Reality, Truth and Pragmatism

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Reality, Truth and Pragmatism

Postby JP » Mon Aug 26, 2002 5:21 pm

I can't remember what got me started on this line of thought, but it has begun to trouble me over the last few days.

I have always viewed knowledge as important to me. I enjoy learning things. I always have. I think (though I am not entirely sure) that I began to study philosophy for the same reason that many other people begin to study religion - I was on a search for truth. I didn't (and still don't) know why exactly - I suppose that it was simply to satisfy my latent human curiosity. However, the more I come to learn, not just about philosophical thought but about the totality of "what-is", the more futile the entire search seems. The "what-is" seems to get further and further away, as I inebriate myself with conflicting opinions and epistemological scepticism.

This harsh realisation had me preoccupied a while ago, until I came to the conclusion that my reality - even if it could never be proven to be infallible or complete - was as good as it was going to get. All I could be certain of was that which I "knew": I cannot postulate on beings or concepts that lie beyond what I know and what I have experienced. I have shined the torch on the small area of "what-is" that lies in front of me, but the rest of reality is certain to remain shrouded in darkness. What is true - beyond my own experiences (or that of mankind if you wish to expand the idea) - may lie forever hidden, which leaves me with little but my own "knowledge", the certainty that I exist and the comfort that I still possess a small, insufficient torch to further illuminate the incomprehensible darkness that surrounds my very being. The reality that is external to myself, and unrealised to myself, is irrelevent. There is only one reality and that is my own - anything external to it is incomprehensible and beyond my concern. That something can be true before I have comprehended and realised it is absurd - there is not some great vat of truth to tap into, external to us. What we know and "what-is" are tied to each other. What I know becomes reality. After all this philosophy, I returned - having gone the long way - to the first philosophical concept I was ever taught: "cogito ergo sum".

While I may seem like an absolute skeptic from the above paragraphs - and an extreme rationalist at that - I would hasten to add that I am not really anything of the sort. I do not deny the faculty of the senses, or the existence of a world beyond our own existence, just that to refer to anything within the totality of "what-is" - from a philosophical standpoint - that lies beyond our own, individual experiences (both rational and empirical) is to point to the ontological darkness that surrounds each of us and make out shapes that may or may not be there. Like the child who goes to bed and imagines monsters in the darkness, so to do we conjour up imaginary being when we point to a reality - as part of this totality of "what-is" - that lies beyond our own.

However, look at my words - "from a philosophical standpoint". If we approach the subject from an angle of philosophical logic, then we will most likely end up with this somewhat defeatist perspective (or at least I did). I am aware that, as someone will doubtless point out, philosophical logic - as a more refined form of human logic - is fallible. However, I cannot point to a more objective logic as a result of my very subjectivity, and therefore this human logic constitutes a part of my knowledge, and is the only tool I have to decipher what my torch illuminates. Our systems of logic may be fallible, but what forms of logic will you employ to prove them false?

Anyway, as I said, a philosophical inclination has led me down this path of mild doubt, yet, at the same time, I am comfortable - in my everyday life - to think in direct contradiction to them. My logic tells me that that which lies beyond my frame of knowledge is not part of my reality, yet I have no problems with believing that, for instance, there are asteroids hurtling around our solar system that no human being has ever seen, and that I certainly haven't seen. My experiences - with what I understand of astronomy - tell me that these asteroids must exist, and so I assume with utter faith that they do, even though no human being may never encounter them. Do only the asteroids that fly past our planet - and are noticed by astronomers - have the right to be considered as having the property (if it can be called that) of that which "is"? Or is it reasonable to postulate that any asteroid not experienced by a human being lies beyond reality and thus can never - in a human sense - be? Does being part of the totality of "what-is", even if it is never experienced by anyone or anything (if other sentient beings exist), give it the "right" to exist?

And this has troubled me. Really, all I can ever know is that which I have experienced as true, and all that can be true can be said to be only that which I know. My reality is shaped by that which I know, and can be shaped by nothing more or less. Reality and knowledge are - in essence - the one and the same. But what about when I cease to exist? When I cease to experience, and when my knowledge - in my state of irrevokable unconsciousness - disappears and so with it, too, goes my frame of reality. The only reality. Or, that is to say, my only realisable reality - the only one I know, the only one I can consider to be true. I die, so too does my possibility for experience, my wealth of knowledge and - from that - reality and truth. There is no reality - no world, no universe, no being, no dasein - beyond death. I die and everything dies with me. You all cease to exist when I do. It becomes immoral to die.

