April 29, 2010

The Unconscious and Myth of Reason

The gods above and the gods below!

Sigmund Freud

A Brief Psychoanalytical and Philosophical Critique of Reason

§1. Reason and the Enlightenment

In a certain sense, the introduction of Sigmund Freud’s concept of the “unconscious” can be construed as a mockery of the intellectual traditions of the Western civilization. The appearance of Freud’s concept of the unconscious on the scene of the 20th century is deemed as a direct warning to the philosophical and scientific traditions, which can be traced back to the Age of Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Reason). Our Enlightenment legacy is the investiture of man with the unflinching trust in human reason. (For further exploration of the “Enlightenment” see the following link: The Age of Enlightenment (roughly from 1650 to 1770) celebrated human reason and resurrected a sense of self-confidence and self-possession. The Enlightenment view firmly held that the new individuals of the age of science are equipped with reason and theories that can be put into practice in order to reform or remove the corrupt social and political institutions. The grandiose vision of the Enlightenment was to reconstruct the human world – through the use of reason, science, and technology – in order to serve the natural law of “progress”: that human reason can discover scientific truths about the natural world and human nature, and turn these bodies of knowledge into practice in forms of technology and social reform for the benefit of humanity. They believed they were, or would be soon, in command of all the knowledge necessary to improve the world.

After over two centuries since the Enlightenment, according to philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1798-1979), we have constructed a human intellect powerful enough to unravel the mysteries of the natural world, but any intellect that powerful has a peculiar tendency to be tyrannical! (For further exploration of Marcuse’s thoughts on “reason” see the following link: While it is true that science and technology have helped humanity to procure the knowhow to deal with certain areas of human life, it may not be a fair assessment that the progress of the Enlightenment project has made us less fearful and unsecure in the face of the modern uncertainties. We are still wrestling with the problems of poverty, hunger, unemployment, healthcare, drugs, population, racial conflicts, political uncertainty, economic inflation, recession, energy, water, and global warming. What is paradoxical about the Enlightenment’s tenacious confidence in human reason is that it has turned into a force of mystification of the human world. For instance, the Germans – who highly excelled themselves above many other people in science, technology, arts, literature, philosophy, civics, and industrialization since the dawn of modernity and became an epitome of civilization – the people who gave Goethe, Beethoven, and Einstein to the world, also gave birth to Nazism, brutality, and Auschwitz. They built a human intellect firm enough to withstand excruciating challenges and to ennoble man’s spirit, yet this intellect became totalitarian. How so? What could have gone wrong with reason?

§2. Cause vs. Reason (The Unconscious vs. Consciousness)

In his Some Elementary Lessons in Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) writes about a case wherein a doctor hypnotized his patient and, while under hypnosis, instructed him as follows: I am going to leave the ward, but upon my return you are to bring my umbrella and hold it open over my head. Thereafter, the doctor brought the patient out of hypnosis and left the ward. When the doctor returned to the ward, the patient grabbed the umbrella, opened it, and held it over the doctor’s head. The doctor asked why he did that. The patient became embarrassed and gave him an unsound reason, such as that he thought it was raining outside and the doctor would need his umbrella!

The point is that, the patient’s reason for why he acted the way he did belies the actual cause of what he did. Here, Freud makes a distinction between the “cause” of the patient’s action (the “cause” of which the patient was unconscious) and the “reason” for his action (the “reason” of which the patient was conscious). Likewise, often, “causes” precede our actions while our “reasons” proceed from the actions. We commonly fabricate reasons for our choices or deeds – reasons that conceal, not reveal, the underlying causes of our decisions or activities. Often our reasons for why we do something (e.g., getting married or pursuing a college degree) betray the actual causes of why we do it. In other words, we unknowingly lie to ourselves! What we consciously want may not be what we really desire. Or, expressed in psychoanalytical terms, the “ego” thinks that it is acting autonomously, not realizing that the “id” is pulling its strings. It is in this particular sense that Freud’s concept of the unconscious has been a humiliating blow to the confidence in the philosophical and scientific pursuit of knowledge. Freud wonders what the ulterior motives underlying our pursuit of knowledge or truth could be. In a certain sense, the Western intellectual traditions were to demythologize the world; however, it seems that they have supplanted the old myths with the new ones: self-control and progress. Human reason, according to Freud, can never be truly sovereign.

The scientific advancements may have given us greater control of our environment, but for Freud a great many of our problems lie deep within ourselves. Unconscious forces of which we are unaware often dictate our thoughts and behaviors. Hence, Freud insists that we can acquire a greater degree of autonomy by understanding the unconscious psyche. In his The Interpretation of Dreams, he wrote, “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.” For him, a significant measure of what takes place in human psyche is unconscious. He considers this as a fundamental premise of psychoanalysis. And, one of the most characteristic facets of psychoanalysis is its refusal to identify our mental life with what we are conscious of.

In his Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis, Freud considers that science has delivered three principal blows to “the naive self-love of men”. First, under Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), it was discovered that the earth was not the center of the universe. Second, under Alfred Wallace (1823-1913) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882), their theories of evolution dethroned man from being the crown of creation and placed man amongst the animals. Third, Freud writes, perhaps not without a degree of conceit, “Human megalomania will have suffered its third and most wounding blow from the psychological research of the present time [in my hand], which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in its mind.”

§3. Myth of Reason

Although Freud’s psychoanalysis poses an affront to the philosophical and scientific traditions, yet he has shown us – in the name of science itself – that the apparent power of human mind is all too often derived from non-rational factors. He does not deprecate science to an illusion; nevertheless, once rationality is unveiled in one area as being something other than it appears, it is difficult to stop the domino effect. Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) portrayed a peculiar reaction to Freud’s psychoanalysis when he stated that Freud had introduced a “new myth”. According to his conversation with Rush Rhees, Wittgenstein asserted that psychoanalysis would be likely to do harm “Because although one may discover in the course of it various things about oneself, one must have a very strong and keen and persistent criticism in order to recognize and see through the mythology that is offered or imposed on one. There is an inducement to say, ‘yes, of course, it must be like that.’ A powerful mythology.” A critical issue is that how far Freud’s psychoanalysis can lay claim to truth – when it is itself a product of human rationality, which he has led us to be suspicious of.

§4. Psychoanalysis and Philosophy

Characteristically, psychoanalysis, as a science of the human mind, shares with philosophy a common territory, which has made psychoanalysis vulnerable to numerous attacks from the scientific front. Akin to Quantum Field Theory, psychoanalysis has kept one foot in science and the other in philosophy because its various theories cannot be tested in a strictly scientific manner. Of course, philosophy has had its own pre-Freudian developments in regard to the phenomena of the unconscious and consciousness. The following is a brief historical description of the evolution of the philosophical conception of the unconscious and consciousness, which paved the way for Freud’s psychoanalysis.

§5. Plato (c. 427-c. 347 B.C.)

Ancient Greek philosopher Plato propounds a theory known as the “tripartite soul”, which is expressive of three functions or capacities of the human soul: “reason”, “the spirited element”, and “appetites” (or “passions”). For Plato, these three faculties fall into a natural hierarchy, in which reason (the rational element of the soul) has primacy over and ought to direct the spirited element (which occupies the intermediate level) and the bodily appetites (the non-rational element of the soul that occupies the lowest level). Plato construes this hierarchical structure as an organism whose constituent parts, functioning harmoniously together under the guidance of reason, serve the whole soul. A malfunction of one part would jeopardize the well-being of the whole. Plato is keenly aware of the conflicts between reason and the appetites. According to his Republic, while the appetites non-reflectively drive a person toward immediate gratification of her or his irrational desires, reason acts as an “inhibiting principle”. And, it is the spirited element (consisting of emotional drives such as anger, ambition, courage, pride, and aggression) that is to mediate between reason and the appetites in an attempt to resolve the conflict.

In contrast to Plato’s tripartite theory of soul, Freud’s tripartite structural model of the psyche is comprised of the “id” (tantamount to Plato’s concept of “appetites”), the “ego” (partly comparative to Plato’s concept of “reason” and partly to “the spirited element”), and the “super-ego” or “ego ideal” (in part comparative to Plato’s concept of “reason”). Freud describes the id as a purely unconscious impetus, expressive of the sexual, aggressive, and self-preserving instincts. The super-ego, partly conscious and partly unconscious, is a psychic function indicative of reason in terms of conscience, which regulates and/or restrains the instinctual urges. And, the ego (as an extension of the id), partly conscious and partly unconscious, is an organic dynamism significative of reason in terms of intelligence, which mediates between the id’s demands for immediate gratification of its instinctual urges and the disciplinary super-ego’s restrictions upon them. Furthermore, the ego, under the watchful eyes of the super-ego, functions to bring about an equilibrium between the impulsive urges and the external physical and social reality. In a sense, the ego is the executive while the super-ego is the legislative and the judiciary. Also, generally speaking, the id (Latin for “it”) is associated with the pleasure-pain principle, the ego (Latin for “I”) is correlated with the reality principle, and the super-ego (over-I) is identified with the ideal principle.

§6. René Descartes (1596-1650)

While Plato’s philosophy in its orientation and function is a form of “idealism”, René Descartes’ philosophy is a type of “materialism” – which became the dominant paradigm of modernity, shaping its socio-economico-political institutions all the way to the present time. In general, materialism, associated with the mechanical world view, is a metaphysical theory which holds that ultimate reality is matter, and that all seemingly nonmaterial things such as minds and thoughts are reducible to the motions of particles of matter. In contrast, idealism holds that ultimate reality is mental and that seemingly non-mental things, such as material objects, are reducible to the ideas of mind or consciousness. In general, the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes, Sir Isaac Newton (in his mechanistic causal view of the universe), John Locke, David Hume, and Karl Marx are materialistically oriented, while the philosophies of Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Søren Kierkegaard are conversant with idealism. The materialism of philosophy of René Descartes is a foundation upon which Freud’s psychoanalysis is based in principle. As a result, Freud would ascribe various aspects of mental disorder to a mechanical sequence of causes and effects, which can be traced back all the way to childhood.

Descartes argues that whatever is not rational (i.e., “thinking substance”) is nothing but matter in motion devoid of consciousness. Descartes’ theory of the physical universe is known as “mechanism”, which is the theory that the mechanical motion of material substances can explain all of nature, including the human body. In his mechanistic model of reality, the world is infinite in extension, with bodies of all shapes and sizes that are perpetually in a state of motion and change. Descartes attributed all motion of bodies to mechanical impact, like the mechanical motion of billiard balls. For him, the universe is entirely mechanical, from the celestial motion of the planets to all organic and inorganic matter. To Descartes, and many of us, this is the physical universe: a mechanical system of bodies in motion according to the causal laws of physics. The physical world consists of bodies (of various geometrical sizes and shapes, colorless, soundless, smell-less, tasteless, and without texture) that move on impact with one another in purposeless, mechanical motion in a clockwork universe. This model of reality inspired both Newton’s classical physics and Freud’s analytical psychology.

The following are some of the reflections of Descartes in respect to the dynamics of non-conscious bodily impulses and conscious thoughts:

“There is nothing [no physical thing] in us which we ought to attribute to our soul, other than our thoughts, which are principally of two types: some are the actions of the soul, others are passions.” (From Descartes’ The Passions of the Soul)

“To be conscious is assuredly to think and to reflect upon one’s thought, . . . the soul can think many things at the same time, persevering in its thought, and reflecting upon its thoughts whenever it wishes, to be therefore conscious of its thought.” (From Descartes’ conversation with Burman)

“There is nothing completely in our power other than our thoughts.” (From Descartes’ Discourse on the Method)

“The utility of all the passions [bodily impulses] consists only in the fact that they dispose the soul to wish the things which nature tells us to be useful, and to persist in that wish.” (From Descartes’ The Passions of the Soul)

“All the movements of our [bodily] members which accompany our passions . . . are produced . . . not by our soul, but solely by the mechanisms of our body.” (From Descartes’ letter of Apr. 15, 1649 to Henry More)

“As for the movement of passions, even though they are accompanied by our thought, . . . it is nevertheless very evident that they do not depend upon it [our thought], because they often occur in spite of us.” (From Descartes’ letter of Nov. 23, 1646 to Marquess of Newcastle)

“Love, hate, fear, anger, etc. . . . are  . . . passions of the soul; that is, insofar as these are confused thoughts which the soul does not have of itself, but from the fact that it [the soul] is tightly united to the body, and thus receives the impression of the movements which take place in it; for there is a great difference between these passions and the knowledge or distinct thoughts which we have of what is loved, or hated, or feared, etc. . . .” (From Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy)

“The true use of our reason for the conduct of our life consists only in examining and considering without passion the value of all the perfections, those of body as well as those of the mind. . . .” (From Descartes’ letter of Sep. 1, 1645 to Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia)

§7. David Hume (1711-1776)

In sharp opposition to Plato’s and Descartes’ rationalism, the empiricist philosopher David Hume, with great boldness, states in his A Treatise of Human Nature: “We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (Italics added.) For him, reason – in serving the passions – merely directs us to recognize “relations” between things while our passions prompt us to take action based on the knowledge of the relations. Reason is the “slave of the passions” inasmuch as it is not able to determine our ends for us, but can only show us how to accomplish what we already desire.

Hume’s empiricism holds that human knowledge is procured through “sense experience”, and that reason by itself cannot tell us what must be the case. For Hume, as for Freud, the dynamism of human life comes from our instinctual life. Reason can control, but can never dominate human passions. Hume insists that reason cannot pass from what is the case to what ought to be the case. Unlike Immanuel Kant, he even claimed that morality is not established by reason. Whether we are virtuous or vicious springs form our human nature, not reason. Morality, for him, is not something imposed on or demanded of humans, but is the outcome of a basic trait of human character. According to Hume, morality does not merely need to take account of human nature – morality is an expression of human nature.

Hume treats the behavior of physical objects and human actions in the same manner, meaning that he attributes the same kind of causal necessity to human action as to the effect of one billiard ball striking another. Moreover, he puts the emphasis on the operation of the human mind, not on the way things are outside of the mind. In other words, he is more concerned with how the mind perceives than whether what is perceived is real or not. In fact, in his A Treatise of Human Nature, he persists, “[T]he science of man is the only foundation for the other sciences. . . .”

§8. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

In his famous essay entitled “What is Enlightenment?”, German philosopher Immanuel Kant sums up the essence of the Enlightenment as follows: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and the courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of Enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! [Dare to know!] Have courage to use your own reason!” Kant is adamant in persevering, without any reservations, that roles of reason and, hence, consciousness should be paramount in our daily lives. He continues, “If it is asked whether we at present live in an enlightened age, the answer is: No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment. As things are at present, we still have a long way to go before men as a whole can be in a position (or can even be put into a position) of using their own understanding confidently and well. . . .” This account is expressive of the age that was only at the commencement of becoming enlightened. Indeed, the Enlightenment was an age of transition, marked by the advance of freedom, which Kant deems as the necessary condition for daring to reason for oneself. Hence, besides reason, the idea of human freedom, which Kant affirmed, is fundamental and central in his philosophy. But what does freedom mean?

