No Excuses: Lectures 19-23, Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre is the ultimate existentialist. He named the movement and when people talk about existentialism it’s usually Sartre’s philosophy they have in mind. Emphasis on freedom and choice and responsibility are the center of Satrean philosophy. (These are not central for Nietzsche or Heidegger. They are problematic.)

The title of Solomon’s lecture comes from Sartres idea of “No Excuses” and is based on the idea that one is always responsible.

Sartre denounced his fellow Frenchmen for their cowardice, their collaboration, cooperation, etc. He questioned their choices and motives. If you want to understand human nature, you have to look at humans under stress and so he watched his fellow citizens while being occupied during one of the most brutal wars in history.

What he noticed is that their answers all came out as excuses:

  • What can I do? Impotence.
  • I didn’t start the war. Innocence.
  • Everyone else is doing it. The herd instinct.
  • I’m just looking out for myself. Self-preservation.
  • I had no choice. Helplessness.
  • I was afraid. The appeal to emotion.

We are absolutely free, so we don’t have any excuses. We are responsible for what it is we do. We aren’t free in the sense that we can choose anything we want to do – but that we always have choices.

Absolute freedom is the absence of ultimate constraints. It is our responsibility to recognize our choices even in the most limited circumstances. We are always responsible for what we make of what is made of ourselves. Also, we are not caused to behave by our emotions or motives, but rather emotions and motives are part of the situation in which we choose what to do. We have a picture of emotion being inside us but intruding upon our rationality. We say, I didn’t really mean it. I was just very angry. But you know that what you said was not just a product of anger, but a deep and cutting insight about something you really feel. There is a sense in which the anger is a choice. When we get angry, we make a decision. We feel that flush and we have to decide – do we keep our mouth shut or act on it?

We are as responsible for what it is we do as well as what it is we don’t do. We make choices to the exclusion of other choices we simply choose not to think about. We are not just responsible for deliberate choices, we are responsible for choices made out of default, or out of neglect. No excuses.

Emotions are choices; they involve alternatives and options; and they involve purposiveness. They are “magical transformations of the world.” He wants to move away from the idea that emotions are bodily upsets of physiological intrusions. They are our responsibility and not a source of excuse.

William James, an American Philosopher, wrote an essay called “What is an Emotion?” in 1884. He said an emotion is an upsetting perception which causes in us a physiological disturbance. This perception of the physiological upset IS the emotion. Sartre says James ignores two important features of emotion. 1) Emotions are necessarily intentional. 2) Emotions are always about something. You can’t just be angry, you have to be angry about something. You can’t just be afraid, you have to be afraid of something. All emotions are intentional in that they are always about something. They can’t be mere sensations or feelings because sensations and feelings aren’t about anything. A headache is not about anything. It might be caused by something, like your mother in-law coming to visit. But your mother in-law didn’t cause the headache. A pain in your toe might be because you stepped on a nail. But the pain is not about the nail. But we are sad or joyful or depressed or angry about something.

Emotions have finality. Emotions are purposive. This is a bold thesis because we typically think of emotions caused in us and if they have a purpose, they aren’t our purpose. An emotion is a strategy, a way of dealing with the world. It is chosen and chosen with a purpose for a reason.

There is a story that comes from Aesop called "Fox and the Grapes" that explains this. A fox sees some yummy, delicious grapes and craves them. But with all of his ingenuity, he can’t reach them. So he says, they are probably sour anyway. What Sartre says is that the fox has made a magical transformation of the world. The grapes haven’t changed. But the fox has changed his attitude – he comes to see them as sour. What has changed isn’t the world. What is changed is the fox’s way of seeing the world. This makes sense from a phenomenological point of view. But what about the magical? The fox refuses to accept himself as a failure. He refuses to see himself as up to the difficulty of getting the grapes. He’s not willing to expend anymore energy on a wasted project. This is using emotions to escape from the world. Emotions are a mode of escape behavior. We have our emotions not because they are caused in us. We have them because they are a way to deal with the world so that we can see ourselves as better off than we would otherwise be.

Sartre rejects Freud’s idea of the unconscious. Unconscious mental events are not just unconscious, but those that cannot be made conscious. They are repressed. Sartre also rejects Freud’s idea of psychic determinism. Sartre thinks they are strategies rather than forces within us as Freud says they are.

Part of the magical transformation of the world is the transformation of the body. For instance, fear could be seen as “getting ready to flee” and the bodily sensations follow from the emotion and are not causes of it.

By separating the discussion into two terms, consciousness on the one hand and the world on the other, Sartre puts himself in the French tradition in which he was raised (Cartesianism). But he had read Heidegger and was convinced by the argument that there is nothing to distinguish consciousness and the world at all.

