This Emotional Life

I finished an excellent three-part series called This Emotional Life late last night.  It was available on “Watch Instantly” through Netflix.  Each episode is about 2 hours long and is hosted by Dr. Dan Gilbert, a Harvard Professor of Social Psychology.  The series covers a LOT of a topics which are all extremely interesting.  But four things stood out for me in particular….

  • The first is the idea that we all are born with a certain level of happiness and no matter the ups and downs in our life, if we win the lottery or end up paralyzed, we are likely to return to the designated level of happiness we were born with.
  • The second is that married couples with children are less happy than married couples without kids.  In fact, the more kids you have, the less happy you are.  (Maybe children give you something that is beyond happiness?  Kids can definitely be a pain in the ass, but I can’t imagine my life without them.  They are my very heart!)
  • The third is that the best (and probably the only) way to solve post traumatic distress disorder is to directly face the fear and relive the trauma.  I don’t know why, but that totally blew me away.
  • The fourth is that there isn’t a lot of scientific evidence for activities that boost happiness levels except for two totally opposite things: social interaction and meditation.  Studies on meditation are proving very interesting. Sitting in silence is not a frivolity.  It completely changes the brain.  When people meditate, their brains become more active, not less active, so something major is going on but no one is sure exactly what that is.

Will to Power (Nietzsche): Lectures 1-11

These lectures from Solomon & Higgins were primarily review, but quite interesting. I jotted down a few notes… 

  • Nietzsche very often makes references to images Luther used.
  • I thought this was very cool: Nietzsche thought Christianity had served an important historical function for people. In the passage about the madman, it’s not people who believe in God who the madman assaults. The madman assaults those who think they can eliminate the need God once filled in society. By simply focusing on science they can ignore the needs of humanity for something like myth. Nietzsche thinks this is ungrateful. The way to show gratitude is to think beyond the historical function.
  • Nietzsche says we shouldn’t throw out our desires. What we should throw out is the idea that we can reach perfect contentment and that the attainment of perfect satisfaction is even desirable.
  • Nietzsche is far more optimistic that Schopenhauer. Life involves the negative components, but we can become something that takes joy in.
  • The meaning of life is not in reason, rationalism, or theology. It’s to be found in the passions.
  • Camel stage – treats tradition with reverence. Says “yes” to it. Lion stage – evaluates tradition and asserts individuality by challenging what has been handed down. Say “no” to tradition. We have to fully make our way through the camel stage before the lion stage makes sense. The Child stage is a new affirmation of life. It is boundless energy for what is new. Experimentation. Creative energy – full creative response and full vitality.
  • The Ubermensch is an idea. It is a way of being that involves risk taking. This is contrasted with the Last Man which seeks nothing but comfort – the ultimate couch potato.

