For years—decades even—I identified as an Existentialist, and I still have an affinity for some of the works of Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus. I had read some Richard Wright. I never read Kierkegaard directly, and I may never. And of course, there’s proto-Existentialist Nietzsche. I’ve encountered to various degrees Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Jaspers but not deeply.
The draw for me is that we create our own existences, but I came to feel this was at odds with Structuralism. Per my previous post, I don’t have much faith in the Agency seemingly required by Existentialism.
In Statistical analysis of variance (ANOVA), there is a notion known as degrees of freedom. This is how I view Agency. Per my Testudineous Agency post, after we account for genetics and environment, how much agency effectively remains? This is the degree of freedom. Under hard determinism, degrees of freedom are zero.
What else can we strip away after genetics, epigenetics, indoctrination, environment, and other mimetic and learned behaviours? And what remains after we do?
I find the notion of authenticity interesting. I believe that Heidegger was the first philosopher to promote the issue. As I have a contention with matters of identity in general, the notion of authenticity has no foundation in my eyes. As I don’t believe that the notion of identity is valid, it follows that I don’t ascribe to notions of authenticity either—the question is: authentic to what?
Essentially authenticity can be described as ‘being true to one’s own essence or true self’—whatever that might be. Heidegger presents authenticity as a response to our place in the world. An inauthentic person conforms to society and in the loses their own identity in the process to become assimilated into the society.
Carl Jung had a related concept, individuation. This is where a person strips off all of the ego and superego to get to the core of their being, to unpeel the onion, but to find a centre—and to become that true unadulterated self. This is not what Heidegger means by authentic.
To Heidegger, an authentic person remains true to themself within the constraints of society. As with Camus’ acceptance of the Absurd, Heidegger’ authenticity accepts the ‘real world’ as is it whilst retaining with awareness one’s self, even if this is more limiting than Jung’s individuation or Sartre’s freedom with no excuses.
Sartre’s vein of Existentialism contained within it the notion of authenticity. This is in common with other Continental philosophies. According to Sartre, when people hyper-constrain their identities to preclude their larger humanity, they are operating in bad faith, mauvaise foi (eidétique de la mauvaise foi). A while back, a story from an incident in 2013 was circulating on social media, where a Spanish runner, Ivan Fernandez Anaya, assisted another runner, Kenyan athlete, Abel Mutai, who errantly believed that he had already passed the finish line, so he stopped with another 10 metres to go.
The reaction was split—some praising Anaya for his humanity and other chastising him for not following the rules of the competition. These critics are guilty of mauvaise foi, of prioritising the minuscule for the larger picture. In fact, all sports do this. One might argue that all competition does this, but this is a matter of perspective. I think that Sartre’s scope was a bit narrower than this, but I believe it’s not off-point.
Evidently, I am just typing stream of consciousness, and the stream has come to an end.
How can one simultaneously be an SJW (Social Justice Warrior) and be a non-cognitivist? How can one who doesn’t believe in the notion of identity nonetheless defend it? How can someone who doesn’t believe in the notion of justice seek it? And how can a conscientious objector apply a ‘warrior’ title to his own identity?
(Viscerally, I am an SJW—at least I consider myself so (because I just said so, right?). As a non-cognitivist, in particular, an emotivist (Ayer), an expressivist (Moore), and a prescriptivist (Hare), why should I care? And isn’t this somewhat paradoxical or perhaps hypocritical?
I used to consider myself an Existentialist Nihilist, and I still have a fondness for this particular worldview. In many ways, at a more mundane, pragmatic level, I operate as an Existentialist, but that’s only because, in the realm of workaday political philosophy, one cannot be so ethereal, as it were.
Even though I don’t believe in any higher purpose for humans or life, I still have an urge for survival, and I recognise that no man is an island, that there is safety in numbers. At least this is my adopted metanarrative. I don’t feel that I am some rugged individual. I rely on others, and I’d prefer amicable relationships over adversarial.
