Monday, October 26, 2009

Finding the Balance

In Miguel de Unamuno’s “The Tragic Sense of Life,” he asserts that he is a “man of contradiction and quarrel” not because he lacks the ability to grasp one path as his own, but that he realizes that it is within his right as a free being to traverse across multiple paths, to experience more than one way to live his life. Furthermore, Unamuno adds that not only is he - and, by extension, us – capable of maintaining this dichotomy experiences, but that as a conscious being, he considers it his life mandate to take advantage of any and all opportunities made available to him without worrying over whether it undermines the decision or opportunity that came before. This compulsion to act, this drive to act according to his inner impulsion to “create his [own] spiritual world” (158) is what Unamuno deems the utmost charge in his life. And through a rather skillful network of adjoining metaphors, Unamuno successfully reasons for why he believes his perspective should extend beyond the realm of “he” and into the scope of the royal “we.” But through all his discussions, all his illustrations of why the man who acts with personal conviction than from an obligation to simply do what is expected of him, Unamuno never really reconciles his philosophy with his fleeting mention that “[a]ct so that. . . in the judgment of others you may deserve eternity” (159).

In my view, it seems that Unamuno trumpets a mode of being that moves forward without concern about expectations from others, about the rationalizations and generalizations one can easily find themselves stuck in. A life lived with unbridled “passion and even against all reason” (159) is what Unamuno values the most, but how will that affect one’s ability to co-exist in a world with other immortality-seeking beings? On one hand lies the argument that such fervent adherence to one’s own morals is dangerous, wrong, and that in order to fashion a society in which all individuals feel free to pursue their greater purpose, one must relinquish other smaller freedoms for the sake of communal safety. On the other – and this is the stance in which I believe Unamuno bases his argument – is the belief that any and all limitations on one’s freedom violates the very nature of that freedom, that one must act wholly and completely from one’s inner desire without relying on any external dimension. But wouldn’t that extreme sense of freedom conflict with another’s freedom and cause strife and even suffering? It seems, then, that the answer lies somewhere between those two extremes, in some elusive middle ground that has yet to be revealed. For through all our readings from Kierkegaard and Sartre and Heidegger (oh my!), they have expounded in detail on the need for individuality and self-reliance. But how does that self-reliance translate into a functioning nation?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Atheistic and Religious Existentialism

It seems strange to think that human beings cannot live their lives without thinking to themselves that there must be some sort of eternal retribution at the end. That at some point we are rewarded for our hard work and staying alive as long as we have, granted that we have lived "good," "worthy" or "meaningful" lives. But I can't seem to bring myself to actually believe in an afterlife and furthermore, I do not think I must necessarily frame my action as some sort of evaluable experience that will be judged after the fact. Unamuno points out that there is no truth that is not subjective, that we must all give our lives meaning, and that believing in an afterlife motivates us to make meaning in the world. While I cannot genuinely belive in an afterlife, it seems that my mortality and the finality of my life is what drives it and gives it meaning.

It is only reflectively that one begins to posit a meaning for his/her life, not actively. Thinking about some abstract eternal return may be helpful for some. But my own temporary existence on this earth and knowing that nothing will become of me after death (I will be dead afterall) seems to be an objective truth I cannot deny. And while I do not know for sure what will become of me upon my death, I don't think that an afterlife is going to help make my life anymore meaningful. In this way, Athiest Existentialism seems to make more sense to me than Religious Existentialism as I think it gets at the heart of the problems of human existence, that we are powerful meaning making beings, but that we are one of billions of those beings who are born and die everyday. It is the intersection of my particularity of being situated in the world and my anonymity of being just another being that is meaningful, not some sort of eerie, dream-like relationship to the world in which I must give a reason why I have lived at all when I wake up.

Immortality and Unamuno

Throughout the semester, we have encountered different modes of anxiety about possibilities and death. However, few of our readings have offered many thoughts on the afterlife itself and the attainment of an afterlife if one does exist, which is why Unamuno's statement "act as if you were to die tomorrow, but only in order to survive and become eternal" (159) along with his notions on truth intrigue me. In order to flush some of these ideas out, let us examine the situation in which someone performs an action, and when asked why they acted as such, the person resonds "becuase I want to go to heaven."

This motive for action has bothered me since I was a child for reasons partially inexplicable, but after reading Kant I think at the core what bothers me about this motive, in particular, is that it forces the actor to become a tool toward a greater end, rather than a free person deserving of respect and possessing of absolute worth and dignity. Personally, I believe that there are two types of immortaliy; immortality in the sense in which people refer to it in general, i.e. heaven, and immortality gained by impacting the world in such a way that one live's on through the consequences of one's actions. Whereas we cannot hope to understand immortality in the non-physical sense, we can at least strive to live in such a way that when we look back at our life we know that we have set something good in motion that will outlast our physical existstence. If it then turns out that there is a heaven, at least one will have lived a good life. When it comes time for judgement, who knows what the requirements to get into heaven are anyway? It seems as if many religions claim different things, but a common theme amongst them may perhaps be to live in such a way that one leaves a positive impact on the world (think the gold rule- love thy neighbor as thyself), so at least one's chances are decent. Regardless, the point is that instead of living a life that limits ones will to simply be a tool to a greater end, why not live in a value creating way which confims one's own existence in the world as we experience?

Returning back to Unamuno, I wonder how he would respond to such a statement of motive as "becuase I want to go to heaven." While my first inclination was to say that he would not have a problem with this, upon further relfection I think that he would say that heaven is an attempt to claim objective truth about the afterlife, namely that there exists some state of eternal happiness called heaven with pearly gates, and so on. However, in fact truths in our own existence (those that matter, anyway) arise from experience and decisions in our own lives which make subjective truth by confirming or asserting notions about given things. In the context of eternal life, Unamuno wants to cling to the fact that one in fact might exist, but he does not offer any sort of description it; we cannot experience the state of being which we term eternal life until we experience it, which obviously we cannot do. However, what we can do is to fervently believe that the possibility of eternal life is a real one, and live in such a way that we deserve it if it proves to be an option.

So, I do not think Unamuno disagrees with using wanting to get into heaven as a motive for the same reasons that I do, but I think that he would be careful describing eternal life as anything but the continuing of existence past that state in which we now exist. Regardless, I enjoyed the fact that he did address the concept of eternal life, since although it is a metaphysically and epistemologically difficult subject to tackle, it is a real possibility in our lives, and as such deserves attention when speaking of existence in general.

Losing the Reality of the Life: Dementia's Influence on Truth

While discussing the concept of a posteriori and a priori during our discussion about Unamuno’s “The Tragic Sense of Life,” I began thinking about the experience of a patient that has dementia.

As we explained in class, a posteriori is derived from experience and a priori means independent of experience as in universally true. A posteriori are the truths that unify our lives. So I wondered what the effects would be on the truths of a dementia patient. Dementia causes loss of significant amounts of intellectual ability such as memory. Dementia patients also experience loss of judgment and many cognitive skills. Medications can be prescribed to ease anxiety and agitation. As a result of dementia, a person’s behavior can change to be more prone to anger or aggression. The patient changes permanently cause of dementia and is not the same person that he or she was before the disease. Also, dementia is thought to affect people who are usually older, above sixty years old or so. Someone that is around or above sixty years old has had important life experiences that do influence his or her life.