Sartre says consciousness is freedom. Freedom is consciousness. Responsibility is the idea that we are the incontestable author of our actions. Consciousness is nothingness. Consciousness is intentionality. It is always about things. We don’t have to look at it as a transcendental ego. We can look at it as an activity. It’s like looking around a room with a flashlight. Consciousness is the beam of the flashlight without the flahslight. It is nothing but an awareness of things in this world. Consciousness is outside of the causal relations of the world. Kant says that consciousness imposes causal categories on the world. It is by seeing the world in a certain way that we see things in terms of cause and effect relationships. But when we examine ourselves, that is not how we see ourselves. Consciousness is not an object of consciousness. Consciousness is not a thing.

The idea of Spontaneity allows Sartre to carve out a middle range between indeterminism and determinism. Much of what we do is pre-reflective. We don’t think about it, we just do it. Consciousness acts and it acts without prior causality.

Sartre eventually gives up the idea that all emotions are a mode of escape behavior. Emotions are still not causes of behavior, but they are spontaneous outpourings of consciousness in which one takes the world in a certain way. Not emotions in consciousness, but emotions as ways of structuring consciousness as one way among many.

Consciousness has the power of negation. What I see is always more than what I see. When we see, we are never passive receivers. Consciousness is an activity not only of receiving, but also of shaping. Desire isn’t just seeing the world. It’s seeing the world in terms of what it is we want. We see things in terms of what we can do with them and how they fit in our plans. Consciousness is also able to perceive lack. If we are expecting our friend at the bar, we notice our friend isn’t there. We construe it in terms of what’s not there.

Sartre tries to focus on the key, essential experiences that define our experience in general. He wants to use this in place of the kinds of arguments philosophers have often given. Nausea is a dissatisfaction and revulsion with the meaninglessness of the world. The status of the external world or the status of our knowledge of the external world is in question. The broader philosophical idea is that somehow we are stuck inside our own experience or own consciousness. It’s a philosophical fabrication that comes out of the Cartesian split. But is the world “out there”? Or is it just an idea? Sartre says existence is not inferred from other experiences it forces itself upon us in a way that is undeniable. Anguish is the sudden spontaneous realization that I could, at any moment, take a step and go hurtling to my death if I’m standing on a cliff. Anguish gives one the basic experience of one’s own freedom. Nothing stands between me and my self-destruction, except my own decision.

Philosophers ask, how do I know that other people exist? Sartre says we know other people exist when we notice someone looking at us when we are doing something embarrassing and we feel embarrassed.

His Being in Nothingness is a Phenomenological Ontology. It is phenomenological because it is from the first person standpoint. It is an ontology because we are describing things in this world.

He uses three concepts:

  1. Being-for-itself. When we reflect, we recognize that we are conscious. Consciousness is aware of itself aware of objects all the time.
  2. Being-in-itself.
  3. Being-for-others. Shame and embarrassment.

The self is out there in the world like the self of another. It is an accumulation of actions and experiences. To find out who we are, we have to look back and see what it is we’ve done. Consciousness is an activity directed towards the world and its objects. Sartre also differentiates between self-consciousness (reflective sense) and consciousness (pre-reflective). We shouldn’t always think of consciousness as self-consciousness. Consciousness does not contain the “I” or the “self”. We are both being-in-itself and being-for-itself. We are both body and mind. We have two different sets of attributes. Facticity is the sum total of facts that are true about us. (That I was born on a certain date in a certain year.) Facticity is contrasted with transcendence. This is the sense in one overreaches the facts of ones life. This is also a transcendence of the present. We transcend the present into the future all the time. I am what I am not and I am not what I am.

What we all want is to be pure facticity and pure transcendence. What we really desire is to be God. (God as described as complete in himself. Everything that God can be, he is. God can do anything he wants.) On the one hand, we’d like to determine exactly who it is we are. But at the same time, we have a desire for negative freedom – to be free of constraints. But when you put these together, you get a contradiction. You can say, this is my birthday. But you may think it is too early, or too late and not accept it about yourself and replace it with another fact. How the date plays in his life is subject to transcendence.

Bad Faith: Self-deception about oneself. We can live through our hopes or our fears and deny the facts that are true about ourselves, or simply reject them (like pretending to be 29 rather than 39). Freud says there is a psychodynamic – we cannot take certain positions. Sartre says it is really, “we will not” take certain positions. When we are in bad faith, we misperceive and misjudge ourselves and we do this for a purpose. We don’t want to take responsibility.

Sartre says he is not doing ethics. But bad faith is bad. It is something to be avoided. Sarte is after a theory of integrity.

Being-for-others: Has a paranoid ring to it. Heidegger used Being-with-others which is much less paranoid and non-conflicted. When we say “being-for-others” we think of being used by others, being an object for others, or others being there to manipulate. We are only aware of our own consciousness. We cannot be aware of the consciousness of others. Philosophers sometimes suggests that taking people as other people requires a leap of faith because we cannot prove that other consciousnesses exist. What Sartre says, following from Hegel, is that we can know ourselves only with the recognition of other people. Self-knowledge is not captured by Descartes’s “I think therefore I am.” We become conscious only through our confrontation with others. Knowledge comes, not from observation, but from the experience of being looked at. Being for others is being objectified. We are always on trial in the eyes of others. Sartre says we cannot be indifferent to what other people think of us because this is as much a part of our identity as a clear determinant of who we are.