I’ve always valued a sense of personal identity and autonomy, but only as an emotional response. I’ve also never felt the urge to control the identity co-opted by others. This means that if you are gay, straight, trans, pan, or whatever, it doesn’t matter to me.
If you are a CIS-male and want to wear a dress or enhance your breasts, it’s none of my concern.
FULL DISCLOSURE Although I respect a person’s choice to, say, be trans in whatever shape or form, I don’t consider myself to be pansexual, so I wouldn’t presume that I am going to date that person. Whether this is a prejudice or preference, I am not going to argue the semantics.
Despite understanding that identity doesn’t ‘really’ exist and in the end, it doesn’t even matter, I will (and do) vocally defend the ‘right’ of a person to express this identity.
So, perhaps also paradoxically or hypocritically, I’ll comment on someone’s fashion sense —and trust me; I am no fashion maven. So just because I won’t deprive you of your ‘right’ to express yourself the way you chose does not mean I have no opinion (positive or negative) about how you present yourself, and it doesn’t mean that I won’t make a joke or make light of how you express. I am not a fan of politically correct (PC) speech, a trend American Liberals are on the wrong side of.
In the end, there is the space of objective reality and the space of workaday life. For some accident of history and evolution, I have been thrust into a world where I need to interact with people who believe there is more then there actually is and they subscribe to some metanarrative. Unfortunately, unlike Neo in the Matrix, I am not able to cut through the bullshit, and so my dominant strategy is just to play around. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
As an emotivist, I am an SJW because it is visceral to me.
As an expressivist, your sense of morality expressed through mores and customs hold no water, and I won’t abide by the restrictions they impose.
As a prescriptivist, I think that you should share my emotion in the spirit of do unto others…
Interestingly enough (or not), I am a fairly typical (albeit eccentric) white male. My self-expression differs more in my beliefs and speech than in my physical person or attire. Talk to me for more than a few moments, and this will become immediately apparent.
Destiny or free will is a question only as old as religion, and it’s a silly question. In my opinion, this is one of the ways that religion and religious thought sullies the world. Some dead bloke way back when had some seeming epiphany, and it was entered into the doctrinal record.
The concept of destiny is the silliest part. This is a throwback to the teleological notion of progress. I wonder if the whole concept of progress isn’t an offshoot of religion.
I’ve written elsewhere about the folly of progress. Destiny fails on the same level. Moreover, destiny in this context is first about individual destiny—what is my personal fate—and then we devolve further into some group notion, whether by race or nationality or some other social construct. It’s the same logic that led to Manifest Destiny and the slaughter of millions upon millions of people worldwide over the course of history1.
Neither is free will sensible. Humans—living beings, categorically—have some autonomy over themselves. This, of course, presumes self and identity to actually mean anything. But, they are subject to the influences of genetics and environmental factors—including social indoctrination—, so how would one extricate these from some notion of sovereign free will?
One does not even need to be a strict materialist to see that one does not have free will. Not even Sartre’s no excusesExistentialism fully accounts for this. An Existentialist might argue the despite whatever historical baggage yo carry with you to any given point, you can always decide on what your next point might be. But this misses the point that any decision one makes can only be made in context to the experiences you’ve already had.
So, as I said at the start, the question of destiny and free will are for juveniles. There is no reason to adopt the religious frame that makes them appear to be more than the specious notions they happen to be.
In the end, you just are. Enjoy the moment or at least just live it. It may be your last.
1. Please note the I am using the course of history in the idiomatic sense as one might employ corners of the earth. There is no course; there are no corners.
I’ve shared a new video on YouTube discussing the rhetorical nature of truth.
Before the Classical Hellenes, Mesopotamians recognised the power of rhetoric as the art of using language to convince or persuade. The term itself derives from the Greek ῥητορικός, rhētorikós.
As with any human construct such as language, truth and rhetoric are confined by limitations of the system and its logical structure.