But then I continue to think, and another realisation hits me. For all this which I presume to be true, I cannot say that it effects the way I live my life. I can say with sincerity that much of philosophy has helped me think a new way - mainly to appreciate experiences, objects and people to a degree I hadn't before - but for my transcendent musings, I still live life in complete contradiction to much of the nihilistic rhetoric contained above. It is of no use to me. I consider it true - more or less (it's not a dogmatic theory, I understand where and how it could be fallible) - yet, at the same time, I am not usually conscious of it. I do not need to be. Even if I have all these thoughts bouncing around my brain, it rarely changes my mindstate or behaviour. The world keeps turning, my day-to-day worries are still relevant, and I operate much as I did before.

So then I returned to my original line of thought about the quest for truth and I wondered: "what's the point?". Why do I search for truth? Why do I attempt to expand my concept of reality by pointing my torch further into the blackness that surrounds me? How much of it is likely to affect my life? I realise that everything one comes to know (via experience or any other method) shapes their life in some small way, but why do we all seek truth? That which is real, and which lies beyond our existential horizon? What value, when push comes to shove, does truth actually serve?

And here's where the pragmatism part of the subject becomes relevent. Examining the concept of truth from a pragmatic stance, where do we end up? What value is the knowledge that the Earth revolves around the sun, or that we descended from apes for instance? Can it possibly affect that way we live our lives? Is truth only as valuable as its usefulness (in the pragmatic sense)? Should we only learn - or make an effort to know - that which can directly affect the way we operate? Can truth only be useful in its application to us?

Is finding truth simply a means of satisfying our human curiosity about what lies in the ontological darkness, or is there some more pragmatic modality to it? Can the value truth only be measured in terms of how it affects us, or how useful it is?

Why do you all search for truth?
The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
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Postby thales » Mon Aug 26, 2002 6:08 pm

sure beats working 9 to 5....

smirk

i'm not sure really but i something that springs to mind is a buddhist proverb that goes something like:

if the whole world is your soul what need have you to reproduce

the notion that there is a godhead point somewhere, a place where i have become- fulfilling all that potential i have...that is what drives me to learn

self betterance, because the whole thing works better if you can work with it and not against it...through understanding and knowledge you can chart a "path of least resistance" as it were....ie the best path, not somekinda anti-life retraction you understand..

must dash
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Postby Polemarchus » Fri Sep 06, 2002 9:11 pm

JP,

As you might remember, Wittgenstein ended his "Tractus" with the words:

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

Yet my mind obstinately refuses to be silent. It endlessly asks questions for which I've no right to expect absolute answers. My choice is to either accept incomplete and approximate answers or to give up philosophical speculation entirely. The absence of certainty is the price paid by philosophy for asking these most difficult questions.

The less trivial the statement the more uncertain its truth becomes. Philosophical statements are non-trivial in the extreme. The mathematician's claim that A=A is absolutely true, yet absolutely trivial. An aeronautical engineer's claim that a wing section is sufficiently sturdy to carry the load of an aircraft is less trivial and less certain. A philosopher's claim that nothing lies beyond this life is far less trivial and far less certain.

No matter how refined my philosophical or scientific understanding might become, my ideas will never represent the absolute truth about this world. It's odd that we reserve the most difficult questions for philosophy, those we'd never ask of science, yet at the same time we expect a higher level of certainty from our philosophical answers than we would ever expect from science. This is such an unreasonable expectation!

No finite ethical system, for example, could cover all the infinite number of possible ethical situations in which I might find myself. It would be ludicrous to defer all ethical decisions until we might discover a hypothetically perfect system of ethics. Likewise, if we demanded absolute proof that the aircraft we intend to board is going to land safely, none of us would ever leave the ground. The difference in the analogy of flying is that I have the choice to either fly or remain on the ground. However, I don't have the choice of postponing my life until a perfect ethical or metaphysical theory is discovered. My life can't wait for perfection. If I'm to live at all, my life has to be imperfectly lived at this very moment. Life is a risk, a compromise, and a process of becoming. As long as philosophy has a relevance to this world it will also remain an approximate and uncertain process of becoming.

Michael
"Deux excès. Exclure la raison, n'admettre que la raison" -- Pascal, Pensées
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Postby Polemarchus » Fri Sep 13, 2002 5:34 pm

Questions about Reality and Truth are often a source of angst. Some people would doubtless prefer any answer, even the wrong answer to no answer at all. The answer most reasonable to me is that there is no single answer. This isn't a dismissal of the questions, this is a legitimate answer (though perhaps not a satisfying answer).

Which is more important to you:

To find the correct answer, or
To find an agreeable and satisfying answer?

Your honest answer might prove insightful.

