Monday, December 28, 2009

Second Thoughts on Existentialism

Over a decade ago now, I discovered Robert Pirsig. My first encounter was blasé—I read the first 60 pages of ZMM for a high school class on philosophy and religious studies and faked my way through a paper on it. My interest in Pirsig didn’t surface until the next year, as I took Phil 101 and had ZMM assigned on the syllabus. I groaned inwardly, but—in the context of a semester on Plato, Nietzsche, and Kuhn—I found him much more interesting. I became simultaneously interested in philosophical problems and the life-entanglement that ZMM represented. Here’s a guy who went to the mat for these problems. It was very interesting.

I was on my way up to my 101 discussion group one day in an elevator with my TA, when he asked me what philosophy courses I was taking the spring semester. I looked quizzically at him and kind of shook my head saying, “I’m…not taking any…?” He got a funny look on his face: “Oh—I thought you were a philosophy major.” I said no, I was still undeclared. He said I should think about it, and a month later when our professor asked me to assist her in a class that spring, I thought the least I could do was declare (though it took me till mid-spring—I’m very lazy).

I took three philosophy courses that spring, in addition to the aesthetics course I helped out in (a complete farce: what do I know about aesthe—wait, I’m a literary critic in training now…I love aesthetics! Ha!, and boy do I know a lot about beauty, and stuff!) . They were in Greek philosophy, existentialism, and a random cavalcade of 20th century people, including the existentialists. The deal with the 20th century class was that we could pick out any philosopher we wanted, even if we didn’t study them specifically, and write our final on them. I chose Pirsig, and because he wasn’t well known as a philosopher, my professor suggested I compare Pirsig with someone else. Because I was taking so much existentialism, I picked Sartre. This turned into “Phenomenological-Existentialism and the Metaphysics of Quality.” I read Lila for the first time for this paper, and became enamored with Pirsig’s arguments about needing a new metaphysics for our culture. And because I had so much Pirsig on the brain, when it came to writing my existentialism paper, I couldn’t help but refute Camus with the help of my newly learned Pirsig-foundation called the MoQ. This was “Absurdity and the Meaning of Life.”

It never ceases to fascinate me that of all the junk I have lying around the internet, this particular essay sends me the most random readers who feel like writing (all of my reply letters begin “Thanks for reading and writing!”). Having written it a decade ago, though, I have mixed feelings about the arguments. (I have no mixed feelings about the writing—it’s horrid.) At the close, with the help of Pirsig’s theory of static levels, I get to state that Camus’ most pressing of philosophical problems, the question of suicide, of why I should not just off myself, has an easy answer: “It’s simply that Life has Meaning: to live.” Really? Life’s purpose is to be lived? I suggest that this “rather simple ethics” “leaves the door open” for the further development of a teleological ethics, but why on earth should we think that the firm foundation of the ultimate telos of life is “to be lived,” and this because we are cellular beings? At root, life has biological meaning, so now Camus’ full of crap. “Life’s purpose is to be lived” is at best a tautology, and how boring is that? Why on earth would somebody think that that’s an interesting answer to Camus’ problem?

In my estimation, there are two types of 19-year-old philosophy students: 1) people who thought Nietzsche was probably right when he said “God is dead” at 18 and still do and 2) people who thought Nietzsche was right at 18 but now don’t. I was the latter type. Most people who go in for philosophy these days do not make it through their teenage years undisillusioned (saying “illusioned” would be unfair to people for whom it hasn’t even occurred that life might be an illusion—and since Platonism is predicated on the appearance/reality distinction, such an awareness does seem to be intrinsic to philosophy). I, certainly, didn’t make it. However, I also didn’t really care that God was dead. Some people like Camus do. He cared very much, for only somebody that takes Nietzsche far too seriously could take seriously the question, “Why should I not commit suicide?”—let alone as the only truly pressing philosophical question. Passing through Nietzsche makes some people (call them “existentialists”) really pessimistic about humanity, even cynical. I wouldn’t say I was optimistic—I spent much of my time making fun of everything around me and I thought most other people were idiots (it’s hard not to when living in a dorm)—but cynical? It seemed like the perverse twin of the eternal optimism of people who go in for God. I just couldn’t get up the energy for that—it seemed like I’d have to spend just as much energy pissing on God’s grave as I would have had to do propping Him up, and when it comes right down to it, I’m very lazy.