Kant repudiates that human freedom can be proven by way of theories or logic. We do not assert our freedom by thinking and conceptualizing it, but by acting. Conceptual analysis, for Kant, is of no avail in the sphere of human freedom, for it is not a theoretical problem – but a practical or moral issue. Kant recognizes two types of reason: “theoretical reason” (as applied in theoretical disciplines such as metaphysics and science) and “practical reason” (as applied in practical fields such as ethics and human conduct). Although his thoughts on theoretical reason are quite profound and consequential in the history of the Western civilization, he ardently emphasizes the role of practical reason in our daily lives. Kant insists that to choose to exist as a free human being is the utmost act of “self-respect” (not “self-love”), as it is the most fundamental ethical choice attainable to us, and all moral choices spring therefrom. Kant, in opposition to Hume, disallows moral principles to be based on personal human interests, not even on the interest in happiness. For him, all interests are indicative of human desires (or “inclinations” as he calls them), not reason. Human desires, does not matter how noble, express what Kant calls “self-love”, of which human happiness is the highest expression. Nevertheless, from his perspective, morality is about self-respect, not self-love. Hence, he concluds that there are always imminent conflicts between human desires and reason. Occasionally, reason (in form of morality) and happiness (as the most respectable form of self-love) can be concentric; nonetheless, they are not identical. Conversely, mandates of morality and happiness can run into conflicts.

Kant maintains that reason is, or should be, at the center of human life; the ultimate purpose of humanity is to realize its rational nature. That humans are rational means that they have purposes or ends. Hence, in his, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he writes, “Rational nature is distinguished from others in that it poses an end to itself.” In other words, human beings are the embodiment of reason as the force which fulfills their ends. Kant continues, “[A]s an end in himself, man is destined to be legislative in the realm of ends, free from all laws of nature and obedient only to those which he gives to himself. His universal maxims [i.e., moral principles] belong to a legislation to which he is at the same time subject.” Human reason informs our humanity and amplifies us beyond the animals. In absence of freedom to reason, we are denied the power of choice.

§9. G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831)

In his enigmatic book Phenomenology of Spirit (which almost reads like an epic poem such as that of Homer’s Odyssey), German Philosopher G.W.F. Hegel discloses that what is immanently present but latent or unconscious in the world history is the “Spirit” or the “Absolute”. The Absolute, in a very general sense, is an all-encompassing, unitary, organic, and developmental process or principle that organizes all diversity of the phenomenal world into a rational unity. In his book, Hegel relates that this unity-within-diversity principle strives toward freedom. The world history is the process of the Absolute unfolding itself unto itself, whereby the Spirit manifests to finite human beings their own freedom. For Hegel, history seems to be the progressive evolution of human civilization in the consciousness of its own freedom.

The Absolute, operating through human history, externalizes human freedom by deployment of two factors: “reason” and “passion”. Being cognizant that humans’ personal goals and satisfaction of their self-serving appetencies are the nascence of human actions, Hegel maintains that passion – not rationality – is what motivates human actions. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History of 1832, he claims, “[W]e may affirm absolutely that nothing great in the World has been accomplished without passion.” Therefore, the Absolute – through reason – cons individuals into realizing its own end of freedom. By exploiting the human wills, the Absolute effectuates its own will through reason. Hegel refers to this phenomenon as the “cunning of reason”, which employs the prodigious momentum of human desires as means to its end of freedom – not necessarily for individuals, but for the nation-states. For instance, Napoleon Bonaparte’s lust for political power and conquest actually served the cunning of reason by passing on the new freedoms of the French Enlightenment to the nations he conquered. Consequently, such nations adopted liberalized laws, improved educational systems, and brought an end to the serfdom.

§10. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Arthur Schopenhauer, in his major work The World as Will and Representation, offers an account of the human psyche that is on a par with the general posture of Freud’s psychoanalysis. According to Schopenhauer, our true motives for our thoughts, decisions, and actions are often veiled from our conscious awareness. He relates that many philosophers traditionally were of the conviction that we know precisely what we want and desire. However, Schopenhauer conceives of human desires as merely the tip of an iceberg, whose full presence is submerged beneath the surface of consciousness. He holds that we commonly rationalize many of our choices and actions by ascribing them to motives that often mask, rather than unmask, the true impulses that set us in motion. He writes:

“We often do not know what we desire or fear. For years we can have a desire without admitting it to ourselves or even letting it come to clear consciousness, because the intellect is not to know anything about it, since the good opinion we have of ourselves would inevitably suffer thereby. But if the wish is fulfilled, we get to know from our joy, not without a feeling of shame, that this is what we desired; for example, the death of a near relation whose heir we are. Sometimes we do not know what we really fear, because we lack the courage to bring it to clear consciousness. In fact, we are often entirely mistaken as to the real motive from which we do or omit to do something, till finally some accident discloses the secret to us and we know that our real motive was not what we thought it as being, but some other that we were unwilling to admit to ourselves, because it was by no means in keeping with our good opinion of ourselves. For example, as we imagine we omit to do something for purely moral reasons; yet we learn subsequently that we were deterred merely by fear, since we do it as soon as all danger is removed.”

Freud describes such behavioral phenomena by applying his psychoanalytical concepts of the id, ego, and super-ego, confirming the subconscious forces conjuring below the surface of consciousness. Schopenhauer, prior to Freud, had already enacted similar conceptual distinction with his concepts of the “will” (blind primal unity, which admits of comparison to the Kantian “noumenon” and “thing-in-itself”) and “representation” (the objectification of the unity, which is on an equal footing with the Kantian “phenomenon”). Representations are the appearances of common and ordinary experiences while the will is the hidden reality underlying the appearances. Schopenhauer interprets the will as the controlling impetus within us, whereas philosophers conventionally had made reason the dominant factor. He gives primacy to the will above reason, for he construes the mind as an instrument serving the will. According to both Schopenhauer and Freud, we must penetrate beneath the surface of the mind to truly understand ourselves. “Consciousness is the mere surface of our mind”, Schopenhauer argues, “and of this, as of the globe, we do not know the interior, but only the crust.”

§11. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Friedrich Nietzsche, known as the “psychologizing philosopher”, of whom Freud was fond, offers a novel analysis of consciousness and reason. He harshly criticizes those philosophers and theologians who fancy human consciousness to be divinely supreme and inherently valuable:

“In relation to the vastness and multiplicity of . . . the life of every organism, the conscious world of feelings, intentions, and valuations is a small section. We have no right whatever to posit this piece of consciousness as the aim and wherefore of this total phenomenon of life: becoming conscious is obviously only one more means toward the unfolding and extension of the power of life. Therefore it is a piece of naiveté to posit pleasure or spirituality or morality or any other particular of the sphere of consciousness as the highest value – and perhaps even to justify ‘the world’ by means of this. . . . The fundamental mistake is simply that, instead of understanding consciousness as a tool and particular aspect of the total life, we posit it as the standard and the condition of life that is of supreme value. . . .”

According to Nietzsche, it is a grave error, as it has been committed by many philosophers, to think that human reason or consciousness is of a different origin and separate from our biology and the natural world. In his Will to Power, Nietzsche admonishes, “Through the long succession of millennia, man has not known himself physiologically: he does not know himself even today. To know, e.g., that one has a nervous system (– but no ‘soul’ –) is still the privilege of the best informed.” Nietzsche insists that we can properly comprehend ourselves by initially translating ourselves “back into nature” amongst the animals and then back into society – to both of which we owe the structure of our instinctual and conscious life. To convey the presumptuousness of elevating human consciousness over and beyond the natural world, Nietzsche shares with us a parable:

“In some remote corner of the universe, . . . there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of ‘world history’ – yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.

One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have [changed]. For this intellect has no further mission that would lead beyond human life. It is human, rather, and only its owner and producer give it such importance, as if the world pivoted it. . . .

The intellect, as a means for the preservation of the individual, unfolds its chief powers in [deception]; for this is the means by which the weaker, less robust individuals preserve themselves, since they are denied the chance of waging the struggle for existence with horns or the fangs of beasts of prey.”

As Nietzsche points out, human consciousness or reason is a recent invention in the history of evolutionary biology: “There have been eternities when it did not exist.” From the scientific viewpoint, the Homo sapiens (Latin for “wise man”) have thus far occupied this minuscule corner of the galaxy only since about 200,000 years ago in the entire more or less 14,000,000-year history of the universe. Nietzsche peculiarly expresses that human consciousness is relatively a weak organ of knowledge – still, as it were, in an experimental stage! Consciousness does not possess the infallibility of human instincts; it is still plagued with many doubts and hesitations that are unknown to human impulses. In this, as it were, experiment of nature, whose results are still in doubt, our social way of living has become an alternative to a purely impulsive mode of life. Both Nietzsche and Freud argue that our social conditions have compelled us to rely more on our conscious thinking rather than our instincts. In a sense, to supplant the instincts, our social circumstances have caused a collapse of our instinct-structure. It is under these conditions, according to Nietzsche, that human consciousness and reason transpired. Further, it is in this regard that Nietzsche, in his On the Genealogy of Morals, refers to man as a “sick animal”:

“Where does it come from, this sickliness? For man is more sick, uncertain, changeable, indeterminate than any other animal, there is no doubt of that – he is the sick animal: how has that come about? Certainly he has also dared more, done more new things, braved more and challenged far more than all the other animals put together: he, the great experimenter with himself, discontented and insatiable, wrestling with animals, nature, and gods for ultimate dominion. . . . [H]ow should such a courageous and richly endowed animal not also be the most imperiled, the most chronically and profoundly sick of all sick animals?”

“Man was bound to contract [this illness] under the stress of the most fundamental change he ever experienced – that change which occurred when he found himself finally enclosed within the walls of society and of peace. The situation that faced sea animals when they were compelled to become land animals or perish was the same as that which faced these semi-animals, well adapted to the wilderness, to war, to prowling, to adventure: suddenly all their instincts were disvalued and ‘suspended.’ . . . [I]n this new world they no longer possessed their former guides, their regulating, unconscious and infallible drives: they were reduced to thinking, inferring, reckoning, co-ordinating cause and effect, these unfortunate creatures; they were reduced to their ‘consciousness,’ their weakest and most fallible organ! . . . [A]t the same time the old instincts had not suddenly ceased to make their usual demands! Only it was hardly or rarely possible to humor them: as a rule they had to seek new and, as it were, subterranean gratifications.

All instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inward – this is what I call the internalization of man: thus it was that man first developed what was later called his ‘soul.’ The entire inner world, originally as thin as if it were stretched between two membranes, expanded and extended itself, acquired depth, breadth, and height, in the same measure as outward discharge was inhibited. Those fearful bulwarks with which the political organization protected itself against the old instincts of freedom – punishments belong among these bulwarks – brought about that all those instincts of wild, free, prowling man turned backward against man himself. . . . [T]hus began the gravest and uncanniest illness, from which humanity has not yet recovered, man’s suffering of man, of himself – the result of a forcible sundering from his animal past, as it were a leap and plunge into new surroundings and conditions of existence, a declaration of war against the old instincts upon which his strength, joy, and terribleness had rested hitherto.”

However, Nietzsche is absolutely not suggesting that man should go back to the cave of primal existence – for man has transformed her or himself beyond mere biological necessities. Human life has procured social and psychological dimensions that can set the stage for a higher development of the “organic”. Although Nietzsche, in his Will to Power, asserts that “the body is a more astonishing idea than the old ‘soul’”, he also claims that, “It is a history of the development of a higher body that emerges into our sensibility. The organic is rising to yet higher levels” – i.e., “the entire evolution of the spirit.”

Freud compared his discovery of the unconscious to the greatest archaeological discoveries of his time. Heinrich Schliemann had found and excavated Troy, and Arthur Evans had unearthed the Labyrinth at Knossos. Their discoveries attracted the world’s attention. While Freud excavated no archaeological sights, he seems to have wanted to be recognized for his excavation of the human mind.  As a Jew, Freud was an outsider in the scientific establishment. Schliemann was the very image of what Freud wanted to be. When his monumental book, The Interpretation of Dreams, was published at the turn of the 20th century (which was actually published in November of 1899, but post-dated to 1900 by the publisher!), its epigraph was from Virgil’s Aeneid in the Latin of the classically educated elite: “Flectere si nequeo Superos, Acheronta movebo.” (“Since I cannot move the gods above, I shall move the gods below.”). Indeed, he did! After Freud, human nature and reason are not looked upon the same manner anymore.

For further exploration of this article, I invited you to read my previous posts as follows:




(Dear reader, please feel free to make a critique of this article. I look forward to learning from you!)


April 23, 2010

Being and Time (Part 2)

Anxiety of “Being-in-the-world”

Heidegger’s Significance in Our Time

On rare occasions and without forewarning, and seldom without conscious awareness, we may involuntarily suffer from an uncanny mood that can be characterized as ambiguous, apprehensive, indecisive, and uncertain—a suspicious mood that resists being clearly articulated. Once we are affected by this obscure mood, it sets in like nightfall. The deeper we sink in it, the darker and more inaccessible our world becomes while we become alienated from ourselves, others, and everyday routines. Under such condition, according to German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), we do not feel at “home” in the world. At such confusing moments, we often ignore this mood by returning to our “everydayness”, i.e., our nonreflective modes of existing, such as being absorbed in our everyday routines, occupations, recreational activities, and so on. We often fill up our lives with busyness in order to flee from this mood. In fact, Heidegger suggests that our everydayness might be at times a subterranean or subconscious way of escape and taking refuge from this disorienting mood. If you seek a psychiatrist to rid you of this particular mood, she or he may conventionally prescribe you some pills to numb your alertness to this crisis, which perhaps can be metaphorically qualified as an alarm clock. But, what does this alarm clock alarm you about?

Heidegger is renowned for his ontological phenomenology (a specific way of “showing”) of this tabooic mood, which he refers to as “Angst”, translated in English as “anxiety”. Of course, as you may have suspected, this anxiety is not your common type of anxiety. Heidegger interpreted this anxiety as a dimension or structure of an existing human, whom he refers to as “Dasein”, meaning “Being-there” or, alternatively, “Being-in-the-world”. (Heidegger, repudiating to think of us as mere things, depicts us as “Being-there” or “Being-in-the-world” instead of “humans”. The latter term, human, is readily indicative of a thing or entity while the former is expressive of an activity that signifies a qualitative mode of existing.)

By the time we wake up every morning, we find ourselves already here. From the womb of time, we were helplessly born sometime, some place, some gender, some race, and into some social class. Heidegger characterizes this phenomenon as us having been “thrown into the world”. When we become acutely conscious that we exist, we catch ourselves already in the world—the world in which we are, if you will, condemned to be and there is no escape until death removes us from the world. Accordingly, since we catch ourselves thrown into the world, we are, unlike an inert object such as a stone, never moodless. In fact, Heidegger posits that our “thrownness” or moods (some more than others) can disclose to us our Being-in-the-world and can transform our being into a life-long “project”. And, if we remove our moods, we may remove ourselves from the world. Heidegger suggests that we should not bar our moods altogether, but to find the appropriate moods to cultivate. He insists that moods are not only our ways of finding ourselves in the world, but also they “attune” us to the world.

Generally speaking, in the contemporary American society, we often readily dismiss our moods, especially the unsettling ones, as insignificant, random, or passing phases. There is a sense in which we assume, perhaps with a degree of shame, that moods divorce us from reality and who we are. On the contrary, Heidegger construes moods as a key to self-knowledge or self-interpretation and as a context within which our world (its meanings, significances, and values) is shaped. We are often admonished “don’t cry” when we are sad, or we are told “smile” when our pictures are being taken. Or, our employers command us “leave your worries and personal problems at home when you come to work”, which is practicable, but unrealistic. Consequently, we are conditioned to become fake, which is highly common and, in fact, encouraged. We are good at faking or simulating moods. One can think of a typical retail clerk or waiter who greets customers with a fake smile, simulating the act of being hospitable and caring. According to Heidegger, this is an inauthentic attempt to evade our “thrownness” and “facticity”—senselessly ignoring what he views as the threefold structure of Being-in-the-world: our past (how and who we were), our present (how and who we are), and our future (how and who we will become).