Rationality, Romanticism, Consciousness

  • Rationality has several meanings: 1) thinking ability, to reflect; 2) mathematics; 3) instrumental reasoning, to think; 4) having the right goals (Aristotle); 5) reason is the royal road to truth (modern understanding/Enlightenment)
  • Nietzsche, like Aristotle, thinks reason involves having the right goals. He says that reason becomes a tyrant when it is thought of as the royal road to truth (contra-Kant).
  • Kant preached a faith in reason and even brought religion into the realm of reason. Nietzsche felt this idea that reason is universal was a pretension. While France and Britain were moving toward the age of reason, Germany was involved in Romanaticism which puts its faith in the passions and not in reason. Nietzsche saw much wrong with Romanticism, too. He said it was a pretense of passions.
  • Nietzsche says we are animals motivated by drives and instincts. We are natural, biological beings. The meaning of life is to be found in life itself. Not in the upper realms of reason. Like Freud, Nietzsche understood that what drives us are very often things we are not conscious of.
  • Nietzsche asked where does consciousness come from? And he comes up with a theory: It developed because of the need for communication. Consciousness was created in our interactions with others (rather than the traditional view that consciousness was somehow already in the mind). If you live alone, consciousness becomes superfluous. We have cultured, sophisticated, individual instincts.
  • Thinking, for Nietzsche, can be a sort of disease. It can be dangerous because it blinds us to our creativity and uniqueness. Therefore consciousness is dangerous. BUT!! It’s an important stage in our evolution. When a faculty is new (like the advent of language/consciousness), it is always dangerous at first. But as it matures, we learn to make better use of it.
  • Nietzsche was very interested in how language (the new faculty which gave rise to consciousness) expresses the truth.
  • Nietzsche was very critical of the romantics of his time. He said they pretended passion. He said that romanticism is a mask; an act. The reality is that passion contains a quantum of reason and reason contains quantum of passion. Both reason and passion contain an amount of both the Apollonian (reason) and the Dionysian (passion).
  • Nietzsche uses aphorisms because he doesn’t want followers. He knows the reader won’t understand the whole picture by reading a single aphorism so it will take some work to understand. An active readership achieved through a sort of companionship with Nietzsche.
  • Most of philosophy is centered on formal deductive reasoning. Not Nietzsche. Some would say he doesn’t do philosophy at all. He uses a sequence of fallacies; aphorisms, rhetoric, literature and ad hominem arguments. He wants to stimulate our emotional experience.
  • Sophistry is an appeal to emotions and understands argument as an art form because the use of strict rational argument convinces no one. Philosophy is a sort of rhetoric. Socrates was a great rhetoritician. This is what made him so powerful even though his arguments would be readily dismissed in institutions today. So it is no dis-service to say that Nietzsche is doing rhetoric rather than logic.


  • Nietzsche says there is no truth, there is only interpretation. But he praises truthfulness. This idea is not antagonistic toward science. Science is experimental and Nietzsche is willing to allow any hypothesis which says “let’s try it”. Experimenting with ideas and philosophical view points is kindred with science. Nietzsche says it isn’t good enough to say God created it this way.
  • Science is non-dogmatic. Most beliefs people have held turn out to be false eventually. So why think current theories are the truth? Theories are always tentative. Philosophy should be undogmatic like science. But Niezsche also sometimes opposes science. This opposition is based on the aesthetic perspective. The aesthetic view has ways of seeing that are non-scientific. If science and aesthetics are opposed, Nietzsche says that aesthetics always get the upper hand. If it doesn’t, science easily becomes dogmatic. And when it does, it loses it’s virtue.
  • Nietzsche asks “Why is truth important? Why must we have truth at any cost?” Individual lives are ruined. People have been excommunicated for the truth. The truth has upset entire civilizations (Freud). Why are we willing to pay the cost?
  • Nietzsche comes up with several reasons. Truth isn’t necessarily pursued for itself. It is very often pursued for other goals. The main motivation for searching for truth is sometimes status. Status is the primary objective, not truth. Truth is a means to an end, not the end in itself. “The truth shall set you free.” Truth as a means to an end is based on the idea that truth is rock hard and immovable. If you get the truth, you gain power because claiming to have the truth puts you in a privileged position.
  • But Nietzsche says there is no way of getting to the bottom of things. All we have is our experience which is an interpretation based on other interpretations. It’s all experience and experience is always an interpretation of something else.
  • Appearances depend on being some thing of which there are appearances. There is a gap between the experience and appearances on the one hand and what they are experiences and appearances of on the other hand. There is no way of getting around or behind the appearances and experiences to see reality itself. This is something Nietzsche struggles with. Traditional philosophy, since ancient times, makes a distinction between reality on the one hand and appearances on the other. Nietzsche thinks this is a bogus distinction. There is only the world of our experience and it doesn’t make sense to talk about anything else.
  • But what do we say about our experience? Kant talked about “world in itself” which is the world as God might see it. Kant admitted that we can’t have a conception of “the world in itself”. But Nietzsche says there is no such thing as “a world in itself”. There is no God’s eye view. Even if there were a God, this God would have to see it from a god’s perspective which remains a perspective.
  • What is truth from once perspective is not the truth from another perspective. But this doesn’t mean that one truth need exclude the other.
  • Nietzsche holds what is now called “perspectivism”. There are lots of different viewpoints we can take on things. This does not rule out argument, debate or pursuit itself – just the understanding that it must always be perceptualized. Science, for instance, is a difinitive perspective.
  • Perspectivism is not the same as relativism which says that every view is as good as any other. But it is always a matter of not taking one position and digging in. Philosophy is about shifting perspectives.
  • Where is the truth? It doesn’t lie behind appearances. Philosophical truth is getting a sense of how all the perspectives tie together. You have to be able to entertain different truths at the same time.
  • Nietzsche was a quasi follower of Darwin. The Darwinian notion of fitness as a pragmatic theory of truth fits with Nietzsche’s theories. Imagine a species of creatures who have built into their brains that the future will be unlike the past. If you see lightening strike a tall tree, you rush under the tree during the next storm expecting that lightening won’t strike in the same place twice twice (or having struck this tree it will strike elsewhere next time). It’s easy to see how such a species would be short lived. A species that developed an inductive mind and learns by experience is much more likely to survive and flourish.
  • What are our truths? They are the indispensible errors of mankind. They are the truths without which we as a species would not survive. To ask if these truths exist apart from reality is nonsensical.