Simon Blackburn (yes him again, sorry!) reviewed the book, Rorty and his Critics. He begans his review with these three wonderful paragraphs:

"If you visit a mighty good school, you might find some big words written over the gate: words such as Truth, Reason, Knowledge, Understanding, or even Wisdom. If the school is old enough and in another country, you might even find a mention of God, though this word may now be an embarrassment, or regarded as purely decorative, or if the word was once there, perhaps it has been erased and something secular substituted. But nobody would want to erase Truth, Reason, and the rest, would they?

Richard Rorty would. Like Nietzsche more than a century ago, he believes that these words have inherited the same illusory magic that once hovered around the idea of a deity. They are supposed to represent something Big. They stand for an ideal: the accurate representation of reality. This reality functions in our minds as a sort of non-human authority, to which we have to answer, and compared with which we are always in danger of falling short. Yet mankind must now realize that there is no such authority. Previously, even when the deity was swept away by the Enlightenment, Truth remained in its place, the last absolute-but now it, too, has to bow out, as the world-historical moment turns, and humanity continues its long journey to emancipation.

That journey, Rorty continues, was once regarded as taking us from ignorance to knowledge, or from darkness to light. But we should no longer hold such a view of our development, for "no area of culture, and no period of history, gets Reality more right than any other." The best that the journey can accomplish is to cement the freedom to speak our minds, and to usher in ever-renewable vocabularies expressing new adventures in self-understanding. For words are tools, and the point of our utterances is not to answer to the Forms or to represent the intrinsic nature of reality, it is to meet our needs. Words are Darwinian adaptations, not for copying but for coping."


You could (hopefully you would) read this entire article at:

http://www.tnr.com/082001/blackburn082001.html

The world reflects our questions back onto us. While it's possible that our answers might tell us something about this world, it's nearly certain that our answers could tell us something about ourselves. As curious as I am to know what lies at the boundaries of our Universe, I'm even more curious to know what it is that asks such questions. And of all that's contained within this world the one unique thing that we have a hope of knowing is ourselves. We view the world from the outside but we inhabit ourselves from the inside. To paraphrase Thomas Nagel, I am the only thing that can say what it is like to be something. Perhaps our school should have these words (from the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi) inscribed over the gate, "Know thyself".

Michael
"Deux excès. Exclure la raison, n'admettre que la raison" -- Pascal, Pensées
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Postby Brad » Fri Sep 13, 2002 7:38 pm

I've read that review. I've read the book. I think Blackburn seriously misread that book.
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Postby JP » Fri Sep 13, 2002 8:12 pm

As usual Michael, very illuminating thoughts. :)

Questions about Reality and Truth are often a source of angst.


Perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but from your emphasis I'm thinking you have some grasp on the "philosophical" (as opposed to the day-to-day) connetation of the word "angst" and I'm hoping that - perhaps - you could help me as I attempt to isolate and understand the angst peculiar to me.

For instance, in my recent exploration of Heidegger's ideas, I have come across his particular interpretation of "angst" (which is in many ways similar to the idea of "despair" offered by Satre and other philosophers) which suggests, in a round about way, that angst itself reveals the "Nothing".

Now, again, I'm not sure how familar you (or anyone else on this board for that matter) are with the terminology of Heidegger, but the Nothing (as opposed to "nothing" in the usual sense) seems to mark the brink of epistemological enquiry - that is, the immovable boundaries to which ontology and existentialism are bound, and thus to which the enquiries of an ontological or existential nature are bound. As soon as we grasp the Nothing, so it goes, we have reached the brink of our possible conception of the totality of what-is and - in such a sense - our Dasein is able at this point - and only at this point - to grasp the nature of being external to it. So, in a round about way, Heidegger seems to be arguing (according to my interpretation of his work anyway) that it is through existential angst that this "Nothing" is revealed to us, and through the understanding of this Nothing, we are able to realise "what-is".

However, my angst (if I should be so temerous as to call my condition that) seems to be the ontological opposite of the angst that Heidegger describes. I seem to realise the boundaries of ontological enquiry (the possible knowledge of the totality of what-is), and this is the very source of my angst: the conception of "Nothing" beyond the limit of "what-is". Heidegger suggests that angst is that which leads one to this boundary of ontological enquiry, whereas - in my case - it is the boundary itself that is the cause of my angst. It is the "Nothing" that makes me anxious, it is not my anxiety - as Heidegger suggests - that reveals[i] the "Nothing".

And this is at the root of my dilema. If the cause of my angst were the same cause as that which Heidegger described, then I am on the path - or at least on [i]a
path - towards ontological lucidity. I become existentially anxious, I grasp the Nothing, I am aware of the boundaries of what-is (as the Nothing is that which seperates the what-is from the what-is-not) and thus I am made aware of the what-is. My angst, by this train of thought, reveals the world to me.

