June 1, 2010

“Unfelt” Misery of the American Workers

“None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free.” –Goethe

§1. Philosophical Examination of the “Unfelt” Misery of the American Workers/Employees

Allow me to commence this article by asking two peculiarly vague questions: Are your beliefs, in terms of work ethics,  in your own interest or in the interest of those who want you to believe it? And, what is it that you pretend not to know about yourself when you are at the workplace?

Here in the United States of America, we oddly have given unprecedented primacy and priority to the business sector over and above all other social institutions, such as the institutions of marriage, family, health, the humanities, and so on. We have unilaterally and considerably unconsciously invested the business sector, and hence the economic entities, with significant – and one might add, with “invisible” – powers to almost unconditionally reign over our livelihood and lives. In fact, such economic entities are practically treated as sovereign, untouchable, and even sacred. Not often employees dare to fearlessly and candidly criticize, does not matter how legitimately, their employers or bosses. Is it because, perhaps, while you hold the key to your employer’s profitability, she or he seemingly holds the key to your life and demise? Is this fair enough? Besides the business principles of efficiency, effectiveness, and profitability – the principle of fear is also paramount in operations of businesses, for fear makes employees calculable, predictable, conformable, and – “valuable”.

In some European nations, such as France, if a citizen loses her or his job, the government will provide certain necessities such as: money for food, housing, and transportation, plus free healthcare and subsidized telephone line and Internet connection. As a result, under the governmental protection, the French employees have certain leverage against their employers, who do not hold the key to their lives and demise as done here in the United States. Such balance of powers between employers and employees is resisted against by certain governmental elements in America. Furthermore, in a peculiar sense, the business entities, by proxy, are extensions of our government, as they are heavily regulated under various federal agencies, such as the United States Department of Labor, Department of Commerce, the Internal Revenue Service, and so on. Generally speaking, such departments are more protective toward the business entities than toward those who work for them. We all witnessed how our Federal Government bailed out various giant corporations while the common citizens helplessly lost their jobs, cars, and homes.

Have you ever wondered why workplaces impose upon their employees “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies, such as not to reveal to other employees your salary or hourly wage, or to refrain from communicating with terminated employees? Do such policies implicate elements of dishonesty, irresponsibility, corruption, and immorality within workplaces? In the land of “the free” and “the brave”, why is there so much unfreedom and fears in respect to the business entities? In the land where we take pride in our freedom of speech, why do we lose so much of it when we are at our workplaces? My point is that there is undeniably something spellbinding and hypnotic about the business entities and how we treat them in America.

A crucial question to ask is: Are the American workers complacent about their extant labor conditions because they are conveniently pacified with the rampant materialism and consumerism (i.e., pacified with possession of pacifiers such as iPods, laptops, the Internet, gigantic television sets, television programs, movies, entertainment industry, fashion, automobiles, houses or condominiums, weight loss, facelift, self-image, the American dream, and etc.) – or are they fearful, pretending not to know what they ought to know about themselves? How conscious or unconscious are we of our own states of mind in relation to the labor conditions in the United States of America?

In his book The Prince, the Italian political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) acknowledges that most people are moved by passion (such as fear) rather than by reason. Therefore, he advises that if a ruler desires to effectively exploit his people, the ruler must first learn their passions (and fears) – and then manipulate them to his own advantage. In our time, since greater number of people are principally concerned with the immediate gratification of their senses, and that they do not cultivate and entertain (maintain) their own characters, it is left to extraneous factors to mold, control, and farm the people – by manipulating their passions, for example, for Christ, material possessions, family values, lower pleasures, patriotism, the American dream, and etc. Otherwise, what will the people do with themselves? The human farmers (i.e., socio-economico-political engineers) exploit the herd mentality by making it a priority to create jobs for the herd and to indoctrinate them to the virtues of the American “work ethics” (which is an extension of the “bourgeois morality”). The jobs will supply the herd with livelihood and the desired pacifiers, while the work ethics turns their lives into a self-perpetuating pursuit of material goods and services. This relentless cycle of capital, labor, and consumption of goods and services, under the principle of “supply and [create] demand”, has defined our personal and national characters and identities. In this article, I will critically explore, and hopefully demystify to a degree, the “unfelt” misery of the American workers (used synonymously with “laborers” or “employees”).

Milton Friedman (1912-2006) & C.G. Jung (1875-1961)

§2. Corporate Ethics vs. Morality

Economic thinker Milton Friedman (1912-2006) writes that a person has many responsibilities, such as moral responsibilities toward family, people, society, country, and etc. In contrast, a business entity such as a corporation – which the law treats as a “person” – has only one responsibility according to Friedman: “to engage in activities designed to increase its profits, so long as it stays within the rules of the game.” Friedman portrays a corporation as a person preoccupied with making as much money as possible, maximizing its profits. In doing so, this fictional person conducts itself in a sovereignly selfish, self-serving, and single-minded manner. It does not take much trouble, especially since the recent and ongoing global economic crisis, to realize that a corporation, as an unruly fictional person, seems to be afflicted with severe mental and emotional problems! If you, as an actual person, be blind to your moral responsibilities and behave narcissistically, you would be considered an anti-social or, perhaps, a psychopath. My point is that we legally allow this corporate person to act in deliberate disregard toward moral responsibilities which you and I cannot ignore without being socially sanctioned or punished. We treat corporations with mythical reverence, like the way Zeus, the king of gods, is revered in the ancient Greek myths – the god who would not hesitate to cheat other gods or to bed his own offspring.

Furthermore, employees of a corporation are required to ethically and morally behave themselves toward the corporation – while the corporation does not equally hold itself responsible in ethical and moral terms toward the employees. This is, of course, hypocrisy! In essence, this is tantamount to corporate tyranny, which we have come to accept uncritically and fearfully. Practically, a corporation can, and often does, freely and irrationally criticize and/or terminate its employees without any scruples. Conversely, employees of such a corporation are expected to rationally and responsibly conduct themselves at all times, always embracing the best interest of the business at heart – while slavishly losing their own freedom of speech and individualities by mutating themselves from humans to assets of the company. Here, we will do well to remind ourselves of the Socratic maxim. After the Athenian jury found Socrates guilty of trumped-up charges and sentenced him to death by drinking poison, Socrates courageously faced them and said to them: “It is not death that we should escape from but wretchedness, for it runs faster than death.” In his essay entitled “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious”, the Swiss psychoanalyst C. G. Jung (1875-1961) eloquently states:

“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. This process begins in  . . . all departments in which the State has a hand. In a small social body, the individuality of its members is better safeguarded, and the greater is their relative freedom and the possibility of conscious responsibility. Without freedom there can be no morality.”

Corporatism is quite an important issue in the age wherein more and more Americans are hired by corporations, which keep mercilessly swallowing up sole proprietors. It is an evident fact that corporations abuse their legally invested powers, and their “invisible” powers, against less powerful people and entities. In practice, a corporation is designed to protect itself very much at all costs. On January 21, 2009, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the long-standing restrictions on political spending by corporations. In general, the Court’s ruling empowers corporations to freely give money, in any amount, to campaigns for presidential and congressional elections. An urgent question to ask is: Are corporations for profit or for political power? The ideal corporation Friedman describes is out to do nothing but make as much money as it can “within the rules of the game.” The Supreme Court’s ruling may be pregnant with the implication that now corporations have the power to make their own “rules of the game” – which their lobbyists do anyway. By analogy, this is akin to putting prisoners in charge of the prison!