After all said and done, how does Heidegger attempt to demystify the mood of anxiety? In the course of his phenomenological investigation of this mood, Heidegger indicates how disturbing it is for us to truly “exist” (from Latin ex-sistere, “to stand out”) and face up to our agonizing situation, which may account for why the everyday view treats anxiety as a taboo or dismisses it as an instance of meaningless confusion, and promotes shallow and superficial interpretations of ourselves and the world. We are readily inclined to ward off such anguishing disturbances and to preoccupy ourselves with what Heidegger calls “everydayness”, activities that tuck the anxiety, as it were, under the rug of our being.

Heidegger asks how we would narrate the stories of our lives. Would they be stories worth telling? Would they be meaningful stories (like that of Socrates, Mahatma Gandhi, or Albert Einstein)? Here, the word “meaning” is expressive of how genuinely we can relate to our own Being, to our past, present, and future possibilities. According to Heidegger, anxiety can unconceal a significant meaning of our life stories. For him, this anxiety is not a symptom of a mental disorder or some kind of chemical imbalance. It is rather a “structure” of Being-in-the-world. This anxiety is not some thing that a psychiatrist can relieve us of it – because this anxiety is us, Being-in-the-world. To ask to be rid of our fundamental anxiety is to ask to eradicate whatever has remained of what we call our selves!

When we are in the grip of this anxiety, we often abandoned ourselves to what Heidegger calls Das Man (“the they”) or the crowd. It is easy to get lost in the crowd when we are face to face with the anxiety. Often, when a person is in denial of this rudimentary anxiety, it is the crowd that chooses the person’s life projects, and “they” – not the person – will narrate the person’s fragmented life-story and define the meaning of the person’s life. In this context, our anxiety can reveal our past as something that we could not help, our present as an escape from our selves, and our future as an impossibility of our potentials. This is a life story of being “inauthentic” (cf. Karl Marx’s concept of “alienation”:

Comparatively speaking, while the object of fear is something definite and specific, such as a spider or getting fired from a job, the object of anxiety is not any thing explicit and specific. Heidegger describes anxiety as a generalized mood that is about our Being-in-the-world as a whole. This mood may affect us at any time, as it were, when it slips out from beneath the rug. It can happen when, for instance, we are enjoying our favorite activities or when we are down on our luck. Once our being is totally eclipsed by anxiety, our activities are abruptly rendered empty, meaningless, and pointless; security of our everyday existence slips away; and we find ourselves “falling”, as it were, in an abyss. While certain aspects of life may still interest us, life as a whole becomes purposeless and otiose, a wasteland.

Although anxiety is potently alienating, it does not separate us from the world. Rather, it reconnects us to the world in such a way that we do not feel at “home” anymore. In other words, anxiety presents the world to us as an urgent problem, in which our nexus – to having been rooted in a past smeared into our present which faces a future – comes to the center of our being. Here, Heidegger’s attempt is to portray how the three dimensions of Being-in-the-world (i.e., past, present, and future) fit together into a single constitution which he refers to as Sarge, translated in English as “care”. Heidegger employs the term “care” in a peculiar manner to mean interconnectedness or interrelatedness of beings. In this sense, hence, we experience anxiety because our own being, being of others, and being of the world “matter” to us – because we “care”. We are all entangled in the world. In terms of meaning and significance, according to Heidegger, our Being is dependent on the world as much as the world is dependent on our Being. This is not difficult to imagine if we anthropomorphize the game of chess: the chess pieces (representing us), their relation to one another, and their functions would be obsolete if they were deprived of the chessboard (representing the world). And, conversely, the chessboard would be of no significance and value without the chess pieces.

Anxiety, as a particular way of Being-in-the-world, is abject homelessness, and no one has immunity to its possibility (cf. Kierkegaard’s concept of “anxiety”: In fact, this possibility distinguishes us from other animals. For instance, unlike a human being, a dog’s being does not seem to be an issue for it. A dog does not need to ask: Who am I? Where am I? Why am I? What is the meaning of my life? What should I do with my life? Animals’ needs and goals are fixed for them by nature. They are fettered to their “home” in a way that we have never been. Animals cannot help being “what” they are. In sharp contrast, we can choose our ways of being; we are capable to choose a “home” of our own making.

Employing quasi-Heideggerian terms, I interpret Heidegger’s concept of anxiety as follows: The mortification of anxiety is a confused state of being that unwittingly makes a judgment about some “thing” it does not understand that is no thing: namely, the nothingness of human existence. Here, the “thing” – that is no thing – is us. And, the fateful “judgment” is a predication of “us”: we are merely things amid other things. In his Repetition, Søren Kierkegaard, who had great influence on thoughts of Heidegger, wrote:

“I stick my finger into existence – it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? . . . Why was I not consulted, . . . throwing me into the ranks, as if I had been bought by a kidnapper, a dealer in souls? . . . And if I am to be compelled to take part in it, where is the director? . . . Is there no director?” (Italics added.)

The nothingness of human existence does not necessarily set the stage for pessimism, but for a new opportunity or horizon, in the sense that our existence can be construed as a blank canvas that is receptive to our paintbrush and paint – if we can authentically reach the blank canvas of our Being.

At this point, at least for now, we should not be concerned whether the judgment – that we are things amid other things – is correct or incorrect, true or false, or cogent or not cogent – but we should be concerned with how this judgment actually has enriched or impoverished our conception of ourselves and the world – including our past, present, and future possibilities. Of course, a common reply is the cliché, “I know we are not things, we are ‘spirits’.” And, Heidegger may coldly and calculatedly reply:

“Nonsense! – Like a parrot, you’re merely mimicking what ‘they’ [Das Man] say, not understanding what you’re hysterically uttering. Your ‘spirit’ is an outdated custom, habit, poor imitation, distorted idea, tattered piece of clothing that doesn’t even fit your body anymore! Your ‘spirit’ is a decaying tapestry that can be held against the wall only by being cemented to it. Your ‘spirit’ is your lack of spirit. Your ‘spirit’ is impoverishment of your being.”

And, we should keep in mind that, from a psychoanalytical viewpoint, while we may subconsciously behold the nothingness of our existence (especially in the view of our eventual death), we may nevertheless consciously deny it as ludicrous.

In his book Heidegger, philosopher Richard Polt expounds:

“Anxiety is a moment of meaningless confusion, as the everyday perspective has it – but it is ‘meaningless’ not in the sense that it is trivial, but in the sense that it [anxiety] involves a deep crisis of meaning. . . . [I]n anxiety the meanings and functions that are so familiar in everyday dwelling do not simply disappear. In fact, by becoming a problem, they strike one with unusual force. By putting the familiar in an unfamiliar light, anxiety gives one the opportunity to come to grips with one’s life, to dwell in the world clear-sightedly and resolutely.”

In an ethical sense, using non-Heideggerian terms, anxiety can be construed as a purely human phenomenon that entails a crisis of values that misrelates and alienates us from ourselves, each other, and the world. We keep looking for a “thing” to give us identity, purpose, meaning, worth, and worthwhile experience of being, but we find “nothing” – which we construe as bad and reprehensible, not understanding that this “nothing” is something that is no thing. Figuratively speaking, this is akin to a man trying to catch a rainbow! As psychoanalyst Eric Fromm eloquently puts it in an interview: “Are you what you have? What if you lose what you have?” In other words, thus far and for the most part, we have treated our Being-in-the-world as being in a shopping mall – looking for things. We have been blind to other possibilities of Being-in-the-world. Perhaps, a point, relevant to our time, that Heidegger is trying to get across is that: there is an immaterial, yet intelligible, dimension to our lives (co-evolved along side what we call the material dimension) that if we discount it, the consequences can be quite devastating. Perhaps, the ongoing global economic crisis (which had its origin in the U.S. with the subprime mortgage phenomenon) is such a consequence, caused by our subprime ways of thinking. In my attempt to interpret Heidegger’s interpretation of Being-in-the-world, I ask: Is it perhaps the case that our existence is not primarily about having or possessing objects, but about an ontological interest: a way of being or an experience of being?

According to Heidegger, the mood of anxiety can be revelatory when our own existence becomes an issue for us. In the mornings, upon awaking and opening our eyes to the world, we are faced with the task of being what we have already been and becoming, if at all, what we can possibly become. We strive to become someone, and the way we contend with the possibilities open to us will settle who we become. As Heidegger insists, Dasein “is always only that which it has chosen itself to be.” If we are responsive and attentive enough, anxiety can serve us by communicating to us our states of being in a fundamental and critical way – in fact so fundamental and critical that it can open up new possibilities in life if we have the courage and endurance not to dismiss the anxiety as random, unimportant, and inconsequential. Many of us, of course, may faint under such burden and continue to “fall”, as Heidegger says. A stone thrown into a pond will helplessly fall and sink, yet a Being-in-the-world can catch itself after having been thrown into the world! Inasmuch as anxiety can reveal the task of choosing who we are and who we will become, it can inhale a new life in us – moving us to turn this crisis into a turning point and to stop being thrown around like a stone. Alternatively, we may simply choose to remain who we already are, but in a way that we truly choose this identity, instead of just letting it being thrown at us. Heidegger does not merely construe us as having been thrown into the world – but we can overthrow our thrown-condition by acknowledging our past, actively seizing our present, and “projecting” (from Latin projecte, “to throw forth”) ourselves toward future possibilities of Being-in-the-world. He maintains that this “projection” is not an abstract concept locked in a philosopher’s mind, but an “authentic” and “concrete” activity that can be externalized out in the world.

We live in a culture that may be too superficial for Heidegger’s account of the anxiety of Being-in-the-world. In the contemporary American culture, our conceptions of being and time are distorted by our crisis of imagination, whereby for us being is tantamount to having and time is indistinguishable from what is immediate. A culture that is obliviously obsessed with the present – i.e., a culture that is absorbed in accumulation and manipulation of entities (material objects) which conclusively define its spirit, orientation, values, and aspirations – is one that should alarm us. A people that are preoccupied with their superficial appearances, with weight loss, staying young, being wrinkle-free, and looking upon elderly with indignity – are a people in denial. Is it worth it to narrate a life story of such vanity? Tragically enough, we see and hear such narrations on television screens almost everyday: “I was fat and depressed, but now I am skinny and happy!” This is the poverty of spirit of this depressed culture. The culture that should alarm us is one in which anxiety of death has no significance for our projects and life stories. Per Heidegger, we should choose our life projects in full awareness that Being is always “Being-towards-death”. And, this awareness does not cripple our daily activities, but will authenticate them. According to Heidegger, this recognition and acceptance of our fundamental anxiety free us from the crowd and free us for our life projects. He insists that an authentic life is one in which one does not flee from one’s destiny, but one shapes it as far as possible. He writes:

“Anxiety makes manifest in Dasein its Being towards its ownmost potentiality-for-Being – that is, its Being-free for the freedom of choosing itself and taking hold of itself. Anxiety brings Dasein face to face with its Being-free for (propensio in . . .) the authenticity of its Being, and for this authenticity as a possibility which it always is. But at the same time, this is the Being to which Dasein as Being-in-the-world has been delivered over.”

It is characteristically true that, unlike science, philosophy cannot be tested; however, for Heidegger philosophy is not some thing to be had and tested in a laboratory – but philosophy is to be lived out in the world. Heidegger’s thoughts in respect to anxiety of Being-in-the-world are meritorious of earnest consideration. His thinking is no medieval speculation on how many angels can dance on the pointy tip of a needle.

April 22, 2010

Being and Time (Part 1)


Martin Heidegger

Web of Being and beings

What is “being”? What does it mean to be? What does differentiate your being from nothing? What does mark off your being from an entity such as a rock? What is the meaning of being—not just your being in specific, but being in general? Ostensibly, these are simple questions that any sensible human should be able to answer. But are they really that simple and effortless to answer?

The preceding questions were painstakingly considered by German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) in his monumental work Being and Time. However, before I begin, I would like to make some prefatory comments. Given the way we are accustomed to think, understanding Heidegger’s thoughts, in my estimation, are quite exacting, although they may sometimes seem basic, or even ridiculous, at the first glance. Comprehending his thoughts entails copious toil at learning and re-familiarizing ourselves with “being”. None of the philosophers that were previously discussed here (i.e., Søren KierkegaardHerbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, and Jean Baudrillard) wrestled with the ontological question of being in the remarkably unprecedented way Heidegger did.

In his Being and Time, Heidegger attempts to snap us out of our disposition to take “being” for granted, and he tries to awaken us to the question of the meaning of being. On the surface, being refers to anything that exists in some way, such as physical objects, humans, moods, emotions, memories, dreams, activities, events, stories, mermaids, qualities, conditions, symbols, abstractions, ideas, or theories. But, what does make a being count as being instead of nothing? What is the difference between being and nothing? On what basis do we understand a being as being?

Heidegger seems to tell us that a sheer property such as weight, shape, size, texture, color, emotion, feeling, or thought, just to name a few, does not render a being as being. (For instance, shape, size, color, taste, smell, and texture of an apple do not qualify it as being.) On the contrary, Heidegger seems to imply that “Being” (with capital “B”) is that which renders these attributes as existing properties of beings. (That is, Being qualifies the shape, size, color, taste, smell, and texture of an apple as its existing properties, not the other way around.) Heidegger makes a distinction between an entity and its Being—which is spelled with capital “B” in order to distinguish “Being” from a being. Asking about Being is not like asking about an object—because it is not a question about any entity at all. According to Heidegger:

“[Being is] . . . that which determines entities as entities, that on the basis of which entities are already understood. . . . The Being of entities is not itself an entity.” (Being and Time; 26:6; translated by John Macquarie & Edward Robinson; Harper Collins 1962)

We are asking about a thing that is no thing at all. Heidegger seems to warn us that we must not make the mistake of confusing Being with any entity such as a rock, plant, animal, the universe, or even God. Being is deemed as a condition of the possibility of our experience of entities. Whenever we experience an entity in any way, we must already have an understanding, however vague and distorted, of Being that makes this experience possible. Insofar as Being of humans is concerned, Heidegger is not necessarily asking who we are—yet he seems to imply that who we are is contingent on our Being.

Having thus far stipulated Being in this manner, it seems that Being of a thing, apart from the thing itself, is empty: absence of all content. Yet, there is a significant difference between Being and absence. If one’s house burns down or one’s loved one passes away, suddenly the absence of the house or the loved one overwhelms the person with pain. At such moments we realize that there are, in fact, significant differences between Being and absence. Being matters. Yet, the question remains: What is Being?

Heidegger proposes that in order to clarify Being in general, we must first clarify our own Being in particular. Sciences such as psychology, anthropology, or sociology ultimately view human Being as a thing while discriminating it from the rest of things. However, for Heidegger, human Being is not a thing at all. Things are “whats”, and their Being is “presence-at-hand” (objective presence), lacking temporal dimensions and significances of their own Being. Their existence is not an issue for them, and their ontological characteristics are “categories” such as causality. Things formulate no purposes of their own. In terms of non-human animals, they have short-term, immediate goals, such as escaping from danger, finding safety, or procuring food. In contrast, a human is a “who” whose Being, in addition to Being of things, matters to her or him. Her or his existence is an issue to be reckoned with. Our Being is “existence”, not presence-at-hand, that finds significances and purposes in terms of a past, present, and future. Our ontological characteristics are what Heidegger refers to as “existentialia” (existentials).