However, in my case, my angst denies me the world and denies me my lucidity (as per my analogy of the what-is being likened to an enveloping darkness, that I can only illuminate so much of, in such small portions at a time). I sense the totality of what is, and then I reach the epistemological boundary. I sense the Nothing, where my conception of being - or my possibility of conceiving being - reaches as end, and it is here that I encounter the Nothing, the darkness of which I describe. And it is this which is the source of my angst, which can offer me no new ontological illumination other than that which has already been illuminated, and that which caused me to arrive at this state of angst in the first place.

Once again, though, I should reiterate that it is not as though I am walking around in a constant state of existential angst, uncertain of what exists in an active, self-imposed state of solopsism, but still - when I turn out the light to go to bed - I am quite often pre-occupied by this thought. My pre-occuptation, though, is purely intellectual. Whether I can find a definative (or even satisfactory) answer to this dilema will not change the way I operate, day to day, in this universe of all-encompassing being and nothingness, though still - as a mathemetician cannot rest properly until he has solved an equation that challenges him: that draws him towards the brink of tautological certainty and then leads him away again - I still feel that I need some certainty, or at least some notion of lucidity with regards to this problem.

Which leads me neatly into the next statement....

Which is more important to you:

To find the correct answer, or
To find an agreeable and satisfying answer?

Your honest answer might prove insightful.


To be perfectly honest I hadn't considered the question until now, though - if I were to answer on the spot - I suppose that I could say that, to some extent, this question represents the root of my dilema.

I wish to be certain, and I wish to be able to grasp reality in all its absoluteness, yet - at the same time - I realise that this is entirely impossible. I do not wish to settle for an "agreeable" answer, though I realise that the further I dig, the more clear it becomes that this is my only option. Thus my angst, if it were to be described in these terms, would amount to the realisation that an answer of absolute certainty is impossible, yet an answer that could be described only as being "agreeable" or "satisfying" is wholly unsatisfactory as well. So then there is a void, where I can grasp at neither one alternative nor the other, and nor can I say, with "good faith", that I should be content with convincing myself into believing that I have attained either.

Similarly, I am not willing to settle for the psychological solution - that is, the reason why I am unwilling to settle for either alternative, or the reason why I am disposed to asking the question in the first place. Even if I should attain this psychological solution, it still brings me no closer to attaining the answer to my original question, nor - to be sure - why the original question should be deemed invalid as a result.

Like Nietzsche more than a century ago, he believes that these words have inherited the same illusory magic that once hovered around the idea of a deity. They are supposed to represent something Big. They stand for an ideal: the accurate representation of reality. This reality functions in our minds as a sort of non-human authority, to which we have to answer, and compared with which we are always in danger of falling short. Yet mankind must now realize that there is no such authority. Previously, even when the deity was swept away by the Enlightenment, Truth remained in its place, the last absolute-but now it, too, has to bow out, as the world-historical moment turns, and humanity continues its long journey to emancipation.


I am inclined to agree - to a point - that perhaps this search for "truth" is based in the assumption that such a thing as "truth" actually exists in the first place, and that - perhaps - this is the cause of my unwinnable battle.

Yet still, regardless of the semantics involved, or in how you try to redefine the terms "truth" or "reality" and so on, you still end up with the cognito. I still think, I still am - is this no basis for a search for truth? Must there not be some existent absolutism for me to pose these questions in the first place? And I'm not just saying this to give you all a quick recourse in Cartesian rationalism, I do so under the belief - misguided or not - that this absolutism is the place from which the search for all other absolutism can begin. If Rorty would have you believe that truth is an illusion - or at least illusory in the sense that it is always one step beyond us, or in some way unattainable and uncomprehensible (if, indeed, there is such a thing as truth to begin with) - then by which perspective and by which notion did he begin from to write what he did? Which illusory type-writer allowed him to manifest his logic into something tangible, that could reveal itself to me in such a fashion?

I am willing to concede that the absolute may be unattainable (which is what set me on the path to writing this post in the first place) but to deny that such a concept exists - or at least to throw severe doubt on its existence - is to, at the very least, nullify his ones existence. Perhaps we do place truth on too high a pedestal, but I still consider it a worthy goal, whether it be acheiveable or not.

Then again, perhaps I should actually go to some effort to locate Rorty's book so as to avoid the risk of misrepresenting his views out of my sheer misunderstanding and misrepresentation of his views. :)

Perhaps our school should have these words (from the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi) inscribed over the gate, "Know thyself".


I would find that most apt. :)

The entire world must begin with the self - as most philosophers, since Descartes, would seem to have concurred - but I'm still not certain that we must limit the world to the self alone. I find self-exploration the most noble of all activities, but there is a sense of pointlessness/impossibility to it if there is not some external world by which to relate it to.