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

§3. Martin Heidegger: Labor and Time

If you agree that money is a substitute for time and energy, then you would also probably agree that what you sell to your employer are your “time” and “effort”. Verily, if your boss had enough time and energy to effectively manage all the affairs of the business, she or he would not need you to work for her or him. Time is expressive of a sacred aspect of your existence, in the sense that time, according to philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), is a precondition of your possibilities in life – and your life and your possibilities do not last forever here in this world. In this regard, how much does your “time” – as a measure and significance of your “being” in the world – matter to you? Your time is your treasure, and the sacrilege (from Latin sacrilegium, “theft of what is sacred”) of your time is extinction of your possibilities, of your life, of your being in the world.

Heidegger, in his book Being and Time, considers the question: Are you “authentic”? (The word “authentic” is derived from the Greek word authentēs, meaning “author”.) In other words, are you the author of your own “time” and “being”? If you, as an employee, are alienated from your own work products, work activities, and your own being at work, you will feel a sense of inauthenticity or not belonging to the workplace – because your time at work does not belong to you and does not serve your own being, but the employer’s – who makes profit (plus the surplus) while you make only an hourly wage (without the surplus). Is your precious time worth the hourly wage you receive? Some would argue that your salary or hourly wage is a measure of how much you respect yourself, let alone how much respect your employer holds for you. How much does your employer pay you per hour? Is your existence, your short time being in this world, worth that much? Or, does the finitude of your existence and possibilities make your time infinite in value, and above all, in significance? Think about it! This is not to imply to hold resentment toward your employer, but to be conscious of your own state of “being”, not letting it go “unfelt”.

If your workplace becomes an encagement (imprisonment) of your time, hence of your possibilities of being in the world, who is to blame? Heidegger would advise us not to be too quick to judge! And, he would insist that: a culture which confuses “being” with “having” and “time” with what is “now” – a culture which is obsessed with accumulation of entities (i.e., consumer goods) which conclusively define the culture’s spirit, orientation, values, and aspirations – is one that should alarm us. In other words, our culture, along with its fostered labor conditions, expresses the impoverishment of our ontological interest in our own existence and time. After all it is estimated that we, as a nation which presently constitutes about 5% of the world population, are currently consuming roughly about 47% of the world resources. The economic, political, and moral ramifications of this estimate are quite deplorable and atrocious! (By analogy, this is similar to 20 individuals getting stuck in middle of a barren desert with only 1 gallon of water, and one of the individuals appropriating about half of the water for himself while leaving the other half to be divided among the other 19 individuals. Hence, the one individual increases his survival at the cost of decreasing the survival of the 19.) Within this context, perhaps, the ongoing global economic crisis did not begin with the subprime mortgage market in the United States, but began with our insatiable greed, our “subprime” mentality, all the way from the governmental level to the level of the common citizens of this land. (For further exploration of Heidegger’s philosophy, see my previous article:

G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831)

§4. Hegel: Labor Conditions and Phenomenology of Self-consciousness

In his Phenomenology of Spirit, German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) sets forth his history of the development of human self-consciousness, which is quite revelatory in the context of the existing labor conditions in America. The following passages will indicate that Hegel’s principles of development of human self-consciousness are subtly at work in our workplaces. The first stage of the developmental history of self-consciousness can be characterized as man’s mastery over objects. According to Hegel, at this early phase of human development, the self is conscious of objects surrounding it. The human self relates to these objects through desire for its own gratification, in order to satisfy its bodily appetites and needs. Further, the self finds pleasure in mastering the objects, for example, by handling them, shaping them, manipulating them, exploiting them, destroying them, canceling them out, or negating them. The self satisfies itself by making the objects serve him, for instance, by carving a piece of obsidian into a stabbing tool, by hunting animal objects, devouring their meat, appropriating their bones and hide. Hegel maintains that history reveals that the human self takes mastery of objects as its goal. And, there is one central principle at work in the self’s relation to objects: the principle of negation or death.

Hegel characterizes the next phase of the self’s development as the “life-and-death struggle”. In this movement, the death-dealing consciousness runs into conflict when the object to negate is a human object. The self, in annihilating the human object, realizes that the object has the same desire to master and negate the first self. Each self seeks to assert its own selfhood by overcoming the other. Therefore, the two selves engage in what Hegel refers to as the “trial by death”, whereby each self tries to negate the other. However, soon the self comes to the realization that there is a greater satisfaction to be had by keeping the other self alive. Hegel insists,

“Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it [self-consciousness] exists only in being acknowledged [by others].”

The self needs the other self to look at and recognize the first self as a self. In other words, Hegel argues, one cannot become conscious of one’s own selfhood, unless other selves serve as mirrors through which she or he can observe and be aware of her or his own self. Being conscious of our own existence requires the existence of other selves. Consequently, in the life-and-death struggle, if the self kills the other, the first self will lose on two counts: (1) it will not gain the contentment of having the other self recognize the first self’s mastery and victory, and (2) it will not have the other self acknowledge the first self as a self, and, hence, it will lose the chance of attaining selfhood. Rather than cancelling the other self out of existence, the first self takes great delight in keeping the other self alive and having it know and acknowledge who is the master, who is the self.

Hegel qualifies the next phase of the developmental history of self-consciousness as the “master-slave” (cf. employer and employee) relation, which is brought about by the immanent limitations of the life-and-death struggle. In this new movement, the victor learns not to kill the victim, but to keep him alive and enslaved – making him serve the desires and needs of the master. Hegel regards this new consciousness of master-slave relationship as a dominant factor in shaping the world history, as it commonly occurs during wars, wherein one nation overpowers the other, making the defeated nation serve the will of the triumphant nation. However, Hegel tells us that the master-slave relation suffers from its own inherent limitations or contradictions, which will eventually cause the demise of this mode of relation. In this relation, the slave is forced to work upon material things, to pour out his own existence into them, not for his own benefit and self-fulfillment – but for the welfare of the master. Therefore, the consciousness of master-slave relation renders the slave enmeshed in matter; he becomes indistinguishable from the raw materials and tools he works with; he is reduced to being a thing as opposed to a self; and, he is forced to work upon material things not for his own self-realization, but for the benefit and glory of the master.

Nevertheless, within this relationship, which, on the surface, seems to visibly benefit the master, there are certain internal factors which work over a period of time to favor the slave over the master. First, the master is dependent on the slave’s recognition of him as master, and this dependency of the master is precarious because there is no master unless the slave recognizes him as such. What if the slave refuses to acknowledge him as the master? If the slave determinedly and resolutely stops his self-belittling activities as a slave, then who will serve the desires of the master? Second, the slave has as his mirror the master as an independent person, whereas the master has as his mirror only a lowly dependent slave-self to relate to. This is the master’s only reflection of himself: an impoverished slave-self. Here, the implication is that: By impoverishing and turning the slave into a thing, the master also impoverishes and depreciates his own worth, his own selfhood. Third, and most important of all, although it appears that the master has the advantage in having the slave labor on material things for the master’s benefit, the long-run advantage of this is in fact for the slave. For in laboring, crafting, and producing objects, the slave finds himself in what he makes. He realizes that the objects which he has crafted, which he has transformed from raw materials into utilizable things, is the work of his own hands – and that he is the independent self who has created it. As a result, the slave’s labor, which materializes the will of the master, reveals to the slave that he is not a slave, a thing – that he is, indeed, distinguishable from the materials he works on. He comes upon his own independent existence as a consciousness with the will and power of its own.

Some years later, when German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) lays open the master-slave (“Lordship and Bondage”) chapter in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, he pronounces it as the meaning of labor, insisting that man’s nature is the result of his labor. In his book Capital, Marx affirms:

“As man works on nature outside himself and changes it, he changes at the same time his own nature.”