Dementia changes the personality of a person so a patient’s perception of his or her present life and past experiences could be very different from what has been and is the actual truth about his or her life. As a result, dementia would cause a person to become confused about his or her own life. Because of such confusion, I wonder how a patient with dementia could figure out the actual meaning of life- especially the truths that are derived from experiences, which are a posteriori.

Also, in regard to the concept of a priori, dementia would cause all of a patient’s thoughts to be erased and muddled so I was thinking whether or not a patient’s truths that are independent of experience would be changed as well. Truths that are universally true are understood and accepted by the rest of humanity with any necessary experience. So even though a dementia patient loses the experience he or she would not be able to completely relate to the universal ways of societal thinking. Therefore, I am unsure if a patient with dementia would be able to perceive a priori types of truths.

I wonder three things in regards to a dementia patient:

Would the truths that are derived from experience, a posteriori truths, change if some moments in a dementia patient’s life have been erased from memory? Also, does dementia cause the patient to cloud the impression of these truth- creating experiences which causes the patient to form a false truth about his or her own life?
Also, would dementia patients be able to perceive a priori truths if they are not able to perceive or remember the reality of life?

Objective Truth

Unamuno claims that we make objective claims in order to give ourselves purpose. He says that truth is subjective. He claims that people can justify anything. That this fact allows for things like murder and rape to be thought of as something that can possibly be justified.
What basis does he have to say that truth is subjective? There are objective truths out there that we can prove with reason. Like all bachelors are unmarried males. Why can’t there be on objective truth, and someone is just wrong in interpreting that truth. A moron would have trouble understanding objective truths like 2+2=4, however someone who is a little smarter can see that easily. People might not be smart enough yet to see the objective truths in other areas. If I make the statement that Elvis is dead, I am objectively correct, I don’t care what conspiracy theories or beliefs people have, if they don’t think Elvis is dead, they are just wrong. I can also extend the objective reality to ethics. Maybe murder is objectively wrong but as ignorant animals we can’t understand that yet. Perhaps we are not using reason properly to understand the world. Who know, maybe Kant was right and anything that can’t be universalized is wrong. If we make reason the basis of our morality, it is arguable that we can claim objective truths about ethics and the world. I don’t understand what evidence Unamuno has to try to remove the idea of objective truths. It seems like if we look at plain egoism or utilitarianism you might be able to make this claim.
On a different note, Unamuno says that people should live every day with the knowledge that they will die. He argues against the church for restricting people from living a “meaningful life” and putting restrictions on people’s actions. Shouldn’t people be restricted though? If I thought I was going to die tomorrow, and if I thought that I needed to fulfill all my life long wishes before I die, I would be currently flying to Las Vegas to punch Carrot Top in the face. However, I know that such actions would leave me broke, in jail, and I know it is something that I shouldn’t do. Sometimes people do the craziest things on a whim. Having these restrictions in place by the church prevents people from doing destructive things. At least being brought up not to sin, will make people think about their actions before they act. It will make people at least think twice before doing things like getting revenge, or hurting people on a whim.
Unamuno believes that no person’s set of beliefs is totally based on rationality. We believe things then we situate them within the logical framework of our beliefs afterwards. I think that some examples of things we believe can help illustrate this.

In general, people believe what their senses tell them. If my senses tell me that I am listening to Dr. Johnson in class, I believe it without question. Even when I am dreaming, I believe what my “senses” are telling me: if I am being chased by something in my dream, I believe it and try to run away. Only afterwards when I wake up do I stop believing.

Reason tells me that it is certainly possible that I am just a “brain in a vat” or in “the matrix” but I honestly do not believe either option at all. One could say that this is because the probability of such advanced scientific progress or computers taking over the world is very small. But, this makes no sense because if I am a “brain in a vat” the actual world is not accessible to me because my senses are faulty. Therefore, I believe my senses before reasoning out and possibly despite reasoning out the reliability of the senses.

Another example has to do with our close relationships. Although it is possible for a mother to perform an elaborate charade to pretend to love her child, I believe that my mother actually does love me. I can never explore my family members’ minds for their actual feelings about me. However, despite this, I never seriously doubt that everyone in my family loves each other. (My family could get angry at each other or be annoyed by each other, but they would never stop loving each other). One could object by saying it is enormously improbable that someone would pretend to love someone for so long. However, it is not that uncommon to have families turn on each other in awful ways that are incompatible with a loving relationship.

I am not really sure what to make of these things Unamuno says I immediately take to be true. I think that one could argue for why they are true, but Unamuno states that I really do not take arguments into consideration when I believe these things. I am concerned about arguments precisely because I already know these things to be true. This seems to suggest that I create truth or maybe create “my own truth.” However, when I believe that my family loves each other, I believe that it actually happens in a real external world. I think that this contradiction creates an uncomfortable tension in Unamuno’s argument that is unacceptable if we really believe something to be externally true.

unamuno and nietzsche

Reading Unamuno reminded me of Nietzsche’s emphasis that every person live as a life-affirming and meaning making beings, despite the fact that there is no objective meaning to life. One of my favorite examples of the existential skepticism towards objective truth and meaning is in Nietzche’s book The Birth of Tragedy. He writes that we live just like we dream, as “in our dreams we delight in the immediate understanding of figures; all forms speak to us; there is nothing unimportant or superfluous.” Just like in a dream where strange things happen that make perfect sense to the dreamer, life is a strange happening that we somehow are able to comfortably accept. When something odd happens it is often easy, and easiest on us, to expect that there is a reason for it to have happened, similar to our dreams where strange things happen but still make sense. Nietzsche goes on to say, though, “even when this dream reality is most intense, we still have, glimmering through it, the sensation that it is mere appearance...that another, quiet different reality lies beneath it.” The most thorough skeptic, then, must not only doubt objective meaning and truth in our dream lives, but also doubt reality itself. For Nietzsche, this doubt leads the terrifying appreciation that chaos and chance are the abyss over which we walk, that we can be confident of no objective meaning, have no control over any part of our lives, and finally, that there is nothing we can do to change this. Despite the resulting horror of realizing and appreciating this chaos that underlies our falsely comforting and constructed truths, Nietzsche writes that “perhaps many will, like myself, recall how amid the dangers and terrors of dreams they have occasionally said to themselves in self-encouragement, and not without success: “It is a dream! I will dream on!”

This stance towards life and death seems like one of at least three possible ways that Unamuno and Nietzsche assert a person can approach a life that lacks objective meaning and purpose. One is to try and deny death by falsely attributing objective meaning to other objects in life. Believing in an objective God does this by relegating death as less important—instead of death being the primary concern of living, it is overcome by the attributed purposes and power that is given to God. Another approach to live is to not act at all. Recognizing that death is staring one in the face, the horror of the unknown and the magnitude of the oblivion of death might cause a person to lose faith that any of their actions have enough meaning to constitute a life worth living. Instead, that person would be resigned to giving up their life because they believe nothing can overcome an objectively meaningless existence. The third approach is the one advocated by Unamuno and Nietzsche. Instead of approaching death through a life of denial, or being horrified by the prospects of death and rendered incapable of action, both assert that life should be lived bravely and with conviction, because, and in spite of, the recognition that death renders all of one’s actions absolutely meaningless.

