road closure

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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Grand Strategy Annex

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Life Lessons from Morally Compromised Philosophers

What are we to make of Heidegger? Was he a mere apologist for the Nazis, as Hegel was taken to be an apologist for Prussianism? Can the philosopher be salvaged from the ruin of the man, as one book recently put it?

What are we to make of Heidegger? Was he a mere apologist for the Nazis, as Hegel was taken to be an apologist for Prussianism? Can the philosopher be salvaged from the ruin of the man, as one book recently put it?

With particular attention to the Heidegger case

I began this blog with the idea that I would write about current events from a philosophical perspective and said in my initial post that I wanted to see history through the prism of ideas. This continues to be my project, however imperfectly conceived or unevenly executed. It is a project that necessitates engagement both with the world and with philosophy simultaneously. And so it is that my posts have ranged widely over warfare and the history of ideas, inter alia, and as a consequence of this dual mandate I have often found myself reading and citing sources that are not the common run of reading for philosophers. Some philosophers, however, are both influential and controversial, and Martin Heidegger has become one such philosopher. Heidegger’s influence in philosophy has only grown since his death (primarily in Continental thought), but the controversy about his involvement with Nazism has kept pace and grown along with Heidegger’s reputation.

It may help my readers in the US to understand the impact of the Heidegger controversy to compare it to the intersection of evil and ideals in an iconic American thinker, taking as our example a man more familiar than Heidegger, who was an iconic continental thinker. Take Thomas Jefferson, for example. Some years ago (in 1998, to be specific) I saw two television documentaries about the life of Thomas Jefferson. The first was a typical laudatory television documentary about one of the American founding fathers (I didn’t take notes at the time, so I don’t know which documentary this was, but it may well have been the 1997 Ken Burns film about Jefferson, which I recently re-watched to confirm my memory of its ambiguous treatment of Jefferson’s relationship to this slaves), which touched upon the possibility of Jefferson fathering children by his slave Sally Hemmings, while not taking the idea very seriously.

Then in 1998 the news came out of DNA tests that proved conclusively that Jefferson had fathered the children of his slave Sally Hemmings, and the scientific nature of the evidence rapidly inroads among Jefferson scholars, who had been slow to acknowledge Jefferson’s “shadow family” (as such families were once called in the Ante-Bellum south). The consensus of Jefferson scholars changed so rapidly that it makes one’s head spin — but only after two hundred years of denial. And there remain those today who continue to deny Jefferson’s paternity of Sally Hemmings’ children.

Not long after this news was made public, I saw another documentary about Jefferson in which the whole issue was treated very differently; the perspective of this documentary accepted as unproblematic Jefferson’s paternity of Sally Hemmings’ children, and examined Jefferson’s life and ideas in the light of this “shadow family.” I don’t think that Jefferson suffered at all from this latter documentary treatment; he definitely came across less as an icon and more as a fallible human being, which is not at all objectionable. It is, in fact, more human, and more believable.

Though Jefferson did not suffer in my estimation because he was revealed to be human, all-too-human, there is nevertheless something deeply disturbing about the image of Jefferson sitting down to dinner with his white family while being served at dinner by his mulatto children that he sired with with slaves, and it is deeply disturbing in a way that it not at all unlike the way that it is deeply disturbing to know that when Heidegger met Karl Löwith in 1936 near Rome (two years after Heidegger left his Rectorship in Freiburg) that Heidegger wore a Nazi swastika pin on his lapel the entire time, knowing that Löwith was a Jew who had been forced to flee Nazi Germany. One cannot but wonder, on a purely human level, apart from any ideology, how one person could be so utterly unconcerned with the well being of another.

It would be disingenuous to attempt to defend the indefensible by making the claim that all intellectuals of Jefferson’s time were conflicted over slavery; this simply was not the case. Schopenhauer, for example, consistently wrote against slavery and never showed the slightest sign of wavering on the issue, but, of course, Schopenhauer’s income did not depend on slaves, while Jefferson’s did.

