and the environment it evolved within.  In this post, I want to explore Part I, Chapter 2: The Encounter with Nothingness.

Ch. 2 – The Encounter With Nothingness

Barrett talks about the critical need for self-analysis, despite the fact that many feel that this task has already been accomplished and that we’ve carried out this analysis exhaustively.  But Barrett sees this as contemporary society’s running away from the facts of our own ignorance.  Modern humankind, it seems to Barrett, is in even more need to question their identity for we seem to understand ourselves even less than when we first began to question who we are as a species.

1. The Decline of Religion

Ever since the end of the Middle Ages, religion as a whole has been on the decline.  This decrease in religiosity (particularly in Western civilization) became most prominent during the Enlightenment.  As science began to take off, the mechanistic structure and qualities of the universe (i.e. its laws of nature) began to reveal themselves in more and more detail.  This in turn led to a replacement of a large number of superstitious and supernatural religious beliefs about the causes for various phenomena with scientific explanations that could be empirically verified and tested.  Throughout this process, as theological explanations became replaced more and more with naturalistic explanations, the presumed role of God and the Church began to evaporate.  Thus, at the purely intellectual level, we underwent a significant change in terms of how we viewed the world and subsequently how we viewed the nature of human beings and our place in the world.

But, as Barrett points out:

“The waning of religion is a much more concrete and complex fact than a mere change in conscious outlook; it penetrates the deepest strata of man’s total psychic life…Religion to medieval man was not so much a theological system as a solid psychological matrix surrounding the individual’s life from birth to death, sanctifying and enclosing all its ordinary and extraordinary occasions in sacrament and ritual.”

We can see here how the role of religion has changed to some degree from medieval times to the present day.  Rather than simply being a set of beliefs that identified a person with a particular group and which had soteriological, metaphysical, and ethical significance to the believer (as it is more so in modern times), it used to be a complete system or a total solution for how one was to live their life.  And it also provided a means of psychological stability and coherence by providing a ready-made narrative of the essence of man; a sense of familiarity and a pre-defined purpose and structure that didn’t have to be constructed from scratch by the individual.

While the loss of the Church involved losing an entire system of dogmatic teachings, symbols, and various rites and sacraments, the most important loss according to Barrett was the loss of a concrete connection to a transcendent realm of being.  We were now set free such that we had to grapple with the world on our own, with all its precariousness, and to deal head-on with the brute facts of our own existence.

What I find most interesting in this chapter is when Barrett says:

“The rationalism of the medieval philosophers was contained by the mysteries of faith and dogma, which were altogether beyond the grasp of human reason, but were nevertheless powerfully real and meaningful to man as symbols that kept the vital circuit open between reason and emotion, between the rational and non-rational in the human psyche.”

And herein lies the crux of the matter; for Barrett believes that religion’s greatest function historically was its serving as a bridge between the rational and non-rational elements of our psychology, and also its serving as a barrier that limited the effective reach and power of our rationality over the rest of our psyches and our view of the world.  I would go even further to suggest that it may have allowed our emotional expression to more harmoniously co-exist and work with our reason instead of primarily being at odds with it.

I agree with Barrett’s point here in that religion often promulgates ideas and practices that appeal to many of our emotional dispositions and intuitions, thus allowing people to express certain emotional states and to maintain comforting intuitions that might otherwise be hindered or subjugated by reason and rationality.  And it has also provided a path for reason to connect to the unreasonable to some degree; as a means of minimizing the need to compartmentalize rationality from the emotional or irrational influences on a person’s belief systems.  By granting people an opportunity to combine reason and emotion in some way, where this reason could be used to try and make some sense of emotion and to give it some kind of validation without having to reject reason completely, religion has been effective (historically anyway) in helping people to avoid the discomfort of rejecting beliefs that they know to be reasonable (many of these beliefs at least) while also being able to avoid the discomfort of inadequate emotional/non-rational expression.

Once religion began to go by the wayside, due in large part to the accumulated knowledge acquired through reason and scientific progress, it became increasingly difficult to square the evidence and arguments that were becoming more widely known with many of the claims that religion and the Church had been propagating for centuries.  Along with this growing invalidation or loss of credibility came the increased need to compartmentalize reason and rationality from emotionally and irrationally-derived beliefs and experiences.  And this difficulty led to a decline in religiosity for many, which was accompanied with the loss in any emotional and irrational/non-rational expression that religion had once offered the masses.  Once reason and rationality expanded beyond a certain threshold, it effectively popped the religious bubble that had previously contained it, causing many to begin to feel homeless, out of place, and in many ways incomplete in the new world they now found themselves living in.