Heidegger suggests that Being tends to lie hidden. We are normally and habitually so absorbed in entities or things, which display themselves so obviously to us, that it takes tremendous effort to unconceal Being. In thinking about Being, either that of our own or that of other things, we tend to fall into superficial and misguided ways of thinking. Describing a human as an entity is a relatively easy challenge: we document her or his capacities, functions, behaviors, shape, size, and other properties. But describing the Being of a human is far more difficult. In this sense, Being transcends beings.

On the surface, nothing seems more obvious and self-evident than Being; nonetheless, it is seemingly an exacting task to clarify Being. It turns out that, after all, Being is not easy to know, and it is difficult to draw a line between Being and nothing. According to Heidegger, a difficulty in answering the question of Being is due to our outmoded and impoverished ways of thinking, which we have inherited from a distant past. Traditionally, we have always mistakenly identified Being as an entity or a thing, whereas Being is no thing, Heidegger insists. For instance, in thinking about a human being, we erroneously confuse the physical presence of the human with her or his Being in the present. When we identify Being with “physical presence” (i.e., with the entity that an individual is now and disregarding her or his temporality and historicity), then we can become obsessed with beings to present themselves to us unchangeably, conclusively, flawlessly, perfectly. Consequently, utter obsession with, for example, losing weight, staying young, and feeling ashamed of getting old and wrinkly are all too common in the contemporary American culture. It is not rare to see sixty-year-olds acting like and dating twenty-one-year-olds. Such instances of self-alienation (or, as Heidegger would call, “inauthenticity”) are commonplace.

It can be difficult and disturbing to face our own temporality and to experience the obscurity of our Being. It is more convenient to slip back into an everyday state of complacency and routines. Rather than wrestling with what it means to be and who we are, we would prefer to be engrossed into the world of materials and to be preoccupied with measuring and manipulating present beings. This absorption into the present leads to self-deception by objectifying or reifying our own Being. Heidegger consistently points to the difference between this everyday state of oblivion and a state in which we genuinely face up to our conditions, temporality, historicity. This is the difference between “inauthenticity” and “authenticity”. Heidegger insists that, an authentic life is one in which one does not escape from one’s destiny, but shapes it as far as possible.

Heidegger points out, “Our provisional aim is the Interpretation of time as the possible horizon [context] for any understanding whatever of Being.” (Being and Time; 19:1) He proposes that Being needs to be grasped in terms of time; our sense of what it is to be depends on temporality. He insists that it is the acknowledgement of our “temporality” (i.e., our authentic relation to our past, present, and future) that makes us sensitive to Being. We are historical beings: we are rooted in a “past” that stretches into a “present” which thrusts into a “future”. We inherit a past tradition that we share with others, and we pursue future possibilities that define us as individuals. As we do so, the world opens up for us, and beings get understood. Heidegger insists that our historicity (in which our Being is always “toward death”) does not cut us off from reality. On the contrary, it opens us up to the meaning of Being.

Consider an ahistorical being such as Mount Everest. It was there when you were born; it is still there in present as you are reading this; and it will continue to be there, if left undisturbed, by the time you pass away. The mountain is simply “there”—and it would not make a difference to it if it were elsewhere or were not at all. If the mountain is somehow removed and placed elsewhere, it will still remain the same mountain. Its “there” does not matter to it. It seemingly has no relationship to its own Being; it cannot “care” about its own Being; it cannot relate to its own Being. In contrast, a mountain climber who climbs Mount Everest is not simply “what” she is. She is not merely a type of object. She “cares” about her own Being and her “there”; her Being matters to her; her own Being is an issue to her. Her “there” is significant to her. Without her “there”, her existence would be as meaningless and obsolete as a pawn removed from the chessboard.

We have a “there” as no other entity does because for us the world is understandable and meaningful. In Being and Time, Heidegger avoids using the old, worn-out word “human” to depict us; instead, he uses the term “Being-there” (Dasein, in German) in the sense that we are in such a way as to be our “there”. Unlike Mount Everest, our Being and “there” matter to us. It is not just that we happen to be in a world, a “there”. Rather, our “there” is so essential to us that we would be nothing at all without it, like a pawn taken away from the chessboard. Conversely, our “there” would be nothing without us, as a chessboard would be meaningless without the chess pieces. Or, for instance, the world of Greece of antiquity could not be what it was without the ancient Greeks; conversely, the ancient Greeks could not be who they were without that world. Our world, our “there”, is the context in terms of which we understand ourselves, and within which we become who we are. We are the “there” of Being. In other words, we are the site that Being requires in order (literally) to take place. Without Being-there (i.e., humans), other entities could continue to be, but there would be no one to define them and relate to them as entities. Their Being would have no meaning at all.

Apparently, what it means to exist for an entity such as a mountain is very different from what it means to exist as a human. Mountains and humans have different ways of Being there. It is not just any activity that characterizes humans, but a way of Being. Our sort of Being, our mode of existing, is what marks us out. Our way of existing is qualitatively different from the way in which a mountain exists. As we go on living, we build our individual identities and define ourselves. It matters to us who we are. A mountain, in contrast, simply is what it is. It cannot have identity crisis, because it does not need to determine its own existence. We are uniquely conscious of the world in which we exist. Therefore, Heidegger reserves the term “existence” for us—for our special way of Being, a way of Being in which our own Being is an issue for us. Unlike rocks, we are not frozen in a present moment and position—we essentially reach out from ourselves. We “exist” (from Latin ex-sistere, “to stand forth”) and “project” (from Latin pro-iacere, “to throw forward”) ourselves from a past heritage into a present world toward future possibilities.

Heidegger insists that we will never understand human beings (“Dasein” or “Being-there”) adequately if we treat them as things. His thoughts on Being are quite alarming in the present age, when we almost exclusively define our Being by our appearances, jobs, how much money we make, and things that we own.

April 20, 2010

Disappearance of the Social

Images that Alienate

Jean Baudrillard

Living in Abstract

French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) is associated with the study of post-modernism as the mode of consciousness of man after modernity. A major theme of Baudrillard’s thoughts on post-modernism is “the disappearance of the social”, that is, the disappearance of the social relations between people, and the meanings, significances, and values that they entail. In his thinking, we may have gone beyond the loss of the human self. The social relations between people have begun to disappear because humans have begun to disappear. Reality itselfi.e., what we have conventionally understood as realis in a process of disappearance. Post-modernism is a blurring of the boarder-line between humans and machines, a blurring of the line between reality and images. Post-modernism, in its fullest sense, is when machines, television sets, and computers unplug us, not the reverse. Baudrillard insists that we are witnessing the disappearance of the human, the social, and the real in the post-modern era. We are so enmeshed in this post-modern phenomenon that Baudrillard’s profound thoughts on this subject will not immediately penetrate the readers’ minds. In fact, some may even find his thoughts preposterous or just ordinary. Indeed, there is nothing extraordinary about this phenomenon anymore!

According to Baudrillard, in the post-modern world, the new reality is that which can be “simulated”. If reality cannot be simulated, then it is not real. This means that when an image is a copy, duplicate, reproduction, or simulation of what is real, then the image is construed more real than the reality it replicates. When what is real is captured in an image, then the image takes on a higher reality and a life of its own, independent from us. The image, which constitutes the new reality, simulates or imitates what we no longer deem as real. Baudrillard refers to this new reality as “hyper-reality” which has outrun reality. Is he telling us something about the pathological fascination with the “reality shows” on TV? Is there possibly a relation between this hyper-reality and the morbid American obsession with watching TV?

The aftermath of this paradigmatic hyper-reality is quite prolific. Blood is not real until we see it on a television screen or have it streamed to a computer monitor. Real, physical suffering is not real until we read about it in a magazine, hear about it on radio, see its images on a television screen or computer monitor. Actual suffering no longer evokes our pity or sympathy until it is editorialized, televised, or streamed. When we actually witness someone’s affliction out in a street, it often does not catch our attention as much as when we view it on the nightly news. For many people cybersex has already replaced actual sexual intercourse. The Facebook has replaced actual friendship with simulation of friendship on computer screens. Nowadays, political debates are simulated on television screens. Even shadowy images of presidential elections on television screens are more real than actual elections. Some even claim that George W. Bush did not actually win the second term presidential election in 2004, but that he merely won the simulated election on television screens, where images are more real and convincing. After all, such televised or streamed images are rendered more acceptable because these images reduce the complexity of our post-modern lives wherein one would be clueless as to what is really going on in the actual world if one does not watch television. The power of televised images is that they impose an order on the chaos of our everyday lives, making it more digestible and simpler to deal with. And, according to Baudrillard, that is where the danger lies. In one of his transcribed interviews, entitled “Baudrillard Live – Selected Interviews”, he stated:

“It is the disappearance of things that fascinates us. And for me the media are a place of disappearance. It is just as interesting as a place of production or a place of apparition. It is a place of disappearance; it is a place where meaning disappears, where significance, the message, the referent disappear. It is a way of making things circulate so quickly that they are made to disappear. And it fascinates us like a black hole. It is a place of disappearance. One is fascinated by the disappearance of things. And I think it’s much the same with politics, with the social, etc. Today I think it’s a society where we are haunted and fascinated by the disappearance of the social, by the disappearance of the political. But it’s a game, a big game. It can make a lot of things happen, but it’s no longer the Productions of things which interests us; production interests, but disappearance fascinates.”

Not surprisingly, nowadays children are socialized by and learn moral lessons from machines, computer games, and televised images rather than from their parents. Children are even more emotionally involved with their computer games than with their own parents. In fact, parents have delegated the task of raising their children to such simulated images seen on computer and television screens. Children do not seem willing or able to escape from computer games, movies, and television programs. Even adults are unable or unwilling to get away from television screens. These screens babysit our children when we are busy with other matters; they comfort us when we are in pain; they guide us when we are morally lost; they entertain us when we are bored; they sing to us soothing lullabies while we sleep at nights. If one misses one’s family, one can simply rent a family-oriented movie in order to simulate spending time with family, just the way we simulate friendship on the Facebook. These magical screens follow us wherever we go; these screens are on our cellular phones, iPods, inside our automobiles, on gas pumps at gasoline stations, at supermarkets, malls, airports, airplanes, day-care centers, schools, universities, hospitals, funeral homesthey are everywhere. I mean, everywhere! These screens will follow us from womb to tomb. They tell us what is worth living and dying for. In his “Dust Breeding”, Baudrillard stated:

“In this space, where everything is meant to be seen [on screens] . . . we realize that there is nothing left to see. It becomes a mirror of dullness, of nothingness, on which the disappearance of the other is blatantly reflected . . . . It also reveals the possibility that human beings are fundamentally not social. This space becomes the equivalent of a ‘ready-made’ just-as-is (telle quelle) transposition of an ‘everyday life’ that has already been trumped by all dominant models. It is a synthetic banality, fabricated in closed circuits and supervised by a monitoring screen.”

During the Gulf War of 1990, when the United States assaulted Iraq in order to have them withdraw from Kuwait, Baudrillard was asked to cover the war as a journalist on the ground in Iraq. Ironically, he decided to cover the war not where the war actually took place, but on CNNwhere the war was simulated and televised. During that war, even the Whitehouse was glued to CNN! The rationale underlying Baudrillard’s decision was that it was CNN that was ultimately going to tell us how the war was going to be carried out and who was going to win it.

During the Gulf War, there were reports of some U.S. soldiers saying that they received their best combat training as kids playing war games at arcades. A female soldier even related that she really did not get a feel for the war until she came back home and saw it on television. It is in this sense that Baudrillard points out that what is now considered real (i.e., the “hyper-reality”) is simply an image of what is real. Further, these images tend to go beyond and negate what is real. Hence, according to Baudrillard, in the Gulf War “the enemy disappeared” in the show business. He calls this the “ecstasy of communication” or of telecommunication, which is pure neural thrill, as in when children kill scary monsters in Xbox or Sony PlayStation games. Perhaps, such children are already being trained for more gruesome wars that are coming our way. Baudrillard wondered that in this highly simulated world where we are preoccupied with consumerism, video games, television programs, movies, and bigger-than-life imageswhat is left there to dream about other than playing another round of a game, watching another movie, another television show, and paying off our debts? Is there anything to live for when real life experiences no longer enchant us and have been replaced with cheap simulations of real life?

Nowadays, in the American society, if one is unable to simulate what is real, one will find living life quite difficult. For instance, if you are in retail business, you have to be able to simulate being polite to your customers. Heaven forbids if your true character bleeds through your simulation of being polite. The customers may get offended. However, as long as you fake politeness well, the customers will be pleased and you will get to keep your job and paychecks. In this nation, we value simulation (i.e., being fake) over being authentic; simulation is more real than real. Under the paradigm of this new simulated reality and the disappearance of social relations, we are no longer supposed to like each other, but to like “liking each other”! We are not to love a person, but to love “loving a person”. We no longer value being a good Christian, but we do value the “value of being a good Christian”. A simulated Christian does not love his enemy, but loves “loving his enemy”. It is all about behavioral simulations, virtualizing our behaviors. Virtual reality (sometimes dubbed “extreme reality”) has become more real than reality. In other words, we are preoccupied with abstract ideas which only imitate in thought the actions that these ideas represent. We live abstract lives, divorced from reality. It is all about simulating what used to be deemed real. This is a pathos of post-modernism, which has made us into poor imitations of human beings. As the Kierkegaardian proverb has it:

Once upon a time, there was a man so abstract from his own life that one morning he woke up and found himself dead!

Baudrillard insists that we have stopped being reasons of things, and things in form of images have taken on their own reasons. When capitalism promoted and reached a certain level of mass consumerism, consumer goods began to detach themselves from themselves and became living images as people detached themselves from their own concrete lives and became spectators of these abstract images. Hence, we show more emotion toward these images than toward people. Recently, I met a person who so diligently and paternally cared for his new iPhone that he purchased a leather jacket for his iPhone and a second jacket to protect the expensive leather jacket! So, his iPhone was protected by two covers. Upon further inquiry, I found out that he had no health insurance while his iPhone had one from AT&T! He treated his iPhone with more dignity than his own self. Such omnipresent images (Apple, BMW, Dior, Madonna, American Dream, and etc.) have powerfully alienated us from ourselves and others to the point of disappearance of the human, the social, and the real.

Baudrillard claims that our conventional conceptions of humanity, society, and reality have been in a process of disappearing. It may not be an overstatement that America leads the cultural trajectory of the world through the mass media, movie and music industries, commercial enterprises, and economic globalization that proliferate the germs of this phenomenon of disappearance around the globe. Perhaps, the ongoing global economic crisiswhich is said to have originated in the belly of greed here in the U.S.evinces this assertion. As it has been said, when the United States sneezes, the world catches a cold. The U.S. government, at least under President George W. Bush administration, had an allocated budget for the purpose of spreading “American values” around the globe via various channels of mass communication. Such values seem to be mercilessly spreading around the globe like a virus, devouring the line between real and unreal. The deficit of genuine life experiences that have not been sucked into the system of images on television screens is painfully real.

