27 December 2014
The human mind is a strange and complex entity, and while the mind possesses unappreciated subtlety (of the kind I attempted to describe in The Human Overview), rigorous thinking does not come naturally to it. Rigor is a hard-won achievement, not a gift. If we want to achieve some measure of conceptual clarity we must make a particular effort to think rigorously. This is not easy. If you let the mind do what comes naturally and easily to it, you will probably not be thinking rigorously, and you will probably not attain conceptual clarity.
But what is rigor? To ask this question puts us in a position not unlike Saint Augustine who asked, “What, then, is time?” If no one asks me, I know what rigor is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know. What distinguishes rigorous thinking from ordinary thinking? And what distinguishes a rigorous life from an ordinary life? Is there any relation between the formal and existential senses of rigor?
As a first and rough approximation, we could say that rigor is the implementation of a precise idea of precision. Whether or not a precise idea of precision can be applied to the human condition, a question that I have addressed in The Human Condition Made Rigorous, is a question of whether the formal sense of rigor is basic, and existential rigor is an implementation of formal rigor in life.
Kierkegaard concerned himself with what I am here calling existential rigor, i.e., the idea of living a rigorous life. One of the central themes that runs through Kierkegaard’s substantial corpus is the question of how one becomes an authentic Christian in an inauthentic Christian society (though this is not how Kierkegaard himself expressed the problem that preoccupied him). Kierkegaard expresses himself in the traditional Christian idiom of suffering for the truth, but Kierkegaard’s suffering is not pointless or meaningless: it is conducive to existential rigor:
“My purpose is to make it difficult to become a Christian, yet not more difficult than it is, nor to make it difficult for stupid people, and easy for clever pates, but qualitatively difficult, and essentially difficult for every man equally, for essentially it is equally difficult for every man to relinquish his understanding and his thinking, and to keep his soul fixed upon the absurd; it is comparatively more difficult for a man if he has much understanding — if one will keep in mind that not everyone who has lost his understanding over Christianity thereby proves that he has any.”
KIERKEGAARD’S CONCLUDING UNSCIENTIFIC POSTSCRIPT, Translated from the Danish by DAVID F. SWENSON, PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA, Completed after his death and provided with Introduction and Notes by WALTER LOWRIE, PRINCETON: PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS, p. 495
The whole of Kierkegaard’s book Attack Upon Christendom is an explicit attack upon “official” Christianity, which he saw as too safe, too comfortable, too well-connected to the machinery of the state. In Kierkegaard’s Denmark, no one was suffering in order to bear witness to the truth of Christianity:
“…hundreds of men are introduced who instead of following Christ are snugly and comfortably settled, with family and steady promotion, under the guise that their activity is the Christianity of the New Testament, and who live off the fact that others have had to suffer for the truth (which precisely is Christianity), so that the relationship is completely inverted, and Christianity, which came into the world as the truth men die for, has now become the truth upon which they live, with family and steady promotion — ‘Rejoice then in life while thy springtime lasts’.”
Søren Kierkegaard, Attack Upon Christendom, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946, p. 42
And from Kierkegaard’s journals…
“Could you not discover some way in which you too could help the age? Then I thought, what if I sat down and made everything difficult? For one must try to be useful in every possible way. Even if the age does not need ballast I must be loved by all those who make everything easy; for if no one is prepared it difficult it becomes all too easy — to make things easy.”
Søren Kierkegaard, The Soul of Kierkegaard: Selections from His Journals, 1845, p. 93
Kierkegaard is full of such passages, and if you read him through you will probably find more compelling instances of this idea than the quotes I have plucked out above.
Kierkegaard called into question the easy habits of belief that we follow mostly without questioning them; Russell called into question the intuitions that come naturally to us, to the human mind, and which we mostly do not question. Both Kierkegaard and Russell thought there was value in doing things the hard way, not in order to court difficulty for its own sake, but rather for the different perspective it affords us by not simply doing what comes naturally, but having to think things through for ourselves.
Russell’s approach to rigor is superficially antithetical to that of Kierkegaard. While Kierkegaard was interested in the individual and his individual existence, Russell was interested in universal logical principles that had nothing to do with individual existence. William James once wrote to Russell, “My dying words to you are ‘Say good-by to mathematical logic if you wish to preserve your relations with concrete realities!'” Russell’s response was perfect deadpan: “As for the advice to say goodbye to mathematical logic if I wish to preserve my relation with concrete realities, I am not wholly inclined to dispute its wisdom. But I should push it farther, & say that it would be well to give up all philosophy, & abandon the student’s life altogether. Ten days of standing for Parliament gave me more relations to concrete realities than a lifetime of thought.”
