Submission

This post is a little break from phenomenology and AI, but one I’ve been meaning to write for some time now. I read this novel, Submission, by Michel Houellebecq, without knowing much about the author or the controversy surrounding it…I did this on purpose. I wanted to read it on its own merits, then do my googling later.

Spoiler alert…I give the alert, but this isn’t a plot-driven story. Knowing what will happen shouldn’t ruin it for you.

The novel is about a Muslim party taking over the French government. The fusion of religion into French education and culture is central to the themes explored here. Is this fusion a good thing? Bad? The author leaves us in the dark.

We stay in the first person POV with Francois, a Sorbonne professor and expert in Huysmans (whom I’ve never read, apparently an author of the decadent period who later becomes religious). Francois is the embodiment of everything we dislike about the French. And yet, the novel gripped me, despite the fatiguing je-m’en-foutisme of the narrator. Here, the protagonist’s ennui isn’t the point. Rather, it’s part of the point, but only as a reflection of society, as satire. You get that right off the bat, which makes staying in Francois’ head tolerable. Besides, I found myself laughing at the protagonist at certain points, but maybe that’s a reflection of my sick sense of humor. Humor works, however, and I felt pulled along.

The narrator is too aloof and self-centered to give us much perspective on reality. He seems to be a representative of a whole, either academics in general, French academics in particular, or the bourgeois…I don’t know. He basically bumbles about, mostly in his own head. The politics are talked about, but they remain in the background for most of the beginning. This background—revealed to us in dialogue and little details—keeps the tension going throughout Francois’ cliché existential crisis. The author doesn’t take his protagonist’s lack of raison d’être too seriously, and that helps to elevate the novel to a political and moral realm.

Francois does try to become religious earlier in the tale…sort of. I see this chapter as a character-reveal—Francois tries to mirror his own protagonist’s life story—but more than that, comic relief. Before the absolute Muslim takeover, Francois goes to Ligugé Abbey (where Huysmans had taken his vows) in an attempt to etch out some meaning for his empty existence. Only, there were a few things in the way on his path to heaven:

The modern church, constructed within monastery walls, had a sober ugliness to it. Architecturally, it was reminiscent of the Super-Passy shopping center in the rue de l’Annonciation, and its stained-glass windows, simple patches of color, weren’t worth looking at, but none of that bothered me. I wasn’t an aesthete—I had infinitely less aesthetic sense than Huysmans—and for me the uniform ugliness of contemporary religious art was essentially a matter of indifference. The voices of the monks rose up in the freezing air, pure, humble, well-meaning. They were full of sweetness, hope, and expectation. The Lord Jesus would return, was about to return, and already the warmth of his presence filled their souls with joy. This was the one real theme of their chants, chants of sweet and organic expectation. That old queer Nietzsche had it right: Christianity was, at the end of the day, a feminine religion.

All of this might have suited me fine, but going back to my cell ruined it: the smoke detector glared at me with its little red hostile eye.

He quits the monastery because he’s not allowed to smoke in his room. He can smoke outside. I’m reminded of my time in France…I once saw my Plato professor light up a RYO cigarette in the hallway just outside his classroom, right next to a sign that said “No Smoking.” I consulted with a few students who were also smoking in the hallway. I received a few shrugs and snickers before I decided to light one up myself. I found it thrilling and tried to hide my excitement; they took it as a God-given right. Francois would commit suicide if he had to live in California.

And when Francois says he’s not an aesthete, I don’t know whether I believe him. He does eat microwave dinners (ethnic mostly), but he never fails to mention what kind of food and drink is being served, not even when he can hear bombs going off in the distance. And yet, on the other hand, this non-stop food fixation could simply be French, not foodie-French. Just typical bourgeois French. It’s hard to say, being an American and coming at it from my perspective.

With his food fixation comes a similar sex fixation. His relationships are pathetic and sad, yet it’s another aspect of his life about which he is blasé. Sex, however, is central to his being, it defines him, even when he gets nothing from it. He did once have a sort-of girlfriend, a Jewish student. Out of concern for her safety, she leaves with her family for Israel. He tries to miss her, but in the end he doesn’t.