2. The Rational Ordering of Society

The organization of our lives has been, historically at least, a relatively organic process where it had a kind of self-guiding, pragmatic, and intuitive structure and evolution.  But once we approached the modern age, as Barrett points out, we saw a drastic shift toward an increasingly rational form of organization, where efficiency and a sort of technical precision began to dominate the overall direction of society and the lives of each individual.  The rise of capitalism was a part of this cultural evolutionary process (as was, I would argue, the Industrial Revolution), and only further enhanced the power and influence of reason and rationality over our day-to-day lives.

The collectivization and distribution of labor involved in the mass production of commodities and various products had taken us entirely out of our agrarian and hunter-gatherer roots.  We no longer lived off of the land so to speak, and were no longer ensconced within the kinds of natural scenery while performing the types of day-to-day tasks that our species had adapted to over its long-term evolutionary history.  And with this collectivization, we also lost a large component of our individuality; a component that is fairly important in human psychology.

Barrett comments on how we’ve accepted modern society as normal, relatively unaware of our ancestral roots and our previous way of life:

“We are so used to the fact that we forget it or fail to perceive that the man of the present day lives on a level of abstraction altogether beyond the man of the past.”

And he goes on to talk about how our ratcheting forward in terms of technological progress and any mechanistic societal re-structuring is what gives us our incredible power over our environment but at the cost of feeling rootless and without any concrete sense of feeling, when it’s needed now more than ever.

Perhaps a more interesting point he makes is with respect to how our increased mechanization and collectivization has changed a fundamental part of how our psyche and identity operate:

“Not only can the material wants of the masses be satisfied to a degree greater than ever before, but technology is fertile enough to generate new wants that it can also satisfy…All of this makes for an extraordinary externalization of life in our time. “

And it is this externalization of our identity and psychology, manifested in ever-growing and ever-changing sets of material objects and information flow, that is interesting to ponder over.  It reminds me somewhat of Richard Dawkins’ concept of an extended phenotype, where the effects of an organism’s genes aren’t merely limited to the organism’s body, but rather they extend into how the organism structures its environment. While this term is technically limited to behaviors that have a direct bearing on the organism’s survival, I prefer to think of this extended phenotype as encompassing everything the organism creates and the totality of its behaviors.

The reason I mention this concept is because I think it makes for a useful analogy here.  For in the earlier evolution of organisms on earth, the genes’ effects or the resulting phenotypes were primarily manifested as the particular body and bodily behavior of the organism, and as organisms became more complex (particularly those that evolved brains and a nervous system), that phenotype began to extend itself into the abilities of an organism to make external structures out of raw materials found in its environment.  And more and more genetic resources were allotted to the organism’s brain which made this capacity for environmental manipulation possible.  As this change occurred, the previous boundaries that defined the organism vanished as the external constructions effectively became an extension of the organism’s body.  But with this new capacity came a loss of intimacy in the sense that the organism wasn’t connected to these external structures in the same way it was connected to its own feelings and internal bodily states; and these external structures also lacked the privacy and hidden qualities inherent in an organism’s thoughts, feelings, and overall subjective experience.

Likewise, as we’ve evolved culturally, eventually gaining the ability to construct and mass-produce a plethora of new material goods, we began to dedicate a larger proportion of our attention on these different external objects, wanting more and more of them well past what we needed for survival.  And we began to invest or incorporate more of ourselves, including our knowledge and information, in these externalities, forcing us to compensate by investing less and less in our internal, private states and locally stored knowledge.  Now it would be impractical if not impossible for an organism to perform increasingly complex behaviors and to continuously increase its ability to manipulate its own environment without this kind of trade-off occurring in terms of its identity, and how it distributes its limited psychological resources.

And herein lies the source of our seemingly fractured psyche: the natural selection of curiosity, knowledge accumulation, and behavioral complexity for survival purposes has become co-opted for just about any purpose imaginable, since the hardware and schema required for the former has a capacity that transcends its evolutionary purpose and that transcends the finite boundaries, the guiding constraints, and the essential structure of the lives we once had in our evolutionary past.  Now we’ve moved beyond what used to be a kind of essential quality and highly predictable trajectory of our lives and of our species, and we’ve moved into the unknown; from the realm of the finite and the familiar to the seemingly infinite realm of the unknown.

A big part of this externalization has manifested itself in the new ways we acquire, store, and share information, such as with the advent of mass media.  As Barrett puts it:

“…journalism enables people to deal with life more and more at second hand.  Information usually consists of half-truths, and “knowledgability” becomes a substitute for real knowledge.  Moreover, popular journalism has by now extended its operations into what were previously considered the strongholds of culture-religion, art, philosophy…It becomes more and more difficult to distinguish the secondhand from the real thing, until most people end by forgetting there is such a distinction.”