This leads to another dimension of bad faith: to accept what people think of us as the truth and to define ourselves as who we are for others. (What Heidegger talks about in terms of the Das Man self.) You could be in bad faith in the opposite way and say you don’t care what other people think. This isn’t psychology. It’s part of the essence of being human. We are social creatures in the perverse and disturbing sense that we are the objects of other people’s judgments and how we judge ourselves is very much defined by how we are judged by others.

There is a sense in which we are all guilty: for not living up to others expectations of us or living up to the expectations of others but not living up to our own expectations.

For Sartre, our relationship with other people is basically conflict. It’s always about setting aside their judgments of us or trying to get them to have judgments of us that are in line with our judgments of ourselves. Sartre explains this best in No Exit which is one of philosophies greatest contributions to the theater. The main theme of the play is “Hell is other people”. Our conceptions of ourselves are always compromised by and determined by other people,

It’s not enough to look at the facts about ourselves and what I think about myself, but we have to also take into consideration what others think of us. Even relationships like love and friendship are struggles. Love is a struggle for authenticity. We choose our friends on the basis of our conception of ourselves – those who reinforce the conception of ourselves. If we think of ourselves as not very intelligent, we might take up with someone very intelligent, etc. Friendship is a kind of agreement or contract. “I’ll approve of you in your terms if you will approve of me in my terms.” Friendship involves a mutual identity.

But when we talk about lovers, the picture becomes very different. Sartre introduces love as a seductive strategy. It’s an attempt to win someone over – a sort of control. When this love fails, it results in sadism (a desperate attempt to take control). Or, we can also take a submissive role where the other must please me. When this fails, it results in masochism (a manipulative attitude toward the other). Other possibilities of failed love are indifference (profound indifference – the other doesn’t exist) which can lead to hatred (on the part of the person who wants to exist). Love is a dynamic in which a kind of mutual manipulation is essential.

Sex, like love, is a kind of manipulative strategy in which we try to win over the other to our own self-conceptions. Pleasure is not the aim of sex, but rather a kind of vehicle one uses to control the other person. If you take too much pleasure in it yourself, the pleasure gets in the way and you are very likely to eliminate sex as the power you are trying to attain. Sex is about power. It’s a powerplay.

Hegel uses an example of two people fighting it out until one becomes master of the other and the loser becomes slave. It’s not a stable relationship. Both parties leave quite unhappy. This is the same sort of view Sartre wants to give us. It’s not benign. Sex and love are much more complicated, threatening and dangerous than we tend to think. He’s trying to dig us out of the nonsense about love that has been piled on us for 2000 years.

An example of a traditional myth comes from Plato’s Symposium which is supposed to characterize the true nature of love: Aristophenes tells us love is the product of an ancient history. We were double creatures, two sets of legs, two sets of heads, two sets of arms. Zeus threatened to split us in two and he did. Ever since, we’ve been running around trying to find our other half. The other is a completion.

The idea of completing ourselves with another person is at odds with Sartre’s view. There is no such perfect fit. Even in the best relationship, there is a kind of struggle going on. If you pay any attention to your relationship, what becomes clear is that there is a struggle going on and there is an accommodation over the years that makes it seem like less of a struggle. Sartre says we are trying to maintain our own conception of ourselves in the face of the judgments of the other person.

Solomon corrects Sartre because he says that what Sartre doesn’t take seriously enough is the fact that very often our conceptions of ourselves are not only in the face of the other, but there is a kind of cooperation that takes place on the level of actually trying to think of ourselves in mutual terms. But it is true that the way we think of ourselves is always at risk because of the other person.

Relationships, however stable they may seem, are never truly stable. They exist in metastability – any situation which appears to be perfectly in balance can fall into disarray from the slightest imbalance. The same is true about our conceptions of ourselves. It may seem stable, but it is metastable. One thing can throw the entire thing into catastrophe.

Solomon says he doesn’t endorse Sartre, but what Sartre does is opens our eyes to all the complexities of relationship. Sartre had a life long relationship with Simone de Beauvoir. Despite a few infidelities on both their parts, they maintained an intimate closeness until Sartre’s death. They were one of the main couples, in fact the premiere philosophical couple, of the 20th century. Contrast this with Bertrand Russell, who despite all of his many words, went through quite a few marriages and found none of them satisfactory.

Sartre claimed that true being with others was something people found together under threat. You only learn to be with others in extreme circumstances.

No Excuses: Lectures 15-17, Heidegger

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was a theology student and religion permeates all of Heidegger’s philosophy. His Being in Time is central to Existentialist thinking.

He is most concerned with “The Question of Being”. He distinguishes between Being and Beings. Philosophers have always worried about entities and what they are made of and how they relate to each other causally. But they haven’t asked “What is the ground of being that makes the appearance of entities to us even possible?”

Heidegger examines “the being through whom the question of being comes into question.” (That being is us.)