I’d like to share with you what I consider the most disturbing passage in the whole novel, but one that sums up our protagonist’s character. Francois has just fled Paris, just lost his position at the Sorbonne, and is now unsure where his life is heading. He arrives at a gas station:

The parking lot was deserted, and right away I could tell something wasn’t right. I slowed to a crawl before I pulled up, very carefully, to the service station. Someone had shattered the window, the asphalt was covered with shards of glass. I got out of the car and walked inside. Someone had also smashed the door of the refrigerated case where they kept the cold drinks and knocked over the newspaper dispensers. I discovered the cashier lying on the floor in a pool of blood, her arms clasped over her chest in a pathetic gesture of self-defense. The silence was total. I walked over to the gas pumps, but they were turned off. Thinking I might be able to find some way of turning them on behind the register, I went back into the shop and stepped reluctantly over the body, but I didn’t see anything that looked like an ON switch. After a moment’s hesitation, I helped myself to a tuna-vegetable sandwich from the sandwich shelf, a non-alcoholic beer, and a Michelin guide.

This distance and lack of empathy is meant to be utterly shocking. However, Francois isn’t portrayed as a bad person, but instead a sick person. His only real relationship, the only one which evokes feeling in him, is the one he has with his favorite author, Huysmans (which amounts to self-love, really). When his father dies, he feels no grief. He’s estranged from his family and this matter is treated in a minor way, as a matter of course, yet it plays a huge role in the novel since it contrasts sharply with the cultural upheaval that follows. It’s once again: modern, independent, free-but-morally-bankrupt man vs. family-centered, hierarchical Islam.

 

Francois ends up finding his raison d’être. He converts to Islam, despite having no religious feeling. In the end, what seems to matter most is not the particular religion he converts to, but having something—anything—to live for. Hence, the submission of modern man. Here we’re reminded of Sartre’s Roads to Freedom series: The protagonist decides to fight against the Nazis not out of moral feeling, but just to have something to do with himself. To give this stance more philosophical credence, you might say he overcame the burden of freedom…you might know the popular phrase—condemned to be free…well, all that, & etc. I tend toward the first interpretation (not a big Sartre fan.)

Of course, there’s a huge difference here: Francois does have a choice, his “submission” is not coerced in any strong way, there are no Nazis at his doorstep, and we know that. But when the moment comes when he must make that choice, we also know his true desires. Francois will submit…he holds no ideals precious, not even humanism, which sits vaguely in his psyche as a sort of cultural embellishment which can easily be discarded. He’s allowed to retire if he chooses not to convert, and he’ll receive a more than fair pension. On the other hand, if he converts, his salary will increase, his prestige will increase, and he’ll be allowed to have multiple wives, all of whom will keep him well-fed and well, um, taken care of. His number of wives goes up in proportion to his salary, which goes up in proportion to his prestige, which has already been chosen for him. He doesn’t have to decide or work much for any of this: it’s been determined that he’s a three-wife sort of guy. He can choose his wives or a matchmaker could do it for him. Francois’ life has altered and, from his point of view, for the better.


 

What Google taught me about the novel:

Submission was published the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attack, the same week that Houellebecq himself appeared on the cover of that magazine. To make things weirder, I was reading the novel when the Paris attacks occurred. To make things even weirder—I was reading this passage when I first heard the news:

“That’s the first fighting we’ve had in Paris,” Lempereur remarked, in a neutral tone. Just then we heard a new round of gunfire, this time quite distinct, as if nearby, and a much louder explosion. All the guests turned toward the sound. A column of smoke was rising into the sky above the buildings. It must have been coming from somewhere near Place de Clichy.

“Well, it looks as if our little soiree is breaking up,” Alice said.

This passage came early in the novel—before the creepy gas station scene—but you get hints of that same eery blasé distancing from virtually everyone surrounding Francois. Notice the last line of this passage. Alice’s comment is the epitome of insensitivity. Which leads me to think Francois stands for an entire group, as a representative.