Nevertheless, beyond these superficial differences, both Kierkegaard and Russell understood, each in his own way, that the easy impulse must be resisted. A passage from Bertrand Russell that I previously quoted in The Overview Effect in Formal Thought makes this point for formal rigor:
“The fact is that symbolism is useful because it makes things difficult. (This is not true of the advanced parts of mathematics, but only of the beginnings.) What we wish to know is, what can be deduced from what. Now, in the beginnings, everything is self-evident; and it is very hard to see whether one self-evident proposition follows from another or not. Obviousness is always the enemy to correctness. Hence we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious. Then we set up certain rules for operating on the symbols, and the whole thing becomes mechanical. In this way we find out what must be taken as premiss and what can be demonstrated or defined.”
Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, “Mathematics and the Metaphysicians”
“There is a good deal of importance to philosophy in the theory of symbolism, a good deal more than at one time I thought. I think the importance is almost entirely negative, i.e., the importance lies in the fact that unless you are fairly self conscious about symbols, unless you are fairly aware of the relation of the symbol to what it symbolizes, you will find yourself attributing to the thing properties which only belong to the symbol. That, of course, is especially likely in very abstract studies such as philosophical logic, because the subject-matter that you are supposed to be thinking of is so exceedingly difficult and elusive that any person who has ever tried to think about it knows you do not think about it except perhaps once in six months for half a minute. The rest of the time you think about the symbols, because they are tangible, but the thing you are supposed to be thinking about is fearfully difficult and one does not often manage to think about it. The really good philosopher is the one who does once in six months think about it for a minute. Bad philosophers never do.”
Bertrand Russell, Logic and Knowledge: Essays 1901-1950, 1956, “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism,” I. “Facts and Propositions,” p. 185
For Russell, the use of symbols in reasoning constitutes a reformulation of the intuitive in a counter-intuitive form, and this makes it possible for us to struggle toward the truth without being distracted by matters that seem so obvious that our cognitive biases lead us toward deceptive obviousness instead of toward the truth. There is another name for this, defamailiarization (which I previously discussed in Reversing the Process of Defamiliarization). Great art defamiliarizes the familiar in order to present it to us again, anew, in unfamiliar terms. In this way we see the world with new eyes. Just so, the reformulation of intuitive thought in counter-intuitive forms presents the familiar to us in unfamiliar terms and we see our reasoning anew with the mind’s eye.
Intuitions have their place in formal thought. I have in the past written of the tension between intuition and formalization that characterizes formal thought, as well as of the place of intuition in philosophical argument (cf. Doing Justice to Our Intuitions: A 10 Step Method). But if intuitions have their place, they also have their limitations, and the making of easy things difficult is a struggle against the limitations of intuition. What Kierkegaard and Russell have in common in their conception of rigor is that of making something ordinarily easy into something difficult in order to overcome the limitations of the natural and the intuitive. All of this may sound rather arcane and confined to academic squabbles, but it is in fact quite directly related to the world situation today.
I have often written about the anonymity and anomie of life in industrial-technological civilization; this is a familiar theme that has been worked through quite extensively in twentieth century sociology, and one could argue that it is also a prominent element in existentialism. But the human condition in the context of our civilization today is not only marked by anonymity and anomie, but also by high and rising standards of living, which usually translates directly into comfort. While we are perhaps more bereft of meaning than ever, we are also more comfortable than ever before in history. This has also been studied in some detail. Occasionally this combination of a comfortable but listless life is called “affluenza.”
Kierkegaard’s defamiliarization of (institutionalized and inauthentic) Christianity was intended to make Christianity difficult for bourgeois worldlings; the militant Islamists of our time want to make Islam difficult and demanding for those who would count themselves Muslims. It is the same demand for existential rigor in each that is the motivation. If it is difficult to understand why young men at the height of their prowess and physical powers can be seduced into extremist militancy, one need only reflect for a moment on the attraction of difficult things and the earned honors of existential rigor. The west has almost completely forgotten the attraction of difficult things. What remains is perhaps the interest in “extreme” sports, in which individuals test themselves against contrived physical challenges, which provides a kind of existential rigor along with bragging rights.
Extremist ideologies offer precisely the two things for which the individual hungers but cannot find in contemporary industrialized society: meaning, and a challenge to his complacency. An elaborately worked out eschatological conception of history shows the individual his special place within the grand scheme of things (this is the familiar ground of cosmic warfare and the eschatological conception of history), but this eschatological vision is not simply handed for free to the new communicant. He must work for it, strive for it, sacrifice for it. And when he has proved himself equal to the demands placed upon him, then he is rewarded with the profoundly satisfying gift of an earned honor: membership in a community of the elect.
This view is not confined to violent extremists. We meet with this whenever someone makes the commonplace remark that we don’t value that which is given away for free, and Spinoza expressed the thought with more eloquence: “All noble things are as difficult as they are rare.” Anyone who feels this pull of difficult things, who desires a challenge, who wants to be tested in order to prove their worth in the only way that truly counts, is an existentialist in action, if not in thought, because it is the existentialist conception of authenticity that is operative in this conception of existential rigor.