We know that Jefferson struggled mightily with the question of slavery in his later years, as is the case with most conflicted men tying himself in knots trying to square the actual record of his life with his ideals. It is easy to dismiss individuals, even those who have struggled with the contradictions in their life, as mere hypocrites, but the charge of hypocrisy, while carrying great emotional weight, is the least interesting charge that can be made against a man’s ideas. As I wrote in my Variations on the Theme of Life, “The world is mendacious through and through; mendacity is the human condition. To renounce hypocrisy is to renounce the world and to institute an asceticism that cannot ever be realized in practice.” (section 169)

Heidegger does not seem to have been conflicted about his Nazism in the way that Jefferson was conflicted about slavery. Many years after the Second World War, when the record of Nazi death camps was known to all, Heidegger could still refer to the “inner truth greatness of this movement,” while in the meeting with Löwith mentioned above Heidegger was quite explicit that his political engagement with Nazism was a direct consequence of his philosophical views.

One obvious and well-trodden path for handling a philosopher’s political “indiscretions” is to hold that a philosopher’s theoretical works are a thing apart, elevated above the world like Plato’s Forms — one might even say sublated in the Hegelian sense: at once elevated, suspended, and canceled. This strategy allows one to read any philosopher and ignore any detail of life that one chooses. I don’t think that this constitutes a good contribution to intellectual honesty.

I myself was once among those who read philosophers for their philosophical ideas only, and while I was never a Heidegger enthusiast or a Heidegger defender, I thought of Heidegger’s political engagement with Nazism as mostly irrelevant to his philosophy. At some point I don’t clearly recall, I become intensely interested in Heidegger’s Nazism, and there was a flood of books telling the whole sorry story to feed my interest: Heidegger And Nazism by Victor Farias, which was the book the opened by Heidegger’s Nazi past to scrutiny, On Heidegger’s Nazism and Philosophy by Tom Rockmore, The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader edited by Richard Wolin, Heidegger’s Crisis: Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany by Hans Sluga, Heidegger, philosophy, Nazism by Julian Young, The Shadow of that Thought by Dominique Janicaud, and most recent and perhaps the most devastating of them all, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 by Emmanuel Faye.

Even with all this material now available on Heidegger’s Nazi past, Heidegger still has his apologists and defenders. Beyond the steadfast apologists for Heidegger — who are perhaps more compromised than Heidegger himself — there are a variety of strategies to excuse Heidegger from his involvement with the Nazis, as when Heidegger’s Nazism is called an “episode” or a “period,” or characterized as “compromise, opportunism, or cowardice” (as in Julian Young’s Heidegger, philosophy, Nazism, p. 4). Young also uses the terms conviction, commitment, and flirtation, though Young ultimately exculpates Heidegger, asserting that, “…neither the early philosophy of Being and Time, nor the later, post-war philosophy, nor even the philosophy of the mid-1930s — works such as the Introduction to Metaphysics with respect to which critics often feel themselves to have an open-and-shut case — stand in any essential connection to Nazism.” (Op. cit., p. 5)

Heidegger’s engagement with fascism represents the point at which Heidegger’s ideas demonstrate their relationship to the ordinary business of life, and this is a conjuncture of the first importance. This is, indeed, identical to the task I set myself in writing this blog: to demonstrate the relationship between life and ideas. And Heidegger, I came to realize, was a particularly clear and striking case of the intersection of life and thought, though not the kind of example that most philosophers would want to claim as their own. I can fully understand why a philosopher would simply prefer to distance themselves from Heidegger and, while not denying Heidegger’s Nazism, would choose not to talk about it either. But that Heidegger thereby becomes a problem for philosophy and philosophers is precisely what makes him interesting. We philosophers must claim Heidegger as one of our own, even if we are sickened by his Nazism, which was no mere “flirtation” or “episode,” but constituted a life-long commitment.

Heidegger was not merely a Nazi ideologue, but also briefly a Nazi official. The Nazification of the professions was central to the strategy of Nazi social revolution (with its own professional institution, the Ahnenerbe), and a willing collaborator such as Heidegger, prepared to Nazify a university, was a valuable asset to the Nazi party. Ultimately, however, Heidegger was embroiled in an internal conflict within the Nazi party, and when the SA was purged and many of its leaders killed on Night of the Long Knives, the Strasserist SA faction lost out decisively, and Heidegger with them. Thereafter Heidegger was watched by the Nazi party, and Heidegger defenders have used this party surveillance to argue that Heidegger was regarded as a subversive by the Nazi party. He was a subversive, in fact, but only because he represented a faction of Nazism that had been suppressed. Heidegger continued as a Nazi party member, and paid his party dues right up to the end of the war. We see, then, that the SA purge was not merely a brutal struggle for power within the Nazi party, but also an episode in the history of ideas. This is interesting and important, even if it is also horrific.