April 18, 2010

The Disappearance of Human

Michel Foucault

Dominant Paradigm and The New World Order

A recurring theme in the works of French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) is “the disappearance of man”. As a great master of suspicion, he tried to make us aware of a sinister and subterranean aspect of the Western societies. According to him, there is a dominant paradigm that actively shapes our conception of reality, in addition to our social, economic, and political institutions.

“Dominant paradigm” describes a group of people’s experiences, beliefs, and values that affect the way the group perceives reality and responds to their perception of the reality. A dominant paradigm refers to a society’s systems of thought, belief, and behavior that are standardized and are, for the most part, hypnotically conformed to by the members of the society at a given time. A dominant paradigm is shaped by cultural, social, economic, political, and historical forces. Formation of a dominant paradigm is significantly subconscious, meaning that we absent-mindedly help in forming and enforcing it—without being fully conscious of our participation therein. Some of the entities that enforce such systems of thought, belief, and behavior that are governed by a dominant paradigm are: mass media, movie industry, governmental agencies, judicial and penal systems, healthcare institutions, commercial institutions, business entities, schools, and universities.

Foucault insisted that “knowledge” (or information) is controlled in every society through mechanisms of “power”, which are driven by the dominant paradigm. According to him, anywhere one finds “knowledge”, one also finds “power”. Anywhere one finds knowledge, one will also find a power that wants to possess the knowledge, control the knowledge, manipulate the knowledge, and hence making itself more powerful. Under the dominant paradigm, an uncanny alliance is forged between knowledge and power. They are linked; they are conditions for the possibility of one another. This idea cuts deeply against our humanistic sentiments, for we like to believe, based on the long Platonic tradition, that knowledge is what can be accepted by all rational beings. But, not all rational beings belong to the power structure which controls knowledge and its dissemination.

The intertwinement of knowledge and power is ubiquitous. Consider your knowledge of mathematics. We know that two plus two makes four, but what is the structure within which we learn mathematics? What is the power structure that makes it possible for us to acquire such knowledge? Let’s put it this way: if one disagrees with one’s math teacher, that two plus two does not equal four, the teacher has the “power” to fail the person! As Foucault stated, where one finds knowledge, one will also find a power that wants to control it. The realization is that the teacher’s power is connected to her or his knowledge and vice versa. This way, the teacher enforces, in many cases subconsciously, the dominant paradigm which, through the power structure, shapes us and the system in which we find ourselves. There is clearly a relation between knowledge and power. This relation has been operative in all societies, according to Foucault. If one possesses the knowledge to produce a nuclear bomb or to cheaply and efficiently convert one glass of water into enough electricity to light a large city, such as London, for one week (which is theoretically possible), it is doubtful that the person would be left alone. Foucault wondered if there is a way to uncouple knowledge and power. This uncoupling of knowledge and power is suggestive of Jürgen Habermas’ disentanglement of reason and barbarism.

Knowledge, firmly in grip of power, is comprised of discourses, communications, institutions, and institutional rules that according to Foucault function through “rules of exclusion”. In other words, not without exceptions, not every one gets to be accepted to Yale or Harvard University. Moreover, not everyone accepted gets to have her or his papers published at the graduate or doctorate level. Many of our institutions function through rules that determine who may be their members, who may do what tasks, who may speak, to whom they may speak, about what subject matter, for how long, in what setting, and et cetera. Application of such rules is manifest in the U.S. Congress where only certain individuals get to be members, where a junior senator may not be allowed to allocate a lot of time to address an issue, or where a senator may not be allowed to talk about certain issues.

Rules of exclusion can exclude certain people from humanity. “Humanism” is a word that Foucault is highly suspicious about because, based on the history of how it has been used, it is a word of exclusion, not inclusion. In the U.S. History, not long ago, African-Americans were not considered humans; humanism had become a term of exclusion, excluding the blacks. These rules of exclusion even apply to academic philosophy. Philosophy has been described as the conversation of mankind, except certain people have been excluded from participating in the conversation. According to Foucault, they have been excluded because they are deemed as “deviants”, “criminals”, or “the mad”. How about women? One would find very few females involved in this conversation of mankind. Consider the official U.S. history that we all learn at schools: Who wrote the history? Naturally, those who belong to the structure of power define our knowledge of the U.S. history. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “What is history but a fable agreed upon.” The point is that the power structure, not the common citizens who hypnotically support it, will decide what is the official history of this nation, regardless of how true or false it might be. Ultimately, the adopted history has to serve the interests of the ruling class.

In his book Madness and Civilization, Foucault points out the long history of how the discourse of reason has excluded from it “the mad”. The mad in the ancient Greek society were considered as touched by the gods. In the Medieval period, the mad appeared as the people who brought the most important wisdom into the place. However with the advent of modernity, industrialization, and bureaucratization of the Western world, the mad began to be put away in asylums. In the beginning, excluding the mad from society was a brutal process, entailing gruesome torture and decapitation. Later, the process became more humanized, meaning that the mad would not be tortured anymore, but would be committed, for example, to a prison or mental institution. The great “reformers” of madness (i.e., the ones who are, as it were, intent on curing the mad) have created what Foucault calls a whole new “disciplinary matrix” around madness. This means that curing the mad is a project that involves a whole series of processes by which the mad can be observed, surveyed, analyzed, penalized, barred, institutionalized, or drugged.

The implication is that, as a member of this society, if you are not on a twelve-step program, something is wrong with you! If you do not earnestly make it your daily project to excessively watch television, then you are out of fashion and behind in life. If you are not a professional, compulsive shopper and are devoid of debts, then you cannot be possibly happy in life. If you are not obsessed with weight-loss and do not fanatically count the calories that you consume everyday, then you are unusual and strange. If you are not a wage-maker, then you are worthless. In general, if you do not conform to the latest version of the social program or mass culture of this society, then you are “mad” and need to be analyzed by a therapist and, perhaps, be put on drugs—so you can be brought to conformity to the prevailing norms under the dominant paradigm. The state has that spine-chilling power over you. As President George W. Bush declared to the world on November 6, 2001, “You are either with us or against us.” The implications of this statement go well beyond its political intentions.

As a result, according to Foucault, psychiatry is a growing industry. In this context, psychiatry is no great humanistic advance in medicine; it is a new form of control that is based on a new language about the mad. For instance, we no longer label them “morons” or “idiots”, but instead we call them “differently abled” or “the challenged”. For Foucault, the discourse of civilization is more totalitarian than ever, because hidden beneath it are mechanisms of power which keep the mad in their sway. A contemporary example of this is the discourse concerning women and their body weights, bulimia, and anorexia. The male-dominated societies of the Middle Ages were able to put chastity belts on women, to deprive them of food, or to starve them if they misbehaved. Today’s male-dominated societies accomplish the same feat through images that are constantly bombarding the subconscious minds of women, and hence they automatically perform the task of starving themselves to death. This pervasive behavior has rendered eating almost synonymous with death.

In the light of what happened on 9/11 (i.e., the terrorist attack on Sep. 9, 2001) and the way the world order shifted thereafter, one can be reminded of the speech of George W. Bush’s father (George H. W. Bush) given before a joint session of Congress on the Persian Gulf crisis, delivered ironically on “9/11” as well but 11 years earlier, in 1990, during the first American assault against Iraq in order to have Saddam Hussein withdraw his forces from Kuwait:

“. . . We stand today at a unique and extraordinary moment. The crisis in the Persian Gulf, as grave as it is, also offers a rare opportunity to move toward an historic period of cooperation. Out of these troubled times, our fifth objective – a new world order – can emerge: a new era – freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony. A hundred generations have searched for this elusive path to peace, while a thousand wars raged across the span of human endeavor. Today that new world is struggling to be born, a world quite different from the one we’ve known. A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak. This is the vision that I shared with President Gorbachev in Helsinki. He and other leaders from Europe, the Gulf, and around the world understand that how we manage this crisis today could shape the future for generations to come. . . . Once again, Americans have stepped forward to share a tearful goodbye with their families before leaving for a strange and distant shore. At this very moment, they serve together with Arabs, Europeans, Asians, and Africans in defense of principle and the dream of a new world order.”

As Foucault stated, there is a dominant paradigm that wants to actively shape and mold us and our world. Indeed, the new paradigm, which some may refer to as “the new world order”, is already in operation . . . the disappearance of man.

April 17, 2010

Critical Theory

Jürgen Habermas

Disentanglement of Reason from Terror

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) is an ardent champion of rationalism in a period of philosophy wherein rationalism has lost certain credibility. During the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century Europe, the spirit of the time inspired many Europeans to believe that, for the first time in history, humans through the power of reason are grasping the expanding truths of science and natural rights of man, and that these truths will free mankind from ignorance, dogma, and tyranny. They firmly held that the new individuals of the age of science are now equipped with reason and theories that can be put into practice in order to eliminate or reform the unjust social and political institutions. The vision of the Enlightenment was the reconstruction of the human world through reason in order to serve the natural law of “progress”. They looked ahead to a bright future for all humanity, which they thought is guaranteed by the necessary natural law of progress. They deemed the natural law of progress as the natural law of human reason to discover scientific truths about nature and turn this expanding knowledge into practice in the form of technology for the benefit of humanity. In addition, the natural law of progress entailed discovering truths about human nature and turning these truths into practice in order to remove or rectify fraudulent social and political institutions. Never before had human beings been so confident in their knowledge of the natural world and human nature. With a great sense of optimism, they believed they could rebuild the social and political world on a foundation of universal truths. They believed they were, or would be soon, in command of all the knowledge necessary to improve the world. But, today, we are less confident of having the knowledge to solve the problems of poverty, hunger, healthcare, population control, unemployment, political uncertainties, economic crises, energy, and et cetera. Have we lost our Enlightenment sense of optimism?

§1. Critical Theory

Jürgen Habermas, as a great defender of the Enlightenment dream of renovating the human world through reason, ventured to reformulate a pre-existing theory known as the “critical theory”, a theory whose interest is in the practical, not just theoretical, emancipation of human beings. German philosopher Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), a pioneer of this theory, under whom Habermas had studied, stated in his Critical Theory that a theory is vital or critical to the degree it endeavors “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them”. Critical theory is based on and builds upon philosophy of Karl Marx. Indeed, the critical theory’s longing to liberate human beings in practice is reminiscent not only of Marx’s assertion “The philosophers have so far only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”, but also of the Enlightenment idea to reconstruct the human world. Habermas is critically interested in human liberation from unnecessary life sufferings. There is a significant difference between living a relatively healthy life and dying at an old age, and living in poverty and dying at an early age. In concocting his theory, Habermas asserted that the human species has three fundamental, or critical, interests in labor, communication, and emancipation. He insisted that these interests are so fundamental and vital that we cannot meaningfully subsist without them.

§2. Fundamental Human Interests: Labor, Communication, and Emancipation

The first fundamental interest of the human species is in reproducing their lives through labor (or work). The second fundamental interest of the human species is in communication (or interaction) with one another. For Habermas, the formation of human self takes place in the spheres of both labor and communication within social context. However, he construed the communicative dimension of human interactions as having a primary role in development of human self because he was of the conviction that we become selves in our interactions with other selves. In this context, if an individual is incapable of adequately communicating with others and is incapable of psychologically and morally benefiting from her or his productive activities, the individual would be self-deficient. Human development is significantly contingent on how human beings externalize their creativity in their labor and how they interact with others. Besides labor and communication, Habermas asserted that the human race has a third fundamental interest: the critical interest in human emancipation, in human liberation from unnecessary constraints to their psychophysical and moral development, the unnecessary constraints to the fundamental interests in labor and communication. Indeed, a society that does not embody these three rudimentary factors in its composition would be in a state of disintegration, and the members of such a society would become alienated from their own selves and each other. One wonders that to what degree the three fundamental factors have been incorporated in the fabric of the American society. Without these deeply seated interests in labor, communication, and emancipation, the social bonds would disintegrate and society would parasitically consume itself.

§3. Instrumental Rationality and Communicative Rationality

Next, Habermas made a distinction between “instrumental rationality” (or instrumental reason) and “communicative rationality” (or communicative reason). Each mode of rationality is governed by a specific set of values that defines its unique functions, operations, and goals. Generally employed in diverse ways in spheres such as science, technology, medicine, healthcare, human labor, legislation, social engineering, economics, and politics, instrumental reason is a particular kind of human reason that is instrumental toward producing a specified, isolated result. For instance, in the realm of science, human reason has contrived investigative methods that are instrumental toward finding causes of natural phenomena. In the realm of politics, human reason has produced governmental agencies and policies that are instrumental in running the domestic and international affairs of the state. Or, in the sphere of human labor (where a current dominant value is efficiency for the sake of profit), human mind through use of technology has devised tools such as hammers or computers that are instrumental in producing certain products and services. In its obstinate pursuit of its objectives, instrumental reason is often insensate to moral, social, environmental, economic, and/or political concerns, just to name a few. Therefore, instrumental reason is characteristically unperceptive to the long-term consequences of its objectives. Further, instrumental reason is more monological than dialogical, and more unilateral than multilateral in its thinking process toward accomplishment of its individuated goals. (For a more thorough treatment of “instrumental rationality” see “Totalitarian Reason”.) On the other hand, communicative reason, commonly exercised in the spheres of the humanities and ethics, is dialogical and interactional. Communicative reason, with its own specific set of values, is a mode of human thinking geared toward interaction with one another and enlightenment.

§4. Communication and Labor

According to Habermas, the sentences that we utter fundamentally have built into them a desire or tendency for consensus or unconstrained understanding. When a person speaks a sentence (e.g., “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”), it has built into it the desire that others understand the person. In other words, our sentences already contain the “critical” impulse, i.e., the fundamental human interest in communication. Habermas insists that the fundamental human desire for clear communication, for the sake of understanding one another, is embedded in the structure of phonetic languages. Emphasizing the fundamental human interest in clear and unobstructed communication with one another, Habermas made a contrast between “undistorted communication” and systematically “distorted communication”.

§5. Undistorted Communication

Habermas laid out a series of stipulations for undistorted communication. According to the first stipulation, truly undistorted communication must have “symmetry conditions”. In political terms, it means that everyone must have an equal opportunity to talk and to listen, to question and to receive an answer, to command and to obey. This symmetrical communication is an egalitarian principle, without which the possibility of undistorted communication becomes problematic. When an employer holds power over a powerless employee, or when a government holds power over a powerless citizen—the inequality of power between them creates a condition for distorted communication. Unequal power distorts communication. This is why employees seldom get the undistorted truth from their employers, and employers seldom get the undistorted truth from their employees. The same also applies to marital relations; communication between a wife and her husband is often distorted by relations of unequal powers. To be communicatively rational, everyone must have the same right to speak and to be heard, to question and to receive an answer, to command and to obey.

Philosopher Socrates owned nothing and was virtually in no position of power in the ancient Athens. Yet, his charm was that when he engaged in an argument with an interlocutor who had power (either of political nature or of social status) over him, Socrates would compel him to depend solely on the force of his argument as opposed to his political power or social status. In other words, this was no situation where “might is right”. The only force that Habermas wants us to recognize is the unforced force of communicatively rational argument as opposed to money or power. A free human being is one who can change, without feeling any shame, her or his mind upon hearing a better argument. When a judicious argument has the force to make one see the weakness of one’s own argument and change one’s mind accordingly, this is the force that only a free human being can recognize.

According to the second stipulation, to achieve undistorted communication, one’s contribution in communicating with others should be true, sincere, and relevant. The third stipulation, in attainment of undistorted communication, is a moral condition, that one must try to make one’s contributions toward advancement of a right cause or what is right. Here, there is no theory of “right” other than being true, sincere, and relevant.