We have tended to think of pre-modern societies, mostly agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, with their rigid social hierarchies and inherited social positions, as paradigmatic examples of inauthentic societies, but we have managed to create a thoroughly inauthentic society in the midst of our industrial-technological civilization. This civilization and its social order may have its origins in the overturning of the inauthentic social order of earlier ages, but, after an initial period of social experimentation, the present social order ossified and re-created many of the inauthentic and hierarchical forms that characterized the overthrown social order.
Inauthentic societies are awash in unearned unearned advantages. I wrote about this earlier in discussing the urban austerity of Simone Weil, the wilderness austerity of Christopher McCandless (also known as Alexander Supertramp), and comparing the two in Weil and McCandless: Another Parallel:
“…the accomplishments of the elite and the privileged are always tainted by the fact that what they have attained has not been earned. But it is apparent that there are always a few honest individuals among the privileged who are acutely aware that their position has not been earned, that it is tainted, and the only way to prove that one can make it on one’s own is to cut one’s ties to one’s privileged background and strike out on one’s own.”
There is a certain sense in which the available and ample comforts of industrial-technological civilization transformed the greater part of the global population into complacent consumers who accept an inauthentic life. There is another name of this too; Nietzsche called such individuals Last Men.
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18 January 2014
In my previous post on The Finality Fallacy I discussed the fallacy of treating open matters as though closed, and quoted Hermann Weyl’s 1932 lectures The Open World as a countervailing point of view. If the world is an open world, an unfinished world, then there will always be unfinished business — no finality, no closure, no resolution, no end of anything — and no beginning either.
Bertrand Russell wonderfully described the ontology implicit in such a conception of the world:
“Academic philosophers, ever since the time of Parmenides, have believed that the world is a unity. This view has been taken over from them by clergymen and journalists, and its acceptance has been considered the touchstone of wisdom. The most fundamental of my intellectual beliefs is that this is rubbish. I think the universe is all spots and jumps, without unity, without continuity, without coherence or orderliness or any of the other properties that governesses love. Indeed, there is little but prejudice and habit to be said for the view that there is a world at all.”
Bertrand Russell, The Scientific Outlook, Part One, Chapter IV. Scientific Metaphysics
There is a subtle difference, of course, between finality and unity; the presumption of unity that Russell mocked could be finitistic or infinitistic in character, but, as I pointed out in my last post, I suspect that Russell and Weyl, whatever their differences, could have agreed that the world is open. Unity may not imply openness, but openness implies the possibility of revision, the possibility of revision implies the iteration of revision, the iteration of revision implies evolution, and evolution implies anti-realism, at least in the essentialist sense of “realism.” Anything that changes gradually over an indefinite period of time may be so transformed by its incremental and cumulative change that it can be transformed into something entirely other that what it once was. This, I have argued elsewhere, is the essence of existential viability.
By the same token, there is a subtle difference between finitude and contingency. I can imagine that someone might argue that finitude implies contingency and contingency implies finitude, but I would reject any such argument. The distinction is subtle but important, and I think that it marks that difference between a naturalistic philosophy, that is essentially a philosophy of contingency, and an anthropocentric point of view that reduces the infinitistic contingency of the world to a manageable finitude because human beings are comfortable with finitude. That is to say, I am suggesting that finitistic modes of thought constitute a cognitive bias. But let’s try to penetrate a little further into what self-described finitists have in mind, and let’s try to find an unambiguously finitistic perspective.
I remember running across the phrase “radical finitude” in some of my past reading, so I looked for the original source in which I had first encountered the term and was unable to find it, but I have found many other references to radical finitude. The name that comes up most often in relation to radical finitude is that of Martin Heidegger (on Heidegger cf. my Conduct Unbecoming a Philosopher and Ott on Heidegger). Heidegger is mentioned by Weyl as a representative of the “thesis of the categorical finiteness of man” in the quote from Weyl in my last post, The Finality Fallacy. Here, again, is an abbreviated portion of the section I previously quoted from Weyl, where Weyl singles out Heidegger:
“We reject the thesis of the categorical finiteness of man, both in the atheistic form of obdurate finiteness which is so alluringly represented today in Germany by the Freiburg philosopher Heidegger…”
Here, on the other hand, is a representative exposition of radical finitude that draws upon the Heideggerian tradition:
“Nonbeing as the principle of finitude is non-being understood in its relative and dialectical character through which it becomes a constitutive factor of human being or Dasein himself. Anxiety in its disclosure of nothingness thus brings man to an awareness of his radical finitude, and what ever else is to be said of existentialist philosophy, it must be said that existentialism is an emphatic philosophy of human finitude. The principle of finitude is central to all the existentialist thinkers, and it emerges with particular emphasis in the philosophy of Heidegger. Heidegger interprets this philosophy of human finitude to be, at least in part, a legacy of Kant’s critical philosophy. With his emphasis on the finite character of human reason and his insight into the negativities of moral striving, Kant paved the way for the development of fundamental ontology formulated in terms of finite structures.”