The questions that come to mind are: Is the novelist implying something sinister and racist against Muslims in general, or is he putting down European ‘modern man’ as morally and spiritually bankrupt? I’m not sure, but I suspect the latter, especially given Francois’ fair treatment in the end if he’d decided not to convert. That’s the wonderful thing about the novel—it lends itself to interpretation and discussion. And it’s a quick read, nothing like Sartre’s lumbering Roads to Freedom, although it seems to feed off of those themes in a fresh way. Submission’s breezy, short chapters make certain unsavory aspects of this novel work, at least for me. The pacing might feel a bit slow at first for those who are used to dramatic openings, but the humor—sometimes risky and grotesque, sometimes light, sometimes dark—keeps the serious and disturbing elements in check. I found myself not really liking the protagonist, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to. His mundane, mostly food-based fixations were well done—a light touch, just enough to provoke a chuckle here and there. The voice is not what I’d call academic, although it seems that way at first. Later you learn that this Sorbonne scholar has a dirty mind, and why we have the phrase, “Pardon my French.”

Last but not least, here’s a photo of Michel Houellebecq which appears as a cropped version on the back jacket cover:

images.jpeg

“Je m’ennuie.”

 

Heidegger’s Being and Time (Part III: Dualism)

I’ve been threatening to explain Heidegger’s views on why dualism is predicated on a mistake, and I’ve finally done it. Well, I let someone else do it while I held the camera.

Please don’t read my criticism below until after you’ve seen the video. (It won’t make any sense.)


MY CRITICISM

If Heidegger could prove that presence-at-hand arises out of readiness-to-hand, that the world of purpose (teleology) which we inhabit is primordial, that the world of bare existences is dependent on the world of value, then he’s proven that dualism has been misguided. Heidegger shows how presence-at-hand could arise out of readiness-to-hand, but he doesn’t show that it must. The necessary connection is missing, and this weakens the whole of Heidegger’s project as I understand it.

As always, feel free to ask questions, offer criticisms, shower praise on Geordie and his exquisite performance, etc.


Transcript:

Me: Why is dualism predicated on a huge mistake that has carried through the whole history of Western philosophy?

Professor: Dualism is the view that there are two substances in the world, two kinds of being—mind and matter—and that somehow mind perceives matter, perceives the world. They are separate ontologically—that is, conceptually—but somehow they connect. When Heidegger addresses this problem, he doesn’t do it in the traditional kinds of terms that I just used. I think that the key to understanding him is in his idea of presence-to-hand [presence-at-hand] and readiness-to-hand. And the primacy of readiness-to-hand.

Presence-at-hand is what we modern Westerners think of as simply the way things are. They sit out there and fill up space and time and nothing else. Readiness-to-hand is the object in so far as it has value.

The only thing in philosophy that I know of that is like this is final cause in Aristotle, where objects have certain values insofar as they are good for certain purposes or created by those purposes. The value, then, is in the object. But here in Heidegger it is much broader than that and I don’t think Heidegger had very much respect for the Aristotelian final cause. It comes from the active involvement or engagement of Dasein—that is, human being—with the world. The world exists first as value-laden.

The mountain that sits there as a chunk of matter or worldliness is not simply a volume filled with stuff. It is an obstacle in a path, it is a goal to be climbed, it is a piece of beauty to be looked at and enjoyed. It is all kinds of values first—primordially—and then in Heidegger we subtract from it those values and thus come to the presence-at-hand. So that presence-at-hand is actually derived from readiness-to-hand, not the other way around. And I believe Heidegger refers to this by saying that presence-at-hand is a deficient mode of readiness-to-hand. First of all, it is there in Dasein’s active engagement with the world as a value-ful object, then we subtract the value and come up with the idea of present-at-hand, which he thinks we mistakenly put back into the object and try to imagine Dasein coming across something present-at-hand and adding value to it. That is dualism as Heidegger understands it. For him, it’s wrong.