Ontology is the study of being, but it is also the study of the being through whom the question of being comes into question. Phenomenology is the study of our own subjectivity. With Heidegger, this takes on religious sensibilities. There is a sense of passivity. Under what condition can things disclose themselves.

Heidegger does not use words like experience, consciousness, or mind. But it’s difficult to discuss his philosophy in English without using these terms. The first experience is “Being there”. He calls this “Dasein”. This is a way of getting back to the basic, primordial experience and saying in what it consists. Our basic experience is a holistic unified experience of our being in the world.

We are ontological. We ask questions. In particular, we ask questions of being.

The Center piece of his philosophy is to reject the Cartesian tradition. We have to reject the distinction between being in the world and something else; between consciousness and the world outside of us; between the phenomenological world with its intentional objects and the possibility of the objects to which that refers. Dasein and the world are a unified phenomenon. To understand Dasein is to understand the world. To understand the world is to understand Dasein.

There can be no Dasein without the world. There can be no world without Dasein. Dasein is already being in the world and being in the world cannot be separated into components. Dasein blocks the sorts of questions like “Who am I?” What we think of as our identity is a false self-identity.

An uncomfortable fact about Heidegger is that he was part of the Nazi party and he never repudiated the Nazis even though he became disillusioned with them. He said it never achieved it’s potential greatness. It became too much like the other technological societies (America and Russia). Heidegger has brilliant ideas but a despicable past. Nietzsche said that who the philosopher is has a lot to do with what the philosophy is. Heidegger claimed that Being in Time was not an ethical work. But it’s impossible to read it without seeing that it had powerful ethical implications. Heidegger rejected this, perhaps thanks to an inability to come to grips with the implications his philosophy has.

What bothers Heidegger is the problem of alienation. He talks about feeling at home in the world. But the truth is that he did not feel at home in the world and that modern man does not feel at home. Mass consumerism and technology have made it impossible to feel at home.

To talk about knowledge is to enter a domain that, according to Heidegger, we have not understood at all. What philosophers tend to think of is the world as something to be known. But Heidegger says we are not first of all knowers or spectators. Our first of all experience of the world is engagement. To be engaged is to care. Caring is not to be confused with caring for others or about others and should not be confused with anxiety or worry.

Heidegger talks about the World as Equipment. It’s about knowing how, rather than knowing that. It’s not about observing as a spectator, but being engaged in tasks. Under what circumstances do we stop involving ourselves in tasks and start seeing the things as we use as things – as individual instruments or items? Pre-reflection is more important than reflection.

Reflection becomes important when something goes wrong. If you are hammering nails into a floorboard, to think about the hammer and the nails and the floorboard and yourself as separate components is debilitating. But if the head flies off the hammer, then it becomes important to work through what went wrong.

If we are engaged in what we are doing, we don’t notice what we are doing. We are concerned with getting the task done. Heidegger thinks peasants have the answer to the question of being that philosophers since Plato do not because peasants are actively engaged in their world. But this is to be contrasted with using the world as a resource – especially in terms of technology. Technology makes everything the same. Consumerism is something Heidegger despised. These things separate us from the world and from each other. Heidegger’s original flirtation with Nazis was to re-capture rural Germany even though they quickly became more concerned with the same things as what the Russians and Americans displayed.

Heidegger rejects Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” because he says it leads to a split between mind and body. Descartes also said that self-knowledge is immediate and unmistakable. Descartes uses this as proof that there is at least one proposition which is self-evident and undoubtable. But according to Heidegger, we don’t know what our selves are and anything recognizing true recognition is a rare thing.

To be authentic is to be one’s own person. In contrast, there is inauthenticity which is not being one’s own self. Heidegger labels this “Das Man”. It means, “one does not do those things around here”. The Das Man Self is an anonymous, individual or reflective self. It is inauthentic. It is a social, comparative self. But it is an essential part of life.

When we talk about ourselves, we talk about ourself in relationship to a group. We give our identity in terms of our social roles. But our social roles aren’t us.

Heidegger also has the notion of being thrown into the world. What would it be like had we been born in another century? We didn’t choose when and where we would be born and we didn’t choose our parents. This compromises taking hold of yourself not within a vacuum, but within a very particular historical concept. Moreover, when one takes hold of oneself, one doesn’t break free of society. That would be the height of alienation (and technological societies). Rather, one takes a hold of oneself and appreciates ones traditions, ones history (historicity), and one embeds oneself back in ones culture and ones times. It’s easy to see how he saw national socialism and German culture in general not as a herd mentality he should escape but the opposite – something he should reinsert himself into. (This is very likely how he ended up with Nazi roots.)

Heidegger does not refer to time as clock time. We talk about living in the present but the truth is we never do. Whenever we think of ourselves, we always think of ourselves from our past and in terms of our future projects. We are creatures in time.

Inauthenticity or alienation? Is that the choice we have? Heidegger says that this isn’t the choice we have, there is a third alternative.

