Self-Rule
April 15, 2011

Pettit really only addresses it tangentially, but I like what he has to say about free will in Republicanism:

Whatever existentialists may have thought, individual autonomy or self-rule cannot conceivably require that people should have considered and endorsed each of their particular beliefs and desires in a historical process of self-construction; if it did, then no one would be autonomous. What it requires, more plausibly, is that people are capable of exposing each of their beliefs and desires to appropriate tests, especially in the event of problems arising, and that whether or not they maintain such a commitment depends on how it fares in the tests.

This is something he evidently explores in more detail in a couple essays co-written with Michael Smith, called “Backgrounding Desire” and “Freedom in Thought and Action.” I’ll have to read both of those before making a final ruling, but my initial response is to say that both Pettit and the existentialists are correct: the existentialists have the correct standard for full and true autonomy, but Pettit is right to call this an unachievable ideal and craft a more reasonable alternative.

That said, meeting Pettit’s criteria of autonomy still seems pretty damn hard. I’m not sure if he would make this argument, but I think you could fairly contend that one of the greatest threats to the version of autonomy outlined above is what Heidegger would call “failling”: the ever-present urge to just do what you do and believe what you believe reflexively, without ever self-consciously challenging it. To make full use of Pettit’s version of self-rule — which is to say, to expose each of your beliefs and desires to “appropriate tests” — demands constant vigilance and a willingness to self-criticize without mercy. I’d argue that it’s everyone’s obligation to at least make the effort, but I also acknowledge that it’s a total bitch and I fail at it myself pretty regularly.

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Nietzsche Blogging: Truth, Reason, and Moral Weakness
August 24, 2010

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I’m starting to get a better sense of Nietzsche’s style, and although I’m still a novice, I know this much: he would have made a damn good blogger. It’s not just his whole books full of pithy aphorisms—like The Gay Science and Human, All-Too-Human—that make me think this. It’s the fact that Kaufmann has seen fit to include a lot of his hastily scribbled notes, and with good reason. You could even excerpt a lot of his longer essays and turn those snippets into self-contained reflections.

But like posts from the best blogs, all of these little scraps are best viewed in the context of his greater project. If you’ll forgive the cliché, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

That being said, the whole is frequently bewildering, even in the early stages. (Maybe especially in the early stages? Hopefully.) Nietzsche often seems to contradict himself from one passage to the next, and I can’t decide whether it’s because of the inherent difficulty in translating all the nuances of meaning (which translator Kaufmann acknowledges in the introduction), or because apparent self-contradiction is simply a part of Nietzsche’s inimitable style. I’m leaning towards it being some combination of the two, especially because so far I’ve always managed to parse out some reading in which he’s not actually contradicting himself.

Take the odd juxtaposition Kaufmann creates (presumably intentionally) between the essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” some of Nietzsche’s 1874-1875 notes to himself and selected passages from Human, All-Too-Human. In “On Truth and Lie,” Nietzsche convincingly argues that very little of what we consider to be “true” is little more than a “lie according to a fixed convention.” He does this by pointing out the inadequacy of words to truly express what they represent, something that I’m already well familiar with from my recent reading of Sartre’s Nausea. (Here, as in the focus on projects, struggle and competition I noted in “Homer’s Contest,” we can see Nietzsche’s influence on the development of existentialism.) Because words have no real fixed attachment to the objects they represent, to use words to describe the outside world at all is to lie in some sense. The example he uses here is the use of the word “leaf” to describe an individual leaf. There is no true, default form of The Leaf as the Greeks might have suggested, and to imply that there is by classifying an individual leaf as being a descendant of that form is inherently dishonest.

So if “truth” is itself a lie, what to make of Nietzsche’s claim in his notes on the very next page that only “friends of the truth” can help determine the proper use of the German state’s power? Is there anything truly true behind this consensus?

Two pages later, we get the answer. If Nietzsche believes in anything, it’s reason. Our ability to describe the real world may be profoundly limited, but the thing that makes us human—or, as I would put it, persons—is that we have some capacity for a priori reasoning, and to, as Nietzsche later points out, “draw correct inferences.”