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 2-3, The Stranger

Solomon says that The Stranger is not an examplar of the Existentialist stand point but what it does is provide a sort of thought experiment. It’s like a Rorschach test. Mersault is a blank screen so what you come away with from the novel says more about yourself than it does about Mersault. Solomon has been teaching for quite some time and says that in the 1960s, his students overwhelmingly saw Mersault as “cool”. Even heroic. But in the 1980s during the “go-go Regan years”, his students saw him as a “nerd” because he wasn’t taking advantage of the opportunities that came up for him.

Mersault: 1) doesn’t think; 2) doesn’t feel emotion; 3) has no morals; 4) has no ambitions; 5) has no response to love. What is meant by this isn’t just love as an emotional feeling. Love requires decision, commitment, a keen sense of self, and the ability to conceive of the self in terms of another. The only thing Mersault seems to appreciate is physical sensations, like the warmth of the sun or the smell of the ocean. But this is not an emotional experience.

Solomon says this is significant because philosophers often discuss thought and emotion as though they are two completely opposed matters. But the reality is that people often think without feeling and often feel without thought. If you don’t have emotion, what is there to think about?

Solomon says that Camus was likely influenced by Kafka’s The Trial (1925) where a man is arrested for no reason and is put to death never knowing what it is he has done. The implication is that we may think we are innocent, but to be human is to be guilty. Camus’ trial is very much in this same spirit. The trial turns Mersault into a human being, in part, because it shows him what it means to be guilty.

Camus is juxtaposing “lived experience” with reflection. Part 1 is about “lived experience”. Part 2 – is about being forced to reflect. Reflection very often interferes with lived experience and lived experience very often interferes with reflection/thought.

Rationality requires thought/thinking; the ability to anticipate consequences; and an adherence to cultural standards. (There is always a cultural, contextual consideration involved.) Emotions are intentional and contain rationality. In fact, what we call rationality is bounded by our emotions. The connection between reason and the emotions is very complicated. Emotions involve value. For instance, love is valued as positive, hatred is valued as negative. Emotions are about the self (which is not to say they are selfish or that they are just about the self.)

Reflection refers to something you see in a mirror. But it is also conceptual thought/contemplation. Philosophers have all too often collapsed these two notions into a loop. You go out of yourself and into yourself – but how can consciousness be the object of consciousness? Therefore, Hegel said you can only come to selfhood through the recognition of others and this is what Camus is showing with Mersault. He comes to selfhood only through the recognition of others. It’s not just the act of murder that is on trial, it is his entire life. What Mersault comes to recognize is that he is a self and that he is guilty.

In Chapter 1, he is innocent in the Genesis sense. He has not eaten of the tree of good and evil. He is completely unaware of the moral significance of what it is he has done. But just as Adam and Eve are chased out of the Garden of Eden because they disobeyed God, Mersault is cast out of his innocent, happy life through imprisonment. This is the stuff of original sin. We are aware people are suffering and we should do something but whatever it is we could do will never be enough. In this sense we are guilty by our humanity.