So, what happens to some lazy 18-year-olds who go in for philosophy is that on their way to 19 they discover an easy way out—someone offers them a quick dialectical fix, a cheap but sturdy looking foundation that claims to give more polemical bang for your argumentative buck. (If they don’t find one of these by 20, they either cease to be lazy and declare as political science or sociology majors and try to save the world, or—if still lazy—enter an English department.) That was Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality for me. The trouble is, you still have something you need to prop up, and that’s no fun. It ends up being just as much work as a full-fledged God. Here you are, standing your philosophical ground, and you need something to cover yourself from all those existentialists pissing on you, but you choose a shack with a leaky roof, when at least the God-guy across the street has somebody to talk to for comfort. And so many, by 22, leave philosophical ground and never come back. I mean, shit, you just move a hundred yards south and you can watch all the football you want without ever worrying about the pissing match occurring right up the alley.

True enlightenment happens, though, when you realize that you can avoid the golden shower while still remaining on philosophical terrain. You don’t need a foundation, you just move up hill and let the others piss themselves all they want. Doing this means seeing the need for a house, even a shitty leaky one, as a small problem in a larger landscape. Seeing this, where there’s suddenly a dry hill out back you’d never noticed before, means seeing that not only is the tautology, “Life’s purpose is to be lived,” both true and boring—but it makes you wonder why you thought you should’ve been excited by it. Seeing the larger terrain of life starts to make you wonder about everyone’s motivation for saying and doing certain things, like praying or building houses or pissing on them.

Why did I go in for being a quasi-metaphysician for a time, to want to build some sort of foundation, but not an expensive God-like one? The presupposition in this is: I felt that Camus’ question needed to be answered. I felt that the cynics needed to be answered on their own ground. But once one looks at that dry hill, you have to wonder: why would I want muddy ground that’s been pissed on for 2500 years? I.e., why does Camus feel the need to ask his question? Is every question a good question? Maybe not—maybe we should wonder about Camus.

Once you start wondering about the foundation metaphor, about the need for a knock-down answer to stubbornly stupid questions like “Why should I not kill myself,” you start seeing philosophy as just another mode of articulating yourself. And you notice that you can articulate yourself anywhere, not just at your pissed-on house. So you think about moving up hill. You start to think of philosophy as just another piece of your clothing, that keeps you warm and comfortable, but is mobile and flexible, and if it becomes threadbare, you get something new—because it’s all about having something nice to wear while you wander through the landscape of life. (If anybody’s wondering what expensive, well-worn term of opprobrium to apply to this attitude, if you guessed “aestheticism,” give yourself a serious, stern nod of approval. Sorry, all the gold stars and hot bling are reserved for the people who care about the appearances—you only care about reality, a cold, bleak place which could give a shit if you get it right. So while you shiver in your patched-up hovel, dripping like an R. Kelly wet dream, console yourself—as you watch the carnivalesque, tiki-torch party on the side of the hill—with the thought that all those people are going to hell…or whatever equivalent you’ve dreamed up for them.)

The argument I made in the essay was valid, I think, but it was also—much like my last parenthetical—just silly. Why would one make it? I made it because I thought life needed a big Telos, even if it was a silly one. And, come to think of it, mine was perfect: if Camus is going to ask a stupid question, then I’m going to give a stupid answer. If you demand that the space where the Grand Telos used to be is filled, then in a disillusioned age the only way to fill it is with the inverse of God’s grandeur—tautological insipidness. Some people think that the space does need to be filled. Those who think, for instance, that free will is impossible because Darwin and Newton have proven determinism true, and therefore moral action is in trouble—these people think the hole left by God needs to be filled. They want a Grand Telos.