Calvin O. Schrag, Existence and Freedom: Towards an Ontology of Human Finitude, pp. 73-74
According to Schrag, then, it seems that existentialism can be defined in terms of Weyl’s thesis of the categorical finiteness of man. If this is so, and existentialism is, “an emphatic philosophy of human finitude,” as Schrag said it was, it might still be possible to define another philosophical position, entirely parallel to existentialism, but which would reject the thesis of the categorical finiteness of man. What would we call this logical complement of existentialism? It doesn’t really matter what we call it, but I’m sure there must be a clever moniker that eludes me at the moment.
Although it doesn’t really matter what we would call the infinitistic complement of existentialism, it does matter that such a philosophy would reject finitism (and its tendency to commit the finality fallacy). With a slight change to Schrag’s formulation, we could say that the complement of existentialism imagined above would be an emphatic philosophy of human contingency. This is a position that I could endorse, even while I would continue to reject a philosophy of human finitude. And this formulation in terms of contingency is not necessarily at odds with non-Heideggerian existentialism.
Sartre’s formulation of existentialism — existence precedes essence — is in no sense intrinsically finitistic. I can imagine that someone might argue that existence is intrinsically finite — that the existential is existential in virtue of being marked out by the boundaries that define its finitude — but I would reject that argument. That same argument could made for essence (i.e., that essence is intrinsically finite), and thus for the whole idealistic tradition that preceded Sartre, and which Sartre and others saw themselves as overturning. (Heidegger, it should be noted, categorically rejected Sartre’s categorical formulation of existentialism.) The existence that precedes essence may well be an infinitistic existence, just as the essence that precedes existence in the idealistic tradition may well be an infinitistic essence.
To return to one of the roots of existential thought, we find in Nietzsche that it is contingency rather than finitude that is at stake. In a note from 1873 Nietzsche wrote:
“That my life has no aim is evident even from the accidental nature of its origin; that I can posit an aim for myself is another matter.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann, New York: Viking, p. 40
Recognition of the contingency of life, and especially (given the anthropocentrism of our human minds) the contingency of human life, is a touchstone of existential thought. Some, as I have noted above, frame contingency in finitistic terms, but as I see it contingency is the infinite context of all existents, stretching out into space and time without end. From this point of view, any finitude is an arbitrary division within the Heraclitean flux of the world, the concordia discors that precedes us, follows us, and surrounds us.
What is the relationship between Nietzschean contingency and Weyl’s openness? I would argue that the open world implies an open life. It was one of the central literary conceits of Plato’s Republic that it is easier to see justice in the large — i.e., in the just state — than to see justice in the small — i.e., in the just man — and this is how Socrates shifts the conversation to an investigation of the ideal state, which, once defined, will give us the image that we need in order to understand the ideally proportioned man. If Plato (and Socrates) are right this this, one might hold that Weyl’s open world can be a guide to the open life.
What would an open life look like? One vision of the open life is described in Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, from the mouth of Jacob Marley:
“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world — oh, woe is me! — and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, “Marley’s Ghost”
This is the open life of the individual — to walk abroad, literally and metaphorically — and to share what can be shared. The open life of the species is again another question — a question mid-way between the open world and the individual open life — and one that might simply be answered by asserting that an open humanity is the sum total of open human lives, if one regards humanity as nothing in itself and reducible to its individual instances.
This is the point at which I may perhaps lose my reader, because what I would like to suggest is that the open life for humanity is another way to understand transhumanism. Transhumanism is the openness of humanity to revision, and openness to revision implies iterated revision, iterated revision implies evolution, and the evolution of humanity implies an essentially different humanity in the future than humanity today.
What I have come to realize since writing my last post is that human finitude is one manifestation of human contingency, and, like any contingency, it is subject to revision by future contingencies. Again, our finitude, so far as it extends, is a contingency, and therefore, like any contingency, is subject to change.
The critics of transhumanism who have tried to find ways to praise suffering and death, and who go out of their way to argue that human life only has meaning and value in virtue of its limitation, overlook the role of contingency in human life. They pretend that human life is final, and that its contingent features are essential to humanity, if not necessary to the definition of what it means to be human — which is to say, they commit the finality fallacy. For the prophets of wholesome loss, humanity is finished.
Human being is no more final than any other form of being. The openness of human being means that human viability is predicated upon contingency, and that we must evolve or perish.
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31 May 2013
Sixth in a Series on Existential Risk:
Existentialism and Existential Risk
Sometimes when you talk to people about existential risk they only pick up on the word “existential” and then make a comment about existentialism, which I guess demonstrates that they weren’t listening very closely or that the whole idea of existential risk is so foreign to the way many people think that it takes time for the idea to sink in. Having become aware of this, I sometimes formulate existential risk in terms of “human extinction scenarios,” which actually constitutes a subset of all possible existential risks, but at least gets the general idea across and seems to be less vulnerable to being misconstrued.