This is what Hegel’s slave has accomplished: transforming his own nature from a degraded being into an independent self. According to Marx, the modern capitalists (corporations and business owners) are comparable to Hegel’s master, and the modern laborers (i.e., workers or employees) correspond to Hegel’s slave. For him, the modern relations between “bourgeois” (owners) and “proletarian” (workers) are a rendition of the master-slave relationship. (For the rest of the phases of the developmental history of the human self-consciousness refer to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.)

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

§5. Karl Marx: Labor and Alienation

Karl Marx is a keen observer of how the modern conditions of labor under capitalism have radically changed our lives and the course of the world history. He believes that the modern economic relations have created a battleground where everybody ruthlessly pursues her or his own private interests. This is a battle of all against all, not excluding the subtle economic tensions existing between family members.

Consider an average American laborer (or worker), who works one or two jobs that are often monotonous, meaningless, and self-humiliating – although the laborer may not be conscious of her or his own woeful situation. The moment the laborer leaves home and hits the road to go to work, the war of all against all nauseatingly manifests itself right there on the road! The laborer labors eight hours or more per day, for five days or more per week. While at work, the laborer has to deal with work conditions that are often hostile and dehumanizing. So, the laborer grows weary and numb at work. Inasmuch as the laborer’s job is the principal source of her or his livelihood and welfare, the laborer’s job defines, regulates, and proceduralizes the laborer’s life both in and – outside of the workplace. Inescapably, the laborer will be socially defined by her or his job and income. Since we popularly value labor by the wage it makes, the less money the laborer makes the less the life of the laborer is valued, unfortunately. Verily, the laborer is chained to her or his job, which by and large pays enough to keep the laborer alive to return to work. After leaving the workplace with a sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction, do you suppose the laborer will be in a favorable spirit to go home and meaningfully interact with her or his spouse and children? In all likelihood, her or his spouse is already experiencing the same wretched conditions. So, the couple, feeling unfulfilled and being physically and mentally drained, expediently resort to buy junk food for everyone, rather than enjoying a healthy meal which can cost more time and money. (As Marx puts it, “The less you eat . . . the greater becomes your treasure . . . your capital. The less you are the more you have”.) Hence, the poor labor conditions of the couple – which is the same labor conditions under which millions of other 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! (Not many realize how our work conditions bleed into our personal lives and relations.) Later, after some hours of 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 and political structure of capitalism keeps the working class depressed and spiritually impoverished, the shopping therapy will continue and the wheels of our economy will turn! Unfortunately, our Government seems to value our contributions to the U.S. economy as more important than our contributions to our own wellbeing.

Here, my point is that, as Marx thinks, our modern economic conditions (of which the labor conditions are an integral part) create a social setting 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 laborer and his or her spouse, their jobs – or more specifically, the prevalent economic conditions – deprive them of their health, self-identity, and meaningful relationship with one another, with their children, and with their coworkers – and all this in the country that self-professedly is all about “family values”! In his Manifesto, Marx writes 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 has become a monetary unit, wherein members of family relate to one another monetarily. Capitalism, according to Marx, has mercilessly turned family and social values into monetary values. As he 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 values of love, marriage, family, friendship, decency, mercy, honesty, fairness, truth and so on – become subservient to the value of money and property.

According to the dominant capitalist mentality (of which the American work ethics is a byproduct that has been stealthily implanted in peoples’ unconscious minds as their own), your misery and unhappiness are entirely your own fault, and that you deserve it and should not complain about it. Certainly, there is an element of truth to this admonition. However, this truth will not run very far as long as our government does not wholeheartedly and indiscriminately provide the necessary conditions under which all the citizens can have the opportunity to educate and better themselves. By analogy, an apple seed can grow to become an apple tree – only under the right conditions: namely, proper weather and soil, adequate amount of water, and enough sunlight. One would not expect an apple seed to grow on its own accord and become fruitful in middle of a barren dessert. In the same manner, a woman or a man needs the proper conditions in order to develop as a human and to be a fruitful member of the society. One needs to be free from ignorance and prejudice in order to be free to humanly cultivate one’s potentials. 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? The eminent Cordovan philosopher, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204), known in the West as Moses Maimonides, insisted that, “The aim of any society . . . [should be] the development of human beings and not of wealth.” In the same spirit, the Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) 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.”

Marx fundamentally construes 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 etc. However, under the present economic conditions 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 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 under capitalism is a religion of money worship, which disunites and alienates (estranges) 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 your work products: The money economy of capitalism alienates the worker from her or his work products, which exist as things estranged and indifferent to the worker who creates them, and which also exist as objects of pleasure for somebody else.

2)    Alienation from your productive Activities: The money mania of capitalism alienates the worker from her or his productive activities – activities which are turned into “forced labor” because the activities of the worker are not of personal interest to her or him, who is compelled to perform them just to keep alive.

3)    Alienation from your human qualities: The modern money economy alienates the worker from her or his fundamental human and social qualities, such as love, sympathy, kindness, leisure, and etc.

4)    Alienation from your fellowmen: At last, capitalism alienates the worker from her or his fellow men. Marx called this “the estrangement of man from man”, whereby we all compete against each other.

Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929)

§6. Habermas: Labor, Communication, and Emancipation

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) is known for his reformulation of 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 (Kritische Theorie) 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 expressive of Marx’s statement, “The philosophers have so far only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” (Italics are added.).

In concocting his theory, Habermas maintains that the human species has three fundamental (or critical) interests: in labor, communication, and emancipation. He insists that these fundamental interests are so essential and vital that we cannot meaningfully subsist without them. He commences his critical theory by making a distinction between labor and communication. 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. Without these deeply seated interests in labor and communication, social bonds would disintegrate and society would parasitically consume itself. For Habermas, the formation of human self takes place in the spheres of both labor and communication within social context. However, he construes the communicative dimension of human interactions as having a primary role in development of human self, since he, akin to Hegel, is of the conviction that we become selves in our interaction with other selves. In this context, if an individual is incapable of adequately communicating with others and incapable of psychologically and morally benefiting from her or his productive activities, the individual would be vulnerable to self-deficiency. Habermas emphatically insists that human development is significantly contingent on how human beings externalize their creativity in their labor and how they communicate or interact with each other. Besides labor and communication, Habermas claims 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. Indeed, a society that does not embody these three rudimentary factors in its fabric would be in a state of disintegration, and the members of such a society would become alienated from their own selves, each another, and their socio-economico-political institutions. One wonders that to what degree the United States has incorporated the three fundamental factors in its institutions of labor, mass communication, and so forth.

Emphasizing the fundamental human interest in clear and unobstructed communication with one another, Habermas makes a contrast between “undistorted communication” and systematically “distorted communication”. He lays out a series of qualifications for undistorted communication. According to one of the qualifications, 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 among various parties becomes knotty and problematic. When an employer or government holds power over powerless employees or citizens respectively, 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. Their communication is often distorted by relations of unequal powers.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates owned nothing and was virtually in no position of power in Athens. Yet, his charm was that when he engaged in an argument with someone 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 brute power of money or physical might. A free human being is one who can change his or her mind upon hearing a better argument – without feeling any shame. When a judicious argument has the force to make one see the weakness of one’s own argument and change one’s mind in accordance to it, this is the force that only a free human being can recognize.

Habermas contends that our survival fundamentally pivots around liberating ourselves from distorted communication and fostering humane practices of labor. Is it the case that the American labor force – whose labor conditions are alienable and not as humane as they seem – has managed to subsist so far because of the mass communication industry which actively distorts laborers’ perceptions of their own misery and compels them to pacify themselves with consumer goods and services? In a nation where capital is of utmost value and where perpetual mass consumption of goods and services vitally sustains 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 – connoting 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, one can take “democracy” as it exists in the United States. The powerful – those who own and control the means of production, communication, information, and 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 sets of codes of conduct that are designed to systematically 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 etc. – and all this serves the interest of those who own the means of production, communication, information, and dissemination. Do you think a capitalist boss is ready and willing to engage in “undistorted communication” with her or his employees? The capitalist boss may never acquiesce to engage in undistorted communication with her or his employees; however, her or his employees’ enlightened consciousness – if enlightened at all – of their own dehumanizing labor conditions would make it difficult for the boss not to submit. 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 and without distortions.