Though perhaps it is this unreasonable desire to understand this relation that started me off on this tangent in the first place......

So then, as Magius would doubtless say, what's your take (open to all and sundry)?
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Postby Brad » Sat Sep 14, 2002 1:25 am

JP

It sounds to me like your waging that epic battle with "Being and Time". Good luck to you, I've only read parts of that book as I find Heidegger's style brain numbing, I can only read him in parts. :D

Nevertheless, you seem to be reading Heidegger through Sartre. This is not a criticism, I read Heidegger through Rorty, Charles Spinoza, Charles Taylor and a host of others. Rorty reads Heidegger through Okrent, and Derrida, for example, reads Nietsche through Heidegger. This is just how we read anything.

But as a result, I don't think you should equate Heideggarian 'angst' with Sartrean 'despair'. You have despair for or about something you know. You have angst when you don't know what that something is. In this sense, anyway, angst is the driving force for your search for truth. This is tricky because sometimes he sees this as ahistorical: we all have this angst, it is simply ignored, and sometimes he says it is historical through and through. In the later writings, he does seem to favor the latter more, the historical aspect of angst, more and more. I'm not sure if this is correct, but what I want to say is that 'despair' is the result of our reaction to the world in the present age, the age of the World Picture, and it is precisely this retreat into the common sense everyday life that Heidegger thinks is mistaken. We shouldn't retreat, we should embrace our finitude, our being-toward-death, because,as you pointed out, it is precisely that which is the clearing for beings to be.

The question is why so many, today, despair and retreat at exactly this point. I think that it involves what Dewey calls the Quest for Certainty and what Heidegger calls the world as a standing reserve that creates this. I'll go into more detail later but he thinks (more precisely, I think he thinks) that any new knowledge we acquire must have some new use for us today, that we must be able to use it in order for us to be satisfied with it. He doesn't believe that this is (only) what we should be doing. He thinks that we should let things be, let the clearing do it's work, and let being be.

I'll try to get more in later.
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Postby Polemarchus » Sun Sep 15, 2002 7:05 pm

JP,

In his Contributions to Philosophy Heidegger wrote, "Making itself intelligible is suicide for philosophy." In this light perhaps we shouldn't be too hard on ourselves for not cracking his code. :wink:

A few years ago I met a pleasant and interesting fellow on the night train from Venice to Vienna. He was a Swiss graduate student of philosophy. In the course our late-night discussions he told me about a little game they had at his university. The instructor would cut out slips of paper, half of the slips were imprinted with quotes by Heidegger and the other half were nonsense. The slips were placed in a box and passed around to the students. The object of this game was to pick a slip from the box and decide if it was Heidegger or nonsense. Blackburn makes this similar observation:

"(Heidegger’s) legacy is nicely exhibited on the web at http://www.elsewhere.org/cgi-bin/postmodern. Here you can read an original essay, every visit, written by The Postmodernist Generator, a program developed by a student in the Monash University Department of Computer Science and "modified slightly by Pope Dubious Provenance XI using the Dada Engine, a system for generating random text from recursive grammars." The Dada Engine is not quite calibrated to 1930s Heidegger--its lexicon is proper English, for example--but one senses how easily it could be."

It is telling however, that despite his murky and mystical style of presentation, his ideas are still debated. My reading Heidegger is a bit like the Gary Larson greeting card where a guy is talking to his dog. Only when you open the card is it revealed what the dog actually understands, “Blah, blah, blah, Rex, blah, blah, Rex, blah… That is, interspersed among Heidegger's “blah, blah, blah” are some strikingly original and interesting ideas. So, with the caveat in mind that Heidegger isn't my particular forte, let me put a toe in the water. (Unless otherwise noted, the following quotes are from his What is Metaphysics?.)

The concept of infinity brings as much wonder and comment to mathematicians as the concept of nothingness does to metaphysicians. “The question of nothing pervades the whole of metaphysics.” Heidegger grounds his concept of being, on the nothing. We bounce into being by forcing ourselves into repeated collisions with nothingness. “Attunement (Stimmung - one of his big ideas) in which man is brought before the nothing, occurs rarely enough and only for the moment in the fundamental mood of anxiety. This anxiety is not fear, it's a feeling of being ill at ease.” Anxiety is the oppression of indifference; it is a pervasive mood.