I think this ties well into what Barrett mentioned previously when he talked about how modern civilization is built on increasing levels of abstraction.  The very information we’re absorbing, in order to make sense of and deal with a large aspect of our contemporary world, is second hand at best.  The information we rely on has become increasingly abstracted, manipulated, reinterpreted, and distorted.  The origin of so much of this information is now at least one level away from our immediate experience, giving it a quality that is disconnected, less important, and far less real than it otherwise would be.  But we often forget that there’s any epistemic difference between our first-hand lived experience and the information that arises from our mass media.

To add to Barrett’s previous description of existentialism as a reaction against positivism, he also mentions Karl Jaspers’ views of existentialism, which he described as:

“…a struggle to awaken in the individual the possibilities of an authentic and genuine life, in the fact of the great modern drift toward a standardized mass society.”

Though I concur with Jaspers’ claim that modernity has involved a shift toward a standardized mass society in a number of ways, I also think that it has provided the means for many more ways of being unique, many more possible talents and interests for one to explore, and many more kinds of goals to choose from for one’s life project(s).  Collectivization and distribution of labor and the technology that has precipitated from it have allowed many to avoid spending all day hunting and gathering food, making or cleaning their clothing, and other tasks that had previously consumed most of one’s time.

Now many people (in the industrialized world at least) have the ability to accumulate enough free time to explore many other types of experiences, including reading and writing, exploring aspects of our existence with highly-focused introspective effort (as in philosophy), creating or enjoying vast quantities of music and other forms of art, listening to and telling stories, playing any number of games, and thousands of other activities.  And even though some of these activities have been around for millennia, many of them have not (or there was little time for them), and of those that have been around the longest, there were still far fewer choices than what we have on offer today.  So we mustn’t forget that many people develop a life-long passion for at least some of these experiences that would never have been made possible without our modern society.

The issue I think lies in the balance or imbalance between standardization and collectivization on the one hand (such that we reap the benefits of more free time and more recreational choices), and opportunities for individualistic expression on the other.  And of the opportunities that exist for individualistic expression, there is still the need to track the psychological consequences that result from them so we can pick more psychologically fulfilling choices; so that we can pick choices that better allow us to keep open that channel between reason and emotion and between the rational and the non-rational/irrational that religion once provided, as Barrett mentioned earlier.

We also have to accept the fact that the findings in science have largely dehumanized or inhibited the anthropomorphization of nature, instead showing us that the universe is indifferent to us and to our goals; that humans and life in general are more of an aberration than anything else within a vast cosmos that is inhospitable to life.  Only after acknowledging the situation we’re in can we fully appreciate the consequences that modernity has had on upending the comforting structure that religion once gave to humans throughout their lives.  As Barrett tell us:

“Science stripped nature of its human forms and presented man with a universe that was neutral, alien, in its vastness and force, to his human purposes.  Religion, before this phase set in, had been a structure that encompassed man’s life, providing him with a system of images and symbols by which he could express his own aspirations toward psychic wholeness.  With the loss of this containing framework man became not only a dispossessed but a fragmentary being.”

Although we can’t unlearn the knowledge that has caused religion to decline including that which has had a bearing on the questions dealing with our ultimate meaning and purpose, we can certainly find new ways of filling the psychological void felt by many as a result of this decline.  The modern world has many potential opportunities for psychologically fulfilling projects in life, and these opportunities need to be more thoroughly explored.  But, existentialist thought rightly reminds us of how the fruits of our rational and enlightened philosophy have been less capable of providing as satisfying an answer to the question “What are human beings?” as religion once gave.  Along with the fruits of the Enlightenment came a lack of consolation, and a number of painful truths pertaining to the temporal and contingent nature of our existence, previously thought to possess both an eternal and necessary character.  Overall, this cultural change and accumulation of knowledge effectively forced humanity out of its comfort zone.  Barrett described the situation quite well when he said:

“In the end, he [modern man] sees each man as solitary and unsheltered before his own death.  Admittedly, these are painful truths, but the most basic things are always learned with pain, since our inertia and complacent love of comfort prevent us from learning them until they are forced upon us.”

Modern humanity then, has become alienated from God, from nature, and from the complex social machinery that produces the goods and services that he both wants and needs.  Even worse yet however, is the alienation from one’s own self that has occurred as humans have found themselves living in a society that expects each of them to perform some specific function in life (most often not of their choosing), and this leads to society effectively identifying each person as this function, forgetting or ignoring the real person buried underneath.