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

For further exploration of philosophies of Martin Heidegger and Jürgen Habermas see the following links:

Jürgen Habermas (Disentanglement of Reason from Terror):

Martin Heidegger (Being and Time, Part 1):

Martin Heidegger (Being and Time, Part 2):

Martin Heidegger (Being and Time, Part 3):

May 23, 2010

Being and Time (Part 3)

An Attempt to Interpret Heidegger’s Interpretation of Time

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) – Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

§1. Preface

In my two previous articles entitled “Being and Time (Part 1)” and “Being and Time (Part 2)”, I discussed Martin Heidegger’s magnum opus Being and Time (published in 1927). In the two articles, I mainly explored Heidegger’s hermeneutical interpretation of “Being”. In this article, I will attempt to explore Heidegger’s interpretation of “time” in a way that may or may not adhere to certain Heideggerian convictions, for I will conjure up some of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical ideas, as it is my tentative conviction that certain aspects of Freud’s psychoanalysis may serve as a psychology of Heidegger’s ontology of “Dasein” (our “Being-in-the-world”). In addition, I cautiously believe that certain features of Freud’s psychoanalysis may aid us to illuminate certain facets of Heidegger’s ontology of Dasein. But why examining Heidegger’s concept of time under the light of Freud’s psychoanalysis may or may not oppose certain convictions of Heidegger in Being and Time? We should keep in mind that for Heidegger “the question of Being” is more primordial, radical, and profound than the question of knowing. That is to say – in contrast to Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” – Being precedes thinking and, hence, knowing and theorizing. For Heidegger, Being is the fertile soil out of which grows Dasein’s thoughts, ideas, knowledge, and theories. In other words, ontology (phenomenological investigation of Being) is the foundation of epistemology (theoretical knowing, in this case, of psychoanalysis). For Heidegger, knowledge and belief are founded upon the primordial Being-in-the-world. As he states in his Being and Time, “Knowing is a mode of Dasein founded upon Being-in-the-world. Thus Being-in-the-world, as a basic state, must be Interpreted beforehand”. Notwithstanding Heidegger’s position of knowing as subsidiary to Being, I will apply certain aspects of Freud’s theoretical work toward understanding Heidegger’s concept of time. I will further discuss this issue later in §5. Can Freud’s psychoanalysis, in part or in whole, serve as a psychological expression of Heidegger’s ontological expression of Dasein?

Unless the readers are already familiar with Heidegger’s fundamental tenets of Being and Time, I highly recommend the readers first to familiarize themselves with the content of my two previous articles on Heidegger, or they may not understand the present article.

Being and Time (Part 1):

Being and Time (Part 2):

Meanwhile, before I explore Heidegger’s concept of time, I will first introduce some of the basic ideas of Freud’s psychoanalysis, hoping that they will aid in shedding light on the concept of time.

Iceberg: Structural Model of Psyche

§2. Id, Ego, and Superego

Freud’s structural model of the human psyche is comprised of three distinct, but not separate, organically-based psychological forces or dynamisms that operate within us: the “id”, “ego”, and “super-ego” or “ego ideal”. (Freud warns his readers that his structural model of psyche can be used as a map, not to be confused with the territory itself.) He describes the id (a purely unconscious and unorganized impetus) as expressive of the sexual, aggressive, and self-preservative instincts. The id can be analogized to an insatiable, turbulent, and ferocious current of water that amorphously and uncontrollably flows to various directions. The super-ego (partly conscious and partly unconscious) is a psychic function indicative of human reason in terms of “conscience”, which regulates and restrains the instinctual urges of the id. And, the ego (as the seat of conscious awareness, yet being partly unconscious) is a developmental extension of the id (or, as Freud puts it, “the ego is a specially differentiated part of the id”) and is an organic dynamism indicative of “perception” and “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 a state of 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. The ego can be analogized to a dam which brings under control the turbulent water current (cf. the blind energy of the id).

The id (Latin for “it”) is associated with the “pleasure[-pain] principle”. The ego (Latin for “I”) is correlated with the “reality principle”, in terms of the external and social circumstances circumventing the psyche. And, the super-ego (over-I) is identified with what can be called the ideal principle, which is associated with the judgmental faculty discerning what is right or wrong behavior in relation to the external and social conditions under which the ego is to serve the id under the supervision of the super-ego. The super-ego continually oversees the ego’s performance, and it punishes the ego’s misconducts with feelings such as guilt, anxiety, or inferiority. In his The Ego and the Id (published in 1923), Freud associates the “consciousness”, “reason”, “perception”, and “motility” with the ego, while associating the “unconscious”, “instincts”, and “passions” with the id in the following manner:

“We have formed the idea that in each individual there is a coherent organization of mental processes; and we call this his ego. It is to this ego that consciousness [How about time?] is attached; the ego controls the approaches to motility – that is, to the discharge of excitations into the external world; it is the mental agency which supervises all its own constituent processes, and which goes to sleep at night, though even then it exercises the censorship on dreams.”

“We have said that consciousness [associated with the ego] is the surface of the mental apparatus; that is, we have ascribed it as a function to a system [i.e., outer sense perception and inner sensations and feelings] which is spatially the first one reached from the external world. . . .”

“We shall now look upon an individual as a psychical id, unknown and unconscious, upon whose surface rests the ego, developed from its [id’s] nucleus the Pcpt. [perceptual] system. If we make an effort to represent this pictorially, we may add that the ego does not completely envelop the id, but only does so to the extent to which the system Pcpt. forms its [the ego’s] surface. . . . The ego is not sharply separated from the id; its lower portion merges into it.”

“It is easy to see that the ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world through the medium of the Pcpt.-Cs. [perceptual-conscious system]. . . . Moreover, the ego seeks to bring the influence of the external world to bear upon the id and its tendencies, and endeavours to substitute the reality principle for the pleasure principle which reigns unrestrictedly in the id. For the ego, perception plays the part which in the id falls to instinct. The ego represents what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the id, which contains the passions.”

“The functional importance of the ego is manifested in the fact that normally control over the approaches to motility devolves upon it. Thus in its relation to the id it is like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength while the ego uses borrowed forces [of the id]. The analogy may be carried a little further. Often a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide it where it wants to go; so in the same way the ego is in the habit of transforming the id’s will into action as if it were its own.”

(I curiously ask, “Might it be the case, for Freud, that the ego – being the seat of conscious awareness and perception, and affiliated with motility – is also the seat of time in order to organize, coordinate, and regulate its functions as the mediator between the id and superego in relation to the external world?”)

§3. The Life and Death Instincts

In the book, Freud makes a distinction between two classes of instincts: the “Eros” (depicted as the life instincts, including the sexual instincts) and “Thanatos” (depicted as the death instincts). (In the book, Freud does not utilize the term “Thanatos”, but instead “death instincts”. It is said that the former is a term dubbed by the post-Freudian psychology.) In general, Eros is characteristically a creative and organizational tendency while Thanatos is characteristically a destructive propensity. There is an ongoing tension between these two tendencies. Freud writes,

“. . . [W]e have to distinguish two classes of instincts, one of which, the sexual instincts or Eros . . . comprises not merely the uninhibited sexual instinct proper and the instinctual impulses of an aim-inhibited or sublimated nature derived from it, but also the self-preservative instinct, which must be assigned to the ego. . . . [As to] the second class of instincts . . . we put forward the hypothesis of a death instinct, the task of which is to lead organic life back into the inanimate state; on the other hand, we supposed that Eros . . . aims at complicating life and at the same time, of course, at preserving it. Acting in this way, both the instincts would be conservative in the strictest sense of the word, since both would be endeavouring to re-establish a state of things that was disturbed by the emergence of life. The emergence of life would thus be the cause of the continuance of life and also at the same time of the striving towards death; and life itself would be a conflict and compromise between these two trends.”