In “Gorgias”, one of his Socratic Dialogues, Plato defines rhetoric as the persuasion of ignorant masses within the courts and assemblies.
Rhetoric, in Plato’s opinion, is merely a form of flattery and functions similarly to cookery, which masks the undesirability of unhealthy food by making it taste good.
Rhetoric typically provides heuristics for understanding, discovering, and developing arguments for particular situations, such as Aristotle’s three persuasive audience appeals: logos, pathos, and ethos.
But it’s more insidious than all of this. The notion of truth—or whatever we believe to be true—is nothing more than rhetoric.
If one is aptly convinced that something is true, it is. The physical world—the world of objects—contains facts—attributes of these objects, but these facts are tautological descriptors: a red car, une voiture rouge, ou quelque chose. In the conceptual domain of abstractions such as truth, justice, gods, and love, all bets are off.
As Geuss aptly suggests, most of society and civilisation don’t care about philosophical thought at this level. This is privileged activity. It’s not about level of intellect, per se; rather, it’s the privilege of free time to devote to abstract thinking.
Most people are more concerned with getting to the next day to earn a paycheque, and they accept sloganeering for any deeper meaning.
Humans are said to be rational beings. In fact, this predicates entire disciplines such as economics…
…and jurisprudence. Legal systems are founded on the concept that humans are at least rational enough to make fundamental decisions about right and wrong—and this, of course, presumes that the notions of right and wrong in and of themselves are meaningful.
For the sake of argument, let’s presume that humans are at least rational enough for our purposes, and whilst right and wrong may not be objectively validated, that within the context of a society—presuming that not to be mired in its own identity problem—, it can be defined in the manner of a social compact envisaged by the likes of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, et alii. As the saying goes, ‘if it’s good enough for the government… well.
Language is a human construct, yet it’s an apparition. Like a physical object, it appears solid, but there’s more space than not. What’s there is exiguous. Echoing Heisenberg’s observations at the atomic level, one cannot be fully certain of a particular meaning. This is what Derrida (via Barthes) meant by ‘the death of the author’, though there is nothing to guarantee that the author could fully articulate the meaning or intent even if they were present to defend it.
About the same time, Saussure was finding promise in the structure of language, Russell was creating a new language of logic to obviate its deficiencies. Structuralists and logical positivists were a natural extension of the scientism of the 20th Century, the prevailing wave since the Enlightenment, but as with the demise of gods, religious belief, and other things metaphysical, this faith in structure was also specious.
Historically speaking, there is progress (another illusion), and there are paradigm shifts. When a paradigm shifts, an old truth is replaced by a new one. This is typically credited to a progression of knowledge, but it’s actually just that, on balance, people have accepted a new frame, chalking it up to scientific method rather than some rhetorical sleight of hand.
Even so, scientific discovery is different to archetypal notions such as truth or justice. At least we can empirically test and verify a scientific notion, even if what we are observing is later revised because of some previously unknown factor or removed constraint. For example, until Einstein’s day, Newton would not have known that his theory of gravity would break down as it approached the speed of light. But truth is just an opinion—even if widely held. Enter the ‘appeal to tradition’ flavour of logical fallacy—I’ll not dwell on the fact that systems of government are based on this quaint notion of precedents. #JustSaying
I’ve arrived at my philosophical position as an autodidact. I am not a conventional scholar, and my exposure to philosophy derives from books, videos, and online sources including Wikipedia, blogs, Reddit, and the such.
I consider myself to be a non-cognitivist in the realm of Ayers’ Emotivism, and I fully realise that society as we know it relies on some notion of ascertainable truth. Of course, Nietzsche was vilified for observing that ‘God is dead’ and unceremoniously subjected to the ad hominem attacks afforded to the likes of Marx.
I’ve got a certain amount of respect for Existentialists (and Absurdists), but I find the teleological component a bit at odds with the central tenet. To that extent, I am more of a Nihilist.