An example of the relationship that Heidegger gives between present-at-hand and ready-to-hand is the idea of being broken. You start with the primordially-given ready-to-hand…say, a tool, which has a certain value imbued in its being, being good for hammering would be the value that’s in a, well, hammer. Then we are to imagine a hammer breaking, perhaps the handle breaks so that it’s no longer [something in German] ready-to-hand, it becomes now merely present-at-hand, sort of stupid. All I can do with it now is kick it.

Kind of like a car that doesn’t work anymore, the first reaction is to kick it. It just sits there, being, but no longer good for anything. And it is obviously bad for something, but its presence-at-hand comes forward and in this way the present-at-hand is derived from the ready-to-hand. And this is an example, I suppose, of what Heidegger means by presence-at-hand being a deficient mode of readiness-to-hand.

Me: What is Heidegger’s attitude towards science?

Heidegger’s attitude towards science is not that science is simply wrong or anything like that, but that science is a derivative activity that comes up with a purely theoretical view of the world, which it then superimposes back on the world, then imagines Dasein coming upon the world and tries to imagine how it can happen that Dasein knows the world. But in fact, according to Heidegger, Dasein was already there in the world with Being-in-the-world before any of that happened. Of course, the world that Dasein was “in,” so to speak, was a world of readiness-to-hand. Everything was ready-to-hand in one way or another. Either as an obstacle or a source of food—it was good for something or bad for something, let’s put it that way. Dasein was already there, with it in a primordial unity which is what he calls Being-in-the-world. Again, from that primordial unity Dasein has the capacity to withdraw itself from the world, and merely look at the world instead of using it or being engaged with it in some way. And that’s what science is.

Now gravity of course is a scientific idea. And so the idea of gravity is for Heidegger derivative. Derivative, in what sense? Gravity is the idea that all pieces of matter anywhere in the world attract each other with a certain force. It would be closer to the original primordial experience to say something like…well to use the etymology of the word “attract”…that is, it’s not just a motion of two bodies towards each other, but a real attraction in which, in Aristotle’s terms or in old Greek terms, the bodies experience a kind of love. I’m sorry if that sounds romantic or hideously old-fashioned, but that would be closer to what Heidegger thinks. Though, I don’t think that Heidegger is saying that “love makes the world go ’round” or anything like that, but that the world is not simply matter in motion. The world can love, it can hate…it has all sorts of value-laden relations that are involved with motion. It’s just growth. Growth is a motion in Aristotle’s terms, and growth is a much richer concept than mere gravitational attraction.

Back to the mind-body problem:

So now if we’re trying to imagine this primordial unity of Being-in-the-world (in which the world is encountered as value-laden in myriad ways) and presence-at-hand (which is derived from that world), we can see that in order for presence-at-hand to emerge in that way, Dasein must have been already there in the world before it performed that feat of abstraction which lead to presence-at-hand. So Dasein was already there in the world before we separated Dasein and the world and then tried to figure out how to get them back together again. If we begin with the primordial unity of Being-in-the-world, according to Heidegger, we don’t have the mind-body problem. We have the unity of Dasein and the world, which he called, Being-in-the-world.

What do you think?

Join the discussion at philosophyandfiction.com

Thanks for watching!

Heidegger’s Being and Time (Part II: Dasein)

In the last Heidegger post, I promised I’d address why Heidegger thinks that dualism (the mind-body problem) is predicated on a huge mistake that has carried through the whole history of Western philosophy. I will eventually. I’m putting that off until the next post…I hope you’ll stick around until then. I’m not promising anything, but I hope to make a video. I just downloaded iMovie into my iPad and I’m having fun learning how to use it, but as I said, no promises.

First we need to know a key term—Dasein. Dasein is what we would ordinarily call a human being or consciousness, but these are very poor word choices because they have connotations Heidegger would want to dispense with. I only offer this as something to hold onto briefly, a foothold or scaffolding which should later be taken away.

Normally the word Dasein would be translated into English as simply “existence” or “presence.” For Heidegger, the word takes on a special signification which can be better grasped if we take a look at its roots: Da-There, Sein-Being. Being There. When English speakers read Heidegger, the word is left untranslated to avoid confusion. For people like me who don’t speak German, it comes across in its foreignness as a technical term with a special meaning. I imagine it would be confusing for those whose native language is German, as they would simply think existence in the ordinary way. So perhaps English speakers have the advantage here. Dasein is to be taken as a special technical term.