“On this view, a special physiological process (of anabolism or catabolism) would be associated with each of the two classes of instincts; both kinds of instinct would be active in every particle of living substance [cells], though in unequal proportions, so that some one substance might be the principal representative of Eros.”

“[W]e are driven to conclude that the death instincts are by their nature mute and that the clamour of life proceeds for the most part from Eros.”

“The dangerous death instincts are dealt with in the individual in various ways: in part they are rendered harmless by being fused with erotic components, in part they are diverted towards the external world in the form of aggression, while to a large extent they undoubtedly continue their internal work unhindered.”

“Towards the two classes of instincts the ego’s attitude is not impartial. Through its work of identification and sublimation, it gives the death instincts in the id assistance in gaining control over the libido, but in so doing it runs the risk of becoming the object of the death instincts and of itself perishing. In order to be able to help in this way it has had itself to become filled with libido; it thus itself becomes the representative of Eros and thenceforward desires to live and to be loved.”

“The id . . . has no means of showing the ego either love or hate. It [the id] cannot say what it wants; it has achieved no unified will. Eros and the death instinct struggle within it; we have seen with what weapons the one group of instincts defends itself against the other. It would be possible to picture the id as under the domination of the mute but powerful death instincts, which desire to be at peace and (prompted by the pleasure principle) to put Eros, the mischiefmaker, to rest; but perhaps that might be to undervalue the part played by Eros.”

Interestingly enough, Freud’s concepts of Eros (life instincts) and Thanatos (death instincts) run parallel to the psychologizing philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concepts of the “Dionysian” and “Apollinian”, in his book The Birth of Tragedy. In the ancient Greek mythology, Dionysus is portrayed as the god of grapes and wine – who is intoxicative, destructive, and not prone to reason or rationality. In sharp contrast, Apollo is depicted as a god of light and the sun – attributive of reason or rationality and imposition of forms. Nietzsche construes the Dionysian and Apollinian as two physiological forces or tendencies whose union creates art or beauty that is “apt to seduce us to life”, as he puts it.

“. . . [T]he continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollinian and Dionysian duality – just as procreation depends on the duality of the sexes, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations. . . . Through Apollo and Dionysus, the two art deities of the Greeks, we come to recognize that in the Greek world there existed a tremendous opposition, in origins and aims, between the Apollinian art of sculpture [the plastic arts] and the nonimagistic, Dionysian art of music. These two different tendencies run parallel to each other, for the most part openly at variance; and they continually incite each other to new and more powerful births, which perpetuates an antagonism, only superficially reconciled by the common term ‘art’; till eventually, by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic ‘will,’ they appear coupled with each other, and through this coupling ultimately generates an equally Dionysian and Apollinian form of Art. . . .”

“For to our humiliation and exaltation, one thing above all must be clear to us. The entire comedy of art is neither performed for our betterment or education nor are we the true authors of this art world. On the contrary, we may assume that we are merely images and artistic projections for the true author, and that we have our highest dignity in our significance as works of art – for it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified. . . .”

According to Nietzsche, when the Dionysian-Apollinian union is disturbed, the consequences can be quite unsettling, as grimly portrayed in the myths of Orpheus, King Pentheus, and King Lycurgus, who were devotees of Apollo. Upon their acts of defiance against Dionysus, Orpheus was torn to pieces by the maenads (frenzied, female votaries of the orgiastic cult of Dionysus) and his head thrown into the river Hebrus, later to be buried at the shrine dedicated to Apollo. King Pentheus was also rent to shreds by the maenads, one of whom was his own mother, Agave. And, as to King Lycurgus, when Dionysus along with his band of maenads came to his kingdom, the king drove them away with an ox-goad. Thereupon, Dionysus took refuge deep beneath the sea, and the king got drunk on wine and raped his own mother. Upon discovering what he had done, the king began slashing the grapevines, and in the process he cut off his own feet, thinking that they were vines. In this respect, Nietzsche relates the myth of King Midas:

“There is an ancient story that King Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When Silenus at last fell into his hands, the king asked what was the best and most desirable of all things for man. Fixed and immovable, the demigod said not a word, till at last, urged by the king, he gave a shrill laugh and broke out into these words: ‘Oh, wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is – to die soon.’”

Iceberg: Structural Model of Psyche

§4. The Unconscious and Consciousness

In his Some Elementary Lessons in Psychoanalysis (published in 1938), Freud 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. There seems to be a significant difference between the patient’s post-hypnotic reason for his action (that it is raining outside) and the pre-conscious cause of his action (the hypnotically implanted instruction to hand over the umbrella). 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, unknown “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. (Keep in mind that Heidegger in Being and Time is primarily looking for phenomenological manifestations of Being and time, not their cause or causes. “The question of Being” – which is the fundamental crux of his work – consists of questions such as: What does it mean to be? What is it about our condition that lets Being have a meaning for us? Why does it make a difference to us that there is something rather than nothing? What is our relation to Being?)

§5. The Ontological and Ontical

Now, after having introduced some basic thoughts of Freud’s psychoanalysis, we shall proceed to interpret Heidegger’s concept of time with the aid of the psychoanalytical ideas presented above. And, we should keep in mind that Heidegger – who construes knowing (the sciences) subordinate to Being (ontology) – does not construct his thoughts scientifically or psychoanalytically by stating, for instance, “Dasein’s unconscious anxiety of death behaviorally comes through as a neurosis of everydayness.” Nonetheless, his thoughts on Being, time, anxiety, death, and etc. may implicate such psychical dynamisms of the unconscious and consciousness.

Before we commence our exploration of Heidegger’s concept of time, it is important to set forth the distinction he makes between that which is “ontological” (such as Being) and that which is “ontical” (such as things, entities, or beings). While ontology investigates Being, ontical investigations (as done by physics, biology, or political science) focus on particular facts about a being – without paying attention to its Being. For instance, “What is Joe’s eye color?” is an ontical question, whereas “How is the way of Being of Joe?” is an ontological question. Generally, ontical questions are researched by experimental sciences while ontological questions appeal to philosophy. It is important to know that Heidegger’s phenomenological investigation of Being and time is primarily ontological, but certainly not devoid of the ontical. After all, he suggests that to understand Dasein’s way of Being, we should cyclically turn to what is to us “ontically closest” (e.g., “everydayness”). Nevertheless, the ontological questions, for him, are more fundamental than ontical questions. According to Richard Polt’s Heidegger, for Heidegger:

“Not only is scientific research unable to shed light on Dasein’s Being, but it is all too likely that it operates with an inadequate interpretation of Being in general, inherited from Greek philosophy and Christianity. The sciences ultimately take Dasein as a thing, much as they may attempt to distinguish it from all other things. For Heidegger, Dasein is not a thing at all. Things are ‘whats’; their Being is ‘presence-at-hand’ (. . . “objective presence”), and their ontological characteristics are ‘categories’. Dasein is a ‘who’ whose Being is ‘existence’ and whose ontological characteristics Heidegger dubs existentialia (. . . “existentials”).” (Italics are added.)