“In the clear night of the nothing of anxiety the original openness of beings as such arises: that they are beings and not nothing.” “Only on the ground of the original revelation of the nothing can human existence approach and penetrate beings.” “Dasein means: being held out into the nothing.” “Without the original revelation of the nothing (there is), no selfhood and no freedom.” “This nothing does not merely serve as the counter-concept of beings; rather, it originally belongs to their essential unfolding…” “Must we hover in this anxiety constantly in order to exist at all?” His answer is yes, we must! But he allows that at least this anxiety could remain in the shadows. “It is only sleeping…(and)…can awaken at any moment. It is always ready, though it seldom springs.” Life is lived as a being-toward-death (Sein-zum-Tode).

So JP, my reading of Heidegger says that to exist authentically (Eigentlichkeit – another of his big ideas) we must live continuously under the shadow of a personal death. It’s not simply that Socrates is mortal, it’s the stinging fact that I am a mortal, that breathes authentic life into me. I am perpetually sitting in an electric chair with the clock of anxiety ticking in the background. The Governor isn’t going to call with a last second pardon. There is no Governor.

Similarly, some men report that they felt most alive when they were close to death in battle, with shells exploding and bullets tumbling all around them. As others nearby are blown to bits they can hear their own heart beating out, “Alive!...Alive!...Alive!,” to which their consciousness replies, “Why?…Why?…Why? This is how I understand Heidegger’s Dasein. “Metaphysics is the basic occurrence of Dasein. It is Dasein itself.” Da-sein is literally “there-being.” We are physically thrown into this world.

Though Heidegger was Sartre's mentor, Sartre disagreed with most of the above ideas. They both agree however, that we are thrown into this world. Sartre’s despair and nausea follow from the realization that he is alone and free in this world. There is no God to which one might appeal for help. Man has no excuses for himself. He is condemned to be free. He must choose; not to choose is also to choose. Man cannot find an omen in this world by which to orient himself, “Because…man will interpret the omen to suit himself.”
(Existentialism and Human Emotions).

Heidegger’s calm background of anxiety, his angst, is quite unlike Sartre’s despair and nausea (Sartre and Simone Beauvoir had the rather odd habit of using vomit as a literary device). Ultimately, life rather than death is Sartre’s source of nausea. I’m reminded here by a quote of Thomas Nagel:

”The only reason to fear death is if one survives it.”

Heidegger likewise doesn’t appear to dread the nothingness of death. He uses nothingness as a backdrop for his authentically lived life. JP, your anxiety about nothingness appears to be distinct from both Heidegger’s and Sartre’s concepts of angst and despair.

Though philosophy is a wide field of ideas, you might have noticed from my past posts that I have an interest as well in the subject of nothingness. I’m driven more by curiosity than by anxiety, but nonetheless, you might find something I’ve already written on the subject interesting. Rather than repeat what I’ve written I’d ask you to please refer to these, specifically:

http://www.ilovephilosophy.com/phpbb/vi ... t=#1564643

http://www.ilovephilosophy.com/phpbb/vi ... t=#1563248

It’s amazing how much philosophers have managed to say about Nothing. As an example I’d mention Robert Nozick’s book Philosophical Explanations; especially the chapter titled, “Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing.” As an example, one of his arguments for Something goes like this:

There are an infinite number of ways that something can exist, but only one singular way that Nothing can exist. If each of these possible somethings and the one possible Nothing have roughly the same statistical probability of occurring, then it's far more probable that there's Something rather than Nothing.

Though I think about Nothingness, I rarely think about dying, and I find ghoulish the trappings of death (funeral homes, cemeteries, etc.). Heidegger gives me the creeps with his insistence that we perpetually live in the shadow of our death. It's been suggested that his view is only fit for monks who sleep each night in their coffins and who've nothing better to do than prepare daily for their death. I realize that my life is incredibly fragile. I live my life with one foot on a banana peel and the other on a roller skate. But Fernando Savater rightly reminds us of a quote by Montaigne:

“We do not die because we are ill, we die because we are alive.

It's odd that Heidegger asks us to approach Nothingness. I've a semi-eternity of Nothingness behind me and a similar stretch of it lying before me, the very last thing I want to do with my life is to spend it getting closer to Nothingness! It will find me all too soon without my having to go look for it. Why try to conjure only a pale model of nothingness when we've only to think back to the time just beyond our birth to real thing? Life is a but a brief salient riding on a sea of nothingness. Of course it's impossible to understand nothingness from the vantagepoint of nothingness. The only understanding of nothingness necessarily comes from the vantagepoint of a Something. It's said that the best view of Warsaw is from a certain high-rise Stalinesque government building, for only from this vantage does one have a view of Warsaw without the ugly high-rise Stalinesque government building. :lol:

Heidegger does correctly remark that we approach Nothingness through boredom and indifference. I despair when I think of the masses who exist Zombie-like in front of their televisions; so devoid of passion that they willingly exchange their life for the role of a spectator. At the other extreme is the equally numb existence of those who see life as a void to be filled with constant activity. This is the life of Sisyphus with his unending task of rolling his rock up the mountain. School – work – marriage – work – children – work – vacation - work - retirement - golf, finally followed by the deathbed sigh, “Ah well, at least I got something done.”