In regards to this third approach, I think that Nietzsche’s description of the dreamer and the overwhelming-ness of chaos complement Unamuno’s principle that every person should “act as if you were to die tomorrow, but only in order to survive and become eternal.” Unamuno’s example of the captain whose boat is sinking is similar to Nietzsche’s dreamer. Even with the deck of the boat giving way, the captain asserts with conviction—in the face of his own death—that his actions are purposeful despite his recognition that there is no objective purpose to what he is doing. Even in dying, he chooses to embrace his living and to live on. As a result, the second half of Unamuno’s principle that one should act is if “to survive and become eternal” seems more to mean that one should live as if their actions made death irrelevant, or because one believes their actions to be worthy of having meaning in a meaningless world. It is not the thought of eternal life that motivates a person to act meaningful and live, but rather is the possibility of creating, believing, and living with purpose that makes one want to believe in eternity. As a result, despite the horror, despair, and anxiety of being alive in a life without meaning, the person most worthy to live is that person who Unamuno suggests acts as if their convictions are worthy of acting out forever, and who Nietzsche claims has conviction enough to recognize life as a merely a terrifying and illusory dream, and yet chooses to dream on.

Experiencing Time

This class has made me look at many things in a new light. One of those things is time. I don't pretend to know anything about the relativity of time so I am not going to bring that up, and to my knowledge it is irrelevent to this particular discussion. My point is that it is interesting how time is objectified and at the same time (yay puns) subjectively experienced. The same objective duration of time can simultaneously "fly" for one and "crawl" for another. In this same regard, although a week has past, I don't feel a week older. I attribute to the fact that I only live in the present and therefore only experience time in the present. Further, because we only experience time in the present, to some extent I would venture to say that the difference between being five and forty is not the actual perception of thirty five years of time, but the what was experienced in those years and is backed up by memory.

It seems to me that we do not directly experience time; that is, we cannot purely perceive it. We experience it objectively with clocks, but this is external to our individual experience of it. It is extremely hard for me to judge the duration of time without some sort of reference. For example, it is impossible to describe how long an hour is. It seems to me our subjective perception of time cannot be based on time, but rather is solely based on what we are doing and its relation to time.

Time is a complex subject, but hopefully this makes some kind of sense.

Problems with the Anti-Rational Truth of Our Heart

Unamuno believes that the driving force for human existence is an idea in some sort of immortality. Of course, as he acknowledges, this is “anti-rational.” There is no real reason for us to believe it, but we do. We live our lives as if we will continue to develop as human beings, as if we will live forever. Assuming all this is true, I wonder if we may be doing ourselves a disservice by believing in something that likely does not exist according to our sense of reason. If we have the ability to change this outlook on life, by acting purely rationally, perhaps we would be better off by doing so.

Unamuno’s description of the human purpose—to make our lives unworthy of annihilation and seek an eternal sense of happiness—seems ideal, but only if it is possible to reach this sense of happiness. I do not think it is enough, as Unamuno seems to say, to believe that it is possible. The old idiom, “ignorance is bliss,” does seem to be enough to justify the human ideal. If there is no supreme happiness or immortality, then it seems wrong that it would be the basis of our lives.

Of course the alternative is not great. It means that we must actively accept the fact that the course of our lives is pointless, that there is not any real glory in acting to make annihilation an “unjust reward.” This is certainly bleak, but at least we render our lives something based in rational truth, rather than anti-rational truth, a contradiction.

All things considered, I’m not sure if it would ever be possible to change what Unamuno calls the “anti-rational truth of our heart, but it still seems disconcerting to think of our lives as based upon it. Maybe there is not much for us to do but accept its problems as the center of our existence. Or maybe we should rethink our driving purpose if possible, however bleak that may be.

Life and Death

In Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life, he talks a lot about the paradoxes of life. Unamuno asserts that the ones that yearn immortality the most, deserve it the most and claims that life must be lived with a passion for immortality against all reason and rationality. On the other hand, he acknowledges the paradoxical lives we live and the subjectivity that dooms one man to commit suicide, while reaffirms another’s will to live. He emphasizes this point and beats it across the reader’s head and then to prove his point suggests that we live our lives as if we are going to die tomorrow, but only to survive and become eternal. This is an oxymoron, how can one live life knowing he will die in the near future, with the intent to survive? It is impossible, it defies reason – if you know your death is a certainty, you cannot possibly survive, so the scenario must be placed back in realm of individual subjectivity, with each of us adopting it as our own and making meaning out of it.
He mentions that the objective belief systems that are rampant in our society are all merely used to justify actions and should not be followed as the objective truths, because they aren’t and often times they are shaken to their core and no longer true as they once were believed to be. A personalized combination of many ethics that an individual can adapt and thus regard as true is what should happen and it is all that matters. Thus, this slight mistrust of any moral or ethic as the objective truth causes much despair and anguish.
Maybe we need this constant state of limbo, where no ethic is objectively certain, where there is a lot of unknown, in order to continue living in the bliss that we do now. How would our lives turn out if we knew everything? What if we knew where, how, and when we will die, or (just to appeal back to Unamuno) that we will continue this existence of constant contradiction forever, attaining immortality in the literal sense? Our ignorance in this regard offers a way out and promotes a more proactive life, because it adds the despair of not knowing and the anxiety of possibility to our consciousness.
Unamuno’s paradox of living as if we will soon die in order to survive, makes it harder to postpone our end, because we are thinking of it constantly, but at the same time we know it, or at least believe it to be false, that we have much more to live than just one more day. It also leaves us wondering, not knowing when our death will happen, trying to subjectively accept that it will happen, but also empowers us with choices and that we are in control, until of course we die. Our ignorance makes us think we are immortal and act accordingly.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Morality and the Individuality of Doubt

Yesterday in class we continued to discuss objective and subjective truths in the context of Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life. It is popular among the existentialist philosophers to suggest that objective truths are not what we really mean when we discuss what is true. This is also incorporated in calculative thought, in which we learn facts such as 2+2=4, accept this as factual, and move on with our lives. In my opinion, this argument undermines the importance of objective truths, because they allow societies to function properly. It is evident that we have objectified morality, because we have established laws that people subconsciously accept and live by. For the most part, we do not even think twice about the cases of murder, rape, etc. because it is engraved in us that these actions are immoral. To take our own subjective views on these actions would be “frowned upon,” and to act contrarily to these social norms could land one in prison.

We discussed the idea of raping babies in class. We collectively agree that raping babies is…wrong. Then we attempted to find reasons when raping babies would be thought of as just, or “called for.” Our inability to think of any legitimate reasons for such an act shows the little influence of subjectivity on aspects of morality. When is it okay to murder someone? When is it okay to steal or cheat? To subjectively conceptualize when these acts are decent is irrelevant, as society has established that they are wrong. Thus, we must abide accordingly. While it may be an entertaining thought exercise, it has no application or relevance.

Let me shift gears a little bit and turn to Unamuno’s irritation with Christianity’s generalized rationalization of its beliefs and requirements. Both Kierkegaard and Unamuno criticize Christianity for attempting to make itself something to which everyone has access. However, to understand God or to have a relationship with such an all-powerful being is individuality at its highest degree. One must undergo an entirely particularized experience to have such a relation with the Absolute.

