Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Choosing Temperament

Merleau-Ponty's examination of freedom differs from Sartre's, but I wonder how these different formulations of human freedom affect a diverse group of readers, all with dispositional differences. Sartre saw freedom as absolute or total; however, seeing freedom as something embodied, within a body that shares specific limitations with one's consciousness, seems to be a formulation from felt limitations. As Sartre supposedly never knew despair, anguish, or personal misery, perhaps he could feel the boundless freedom he attributes to consciousness, (269-270). Merleau-Ponty presents freedom as something within a field, for if freedom was absolute, inherently so, within humans, freedom would be both everywhere and nowhere. There would be no instances by which one could differentiate a free action from an unfree action; by recognizing limits such as these on any coherent discussion on human freedom, a human project is given meaning by our choosing it and holding fast to it.

Merleau-Ponty posits one's temperament is a matter of choice, as existing "only for the second order of knowledge that I gain about myself when I see myself as others see me, and in so far as I recognize it, confer value upon it, and in that sense, choose it," (278). He then goes on to explain how motives follow from decisions, as the motives behind a project lose their force once one has abandoned the project. An example would be me waking up at 7:30 this morning to write a post for this class, but I somehow decided in my grogginess not to get out of bed and write the post. Thus my motives behind the specific action of writing a post lost their force in the wake of my decision to continue sleeping. I have a difficult time taking this view of motivation as valid, as I often find myself trying to counteract my temperament in order to act in certain ways. Thus my action may be free, and my decision as well, but my temperament seems to be making a great dent in my ability to stick to a decision early in the morning that happens to be contrary to my temperament.

While Merleau-Ponty's version of describing human freedom differs from Sartre's, I have the same problem with both of their explanations for temperaments or sadness, despair, etc, as being chosen. I suppose the project of being happy would be given meaning by our choosing of this project, and motives will follow closely behind. However, for someone like a writer, who creates meaning for themselves and define their selves through the act of writing, the existential vacuum as described by Viktor Frankl seems to affect some in devastating ways while not others. We notice the particular temperament shining through one’s philosophical works, but we cannot hope to understand it through a clinical lens. Camus offers an anecdotal account of having fallen through the safety nets of philosophical and theological tradition and grappling with despair. By the persistent goal of philosophy to itemize the problems felt through specific human experiences as those of humans in general, we are driven to ask if those not experiencing the existential vacuum are in bad faith simply or simply do not experience these vexing issues. We must ask whether these problems are dispositional, contingent upon a confluence of environment and choice and culminating in the production of a philosophical work. Some writers are going to approach the project of happiness by darker means than other writers, such as between Frankl and Sartre, as Frankl writes of “tragic optimism” in the face of the “tragic triad,” “Optimism is not anything to be commanded or ordered. One cannot even force oneself to be optimistic indiscriminately, against all odds, against all hope. And what is true for hope is also true for the other two components of the triad inasmuch as faith and love cannot be commanded or ordered either,” (358).

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