3.  Science and Finitude

In this last section of chapter two, Barrett discusses some of the ultimate limitations in our use of reason and in the scope of knowledge we can obtain from our scientific and mathematical methods of inquiry.  Reason itself is described as the product of a creature “whose psychic roots still extend downward into the primeval soil,” and is thus a creation from an animal that is still intimately connected to an irrational foundation; an animal still possessing a set of instincts arising from its evolutionary origins.

We see this core presence of irrationality in our day-to-day lives whenever we have trouble trying to employ reason, such as when it conflicts with our emotions and intuitions.  And Barrett brings up the optimism in the confirmed rationalist and their belief that they may still be able to one day overcome all of these obstacles of irrationality by simply employing reason in a more clever way than before.  Clearly Barrett doesn’t share this optimism of the rationalist and he tries to support his pessimism by pointing out a few limitations of reason as suggested within the work of Immanuel Kant, modern physics, and mathematics.

In Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, he lays out a substantial number of claims and concepts relating to metaphysics and epistemology, where he discusses the limitations of both reason and the senses.  Among other things, he claims that our reason is limited by certain a priori intuitional forms or predispositions about space and time (for example) that allow us to cognize any thing at all.  And so if there are any “things in themselves”, that is, real objects underlying whatever appears to us in the external world, where these objects have qualities and attributes that are independent of our experience, then we can never know anything of substance about these underlying features.  We can never see an object or understand it in any way without incorporating a large number of intuitional forms and assumptions in order to create that experience at all; we can never see the world without seeing it through the limited lens of our minds and our body’s sensory machinery.

For Kant, this also means that we may often use reason erroneously to make unjustified claims of knowledge pertaining to the transcendent, particularly within metaphysics and theology.  When reason is applied to ideas that can’t be confirmed through sensory experience, or that lie outside of our realm of possible experience (such as the idea that cause and effect laws govern every interaction in the universe, something we can never know through experience), it leads to knowledge claims that it can’t justify.  Another limitation of reason, according to Kant, is that it operates through an a priori assumption of unification in our experience, and so the categories and concepts that we infer to exist based on reason are limited by this underlying unifying principle.  Science has added to the rigidity and specificity of this unification, by going beyond what we’ve unified through our unmodified experience (i.e. seeing the sun “rise” and “set” every day), that is, experience without the use of any instruments, telescopes, microscopes, etc. (where the use of these instruments has helped give us more data showing that the earth rotates on an axis rather than the sun revolving around the earth).  Nevertheless, unification is the ultimate goal of reason whether applied with or without a strict scientific method.

Then within physics, we find another limitation in terms of our possible understanding of the world.  Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle showed us that we are unable to know complementary parameters pertaining to a particle with an arbitrarily high level of precision.  We eventually hit a limit where, for example, if we know the position of a particle (such as an electron) with a high degree of accuracy at some particular time, then we’re unable to know the momentum of that particle with the same accuracy.  The more we know about one complementary parameter, the less we know about the other.  Barrett describes this discovery in physics as showing that nature may be irrational and chaotic at its most fundamental level and then he says:

“What is remarkable is that here, at the very farthest reaches of precise experimentation, in the most rigorous of the natural sciences, the ordinary and banal fact of our human limitations emerges.”

This is indeed interesting because for a long while many rationalists and positivists held that our potential knowledge was unlimited (or finite, yet complete) and that science was the means to gain this open-ended or complete knowledge of the universe.  Then quantum physics delivered a major blow to this assumption, showing us instead that our knowledge is inherently limited based on how the universe is causally structured.  However, it’s worth pointing out that this is not a human limitation per se, but a limitation of any conscious system acquiring knowledge in our universe.  It wouldn’t matter if humans had different brains, better technology, or used artificial intelligence to perform the computations or measurements.  There is simply a limit on what can ever be measured; a limit on what can ever be known about the state of any system that is being studied.

Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem likewise showed how there were inherent limitations in any mathematical formulation of number theory that was rich enough where, no matter how large or seemingly complete its set of axioms are, if it is consistent, then there will be statements that can’t be proven or disproven within that formulation.  Likewise, the consistency of any formulation of number theory can’t be proven by the formulation itself; rather, it depends on assumptions that lie outside of that formulation.  However, once again, contrary to what Barrett claims, I don’t think this should be taken to be a human limitation of reason, but rather a limitation of mathematics generally.