But that begs the question: Is doubt not a singularized view as well? It seems that in order to fully disbelieve in God, one must recognize the utmost individual experience with the Absolute. Disbelief would then stem from the failure to have such an experience, or to recognize those who claim to “know God” as absurd. However, one could develop doubt of God from an experience that causes him to “lose his religion”, as we mentioned briefly in class. This particular occurrence, in which something tragic or not according to God’s “plan” happens, will cause someone to lose his faith altogether. Something as powerful as this, to break the most particularized relationship, must also be out of the ethical realm entirely.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Jesus and other Role models

All arguments about God aside, I would like to take a minute and wonder about Sarte's view l on Jesus and other role models in general. Let's assume that Jesus was a good person (as most Christians do), and examine the claim that we should imitate Jesus in who we are so as to be better people. I think, for Sartre, this claim creates a variety of problems. First, when one uses someone or something as a model for one's behaviour, one can rid oneself of responsibility for one's actions by virtue of blaming the model. For example, to follow a model is to make certain, prescribed chioces in a given situation based on the actions of the model in that same situation. Then, the model holds primary responsibility for the action rather than the present actor, which is to hide from freedom altogether, which is inauthentic. Second, and more closely related to our recent readings on bad faith, to use Jesus as a role model (i.e. W.W.J.D?) is to attempt to fit into a mold; just as the waiter in the cafe attempts to be a waiter rather than himself, one who attempts to "do as Jesus does" attempts to define themself as an object, something that is completely defined for the situation and has no transcendent possibilities. Even so, just as the waiter will never be a waiter in the same way in which a table is a table, one who attempts to exemplify someone else, such as Jesus, as a role model will never be that role model in the same way an object is an object; we must not forget that a person's essence does not precede existence, as in the case of an object, but rather that a person exists in the mode of not being, as in the mode of having freedom over how one will define himself, in terms of not yet being what one is. Thus, one simply lies to oneself when one attempts to follow a role model, just as the waiter lies to himself by trying to be waiter in every way. One could say that we simply look to models for advice as to how to act, rather than try to be the model in the way the waiter tries to be a waiter, but I think even then we run into a problem in terms of responsibility- one who looks to a model assigns the reasoning for action to the model, and thus attempts to lack any responsibilty for the making of the chioce.

I would like to believe that Sarte would condemn role models just as he would blaming God or genetic predisposition for the result of man's free will, but I wonder how we come to recognize any sort of notion regarding responsibilty having a point of reference. If we view responsibility for our actions as a function of the consequences of our actions, how do we get a notion of what is a good consequence versus what is a bad consequence? It seems as if we must relate consequences for others back unto our own self, but we inevitably fall into making judgements on consequences which we undoubtedly have no way to relate to, such as a rich white kid thinking about consquences of his actions on the life of a poor black kid. What is good for the poor black kid might be such a culturally and demographically different event than what is good for the rich white kid. How, then, can the rich white kid make any judgement with regard to the consequences of his actions? Similarly, how can he make any judgement upon his own responsibility? I'd love some feedback here- as we read more Sarte I unfortunately find myself questioning things which I previously (thought I) understood.

Bad Faith and Self-Identity

After reading Sartre’s Patterns of Bad Faith, it seems to me that any attempt to develop a concrete sense of self is ultimately futile. Through living in the world, and participating in society, it seems virtually impossible to not be in some sort of bad faith. Perhaps it is possible to be in bad faith in some actions more so than others, but we are always, on some level, in bad faith. We constantly make ourselves objects based on the ideas of the people and world around us. This is how we understand who we are. Our culture, family, and friends are highly influential; if they are the source, even in part, of who we become, then we can never be entirely sincere, as sincerity is defined by being ourselves, as not acting as objects.

Of course, we can distance ourselves from our family, friends, and culture, but can we say that doing so would not be in some way based on our experiences with our culture, family, and friends? That distancing would be insincere—what Sartre equates with bad faith—it would be a decision not entirely our own. In other words, we would be objectifying ourselves, as the Other, to the rest of society.

Sartre’s example of the waiter helps illustrate this problem of bad faith and self-identity. It seems that one can objectify oneself to a great degree, as does the waiter who actively tries to become the waiter as the world perceives a waiter should be. He does not see himself as an individual human being, but rather as solely an object. This of course is bad faith; he is insincere, and could likely be more “himself,” by not trying to be something else.

However, even if we are not actively pursuing bad faith in the way in which the waiter is, are we not still in some way in bad faith, and thus not ourselves? If we are the patrons of the restaurant, we objectify ourselves to some degree, acting the way we think someone at a restaurant should act. This is again bad faith, but to a lesser degree.

My point is that it does not seem that we can escape bad faith, and ever really be ourselves. We will always, on some level, be playing a role. Perhaps the only way to be completely sincere is to be entirely self-interested, but then again it is difficult to say which interests are truly our own

Can't we just avoid this situation all together?

If I am simply what I do, then perhaps I ought to act genuinely at all times so that I will remain authentic. But what if authentic action sometimes involves bad faith? What if the only genuine course of action is to refrain from acting? It seems to me that when it comes to relationships, no one ever really knows what is going on. In an attempt to keep "cooooooool" or "in control," we often refrain from telling each other the way we feel about each other. When there is this lack of communication, it become easier to act in bad faith, because sincereity of the situation (see post below) is wrapped up in action, rather than strict communication (the action seems to have become the only source of communication). It seems that when a person is more straight forward, it becomes harder to simply ignore them. Additionally, when there are no open lines of communication, the only perspective I have on the relationship is my own. So when I am feeling like a boy might like me and I am not sure how I feel about him, it seems reasonable to refrain from action until I figure out how I feel. It seems like refraining from action is the only genuine course of action other than tell the guy "hey, I don't know how I feel about you yet." That sort of directness may seem harsh, but isn't it more harmful to both parties to continue to act out of bad faith simply because they have trouble expressing themselves?

Sincerity = Bad Faith?

During our discussion of Sartre’s “bad faith” last Thursday, I felt there was a lot of criticism towards the woman on the date. The suitor comes on to her and she does nothing except try to view his actions as mere facts. Yet, could that have been the whole situation? Most likely, we have all experienced a situation where we alter our actions to avoid an awkward circumstance or try to downplay our emotions whether they are positive or negative. It’s not that the facts of the situation aren’t recognized and further analyzed. It is the issue of “sincerity,” not in the emotional sense but rather the understanding shared amongst people, which I feel is a large part of ones actions. There is this idea of how we are suppose to socially act towards one another in order to be respectful and keep the situation more at peace.

We briefly discussed Sartre’s perspective of sincerity at the end of class. Correct me if I am wrong, but it was summed up as an issue of bad faith, because “I am what I am in mode of being it, and I can never be that.” I found this very contradictory to our previous discussion of existence preceding essence. If action makes up who we are then why doesn’t being sincere constitute as something other than bad faith. If we act according to our emotions, then there wouldn’t be lying. We would be recognizing the facts of the situation and thinking or reflecting about the it, then acting accordingly.

When focusing on the aspects of bad faith, we recognize that in trying to conceal the truth from others, when you already know the truth you create a dual existence. Yet, if you recognize the truth and act according to the “sincere” facts and the realization of those facts would that still be bad faith? I guess I am having a little trouble grasping the correlation between bad faith and sincerity. In the defense of the woman, she may have recognized that the man was coming on to her, yet decided to act in a way as to avoid awkwardness and simply be “sincere” in societies sense. Maybe this is a way of lying to yourself and could be exactly what Sartre is trying to get across, but I just don’t see how being sincere and being in bad faith are of the same nature.

Is there a Need?

When I finished reading Sartre’s Patterns of Bad Faith, I began to question whether or not God is necessary and after much thought, here’s the conclusion I came to.