What is Dasein? Heidegger says:

Dasein is an entity which in each case I myself am. Mineness belongs to any existent Dasein, and belongs to it as the condition which makes authenticity and inauthenticity possible…But these are both ways in which Dasein’s Being takes on a definite character, and they must be seen and understood a priori as grounded upon that state of Being which we have called “Being-in-the-world”…The compound expression ‘Being-in-the-world’ indicates in the very way we have coined it that it stands for a unitary phenomenon. This primary datum must be seen as a whole. (53)

Note: Authentic could mean “the mode in which I can discover Being” and inauthentic “the mode in which I flee from discovering Being.” These words do carry some of the usual connotations. But to keep things simple, just think: authentic=good, inauthentic=bad.

My sloppy interpretation of the quote above: I am always in the world in a unified way. But by “in” I don’t mean that “I” am in the world as water is “in” a glass. As Heidegger puts it, “There is no such thing as the ‘side-by-side-ness’ of an entity called ‘Dasein’ with another entity called the ‘world'” (55). Such a relationship is spatial and relies on that mistake I’ve been alluding to.

As Heidegger says: “It is not the case that man ‘is’ and then has, by way of an extra, a relationship-of-Being towards the ‘world’—a world with which he provides himself occasionally.” (57).

So much for Dasein for now. There’s a lot about Dasein that I’ve excluded, but I figure this is enough to take in for now.


In the first post, I explained that Heidegger’s project in Being and Time is to uncover the meaning of Being. I explained that Heidegger simply does away with noumena and radically asserts that we can know Being phenomenologically, although its meaning eludes us.

Why does Heidegger say that Being is veiled or hidden from Dasein? 

When we want to inquire into what something is, we tend to look for a definition.

In order to come up with a definition, we seek a genus and species. We want to know how the thing in question is like a certain group of things and how it is at the same time distinguished from those things. Definitions always express a relationship to other entities.

However, Being cannot be defined—there’s nothing broader than Being, so we have no way of offering a genus for a definition, there’s no greater category to which “Being” belongs. Being is not a category to be broken up. Being is not an entity.

Being can be discovered, but because it can’t be defined, it cannot be assessed or judged retrospectively.

We fail to apprehend Being because we are for the most part caught up in the things in the world. This state is what Heidegger would call “average everydayness” and it’s for the most part inauthentic. Our average everydayness gives rise to the problem of dualism.

Thanks for reading! Your comments make this work worthwhile!

Stumbling Blocks in Reading Philosophy

Philosophical texts are notoriously difficult to read, but the real problem comes when each text calls for a distinct set of skills. By the time you’ve “cracked the code” to reach that “ah ha” moment with one philosopher, it’s time to start all over with another.

I’d like to share some of my stumbling blocks with you.

I was inspired to write on this topic after reading Michelle Joelle’s The Delicate Art of Reading Philosophy, a post every philosophy student should read.

WORKS THAT SEEM EASY, BUT AREN’T:

This is the most difficult category, because we think we understand when we don’t. There’s no impetus to move beyond our flawed understanding to reach the deeper meaning. It’s only by accident that we realize we’ve had it wrong all along. The only cure for this malady is to take a more generous approach with the text, to assume it has something important to say rather than tearing it apart before we’ve fully grasped it.

Anything ancient goes in this category.

Can we really learn from someone who wrote over 2000 years ago? It seems fair enough to say we’d get an historical understanding, but are these ancient texts intrinsically interesting?

Of course, these questions are usually in the back of student’s minds, not explicit or conscious. However, the doubt can make it difficult to take a text seriously. Students often give obligatory lip service to the great achievements of the ancients without really finding these achievements anything but curious artifacts. I certainly had these doubts in the back of my mind, until I reached the “ah ha” moment in a major way with Plato.