But why? Why not just have a little telos, or a bunch of little teloses? Why even continue using the Greek? Just say “purpose,” think of all the little things you do and why you do them, and if you like fulfilling these little goals, then keep doing them. If not, then don’t. If you break things into small enough pieces, then odds are that you’ll never answer “no” to all of them and have to start contemplating suicide. Camus’ mistake was to take all the little things as emblems for one big thing, to take riding the subway or going to work as symbols that don’t signify various little purposes, but all signify One Big Purpose. And the only thing he could figure out to fit was Nothing, and hence the absurdity. But if we thought it was a good idea to stop contemplating the big guy named God, maybe the trouble wasn’t God, but the continual contemplation of something big, parenthetical or otherwise.

My attempt to resurrect “teleological arguments” was a short-lived effort to save my leaky roof. In “Absurdity and the Meaning of Life,” I answered for ethics by taking on Kantian deontology. I still think that’s right. Deontology rests on the assumption that the World, or Reason, or Something—Something Big—gives us obligations to be performed. I don’t think that’s true. I think the only reason we have any obligations is because somebody gives them to us, meaning we give them to ourselves, and we can start breaking these obligations off into small pieces and deal with them in terms of the purposes they fulfill—which is to transform “obligation,” and deontology, into a utilitarian ethics of some kind. Not the old teleology, but a pragmatist notion of only being obligated to each other, a notion of solidarity rather than the old, cosmological obligation Kant tried to keep alive (for more on this train of thought, see “Religion, a Utilitarian Ethics of Belief, and the Public/Private Distinction”). In a later paper, “Mechanistic Philosophy and the Yellow Brick Road of Science,” I tried to give sense to “teleological argument” for science. That failed miserably, as one helpful commentator pointed out ruthlessly, and was the beginning of my suspicions that I should just can the telos talk.

So while I still think Nietzschean anti-Kantianism is right, the whole idea of pressing philosophical ethical questions doesn’t, and that’s because the notion of “philosophy” is typically the “big view.” As my metaphor earlier suggests, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a big view—the problem just seems not knowing when to give it a rest. The big view is necessarily, because of its bigness, abstract—the “high country of the mind,” as Pirsig put it. But some problems are down in the woods, under the canopy, and being up high obscures them. My engagement with Sartre and Husserl brings out somewhat the part of existentialisme français I still think is true. Whatever Husserl’s scientism and Sartre’s decisionism (let alone Camus’ woeisme), the easy slogan we might distill from existentialism is “existence precedes essence.”

The slogan signifies two movements: 1) the movement away from essentialism, the notion that there are set, defined centers to each particular thing that can be discovered rather than fluid, evolving centers created by the thing (any “essence” is created by the way in which we exist) and 2) the movement away from Platonic other-worldliness, away from the Realm of the Forms and back down to the ground-level of life. If there is any utility left in the “Absurdity” paper, it is the slapping around of deontology; if any in the “Phenomenological-Existentialism” paper, it is my playing up of lebenswelt, the “lifeworld” that Husserl wanted us to get back to. (Oh, and Demonstration Stick Man, who finally made an uncredited comeback in “A Spatial Model of Belief Change.” What a mysterious person—is he a man who is a demonstration-stick or a stickman used for demonstrations?) The notion of lifeworld is useful in reminding philosophers, people who occasionally think too big for their own britches, that their reflections are rooted in a world that is not itself the world of reflection. This sounds other-worldly again, but perhaps a comparison with fiction may help—the words of a novel serve to create a world in which we can live through the reading of the words. Philosophy does that, too—the only difference is that if the words of philosophy do not connect up usefully enough with the things we do when not reading philosophy, then we might begin to doubt that it is philosophy we’re reading, but perhaps rather fiction (which is what well-read pragmatists think of large swaths of Plato’s dialogues and what most of my dorm-mates thought of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, as much as I tried to persuade them to the contrary).


