Archive for May, 2010

Love and Ambiguity
May 30, 2010

French philosopher and novelist Simone de Beauvoir
Image via Wikipedia

It’s been a few days, but I promised Jess I would get to this, and I’m a man of my word. Let’s talk about the phenomenology of love as outlined in Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity.

Beauvoir, like most existentialists, rejects the notion of inherent, objective value, arguing that something only has value to us in the moment that it is snatched away from us. When a thing is in one’s own hands, it is merely a tool to be used and taken for granted; but before we possess it, we can covet it, and when it is taken away we can miss it. For Beauvoir, the same thing applies to love.

In loving another person, we project towards the goal of being one with that person, of being “completed” by each other. Of course, that will never happen, and the object of your love will always remain a separate consciousness, a country with unexplored territory. This is something to be grateful for.

Why? Because, as Beauvoir says, to completely merge with a loved one would make that love impossible. It would be the end of the project toward which love projects. To be in love is to feel the exquisite ache of desiring something that is always just out of reach, but also the joy of continually inching closer to that goal.

Paradoxically, to love someone is also to wish for that person’s freedom. That’s because it is only the freedom of the object of your love that gives the project of love meaning. Only a free consciousness can freely reciprocate that love, and only a free consciousness can forever elude the possession towards which love projects but never reaches.

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I haven’t taken any of the other ones, but Justice is fantastic.
May 30, 2010

Free Online Courses from Top Universities

“Bracketing” and The Second Sex
May 29, 2010

Le Deuxieme Sexe
Image by ainudil via Flickr

Fortuitously, the day on which I was planning about writing about Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy of love as articulated briefly in The Ethics of Ambiguity also happens to be the day that the New York Times decides to run a review of the newest translation of her landmark feminist work, The Second Sex. I haven’t read The Second Sex, but it’s the work that Beauvoir is most well-known for, so I was curious to learn a little about the content.

Here’s what I learned: If the passages excerpted in the review are any indication, then The Ethics of Ambiguity is the better of the two, by far. Here’s a taste from the review:

 Females of all living species are “first violated … then alienated” by the process of fertilization. Derogatory phrases like “the servitude of maternity,” “woman’s absurd fertility,” the “exhausting servitude” of breast-feeding, abound. (How could they not, since the author sees heterosexual love in general as “a mortal danger?”) According to Beauvoir, a girl’s first menstruation, which many of us welcomed with excitement and pride, is met instead with “disgust and fear. ” It “ inspires horror” and “signifies illness, suffering and death.”

Yeeeeah. Wow. But the misstep I find most intriguing is when Beauvoir insists that, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” That sounds a lot like Sartre’s argument—which I criticized yesterday—that biology plays no causal role when it comes to sexual desire. Nor, Beauvoir argues, does it play any causal role when it comes to gender identity. Even if you think gender is fluid and malleable (which I do), that seems kind of absurd.

And it’s absurd for the same reason. Beauvoir and Sartre both, I think, ignore the lessons of the existentialist’s best friend: the phenomenologist.

Phenomenology is a philosophical tradition very closely tied to existentialism; so much so that many major works of phenomenology contain pretty major traces of existentialist thought (such as in Heidegger’s Being and Time), and vice versa (such as in Sartre’s own Being and Nothingness). This cousin to existentialism concerns itself with the study of being-in-the-world, or the organizational features of our experience of the world. Most works of phenomenology do this without making any judgments about the character of the world itself.

Husserl, one of the fathers of phenomenology, called this “bracketing,” by which he meant setting aside questions about the world around us. For example, a phenomenologist might describe the experience and sensation I have of typing out this blog post on a keyboard and staring at a screen, but he is describing it only as it exists in my head, without making any judgments about the nature of the actual keyboard or screen … or, for that matter, about whether they even exist at all.

Existentialism works best, I think, when it, too, brackets these questions. That’s because, while existentialist notions of the nothingness and infinite freedom of consciousness don’t seem to bear out from empirical study—human beings are fairly predictable and causally determined, by and large—it is an incredibly potent description of the phenomenological experience of being a person.

So Beauvoir and Sartre are correct to a certain extent. Sartre is correct that one doesn’t experience sexual desire as a purely biological sensation (what would it even mean to have a sensation like that?), and Beauvoir is correct that one experiences the behavior and social conventions we attach to gender identity as completely conscious, voluntary things that we could shed at a moment’s notice. But just because we experience the sensation of freedom, doesn’t mean we are free in anything beyond the phenomenological sense.