Heidegger understands existence, in the Kierkegaardian sense – human beings have the ability to appreciate who it is we are. Reflection in the sense of being ontological. Existences precedes essence. Within the context of existence, Dasein has possibilities. We always see our world in terms of possibilities. Existence is a sense of the future – that we have the capacity to make choices. Existence is a freedom to make choices based on what we want of the future. Our moods are what “tune us in” to the world.

Facticity – the facts that are true about us. We are thrown into the world into a particular culture, a particular history, etc. This gives rise to our historicity which is the idea that we are born into a particular historical situation and tradition. Once we achieve authenticity, we reinsert ourselves into our historicity and our traditions. Fallenness is a term that is strongly reminiscent of the fall in the Bible, but it refers to the fact that we fall back from a reflective, authentic position to something Heidegger calls “preontological”. What we do is stop asking questions for a while and we fall back into tasks. This is how we live most of our lives and it is a sort of inauthenticity, but nevertheless, it is part of human existence and should be respected as such.

Heidegger talks about authenticity in terms of three different contrasts: Understanding vs. Curiosity. Modern science is curiosity. Most people when they ask questions are being curious. But this is an inferior form of cognition. Understanding is superior to curiosity. Thinking vs. Calculation. Heidegger does not admire technological advancement because it involves calculative thinking. Real thinking is philosophical thinking. Speech vs. Chatter. There is talk that entertains us, but true speech is something very different. Most of us spend most of our time just chit chatting. But speech is much more profound.

Conscience is the constant reminder within us that we are not all that we would like to be; that we are not authentic. That we are just going along with the crowd and there is this quiet voice that reminds us we could be something more. Conscience gives rise to guilt. This is something built into our very existence – it is the constant reminder that we are not being all that we can be. It isn’t built for a transgressions or an omission, it comes by fact that we are human. It comes by virtue that we are ontological. We can’t help but ask questions about being and who we are. When we quit asking these questions (because we get comfortable in our job or in our marriage or in our habits), there is still a nagging conscience that there is something else.

To be authentic is to start to think about our neighborhood, marriage, job, etc. in a new way – taking hold of them and making them our own rather than simply being in a neighborhood, being in a marriage, being in a job, etc.

“Being Unto Death” is not a celebration of death, it is simply a recognition of death as a necessary fact about us. We need to live with death in mind. When you face death, what you ask yourself are some very basic questions about your life. It is death that individuates us. It is death that shakes us out of our Das Man self. When you face death, you face the sudden realization that you might not be there. When you die, you will cease to be a Dasein, the world will cease to exist for you. And therefore, for you, the world will cease to exist. It’s not the same thing as authenticity although it is one aspect of it, it is a spur that throws us out of our inauthenticity and fallen condition and forces us to see ourselves and our lives a single unity. This is when we start making resolutions of a profound sort.

Are we to be alienated as authentic? Or inauthentic and not living a full life? Once we become authentic, we can re-emerge ourselves into our historicity. (It’s not too difficult to see here an excuse for Heidegger’s Nazi affiliations.)

No Excuses: Lecture 15, Husserl and Phenomenology

Husserl [1859-1938] created a method called Phenomenology which is a version of Cartesianism and includes a strong emphasis on subjectivity and consciousness. Simply defined, Phenomenology is the examination of consciousness. Or literally, the examination of phenomena – that which appears to consciousness.

Intentionality is the thesis that consciousness is about something. If you believe, you believe something or other. If you perceive, you have to perceive something or other. If you have an emotion like anger, you have to be angry at something or someone. All consciousness for Husserl is intentional in this sense.

Husserl gets dangerously close to the problem of solipsism except he does not examine things as objects of the world, he examines them as objects of experience. Ontology is a study of the things of the world. Phenomenology is a study of the objects of experience.

Husserl was not an existentialist. He came into philosophy through mathematics asking questions like: What is it that makes 2+2=4 true? Is it a matter of convention? A matter of logic? Husserl says it is none of these. Phenomenology is a way of talking about mathematical truth in terms of necessity, and necessity in terms of the structure of consciousness.

Husserl seeks certainty. Husserl needs an archimidean point and this place turns out to be the transcendental ego. This influences Heidegger and then Sartre. But the ways in which they use it is very different than how Husserl used it.

No Excuses: Lecture 14, The Three Grand Inquisitors: Dostoevsky, Kafka, Hesse

Dostoevsky anticipates some central themes in Heideggers works. In Notes from Underground, we are introduced to an unlikable character. Spite and resentment characterizes everything he does. The central theme is that of freedom and free will. Dostoevsky is attacking the enlightenment and the idea that people can improve themselves (which is something Nietzsche also attacks). And he attacks the idea that people can have free choice in a way that it leads to happiness.

Dostoevsky shows that freedom and happiness are opposed. Happiness is very often the absence of freedom. Dostoevsky attacks the entire Enlightenment. What he specifically attacks is the idea that we can create a society that will make everyone happy. But what gets left out with this idea is our personal freedom. What is most important to us is our free will. But in so far as we go along with the plans that are supposed to make us happy, what we loose is our freedom. The Underground Man sees being spiteful as a philosophical freedom, not a character deficiency.