  1. Maybe this isn’t entirely relevant, Matt, just a thought that came from reading.

    I haven’ read anything from Camus – somewhere around here I have a few TeachingCompany lectures on existentialism and Camus is highlighted there. Of course, that “the only true philosophical question is whether or not to commit suicide” is popular enough in its own right. That said it’s always seemed to me that the question is rather ungracious and rude – one of those things you say to a buddy who’s rambling on about philosophical nonsense in your ear while you’re just trying to sit back and enjoy a beer and the game.

    In short, it’s a refusal to play (so to speak). It reduces what one does in philosophy from, “that which one does for the sake of it” (as with anything), to, “that which one does for the sake of a goal”, then maintains what you’ve already pointed out.

    I see it analogous to my suggesting, “Let’s go fishing!”, and one responds, “No, that’s meaningless.” As if meaning was the reason for anything.

    On the other hand, I see it as a form of reductionism. i.e. philosophers seem to talk about the meaning behind what everyone is doing. Camus (in a meta-philosophical attempt) wants to talk about what the philosophers are up to. But then what’s Camus doing, and what’s the guy doing that’s talking about what Camus is doing?

    I’ll have to hop over to you link…..

  2. Well, one could certainly see "meaning" as the reason for anything, in the sense that one could say that "why are doing X?" always needs an answer, even if it's usually implicit and unstated. This is the Socratic spirit behind Camus and Sartre: so many people doing things unthinkingly, never considering that they might do something else. "Know thyself" said the Delphic Oracle.

    Camus' question is rude, as you say, because it hops up a gi-normous number of levels from the activity of fishing to "Why go fishing when you are just going to rot in a grave someday?" Well, yeah, I guess--but that's not exactly the most immediately pressing concern.

    The way I see it, I think the appropriate move is to reduce "for the sake of it" to "for the sake of some purpose," and it doesn't really matter what purpose one fills in. The bare "it" rather than "some purpose" still too strongly suggests that Aristotelian notion of each object having an inner telos, which got translated into Kantian German as the thing-itself. Existentialism's mistake was to go in for Plato-style huge questions: the belated philosophical angst of the Darwinian revolution. "Oh no! We're just animals in a mechanical world! There's no meaning!!!" Well, no big meaning maybe, but I don't see why the wheels don't have their own particular meanings relative to what they move in the monstrous machine called "the Universe."

  3. Relative to “meaning”, I suppose what I’m suggesting is that in a narrow sense, there is a meaning behind what one is doing – although it would be better put if I chose the word purpose. The purpose for heading out into the garage and working on an old vehicle may be to fix it up like new. On the other hand one may do philosophy for the purpose of ‘finding the ultimate question’. In the narrow sense, this is what drives one within the activity, it lights the fire under the ass, gives purpose and meaning, etc. Of course in a narrow sense this really might seem like a futile, meaningless task because, upon quick inspection, he has two perfectly good vehicles at his disposal in his garage already.

    On the other hand there is the global sense behind what one is doing. Globally, the man in the garage working on an old car is doing so because, he likes to. Philosophy and old cars are similar (like most things) in that they contain a major element of analyticity. The only difference between the two is the object of that exercise.

    In this way what I’m suggesting is that Camus is going after the narrow sense of why we do things. I came across a pretty good example of this the other day in a video from the skeptic James Randi titled, “James Randi: The Chimera and Parapsychology”. In the video he brings up the fact that, in 120 years of parapsychological research, there has not been one replicable experiment. In an analogy he states (and I paraphrase) 'that this would be akin to a medical doctor who has been in practice for 120 years and as a result of his medical interference, everyone of his patients has died.' (I don’t really like the analogy, but one gets his point, even without it. Why continue the scientific study?)

    Next he begins talking about a meeting he had with the two leading parapsychologists in the world, who are respected in their own right, work at respected universities, etc.. Randi poses to them the question above, (paraphrase) “Why, after 120 years of no replicable experiments, would you continue in the field of parapsychology.” And the response was, “….because we both believe, that deep down, there’s something here to be found…” Randi comments in the video that he stood up, shook both of their hands in turn and said, ‘gentlemen, you have my total respect and always will.” He closes by saying that that is what science is all about.