Camus tries to solve this by saying that it is quantity not quality that is important. We must be willing to open our mind to the indifference of the universe. Mersault does this and thereby dies a “Happy Death”.

Some of the questions from the lectures:

Have you ever met someone like Mersault? I don’t think so. He was completely strange to me.

To whom is Mersault a stranger? In what ways is he strange? Is this lifestyle attractive or appealing to you? Why or why not? He was strange to me. I think more importantly, he was a stranger to himself. His lifestyle is not at all attractive to me. I’m far too passionate. One of my favorite phrases used to be, “Well – shoot me for caring!” I don’t say that so much anymore. (I think my husband finally calmed me down a bit.)

Can a person live without caring? Does the idea of a life without passions sound attractive to you? Why or why not? I suppose someone could live a life without caring. But living a life without passions sounds incredibly dull to me. The passions (compassion) are what make life worth living!

Could a person literally live “for the moment” with no sense of past or future? I think so, but it wouldn’t look at all like Mersault’s life. The past, present, and future are all concurrent and I think you can live in the now within this awareness. But that is not the same thing as being carefree.

What is required to be the agent of one’s actions? Is causing something to happen sufficient? I think it requires a willingness to take responsibility for our actions. So no. Causing something to happen isn’t sufficient. We have to recognize that we have the ability to respond in any situation.

Do you believe that the self (and self-consciousness) arises only with the reflection and judgment of other people? I’m not sure. Maybe. I do believe it is true that we can only truly know ourselves by being able to see the other as “other”. By truly being able to see “the other”, we likewise are able to recognize our unity. That is why I think committed relationships are so important. We tend to see people through our own perceptions so don’t see them at all. Also, commitment makes us hang in there when someone starts seeing in us something we don’t want to see. Then again, “judge not lest ye be judged” – judgment defines the perceiver, not the perceived.

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.

Spirituality for the Skeptic – Robert Solomon

Spirituality for the Skeptic is an interesting little book by Robert Solomon defending what he calls a naturalistic spirituality (spirituality for the atheist). I took lots of notes for future reference…

Naturalized spirituality is the thoughtful love of life and is based on these presumptions:

  1. the idea that spirituality has a lot to do with thoughtfulness;
  2. that spirituality is not at odds with science but in cahoots with it;
  3. that spirituality is by no means limited to religion much less sectarian, authoritarian religion.

Solomon grew up with a nominal affiliation to Judaism in a Protestant neighborhood so always saw religion as a hateful threat. But over the years, he became increasingly frustrated that the notion of spirituality had been hijacked by organized religion, New Age eccentrics and divisive sectarian. Instead of being thoughtful, it had become associated with something mindless. For Solomon, spirituality is what philosophy (the love of wisdom) is all about. If spirituality means anything at all, it means thoughtfulness. The self is a process and spirituality is the process of transforming the self, not an abandonment of the self.

Spirit is social. It represents our sense of participation and membership in a humanity and a world much larger than our individual selves. The spiritual world is “here”. We are Spirit. The spirit is in us when we have drunk our lives to the fullest. Spirituality is all-embracing, including much (if not all) of Nature and the natural world. It is the passionate sense of self-awareness in which the very distinction between selfishness and selflessness disappears. Spirituality and wisdom are one and the same. (“Science is the organization of knowledge, but wisdom is the organization of life.” Kant)

The meaning of life is life itself. Life’s purpose is not the pursuit of some further life. Nor is life the meaningless struggle for survival and existence lamented by particularly sourpuss Darwinians and pessimists like Arthur Schopenhauer. For Nietzsche, the larger purpose was the transcendence (self-overcoming) of the individual in the realization of higher goals and ideals. Rather than thinking in terms of transcending life, think in terms of transcending ourselves in life. Life is an ongoing work of art.

Without spirituality, philosophy is nothing but tantalizing puzzles alienated from its larger audience and devoid of personal feeling. Philosophy, like theology, needs to regain some of the personal charm of myth and mythology.

Spirituality is neither rational nor emotional but both at once, both Apollonian and Dionysian (as Nietzsche puts it). Spirituality is living beyond oneself, discovering a larger self or the “no self”. What opposes spirituality is not naturalism or secularism. It is petty egoism, vanity and vulgarity. Philosophy becomes spirituality when it learns how to listen.