Generally speaking, God is as undefined as Sartre’s ‘good faith’, but, unlike Sartre, we attempt to define the unknown. We do this by adding attributes to God that we think are not of ‘bad faith’, while, also adding some that aren’t so appealing, such as: jealousy, and vanity. Sartre would say that by adding these attributes to God, we are limiting our scope on God. By relying on the past and present to provide ration for a phenomenon that cannot be explained we ignore all other possibilities; therefore, we are in bad faith. But, if this is true, then God makes all humans who choose to believe, people of bad faith. So why do we need a God, especially if you choose to follow Sartre’s logic? The simple answer is that we need God - the same way a child needs a parent, the way students need teachers - God becomes our permanent mentor. Unlike your parents or teachers, God is a being that doesn’t leave your side or die; in fact, the closer you are to your one absolute truth, death, the closer you are to God, as his being exists beyond time and space, like death. The other reason why God is needed is the idea of ‘good faith’. Since humans are animals, our one basic instinct is survival; luckily, we have the ability to reflect, reason, and rationalize all qualities that keep us civil. As such, if the concept of God didn’t exist, where would human thought be? God values certain moral characteristics of people, and therefore people follow them to be a reflection of the great Being. Here’s where ‘good faith’ comes into play, but first I need to clarify that, ‘good faith’ is not one’s passion for God or religion; in fact, it’s far from that. ‘Good faith’, as it relates to God is the personal character traits we attribute to God and aspire to have. For example, the evaluative thinker thinks highly of his being because God also assesses, therefore God becomes the evaluator. So why then is it shameful to judge others, especially if God does it, and the attributes given to him are indeed human? That’s because God becomes the absolute evaluator, this is ‘good faith’. If we attempt to take on the role of the evaluator, we ourselves take on the role of God, putting us in ‘bad faith’. I believe this is where every human lies, as overtime every conceivable quality that a human has, has undoubtedly been passed on to God. I don’t think this is a bad thing; in fact, humans striving to be Godly can achieve many good things. The problem is when negative attributes are transferred to God’s being.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Preceding Camus

There seems to be some controversy over the role of genetics and external influence in our daily lives, whether or not our specific facticities, viewed through the lens of a geneticist or behaviorist, inhibit the practice of free will. For those born with one or more mental disorders, such as major (or severe) depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, the feeling of free will is diminished in many cases. Often an overpowering sense of despair crushes the will to action, causing the depressed person to sit inert for any stretch of time. Alcoholism is a different bag. Some people use alcohol as a coping mechanism for the absurdity of life, its lack of external meaning, and the specific hardships faced, such as a splintered family. Sartre defines freedom as “autonomy of choice,” but he describes hardship in strictly physical terms in “Freedom and Facticity: The Situation,” using the example of the crag. He claims that the only limits placed on freedom are those which it imposes on itself, those created by attempting to perform some impracticable feat. However, a mental disorder does not lie without, something optional for a human to encounter. The generation of hardship on someone with life-long, hereditary depression does not require a person to attempt anything other than everyday life; external factors may exacerbate the problem but many times do not produce it. Hence an issue arises when Sartre asks, “Is not this sadness itself a conduct?” (231). At least with depression, it is an effect, not a choice of any sort. It often bubbles to the surface following the slightest mishap and sometimes skips over major tragedies. Perhaps it is also the case that in such an affected state, one recognizes the absurdity of life more often than others; people get caught up in whatever purpose they have created for themselves, be it a job, school, family life, and do not recognize the dark lens through which many others view the world. The need for “a reason to get out of bed” is recognition of the need for constant struggle for meaning, a seemingly simple exercise of free choice with which the depressed person has trouble. For some, merely dealing with the ubiquitous lack of integrity in modern life (i.e. the YellaWood guy, Corey Trotz commercials) is enough to inspire a move to the country, or to another country. I suppose a more direct involvement with the absurdity of life and the question of suicide would be helpful at this point, instead of the skirting I have provided here, but soon we’ll read a selection from Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.

Can freedom truly not have boundaries?

I really enjoyed Sartre’s claim that freedom never encounters limits, but rather imposes them on itself. This claim in itself is very applicable to explaining the why’s in our daily life and instrumental in reassessing how things are defined. It is our freedom through which we define our obstacles, but it is always before things are encountered. That is, we first draw up the freedom field in which we will operate and be limited, then we assess various situations that arise, such as the crag. Depending on our already defined freedom, we can then understand why the crag posses such a daunting obstacle if we are building a stadium, a neutral existence if we are surveying the land, or an aid if we need a good view to take a picture.
To claim that freedom is entirely limitless and that it only imposes limits on itself is somewhat true, but it needs to be qualified. Freedom needs to be defined before anything else occurs. Just like not making a decision is in fact choosing to not make that decision and thus a choice is made, with every choice, freedom is limited. Any subsequent choice limits freedom more or alters the limit on freedom as much as the previous choices will allow. Thus any “crag” that is encountered after that first choice, where freedom is already limited will be in-itself, either “as resistance or as aid.” Thus, it is impossible to first assess the object, and then impose a limit on freedom, so that the “crag” can be defined as aid, rather than as resistance. For this reason, it is irrelevant that a freedom only has boundaries that it imposes on itself, because there is nothing that can be done to change that freedom that was arbitrarily limited before anything else happened.
However, Sartre’s claim does roughly translate into a great analytical tool. It gives us the insight into why something is occurring and provides a tool to confirm or realize that some fundamental belief needs to be changed, within the parameters of the limited freedom. Thus, the limits that freedom imposes on itself are purely coincidental with absolutely no time or any knowledge at all about future encounters that would make the limits easy to work with in the world. For this reason freedom is limited by its own parameters, but because of random chance, which essentially makes freedom always have boundaries and only before existence exists is it really limitless.


I'm going to completely jump off the Sartre ship. I've been reading Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. The "Treatise on the Steppenwolf" (found on page 104 of our book) is amazing; I really encourage reading this to further understand existentialism. Throughout the book Hesse references Nietzsche, whose influence is evident throughout the novel. The main character, Harry Haller, completely distances himself from society, but keeps a close watch and commentary on said 1920s society. "But in the midst of the freedom he had attained Harry suddenly became aware that his freedom was a death and that he stood alone" (108). This is existential to the extreme. Harry mimics Dostoevsky's Underground Man in the way that he is not mentally constrained within society but continues to critique it. The difference between the two is that the Underground Man is angry against the bourgeois society, whereas Harry longs to be a part of it. He longs for the innocence and simplicity of living like the masses. Although he is a lone wolf (a wolf from the Steppes), he wishes to be fully human and experience humanity for all it's stupidity and ignorance.

sartre and others

In his section on “Bad Faith” Sartre gives the three examples to help explain different facets of his point, the woman on a date, the waiter, and the homosexual. The women on the date shows how the women is in bad faith by believing she can transcend the situation she is in by denying the facts of the situation, and by reducing the man’s actions to mere facticity instead of applying meaning to them as well. The example of the waiter illustrates the bad faith of a waiter who is denying the transcendental qualities about himself by trying to fit an specific conception of the waiter, only concerning himself with his facticity. The example of homosexual shows the problems with sincerity, as choosing to be sincere is in Sartre’s view objectifying oneself as a “real” object or label.

The example of the waiter stuck with more than with the other two, and also has given me an excuse to ramble about my own misunderstandings of Sartre. First, I agree with Professor Johnson that it is very easy to see Sartre’s description of what it means to be in “bad faith” played out in everyday interactions with others and in my own thinking. For example, driving back to campus yesterday I had an experience I thought was exactly like Sartre’s waiter example. As a friend skipped through radio stations, one DJ’s voice stood out very clearly. Talking about musicals and rock operas, just the way he sounded to me made me think that he sounded too much like a stereotypical DJ, that he in particular seemed to fit the expected norms of what I think a DJ sounds like too perfectly. According to Sartre, the DJ was denying transcendent qualities about himself. At the same time, though, in having this thought about the DJ being too much like a DJ, I was reducing him to mere facticity as well.