    Point being, I suppose, was that initially Randi was going after the narrow sense of why parapsychologists would partake in such a futile business, just as Camus was going after what he say was the futile business of philosophy. Of course, in the case of Randi, he would recant, by taking into account the purpose them saw in spite of the results that were attained.

    Although in not to convinced of myself.

  4. I think I understand what you mean by narrow vs. global sense of meaning. It's an awkward distinction to use with Camus, I think though, because it appears as if what the "global sense" behind any particular thing we do will be variations on "because I want/like/desire to." Indeed, that is a common denominator, but it doesn't get at the Socratic step that comes after. Camus was, indeed, going after the narrow sense, but his narrow was too big, whereas in my Socratic version of questions, the suggestion was that after answering the global "I like to do X" you ask, "Why do you like to do X?" not with big narrow-answers like "It's the meaning of my life," but smaller narrow-answers like "It gets Y-job done."

    The Socratic step down from global to narrow, in your distinction, is important, I think. Camus' problem was within the narrow category, but not versus global. Camus didn't care whether you liked it, because that's just the datum we are working with: he wanted to know why you are doing what you like. How does what you like give meaning to your life?

    Because with the global, what could anyone's response be? "Well, good for you, I'm glad you like it." The global sense doesn't help differentiate activities. For example, the parapsychologists--my reaction to the Randi anecdote was: "And I could give it shit if they think there's something deep down there. Good for them for keeping themselves busy, but plugging away at an activity only because you believe against all evidence that there will be a sublime result seems silly to me." That's not usually how good science works. Far be it for me to tell people how to give meaning to their lives, but global-sense continuity--"Hey, we both do activities for the same reason! Because we like them!"--comes cheap. I'm more interested in self-awareness of the narrow senses. They seem not only more interesting, but also more useful.

  5. I can't paste from Word???

    On the one hand I agree with what you're saying here... But... I'm tempted to go a rout I'm not entirely comfortable with and say; the global cannot in all circumstances be reduced to a narrow sense. e.g. Art. I'd submit that the Socratic step doesn't get us out of global reasons (meanings and purposes) when it comes to those who paint, or write, etc.

    But this takes me even further from your post - sorry about that. I'm reflecting tangential thoughts here.

  6. I think I know what you're getting at when you say that "the global cannot in all circumstances be reduced to a narrow sense," but I might urge that it can in principle always be reduced but that there are several kinds of reasons why it might not in practice be so reduced on particular occasions.

    Here are two very large reasons (though I don't necessarily exhaust the field): 1) the sense of difficulty--it is sometimes difficult to articulate why you like something. 2) the sense of awe--sometimes mute apprehension is all we want out of certain experiences, like a sunset.

    I think (1) is sometimes confused for: 1*) the sense of ineffability--it is sometimes impossible to articulate certain experiences (I talk about (1) and (1*) in relation to Pirsig's notion of Dynamic Quality in "Dynamic Quality as Pre-Intellectual Experience"). The notion of ineffability is at best a stipulation and at worst a metaphysical notion. Since, as a pragmatist, I only admit to practical problems, the most I can make out of overtures to (1*) is as a stipulation that experience-X is best left inarticulate. As a stipulation, I can have no theoretical problem with it, because a stipulation is something made in practice for particular reasons (and as a pragmatist, that's all I ask for). And this is what (2) is--the sense that some experiences are best when not talked about.

    I see (1*) as a useless running together of (1) and (2). Some people like awe, and everybody has run into the difficulty of articulation. When people who have no particular truck with ineffability (like untheoretical people who couldn't really tell you what the word meant) answer the Socratic question of why they like a sunset with, "I don't know why--I just do, and I don't really care why," I read them as making a perfectly justified articulation of (1) and (2)--they find it difficult to enunciate exactly why, and they have a relatively inarticulate sense that it shouldn't matter. I might be able to give form to their sense that enjoying the sunset "without reason" is justified, thus giving them a reason, but a justified implicit reason is as good as an explicit one in some cases, and sometimes better (this last pairing of implicit/explicit and inarticulate/articulate being an allusion to how I think Brandom fits in with this).


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