§6. Distorted Communication

The critical interest in human emancipation from unnecessary constraints to human development entails freeing ourselves from both the distortions of instrumental reason and the distortions of communicative reason. Is it the case that the American labor force, whose labor conditions are alienable, has managed to subsist in part because of the mass communication industry which actively distorts laborers’ perceptions of their own misery and compels them to pacify themselves with pacifiers such as consumer goods and services? In a nation where capital is of utmost value and where perpetual mass consumption of goods and services vitally sustain the heartbeat of the nation, there may not be any other way.

Habermas’ concept of distorted communication corresponds to Karl Marx’s concept of “ideology”: the ruling ideas are in every age the ideas of the ruling class—that the ruling ideas of the ruling class are ideologies that are purposefully devised to impoverish the masses and to maintain the elite in positions of power. Further, Habermas’ concept of distorted communication passes the test of ideology by asking: Is what you believe—in the interest of those who want you to believe it? For instance, let us consider democracy as it exists in the United States. The powerful—those who own and control the means of production, communication, information, and its dissemination—want the citizens to blindly believe that democracy is a present and immanent reality in this nation. Yet, American democracy and its exportation around the globe under the banner of freedom is an outstanding example of systematically distorted communication as our existing democracy gutlessly backstabs the principle of having a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Work ethics in America is another striking example of systematically distorted communication. In reality, work ethics in America is not so ethical at all—for it is an ideology or codes of conduct that are systematically designed to manipulate and deprive the working class for the sake of benefiting the capitalists. The American work ethics, which has been so cunningly and subconsciously embedded in the minds of the American working class, has deprived them of their leisure, dignity, humanity, family, health, and et cetera. Do you suppose a capitalist boss is ready and willing to engage in undistorted communication with his employees?

§7. Interpretive Basis of Communication

For his communication model, Habermas employed an interpretive base. One way the humanities employ communicative reason to advance clear communication is through interpretation of texts. Habermas highly stressed the critical role of interpretation in our daily lives. A great many people have suffered grim consequences because of interpreting a certain text in a certain way. Consider the Bible: reading and interpreting it in certain ways have sent a great many people to their deaths. Or, take the U.S. Constitution. According to the First Amendment to the Constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” What if one decides to exercise a religion of human sacrifice because the text says that “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]”? The Constitution must mean that; “no law” means no law! The point is that interpretation of text is quite indispensible and consequential in our lives. Habermas insists that we are interpretive beings, with the implication that interpretation is, perhaps, one of the fundamental conditions for formation of the human self. We are always interpreting our and others’ physical and mental states. Am I sad or cheerful, displeased or pleased, chubby or skinny? When we stop at a red traffic light, we are already engaged in an act of interpreting the color red. The color red can have many other meanings: danger, communist, sexy, or else. When we perceive smoke rising from behind a building, we immediately interpret the smoke as having been caused by a fire. People who have been married for over thirty years still keep interpreting each other’s moods and behaviors. This demonstrates the ubiquity of interpretation in human life. (And, one may add to this that, perhaps it is the television shows that interpret themselves to the viewers by bypassing their upper brain functions and directly injecting information into their subconscious minds. In other words, the viewers may not get to interpret the images on television screens; the images interpret or define the viewers.) Hence, Habermas’ theory of communication has an interpretive foundation.

In order to overcome systematically distorted communication, Habermas adopted Freud’s psychoanalytic method of removing problematic symptoms. Freud’s method of removal of symptoms was practiced in a setting where you have an analyst and a patient, wherein the latter “free associates” or reveals her or his train of thoughts while the analyst closely listens. In this setting, the goal is practical, that is, to cure the patient and to remove the symptoms. Further, for Freud, the way the analyst can bring the analysis or therapy of the patient to a conclusion is when the therapist intervenes by presenting a possible interpretation of the symptoms to which both the therapist and the patient are in agreement. In this manner, the psychoanalyst helps the patient to remove her or his own blocks to communication between his or her unconscious and conscious mind. This is the Freudian psychoanalytic method that Habermas adopted, with modifications, in removing blocks or ideologies that distort clear communication between various parties, let’s say between the citizens and their government or between those who own the means of productions and those who work for those who own the means of productions. A capitalist boss may never acquiesce to engage in undistorted communication with her or his employees; however, her or his employees’ enlightened consciousness of their own dehumanizing labor conditions would make it difficult for the boss not to submit.

§8. Distortion of Reason is not a Paradox of Reason

Habermas was cognizant of how instrumental reasoning led to mechanization of human life since the Enlightenment onward and the blow instrumental reason received as a result of the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 20th century. Nevertheless, in his passionate attempt to defend human reason, he tried to mark off a sphere of undistorted communication that can serve as the basis for his concept of communicative reason. His purpose was to untangle the entwinement of enlightened thought and the paradoxical barbarity that has been unfolding since the advent of modernity. The grand vision of the Enlightenment—through its unwavering trust in human reason—was the emancipation of mankind from oppression, yet paradoxically the Enlightenment led to a new form of oppression, irrationality, mechanization of human life, bureaucratization of human societies, totalitarianism of governing powers, and dogmatization of sciences. The promoters of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, could not predict an outcome so contrary to human reason. To Habermas, the failures of reason in events such as the rise of communism, fascism, the Cold War, the U.S. war against terrorism, or the fall beneath the level of civilization reached by capitalism—are not indicative of hypocrisy of the Enlightenment dream and of human reason. He attributed such failures to the distortions of reason and communication. According to Habermas, the trick is not to give up on modern life, but to disentangle enlightenment from terror and barbarism. Undoubtedly, modernity has given mankind certain benefits; it is better to have toothache in 2010 than in 1710. It is not human reason that we must abandon, but its distortions.

In conclusion, Habermas insists that communicative rationality is a process of enlightenment that includes all, janitors and senators. In his Theory and Practice, Habermas stated, “in a process of enlightenment there can only be participants.” Money and power, as abstract systems, need to be harmonized with the rest of our social system before we can be in a position to truly communicate with one another rationally without distortions, and be in a position to find our way out of this entwinement of enlightenment and terror. Habermas thought that such a possibility exits.

April 14, 2010

Totalitarian Reason

Herbert Marcuse

One-Dimensional Rationality

German philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1798-1979) was a notable critic of modernity. He perceived a certain contradiction or crisis that has always been brewing at the core of modernity, of the modern Western world having been rationalized, technologized, and bureaucratized. Modernity grew out of the 18th century Enlightenment’s ideals to free the human mind from prejudice, superstition, church dogma, and monarchical tyranny. According to eminent German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), daring to think for oneself or daring to use one’s own reason was the fundamental principle of the Enlightenment. The patrons of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire (1694-1778), firmly held that the new individuals of the age of science are equipped with reason and theories that can be put into practice in order to remove or reform the corrupt social and political institutions. The grandiose vision of the Enlightenment was to reconstruct the human world—through the use of reason, science, and technology—in order to serve the natural law of “progress”: that human reason can discover scientific truths about the natural world and human nature, and turn these bodies of knowledge into practice in forms of technology and social reform for the benefit of humanity. The Enlightenment excelled the rise of science, technology, secularization, industrialization, and capitalism to demystify the world. However, according to Marcuse, the attempt to make the world transparent to rational human reason was pregnant with a crisis, a paradox. The paradox of the Enlightenment project is that it has had inadvertent consequences: dogmatic scientism, totalitarianism, and irrationality.

The more science did housecleaning of the traditional religious views, the more technology innovated machines to make human life convenient, and the more industrialization and capitalism implemented technological innovations to mechanize production—the more convoluted and complex our lives became. Furthermore, the more refined and less dogmatic science became and the more people became convinced that science in service of technology can change our world for the better—the more dogmatic people became about science and its findings, for they neither have the time nor the knowhow to scrutinize them. Hence, this attitude, abreast of the idea of “progress”, gave birth to “scientism”: the belief that the investigative methods of science are applicable to various areas of human life. Here, of course, Marcuse’s point is not to depreciate the instrumental value of science, but to point out its limitations and ramifications.

According to Marcuse, we have constructed a human intellect powerful enough to unravel the mysteries of the natural world, but any intellect that powerful has a tendency to be tyrannical! While it is true that science and technology have helped us to procure the knowhow to deal with certain areas of human life (such as in the fields of civil engineering, medicine, and et cetera), it may not be a fair assessment that the progress of the Enlightenment project has made us less fearful and unsecure in the face of the modern problems. We are still wrestling with the problems of poverty, hunger, healthcare, population control, unemployment, political uncertainties, economic crises, and energy. What is paradoxical about the Enlightenment’s tenacious confidence in human reason is that, it has turned into a force of mystification of the human world. For instance, how is it that the Germans, who highly excelled themselves above many other people in science, technology, arts, literature, philosophy, civics, and industrialization since the dawn of modernity and became an epitome of civilization, how is it that such people, who have given Goethe, Beethoven, Einstein, and many more to the world—also gave birth to Nazism and brutality? They built a human intellect firm enough to withstand excruciating challenges and to ennoble man’s spirit, yet this intellect became totalitarian. How so?

Marcuse construed instrumental rationality/reason as a major cause underlying the crisis in the heart of modernity. Instrumental rationality, as a specific mode of human reason, is principally predicated on efficiency (in terms of time, cost, and procedure) in relentlessly reaching its individuated goals, which are not critically evaluated in terms of moral, social, economic, political, and/or environmental considerations. In other words, instrumental rationality—governed by a specific set of values that define its unique functions, operations, and goals—is a particular kind of human reason that is instrumental toward producing a specific, isolated result that is often shortsighted toward its far reaching moral, social, economic, political, and/or environmental consequences. In a sense, instrumental reason’s objectivity renders it insensitive to moral, social, or other vital concerns for the sake of focusing solely on the result it persistently pursues.

Generally, instrumental reason is employed in various ways in the spheres of science, technology, economics, labor, legislation, and politics. In the context of modern Western societies, the bigger an organization is, the more it is instrumentally rationalized compartmentalized, and bureaucratized. In addition, instrumental reason is highly informative toward our daily decisions and activities. Almost all workplaces in the United States, particularly large business organizations, instrumentally rationalize their business affairs and human resources. Often, this kind of mentality divests the employees of their individualities and brings them to conformity or drives them up the wall. As Swiss psychoanalyst C. G. Jung (1875-1961) stated in his essay “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious”: “Any large company composed of wholly admirable persons has the morality of an unwieldy, stupid, and violent animal. The bigger the organization, the more unavoidable is its immorality and blind stupidity. Society, by automatically stressing all the collective qualities in its individual representatives, puts a premium on mediocrity, on everything that settles down to vegetate in an easy, irresponsible way. Individuality will inevitably be driven to the wall.”

The present problem of global warming may serve as an unforeseen ramification of instrumental rationality, as an unintended consequence of instrumental reasoning within the sphere of production of goods. Capitalists, motivated by profit, have instrumentally rationalized means of production (such as air-polluting factories) in order to produce goods (such as automobiles) that have contributed to emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and hence, contributing to the global warming. Use of rationality as a tool toward an isolated end—which is blind to moral, social, and/or other crucial considerations—may result in unanticipated ramifications.

According to Marcuse, because the Enlightenment focused upon reason as individuated efforts of individuals, it did not foresee that the overall effects of reason might be irrational. Individual, rational decisions of a people may lead to irrational results. For instance, after eight hours of work, workers make individual, rational decisions to leave work around 5:00 PM. However, the collective result of such singular, rational decisions produces an irrational outcome: traffic congestion. Economy is full of such paradoxes. The global stock market crash of 1987 (known as the “Black Monday”) is said to have been caused by computers, each individually making a rational decision, together crashed the market. In this sense, instrumentally rationalizing the constituent parts of a system in isolation from one another can bear irrational consequences.

For Marcuse, the point is not to abandon instrumental reason, but to lay bare its one-dimensional nature. Human reason has other dimensions besides this. The challenge is to find a balanced approach to reason. Instrumental reason, sharply focused on its isolated efforts and ends is blind to surrounding circumstances. Instrumental rationality is partly a result of self-absorbed individuals isolating themselves from each other in a fragmented, individualistic society where genuine social bonds are disintegrated and supplanted with materialistic values which dictate our lives. While the Enlightenment demythologized the world in a certain sense, it carried myth along with itself. It created new myths. The crisis at the heart of the Enlightenment seems to be fundamentally a crisis of human imagination or the lack thereof.

April 11, 2010

Becoming Humanly


The Promise of Humanity

In his lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism”, French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) asserted, “existence precedes essence”, meaning that, first we “exist” and only afterwards we “define” ourselves. In other words, there are no innate values, meanings, or essences that predetermine who we are. Likewise, the contention under consideration here is that no one is readily born a human proper. However, we seem to be born with a unique capacity to become humansin the same sense that an apple seed is not an apple tree, yet the seed has the potential to become an apple treeif and only if the seed is situated under the proper environmental conditions. In the same manner, a woman or man is a seed that can grow to become a human beingif placed under certain conditions. In cultural terms, humanity is a promise that can be fulfilled under proper social, economic, and political conditions. However, readily referring to ourselves as “human beings” creates a mirage that we are already humansthat the task is already accomplished. Often the noun “human being” not only reifies and turns the concept into a mere physical thing, but also it does not render the concept as a project to be actively and concretely undertaken. My contention is that there are no human beingsbut peculiar beings who may choose to become humanly. In this context, a human being is not a biological organism, but a possible set of qualities and functions of this organism. To “become humanly” is to attain a particular state of being that is qualitatively different than the states of being of other animals and objects.

But what does it mean to become humanly? Throughout the course of our biological development throughout time, our animal existence has acquired another dimension which sharply distinguishes, but not separates, us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Aristotle argued that our capacity to “reason” rationally sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. In the same vein, René Descartes affirmed that what does not “think” and “rationalize” is nothing but mere “matter in motion”. Human reason, besides other factors, appears to be a main foundation for human ethics, morality, and values. Without reason, we are reduced to animalism, or perhaps less. Therefore, would it be cogent to conclude that if one does not cultivate and implement one’s uniquely human ability to reason and to be rational, then one is not becoming humanly? Furthermore, why should one become humanly? What does justify this becoming? An assumption is that one’s physical and psychological well-being (or some may call it “happiness”) is a justification for becoming humanly. In addition, one’s well-being is contributive to the well-being of the society in which she or he partakes. Our well-being, within the context of our social existence, seems to be contingent on the proper use of our fundamental capacity (not the only capacity) to reason. However, this well-being is far from fostering a mere life of pleasure, and it does not preclude pain and suffering.