The more carefully we study Heidegger’s philosophy, and read it in relation to his life, the more we can understand the relation of even the most subtle and sophisticated philosophy to ideological commitment and to the ordinary business of life. And it wasn’t only Heidegger who compromised himself. There is Frege’s political diary, less well known than Heidegger’s political views, and the much more famous case of Sartre and Camus. There are at least two book-length studies of the public quarrel and falling-out between Sartre and Camus (Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation and Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It by Ronald Aronson). Camus most definitely comes off looking better in this quarrel, with Sartre, the sophisticated technical philosopher, looking like a party-line communist while Camus, the writer, the literary man, showing true independence of spirit. The political lives of Camus and Sartre have been written about extensively, but even still Heidegger remains an interesting case because of the impenetrable complexity of his thought and the manifest horrors of the regime he served. There ought to be a disconnect here, but there isn’t, and this, again, is interesting and important even if it is horrific.

I have had to ask myself if my interest in Heidegger’s Nazism is prurient (in so far as there is a purely intellectual sense of “prurient”). There is something a little discomfiting about becoming fascinated by studying a great philosopher’s engagement with fascism. I am not innocent in this either. I, too, am a morally compromised philosopher. Perhaps the most I can hope for is to be aware of what I am involved in by making a careful study of philosophy’s involvement in politics. Naïvété strikes me as inexcusable in this context. I hope I have not been naïve.

I have not scrupled to read, to think about, and to quote individuals who were not only ideologically associated with crimes of unprecedented magnitude, but who have personally carried out capital crimes. In the case of Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski, who was personally responsible for several murders, I have carefully read his manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future (read it several times through, in fact), have thought about it, and have quoted it. Others who have been influenced by Kaczynski’s work and have publicly discussed it have felt the need to apologize for it, like scientists who consider using the research of Nazi doctors. But an apology feels like an excuse. I don’t want to make excuses.

Heidegger, like Nazism itself, is a lesson from history. We can benefit from studying Heidegger by learning how the most sophisticated philosophical justifications can be formulated for the most vulgar and the most reprehensible of purposes. But we cannot learn the lesson without studying the lesson. Studying the lessons of history may well corrupt us. That is a danger we must confront, and a risk we must take.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Sixth in a Series on Existential Risk:

Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, and Jaspers represented different facets of existentialism.

Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, and Jaspers represented different facets of existentialism.

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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danger imminent existential threat

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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

5. Risk and Knowledge

6. What is an existential philosophy?

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ex risk ahead

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In what style should we think? It sounds like an odd question. I will attempt to make it sound like a reasonable one.

It would, of course, be preferable (or maybe I should say, “more natural”) to ask, “In what manner should we think?” or simply, “How should we think?” But I have formulated my question as I have in order to refer to Heinrich Hübsch’s essay, “In what style should we build?” (In welchem Style sollen wir bauen? 1828)

Building and thinking are both human activities, and thus both can be assimilated to the formulation of Weyl that I quoted in The Clausewitzean Conception of Civilization:

“The ultimate foundations and the ultimate meaning of mathematics remain an open problem; we do not know in what direction it will find its solution, nor even whether a final objective answer can be expected at all. ‘Mathematizing’ may well be a creative activity of man, like music, the products of which not only in form but also in substance are conditioned by the decisions of history and therefore defy complete objective rationalization.”

Hermann Weyl, Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science, Appendix A, “The Structure of Mathematics”

What Weyl here refers to as “mathematizing” can be generalized to human cognition generally speaking, and, if we like, we can generalize all the way to a comprehensive Cartesian conception of thought:

By the word ‘thought’, I mean everything which happens in us while we are conscious, in so far as there is consciousness of it in us. So in this context, thinking includes sensing as well as understanding, willing, and imagining. If I say, ‘I see therefore I am,’ or ‘I walk therefore I am,’ and mean by that the seeing or walking which is performed by the body, the conclusion is not absolutely certain. After all, when I am asleep I can often think I am seeing or walking, but without opening my eyes or moving, — and perhaps even without my having any body at all. On the other hand, the conclusion is obviously certain if I mean the sensing itself, or the consciousness that I am seeing or walking, since the conclusion then refers to the mind. And it is only the mind which senses, or thinks about its seeing or walking.

Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, section 9

Do thinking and building have anything in common beyond both being human activities? Is there not something essentially constructive in both activities? (This question is surprisingly apt, because we need to understand what constructive thinking is, but I will return to that later.) Did not Kant refer to the “architectonic” of pure reason, and has it not become commonplace among contemporary cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind to speak of our “cognitive architecture.”

Just taking the term “constructive” in its naïve and intuitive signification, we know that thought is not always constructive. Indeed, it is often said that thought, and especially philosophical thought, must be analytical and critical. Critical thought is not always or invariably destructive, and most of us know the difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism. Still, thought can be quite destructive. William of Ockham, for example, is often credited with bringing down the Scholastic philosophical synthesis that reached its apogee in Aquinas.

Similar observations can be made about the building trades. While we usually do not include demolition crews among the construction trades, there is a sense in which demolition and construction are both phases in the building process. Combat engineers must be equally trained in the building and demolition of bridges, for example, which demonstrates both the constructive and the destructive aspects of construction engineering.

Just as we have a choice not only what to build, but in what style we will build, so too we have a choice, not only in what we think, but also how we think. As a matter of historical fact, I think you will find that the thinking of most individuals is not much more than a reaction, or a reflex. People think in the way that comes naturally to them, and they do not realize that they are thinking in a certain style unless they pause to think about their thinking. Well, this would be one way to characterize philosophy: thinking about thinking.

The unthinking way in which most of us think has the consequence of fostering what may be called cognitive monoculture. Individuals rarely step outside the parameters of thought with which they are comfortable, and so they allow their thoughts to follow in the ruts and the grooves left by their ancestors, much as architects, for many generations, reiterated classical building styles for lack of imagination of anything different.

It is probably very nearly impossible that I should write about building and thinking without citing Heidegger, so here is my nearly obligatory Heidegger citation, which, despite my general dislike of Heideggerian thought, suits my purposes quite perfectly:

“We come to know what it means to think when we ourselves try to think. If the attempt is to be successful, we must be ready to learn thinking.”

Martin Heidegger, What is called thinking? Lecture I

I agree with this: a serious attempt at thinking entails that we come to know what it means to think, and moreover we must be ready to learn thinking, and not merely take it for granted. But I find that I do not agree with the very next paragraph in Heidegger:

“As soon as we allow ourselves to become involved in such learning, we have admitted that we are not yet capable of thinking.”

Martin Heidegger, What is called thinking? Lecture I

In fact, we are capable of thinking, though the problem is that we do not really know whether we are thinking well or thinking poorly. When we think about thinking, when we reflect on what we are doing when we are thinking, we will discover that we have been thinking in a particular style, even if we were not aware that we were doing so — much like the physician in Moliere who did not know that he had been speaking prose his entire life.

If we pay attention to our thinking, and think critically about our thinking, we stumble across a number of distinctions that we realize can be used to classify the style of thought in which we have been engaged: formal or informal, constructive or non-constructive, abstract or concrete, objective or subjective, theoretical or practical, a priori or a posteriori, empirical or rational. These distinction define styles of thought, and it is only in reflection that we realize that one or another of these terms has applied to our thought, and thus we have been thinking in this particular style.

Ideally one would be aware of how one was thinking, and be able to shift gears in the middle of thinking and adopt a different mode of thought as the need or desire arose. The value of knowing how one has been thinking, and realizing the unconscious distinctions one has been making, is that one is now in a position to provide counter-examples to one’s own thought, and one is therefore no longer strictly reliant upon the objections of others who think otherwise than ourselves.

The cognitive monoculture that we uncritically accept before we learn to reflect on our own thinking is more often than not borrowed from the world, and not the product of our own initiative. Are we living, intellectually, so to speak, in a structure built by others? If so, ought we to question or to accept that structure?

This is a theme to which Merleau-Ponty often returned:

“…it is by borrowing from the world structure that the universe of truth and of thought is constructed for us. When we want to express strongly the consciousness we have of a truth, we find nothing better than to invoke a topos noetos that would be common to minds or to men, as the sensible world is common to the sensible bodies. And this is not only an analogy: it is the same world that contains our bodies and our minds, provided that we understand by world not only the sum of things that fall or could fall under our eyes, but also the locus of their compossibility, the invariable style they observe, which connects our perspectives, permits transition from one to the other, and — whether in describing a detail of the landscape or in coming to agreement about an invisible truth — makes us feel we are two witnesses capable of hovering over the same true object, or at least of exchanging out situations relative to it, as we can exchange out standpoints in the visible world in the strict sense.”