But then we stumble into another apparent contradiction. If the “highest” reason lies within “the work of the artist, and he may experience it as such,” then what to make of the assertion that, “regarding truths, the artist has a weaker morality than the thinker?”

Here, I think Nietzsche means to draw a distinction between truth in, as he puts it in the title of his essay on the subject, “the extra-moral sense,” and moral truth. The artist may be an enemy of moral truth, a destructive, nihilist force, but he challenges it in the service of truth overall. The artist is a vaccine, and it’s no coincidence that Nietzsche refers repeatedly to “inoculation” of society in Human, All-Too-Human. In his view, society could always use a bracing jolt of destructive nihilism in order to defend, reassess, and thereby strengthen, its convictions. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is also what Nietzsche does for his individual readers.

“To educate educators!” he writes in his notes. “But the first ones must educate themselves! And for these I write.”

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Being-For-Itself
August 16, 2010

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Right now I’m about a third of the way through Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and so far I’m finding it to be an immense pleasure. Effectively, this is the first time I’ve been able to really engage with Sartre’s fiction; I read the original text of Hui Clos (No Exit) in high school French, but given that French was never my strong suit I probably would have gotten more out of reading the Wikipedia synopsis. As for his straight philosophy (specifically Being and Nothingness), I found it maddeningly cryptic and elliptical. I wanted to grapple with the ideas he was proposing, but the presentation made much of it incomprehensible to me.

Nausea personalizes and makes concrete Sartre’s existentialism, which is a great way to clarify both the structure of his phenomenology and his own feelings on its implications. Given that he is one of the great giants of existentialism, and I’m probably one of the last American philosophy majors to unself-consciously identify as an existentialist, the clarification has been invaluable.

I’m particularly interested in the book’s treatment of one of the author’s key concepts from Being and Nothingness: being-for-itself. In the latter work, Sartre argues that consciousness is the being-for-itself because it is that which can observe itself. Because it has that ability, it is, itself, nothing; any of its features can be discarded or remolded at a moment’s notice. The fact that we are, ourselves, nothingness surrounded by (for lack of a better word) thing-ness is profoundly disturbing to us. This comes up a lot in Nausea, in various forms: Roquentin, the main character, is unsettled by the fact that his own reflection in the mirror doesn’t signify anything to him. As a professional historian, he reads up on the fictional (I think) Marquis de Robellon, and is disturbed by the Marquis’ seeming fluidity of character. Robellon, it seems, has embraced the nothingness at his core and set out to simply be whatever he needs to be in any given situation.

I’m of two minds about being-for-itself. On the one hand, I’m something of a soft determinist: I believe that we spend about 99.9999% percent of our lives blindly reacting to external stimuli in predictable, far from unique ways. In fact, I’d argue that this is empirically true; go ahead and ask a political scientist or behavioral psychologist if we’re all the precious little snowflakes we think we are. To the extent that our behavior seems determined by our deepest inner selves, that is because we are remarkably talented at rationalizing our own actions.

On the other hand, I think this feeling of essential emptiness is a good description of one of the fundamental anxieties of self-consciousness; and considering Sartre’s existentialism is founded in phenomenology, the philosophy of describing the character of one’s experiences, that makes all the difference.

Take, for example, my fear of heights. I rarely feel agitated when I’m gazing through a thick pane of glass or over a high railing, but climbing a ladder or standing anywhere near an unprotected ledge can be profoundly distressing. Intellectually, I understand that the only way I’ll fall is if I let go of the ladder or walk off the ledge, two things which I have no interest in doing; on a visceral level, I experience letting go or walking off as real options. That I would never do such a thing is sort of beside the point. The point is that I’m being presented with the choice, and the only things preventing me from making the wrong choice are hardwired self-preservation and my incomplete, shallow perception of myself and what I’m like.

We block out most of these choices just to get through the day without being paralyzed by anxiety. But I think realizing that we are, at our core, not really anything in particular can also liberate us from those of our own habits and behaviors we dislike. That there is a behavioral or physiological element to those habits and behaviors—one which Sartre downplays far too much—makes breaking them one of the most difficult things you can do. Yet doing so can also be the most profound disclosure of your own freedom and agency.