In reading Being and Time, it is important for the readers to recognize when Heidegger treats his concepts (such as Being, time, death, and etc.) ontologically, ontically, or concurrently.

§6. Time

In the beginning of the book, before the “Introduction”, Heidegger firmly declares, “Our provisional aim is the Interpretation of time as the possible horizon [condition] for any understanding whatever of Being”. In other words, he maintains that Being should be understood in the context of time, that our way of Being is contingent on temporality: the significative inter-relation between our past, present, and future.

I suspect that if we were immortal (i.e., if we never biologically died, and hence perhaps implying that never felt physical pain and hunger), time would not matter to us, or perhaps it would not matter to us as much. However, time does matter because we are mortal. Heidegger expresses, “This certainty, that ‘I myself am in that I will die’, is the basic certainty of Dasein itself.” Each of us appears to have only a finite time to biologically “live” and to ontologically “exist” in the world. Time alerts us to our unavoidable biological “demise”. Time reminds us of our “finitude”. And, time alarms us of our impending “death” – the inevitable end of our possibilities of Being-in-the-world. Heidegger, in a peculiar manner, distinguishes – but not divorces – “ontology” from “biology”, “Dasein” from “that which lives”, “Being” from “living”,  “existence” form “life”, and “dying” from “perishing” or “demise”.

“We still have to ask how the ontological [distinct from the biological] essence of death is defined in terms of that of life [the ontical]. . . . The ending of that which lives [as opposed to “exists”] we have called ‘perishing’. Dasein too ‘has’ its own death, . . . not in ontical isolation, but as codetermined by its primordial kind of Being. . . . Dasein too can end . . ., though on the other hand, qua Dasein, it does not simply perish. We designate this intermediate phenomenon [of perishing] as its ‘demise’. Let the term ‘dying’ stand for that way of Being in which Dasein is towards its death. Accordingly we must say that Dasein never perishes. Dasein, however, can demise only as long as it is dying. . . . The existential Interpretation of death takes precedence over any biology and ontology of life.” (Italics are added.)

In other words, Dasein – as a “thing” that is no thing at all – does not perish; however, that which lives biologically does perish. Nonetheless, Dasein can demise only as long as its “way of Being” is dying or is not a possibility anymore. In this context, death is viewed as an ontological phenomenon while perishing, distinct but not isolated from dying, is viewed as a biological (that is, ontical) phenomenon. While Heidegger neither seems to affirm nor deny our biology as a psycho-organic origin or stimulus of our Being, he implies that our Being is a source of signification of our biology.

Furthermore, Heidegger makes a distinction between the ontical (ordinary or everyday) concept of time and the ontological concept of time. Ordinarily, time is viewed linearly, as a constant sequence of points – always irretrievably extending forward, never backward – identifying (id-entity-fying) where and things we are and have now, we were and had before, and we will be and have after. (The word “identify” is derived from the Latin word identificāre, meaning “to make to resemble” or “to make into thing”, derived from the Latin word identitās, meaning “id-entity” or literally “it-thing”.) The popular phrase “time is money” is in intimate conformity to this inadequate, as Heidegger thinks, depiction of time. In contrast to this thing-like, distorted, everyday concept of time, Heidegger’s existential concept of time is neither expressed merely linearly, nor as irretrievable forward succession of instants. His ontology of time is expressive of Dasein’s Being-in-the-world in terms of its significative inter-relation of its future, past, and present – in the sense that, as an example, Dasein’s future possibilities can be a source of its past’s significances that project Dasein forward (or backward) from the present. One’s future possibilities can unconceal the meanings of one’s past which can turn the present authentically into a project (or inauthentically into a regression).

Time is not merely a linear, forward succession of points, making it possible for us to measure the quantity of things we have lost or accumulated in the present in contrast to the past. For Heidegger, time seems to be revelatory of phenomenological manifestations (showings) of the inter-related significations of our Being-in-the-world that inter-connects, rather than individuates, Dasein’s future, past, and present. Time is expressive of the unconcealment of Dasein’s way of Being in which its future possibilities, past inheritance, and present actuality and potentiality can become Dasein’s own. A rock always seems frozen in position and time; it is simply there, as it was before and as it will be after. However, Dasein’s “authenticity” unfreezes its Being and time to authenticate (to make its own) its own Being and time. (The word “authentic” is derived from the Greek word authentēs, meaning “author”.) Dasein authenticates (authors) time, meaning that, Dasein’s Being brings time into the world, into eternity (timelessness). And, to be the author of our Being and time means to be authentic. As an example, an employee – who is alienated from her or his own work products, work activities, and her or his own Being at work – does not feel a sense of authenticity or belonging to the workplace, because the employee’s time at work does not belong to her or him and does not serve her or his own Being, but the employer’s. A Marxian may beg Heidegger to answer the following question: Is it our material conditions that determine our way of Being, or is it our way of Being that determines our material conditions, or a combination of both? I presume that Karl Marx himself would interpret our material conditions (which are dialectical) as primary, while Heidegger would construe our way of Being (which is historical) as primal in terms of significance and meaning of the world. Marx, as a materialist, seems interested in causal relations of things whereas Heidegger, as a phenomenological ontologist, seems interested in ontological relations (in terms of their significances and references) of ways of Being of things. Before Heidegger attempts to answer the question, by his own principles, he would have to first understand (phenomenologically and hermeneutically construe) the Being of Dasein, entities, our material conditions, cause, and effect. And, then, under the light of this understanding, he would attempt to interpret the question and ascertain its significance. Heidegger will refuse to laugh at an untold joke!

Heidegger’s predecessor, German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), insisted space and time are part of the structure of our consciousness, not things that consciousness discovers originally outside of itself. Hence, for him, space and time are not things that we perceive outside of us, but part of how we perceive and think of things. In other words, space and time are preconditions of human perception and understanding. As he puts it, no thing is understandable “before space and time”. In the same fashion, according to Heidegger, Dasein, through its own time, unfolds and understands (stands under) its world and its Being. And, in understanding its world and Being, Dasein finds itself not as a static thing, such as a rock, but as a dynamic and historical Being.

Therefore, it seems that for Heidegger Being and time are interdependent and, perhaps, inseparable. In this sense, lack of time appears to be a deficiency of Being and vice versa, meaning that, one’s future, past, and present are not coordinated. As an analogy, consider Beethoven’s ninth symphony, sometimes referred to as “Ode to Joy”. It is composed of a series of inter-related, rhythmic, musical notes that harmoniously, through time, communicate with one another and express a sentiment (such as that of joy juxtaposed with the crescendos of horror) to the listeners. Moreover, the symphony possesses an introduction (introducing the musical theme), a body (wherein the theme is developed and ornamented), and a conclusion (whereby the theme finds both a musical and sentimental resolution). If the conclusion of the symphony is not in harmonious and melodic conformity to the preceding and is not temporally coordinated with the introduction and the body, then the resolution may never be realized. Likewise, if one’s projected future is not coordinated with one’s past and present, then one’s life story may not come to a resolution, but to an inauthentic conclusion that screams: “I never have enough time for anything in my life.” Dasein’s future is a resolution of its past, and Dasein’s past is a solution toward its future. (The word “resolution” is derived from the Latin word resolūtus, which in turn is derived from the Latin word re-solvere, meaning “backward-untying” or “untying backward”.)