Regardless, I concede Barrett’s overarching point that, in all of these cases (Kant, physics, and mathematics), we are still running into scenarios where we are unable to do something or to know something that we may have previously thought we could do or thought we could know, at least in principle.  And so these discoveries did run counter to the beliefs of many that thought that humans were inherently unstoppable in these endeavors of knowledge accumulation and in our ability to create technology capable of solving any problem whatsoever.  We can’t do this.  We are finite creatures with finite brains, but perhaps more importantly, our capacities are also limited by what knowledge is theoretically available to any conscious system trying to better understand the universe.  The universe is inherently unknowable in at least some respects, which means it is unpredictable in at least some respects.  And unpredictability doesn’t sit well with humans intent on eliminating uncertainty, eliminating the unknown, and trying to have a coherent narrative to explain everything encountered throughout one’s existence.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore Irrational Man, Part 1, Chapter 3: The Testimony of Modern Art.

Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 1, Chapter 1: “The Advent of Existentialism”)

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William Barrett’s Irrational Man is a nice exposition on existential philosophy which begins by exploring the state of modern humanity and philosophy and tracing its roots from ancient Greece, its development through the Medieval period and the Enlightenment, all the way to the mid-twentieth century.  He explores what he believes to be the primary cultural sources of existentialism and then surveys the contributions of perhaps the four most prominent existential philosophers: namely, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre.  I’d like to explore Barrett’s book here in more detail and I’m going to break this down into an analysis of every section and chapter, with each chapter analyzed within a separate blog post.  Below is the first post of this series; Part 1, Chapter 1: The Advent of Existentialism.

Part I: “The Present Age”

Ch. 1 – The Advent of Existentialism

Early on, Barrett gives a brief description of positivism, which he describes as a philosophical theory which holds that science is not only what distinguishes our post-Enlightenment civilization from all others, but it also claims that science should be the ultimate ruler of human life, to which Barrett remarks that science has never held this role before nor could it given the details of our psychology as human beings.  It’s true that science has never held this role before and it’s also true that the way we generally use science is ill-suited for the job of guiding our day-to-day lives in order to meet all of our psychological needs.

However, I think it would be mistaken to say that the scientific method, and empirical methods generally, can’t be used (even in principle) to determine (or to help determine) the choices one ought to make in one’s life.  While science as an enterprise isn’t generally used in this way (we tend to use it to solve more specific technical challenges and to determine well-defined mechanisms underlying various phenomena), we shouldn’t simply assume that the knowledge we’re able to gain from it will never include information pertaining to our decision-making, our preferences and values, and our ultimate goals in life.  On top of this, if one wanted to know whether or not a life “ruled by” science could meet all of one’s psychological needs, one could only test this hypothesis by employing (at the very least) an informal version of the scientific method.  So in some rudimentary sense, science and its methods (of testing hypotheses and building upon the results of such testing) are unavoidable as they pervade our lives and are inseparable from any falsifiable inquiry that arises therein.

On the flip-side, we shouldn’t assume that science on its own is capable of anything at all, let alone meeting all of our needs as a species.  What I mean by this, and one thing that I’m sure Barrett would have agreed with, is that the use of science itself and the desire to use it for some particular aim first requires an underlying set of philosophical views such as some kind of an epistemology, an ethics, etc.  This also means that science as a concept and as an instrument for gaining knowledge shouldn’t be criticized if it leads to undesirable consequences; rather it is the philosophical views of the scientist(s) undertaking some research project, and/or the philosophical views of the people that use that knowledge once it has been discovered, that should be criticized accordingly.

Barrett goes on to say:

“Positivist man is a curious creature who dwells in the tiny island of light composed of what he finds scientifically ‘meaningful,’ while the whole surrounding area in which ordinary men live from day to day and have their dealings with other men is consigned to the outer darkness of the ‘meaningless.’ “

And I couldn’t agree more that this kind of positivist thinking is flawed and incomplete as we need to take introspection, intuition, and raw experience into any complete account of our reality.  The German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg actually echoed similar sentiments in his later life where he said:

“The positivists have a simple solution: the world must be divided into that which we can say clearly and the rest, which we had better pass over in silence. But can any one conceive of a more pointless philosophy, seeing that what we can say clearly amounts to next to nothing? If we omitted all that is unclear we would probably be left with completely uninteresting and trivial tautologies.”

In Heisenberg’s quote here we can see the relevance of thinkers like Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, and how they explored different conceptions of meaning as well as the importance of (what Nietzsche called) perspectivism, or striving to look at the world as a whole or at any particular phenomena from as many viewpoints as possible without becoming trapped in the constraints of our language and culture.  In order to avoid dogmatism, we must be willing to at least consider different ontologies and different ways of looking at our own existence, our place in the world, and what is most important to us.  And although science shouldn’t be excluded from our sources of meaning or from our methods of determining what is and what is not meaningful, people shouldn’t expect these concepts to be restricted to the domain of science.