Science might eventually succeed in extending our lives. Though the chance that we'll live to see the day is remote, one day it might become possible to temporarily thwart death by uploading our consciousness into a machine. In any case, nothingness is a given. We sprang from nothing and we shall return to nothing, though it will never be the case that we were nothing. All men exist; we are a generic something by virtue of our birth. But beyond this genetic something we each have within us the possibility to make ourselves into more than a mere kit of cooperative and replicating cells. We create essence from existence by way of our passions. Rage at your mortality, love a woman, smile at each of life’s pleasant discoveries; every passion negates your nothingness.

I mentioned Richard Rorty in my last post. His work is a wonderful lead-in to questions of Relativism and Reality. To say that his ideas inspire debate is an understatement. I wanted to say a few words about Rorty’s ideas but I’m afraid I’m out of time for this week.

Brad, would you be so kind as to rough-out Rorty’s position? I think JP might be interested to hear his ideas, such as, "Reality...is...just another of the obsequious names of God." Brad, would you also explain why you think Blackburn misread Rorty and His Critics? Has he misread Rorty, or has he misread Rorty’s critics?

Thanks,
Michael
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Postby JustinFelux » Tue Sep 17, 2002 1:26 am

Well, call me quixotic, naive, idealistic, or whatever you like, but I believe that everything has an explanation, and that the universe is a coherent, intelligible system. I believe there is a truth, and I believe in the objectivity of reality. I am not a fan of skepticism, relativism, or subjectivism. At the core of it, my convictions about objectivity may simply be for pragmatic reasons--or maybe they just amount to blind articles of faith. However, I believe the alternatives are intellectually lazy, and usually result in philosophical atrophy.
And there is just no way you can disagree with that.
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Postby Brad » Tue Sep 17, 2002 8:38 am

Not ignoring this. Just haven't had time to reread the review yet.
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Postby JP » Sun Sep 22, 2002 8:12 pm

Polemarchus:

I think, having read what you've had to say on the matter, that yes, assuming your interpretation of Heidegger's work is accurate (and lets face it, as you suggested, his "esoteric" manner of writing leaves much room for interpretation), that my anxiety is slighty different from the conception of anxiety that he paints.

My anxiety has nothing to do with death (though, in a round about way, it may in a sense). It, predominantly, has to do with my inability to conceive "being" in its broadest sense, and that all approaches to the dilema end in nothingness, a sense of "what-is-not". And, as I have said previously, it is not to do with my own interpetation of skeptical rationalism, as I do not make any attempt to deny the faculty of the senses, nor do I divide the world up dualistically into the internal and the external. I am not a solopsist who seeks some tautological certainty before he can accept the totality of "what-is", I just simply grapple with the division between existence and non-existence. What is something when it is said to have the quality of existence?

My own conception of "Nothingness" or "non-existence" - which exists quite apart from my own conception of death, that I am rarely troubled by - seems to dull that "which-is", rather than illuminate it as Heidegger suggests that it should. Perhaps my mind has been perversed by what could be described as the "esoteric, metaphysical nonsense" that Heidegger has written (and I could quite easily describe it in such terms after visiting that randomly generated essay site that you linked) but, regardless of how the seed was planted, the oak tree continues to trouble me.

But I fear at this point that I am being too melodramatic. I may be prone to existing in an apathetic haze much of the time - in defiance of my better judgement or wishes - but it would be wrong for me to attribute this to my ontological concerns, which is why I included the "pragmatic" part of my post. An inability to grasp existence may leave me with "Nothing", but my day-to-day attitude does not mirror this realisation at all. The totality of what-is may be out of my reach, but I do not - when all is said and done - allow it to affect the way I live.

Your thoughts on death, and the subsequent importance of a "carpe-diem" attitude, however, are particularly poignant, and I agree with them entirely.

JP

It sounds to me like your waging that epic battle with "Being and Time". Good luck to you, I've only read parts of that book as I find Heidegger's style brain numbing, I can only read him in parts.


Well, I still haven't gotten around to reading Being and Time yet (I intend to when I get the chance), though I have read chapters of it that were presented in a collection of Existentialist literature that I recently picked up, which is where all this came from.

I'm not sure whether actually reading Being and Time in entirity would clear up these concerns, though, or just confuse me further. :-?

Nevertheless, you seem to be reading Heidegger through Sartre.


Hadn't considered it previously, but in hindsight I suppose that I may have (given that I read Satre much before I read Heidegger).