I am more comfortable with what’s been called ‘Post-Modernism’, despite admiring the effort of some Structuralists and Logical Positivists. Where this love affair ends is where the permeation of science fetishists begin. Scientific Method and Logic are the gods of the New Age.
As a post-Enlightenment child, I’ve been steeped in all of its unfound glory, and it’s harder still for me to escape the pull of my Western indoctrination. So, to argue, one is forced to comply with the rules of logic within the limitations of human language—even the limitations of Russell’s language of Logic. And like arguing with a proponent of religion who points out that you can’t disprove his Ethereal Unicorn, one is forced into positions of arguing against Quixotic figments introduced as metaphysical elements.
If life has no inherent meaning, why are humans so attached to finding meaning?
A common cognitive phenomenon humans exhibit is apophenia. From Jesus in toast to constellations in stars to dragons in clouds and faces on Mars, we see imagine we see things that aren’t there. We perceive signal where there is only noise. We create gods where they don’t exist.
On one hand, this may be some vestigial artefact that was necessary—or at least evident—for survival along our evolutionary journey. On the other hand, it may just have been inculcated through social indoctrination, and so is just a social construct, a byproduct of language and the ability to reason.
« I don’ t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. »
Camus claimed that life has no meaning and is in fact Absurd. He proposed that you had three courses of action.
Acceptance — embracing the Absurd
Regarding physical suicide, I believe that Camus was being melodramatic. This essay was a product of its day, and in 1942 people were even more steeped in the need for meaning.
Societies exist due to the perception of meaning, so they are obligated to enforce this belief. Societies need to promulgate order, and so much effort is expended to battle concepts that counter this. They envisage anarchists, not only as antithetical to order but as active chaos, black-masked, jack-booted hooligans, smashing windows and looting shops. So, too, do they vilify nihilists and atheists of whatever stripe.
Societies are organisms, and they require meaning to justify their own existence. Nihilism is a cancer, a virus, destroying the very core of their being.
I am re-reading Albert Camus‘ The Myth of Sisyphus, but it’s not as I remember all those years ago. My first comment is that it is a product of its time. Even though some people still believe that without some inherent ‘higher’ meaning, chaos would ensue—the same who believe that atheists will behave this way and that anarchists will smash windows and resort to hedonism.
I think that Camus chose suicide because people at that time would have a ‘natural’ propensity to feel that a life without meaning would necessarily result in suicide. It’s especially humorous given that ostensibly there is no meaning. Of course, the larger question is why people appear to be hard-wired to search for meaning. Secondarily, even if there were some higher meaning, as Camus suggests, there would be no objective way to confirm it.
« If the only significant history of human thought were to be written, it would have to be the history of its successive regrets and its impotences. »
Back to reading… (less typing and more reading)
« The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together. »
« I don’ t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. »
When Camus cites Nietzsche,
“It clearly seems that the chief thing in heaven and on earth is to obey at length and in a single direction: in the long run there results something for which it is worth the trouble of living on this earth as, for example, virtue, art, music, the dance, reason, the mind—something that transfigures, something delicate, mad, or divine“,
he also nods to the reader his accord with Nietzsche’s adherence to virtue ethics praising how he ‘elucidates the rule of a really distinguished code of ethics‘, and therein lies the rub. Why should any of these be any better than any other thing?
Nietzsche and Camus were both products of their age, and as Descartes was before them, as brilliant as they each were in their own rights, they were blinded by their age: Descartes by God, and Nietzsche and Camus by virtue.
The Myth of Sisyphus is an interesting exposition, but, try as it may, it falls short.
Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre had a falling out over the philosophical implications of Camus’ The Rebel, but the question I have is how can two Nihilists come to loggerheads when each understood the lack of inherent meaning and purpose in the universe. Camus felt one needed to embrace the Absurd, but not resort to violence except as a last resort, but Sartre felt Communism—even if formed through violent means—was the right way forward. On what objective moral basis could either of these positions be defended?