§7. Future, Past, and Present

Heidegger construes the past in terms of Dasein having been helplessly thrown into the world and, therefore, having inherited a burden of “facticity”: an objective or materialistic way of perceiving, thinking, and conducting oneself in the world. For instance, one may have been born into a poor family and impoverished conditions that shape her or his perceptions, thoughts, and conducts. Facticity of a person is who the person already is. A factical person is everyday faced with dealing with what the person has already been. Pregnant with the past, the future, Heidegger interprets, is “. . . the coming in which Dasein, in its ownmost potentiality-for-Being, comes towards itself.” The future is a condition that makes possible Dasein’s acts of choosing who it becomes. And, Heidegger views the present as “making present”, i.e., revealing the entities environing Dasein’s world of references, meanings and purposes. Dasein’s future signifies its past, and the future and the past give rise to Dasein’s present. Inauthentic Dasein’s present is alienated from its future and past, while authentic Dasein’s present acquires depth, meaning, and direction in relation to its future and past.

§8. Correlation between Death and Time

Heidegger seems to propound a direct significative correlation between death and time (and, hence, between time and anxiety). For him, birth (“thrownness”), growth (existence), and death (end of our possibilities) are the revelations of our temporal Being.

“. . . Dasein exists, it has already been thrown into this possibility [“Being-towards-death” which is concentric with Being-in-the-world]. Dasein does not, proximally and for the most part, have any explicit or even any theoretical knowledge of the fact that it has been delivered over to its death, and that death thus belongs to Being-in-the-world. Thrownness into death reveals itself to Dasein in a more primordial and impressive manner in that state-of-mind which we have called ‘anxiety’. Anxiety in the face of death is anxiety ‘in the face of’ that potentiality-for-Being which is one’s ownmost, non-relational, and not to be outstripped. That in the face of which one has anxiety is Being-in-the-world itself. That about which one has this anxiety is simply Dasein’s potentiality-for-Being. Anxiety in the face of death must not be confused with fear in the face of one’s [biological] demise. This anxiety is not an accidental or random mood of ‘weakness’ in some individual; but, as a basic state-of-mind of Dasein, it amounts to the disclosedness of the fact that Dasein exists as thrown Being towards its end. . . . Precision is gained by distinguishing this [‘dying’] from . . . merely perishing, and . . . ‘Experiencing’ of a demise.”

As Heidegger puts it, from the moment we are born, our Being is toward death. With every breath we take, we take one step closer to death. When we are young, we tend to live carelessly or procrastinatingly – as though we are immortal (imperishable and undying), as though we have infinite time at our disposal. Yet, as we get older, we tend to become more and more conscious of the finitude of time in terms of our living and Being in the world. According to Heidegger, death (like the mood of “anxiety”, described in my previous article) is more pivotal and constructive in our daily lives than we are consciously aware. Death unconsciously structures our lives. Many of our daily activities appear to be unconscious ways of eluding death, or making ourselves oblivious to death, yet with every sigh we approach the inevitable. At all times, death hangs over our heads like the sword of Damocles. It follows us whenever and wherever.

Taking the liberty to employ non-Heideggerian language and cautiously fusing psychoanalytical concepts with Heidegger’s ontology of time, I propound the following: the human conscious perception and thought processes, sensations such as that of physical pain and hunger, and instincts such as ingestion of nourishment and self-preservation – are, perhaps, various manifestations of the unconscious dynamisms to regulate the demise of human organism through constructing the regulative, coordinative, and organizational principle of time. (I am cognizant that my preceding, speculative statement goes beyond the scopes of both Heidegger’s Being and Time and Freud’s psychoanalysis.) Interpreting time as having no existence apart from human psycho-biology does not render time an illusion. Perchance, time, no more or less than the sensation of hunger or pain, is a psycho-biological construct or phenomenon. Perhaps, time can be ontically interpreted as an orderly organization of our biological demise, and ontologically as an orchestration of Dasein’s Being-towards-death and, hence, possibilities of Being-in-the-world. Figuratively speaking, time is a mask of death – making death manifest itself to the conscious awareness (cf. to the ego which is the eyes of the id, in Freud’s psychoanalysis).

Looking at death from a biological and quasi-Heideggerian viewpoint, human organism inherently contains within itself its own germ of demise, terminating its own life. And, it might be the case that human organism has evolutionarily constructed time which has rendered the human organism capable of cognizing its own finitude, its own lifespan, its own possibilities of Being-in-the-world. We often seem to be unconscious (to be in a state of unaware denial) of our own death. Nevertheless, this unconscious dynamism perhaps manifests itself consciously as time, as it were, to forewarn itself of and coordinate its own demise – or, ontologically speaking, to “attune” itself to Being-towards-death. (The word “attunement” is a translation of the German word Befindlichkeit, which is used by Heidegger to designate our moods, such as anxiety, as ways of finding ourselves in the world.) In this sense, figuratively speaking, time is a mirror of death, of Dasein, whose Being is always toward death – (or, psychoanalytically speaking, time is the mirror through which the id, via the ego, monitors its own strivings [the tension between the life instincts and the death instincts]).

§9. Quantification and Qualification of Time

Heidegger’s portrayal of time is expressive of our engagement and commitment to the world. Time is significative of our engagement and commitment to Being-in-the-world which entails potentiality-for-Being which in turn subsumes Being-towards-death. He asserts, “The ‘end’ of Being-in-the-world is death [Being-towards-death]. This end, which belongs to the potentiality-for-Being – that is to say, to existence [Being-in-the-world] – limits and determines in every case whatever totality is possible for Dasein.” Time is indicative of not merely quantitatively measuring but qualitatively appreciating, signifying, and apprehending our possibilities (and, hence, our choices and potentials) while we exist. Besides stressing the limits of our possibilities, time legislates our possibilities. For instance, if a person had only one day to live, the possibility of choosing to be an astronaut and to travel to Mars would not avail itself to the person. Or, if one’s futural project is to become an astronaut, one may find oneself transported back in time to a past to discern if such a possibility is presently open to be stretched into the future. Time encompasses and circumvents our possibilities from birth toward death and from death toward birth. Time is an ever-expanding boundary of our possibilities of Being-in-the-world. “Ever-expanding” because Dasein is historical; consequently, the intellectual innovations of today (in terms of science, technology, medicine, transportation, mass communication, electronic data processing, and etc.) have given us possibilities that were not extant a century ago.

From an ontical viewpoint, time id-enti-fies and individuates one’s life into diverse periods, linearly progressing from past to present to future. Through time, one gains an alleged identity (the ego or the “I”, psychoanalytically speaking) to identify time with. (“Alleged identity” because Heidegger seems to imply that there appears to be no such a thing as the “self” which endures all psychophysical changes and, hence, becomes the source of one’s personal identity. We have a tendency to think of ourselves as inherently possessing a thing-like, unchangeable self due to our “fallenness” – i.e., being absorbed into the entities and into the present. As longs as our way of Being is not ontologically understood, having a self or identity is postulated.) From an ontological vantage point, time significatively ascertains, valuates, and inter-relates the three dimensions of one’s Being-in-the-world. Hence, Dasein’s existence manifests time significatively – not merely numerically – unfolding itself unto itself toward Being-in-the-world. Ontical time and space are understood in terms of the ontological time and space. According to Richard Polt’s Heidegger:

“When we hear the word ‘space’, we may think of outer space, a void dotted with stars that glide past us as in a science-fiction movie. Or we may think of analytic geometry, with its x, y and z axes of three-dimensional space. But is space just an empty framework in which objects can occur, or a system of assigning Cartesian coordinates to things? These concepts of space cannot capture the experience of being in an unfamiliar, threatening neighborhood, or finding the scissors just where we expected to find them, or feeling that a room is spacious, or putting one’s glove on the wrong hand. These are spatial experiences that call for a richer, non-quantitative vocabulary. . . . Heidegger tries to develop such a vocabulary. . . . He tries to move us away from thinking of the world purely in mathematical terms, and towards an understanding of the world in terms of appropriateness [derived from the Latin word appropriāre, “to make one’s own”] and inappropriateness. Full-fledged space consists not of points where objects are located, but of places where things and people belong or do not belong. Full-fledged time consists not of instants when objects are present, but of right and wrong moments. In full-fledged time and space, things matter to us. This takes us right back to the contrast between the Heideggerian and the Cartesian concepts of the world. From the Cartesian standpoint, questions of appropriateness and inappropriateness are just subjective; the objective facts about the world are quantitative.