To be so misconstrued, however, is understandable, since most people with a passing acquaintance of intellectual debates will have heard the term “existentialism” (perhaps they’ve even heard Sartre’s familiar formulation that existence precedes essence, or maybe they once tried to dip into Heidegger’s Being and Time) while they very well may never have heard “existential risk” as it is employed in its contemporary usage. It is more likely that a random interlocutor might have heard the term “existential threat,” and indeed this might be an opening for a discussion of larger existential threats (larger, that is, that the existential threat that individuals or nation-states pose to each other) that pose genuine existential risks.
But to return to the understandable confusion between existentialism and existential risk as might occur in a semi-casual conversation, especially when talking to someone you might assume to be aware of such things — what is it about existentialism that makes it an existential philosophy, and what is it about existential risk that makes it an existential concern? Is there any common existential core?
Put in its simplest terms, existentialism is a philosophy of existence. This sounds rather unremarkable. Aren’t all philosophies philosophies of existence? Well, no. Many philosophies have been philosophies of essence, even going so far as to consider essences the truly real constituents of the world to the point of existence in its mundane form construed as not real at all. This tradition goes back at least to Plato, who is the most eminent representative of this school of thought, but by no means the last. Existentialism broke — violently — with this tradition on the continent just as positivism broke — again, violently — with this tradition in the Anglophone world. Existentialism was very interested in exactly the kind of mundane existence that Plato called unreal.
So, existentialism is a philosophy of existence. This is why Sartre defined existentialism in terms of the precedence of existence before essence. What, if anything, does this have to do with existential risk? Existential risk, too, is a philosophy of existence, after a fashion. It is, if anything, even more concerned with the mundane world of the everyday than were Sartre or Heidegger. I will try to explain why this is the case.
Both existentialism and existential risk are concerned with asking radical questions that are not ordinarily asked in going about the ordinary business of life. When one gets out of bed, goes about one’s morning routine, and eventually goes to work, one doesn’t ask oneself whether the world will still be in existence tomorrow, or an hour from one, one simply assumes that this is a case and acts upon this assumption. If one does ask these questions, one might end up as an impoverished philosopher, perhaps enjoying the fruits of what Socrates called the “examined life,” but unfortunately not enjoying the fruits of the unexamined life, which might include such simple and innocent enjoyments as sound sleep and knowing where one’s next meal is coming from.
I want to try to make this point in greater detail, and to do so in relation to a classic existentialist text that will allow the reader to make his or her own connections between existentialism and existential risk, if one cares to follow up on the parallels that I will try to suggest below.
In his Being and Time, Heidegger made a distinction between Existentiell and existential, which is confusing because the words look very similar and sound very similar; it would have been less confusing to coin a completely different word to cover the concept that Heidegger wants to get at with the term “Existentiell.” Now, Heidegger exegesis is a highly technical subject, and something that many philosophers have spent their entire lives giving expositions, so I begin with a warning to the reader that my exposition of this Heideggerian distinction is not likely to correspond with that found in Heidegger scholars.
The distinction betweeen existentiell and existential reflects the Heideggerian distinction between beings and Being, as beings are an ontic swarm of actual particulars while Being is the ontological ground of beings and the condition of their possibility. What Heidegger calls “existentiell” is an ontic understanding of things in the world, which corresponds to what Husserl (Heidegger’s one-time mentor) called “the thesis of the natural standpoint” (which it was the imperative of phenomenology to overcome). This might also be characterized in Alfred Marshall’s classic formulation of economics: the ordinary business of life. The existential, in contradistinction to the existentiell, involves the presuppositions that make the existentiell possible, which corresponds to Husserl’s suspension of the thesis of the natural standpoint, in order to get at the ultimate presuppositions of thought.
Here is one formulation of the distinction from Heidegger himself:
We come to terms with the question of existence always only through existence itself. We shall call this kind of understanding of itself existentiell understanding. The question of existence is an ontic “affair” of Da-sein. For this the theoretical transparency of the ontological structure of existence is not necessary. The question of structure aims at the analysis of what constitutes existence. We shall call the coherence of these structures existentiality. Its analysis does not have the character of an existentiell understanding but rather an existential one.
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by Joan Stambaugh, State University of New York Press, 1996, pp. 10-11
In other words, you don’t need to know anything about the structure of the world to come to terms with existence in it most mundane forms, but an analysis of what constitutes existence is necessary to a more fundamental coming to terms of existence. This latter is what Heidegger called an existential perspective. As I implied above, I’m not interested in engaging in any extensive Heidegger exegesis. On the contrary, I want to take this philosophical idea, usually expressed in highly abstract terms (as it is expressed in Heidegger) and reformulate it in naturalistic terms.
I‘ve pursued this approach previously in The Mind/Body Problem in the Context of Natural History (when I tried to place Cartesian dualism in the context of natural history) and in A Human, All-Too-Human Eternity (when I tried to place the idea of eternity in the context of natural history. Now I would like to place the Heideggerian distinction between the existentiell and the existential, or between beings and Being, in the context of natural history.