So what is existentialism then, according to Barrett?  Well, he sees it as a philosophical movement (and a kind of revolt) against the oversimplification of man (human beings) as assumed within positivism.  It seeks to replace this fractured view of man and instead gather all the facets of the human condition and assemble them into one coherent picture of man.  And it does so even when it requires acknowledging the darker and more questionable parts of our nature and existence; by exploring and accepting the uglier side of humanity that many in the Enlightenment tried to discount and leave by the wayside.

This post-Enlightenment view of man, which pictured man as inherently rational, went largely unchallenged for more than a hundred years (until Kierkegaard), and aside from Kierkegaard’s works which Barrett explores, I think we could also perhaps credit the work of Charles Darwin and his On the Origin of Species as well as his The Descent of Man, for firmly challenging any prevailing doubts about our animalistic and irrational origins.  Once it became apparent that human beings were the distant cousins of other primates and the more distant cousins of fish and reptiles and so on, it became that much harder to distance ourselves from the irrationality that pervades the rest of the animal kingdom.  And so it became harder to deny that we still had some level of irrationality at the core of our being, even if it was accompanied with a capacity for reason and rationality.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore Irrational Man, Part 1, Chapter 2: The Encounter with Nothingness.

Some Thoughts on “Fear & Trembling”

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I’ve been meaning to write this post for quite some time, but haven’t had the opportunity until now, so here it goes.  I want to explore some of Kierkegaard’s philosophical claims or themes in his book Fear and Trembling.  Kierkegaard regarded himself as a Christian and so there are a lot of literary themes revolving around faith and the religious life, but he also centers a lot of his philosophy around the subjective individual, all of which I’d like to look at in more detail.

In Fear and Trembling, we hear about the story found in Genesis (Ch. 22) where Abraham attempts to sacrifice his own beloved son Isaac, after hearing God command him to do so.  For those unfamiliar with this biblical story, after they journey out to mount Moriah he binds Isaac to an alter, and as Abraham draws his knife to slit the throat of his beloved son, an angel appears just in time and tells him to stop “for now I know that you fear God”.  Then Abraham sees a goat nearby and sacrifices it instead of his son.  Kierkegaard uses this story in various ways, and considers four alternative versions of it (and their consequences), to explicate the concept of faith as admirable though fundamentally incomprehensible and unintelligible.

He begins his book by telling us about a man who has deeply admired this story of Abraham ever since he first heard it as a child, with this admiration for it growing stronger over time while understanding the story less and less.  The man considers four alternative versions of the story to try and better understand Abraham and how he did what he did, but never manages to obtain this understanding.

I’d like to point out here that an increased confusion would be expected if the man has undergone moral and intellectual growth during his journey from childhood to adulthood.  We tend to be more impulsive, irrational and passionate as children, with less regard for any ethical framework to live by.  And sure enough, Kierkegaard even mentions the importance of passion in making a leap of faith.  Nevertheless, as we continue to mature and accumulate life experience, we tend to develop some control over our passions and emotions, we build up our intellect and rationality, and also further develop an ethic with many ethical behaviors becoming habituated if cultivated over time.  If a person cultivates moral virtues like compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, then it would be expected that they’d find Abraham’s intended act of murder (let alone filicide) repugnant.  But, regardless of the reasons for the man’s lack of understanding, he admires the story more and more, likely because it reveres Abraham as the father of faith, and portrays faith itself as a most honorable virtue.

Kierkegaard’s main point in Fear and Trembling is that one has to suspend their relation to the ethical (contrary to Kant and Hegel), in order to make any leap of faith, and that there’s no rational decision making process involved.  And so it seems clear that Kierkegaard knows that what Abraham did in this story was entirely unethical (attempting to kill an innocent child) in at least one sense of the word ethical, but he believes nevertheless that this doesn’t matter.

To see where he’s coming from, we need to understand Kierkegaard’s idea that there are basically three ways or stages of living, namely the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.  The aesthetic life is that of sensuous or felt experience, infinite potentiality through imagination, hiddenness or privacy, and an overarching egotism focused on the individual.  The ethical life supersedes or transcends this aesthetic way of life by relating one to “the universal”, that is, to the common good of all people, to social contracts, and to the betterment of others over oneself.  The ethical life, according to Kierkegaard, also consists of public disclosure or transparency.  Finally, the religious life supersedes the ethical (and thus also supersedes the aesthetic) but shares some characteristics of both the aesthetic and the ethical.