This dual attack on the waiter’s self made me feel a little unfair. On the one hand the observer sees the other and claims they are being too much like a mere object, that they are denying their transendency. On the other hand, by doing this the observer is embracing their own facticity by arguing that the other person, as an object in the world, is being too much like an object we expect, the ideal of the waiter. Together, I think that this limits the waiters and DJ’s by conceiving of them against a certain stereotype of being, and limit myself by having this conception of what the waiter is trying to be in the first place.

Thinking about this reminded me of Kierkegaard’s analysis of how we limit other beings by our own conceptions. In the case of the waiter, looking at him and saying that because he is “too real” he is being absorbed by facticity and denying the transcendent seems to limit his ability to be anything other than what I see. While the waiter is free to continuously fluxuate between different types of bad faith, I don’t see how an observer can actually say another is in bad faith without being in bad faith themselves. In order to say that the waiter is too much a being-in-itself I must reduce myself to a being-for-itself. The observer necessarily limits both themselves and the other to make this decision, even if they admit that they are both free in the ability to move from one state to the other.

I was wondering about Kierkegaard, though, whether he would look at the individual as limitless every time, refusing to acknowledge either their faciticy or transcendency but instead being completely open to the other as being free absolutely. I don’t know. I know Sartre is not denying possibilities for persons, but I’m having trouble thinking about it as at least to me, in order for me to know of myself, I contrast with others and in doing so limit them to a label, to a state, to something other than me. I guess I’m just tied up in how even when I may be capable of an infinite set of possibilities, it seems like I have to limit everyone else and fight the limitations perceived on of myself in order to be that way. I wasn’t sure if this was an accurate reading of Sartre, or just my confusion, but thinking about bad faith and others makes me feel that in order to be me I naturally limit others to being others, to being things in the world, while this limiting of others is at the same time a limitation on myself.

Sartre and Blade Runner

When we started discussing Sartre I immediately thought of the movie Blade Runner. The plot of the movie centers on the escape of several replicants, or artificial humans. As the movie progresses the humanity of the protagonist, Rick Deckard, becomes more and more questionable. BY the end of the film it becomes very hard to determine if Deckard is or is not a replicant. The objects of the Blade Runner universe are the replicants which though appearing just as human as actual humans they are denied their humanity and freedom, hunted, and killed because the natural humans do not deem them to actually be people. In fact, the way Blade Runner is presented it is impossible to truly determine who is a natural human and who is a replicant, with even Deckard’s own naturalness being called into question by critics. The characters of this film have embraced their facticity while denying their transcendence. They have become so rooted in and defined by objects that they seem to be nothing more than extensions of the objects. Where humans, those possessing both facticity and transcendence, should define objects, the objects of this world define the humans. Blade Runner goes so far as to make objects into humans so that the definition that the objects are giving is reflected upon themselves; humanity is subverted by inhumanity, objects develop more important roles than humans while humans are placed in a position of unclear meaning. With this in mind is it possible that a replicant could posses both facticity and transcendence since they act like humans, fear like humans, and behave like humans?B


The Origin of Nothingness really got my mind going. When I read the part Sartre wrote about vertigo, it really hit me because that was a sensation that I have experienced countless times and never understood. Just like he said, when I’m on top of a tall building with a low railing, I’m reluctant to get too close to the edge, not because I’m afraid I will fall off, but I’m afraid my body might throw itself off somehow. It was as if I was scared my body would turn on me for some ridiculous reason. But as Sartre explains, it is anguish that we feel at these times because (aren’t we the self centered bunch) we see everything else as a subject to our life. If a bookcase somehow fell on me, I wouldn’t think “damn, if the bookcase had only fell the other way”, instead I would probably think “if only I had been standing a foot away this wouldn’t have hit me”. The possibilities of my life are my possibilities, as Sartre explains. They are singular as in my life. I believe what Sartre postulates, but I can’t help thinking that it makes us look egotistical and self-centered. The world revolves around each one of us in our own minds and we seem to think about everything in relation to us. In this new series I’ve been watching, Bored to Death, one of the characters explains to the other that they are each in their own movies and one sees the other merely as being featured in the life in which the one is the star. I find this analogy to be very true of human nature, we are consumed with ourselves and can’t help but one consider another person inasmuch as what we see of them. You don’t see a vast majority of the life of the people around you, but, for the most part, you only consider the parts that you see. They may go off and be completely different people away from you, and you would have no idea, and they would be one person in your life’s movie and a complete different person in someone else’s life movie. On top of that, that person sees you as just a character in their own movie. Anguish comes from inside and we mainly feel it in relation to ourselves. We feel anguish when we have to make an important decision, but we cannot feel anguish for someone else who is making an important decision, or at least that’s what I understand.

Dealing with Bad Faith

Let us return to the lovely couple out on their first date. The man makes his advance in the form of taking her hand. Sarte proposes that she acts in bad faith by feigning to notice. However, let us examine this from the prospective of the man. The man took her hand in order to create an immediate reaction and allow him to properly evaluate the situation. While Sarte explains her inaction as bad faith, the man does not have such luxury of understanding. Positive action on her part would tell him she was attracted; negative action would tell him she wasn’t. Either way, the action would at least confirm to him that his action—and intention—was received, and allow him continue according to her given response.

However, no response is uncertainty; it creates anguish. The woman’s apparent ignorance of his advancement baffles the man. Did she really not notice his hand? This is possible, perhaps, but the man thinks it unlikely. As he would have read her action, he now tries to read her inaction. He creates her possibilities: she likes him and she’s playing hard to get; or, she doesn’t like him but at the same time she doesn’t want to be rude, etc. Or, he realizes, these theories are solely the product of his own mind; she in fact did not notice his hand. But he is sure she had to have, so he presses for a more satisfactory explanation.

This is a form of nihilation. The man guesses at the situation by creating various attitudes for the woman, only to realize that these attitudes have no existence outside of his own mind; he has created nothing. It is possible, maybe even likely that he postulated accurately on what the woman was in fact thinking. However, given the gross ambiguity of the situation, it is extremely unlikely that he dwelled on that answer any longer then any of the others anyway. It may have in fact crossed his mind, for example, that she didn’t move her hand because she was pretending not to notice so she could postpone her decision. However, the man immediately realizes how preposterous such an idea is. Chances are, he reasons, she really didn’t notice his hand, and he is overanalyzing the whole situation.

Of course the woman felt his hand. Better yet, she knows exactly the anxiety she has created in the man. She knows her inaction utterly confuses the man because she knows it doesn’t make any sense to him. She knows because it is for this reason she left her hand there in the first place! So the man continues to think.

God and Freewill

I know that Sartre does not believe in God, I think his reasoning behind this comes from the fact that if God made us then we can only do what God programmed us to do. We would not have free will because we were programmed by some other being. From what I heard in class Sartre would not think robots and AI do not have free will because they were programmed by us. I do not think that created beings would not have free will though. I think that free will and the idea of someone creating us are not mutually exclusive. For example if God did not exist then that would mean that man would have been programmed by nature and the environment. It would mean that nature created man and gave us everything we have; it would have programmed us to follow survival of the fittest. It would mean that nature and the events around us encoded our genes and us to a certain destiny. This would mean that there is no free will. Nature and our environment would therefore be the only thing that governs us.