Reverence, trust and love are the very essence of spirituality. To be awe-struck is to be paralyzed. To be reverent is to be moved to action. Reverence is not an awareness of one’s insignificance. It is the contrary. To be responsible is to be significant. The opposite of reverence is hubris. Reverence is a kind of confidence in our limited powers and our ability to use them wisely.

The guiding metaphor of Nietzsche’s spirituality is overflowing. The more one has to struggle to give, the less virtuous one is. Nietzsche, like Aristotle, insists that the performance of virtues is always pleasurable. Too often we think of forgiveness as a sort of personal sacrifice. But for Nietzsche, forgiveness is likewise a sort of overflowing. It’s not a sacrifice at all.

If our trust is based on entitlement, it isn’t trust. The opposite of trust is distrust and alienation. Trust is a way of being in the world. It is a stance to conceive of the world as trustworthy. Trust includes the acceptance of a lack of control and the acceptance of one’s own vulnerability. (It is well-confirmed in the social science literature that people who have a more accurate estimate of the likelihood of failure and betrayal do far worse than people who are overly optimistic.)

Authentic trust is a wizened confidence in the world and one’s role in it. It is not simply trust or naive trust that has been unchallenged or untested. And it is not stubborn trust. It is trust that has been reflected upon – distrust held in balance. To trust the world is to take responsibility for one’s role and actions, in part by acknowledging that the outcome is never wholly in one’s hands. Trust is something we do and for which we must take responsibility. Authentic trust is primarily concerned with the integrity of relationship, not with personal advantage.

Resentment reduces the world to our own impotence. This is the problem with Camus’ Sisyphus who slides from happy existentialism to shaking his fists at the gods. Nietzsche says however clever resentment may be (and there is no emotion more clever), from the point of view of living well, it is a stupid emotion. Forgiveness is the way beyond resentment. To forgive thinking God will take care of the punishment is not forgiveness. That is doubly not to forgive. It’s like hiring a hit man to keep your own hands clean. Forgiveness is instrumental for spirituality. What we forgive is the fact that the world did not meet with our expectations. This was where Camus went wrong with Sisyphus. He had an unforgiving view of the world. To say, “I forgive you, world” is a surprisingly effective ritual.

Forgiving is not the same as forgetting. Forgetting involves denial. Forgiving is about putting the betrayal behind us but not out of mind. We forgive the world for the misfortunes it inevitably inflicts upon us. Spirituality is about moving on, not forgetting.

Emotions constitute the framework (or frameworks) of rationality itself. What is rational is what fits best into our emotional world. Rationality is not the defining structure of human experience, and emotions are not just reactions. Rationality is the product not only of thought but of caring, and although the emotions undoubtedly have an evolutionary history that precedes the arrival of the human species by hundreds of millions of years, they evolved not only along with but inseperably from the evolution of reason and rationality.

Aesthetic attitudes are essential to science at its best. Scientific experiments and mathematical formulas are celebrated as elegant and even beautiful. A conception of science that rejects such values as unscientific opposes itself to spirituality. This is not only contrary to the view of the very best scientists, but cold, corrupt, and self-defeating. Any form of spirituality that rejects science (but not scientism) is an impoverished quest.

Solomon wants to get away from Camus’ and Unamuno’s opposition of philosophy/reason with spirituality/faith and the mock-heroic stance of rebellion that is associated with this forced opposition. He agrees with Unamuno’s line on personal responsibility and the importance of personal commitment. We make meaning by way of our commitments. This suggests that by refusing to make such commitments we can avoid tragedy, but Solomon says the opposite is the case. It is by making meaning in life that we free ourselves from the meaninglessness of suffering. Tragedy is real and undeniable. Our lives are not entirely in our hands. Unamano is right, passion can never escape or eclipse our reason, but not for the reason he supposes. There is no passion without rationality. Camus is right, too. There is no viable alternative to the absurd confrontation between our rational, demanding minds and an indifferent universe. But confrontation can be turned into acceptance. We are even capable of embracing the opposition. Spirituality begins with that acceptance.