The religious, like the aesthetic, operates on the level of the individual, but with the added component of the individual having a direct relation to God.  And just like the ethical, the religious appeals to a conception of good and evil behavior, but God is the arbiter in this way of life rather than human beings or their nature.  Thus the sphere of ethics that Abraham might normally commit himself to in other cases is thought to be superseded by the religious sphere, the sphere of faith.  Within this sphere of faith, Abraham assumes that anything that God commands is Abraham’s absolute duty to uphold, and he also has faith that this will lead to the best ends.  This of course, is known as a form of divine command theory, which is actually an ethical and meta-ethical theory.  Although Kierkegaard claims that the religious is somehow above the ethical, it is for the most part just another way of living that involves another ethical principle.  In this case, the ethical principle is for one to do whatever God commands them to (even if these commands are inconsistent or morally repugnant from a human perspective), and this should be done rather than abiding by our moral conscience or some other set of moral rules, social mores, or any standards based on human judgment, human nature, etc.

It appears that the primary distinction between the ethical and the religious is the leap of faith that is made in the latter stage of living which involves an act performed “in virtue of the absurd”.  For example, Abraham’s faith in God was really a faith that God wouldn’t actually make him kill his son Isaac.  Had Abraham been lacking in this particular faith, Kierkegaard seems to argue that Abraham’s conscience and moral perspective (which includes “the universal”) would never have allowed him to do what he did.  Thus, Abraham’s faith, according to Kierkegaard, allowed him to (at least temporarily) suspend the ethical in virtue of the absurd notion that somehow the ethical would be maintained in the end.  In other words, Abraham thought that he could obey God’s command, even if this command was prima facie immoral, because he had faith that God wouldn’t actually make Abraham perform an unethical act.

I find it interesting that this particular function or instantiation of faith, as outlined by Kierkegaard, makes for an unusual interpretation of divine command theory.  If divine command theory attempts to define good or moral behavior as that which God commands, and if a leap of faith (such as that which Abraham took) can involve a belief that the end result of an unconscionable commandment is actually its negation or retraction, then a leap of faith such as that taken by Abraham would serve to contradict divine command theory to at least some degree.  It would seem that Kierkegaard wants to believe in the basic premise of divine command theory and therefore have an absolute duty to obey whatever God commands, and yet he also wants to believe that if this command goes against a human moral system or the human conscience, it will not end up doing so when one goes to carry out what has actually been commanded of them.  This seems to me to be an unusual pair of beliefs for one to hold simultaneously, for divine command theory allows for Abraham to have actually carried out the murder of his son (with no angel stopping him at the last second), and this heinous act would have been considered a moral one under such an awful theory.  And yet, Abraham had faith that this divine command would somehow be nullified and therefore reconciled with his own conscience and relation to the universal.

Kierkegaard has something to say about beliefs, and how they differ from faith-driven dispositions, and it’s worth noting this since most of us use the term “belief” as including that which one has faith in.  For Kierkegaard, belief implies that one is assured of its truth in some way, whereas faith requires one to accept the possibility that what they have faith in could be proven wrong.  Thus, it wasn’t enough for Abraham to believe in an absolute duty to obey whatever God commanded of him, because that would have simply been a case of obedience, and not faith.  Instead, Abraham also had to have faith that God would let Abraham spare his son Isaac, while accepting the possibility that he may be proven wrong and end up having to kill his son after all.  As such, Kierkegaard wouldn’t accept the way the term “faith” is often used in modern religious parlance.  Religious practitioners often say that they have faith in something and yet “know it to be true”, “know it for certain”, “know it will happen”, etc.  But if Abraham truly believed (let alone knew for certain) that God wouldn’t make him kill Isaac, then God’s command wouldn’t have served as any true test of faith.  So while Abraham may have believed that he had to kill his son, he also had faith that his son wouldn’t die, hence making a leap of faith in virtue of the absurd.

This distinction between belief and faith also seems to highlight Kierkegaard’s belief in some kind of prophetic consequentialist ethical framework.  Whereas most Christians tend to side with a Kantian deontological ethical system, Kierkegaard points out that ethical systems have rules which are meant to promote the well-being of large groups of people.  And since humans lack the ability to see far into the future, it’s possible that some rules made under this kind of ignorance may actually lead to an end that harms twenty people and only helps one.  Kierkegaard believes that faith in God can answer this uncertainty and circumvent the need to predict the outcome of our moral rules by guaranteeing a better end given the vastly superior knowledge that God has access to.  And any ethical system that appeals to the ends as justifying the means is a form of consequentialism (utilitarianism is perhaps the most common type of ethical consequentialism).