According to thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche, humanity is not an empty promise; it is not an ideal that can never be realized. However uncanny this promise seems to us under the present social, economic, and political circumstances around the globe, all these thinkers, who had foreseen our present social maladies, saw a light at the end of the tunnel. In a strict sense, the promise of humanity has already been fulfilled, not on a mass scale, but on individual basis. The promise was presumably incarnate in great individuals such as Socrates, Michelangelo, Goethe, Beethoven, Gandhi, Einstein, and et cetera. What did all these great souls have in common? To characterize them in a Nietzschesque fashion, they were able to overcomenot depreciatetheir impulses. They were able to harmonize their passions and reason; they were able to organize the disarray of their impulses, giving style to their own characters; they were masters of their impulses; they were able to overcomenot oppresstheir animal drives; they were able to sacrifice (make sacred), spiritualize, or sublimate their own impulses. They knew that mastering their passions was pertinent to a suffering that breeds strength and depth of soul. They were able to be tolerant not out of weakness, but out of self-cultivated strength. They gave to others not out of pity or impoverished need, but out of the richness of their characters. Where they found their well-being, others find their own ruination. They suffered from the overfullness, not impoverishment, of their lives so much that they had to redeem themselves by creating and recreating themselves. They were creators. In contrast, what are the prevalent “creative deeds” in our age: perpetually staring at television screens, materialism, consumerism, drinking and/or drugs, money making, boring jobs, endless bills, debts, and the like. Our uneventful lives are a negation of the motto of the Age of Enlightenment: “Dare to use your own reason.” Perhaps, the promise of humanity is not for everyone according to Nietzsche’s moral pluralism.

In his famous funeral oration, Pericles (the statesman-ruler of the democratic ancient Athens) declared to the citizens, “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in the politics [i.e., the affairs of the city-state] is a man who minds his own business; we say he has no business here at all.” In the same spirit, the Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated, “Create citizens, and you have everything you need; without them, you will have nothing but debased slaves, from the rulers of the State downwards.” The promise of the U.S. Declaration of Independence to endow “all men”not just in theory, but in practicewith “certain unalienable rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is of no avail if the citizens are impoverished by their government and are not enabled to exercise these rights.

Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), a prominent Russian-British philosopher, in his Two Concepts of Liberty developed two concepts of liberty, namely, “negative liberty” and “positive liberty”, that are usually in a state of resistance against one another within the context of the state. Further, he made a distinction between two concepts of “freedom from” and “freedom to”. The former is the negative aspect of freedom (i.e., the negative liberty) while the latter is the positive aspect of freedom (i.e., the positive liberty). Both aspects are value-neutral and equally necessary in pursuit of freedom.

Very generally construed, the concept of “freedom from” is indicative of a condition wherein one disabuses or educates oneself in order to free oneself from one’s own internal constraints, prejudices and ignorance. In other words, one cultivates a strong character that is conducive to mental growth. In short, this negative liberty is absence of personal obstacles or is a removal of personal preventive conditions. So, in this sense, negative liberty is an enabler—enabling one to cultivate character. However, how can this negative liberty be possible if certain external conditions, such as poverty, prevent one from realizing it?

This introduces the concept of “freedom to” which generally signifies removal of external constraintssuch as poverty, unjust labor conditions, lack of healthcare, lack of leisure, unjust social and political conditions, and ideologies designed to impoverish the masses—in order to actualize oneself in the society. In short, the positive liberty is, socially speaking, an enabler—enabling one to act and to achieve excellence in personal and in civic terms. There seems to be a symbiotic relation between the negative and positive liberty; otherwise, freedom proper would be impossible.

What is the point if one demands “freedom of speech” when one is not enabled or educated enough to know how to exercise the right? If we do not criticize and reform ourselves and our social systems, how can we have the opportunity and the ability to truly cultivate ourselves and our society? Both components of freedom—“freedom from” abuse and “freedom to” use—are essential in order to give meanings to our lives and to fulfill our common social aspirations. We need to be “free from” in order to be “free to” act.

The Sickness unto Death

Søren Aaby Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

A Contemporary Interpretation of The Sickness unto Death

In his book The Sickness unto Death, existential thinker Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) addresses an issue that is alarmingly relevant to the contemporary American society. He chillingly insists that, we all suffer from “despair”. (The word is etymologically derived from Latin word dēspērāre, meaning “without hope”, and the root word spērāre, “hope”, is etymologically related to Latin word spīritus, meaning “breath” or “spirit”. With reference to this, “despair” is expressive of “lack of spirit”.) Kierkegaard warns us,

“. . . [T]here is not one single living human being who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbor an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something or a something he does not even dare to try to know, an anxiety about some possibility in existence or an anxiety about himself, . . . a sickness of the spirit that signals its presence at rare intervals in and through an anxiety he cannot explain.”

Stipulating that despair is lack of spirit, then what is “spirit”? According to Kierkegaard, the human “self” (possibly derived from Sanskrit word sva, meaning “one’s own”) is a synthesis of the “infinite” and the “finite”. What does that mean? Simply put, the self is a tension between “possibility” and “necessity”; the self is a relation between our desire for “freedom” and our recognition of the brutal “necessity” of our everyday existence which negates our ambitions. The self is this tensive relation “relating itself to itself”. Kierkegaard writes:

“A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way, a human being is still not a self.” (Bolds added for emphasis.)

“Still not a self” because the relation is still antithetical or is not achieved yet. This living and breathing contradiction or “misrelation” of the self that is not yet a self creates a condition that Kierkegaard calls “the sickness unto death”—which is “despair”. Kierkegaard states that despair, as the sickness of the self, takes three forms: (1) “in [unconscious] despair not to be conscious of having a self”, (2) “in [conscious] despair not to will to be a self”, and (3) “in [conscious] despair to will to be oneself”. In the book, Kierkegaard seems to suggest that the second form of despair is the most common. However, in our age, the first form of despair is, perhaps, the most ubiquitous, i.e., the despair that is unaware of being despair. Indeed, the book can be a rude awakening to those who think are immune to despair. In any case, it is important to recognize that for Kierkegaard despair is not something that a psychologist can cure us of it, for, in a strict sense, it is neither a mood, nor a psychological state. A psychologist cannot cure us of it because this despair constitutes the self; the self is this despairing relation; despair is our way of being; we are it!

Kierkegaard insists that in a particular sense the sickness unto death is not biological death. Conversely, the agony of this despair is specifically the “inability to die”. This despair is the hopelessness of not being able to die—even when we wish it! Suicide will not help this type of despair. Kierkegaard writes:

“Literally speaking, there is not the slightest possibility that anyone will die from this sickness or that it will end in physical death. On the contrary, the torment of despair is precisely this inability to die. Thus to be sick unto death is to be unable to die, yet not as if there were hope of life; no, the hopelessness is that there is not even the ultimate hope, death. When death is the greatest danger, we hope for life; but when we learn to know the even greater danger [i.e., despair as sickness of the spirit], we hope for death. When the danger [i.e., the despair] is so great that death becomes the hope, then despair is the hopelessness of not even being able to die.”

When life becomes a bitter drink, then death begins to appear as a sweet medicine! What can one do when existing becomes unbearable within the framework of the second type of despair (i.e., “in [conscious] despair not to will to be a self”)? When the thorns of one’s soul rip through one’s flesh and skin at nights while asleep, what can one do? How does one kill oneself? The thought itself is utterly horrifying: the agonizing decision, the quivering squeeze, the excruciating pain, the nauseous blood, the cold silence, and the devastating news that invades the ears of those who care. An initial problem seems to be that one who wishes to kill oneself becomes more afraid, after premeditating on death and dying, of the physical pain that may precede death than the death itself, not to mention the psychological pain of abandonment of one’s ethical responsibilities toward others, in addition to one’s memories of the loved ones that may linger during the death-struggle that might be infinitesimally short or significantly long. It is unsettling when the anxiety of death itself becomes pregnant with an image of itself, reflecting on itself and, hence, engendering more pains and uncertainties. One would hope that suicide would put an end to additional possibilities of pain and uncertainty before departure. On the contrary, an eccentric facet of suicide is that it adds to the burden of already established pains and uncertainties that have pushed one to the edge. Kierkegaard writes, “. . . [D]eath is indeed the expression for the state of deepest spiritual wretchedness, and yet the cure is simply to die, to die to the world.” It is not suicide that kills one’s spirit, but self-pity, lack of courage, and loss of self-worth.

Nowadays, our consciousness is extensively shaped and framed by the tele-cyber-communication and the powerful images thrown at us by the mass media. In this highly televised, commercialized, and commodified culture in the United States, these images serve to psychologically condition us into particular ways of emoting, thinking, and behaving. The everyday, simulated images have become more real than what the images actually imitate. The late president Ronald Regan serves as an example in point. He was more of an image rather than an actual person. He was magnificent as an icon, and that was his public persona. What was important about him was his iconic significance. To the citizens, his televised image was more real than real. The same principle also applies to celebrities such as Madonna who has sold us not music per se, but an image. We have become accustomed to to be an image rather than an actual person. Adopting an image for oneself has become of more value than cultivating character. In our society, images are more valuable than real persons; images have gained higher realities than the things they simulate.

These images are extremely fashionable in a society where self-identity has become a matter of fashion. Under the current social malady, one is compelled to need something other than oneself in order to be oneself. If one lacks self-identity, he can buy one, for example, at a shopping mall. This is the despair that Kierkegaard refers to. Our identities are prepackaged and given to us by the commercial system that keeps spreading the same disease around the globe. Our contemporary mass culture is based on unreflected sensations, spectacles, images that are socially employed to mold us.

In this totally commercialized and commodified culture, it is not easy to know whether one has adopted a fashion or one has actually developed as an authentic person. Consider the all-too-common phenomenon whereby a person one day becomes an avid follower of Christ, then next day of Buddha, followed by becoming a member of a Kabbalah cult; and then at the end of the line, still feeling empty and unfulfilled, the person whimsically decides to make a visit to a local department store in order to purchase luxuries that render the person even more oblivious of her or his self-deficiencies. A person who is impulsively driven to this extreme to find a meaning in life, her or his condition is “sickness unto death”. To be in the situation wherein we are unable to die is no more or less than the cycle of our boring daily lives which are devoid of projects other than pleasing our employers, shopping, counting calories, losing weight, watching TV, and the like.

“Is despair”, Kierkegaard asks, “an excellence or a defect?” He replies, “Purely dialectically, it is both.” In a sense, for him, despair itself is not the problem, for it is, as it were, a structure of the self, built into the self. However, not overcoming the despair is the problem. Ironically, it is not healthy never to suffer the sickness of despair, and it is unhealthy not to overcome it. Kierkegaard writes, “The possibility of this sickness is man’s superiority over the animal, and this superiority distinguishes him in quite another way than does his erect walk, for it indicates infinite erectness or sublimity, that he is spirit.” Kierkegaard advises that to overcome despair and to become a self is a project, a difficult task that takes “passion” and commitment in the self reflecting on its own relation to itself.

“The self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude that relates itself to itself, whose task is to become itself. . . . To become oneself is to become concrete. But to become concrete is neither to become finite nor to become infinite, for that which is to become concrete is indeed a synthesis. Consequently, the progress of the becoming must be an infinite moving away from itself in the infinitizing of the self, and an infinite coming back to itself in the finitizing process. But if the self does not become itself, it is in despair, whether it knows that or not. Yet every moment that a self exists, it is in a process of becoming, for the self Κατα δυναμιν [in potentiality] does not actually exist, is simply that which ought to come into existence. Insofar, then, as the self does not become itself, it is not itself; but not to be itself is precisely despair.”

April 10, 2010


A Characterization of Modernity

Modernity, like individualism, is a socio-politico-economic phenomenon that gradually began after the Middle Ages subsided and the Enlightenment values and promise of “progress” through reason, science, and technology began to propagate in Europe. (Caution should be taken that there are distinctions between the terms “modern age/era”, “modernity”, and “modernism”. While these terms are essentially inter-related, they are conceptually distinguished.) The shift that was caused after the atrophy of the Church and socio-economico-political institutions of the Middle Ages called for a new system to supersede the old in Europe.

Modernity is not a cutting-edge technology, state-of-the-art product, latest trend of some sort, or the like. Modernity is a paradigm shift in human thinking and human relations that ushered in the advent of modern science, technology, nation-states, money economy, capitalism, and industrialism in the Western societies. This shift in human thinking and relations produced unprecedented socio-economico-political conditions that have drastically restructured our lives. Fundamentally, modernity is our post-traditional way of being; modernity is the post-Medieval consciousness that has left no human institutions untouched in the Western societies. And, scholars are of the conviction that the philosophy of René Descartes (1596-1650)which created a dualism between mind and body, and had a purely mechanistic view of the universewas a zygote of this new consciousness.

This article is an attempt to briefly characterize the complex phenomenon of modernity through Max Weber’s concept of “disenchantment”, Søren Kierkegaard’s concepts of “passion” and “despair”, Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of “death of God”, and Karl Marx’s concept of “alienation”.

Franz Kafka and Max Weber

§1. Disenchantment

Max Weber (1864–1920), a German sociologist and one of the first major scholars who systematically examined the phenomenon of modernity, suggested that the Middle Ages, with all its disquietude, was somehow enchanted (from Latin incantāre, i.e., in [“affected by”] + cantāre [“to sing”]; defined as “to attract and delight” or “to charm”). Notwithstanding all the discontent and cruelty extant in the Medieval era, Weber felt that generally there was something qualitatively human about the age. Life of a meager serf meant something in the grand scheme of things. Everything under the sun signified a purpose and had an aspect of sacredness. Or, to employ the eloquent terms coined by Martin Buber, “I-Thou”, as opposed to “I-It”, mode of relations characterized the human relations and the relation between man and nature. In contrast, Weber thought that the modern Western societies have lost, to borrow Buber’s concepts again, the “I-thou” mode of relations, which have been supplanted with the “I-It” mode of relating to one another and to the world of nature. There have been objectification and degradation of “thou” into “it”.

This is the “disenchantment” (and impersonalizing force) of the modernity, according to Weber. Fundamentally, what has taken place is that, quantitative—as opposed to qualitative—relations have become the dominant norms since the rise of science, nation-states, money economy, capitalism, and industrialism in the Western societies. According to Weber, this is a world where scientific understanding has primacy over belief, where technology is believed to do away with the socio-economic problems, and hence where social processes are instrumentally quantified (akin to physics quantifying the objective qualities of objects) and ratio-nalized toward desired goals. Accordingly, the modern consciousness has undermined the traditional values (which are not quantifiable). The decline of the traditional valueswhich previously accorded Medieval Europeans a sense of purpose and social order—called for a new set of values (hence, rules and procedures) to bring about a new social order. The modern life is infused with rules and procedures, which are often indifferently and apathetically followed machinelike.

One can consider how robotically the modern man, as depicted in Franz Kafka’s works, follows rules and procedures from the moment he wakes up every morning: conforming to his morning routines with a clock hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles, dragging himself to the workplace where he is faced with additional rules and procedures, and then dealing with the impersonal, bureaucratic institutions that generally reject or sanction him if he does not conform to their particular set of rules and procedures. Weber’s understanding of modernity entails rationalization and bureaucratization of the modern lifestyles and social institutions. The modern consciousness relates to itself and to others by standardizing, proceduralizing, reifying, and quantifying them—making them predictable. Modernity is a state of being whereby life is principally and disenchantingly lived in terms of standards, procedures, quantities, and bureaucracies—many of which are blindly unperceptive or intentionally disregardful to the ever-changing human conditions.

It is important to understand modernity and the concept of “disenchantment” within a proper historical context. In this context, the roles of traditional values on the one hand and the development of the sciences and their revolutionary discoveries on the other hand are quite significant. According to philosopher W. T. Jones:

“For the men of the Middle Ages the world was created by a supremely good power for the discipline of man, with a view to his salvation. Since the medieval men believed that God had created everything for this purpose, they held that the way to explain anything was to show how it promotes this end. The result was that medieval science was teleological in form. And since, of course, the underlying purpose was that of the one supreme and totally good God, the medieval sciences all pointed beyond themselves to religion. The universe was a vast sacerdotal system: It had no meaning or value in itself; its importance lay in the role it played—partly symbol, partly stage-set—in the drama of man’s salvation. Everything meant something beyond itself in this religious drama. Nothing was simply what it was. A tree was not merely a tree, a bird was not merely a bird; a footprint in the sand was not merely a footprint—they were all signs, just as the particular footprint Robinson Crusoe saw was a sign to him that he was not alone on the island. And what was true of the rest of the created universe was true of man. He was not merely man; he was a child of God. And his supreme task was to get back into that right relation with God that his first parent had lost.