Plato is particularly difficult. On the one hand, students are often told that Plato wrote in dialogue form, so they expect to be carried along as if they were reading a novel. Very soon they realize this is not the way it works. So then they switch back to the familiar methods of analyzing arguments. Here they find themselves wandering down blind alleys, and they wonder what the point is. They might appreciate that Plato wanted us to “think for ourselves” or some such platitude, but ultimately they find the whole experience disappointing.

Plato always requires multiple readings. Give yourself time! 

Know your history. There will always be historical characters, and if you don’t know your Greek history or who these characters were, it’s worth looking them up. For instance, if you don’t know who Alcibiades was, you won’t understand his significance when he shows up drunk at the end of the Symposium. Try to imagine a modern-day equivalent. Imagine J.F.K. crashing your party instead of just some dude off the street.

Secondly, give some time to analyzing arguments, but then place them in context. Who’s making these claims? Why? What motivations/intentions are they coming from? What’s the setting? What is Socrates trying to do? Is he being facetious? Is Plato speaking through him?

And lastly, pay attention to detail. The more irrelevant it seems, the more you should pay attention. If a speaker mentions that he just came from the Piraeus or a festival, look up that festival and its significance. If someone seems to be blathering on about nothing, pay even closer attention. Assume this: Absolutely nothing in the text is disposable (Phaedrus 264c). Reading Plato is like putting together an enormously complex puzzle.

William James. I started with The Varieties of Religious Experience and learned so much about what I had previously found perplexing about asceticism in religion. James struck me as thoughtful and fair-minded, deeply sympathetic to religion but also realistic. I immediately read most of his other works with great eagerness.

James wrote in a clear and direct style, which presents its own peculiar problem. I found after reading several books that I had to take a step back to avoid getting swept along. It’s a kind of rhetoric that comes as such a relief after reading a lot of German philosophy, but don’t let it make you lazy. As I read him I really wanted to be on his side…it’s a lulling quality, a “hot damn, he sounds so direct he must be right!” Don’t get me wrong, he’s a hard hitter and his ideas on radical empiricism were big, but tread with caution. Take the time to write out his arguments or repeat them to yourself.

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical InvestigationsI think most people know the difficulties here. I never did reach the “ah ha” moment with Wittgenstein. At first I was excited to see that same sentence-level clarity that William James exhibits, but then found after reading the first paragraph that I had no idea what was said. I have never read anything so hard, but seemingly easy. I kept pushing on through Philosophical Investigations, but never got beyond the “slab” example.

Analytic philosophy. I found similar problems with reading Frege and others. I never achieved the “ah ha” moment.

Leibniz’s MonadologyThis is the most beautifully bizarre work I’ve ever read. Leibniz’s style here is to lay down the law, and this can be off-putting. But the law he lays down is…so…weird. The best way to read this is to run with it, let him take you there. Think of it at first as a strange new poetry. Let down your guard and explore its beauty then later come back to criticize, otherwise reading this will feel like a waste of time. A solid understanding of Plato’s Timaeus is also useful.

Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. If you’re not a Christian, try to pretend you are and take a sympathetic stance. This work attempts to make sense of God coming down to earth in the flesh of Jesus Christ. It explains the paradox and the importance of paradox as central to Christianity. It’s the best defense and explanation of Christianity I have ever read.

Augustine’s Confessions. It’s always the pear thing. He steals a pear for no reason, feels bad. Can we move on to Rousseau’s masochistic fantasies, please?

Hold your horses. There’s a lot going on here. The fact that stealing a pear is so small a sin is part of the point.

Also, this is regarded as the first autobiography—take into consideration what must have been going through Augustine’s mind when writing in this form. When arguments are brought to a personal account, they cease to be arguments. No one can argue with my experience, but I can still use my recounting to persuade you, to make you feel what I’m feeling even if you don’t agree with my opinions. I may steal a pear and feel guilty about it, and you may laugh at me for feeling guilty, but you won’t argue with me. There! I have my foot in the door to your soul. Now I will show you how stealing that pear for no reason is actually worse than doing something really bad. No really.

