“Passion” spent, “Doubt” in the wings (redux)

We finish our rapid Passion for Wisdom flyover of the history of philosophy today & tomorrow in CoPhi. (I’m feeling a little nostalgic about that this morning, having nearly decided to shelve this book next semester in favor of Warburton’s Little History or Law’s glossy Philosophy(What do you think, Shawn?)

Russell & WittgensteinFreud & BergsonPhenomenology & Existentialism

(HusserlHeideggerSartreCamus), Feminist philosophy, Postmodernism

New Age philosophy

It’s been a too rapid flyover, really. Time keeps on slipping slipping slipping… But we’ll pick the story up again with JMH back at Year One (C.E.), at a doubter’s pace, next week. Indulge me in one last wave to the late Prof. Solomon, whose wisdom has been an inspiration.

So many names, ideas, links… Where to begin?

The Russell-Wittgenstein story is pretty compelling, especially as rendered graphically in Logicomix [WittRusslyingwhich reminds me of turtles.

Both Russell and Wittgenstein were questers for certainty early in their thinking careers, and both came to renounce (or at least doubt)  that goal as unattainable and unnecessary. Russell would become a prominent public intellectual, speaking and writing for popular audiences about happiness, marriage, pacifism, and other topics far more engaging for most of us than mathematical logic and the atomic structure of sentences. His Conquest of Happiness was a highlight of our “Secret of Life” course last Fall.

The wise man will be as happy as circumstances permit, and if he finds the contemplation of the universe painful beyond a point, he will contemplate something else instead.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s version of Existentialism is worth a moment of our time, too.

Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality. What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is.

Well, we simply are in any case. Who says human nature requires a creator? Sartre seems to me to lack imagination on this point. If he thinks he’s “nothing” he can speak for himself. Or he could have, back when he was still something.

I confess I’m not Sartre’s biggest fan. But then, I first encountered him this way:

Sartre‘s point about freedom seems to be that if we’re ever free to choose, then we always are. But note: “free to choose” does not mean free to guarantee the objective enactment in the world of all our choices. This is about commitment, not about results.

The alarm sounds at 5 a.m., and if I’ve not already been awakened (as Thoreau said) by my “genius” then I face a choice. On a cold winter’s morn, especially, the path of least resistance is clear. But if I choose to act as a goal-oriented striver I’ll resist the easy path, I’ll opt for the cold floor and the bleary stumble down the hall towards coffee and life. If I’ve read my Sartre, I’ll represent this scenario to myself as an instance of my freedom: essence-creation in progress.

But I’ll also fret a bit about objectifying myself as the sort of thing that acts as a goal-oriented striver, a thing without other possibilities as well, and may in consequence undermine my own efforts.

And if I’m in “bad faith,” I might think: I have to get up, I have to go to school, I have to pass this course, get my degree, get my job and my spouse and my 2.37 children. In other words, I’ll think of myself as an object with certain fixed attributes. I’ll not embrace my “dreadful” freedom.

Dreadful? In our tradition, freedom is supposed to be liberating. It’s one of the conditions whereby we get to pursue our personal happiness. Monsieur Sartre, no apologist for anyone’s tradition, has little use for our American brand of flourishing. The search for happiness, too, seems on his view to be in bad faith. It’s not at all clear why a preference for seriousness and solemnity should be any different. But I should cut him and his confreres some slack, their country was being overrun by Nazis when they came up with this philosophy of extremes. No wonder they were full ofangst. But if I were to spend a smoky cafe session with them I’d still ask: So, freedom to choose is also freedom to fret. Is thatreally  so “dreadful”?

Freud’s pro/anti Enlightenment duality is intriguing, if not entirely convincing. Same for Henri Bergson’s elan vital“an original common impulse which explains the creation of all living species” now thought by most philosophers to lack scientific respectability as an evolutionary alternative to Darwinian natural selection. Nonetheless, William James was much impressed by his French contemporary’s critique of intellectualism and other ideas about time and the immediacy of perception.

“It is like the breath of the morning and the song of birds. And to me it tells of reality itself and not merely of what previous dusty-minded professors have thought about reality.”

Heidegger is more (ironically) tainted by “inauthenticity” now than when I first encountered Sein und Zeit, but he was right– in spite of himself– to insist that das Man is too prone to dissembling the unshakably-personal implications of mortality.

Albert Camus cut to the heart of it all: Is life worth living? If not, why live? His own answer, like Sisyphus’, was a defiant Oui! And then he died, in a tragic automobile accident, at age 46. Absurd.*

Just like those aspects of postmodernism and the New Age that would divorce all our talk from the search for truth.

Feminists have usefully challenged the old boy domain of professional philosophy with “Where are the women?” Increasingly they are here, in our departments of philosophy. But JMH will show us that they’ve been here all along, in lesser numbers of course, but we haven’t been paying sufficient attention. (If we had been, we’d all know the names of Hypatia, Anne Royal, Ernestine Rose, Margaret Fuller…)

Where to conclude? It’s too soon to think about that.

2 Responses to ““Passion” spent, “Doubt” in the wings (redux)”

  1. Dean Says:

    I read your blog this morning and your comments about Sartre inspired me to get solemn and serious about my happiness. For me, fun these days comes a little too easily. Great books, friends, family, music, doggies, etc.

    I’m not saying things are always easy but if I tossed in a good dose of guilt and suffering with my happiness, perhaps it would seem more worthwhile because, according to the Christian view of evil, how can I really know good without death, starvation, genocide, and the Country Music Video Awards?

    Maybe I’ll just have my bartender periodically slap me in the face during happy-hour while I’m watching CMT. Yeah, that’s the ticket. My beer tastes better already.

  2. osopher Says:

    An orchestrated slap in the face seems less real, somehow. But I know what you mean: when life exceeds expectations, when the thought of an afterlife sounds superfluous, you have to wonder what you’re missing – besides guilt, fear, self-loathing…

    So, I’m working on “The Happy Atheist” (or maybe that’ll just be a chapter in “The Happy Pragmatist”). My thesis will be that you CAN know the good without a surfeit of misery. Maybe I should start a church?

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