If this is the case and we were programmed by something else, then we do not have freewill. So either people can have freewill despite being initially programmed by God or nature or whatever, or freewill does not exist at all. Things like A.I. would therefore have freewill. So the super computer in the Terminator movies would be a rational being.

On a slightly different note why do people assume genetics take away peoples freewill? Like people with a genetic disposition to alcoholism do not have the freewill not to be an alcoholic. They make the choice every time they pick up a drink, and at anytime they can put it down if they really wanted too. They can choose not to drink. It seems to me that genetics are merely blueprints to the body, and that it merely guides people to survival. Instincts are merely tools to help people survive. If Sartre is right though and people are a blank slate when they are born, then people shouldn’t be influenced at all by genetics. But it seems true that genetics will greatly influence people’s decisions. Does Sartre take genetic disposition into account, does he think it matters in terms of freewill and how we choose, or are people truly blank slates that can only be influenced through our choices.

Existentialism in East of Eden

Sartre says that determinism would mean there is nothing special about human life and that it is a cop out, basically saying that you are not free, that you are governed by a certain thing. In class we discussed the idea of saying "oh, it's just in my genes" or my parents did so and so or had some disease or act a certain way, so I'm destined to do the same, which is also a cop out--it is saying that you have no control over your life and that you're just making excuses, and we know what Sartre would say about that--NO EXCUSES!

Anyway, this made me think of Cal in East of Eden. If you haven't read it, Cal is the son of Adam Trask and also has a twin brother Aron. In a nut shell, their birth mother Cathy Ames is the embodiment of evil in the book and extreamely manipulative and parastic became depressed after giving birth and wanted to kill the twins, as she did not want them in the first place and also didn't even want to marry in the first place. So instead, she shot Adam, her husband whom she didn't love (obviously), in the shoulder and and left him and the twins to be "free" and become a prostitute. In addition to killing her parents when she was a child, she also poisons and kills another woman. Overall, she is obsessed with committing sin and again, the embodiment of evil. So, when Adam finds out she is a prostitute he obviously wants to keep her identity concealed from his boys and does not want them to find out. But eventually, Cal, the darker of the twins who has evil tendencies does find out and hates her--however, he is also concerned about being just like his mother too:
'"I hate her because I know why she went away. I know--because I've got her in me." His head was down and his voice was heartbroken."

..Then Lee, their wise lifetime housekeeper and cook says:

"'Listen to me! You wouldn't even be wondering if you didn't have it. Don't you dare take the lazy way. It's too easy to excuse yourself because of your ancestry. Don't let me catch you doing it! Now--look close at me so you will remember. Whatever you do, it will be you who do it--not your mother."'

So first of all, Cal is fears he is just like his mother and destined to fail at life and that there's no hope f0r him. But lee then basically reiterates Sartre's ideas about breaking free from the idea of determinism and changes his mind. Go Lee!! Then, a little later, Cal actually goes to visit his mother he said to her: "I was afraid I had you in me," and she says "you have," and then finally he says "No, i haven't. I'm my own. I don't have to be you." This is the perfect example of realizing you are you and no one else and that you don't have to be tied down by determinism. You could either take the easy way out and give in or you can rise above determinism and become your own person.
Also, this brought up another point about Sartre's "Bad Faith." Adam Trask conceals the truth that he knows about the twin's mother to protect them. I know this is bad faith, but i guess it's almost like saying that it is lying, but lying to conceal an ugly truth--like "lying in a good way," if there is such a thing, which according to Sartre, I'm sure there's not, but personally I would not be about to tell my children my wife shot me in the shoulder, didn't really love me, and left them to become a prostitute. Just sayin' I think I would have to go ahead and be in bad faith on this one, Sartre.

Love Is Dead

Love Is Dead
In contemplation of Sartre's Patterns of Bad Faith in conjunction with the horrific nature of my past relationships, I began to consider the principles applied in Sartre's work in relation to my relations. One qualm that's been plaguing me in my pre-sleep state amidst a plethora of beta waves, when I should be thinking about unicorns, rainbows, and guppies like every other little girl, is the question of love. Love to me has become only a question, and in it, I cannot find any substance, transfer of certain chemicals, intransigence, or truth. I believe that there is a certain feeling that accompanies specific actions, but I can no longer allow myself to subscribe to the heavily processed system of 'love." I think that what people associate with the word love has never existed. The feeling is instead something much less powerful and miraculous. My drive to believe in love and seek it is sadly little more than an instinct to seed a harvest of young baby monster Sams. I believe a lot about relationships and interactions and feeling, but having read Patterns of Bad Faith, I cannot accept 'love." I for those looking for comment boosts...I am not at all saying there are no meaningful relationships....blah blah blah....nor am I saying that drugs are good, and religion is bad.
The love I am referring to in this post is the relationship brand of love, as opposed to the love in which I can really love America, or the Jonas Brothers, or circular silver refrigerator magnets. Just as no one can ever truly achieve good faith, it is just as impossible to achieve love. Personal love (I don't have the time or desire to discuss love in terms of agape, so I'm omitting that until another time) is a strong attachment between two people in which each subject has a locked attachment to the other in a purely volitional sense, such that they are not driven to love as a means for certain wants. I believe that this love can never be achieved just as good faith because it would require intense work in order to achieve such a thing, and in the same vein, it would require an awareness in treating love like an object, attaching to it "a permanence like that of things," so that it may be maintained. Love is like an attempt to find some sort of suspension between choosing between the facticity and the transcendence found in humans, as if we are above making decisions when we are not. Belief in love allows for us to will strongly that the strong attachment felt at a moment, which is almost infinitely enjoyable, will never cease to be, and in doing so, we are in denial.


I was drawn in on thursday by our brief discussion on the student.  Within this discussion we defined student both as a noun and a verb.  All students (n.) are capable of learning and, ideally if they are good they do just that.  But often times what happens (and what I did pretty much all through high school) is the student adapts to the system and, instead of focusing on learning, they focus on studenting (v.).  Studenting, as Dr. J put it so well, is basically gaming the system.  This can include writing papers right before the deadline (no pun intended seeing as this blog post is a bit down to the wire), creating an easy schedule of classes, or doing just enough for the desired grade and not for the knowledge.  Studenting can involve learning if the student is good, but does not inherently include it.  I am confident that we are all guilty of both learning and studenting at some point in our academic careers, some of us with more favorable ratios than others.  I remember all of the endless and seemingly pointless math worksheets and spanish exercises in high school which I did between classes, during lunch in the cafeteria, or even with one eye on my peer's completed work.  I'm not exactly proud of it, but our discussion on thursday suggested that maybe I was merely honing my skills as a student.  I was just playing the system that was put before me.
My lingering question, however, is what happened when I got to college?  Isn't the idea of college that there is less busy work like the math worksheets, and more genuinely productive work?  Does college lend itself more to learning and less to studenting?  I certainly agree with this sentiment in that I have much less (if any) work that I view as "pointless."  I can see the objective in every assignment that is put before me and as a result, I feel that I am learning much more.  But perhaps, as a friend suggested to me, we are just learning to student differently, to con another system.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The “Objectification” of Nothingness

In “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Sartre begins with explaining that the existence of a being precedes that being’s essence. He sees existence as the possibility of freedom in the world. The fact that humans have freedom makes it possible for beings "to nihilate" certain possibilities. This act of nihilation is used by Sartre to further explain the concept of nothingness in “ The Origin of Nothingness.” He explains that nothingness happens as an act of nihilation. Nothingness is a means of experiencing an absence of something in the world. A being is not his past or future being but simply its present being. A being is not its past being in a sense that it is marked in part by an absence in the past; that being is in the mode of not being himself (in the past) which is in turn nothingness. Along the same lines, a being cannot be its future being as it is not possible to determine what the future being would be if the being is not actually able to be there which is caused by the basis of the nothingness. In order for nothingness to be possible, the absence of a being has to be experienced by another person besides the being himself. Hence, nothingness has to be recognized by others in order for it to be considered the basis of the being's existence.

