PHILOSOPHY

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): https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/04/22/being-and-time-part-1/

Being and Time (Part 2): https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/04/23/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!)

April 29, 2010

The Unconscious and Myth of Reason

The gods above and the gods below!

Sigmund Freud

A Brief Psychoanalytical and Philosophical Critique of Reason

§1. Reason and the Enlightenment

In a certain sense, the introduction of Sigmund Freud’s concept of the “unconscious” can be construed as a mockery of the intellectual traditions of the Western civilization. The appearance of Freud’s concept of the unconscious on the scene of the 20th century is deemed as a direct warning to the philosophical and scientific traditions, which can be traced back to the Age of Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Reason). Our Enlightenment legacy is the investiture of man with the unflinching trust in human reason. (For further exploration of the “Enlightenment” see the following link: https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/04/05/individualism/.) The Age of Enlightenment (roughly from 1650 to 1770) celebrated human reason and resurrected a sense of self-confidence and self-possession. The Enlightenment view firmly held that the new individuals of the age of science are equipped with reason and theories that can be put into practice in order to reform or remove the corrupt social and political institutions. The grandiose vision of the Enlightenment was to reconstruct the human world – through the use of reason, science, and technology – in order to serve the natural law of “progress”: that human reason can discover scientific truths about the natural world and human nature, and turn these bodies of knowledge into practice in forms of technology and social reform for the benefit of humanity. They believed they were, or would be soon, in command of all the knowledge necessary to improve the world.

After over two centuries since the Enlightenment, according to philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1798-1979), we have constructed a human intellect powerful enough to unravel the mysteries of the natural world, but any intellect that powerful has a peculiar tendency to be tyrannical! (For further exploration of Marcuse’s thoughts on “reason” see the following link: https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/04/14/totalitarian-reason/.) While it is true that science and technology have helped humanity to procure the knowhow to deal with certain areas of human life, it may not be a fair assessment that the progress of the Enlightenment project has made us less fearful and unsecure in the face of the modern uncertainties. We are still wrestling with the problems of poverty, hunger, unemployment, healthcare, drugs, population, racial conflicts, political uncertainty, economic inflation, recession, energy, water, and global warming. What is paradoxical about the Enlightenment’s tenacious confidence in human reason is that it has turned into a force of mystification of the human world. For instance, the Germans – who highly excelled themselves above many other people in science, technology, arts, literature, philosophy, civics, and industrialization since the dawn of modernity and became an epitome of civilization – the people who gave Goethe, Beethoven, and Einstein to the world, also gave birth to Nazism, brutality, and Auschwitz. They built a human intellect firm enough to withstand excruciating challenges and to ennoble man’s spirit, yet this intellect became totalitarian. How so? What could have gone wrong with reason?

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

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

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

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

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

§3. Myth of Reason

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

§4. Psychoanalysis and Philosophy

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

§5. Plato (c. 427-c. 347 B.C.)

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

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

§6. René Descartes (1596-1650)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§7. David Hume (1711-1776)

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

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

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

§8. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

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

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

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

§9. G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831)

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

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

§10. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

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

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

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

§11. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/04/05/individualism/

2) https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/04/14/totalitarian-reason/

3) https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/04/17/critical-theory/

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

April 11, 2010

The Sickness unto Death

Søren Aaby Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

A Contemporary Interpretation of The Sickness unto Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 10, 2010

Modernity

A Characterization of Modernity

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

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

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

Franz Kafka and Max Weber

§1. Disenchantment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Søren Aaby Kierkegaard

§2. Passion and Despair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friedrich Nietzsche

§3. Death of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl Marx

§4. Alienation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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