From the perspective of natural history, one comes to terms with existence every day when one goes about one’s practical routine, engaging with the world in a pragmatic and utilitarian fashion. This is the existentiell perspective. The existential perspective takes this further, looking for the structure of existence. And what is the structure of existence from a natural historical perspective? It is one and the same world as that ordinary world of ordinary experience, expect extrapolated radically to its greatest extent. In other words, coming to terms with existence from an existential perspective means coming to terms with Big History, which provides the ultimate (natural historical) context for ordinary experience and its objects.
The parochial world of personal experience is meaningful and valuable on a personal level, and it is easy to go through life as if this is the only world that mattered, but everything personal and particular exists in a context, and your personal life and all its immediate objects are dependent upon the whole history of the world that made all of this possible (diachrony), and apart from this history, there is the whole interconnected web of things in the present that cannot exist unless all the other things exist (synchrony).
Similarly, when we think exclusively in terms of our private and personal lives, we are likely to think of dangers such as being involved in an automobile accident or contracting an illness. These are existential threats to the individual. But the individual life is set in the context of many other lives, and all these lives are set in the context of a living biosphere, and this living biosphere is set in the context of a cosmos that makes it possible for such a thing to exist. This is the perspective of Big History. The existential threats to the individual life scarcely register at the level of Big History, but there are other existential threats that appear at this level of consideration. The existential threats that threaten the many lives that are the context of our individual life, or which threaten the biosphere entire, or which threaten the biosphere-consistent cosmos are existential risks.
From the perspective of the individual, transcending the imperatives and threats of the individual life constitutes a radical form of thought, and a radical rethinking of what is important. This requires, in Heidegger’s terms (though not at all in the sense in which Heidegger intended), “the theoretical transparency of the ontological structure of existence.”
Heidegger is not a philosopher that I greatly admire, but to many people Heidegger is synonymous with existentialism, so I wanted to develop my point in a Heideggerian context, but all existential thought is philosophy of existence, and the interpretation that I have given the above Heidegger quote could be adopted and adapted, mutatis mutandis, to other existential philosophers. The existentialist concern for the individual existence largely remains valid when transferred beyond individual existence.
The fragility and vulnerability of existing things is powerfully expressed in Sartre’s famous novel Nausea:
“Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.”
The unreasoning fact of one’s birth and death, and the unreasoning blindness of the will to live that maintains us in existence, makes us as vulnerable to ourselves as we are to others, and this vulnerability seems also to hold for larger wholes that incorporate individuals. Biospheres give birth to invasive species that crowd other species out of existence and threaten the very web of life upon which the invasive species depends; and planets give birth to civilizations that potentially threaten the entire planet. We would just as well say that every existing world is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.
Nietzsche, too, had a sense of this vulnerability, or being a hostage to fortune:
“That my life has no aim is evident even from the accidental nature of its origin; that I can posit an aim for myself is another matter.” (Notes 1873, The Portable Nietzsche, Kaufmann, p.40)
That Nietzsche should add to this palpable sense of vulnerability that I can posit an aim for myself is another matter reminds me of one of the “Proverbs of Hell” that William Blake wrote for The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
“The most sublime act is to set another before you.”
Continuing in existence out of the blind, unreasoning will to live is a weakness, as Sartre suggests, but consciously choosing some end or aim is another matter entirely.
Choosing one’s own destiny and taking responsibility both for the choice and for one’s actions was a favorite theme of Sartre (before his later Marxist phase) and a position that he expressed very eloquently in his well known lecture Existentialism is a Humanism (which I have quoted many times, since it has profoundly influenced by own thought). Here is Sartre’s uncompromising formulation of human responsibility:
“If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.”
Sartre repeatedly places this responsibility in a social context. For example:
“I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man.”
This is the weakest part of Sartre’s exposition. I agree with it, but I still see the weakness of his assertion. This is not the sort of thing that can be asserted; it must be demonstrated, and Sartre does not attempt a demonstration of how personal responsibility is at the same time social responsibility.
To demonstrate that personal responsibility does entail social responsibility for larger wholes of which the individual is a part, and to do so with the unflinching sense of individual responsibility that Sartre brings to his formulations is a task for our time — a task left undone by the philosophy of existence in its earlier iteration, and remains now as a task for a philosophy of existence in its later iteration.
We can see the relationship between personal responsibility and social responsibility — more than see it, we can feel is viscerally — but to demonstrate these linked responsibilities would require passing beyond both to a theoretical perspective that is a common context of both, and perhaps at this point we pass out of the perspective of natural history and resume a philosophical perspective.
While we may not yet be in possession of a fully explicit and formal expression of these linked responsibilities of the personal and the social, we can grasp what the structure of this must be, and it is this:
Existentialism is the ontogenic formulation of existential risk; existential risk is the phylogenic formulation of existentialism.
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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival
6. What is an existential philosophy?
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22 November 2009
On the flights from Tampa to Portland I started reading Herbert Marcuse’s essay on Sartre, “Sartre’s Existentialism” from 1948, collected in Marcuse’s Studies in Critical Philosophy.