However, what if there was a person that was very isolated from society all of his life. He may have been seen by people he passed in the street but he was not actually recognized by anyone around in a significant way. He was alone from the beginning of his life without any identifiable parents and had never genuinely been recognized by anyone but himself. Because he is not recognized by anyone, then his being would not have nothingness if no one else realizes his nothingness. If his being’s nothingness is not recognized it would be difficult for him to implement his absence as an act of nihilation; therefore, if he is unable to implement nihilation in turn he is not choosing one possibility over another. Without the ability for possibility to be nihilated, a being cannot have complete freedom which is the basis of our existence. So without having our nothingness recognized by others, we are deprived of our ability to nihilate possibilities which is also eliminating our freedom. Freedom is what distinguishes us from objects which have no possibilities. Without others realizing our absence we loose our distinguishing features of being a being- for- itself that has freedom and possibilities.

If a person is not recognized by others his nothingness is not realized either so if nothingness is the basis of a being’s existence then does the hypothetical being described become a being- in- itself (an object) as opposed to a being- for - itself (being with freedom)?
Sartre’s entire philosophy is based on the freedom humans have because a human’s existence precedes his or her essence. It seems intuitively true that we are free. When I get up in the morning, I have a choice whether to go to class or skip work or to wear whatever I want, etc.

But there are certain philosophies, i.e. Determinism, that tell us the exact opposite. We are human animals conditioned in such a way as to make decisions based on our genetic make-up and how we were socialized. To jump-off from where Jen left off on her previous post, examine the man with the “alcoholic” gene. The man may have the gene to be an alcoholic but chooses not to drink a sip of alcohol in his life. But why would he do his? One could point to his upbringing. The man was raised by an alcoholic father and saw the awful effects of alcoholism and his mother encouraged him never to have a sip of alcohol.

Sartre might respond to this by saying that this example is completely consistent with freedom because one could imagine another man (Man B) having the same situation as Man A, and making a completely different decision. Man B could have an alcoholic father, the alcoholism gene, and a mother who encouraged him not to drink. And yet, Man B could certainly choose to become an alcoholic. Indeed there are empirical examples of both of these decisions being made.

The determinist could respond by questioning whether Man A and Man B’s situations were absolutely identical. There are subtle differences in the genes and situations of Man A and Man B. Maybe Man A’s mother was more caring and attentive than Man B’s mother. Or perhaps Man A had a passion to become a philosophy professor (due to genetic and social factors, of course), while Man B was awful at school (genetic intelligence factors) and thereby had a low self esteem which contributed to his alcoholism. No matter how specific the situation is, the determinist could argue that there is a factor that we have not accounted for. However, no matter how specific the situation is, the existentialist will argue that a human could have decided differently.

Despite all of the different arguments, determinism merely assumes that causes are there whether we can identify them or not, while Existentialism assumes that causes are not there, which is why we can not identify them.

If determinism is true, however, why do we experience guilt or pride? When a human being accomplishes something great, he or she has an emotional reaction. This is not merely restricted to moral decisions, but also extends to creating great philosophies, making great works of art, and making important scientific discoveries. There was no moral imperative to motivate him/her. Although he/she may say things like “I could have never done this without the support of my family” or “My colleagues were integral in my success,” he/she still has the feeling that “I accomplished this.” In a similar way, the alcoholic, Man B, can feel guilt. It does not matter if he has an alcoholism gene or had an awful childhood. And even if Man B hurts no one else, he still feels disappointed in himself and guilty about his actions. This is because he feels that he could have made the opposite choice, but, instead, he chose to be an alcoholic.

Determinism could say that these feelings of guilt and pride are programmed into us, but I think that they are indications of our self-knowledge of our own free-will. There is no moral imperative to “be great at something” (though you will receive praise if you are) and the alcoholic should be guilt-free if he hurts no one but himself. However, we have these feelings of pride and guilt because they are natural emotions that arise from a free-will.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Effects of Biological Predispositions on our Self-Created Essence

Sartre’s philosophy is concerned with personal responsibility. He believes that our ability to think shows that we are entirely free. We are born into the world without any traits, but we develop our persona as a result of the choices we make. For instance, an honest person is not such because he was born that way; rather, he becomes honest after he acts truthfully in a situation where he could lie. Basically we are not born into any particular situation, because we have infinite possibilities on how to mold our lives. However, this seems to bring about too big of a responsibility for humans, according to Sartre. Thus, the huge responsibility causes people to have tremendous anxiety. Sartre believes that we experience anxiety because we suddenly become aware of the possibilities in store for us. We discussed in class that we don’t have to graduate from Rhodes, and go on to some graduate school or the workforce. We feel the need to do so, however, because it gives more purpose to our lives. Thus, the actions make up our essence that we create for ourselves. Because humans are faced with such deterministic responsibilities, we purposefully seek ideas or concepts that will make choices for us.

I find this perspective somewhat problematic. Sartre’s philosophy is not supported by scientific research that proves the existence of biological predispositions for certain habits or personality traits. Sartre believes that humans tend to blame our genes for the way we act. While human’s have (what seems to be) an endless variety of choices to make in order to create our “essence”, there are cases where the possibilities are limited due to our genetic makeup.

Take, for instance, depression. While there are cases where the person may be in mourning or traumatized in some way, depression is a genetically linked ailment. The brain of a depressed person simply cannot produce the proper amount of neurotransmitter. The family members of a depressed individual may be vulnerable to this chemical deficiency as well. These predispositions are then present before birth. Although one may be proactive about their condition and assume responsibility, the depression itself was determined for that person before birth (based on its genetic link), and will affect this person’s behavior throughout its life.

Secondly, alcoholism is another genetically linked dependence that again, is determined before the person is born. For these reasons, I find it difficult to completely agree with Sartre. It is important to understand that inherited disorders can deeply impair a person from having full control over his or her life.

Based on Sartre’s idea that we are born without traits, I wonder how Sartre feels about homosexuality, in terms of it being natural or not. He clearly condemns homosexuality, in the sense that he refers to the "guilt" that homosexuals must feel. But it seems that he assumes homosexuality as something that someone determines for themselves. In contrast, there are a number of scientific studies demonstrating that humans or animals do not consciously “choose” which sex they are attracted to. A study in 2006 on demonstrated that over 1,500 species have demonstrated homosexual or bisexual characteristics, including apes, lions, and dolphins. Thus, it is suggested that homosexuality is determined before birth and occurs naturally. However, it seems that Sartre would see it as a choice made by that person; it is something that that person feels is necessary for his or her “essence.”

While humans take responsibility for themselves for the most part (choosing a job, or education, acting honestly, or kindly, etc.), it is possible that a person has predetermined traits that will affect the creation of his or her essence.