Update: Okay. Maybe I’m just digging myself deeper, but I feel like I need to clarify some things. So for the record, here’s what I was not doing in the above post:

1.) Offering a critique, in any way, shape, or form, of feminism.

2.) Offering any meaningful critique of the whole of The Second Sex. (It’s no sleight to say that it’s not as good as The Ethics of Ambiguity on a conceptual level, because The Ethics of Ambiguity is damn near perfect.)

3.) Dismissing Beauvoir (who, I should stress again, is one of my favorite philosophers).

4.) Suggesting that gendered behavior is solely the result of rigid biological determinism.

This post was meant mostly as a critique of existentialism. For that critique, I took as a premise that while much of gender is fluid and culturally constructed, biological/physiological factors are not completely irrelevant. That doesn’t just apply to gendered behavior but to a whole host of different character traits; I just chose to focus on gender specifically because it seemed timely with the review coming out today.

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One Last Thing On Sartre
May 28, 2010

I want to highlight this comment because I’m pretty sure it’s correct and I was wrong earlier:

I think you’re misreading Sartre on the relation between sex, masochism, and sadism. Masochism and sadism are distinct from sexual desire. They’re related attitudes towards the Other but by no means identical. Actually, Sartre’s definition of sexual desire is different from the two precisely because it involves mutuality: “desire is the desire to appropriate a body as this appropriation reveals to me my body as flesh.” (pg. 506 in Hazel Barnes’ translation) In other words, the masochist tries to be “just flesh” for the Other, the sadist tries to make the Other be that “just flesh.” Sexual desire pure and simple in Sartre slams those two together — the desiring subject tries to make the other flesh while experiencing himself as flesh.

Obviously, in day-to-day life, we tend to think of sadism and masochism in sexual terms, but I think, in Being and Nothingness, sexualized sadism and masochism would actually have to be some kind of “composite attitude” that would be neither purely desire nor purely sadism/masochism.

Anyway, I don’t know if that makes Sartre’s views that much more plausible. It certainly doesn’t make them less bleak. But I do think it’s unfair to him to say that he casts sex in such strict terms of dominance and sado-masochism.

I’ll admit to being a little out of my depth when it comes to Sartre, and perhaps for that reason I shouldn’t have been so quick to try and critically evaluate him. When I studied him in class, I found him maddeningly elliptical and counterintuitive, and he’s still not my favorite existentialist philosopher (although No Exit is excellent) by a long shot—but it’s true that I didn’t do him justice here. Thanks to N.A. for the catch.

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Flesh and The Look (Or: What is Love? Jean-Paul, Don’t Hurt Me.)
May 28, 2010

Description unavailable
Image by diametrik via Flickr

Yes, that’s right: I will continue to shamelessly reuse the joke in the title until I’m done trying to answer the question.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre lays out a significantly darker conception of love than Aristophanes. For him, persons are forever torn between the “facticity” of their existence (that is, the factual presence and character of objects and phenomena in the material world) and the infinite freedom and nothingness of consciousness. Because this freedom is profoundly disturbing to us, we run away from it and impose limitations on ourselves, most notably by identifying ourselves with “the look” of others—the look being our own perception of their perception of us.

We can also direct the look towards others, and this is potentially an act of violence because it imposes definition on them and constrains their freedom. It draws them away from their consciousness into “flesh,” the medium by which they experience pure facticity.

So for Sartre, love and sex are just another way of acting out this struggle. Love is a way of diminishing the anguish of our internal struggle by identifying ourselves with the look of another who ostensibly “loves” us, while also directing our own look at that person in an attempt to enslave her and assert dominance.

In sex, one does this by causing such intense pleasure that it draws the other unbearably close to the flesh. And in both sex and love in general, the impulse one feels at any given moment is either inherently sadistic or inherently masochistic; one either wishes to dominate the other or be dominated.

I suspect there’s an inkling of truth in Sartre’s argument for the nothingness of consciousness, but the rest of this argument leaves me cold. For one thing, it admits no room for human empathy; everything is a power struggle. And even if you buy into such a relentlessly dark view of human nature, you have to deal with Sartre’s assertion that sex is purely about this power struggle—that there isn’t even a biological motivation. (No, really. He says that.)

Fortunately, Beauvoir is around to save the existentialist notion of love from Sartre.