Freedom is a good in it’s own right, it is the most important benefit that we have. Joining and sacrificing freedom for the grand plan of society is to render us inhuman.

In The Idiot, Dostoevsky challenges the assumption that a person who is “very good” will contribute to the well-being of society. Aristotle, Christianity (through the idea of following Jesus’ example) and the Enlightenment all subscribe to this idea: the better the person, the better society. In contrast, the main character of The Idiot, by doing good, makes everybody’s lives terrible. The consequences of goodness are not always good themselves.

The Brothers Karamazov is Dostoevsky’s crowning achievement. The main concern of the novel is nihilism which Dostoevsky is radically against (as is Nietzsche and Kierkegaard – nihilism was taking over Europe during their time). Ivan represents the Enlightenment philosophy as well as the nihilistic principles. Through Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha – we see the whole spectrum of society with Ivan caught in the middle.

The idea that freedom is central to Christianity is something Dostoevsky wants to throw into question. This isn’t just a religious problem, it’s a dilemma of humanity writ large. He shows this through the Grand Inquisitor who is stunned by Jesus’ reappearance. He decides Jesus has to go because what Christianity has done over the past 1400 years is succeeded in making people happy. They are happy at the hopes it raises, in being saved, in being in the shadow of Jesus who has not yet appeared. But with the appearance of Jesus, people now have to face reality. Given the choice between freedom and happiness, the Grand Inquisitor says people will always choose happiness. So in the end, Jesus is re-crucified.

The same story is presented in Woody Allen’s Crime and Punishment. A man commits a brutal crime under the spell of nihilism – there is nothing worth obeying. Although the crime itself is petty, the man is haunted by a deep guilt. In Brothers Karamazov, Ivan said that if there is no God, then everything is permitted. But what we get from Ivan is a picture of nihilism at it’s absolute worst. Ivan’s world is a world that entirely depended upon God for it’s values and depended upon God for the authority for us to obey those values – and it had cast off that God. If we are dependent upon this God, then it follows that without this God we are left with nothing. Both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky were against this sort of nihilistic thinking. This is why Nietzsche said “God is dead and we have killed him”. Both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky think this dependence on an abstract God is hugely problematic.

The absurd is taken to spectacular heights in Kafka. The novella, Metamorphosis, is likely his most spectacular work. It deals with self-identity. In this story, the body is thoroughly changed, but the mind remains exactly as it is. Samsa has to cope with this change. He has to work with his horrible effect on his family. Kafka explores how our self-identity is construed by our body, but especially by our role in society and especially how other people treat us. His family comes to despise him and hate him. (What happens when you redefine the role in your family?)

Kafka’s The Trial sets the stage for Camus’ trial for Mersault in The Stranger. The idea is that we are all essentially guilty and it doesn’t have to do with any particular crime, there may be no crime at all. Just being human, just being conscious, makes us guilty. Consciousness is not just a blessing, it is also a disease. It allows us to see ourselves as inadequate creatures. With that self-consciousness comes not only guilt, but despair. If we say something is Kafkaesque, what we mean is that something is not only absurd, but also upsetting to our very notion of ourselves as human beings and our concept of life as it should be. We think life should be orderly, but life is not orderly.

Hermann Hesse was primarily influenced by Nietzsche and Buddhism. Hesse is one of the few writers who tries to bridge European and Indian thought. Siddhartha (1922) is an entire novel attempting to make this bridge. In Demian, Demian is a very well-adjusted young man. So well-adjusted that he is independent in a way that young men and children are not supposed to be independent. It is a refusal to go along. His influence on his fellow classmates and friends is far from being demonic. It’s just the kind of challenge that philosophers in Existentialism like to talk about.

In Steppenwolf, the central metaphor is of a 45-year-old man who is half man and half wolf. This was a metaphor used by Goethe and secularized by Descartes. Hesse wants to challenge this bifurcated notion of the Cartesian self – not in terms of a unification of the self, but a further fragmentation or elimination of the self altogether.

Harry Haller, the main character, is in every way a Nietzschean man. He considers himself to be one of the Masters but not in a brutal way. He is polite, mannered, and a good citizen. But he is brilliantly educated, extremely creative and exactly what Nietzsche represents in his discussion of the higher man. Like Kafka, Hesse challenges the very idea of NIetzsche’s “self” (the idea of aspiration, the idea of taking life so seriously). What Haller is mistaken in is thinking that his personality is split half and half (half man, half wolf). Instead, Hesse says Haller has “no self” (which is the same as saying he has many selves). This is demonstrated through the Magic Theater where all values are turned upside down.

The Western conception of the self imagines the self as a fruit – peel off the skin and there is a hard pit core at the center. In Steppenwolf, the self is presented as an onion. Peel off one layer and there is another layer. Peel of that layer and there is yet another layer. There is no center. This is a Buddhist picture. In accepting this picture, Haller can accept a joy and happiness that he was unable to learn otherwise.