We tend to think we are entitled, but none of us is entitled to anything. We’re not even entitled to happiness (which is not to say happiness is not worth having – even the Declaration of Independence only says we are entitled to the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself). That we expect fair play is what creates the problem of evil. This doesn’t require a belief in God or an after life. It’s the problem of evil that created Camus’ idea of “the Absurd” and Camus was an atheist. There is a problem of evil only for those who expect the world to be good.

In Western culture, blaming the victim is a long-standing, popular metaphysical and theological doctrine based on the idea of free will. It is important that we take responsibility for our own flaws and failures, but it is medieval to blame the victim. An example is illness – we have a medieval tendency to interpret all illness as a sign, a punishment or a payback. (The person didn’t eat right, was too fat, was living an indecent lifestyle, etc.) But sometimes people just get sick. It isn’t necessarily a punishment. The same is true of tragedy. Sometimes bad things just happen. Anyone who reduces tragedy to blame lacks wisdom.

It’s important that we don’t deny tragedy, but embrace it as an essential part of the life we love and for which we should be grateful. Spirituality at its best is a combination of gratitude and humor, a dash of that mock-heroic Camusian confrontation with the Absurd, and a passionate engagement with the details and the people in our lives. Suffering has meaning because life has meaning. We have no right to demand any more than this from the world.

Belief and acceptance of fate has to do with embracing a larger narrative in which one’s actions and fortunes have meaning and make sense of one’s life. Part of that meaning and making sense, an essential aspect of that acceptance, is our willingness to feel and show gratitude. Whenever we ask “Why me?” we should go one step further and ask, “Why is there a me at all?” We should feel gratitude for, if nothing else, life itself.

Death is not the ultimate tragedy. Nietzsche said the great virtue of the Greeks was their fatalistic acceptance of death and suffering as the ground of human existence. It was this acceptance that made him proclaim the Greeks were beautiful. (Those before Socrates and Plato, of course.) The belief in an afterlife, any afterlife, is a denial of death. Even if there is an afterlife, to wonder “What happens after death?” is no substitute for “What is death and how should I think about it?” To think that life after death answers our questions of death is just a denial of death, whatever it is that happens after death.

Death is not the focal point of our existence. We often hear that death is nothing because when we die, we no longer have sensual experience. But this is problematic because if we view life as suffering and pain, then death becomes a sought after release from life. To think of death as nothing implies that life is nothing, too. The real question is this: “What is my death to me?” Ultimately, the meaning of death comes down to the meaning of life.

We fear death because it brings an end to our lives. But we can appreciate death insofar as we identify with the people around us, with our culture, with humanity and with life. To the extent to which we can do so, death is not the end at all so long as we do not cheapen our spirituality with the idea that as individuals we will in the end cheat death and gain some sort of eternal personal life.

The most important reason to “believe” in the soul is not the possibility of life continuing after death but rather the posibility of an essential transformation of the self during life. The self that is too caught up in its personal ambitions and interests isn’t the real self. It’s a deluded self – one that isn’t at peace with itself. It’s a mistake to say that this self should be sacrificed or replaced with another self. But it can be transformed through discipline and spirituality.

Robert Solomon on Happiness

From an Interview on Philosophy Talk Radio:

Happiness is typically presumed to be an emotion. Philosophers think there are two parts to emotions: the feeling and the thought.  If I’m frightened there will be a feeling of fright and there will be a thought that my boss is going to fire me. If we had the feeling without the thought, it would be free-floating anxiety.

There is transitory happiness and the state of being happy. Usually we think in terms of what makes us happy – it’s more of a feeling than a thought, but Solomon says that happiness is not a feeling.  Nor is it a feeling plus a thought, an emotion, or pleasure.  It’s far more complex.

Most people list things, or doing things, when asked what makes them happy. They don’t talk about experience, pleasure, the good life or thoughts about the good life. It comes down to “this is what makes me happy”. Philosophers get it wrong. Happiness is not an emotion. Aristotle was right that the only sense of happiness that really means anything is the long term view of your life.