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Please don't make the mistake of associating Aristophanes' speech as being what Plato was arguing for as a definition of Eros. Socrates interrupts Aristophanes and questions him –saying, well okay, if that's love, this search –what happens when you become literally fused back together again, once you've found your other half, is the love part over? Does love tend towards its termination? Diotima's speech in the Symposium is a lot more likely to be on par with Plato's views since it involves love not of anything corporeal but of the form of Beauty itself.
May 28, 2010

Yes, fair point. Which leads us through to Socrates’ definition, which is that the highest form of love is love of wisdom. But I take issue with that too—not because I dislike wisdom or anything but just because I question how much that can be said to have anything to do with romantic love.

What Is Love? (Plato Don’t Hurt Me)
May 28, 2010

Endless love
Image by millzero via Flickr

My friend Jessica Roy has asked me to talk a little about the philosophy of love. It’s not a field I’m deeply familiar with, but I can think of at least two broad definitions worth writing about. One comes from Plato, and the other, which I’ll address in a alter post, comes from mid-20th century French existentialism.

Probably the most well-known philosophical definition of love comes from Plato’s Symposium. Granted, it’s not so much philosophy as it is myth-making, but then again the distinction isn’t always clear in the ancient work.

Anyway, in the Symposium, Aristophanes says that originally human beings were doubled up together like sets of siamese twins, with four arms, four legs, two faces turned away from one another, etc. But these creatures committed the Greek original sin—hubris—and so Zeus split them in two, creating the sort of people we recognize today. When you meet the love of your life, you’re actually finding that other missing half, and through reuniting with them you finally become whole again. Thus, “You complete me,” etc.

Obviously this wasn’t intended to be taken literally, but even as a metaphor I have my issues with it. It seems pretty but facile, suggesting that there is one single “the One” waiting for you out there, and that once you unite with that individual all the actual work associated with love is over. That might very well be the way it works when John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale are involved, but does anyone still seriously believe this is how the real world operates?

Leave it to the French to come up with a better working explanation. I’ll have Sartre and Beauvoir’s take on the subject soon.

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SCHAUMBURG, IL—In an ultimately futile act some have described as courageous and others have called a mere postponing of the inevitable, existentialist firefighter James Farber delayed three deaths Monday. Gotta love The Onion.
May 27, 2010

Existentialist Firefighter Delays 3 Deaths

Humans versus Persons
May 27, 2010

Image via Wikipedia

A couple commenters have made reference to evolutionary biology and “human nature” as the causal force behind existing ethical systems. Now, there’s obviously something to that (look for an upcoming post on something called the Darwinian Dilemma), but it also means that the time has come for us to draw an important distinction: most humans are persons, and as far as we know all persons are humans, but that does not mean that the definition of one exhausts the definition of the other.

“Human” is a label referring to a set of biological characteristics. Personhood is … something else harder to define. But, with the help of some examples, I think it is doable. So: I would argue that an individual who no longer has any brain function beyond basic life support is a human that is no longer a person. On the other hand, to use several geeky examples, Kal-El (pictured), Frodo Baggins, Data from The Next Generation and Dogbert are all non-human persons. Recently, some scientists have argued that the same applies to dolphins.

So what, then, is a person? I think the existentialist definition works best: Heidegger and Sartre refer to man as the “being-for-itself” (in Sartre’s French, the pour sois). What this means is that persons are the only things in the universe that can reflect on themselves and their own actions. The other way to put this is that persons are defined by the fact that they alone are self-aware.

This is an important distinction to make because I think a good ethical system is one which seeks to describe good interactions between persons. So, for example, murdering Frodo in order to get your hands on the one ring is unethical, whereas killing a non-person animal for food or terminating life support for someone in a persistent vegetative state at the wishes of the family is not necessarily wrong in and of itself.

A Priori Judgments
May 27, 2010

Portrait of René Descartes
Image via Wikipedia

Since commenter zosima used the term a priori I figured it would be worth giving a quick and dirty definition for those who are unfamiliar. It’s a concept that comes up a lot in philosophy, so expect to see more of it.

An a priori judgment is one you can make that is founded on nothing but reason. The best example of this is Descartes’ Meditations, which most of you are probably familiar with—in it, Descartes (pictured) tries to make as many judgments as he can starting from a position of total skepticism about the world around him, his own perception, and even his own existence. In other words, it is a work dedicated to testing the limits of his a priori knowledge.

A posteriori knowledge is the opposite: knowledge that can only be gained through external observation. All knowledge gained through scientific experimentation and empirical observation is a posteriori.

A large portion of epistemology—the philosophical study of the nature of knowledge—is dedicated to figuring out what knowledge we can have a priori and what can only be learned a postiori.

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