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible,

I trust Merleau-Ponty with this idea, but, to put it bluntly, there are many that I would not trust with this idea, since the idea that our cognitive architecture is borrowed from the world that we inhabit can be employed as a strategy to dilute and perhaps even to deny the individual. One could make the case on this basis that we are owned by the past, and certainly there are those who believe that inter-generational moral duties flow in only one direction, from the present to the past, but merely to formulate it in these terms suggests the possibility of inter-generational moral duties that flow from the past to the present.

Certainly by being born into the world we are born into a linguistic and intellectual context at the same time as we are born into an existential context, and this fact has profound consequences. As in the passage from Marx that I have quoted many times:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, first paragraph

Marx gives us a particular perspective on this idea, but we can turn it around and by reformulating Marx attain to a different perspective on the same idea. Marx takes the making of history to be a unidirectional process, but it goes both ways, men make history and history makes men:

“Men begin under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past, and make their own history as they please from what they select of the past. The past has not reality but that which men give to it.”

The circumstances transmitted to us from the past are not arbitrary; these circumstances are the sum total of the efforts of previous generations to re-make the world during their lives according to their vision. We live with the consequences of this vision. Moreover, the circumstances we then create are then transmitted to the past; this is our legacy, and future generations will do with it as they will.

The architect, too, begins with circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. For Hübsch this is the problem. Hübsch begins his brief treatise with a ringing assertion that architectural thought is dominated to an archaic paradigm:

“Painting and sculpture have long since abandoned the lifeless imitation of antiquity. Architecture has yet to come of age and continues to imitate the antique style. Although nearly everyone recognizes the inadequacy of that style in meeting today’s needs and is dissatisfied with the buildings recently erected in it, almost all architects still adhere to it.”

Heinrich Hübsch, In what style should we build? 1828

In the twenty-first century this is no longer true. Building has been substantially liberated from classical forms. In fact, since Hübsch’s time, a new classicism — international modern — rose, dominated for a short time, and now has been displaced by a bewildering plethora of styles, from an ornately decorative post-modernism to outlandish structures that would have been impossible without contemporary materials technology. There are, to be sure, architectural conventions that remain to be challenge, and in the sphere of urban planning these conventions can be quite rigid because they become embodied in legal codes.

For our time, the most forceful way to understand Hübsch’s question would be, “In what style should we build our cities?” Another way in which Hübsch’s question retains its poignant appeal is in the form that I suggested above: in what style should we think?

Are we intellectually owned by the past? Is there a moral obligation for us to think in the style of our grandfathers? A semi-humorous definition attributed to Benjamin Disraeli has it that, “A realist is a man who insists on making the same mistakes his grandfather did.” Are we obliged to be realists?

Here we see the clear connection between building and thinking. Just as we might think like our grandfathers, so too we might build like our grandfathers. This latter was the concern of Hübsch. That is to say, we can as well inhabit (and restore, and reconstruct) the intellectual constructions of our forefathers as well as the material constructions of our forefathers.

It would be entirely possible for us today to construct classical cities on the Greco-Roman model; it is even possible to imagine a traditional Roman house with hot and cold running water, electric kitchen appliances, and wired for WiFi. That is to say, we could have our modern conveniences and still continue to build as the past built. We could choose to literally inhabit the structure of the past, as civilization did in fact choose to do for almost a thousand years when classical cities were built to essentially the same plan throughout the ancient world. (See my remarks on this in The Iterative Conception of Civilization.)

A perfectly comfortable dwelling with modern plumbing and electrical appliances added. Why not? Why not build in the style of the past?

We can take the Middle Ages as the intellectual analogy for thinking that the modernized Roman house is for living: the role of intellectual authority in medieval thinking was unprecedented and unparalleled. If experience contradicted authority, so much the worse for experience. If a classical text stated that something was the case, and the world seemed at variance with the text, the world was assumed to be in error. As classical antiquity lived with the same buildings for a thousand years, so the Middle Ages lived with the same thoughts for a thousand years. There is no reason that we could not take medieval scholarship, as we might update a Roman house, and add a few modern conveniences — like names for chemical elements, etc. — and have this perfectly serviceable intellectual context as our own.

A perfectly comfortable way of thinking with a few modern ideas and distinctions added. Why not? Why not think in the style of the past?