Americans in particular live in a culture where you are supposed to be happy all of the time. If you ask an American if they are happy, they will say “yes” and manufacture reasons for why they are happy right away. Self-deception is ripe in this area. It is common for people who are clearly very unhappy to say that they are happy.

The idea of enjoying the doing is very different than simply experiencing pleasure. If you think of pleasure as the experience you have while you are doing something you enjoy, you break up the experience in an unintelligible way. Enjoying doing something may or may not give you pleasure as such, but pleasure is not a distinctive experience.

You can think you are happy when you are unhappy, and you can think you are unhappy when you are happy. Nietzsche had a very romantic artistic view of life. The life of an artist is almost by definition filled with dissatisfaction – always wanting more, etc.  An artist like Van Gogh, for instance, could have a perfectly flourishing life – deeply engaged – and think himself deeply unhappy.  But is he unhappy?

Thought experiement: There is a contraption that you put yourself in, electrodes are attached to your head. You are given waves of pleasure. It’s completely voluntary, but the fact is that nobody ever gets out of the box. Would you be willing to do this if you knew that you would likely never get out of the box?  People overwhelmingly say “no”.

Second thought experiement: Another contraption gives you waves of pleasure, and it makes you think that all of your desires are satisfied.  In your thoughts, they are all satisfied, even though in reality they are not. Would you get into this box? Most people still say “no”.

The happy life has to be one of activity and actually doing things.

Suppose you have a kid that just wants to be a successful oil man in the worst way but doesn’t have the talent to do it. But you, as a wealthy father, set up the world so that he believes he is a successful oil man. Is he happy if this happiness is purchased at the price of delusion?

The idea that there is an objective component to happiness does not mean that there is a single set of norms. You can allow for lots of cultural variability. There can be a lot of disagreement about what happiness is, but there is always an objective component. It doesn’t just depend on what is going on in your own mind. It isn’t just internal, it is larger than that. A whole society or culture could be in self-deception about how happy they are.

Happiness as contentment doesn’t follow. You could be deeply engaged in your life and constantly frustrated, but still happy about what you are creating. Happiness is not contentment.

A study of recent lottery winners and paraplegics shows that both will go back to their normal levels of happiness after 6 months to a year. It won’t affect their happiness. However, people working with the Dalai Lama are showing that through meditation and practice, etc. you can reset the level.

Do we have the freedom to be happy? Solomon says he is torn.  There is the objective component.  There has been much psychological research that shows even infants are born with a specific propensity toward happiness. The level is set early. On the other hand, he had a friend whose son suffered a terrible diving accident that left him paralyzed. For months upon months, the son was terribly unhappy and would have committed suicide if he knew how. His friends finally told him. “Look, this is how you are. You might as well figure out how to be happy as you are.” That sounds harsh, but it’s the only advise that really makes sense.”

Are some kinds of happiness superior to other kinds of happiness?

The word happiness is kind of hopeless. It always sounds as if it is a single, all embracing, “the good in life” which it really isn’t. We think about the emotions in a simplistic way. Breaking them down to thoughts and feelings is a great improvement over thinking of emotions as just feelings, but it’s still too simple minded. The polarity of “good” and “bad” is far too simple. The notion of happiness is prey to that same sort of polarization – to think that either you are happy or you are not happy is far too simple minded.

Aristotle’s word for “happiness” is usually translated as “flourishing”, or “doing well”. This builds in the objective component and makes it very clear it is not a feeling. The only kind of happiness that is worth taking serious is something like doing well. The transitory experience doesn’t measure up (like taking prozac, drinking, having a pleasurable moment, etc.)

Happiness is ambiguous. There is an objective/subjective divide that comes up with lots of philosophical topics and it definitely comes up with happiness. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are all fuzzy concepts and far more complicated than they at first seem. Concepts can be useful by leading us into philosophy where we can understand them better. But perhaps happiness is a useless concept?

The radio hosts summarized the talk in this way: Happiness is the centerpiece of Aristotle’s philosophy [although it isn’t necessarily translated as happiness], the thing to which all people aspire, and that it is a pretty useful, multi-faceted and ambiguous concept.