Nietzsche’s theory is admirable and persuasive, but there is something obviously missing and that is humor, joy, and happiness. Nietzsche talks about these things, but we are never convinced. Hesse makes us convinced that we can start with something like Nietzsche but attain a passion that even Nietzsche didn’t understand.

No Excuses: Lecture 1, Intro. to Existentialism

Solomon specifically focuses on Camus, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre in this series. He says he starts with Albert Camus because he is the easiest to understand and also captures the sensibility that represents existentialist thinking.

Solomon says the movement was best defined by Sartre (1905-1980) based on one of his very late interviews: “I have never ceased to believe that one is and one makes oneself of whatever is made of one.” In otherwords, we make ourselves. We are self-creation. This doesn’t mean we are free to do whatever it is we want. A good deal of life is not something we choose, but we still have the ability to make choices within those situations.

Existentialism is a movement that can’t easily be pinned down, but it does have 3 characteristics:

  1. The emphasis is on the individual.
  2. Passions are seen as important. To live is to live passionately.
  3. The concept of freedom is central, but is not understood in terms of politics or metaphysics. Rather, the focus is on the freedom of the individual to make choices and to take the consequences for those choices.

Often, freedom is associated with reason and slavery with the passions. But Existentialists do not accept this view. Hume said that reason is and ought to be the slave of passions. Passions are not the monsters they have been made out to be because without passion, life is meaningless. Existentialism says we should live our lives in terms of passion. Kierkegaard insists on passionate commitment and Nietzsche says it is up to us to discover our talents and to throw ourselves into those talents. But this is done within a balance of contingency and personal choice. (It does not mean we should just do whatever it is we want to do.)

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) made the famous statement, “I think, therefore I am.” His philosophy places the emphasis on thought and suggests existence is reliant upon thought. This is something the Existentialists reject. Nietzsche said that we never exist quite so much as when we are not thinking. The emphasis is also on “I am” (as a thinking person). The Existentialists saw this as far too simple. It’s not enough to simply be “thinking”. We don’t find out about who it is we are through reflection, we find out about ourselves by being engaged in the world.

From some of the questions that were asked at the end of the lesson:

What do you mean by the phrase “personal freedom”? What counts as “being free” for you? Personal freedom, for me, is most definitely about having the freedom to choose no matter the situation. It is really easy to willingly turn that freedom of choice over to others – authority figures, institutions, political systems, etc. without realizing that is what we have done. Being free, for me, is having the courage to make decisions for myself, even if those decisions are counter cultural and make people angry.

Do you believe in fate? What would this mean? If I were to introduce you to a very good fortune teller (who had an accuracy rate of over 95%) and she offered to tell you the outcome of your marriage or the date of your death, would you be willing to ask her? Why or why not? I wouldn’t ask her. Even if she had a 100% accuracy rate, I wouldn’t ask her. What would be the point of knowing the answer to something like that? I’d rather throw myself into the experience rather than being attached to an end result. I’ve been in a marriage that didn’t work and would be willing to go through it all again, even knowing with 100% certainty that it won’t work out. The experience was invaluable to me and so I’m grateful for it even though, in the end, it was a “failure”. I think I’d be giving up my personal freedom if I made the end result more important than the actual process. So why ask? Even if she’s 100% accurate. It doesn’t really matter.

At the end of “No Country for Old Men", when Chigurh is planning to kill Moss’s wife, she tells him he doesn’t have to do it. That he has no cause to kill her. He says, that’s what they all say, “You don’t have to do this”. She reinforces the point – he doesn’t. But he says he does have to do it because he gave his word to her husband (who is already dead and wouldn’t want his wife killed). From Chigurh’s perspective, perhaps it makes sense from a purely logical perspective (based on his warped reasoning), but not from a humane perspective.

He tells her the best he can do is offer her a coin toss. She has to call it and if she calls it right, she can live. But she refuses to call it. She’s not going to let him off the hook. He’s the one committing the violence and he has no cause to kill her. She’s not going to give up her personal freedom by allowing her life to be a matter of a coin toss. Chigurh says he got there the same way the quarter got there – so it’s all a matter of fate in one way or other. Which is true. She doesn’t have any control over the situation she is in. She can’t control whether Chigurh chooses to kill her or not. But she can insist that the power of personal choice is more important than fate by refusing to call the toss.

A Passion for Wisdom – Robert Solomon

A Passion for Wisdom: A Very Brief History of Philosophy is another excellent overview of Philosophy from Solomon (and also his wife Kathleen Higgins).

I’m not going to summarize this book – there was far too much information. But I do have to mention a few things I found to be very interesting. The book starts with Abraham, makes its way through Thales who is often considered to be the first Greek philosopher, and ends with Martin Luther King, Jr. Well, really it ends with Postmodernism which claims Philosophy is now obsolete, but Martin Luther King, Jr. is the last person listed on the time-line. It covers all the continents, too and it’s a short little book.

What’s interesting is to see how all of these ideas fit together. We all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors – the ideas don’t just come out of the blue. They develop.