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Despair
July 5, 2010

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I’ve been meaning to write about Kierkegaard on this blog for awhile, both because he’s a direct predecessor to a lot of the people I’ve mentioned here—Sartre, Beauvoir, Heidegger and Camus, to name a few—and because I find the structure of his existentialist philosophy really prescient, if not necessarily all of the content (more on that later).

Kierkegaard believed that to be a conscious person is to be in despair. This despair comes from the inability to reconcile two opposing forces in your consciousness; he would say, in The Sickness Unto Death, that there exists an irreconcilable tension between necessity and finitude on one side, and possibility and infinitude on the other. Or, to put it another way: you are torn between your inescapable corporeal, biological nature, and your desperate hunger to ascend to a higher spiritual plane and unite with God.

Long-time readers can probably anticipate where I would take issue with some of the theological elements of that philosophy. But the concept of a dialectical struggle within each and every one of us appeals to me, and it’s an obvious antecedent to some more palatable (i.e. secular) existentialist concepts like Heidegger’s anxiety and Sartre’s views on facticity and nothingness.

But what interests me most about Kierkegaard’s despair is how he suggests with deal with it: through direct confrontation. By scrutinizing, confronting, and coming to understand our despair, he says, we ascend through higher levels of it. These heightened states of despair may be more painful, but they are also a higher level of existence, as someone in the upper echelons of despair is that much closer to achieving some kind of synthesis between the opposing forces with him him, and (according to Kierkegaard, anyway) establishing a personal relationship with God.

What interests me here is the idea that we must directly confront the things about ourselves and the questions about the universe that trouble us the most, even if doing so might be excruciating. Kierkegaard’s observations on how to try to avoid doing just that are even more astute—I’ll get to those soon.

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Sisyphean Existence
June 29, 2010

Sisyphus by Titian, 1549
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Responding to my post on happiness, Mariel writes:

if our life is only the pursuit of happiness, we will never be truly satisfied. it would be a sisyphean existence because there is no concrete definition of what happiness is- it is an ever-changing abstract concept. we will never be able to reach the top level of happiness because the doubt and uncertainty that is inevitable on this journey would lead to perpetual turmoil. we will always be on the search for ‘better’, never reaching ‘best’.

I know this is quibbling, but I would hesitate to fully endorse this view only because I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with a Sisyphean existence, at least in the sense Camus and other existentialists thought of it. Recall that in Camus’ famous essay, he concludes that Sisyphus is aware of the futility of his task, and yet, “one must imagine [him] happy.” That’s because his life-long project is one that he knows will never be completed—and, as a result, he will always have an end to strive towards.

So Sisyphus winds up looking a lot like the model of existence I would propose as an alternative to this self-involved pursuit of happiness. Where I would break with Camus is in his insistence that all possible projects are equally absurd, and rolling a boulder to the top of a mountain is as worthy a goal as any other.

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Peter Singer Asks If It’s Ethical to Reproduce
June 6, 2010

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Here’s a happy surprise: The New York Times’ series of philosophy columns, dubbed the Stone, finally includes one work of actual philosophy, courtesy of ethical philosopher and author of The Life You Can Save Peter Singer.

In the column, Singer asks whether, given the problems future generations would be sure to face—the fallout from climate change being chief among them—it is ethical to bring those future generations into the world. Would it just be better if we all universally agreed to stop having kids?

Unsurprisingly, he concludes that the answer is “no.” But he takes some interesting detours along the way, including a passage on Schopenhauer that serves as an intriguing contrast to some of the existentialist stuff about projecting towards ends we’ve been discussing:

The 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer held that even the best life possible for humans is one in which we strive for ends that, once achieved, bring only fleeting satisfaction. New desires then lead us on to further futile struggle and the cycle repeats itself.

I think you can see the seeds of some existentialist thought in there, although the existentialist would argue that it’s not about achieving those goals—it’s about defining yourself and seeking fulfillment through the act of projecting towards them.

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Love and Ambiguity
May 30, 2010

French philosopher and novelist Simone de Beauvoir
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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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“Bracketing” and The Second Sex
May 29, 2010

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

Endless love
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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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