His insights into memory and psychology are especially worth reading. His thinking was authentic and original, and very thoughtful. So push on after you’re done laughing at the pear thing.

Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. It’s massive. It’s overarching. It’s preposterously ambitious by our standards. I remember giggling as I showed my roommate the three or four pages in which Aquinas assumed he had proven the existence of God. I later read those arguments and caught myself frowning and scratching my head. Well, shit. Maybe he did it!

This is some of the clearest, most succinct philosophical thinking I’ve ever encountered. Dry, but solid. Beautiful in its precision. (And, of course, heavily influenced by Aristotle, whom I love.) Sometimes when it’s this clear and simple, it’s hard to take it seriously. But why is that?

I think philosophy students are used to…

WORKS THAT READ LIKE THE QUADRATIC FORMULA:

This includes a great deal of philosophy, especially German. If you don’t have to work hard for it, you must not have anything of value…that follows, doesn’t it? But watch out for those muddy puddles!

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. There’s a reason philosophy professors begin with Kant’s ethics—it’s much more manageable. Problems with CPR include contradictions and lots of terminology. When you try to use ordinary language to talk about his philosophy, you feel paralyzed in fear of saying something like: “Kant has this idea about…I mean, not an idea, a concept—NO! not that—a kind of thought, sort of…well anyways Kant says…” By now you’ve forgotten your point.

My advice here is to be understanding. Kant is not trying to be obscure; he’s trying to be clearer with all his definitions, but sometimes he fails. And when he fails after setting such a high standard for himself, it’s easy to get frustrated. Remember that he was pioneering an enormous project. Look for the overall meaning of his philosophy rather than let yourself get bogged down in details.

Husserl’s Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. Doesn’t the title say it all? The key to reading Husserl is this—find the linking verb. It may be halfway down the page in that page-long sentence. Once you find it, cut as many clauses as you can to make sense of that ridiculous sentence. Once you’ve done this, start taking in a few of the clauses.  Take a deep breath. You won’t die. Not yet. Get ready for your mind to be blown.

Heidegger’s Being and Time. I chose to focus on present-at-hand and readiness-to-hand. A lot of Heidegger’s writing can be infuriatingly tedious (I would call a lot of it muddy puddles). I found most of what I needed to know about phenomenology in Husserl, but I’m sure there are some who will disagree.

INTENTIONAL OBFUSCATION:

Descartes’ Metaphysical Meditations. How did the infamous Cartesian circle come to pass? How could such a thinker make this mistake? Even I, a lowly college undergrad, spotted the error. I think Descartes was a secret atheist, but I don’t really know. I take Galileo’s house arrest into consideration and the time the Meditations were published—eight years later. Not enough to prove anything, especially when you think of how often Descartes writes about God in letters and such, but if you assume he was an atheist, you’ll see the work in a whole new light. I found it was easier to appreciate what he had achieved. In any case, taking out the error will help you refocus on the methodology of doubt, which is really the main point.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot more writing falls into this category, for political reasons.

What are your stumbling blocks? Which writers/philosophers did you find the most difficult to read? How did you learn to read their works?

What is Freedom?

Just another word for nothing left to lose?

At Jmeqvist, you’ll find a great post distinguishing between positive and negative freedom. I’d like elaborate on these to get you good and confused:

1. Negative Freedom. Here I’m quoting Johan at Jmeqvist as he says it so well:

“…we are free in so far as external forces do not prohibit us from making certain choices. This concept of freedom is negative in that it concerns an absence of something, which in this case is the absence of interference.”

I might call this concept of freedom “common sense freedom” since in ordinary language (esp. in North America, as Johan carefully points out), this is usually what we mean by the word.

2. Positive Freedom. Here again I’ll quote Johan and then elaborate with a few examples:

“…a free person will be one who has a psyche that is properly ordered, so freedom on this concept is not about an absence, but about a presence of order in the psyche. This way of speaking has become marginalized, and may strike us as antiquated, but we see it arise when people talk about the way in which people’s desires can render them unfree.”