Thus the two previous macro-historical stages of Western civilization prior to modernism — namely, classicism and medievalism — represent, respectively, the attempt to build in the style of the past and the attempt to think in the style of the past. It has been the rude character of modernism to focus on the future and to be dismissive of the past. While this attitude can be nihilistic, we can now clearly see how it came about: the other alternatives were tried and found wanting.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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An exercise in self-declaration

Since I started with Sartre yesterday (in Disappearing Act), it is appropriate, in a sense, that I continue with Sartre. In his influential essay, “What is Writing?” Sartre wrote:

If a writer has chosen to remain silent on any aspect whatever of the world, or, according to an expression which says just what it means, to pass over it in silence, one has the right to ask: “Why have you spoken of this rather than that, and — since you speak in order to bring about change — why do you want to change this rather than that?”

This is vintage Sartre: unforgiving, demanding, and totalizing. For the last reason — its totalizing pretensions — I cannot wholeheartedly agree. Nevertheless, even if my agreement falls short of totality, I recognize the imperative embodied in the words.

This little passage is quite pregnant with implicit references. Did Sartre ever read Wittgenstein? It is hard to imagine, but he may have been referring to Wittgenstein when he speaks of “passing over in silence”, as this is exactly what Wittgenstein recommends in the last sentence of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” (“Wovon mann nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss mann schweigen.”) Wittgenstein, too, offers an imperative.

No writer can say everything, or address every question posed by his public pronouncements. Similarly, one does not always want to effect a change in choosing to write about anything. To imagine that one only speaks in order to effect a change is to already have placed oneself in the attitude of an institution, in virtue of the avoidance of which, as we mentioned yesterday, Sartre refused the Nobel Prize: “I, Sartre the Institution, have said it, therefore let it be done.” This is what Sartre took pains to avoid, but in fact could not avoid.

But now my reader (if I have any readers) have the right to ask me why I am going on about this anyway. For this reason: yesterday, in a caption of a picture of Heidegger, I asked the rhetorical question: “And what are we to make of Heidegger? Was he a mere apologist for the Nazis, as Hegel was taken to be an apologist for Prussianism? Can the philosopher be salvaged from the ruin of the man, as one book recently asked?”

I think that if we interpret Sartre sympathetically, and do not insist on attaining an impossible totality of expression regarding any aspect whatever of the world, that he meant leading, rhetorical questions such as I asked above constitute a form of bad faith (mauvaise foi)… words lying there like inert objects that pretend not to act even while in not acting they act.

The written word is a two way street. The writer writes, and the reader reads. If the reader’s reading leaves him dissatisfied, he certainly has the right, if not the duty, to interrogate the writer. Thus the writer responds, and writers again, and the reader reads again. This does not give us the totality of the world in prose, but it does give an account of the demands of the public sphere.

So let me declare myself on Heidegger: can Heidegger the philosopher be rescued from the ruin of the man? Yes. That is the short answer. The longer answer is that, while I despise Heidegger’s writing style, which strikes me as unforgivably obscurantist, there are some valuable ideas hidden among the verbiage, like sapphires in the mud. The long answer must also honestly acknowledge that the content of Heidegger’s thought is intimately related to what initially drew him to Nazism, or least to what he believed Nazism represented in the spring of 1933 when he joined the Nazi party to the spring of 1934 when he resigned his rectorship. Heidegger’s Nazism wasn’t a “mistake” on his part; he quite earnestly believed that the movement did not live up to its promise, and it was that promise to which Heidegger remained committed.

There is a considerable Heidegger industry that cranks out commentaries and publications in numbers apparently calculated to pad academic CVs, and because of the Heidegger controversy there is also a virtual sub-industry of books on Heidegger and Nazism. There are philosophers who think that Heidegger is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and others who won’t mention his name. This Heidegger industry has turned both Heidegger the man and Heidegger the philosopher into an institution of no mean order.

I guess there is a sense in which my attitude to philosophy is utilitarian, as I will use ideas from any source whatsoever, be it Heidegger or Sartre, Gobineau or Valery, Croce or Marx — all deeply compromised men, but all with something of value to say. Sartre himself is supposed to have said, “Valery is a fascist, but not all fascists are Valery.” I don’t think that Sartre would have argued that great poetry excuses fascism, but the least that can be said is that he clearly sees the dilemma.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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