In reading Marcuse on Sartre (with the subtle, sublimated hostility of a Marxist to the early Sartre, who went out of his way to distance himself from Marx and Marxists), it occurred to me that what we could call historical existentialism or historical naturalism are the heirs and continuators of historical materialism. That is to say, they are (or would be, if they were systematically formulated) the philosophical development of Marx’s historical materialism in the light of subsequent philosophical developments.
An existentialist philosophy of history begins from the premiss that existence precedes and creates essence — thus every conception of history that has recognized that individuals and societies are shaped by geography, topography, landscape, and earlier history is history understood in terms of existence preceding essence. Earlier history is, in its turn, a function of earlier naturalistic forces that have shaped that history. Ultimately we must trace this chain of earlier histories backward to the point that human history disappears imperceptibly into natural history.
This idea of an existentialist philosophy of history is very much in the same spirit of what I recently wrote in A Formulation of Naturalism, and, in fact, is not only in the same spirit but may be considered an extension of that post. In that post I argued that contemporary philosophical naturalism could be considered a conservative extension of materialism: naturalism is materialism wherever materialism was adequate, and only goes beyond materialism where materialism fails. Just above I suggested that historical naturalism and historical existentialism are synonymous. In so far as historical existentialism — in which historical existence precedes historical essence — is simply another formulation of historical naturalism, and in so far as naturalism is a conservative extension of materialism, historical naturalism “naturally” becomes a conservative extension of historical materialism.
I make no claim for the novelty of the position stated above; it is nothing but an alternative way to formulate the geopolitical perspective that current events must be seen in the context of history, and history must be seen in the context in which history is made, and that context is geography. I have only cast the net a little wider, and the more comprehensive nature of the thesis makes it appear that much more radical. This is one of the virtues of abstract and general thinking: once particular issues are framed in these terms, matters otherwise only implicit become explicit.
Perhaps more problematic yet is that I should burden the above formulation with the tag “existentialist,” since existentialism suffered from the irredeemable fate of becoming a briefly popular sensation in the middle of the twentieth century, so that it now sounds terribly dated. On the one hand, I should not allow popular taste to prejudice a valid philosophical position. On the other hand, it could be argued, in a similar spirit to the argument in made in A Formulation of Naturalism that the essential conceptions of existentialism have been superseded by more recent, and more accurate, philosophical formulations. For the moment, I will allow the label to stand.
I have, in this forum, several times quoted Ortega y Gasset’s famous line that man has not an essence but a history. This is also in the spirit of an existentialist philosophy of history. One might take Ortega y Gasset’s bon mot as an alternative formulation of Sartre’s famous dictum that existence preceding essence. In both, the emphasis falls upon man’s historical, temporal, actual existence and denies that there is any eternal, essential nature of man. In so far as Ortega y Gasset’s formulation sharpens the point by denying the essence that Sartre delayed and subordinated, he sharpens it to a point that an existentialist philosophy of history so conceived comes into conflict with other conceptions of history.
Recently in The Incommensurability of Civilizations and Addendum on Incommensurable Civilizations I wrote, “Each civilization is not only distinct, but each is based on a distinct idea of civilization.” And, citing a particular example, “We can explain both the continuity and the periodizations of Western civilization by reference to a basal ideal that changes over time.” Now, in so far as the idea of a civilization is similar to the essence of man (and, while the two are clearly distinct, I think it is fair to say that each conception is integral with the other), and in so far as an existentialist conception of history requires that we abandon any essence of man, then an existentialist conception of history, it would seem, must abandon all pretense of history that makes reference to idea, ideal, and essence.
This is the dilemma that faces me now. I do not say that these two approaches cannot be reconciled and rationalized, but I do say that some effort at conceptual clarification is necessary to that reconciliation and rationalization.
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More on the Philosophy of History
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3 October 2009
I have, in a couple of posts, quoted a line from Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” lecture that ends with I must confine myself to what I can see:
I do not know where the Russian revolution will lead. I can admire it and take it as an example in so far as it is evident, today, that the proletariat plays a part in Russia which it has attained in no other nation. But I cannot affirm that this will necessarily lead to the triumph of the proletariat: I must confine myself to what I can see.
For corroboration from a fellow Frenchman and a fellow novelist consider this from Balzac’s Louis Lambert (not his most admired novel, but perhaps his most philosophical novel), delivered by the novel’s protagonist:
“To think is to see,” he said one day, roused by one of our discussions on the principle of human organization. “All science rests on deduction, — a chink of vision by which we descend from cause to effect returning upward from effect to cause; or, in a broader sense, poetry, like every work of art, springs from a swift perception of things.”