“Beginning in the Renaissance, beliefs gradually changed. The one supremely important vertical relationship of man to God, which absorbed all the attention of men of the Middle Ages, was eventually replaced by a network of horizontal relations connecting every individual to his social and physical milieu. For modem men, the good life no longer consists in achieving a right relation with God, but in effecting an efficient relation with one’s fellow men.

“In this respect the modern view is similar to the classical [i.e., classical Greece], but there are also important differences. For the classical mind, the universe, if not sacerdotal, was at least teleological. If the classical mind did not conceive of everything as worshiping God, it at least conceived of all things as subserving some purpose and aiming at some good. Hence, for the classical mind, as for the medieval, purpose was the primary mode of explanation. In contrast—and as a result of the success of the new physics, which was rigorously nonteleological in orientation—the modern mind became hostile to the use of purpose as an explanatory principle.

“The modern mind also came, eventually, to differ from both the medieval mind and the classical mind in its attitude toward values. It never occurred to the medieval mind that values might not be objectively real. Although it certainly occurred to the Greek Sophists that values are merely the ways individuals feel about things, Plato’s and Aristotle’s reaffirmation of objectivity was for the most part accepted. The fact that men of the classical period and the Middle Ages agreed that values are objectively real is connected, of course, with the teleological conception of the universe that they shared. If the purpose anything subserves gives it value, and if purposes are objective, values will be objective. Anything will be good (really good, apart from some individual’s feeling about it) insofar as it consciously or unconsciously realizes its purpose; anything will be bad insofar as it fails to accomplish its purpose. The same consideration also yields a hierarchy of goods, for values can be compared in terms of the relative height and significance of the purposes they subserve.

“It follows that, in abandoning the teleological conception of the universe, the modern mind abandoned this easy way of establishing the objectivity of value. Moreover, modern men did not merely abandon the teleological conception of the universe; gradually they substituted for it a conception of the universe that seemed incompatible with the objectivity of values. This is, of course, the conception of the universe as a vast set of facts—facts that are indifferent to men’s values, facts that no one planned with any end in view but that just happen to stand in the sorts of spatiotemporal relations that can be ascertained by the techniques of modern science.

“The role that scientific instruments came to play in the accession of factual knowledge had an important bearing on this development. Where would astronomy be without the telescope? biology without the microscope? But these instruments, which have led to the discovery of innumerable astronomical and biological facts, throw no light at all on values. When a scientist dissects a corpse in a laboratory, he finds no evidence of the courage or magnanimity the living man displayed. Nor do microscopes or telescopes reveal God or Freedom or immortality. As long as men believe that these instruments give them the whole truth about the universe, it is difficult for them also to believe that God, freedom, and immortality, courage, justice, and piety are objective realities. It is difficult, that is, for them not to assume that what the instruments reveal—the facts in their spatiotemporal relations—is reality, and that what the instruments do not reveal—the soul, the forms, and the values that classical and medieval minds conceived to be constituent elements in the universe—is merely subjective feeling.” (A History of Western Philosophy III, 2nd edition)

Søren Aaby Kierkegaard

§2. Passion and Despair

Danish philosopher Søren Aaby Kierkegaard (1813-1855) had his own peculiar way of characterizing modernity (a term that might had been an anachronism in his time). He insisted that we lack “passion” (cf. Weber’s “disenchantment”) in our lives. The word “passion”—which is popularly mistaken for “obsession” or “fanaticism”—is etymologically derived from the Latin word patī, meaning “to suffer”, which is in turn derived from the Greek word páschein (πάσχειν), meaning “to suffer”, hence, “The passion of Christ”. Passion or lack thereof is a major theme in Kierkegaard’s philosophy. In his The Present Age, he writes:

“Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection [cf. Weber’s “rationalization”], without passion. . . . In fact, one is tempted to ask whether there is a single man left ready, for once, to commit an outrageous folly. Nowadays not even a suicide kills himself in desperation. Before taking the step he deliberates so long and so carefully that he literally chokes with thought. It is even questionable whether he ought to be called a suicide, since it is really thought which takes his life. He does not die with deliberation but from deliberation.”

To emphasize the significance of passion, Kierkegaard makes a curious contrast between a Christian and a pagan in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. First, he portrays the Christian who formulaically and with great “objectivity” worships—as a matter of course—the one and only true God. Next, he depicts the pagan who inwardly and with “all the passion of infinity” worships—as a matter of infinite commitment—an idol that we know is undoubtedly false. Then, he inquires, “[W]here, then, is there more truth?” In a witty manner, he concludes, “The one prays in truth to God although he is worshiping an idol; the other prays in untruth to the true God and is therefore in truth worshiping an idol.” The essential distinction between the two men is that the Christian’s worship is a matter of what (i.e., quantitative/rationalized), while the pagan’s worship is a matter of how (i.e., qualitative/passionate). As is prevalent in the present age, the Christian lacks a “qualitative” state of being.

Kierkegaard construed the modern age as an overconfident age that thinks it knows it all. He felt the moderners’ complacency, overweening pride, and false sense of security—need to be threatened, for they, as he put it in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, “have forgotten what it means to exist”. He contended, “[E]xistence, if one becomes conscious of it, involves passion.”

Kierkegaard also signalizes the modern age with “despair”. In his The Sickness unto Death, he portentously warns:

“[T]here is not one single living human being who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbor an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something or a something he does not even dare to try to know, an anxiety about some possibility in existence or an anxiety about himself. . . . a sickness of the spirit that signals its presence at rare intervals in and through an anxiety he cannot explain.”

Moderners, Kierkegaard thought, suffer from despair even when they are not aware of it. Later, in the book, he idiosyncratically expresses that actual despair is the sickness in which one experiences “the hopelessness of not even being able to die”—even when one wishes it! In a very profound but discombobulating manner, he writes:

“This concept, the sickness unto death, must, however, be understood in a particular way. Literally it means a sickness of which the end and the result are death. . . . [However,] Christianly understood, death itself is a passing into life. Thus, from a Christian point of view, no earthly, physical sickness is the sickness unto death, for [physical] death is indeed the end of the [physical] sickness, but [physical] death is not the end [from a Christian point of view]. If there is to be any question of a sickness unto death in the strictest sense, it must be a sickness of which the end is death and death is the end. This is precisely what despair is.

“But in another sense despair is even more definitely the sickness unto death. Literally speaking, there is not the slightest possibility that anyone will die from this sickness or that it will end in physical death. On the contrary, the torment of despair is precisely this inability to die. Thus to be sick unto death is to be unable to die, yet not as if there were hope of life; no, the hopelessness is that there is not even the ultimate hope, death. When death is the greatest danger, we hope for life; but when we learn to know the even greater danger, we hope for death. When the danger is so great that death becomes the hope, then despair is the hopelessness of not even being able to die.”

The preceding passage epitomizes the fall of the human spirit or the lack of passion in the modern age. The modern state of being is despair, for what is worse than death? What is worse than forgetting how to exit? Ironically, the cure for this despair, metaphorically speaking, is to die!

Friedrich Nietzsche

§3. Death of God

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) dramatically characterized modernity by his provocative and often misunderstood concept of “death of God”. In a picturesque aphorism, entitled “The Madman”, Nietzsche, with an acute sense of despair and hope, writes:

“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’ —As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? . . . Thus they yelled and laughed.

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? . . . Are we not plunging continually? . . . Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothingness? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? . . . Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“‘How shall we comfort ourselves . . . What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? . . . Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.’

“Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; . . . ‘I have come too early,’ he said then; ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. . . . Deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.’

“. . . ‘What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?’” (Gay Science, book three, 125)

“Death of God”, either as a concept or as an event (metaphorically presented), has far-reaching, inexhaustible repercussions and implications in many spheres of human endeavor: values, morality, Christianity, culture, society, economics, politics, history, and so on. The death of God intimates the death of our belief in God or even the impossibility of belief in God (either as a conscious or subconscious impossibility).

“Who are we anyway? If we simply called ourselves . . . godless, or unbelievers, or perhaps immoralists, we do not believe that this would even come close to designating us: We are all three in such an advanced stage that one . . . [can hardly] comprehend how we feet at this point. Ours is no longer the bitterness and passion of the person who has torn himself away and still feels compelled to turn his unbelief into a new belief, a purpose, a martyrdom. We have become cold, hard, and tough in the realization that the way of this world is anything but divine; even by human standards it is not rational, merciful, or just. We know it well: the world in which we live is ungodly, immoral, ‘inhuman’; we have interpreted it far too long in a false and mendacious way, in accordance with the wishes of our reverence, which is to say, according to our needs.” (Gay Science, book five, 346)

Nietzsche’s concept of death of God is inextricably intertwined with his diagnosis of the fundamental problem of the modern era, namely, the “crisis of values”. The death of God is expressive of the fact that, the traditional values are on their way out. He was convinced that the collapse of traditional values will lead to despair, devastation, and “nihilism”.

“The greatest recent event—that ‘God is dead,’ that the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable—is already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe. . . . But in the main one may say: The event itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension even for the tidings of it to be thought of as having arrived as yet. Much less may one suppose that many people know as yet what this event really means—and how much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined because it was built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown into it; for example, the whole of our . . . morality. This long plenitude and sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin, and cataclysm . . . is now impending. . . .” (Gay Science, book five, 343)

The death of God is a multifaceted, modern phenomenon that has been unfolding overtly and subterraneanly, with far-reaching outcomes for the entire Western civilization. For Nietzsche, the “death of God” is pregnant with unending significances and consequences, as they have been dismally unfolding and will continue to unfold in our time and thereafter. How much has to fall now that the foundation of Western values is in decay?

Karl Marx

§4. Alienation

Although German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) may not had utilized his concept of “alienation” to characterize modernity (a term that may had been an anachronism in his time), there would had been no other way if he actually had intended to do so. “No other way” because capitalism and the ensuing alienation, as upshots of consciousness of modernity, were two of his burning issues. Marx was a keen observer of how the Industrial Revolution and capitalism radically changed our lives and the course of history. He believed that the modern economic relations have created a battleground where everyone pursues her or his own private interests. This is a war of all against all, not excluding the subtle pecuniary/material tensions existing between family members.

Let us consider the following scenario, a scenario that is a ubiquitous reality in the United States. Consider an average American worker, who works one or two jobs that are often monotonous, meaningless, and self-humiliating—although the worker may not be conscious, as is commonly the case, of his own woeful situation. The moment he leaves home and hits the road to go to work, the war of all against all nauseatingly manifests itself right there on the road! While at work, he has to deal with workplace conditions that are often hostile and dehumanizing. So, he grows weary and numb at work. Since his job is the principal source of his livelihood, he is chained to the job, which, by and large, pays just enough (i.e., subsistence wages) to keep him alive (if profitable) and to spur him to return to work. His dehumanization, self-humiliation, and lack of self-respect are what he pretends not know about himself, so he grows numb. Inasmuch as he is not able to support himself and his family without the job, the job—whether he likes it or not—defines, regulates, and proceduralizes his life both in and outside of the workplace. Unavoidably, he will be socially defined by his job and income level. Since labor is commonly valued by the wage it makes, the less money he makes the less his life is valued. After leaving the workplace with a sense of emptiness and unfulfillment, do you suppose he will be in a favorable spirit to go home and meaningfully interact with his spouse and children? In all likelihood, his spouse is already experiencing the same wretched conditions. So, for dinner the couple, feeling physically and mentally drained, expediently resort to buy fast food for everyone rather than preparing a healthy meal. Hence, the poor labor conditions of the couple, which is the same labor conditions under which millions of Americans find themselves, pave the way toward the degradation of their psychological and physical health, for which the healthcare industry is awaiting with open arms! Later, after watching their favorite television programs, the couple may suddenly feel that they can find a sense of fulfillment, or even a sense of identity, by going to a mall and shop. Tragically enough, there are those who think that shopping is a great “therapy”, which is in fact a poor substitution for the happiness they seek. As long as the legal, political, and economic structures of capitalism keep the working class uneducated, depressed, and spiritually impoverished, the shopping therapy—and the ensuing consumer debts—will continue to turn the wheels of U.S. economy which is significantly based on the senseless consumption of goods and services.

Here, my point is that, as Marx thought, our present economic conditions (of which the labor conditions are an integral part) create a social environment that the more one participates in it—the less human one becomes. As he expresses it in his Paris Manuscripts:

“Money . . . transforms fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence and intelligence into idiocy.”

In the case of the American worker and his spouse, their jobs—or, more generally, the prevalent politico-economic conditions—deprives them of their health, self-identity, and meaningful relationship with one another, with their children, and with their coworkers. In his Manifesto, Marx wrote that the capitalists as “leaders of whole industrial armies” have overturned the traditional human relationships of the feudal age, leaving no other relationship “between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’” Furthermore, under capitalism, the institution of family itself, along with its traditional values, have been degraded to a mere pecuniary/economic affair, wherein members of family relate to one another via materialistic values. In addition, “family values” have mendaciously become a tool in the hands of politicians to arouse fervor and to manipulate the masses. As Marx puts it, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. . . .” Since in capitalism capital is of utmost value, other values—such as friendship, love, marriage, family, decency, mercy, honesty, fairness, justice, truth and so on—become subservient to the value of capital.

Marx fundamentally construed humans as adventurous and creative beings, with faculties geared toward externalizing their creativity through productions of cultural artifacts, such as tools, buildings, artworks, literature, science, and et cetera. However, under the modern conditions, specifically under capitalism, laborers’ work products have become alien to them because, according to Marx, their productive activities are done in servitude to the money-God, rather than in serving their own human potentials and fulfilling their own creative nature. Therefore, per Marx, the history of human creative production has been a history of alienation from our creative nature. In his essay entitled “The Jewish Question”, he writes:

“Money is the jealous one God of Israel, beside which no other God may stand. Money dethrones all the gods [cf. Nietzsche’s “death of God”] of man and turns them into a commodity. Money is the universal, independently constituted value of all things. It has therefore deprived the whole world, both the world of man and nature, of its own value. Money is the alienated essence of man’s work and his being. This alien being rules him and he worships it.”

For Marx, the modern commercial world is a religion of money worship, which disunites and alienates members of society, including family members, from one another. In accordance with his Economic and Philosophic Manuscript of 1844, human alienation takes on four forms:

1. Alienation from work products: Capitalism alienates workers from their work products, which exist as things estranged from the workers who create them, and which also exist as objects of pleasure for somebody else.

2. Alienation from productive activities: The money mania of capitalism alienates the workers from their productive activities—activities which are turned into “forced labor” because the activities of the workers are not of personal interest to them, who are compelled to perform them just to keep alive.

3. Alienation from human qualities: The modern money economy alienates the workers from their human and social qualities, such as love, sympathy, kindness, leisure, and et cetera.

4. Alienation from fellowmen: At last, capitalism alienates the workers from their fellowmen. Marx called this “the estrangement of man from man”, whereby we all compete against each other.

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