Although I disagree with Kiergegaard on a lot of points, such as his endorsement of divine command theory, and his appeal to an epistemologically bankrupt behavior like taking a leap of faith, I actually agree with Kierkegaard on his teleological ethical reasoning.  He’s right in his appealing to the ends in order to justify the means, and he’s right to want maximal knowledge involved in determining how best to achieve those ends.  It seems clear to me that all moral systems ultimately break down to a form of consequentialism anyway (a set of hypothetical imperatives), and any disagreement between moral systems is really nothing more than a disagreement about what is factual or a disagreement about which consequences should be taken into account (e.g. happiness of the majority, happiness of the least well off, self-contentment for the individual, how we see ourselves as a person, etc.).

It also seems clear that if you are appealing to some set of consequences in determining what is and is not moral behavior, then having maximal knowledge is your best chance of achieving those ends.  But we can only determine the reliability of the knowledge by seeing how well it predicts the future (through inferred causal relations), and that means we can only establish the veracity of any claimed knowledge through empirical means.  Since nobody has yet been able to establish that a God (or gods) exists through any empirical means, it goes without saying that nobody has been able to establish the veracity of any God-knowledge.

Lacking the ability to test this, one would also need to have faith in God’s knowledge, which means they’ve merely replaced one form of uncertainty (the predicted versus actual ends of human moral systems) with another form of uncertainty (the predicted versus actual knowledge of God).  Since the predicted versus actual ends of our moral systems can actually be tested, while the knowledge of God cannot, then we have a greater uncertainty in God’s knowledge than in the efficacy and accuracy of our own moral systems.  This is a problem for Kierkegaard, because his position seems to be that the leap of faith taken by Abraham was essentially grounded on the assumption that God had superior knowledge to achieve the best telos, and thus his position is entirely unsupportable.

Aside from the problems inherent in Kierkegaard’s beliefs about faith and God, I do like his intense focus on the priority of the individual.  As mentioned already, both the aesthetic and religious ways of life that have been described operate on this individual level.  However, one criticism I have to make about Kierkegaard’s life-stage trichotomy is that morality/ethics actually does operate on the individual level even if it also indirectly involves the community or society at large.  And although it is not egotistic like the aesthetic life is said to be, it is egoistic because rational self-interest is in fact at the heart of all moral systems that are consistent and sufficiently motivating to follow.

If you maximize your personal satisfaction and life fulfillment by committing what you believe to be a moral act over some alternative that you believe will make you less fulfilled and thus less overall satisfied (such as not obeying God), then you are acting for your own self-interest (by obeying God), even if you are not acting in an explicitly selfish way.  A person can certainly be wrong about what will actually make them most satisfied and fulfilled, but this doesn’t negate one’s intention to do so.  Acting for the betterment of others over oneself (i.e. living by or for “the universal”) involves behaviors that lead you to a more fulfilling life, in part based on how those actions affect your view of yourself and your character.  If one believes in gods or a God, then their perspective on their belief of how God sees them will also affect their view of themselves.  In short, a properly formulated ethics is centered around the individual even if it seems otherwise.

Given the fact that Kierkegaard seems to have believed that the ethical life revolved around the universal rather than the individual, perhaps it’s no wonder that he would choose to elevate some kind of individualistic stage of life, namely the religious life, over that of the ethical.  It would be interesting to see how his stages of life may have looked had he believed in a more individualistic theory of ethics.  I find that an egoistic ethical framework actually fits quite nicely with the rest of Kierkegaard’s overtly individualistic philosophy.

He ends this book by pointing out that passion is required in order to have faith, and passion isn’t something that somebody can teach us, unlike the epistemic fruits of rational reflection.  Instead, passion has to be experienced firsthand in order for us to understand it at all.  He contrasts this passion with the disinterested intellectualization involved in reflection, which was the means used in Hegel’s approach to try and understand faith.

Kierkegaard doesn’t think that Hegel’s method will suffice since it isn’t built upon a fundamentally subjective experiential foundation and instead tries to understand faith and systematize it through an objective analysis based on logic and rational reflection.  Although I see logic and rational reflection as most important for best achieving our overall happiness and life fulfillment, I can still appreciate the significant role of passion and felt experience within the human condition, our attraction to it, and it’s role in religious belief.  I can also appreciate how our overall satisfaction and life fulfillment are themselves instantiated and evaluated as a subjective felt experience, and one that is entirely individualistic.  And so I can’t help but agree with Kierkegaard, in recognizing that there is no substitute for a subjective experience, and no way to adequately account for the essence of those experiences through entirely non-subjective (objective) means.

The individual subject and their conscious experience is of primary importance (it’s the only thing we can be certain exists), and the human need to find meaning in an apparently meaningless world is perhaps the most important facet of that ongoing conscious experience.  Even though I disagree with a lot of what Kierkegaard believed, it wasn’t all bull$#!+.  I think he captured and expressed some very important points about the individual and some of the psychological forces that color the view of our personal identity and our own existence.