I don't think you should equate Heideggarian 'angst' with Sartrean 'despair'.


Yes, I was probably wrong to quote the two concepts as being identical in that sense, but the similarities - as I see them anyway - are still strong enough for them to be mentioned side-by-side.

As you rightly pointed out, angst concerns that which we do not know, but - to a certain extent - despair does too. Despair involves an all too lucid awareness of our "world-picture" as you put it, but it is precisely this lucidity that creates the uncertainty - in our quest for the absolute - responsible for despair in the first place. Certainty - or "certain knowledge" anyway - cannot give birth to despair, not as I see it anyway. Perhaps Camus' concept of Absurdity gives us a more clear picture of what "despair" is (or perhaps I'm just reading Satre through Camus? :D).

We look at the world, we may see it in all its glory for what it really is, but that is not enough. We still ask questions concerning our universe, concerning that nature of what-is, that cannot be answered. It is this lucidity in our conception of our "world-picture" that gives birth to our awareness of the Absurdity of existence, and thus the subsequent possiblility of despair. I may have misinterpreted Satre's original intentions here, but, as I have read him, despair is the awareness of - in knowing what we know with such lucidity - the same lucid awareness of that which we cannot know. We cannot despair over what we know, rather - in the Satrean sense - this knowledge affords us the awareness of what we do no know, and it is this lack of knowledge that plunges us into despair, in the context of our world picture.

I apologise if the above thoughts are a bit messy, but it is a tad late here....

he thinks (more precisely, I think he thinks) that any new knowledge we acquire must have some new use for us today, that we must be able to use it in order for us to be satisfied with it.


I would agree in a sense.

I will never grasp anything that I'm talking about here - there is no state of enlightenment for me to stumble upon - so I am pragmatic, and ask whether, given that none of what I say here is of any real consequence to my day-to-day living, the answers to any of the questions I pose here can afford me any other tangible benefit other than peace of mind.

I would suggest that they cannot, which is why I try - insofar as I can be conscious of it - to live by the "carpe-diem" mentality, and leave these questions without answer for as long as it takes to resolve them satisfactorily, without needing to invent concepts like "God" to satisfy my curiosity.

If I find a satisfactory answer then great, if not then I refuse to allow this uncertainty to adversarily affect the way I live.

Well, call me quixotic, naive, idealistic, or whatever you like, but I believe that everything has an explanation, and that the universe is a coherent, intelligible system. I believe there is a truth, and I believe in the objectivity of reality.


Once again, I do not belive that there is no such thing as reality, or that it is in any way "unrealisable" and I would agree - to a certain extent - that most of what-is is coherent and intelligable (to a degree).

Though, perhaps this is where my confusion becomes apparent. I can accept the concepts of truth and reality, and of these being made "coherent", but at the same time I cannot accept these things as being in any way certain, or of anything specifically being given the title of being "true" or "real". I am currently mired in the void which seperates an acceptance of truth, and the denial of anything being true.

Difficult to explain, especially at this time of morning, so the best I can do is to refer you to earlier statements for some sort of explanation on why I feel this is the case.

However, I believe the alternatives are intellectually lazy, and usually result in philosophical atrophy.


Actually, I would have to disagree with you here.

I feel that it would be intellectually lazy to accept truth at face value, and to not question - or doubt - those things which we consider to be true.
The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
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Postby Polemarchus » Sun Sep 22, 2002 9:07 pm

JP,

Thanks for yet another thoughtful post. I've only a few minutes to post this reply. I hope to post a longer reply when I return to this mountain-top (and my only Internet connection) next Thursday.

I did want to briefly mention a short paper I recently read on the subject of Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity, written by Thomas W. Clark. You may read this paper at: http://world.std.com/~twc/death.htm

Clark draws out the idea that our personal sense of time ends the moment we lose consciousness. If this is true then a one-second loss of unconsciouness would be perceived (actually not-percieved) no differently than a ten-billion year loss of consciousness. Even if you don't agree with his novel (at least to me) conclusions (I'm still mulling them over), Clark does speak clearly to the point that we never will experience death. He goes to some length to insist that we not even think in terms of "nothingness," as if it we were ascribing to it some positive qualities. His "Rip Van Winkle" thought experiment is a bit of fun as well.

If you do spend ten-minutes reading this paper, you might as well read the equally fascinating comment / criticism posted at the end by Michael Shleyfer. I found interesting the idea he is "toying" with; there might be only one experiencer in the universe that is simply "taking turns" experiencing through each of us. He mentions that if this is the case then anything I do to another person might eventually be experienced by me. In other words, what we do to another we do to ourself. Gosh, this is a familiar thought for me! I really do have to run now.

Michael
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