A few points of interest:

  • Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was the first to use the term theology in the modern sense. It refers to a rational investigation of the mysteries of religion.
  • John Calvin (1509-1564) took the idea of fallen man and Original sin one step further and came up with the doctrine of predestination which became standard within Protestantism. Only those God chose, the elect, would be saved. Election couldn’t be earned. But despite the Protestant de-emphasis of human efforts and good works, Protestants became obsessed with work. Max Weber (1864-1920) argued that the harsh Christian philosophy o Calvinism condemned millions of people to unresolvable anxiety. They felt it necessary to “prove” their worth in this life, working feverishly and living ascetically. No amount of success could quash the anxiety but one could at least make a lot of money which offered a nice distraction from the anxiety. Weber’s most famous thesis is that capitalism and the very structure of modern Western society is the product of Protestantism. [I most definitely grew up with that Protestant work ethic. When I once dared to mention that happiness was the purpose of life, I was quickly put in my place and told in no uncertain terms that it is work that is the purpose of life.]
  • Descartes created a problem that troubles scientists and philosophers to this day. It’s called “Cartesian dualism” and refers to the thesis that the mind and the body are separate substances. However faulty and problematic, this dualism was the product of many centuries of intellectual development and the progress of science. At the time it came about, it created a new-found respect for individual autonony. Religion was in the way of science until this idea came about and this provided a way for science to proceed unhampered by religion because it likewise provided a way for religion to not be threatened by science. At that particular time in history because of the authority of the church and the threat of science, it was much more important to get the mind and body apart than it was to get them together. [But as Mindwalk says, Descartes was wonderful because he provided something very necessary in his day, but it’s time we got over our Cartesian mechanized world view. It no longer serves us.]
  • Feminist philosophy challenges the entire Western tradition. While claiming to be universal and all-inclusive, philosophy has not even included or taken account of the woman next door. It certainly has not asked whether she sees things differently or whether she would ask the same questions in the same way as male philosophers. Thus one of the most radical changes that feminism has provoked in contemporary philosophy is the centrality of the notion of a personal “standpoint” – what Nietzsche called a “perspective”. Different people, in different positions, might “see” the world very differently. Thus, a plurality of perspectives might replace the competing demands for a singular “objective”. [I’ve often wondered about this. How often do you learn about theology or philosophy from the perspective of a female? I think it is very likely that we’d offer an important alternate perspective.]
  • Solomon & Higgins conclude: Philosophy has always been representative of what is most human about us. Perhaps what we need is not more sophistication but more openness. We need to be not more clever, but, rather, better listeners. What philosophy is, after all, is a thoughtful openness to the world, a passion for wisdom.

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

I recently watched the movie “Steppenwolf” which presented the novel, Steppenwolf, as one long drug trip after another and perhaps that is what it was. But if Hesse had been involved in Buddhist meditation and Jungian dream interpretation (he knew Carl Jung personally), I’m not sure it is completely accurate to conclude the book is about a drug trip even though some of our best literary works come to us via the drug trips of authors.

In the intro. to my copy of the book, Hesse says Steppenwolf has been more misunderstood than any of his other novels. In fact, he says it has been violently misunderstood by those who are most enthusiastic about it – especially his younger readers. He wrote this book about his problems when he was 50 and the younger individuals who read it tend to completely misunderstand it. And as for those of us who are his age now when he wrote the book, he wants us to know it is not about a man despairing, but a man believing. “May everyone find in it what strikes a chord in him and is of some use to him! But I would be happy if many of them were to realize that the story of the Steppenwolf pictures a disease and crisis – but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary – to healing.”

It’s like a dark night of the soul, like in Martin Scorcese’s After Hours. The imagination is heightened in our dark nights. But dark nights are always cleansing if we allow them to be.

The person who introduces the story Haller left to him says, “I have no doubt that they are for the most part fictitious, not, however, in the sense of arbitrary invention. They are rather the deeply lived spiritual events which he has attempted to express by giving them the form of tangible experience.” He goes on, “I see them as a document of the times, for Haller’s sickness of the soul, as I now know, is not the eccentricity of a single individual, but a sickness of the times themselves, the neurosis of that generation to which Haller belongs, a sickness it seems, that by no means attacks the weak and worthless only but, rather, precisely those who are strongest in spirit and richest in gifts.”

Haller said, “Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap. A man of the Classical Age who had to live in medieval times would suffocate miserably just as a savage would in our civilization. Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence. Naturally, everyone doesn’t feel this equally strongly. A nature such as Nietzsche’s had to suffer our present ills a generation in advance. What he had to go through alone and misunderstood, thousands suffer today.”

The rest of the book is Harry Haller’s records which doesn’t play out as a formula. It isn’t 2+2=4. It’s the realization that the self is comprised of onion layers, not a Cartesian split self between lived experience and rational understanding (wolf and man). Rather, the self is comprised of an infinity of selves which is the same as saying there is “no-self”. Instead of thinking in terms of Cartesian dualism, he comes to understand himself in terms of an onion where layer after layer can be pealed away until at last there is nothing (or everything).