But Heidegger would reply that in order to describe the world in which we live, we have to use more than numbers – and even numbers are meaningful to us only in terms of the world of appropriateness and inappropriateness. The astronomer determines that a certain star is millions of kilometers away from the sun. This is correct, but it means something to the astronomer and to the rest of us only if we can relate it back to the lifeworld in which three kilometers are a gentle afternoon stroll, and thirty kilometers are a good day’s hike.

As technology progresses, our sense of space and time is mutating, even eroding. Heidegger’s comment on radio indicates his fears about this process. . . . [R]adio is ‘expanding and destroying the everyday surrounding world’. In a lecture course, Heidegger elaborates: ‘In the radio Dasein today realizes . . . a peculiar extension of the process of bringing the world nearer. . . . This frenzy for nearness is nothing but reduction in the loss of time. But reduction in the loss of time is the flight of time from itself.’ . . . [W]e will see that genuinely accepting our own temporality requires us to stop understanding time merely in terms of efficiency. If Heidegger had lived to experience fax machines, cellular phones and the Internet, he would shudder.”

If, indeed, the peculiar organization of animal cells into what we call the human organism is the genesis of time and space, what would that make of Albert Einstein’s concept of “space-time” or the Big Bang theory which renders the Big Bang as the cause of formation of time and space billions of years prior to the appearance of the Homo sapiens on the scene. Polt continues:

“A distinguished physicist once gave a lecture at the University of Chicago in which he claimed that physics had greatly refined its concept of time by measuring time in smaller and smaller increments. A listener objected that although physicists were measuring changes more accurately, this did not alter our concept of time, or shed light on the nature of time. ‘What is time itself?’ the physicist was asked. He answered honestly: ‘Well, I’m not a philosopher.’ Physicists take it for granted that time, space, matter and energy exist, and have a certain way of Being. Physics as such does not try to clarify the Being of such entities – that task falls to philosophy. In this sense, philosophy is more fundamental than physics. The same can be said of other sciences, sciences that [as Heidegger puts it] study ‘for instance, history . . . life . . . language.’ History [as a discipline] takes it for granted that the past, in some sense, exists. It falls to philosophy to clarify the sense in which the past exists, in the light of the meaning of Being in general.”

§10. Heidegger’s Significance of Being and Time in Our Time

The eminent Cordovan philosopher, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204), known in the West as Moses Maimonides, insisted that, “The aim of any society . . . [should be] the development of human beings and not of wealth.” In opposition to this dictum, would it be a fair assessment to conclude that our political and economic policies in the United States have been geared more toward creation of wealth than development of human beings? In the same vein as Maimonides, the Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) 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.” In contrast to Heidegger’s conception of Being and time, here in America our cultural understanding of Being and time seems 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 depressingly absorbed in accumulation and manipulation of entities (material objects) which almost exclusively define the culture’s spirit, orientation, values, and aspirations in a now that is foolishly fancied to sustain and smear itself, in greater quantity of goods and pleasures, into the future (out of the fear of feature) – is one that should shrilly alarm us. Perhaps, the ongoing economic crisis – wherein countless numbers of people spent the money which they did not have and now are losing their jobs, cars, and homes – is a direct result of our impoverished (or “subprime”) ways of existing that we have mendaciously identified with “freedom” and the “American dream”.

The phenomenological ontology of Heidegger’s Being and Time expresses that having is subsidiary to Being; knowing is subordinate to Being; and ontical time is fiduciary to – and is understood in terms of – the ontological time. For Heidegger, Being is not a thing, and time is not merely a quantity of something to be counted; Being and time are expressive of inter-related significations of Dasein’s possibilities of Being-in-the-world. Suppose a five-year-old child walking by a stop sign in a street asks her father, “What is this?” And, suppose her father answers, “This is called a ‘stop sign’ which is made of a long metal pole that has attached to one of its ends a round red surface that is inscribed upon it the letters S, T, O, P.” Do you assume that this kind of ontical account of the stop sign will help the child to make a decision, in her later life, upon approaching a stop sign while driving a car? The point I am making is that Heidegger is telling us that this is how we have hitherto interpreted our Being: as mere things or objects. The stop sign is not merely a thing as described by the child’s father; it is primarily a “signification” that signifies a meaning that we can understand, relate to, or “care” about. Now, imagine the child, still walking with her father toward her grandmother’s house, asking, “When are we gonna get there?” And, suppose the father, looking at his wristwatch, replies, “It’s now 4:30 P.M., so we should arrive there approximately a quarter to 5:00.” The child, whose conception of time is not yet ontically developed, is baffled at her father’s reply. However, noticing the confusion in her child’s face, the father ontologically amends his response, “It takes enjoying three of your favorite ice creams before we see your grandma.” The point is that time is significantly contingent on Being. For Heidegger, Being and time are not merely things to collect and count, but to “celebrate”: to “wonder” about.

§11. Conclusion

Does Heidegger achieve the aim of “the question of Being”: What does it mean to be? What is Being? If you recall, in the commencement of Being and Time, Heidegger positively asserts, “Our provisional aim is the Interpretation of time as the possible horizon [condition] for any understanding whatever of Being”. However, the book ends with the following hesitant words: “Does time itself manifest itself as the horizon of Being?” This question seems to question “time” as the horizon or condition for understanding Being. It is said that Heidegger was never convinced of the propriety of time as the possible horizon for any understanding of Being. Nevertheless, the book has reawakened the issue of Being in an unprecedented manner and has posed the challenge of rethinking our ontological interests in contrast to our everydayness.

In the text of his lecture course of 1941 at the University of Freiburg, which has been published under the title Hölderlin Hymn “Andenken” (Gesamtausgabe 52), Heidegger poetically pours himself out in the following words:

“Celebration . . . is self-restraint, is attentiveness, is questioning, is meditating, is awaiting, is the step over into the more wakeful glimpse of the wonder – the wonder that a world is worlding around us at all, that there are beings rather than nothing, that things are and we ourselves are in their midst, that we ourselves are and yet barely know who we are, and barely know that we do not know all this.” (Bold letters are added.)

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

May 3, 2010

The Last Wish to “Exist”

Variation on a theme of Muli Koppel’s “The Jump of Ks”

Yves Klein’s “Leap into the Void”

The Last Wish to “Exist”

On Oct. 10, 1967 at 12:00 P.M., Søren was at the workplace: bored, depressed, and objectified. All of a sudden, he hastily ran off without punching out for lunch break and situated himself on the ledge of the wall:

“There is no point living if I can’t feel life. I need to think in concrete – without losing the ground beneath my feet. I need to exist . . . I must exist. Not by being here. Not by pretending not to know what is befalling me. What is worse than death than not existing at all? I must disabuse myself to the point of no return. I need not to know the meaning of being alive. No, I need no meaning if I can’t participate in it. What I crave is to experience being alive, to throw myself into it. No bliss without risk; no life without sacrifice. Doubting is the poverty of spirit. I must keep my spirit buoyant to fly. I have no more time to deliberate; it is time to liberate. Freely against the calculus of pain and fear I go . . . Today is the first day of the rest of my life, however short!”

Søren passionately leaped into the unknown. His death certificate pronounced him dead at 12:00 P.M. of that day at the workplace.

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.

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