Plato: Those of you who are familiar with Plato know that he often spoke of being a slave to desire (consider the metaphor in the Gorgias which likens the blind hedonist’s soul to a leaky jar that can never be filled). One cannot be free until one has knowledge of what is good. Otherwise one is left to snatch at random desires, which will only lead to dissatisfaction in the long run, even if you happen to get lucky from time to time. Freedom in the Platonic sense will lead to happiness, happiness and wisdom being inextricably tied.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: One can be constrained in the #1 sense and still be free. “And all, being born free, alienate their liberty only for their own advantage,”—Ch 2 of the Social Contract. And: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.” Here we have a sticky philosophy indeed, but I’m not capable of giving the best summary of it right now. What I will say is here we have a sort of Platonic idea of freedom, but replace knowledge of the Good with the Law and the General Will and you have a closer fit. The problem is the General Will need not be the general will of the majority, so Rousseau’s effort to bring the Good down to earth seems to have failed. The Good and the General Will remain just as abstract as before.

Kant: Freedom is unconditional, self-causing; in other words, it’s autonomy from the world of contingency for rational beings. Since we can’t control everything that goes on in the world of cause and effect, we, as rational beings, shouldn’t place our moral laws on empirical foundations, but instead on the Categorical Imperative. Freedom is noumenal and cannot be known, but must be assumed. Also, being a free agent doesn’t mean you’ll be happy. Morality and happiness do not necessarily coincide.

3. Existential Freedom. This area is not my forte, so there’s my word of caution. If we suppose, like Nietzsche, for instance, that there is no clear definition of what it is to be human, then there can be no ordering of the psyche. Achieving perfection cannot be a goal unless it is taken to mean something subjective (which, in my opinion, is not really the same thing as #2.) Without these definitions we move into a territory beyond black and white, beyond good and evil. One must scratch out one’s own meaning, own’s authenticity, in this world despite seeing beyond false, imposed definitions, and this self-invention ex nihilo is existential freedom.

Johan asked an interesting question of #1 and #2: Are these definitions of freedom contradictory?

It is certainly true that existential freedom (which Johan doesn’t go into) contradicts positive freedom, but what about positive and negative?

Johan says: “Unless we hanker after a single definitive sense of the concept of freedom, there is no reason to think that differing concepts of freedom that pertain to differing areas of life are fundamentally incompatible.”

I agree with Johan, but I wonder how the various relationships would play out in the extreme.

Suppose you are given a choice between two boxes, but you don’t know what’s inside either box. You are free in the sense that you get to choose a box and no one is stopping you, but since you have no knowledge of what’s inside them, you have no rational basis on which to make a decision and are therefore not free in a positive sense (Let’s leave aside the possibility of abstaining from choice, please). Here positive and negative freedoms don’t seem to be in fundamental conflict, they just refer to different aspects of the situation.

However, having only negative freedom puts you in a crappy place. You have to gamble, and you don’t even know what’s at stake. You still have reason in this scenario, of course, which is why Kant’s freedom would not apply here. But in this case, reason is rendered entirely inoperative.

Let’s amend this metaphor and put a thousand mosquitos inside one box and a magical infinitely delicious calorie-free cupcake in the other. Throw in world peace if the cupcake is not enough for you.

Reverse the scenario. Suppose you know the cupcake and world peace are in one box, and you know mosquitos are in the other box, but someone has your hands tied behind your back and your mouth taped shut and so on so you cannot engage in your choice. Here we have one freedom (positive, knowledge-based freedom) but not negative.

But what good is knowing which box the cupcake is in if no one can eat it? What good is knowing how to bring about world peace and absolute guilt-free deliciousness if these things cannot come to pass?

Is positive freedom necessary for negative freedom to thrive?

Is negative freedom necessary for positive freedom to thrive? 

How would you play out this thought experiment for a society?

In what ways do these thought experiments pertain to real life situations?

What is your conception of freedom?

As usual, feel free to answer any of these questions. In fact, feel free to answer this question: Would you take the cupcake or world peace? And would it be chocolate or vanilla? Or something involving cream cheese?

Many thanks to Johan for his insightful post!