Honoré de Balzac, Louis Lambert, translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley, Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1889, p. 39
Fellow Frenchman and philosopher Descartes offers more than corroboration: he stands at the foundation of the tradition from which both Balzac and Sartre come. In his most systematic work, the Principles of Philosophy (Book I, ix), Descartes presents an all-encompassing conception of thought, as is appropriate for the philosopher who is the locus classicus of the cogito:
By the word thought, I understand all that which so takes place in us that we of ourselves are immediately conscious of it; and, accordingly, not only to understand (INTELLIGERE, ENTENDRE), to will (VELLE), to imagine (IMAGINARI), but even to perceive (SENTIRE, SENTIR), are here the same as to think (COGITARE, PENSER). For if I say, I see, or, I walk, therefore I am; and if I understand by vision or walking the act of my eyes or of my limbs, which is the work of the body, the conclusion is not absolutely certain, because, as is often the case in dreams, I may think that I see or walk, although I do not open my eyes or move from my place, and even, perhaps, although I have no body: but, if I mean the sensation itself, or consciousness of seeing or walking, the knowledge is manifestly certain, because it is then referred to the mind, which alone perceives or is conscious that it sees or walks.
On the one hand, one can view these accounts as tributes to the visible and the tangible, except that Descartes, who stands at the origin of the tradition, can in no way be assimilated to materialism. On the other hand, and more interestingly, all of these accounts can be understood as expressions of various degrees of constructivism — mostly unconsciously formulated constructivism, but nevertheless an awareness that our thought must be disciplined by experience in a rigorous way if it is not to go terribly wrong. This is also a Kantian orientation, as we observed in Temporal Illusions, and Kant is counted as an ancestor of contemporary constructivism.
Skeptics have always demanded that truths be exhibited. We saw this in our previous posts about Sartre’s atheism, taking Doubting Thomas as the paradigm of the skeptic, who must needs touch the wounds of Christ with his own hands before he will believe that it is the same Christ who was crucified and subsequently risen.
It is a feature of constructivist thought, and most especially intuitionism, to reject the law of logic that is called (in Latin) tertium non datur or the Law of the Excluded Middle (LEM, or just EM). This simply states that, of two contradictory propositions, one of them most be true (“P or not-P“). Intuitively, it seems eminently reasonable, except that we all know of instances in ordinary experience that cannot be adequately described in a black-or-white, yes-or-no formulation. Non-constructive reasoning makes unlimited use of the law of the excluded middle, and as a consequence holds that all propositions have definite truth values even if we haven’t yet determined the truth value or even if we can’t determine the truth value. This can lead to strange consequences, like the famous Aristotelian example of the sea fight tomorrow: either there will be a sea battle tomorrow or there will not be a sea battle tomorrow. We don’t know at present which is true, but if we accept the logic of non-constructive reasoning, we will acknowledge that one of these propositions is true while the other is false.
The law of the excluded middle implies the principle of bivalence — the principle that there are two and only two logical values, namely true and false — and bivalence in turn implies realism. Realism as a philosophical doctrine stands in opposition to constructivism. Plato is the most famous realist philosopher, and believed that all kinds of things were real that common sense and ordinary experience don’t think of as being “real,” while at the same time disbelieving in the reality of the material world. Thus Plato is something of an antithesis to the kind insistence upon the tangibility and visibility upon which the skeptic and the materialist rely.
It is interesting, then, in the context of Sartre’s atheism and his insistence upon relying upon the seen, which we have now come to recognize as a kind of constructivism, to contrast the very different viewpoint represented by William James. One of James’ most famous essays is “The Will to Believe” in which he lays down the criteria for legitimate belief even where sufficient evidence is lacking. William James offers, “a defence of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” Among the criteria that James invokes is when a choice is forced, which he describes like this:
…if I say to you: “Choose between going out with your umbrella or without it,” I do not offer you a genuine option, for it is not forced. You can easily avoid it by not going out at all. Similarly, if I say, “Either love me or hate me,” “Either call my theory true or call it false,” your option is avoidable. You may remain indifferent to me, neither loving nor hating, and you may decline to offer any judgment as to my theory. But if I say, “Either accept this truth or go without it,” I put on you a forced option, for there is no standing place outside of the alternative. Every dilemma based on a complete logical disjunction, with no possibility of not choosing, is an option of this forced kind.
Logical disjunction is another name used for the law of the excluded middle. Here James reveals himself as a realist, if not a Platonist, in matters of the spirit, just as we saw that Sartre revealed himself as a constructivist, if not an intuitionist, in matters of the spirit. The point I am making here is that this is not merely a difference of belief, but a difference in logic, and a difference in logic and reaches up into the ontology of each and informs an entire view of the world. People tend to think of logic, if they think of logic at all, as something recondite and removed from ordinary human experience, but this is not the case. Logic determines the relationship that we construct with the world, and it organizes how we see the world.
Nietzsche wrote in a famous line (or, perhaps I should say, a line that ought to be more famous than it perhaps is) that the nature and degree of an individual’s sexuality reaches into the highest pinnacles of his spirit. I agree with this, but I would add that the nature and kind of an individual’s logic — be it constructivist or non-constructivist — also reaches into the highest pinnacles of his spirit and indeed informs the world in which his spirit finds a home… or fails to find a home.
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