Posts Tagged ‘Camus’

Existence in extremis: mad as hell

October 24, 2012

Jean-Paul Sartre, his companion Simone de Beauvoir, and their cohort Albert Camus were Resistance fighters as well as French intellectuals.  That’s important to remember, when considering the extremity of some of their statements. They were up against the wall, with Nazis in the parlor. And they’re on tap today in CoPhi, along with Tim Crane on mind and body (“How could a piece of soft tissue think and feel?”) and more report presentations. [Sartre, Camus @dawn… roads to freedom… deB SEP, IEP… “Stand By Your Man: The strange liaison of Sartre and Beauvoirtrees and bridges…]

It is arresting to realize that when we get mad and then busy (as Bill McKibben says we must), it’s all at the instigation and the behest of that hunk of soft tissue between our ears: an unlikely candidate for freedom and resistance, and yet it’s fundamentally who and what we are, when suitably harnessed to a motive agent like a body. Like? What else is like a body, in a way capable of executing events in a world?

So, to some of those extreme Gallic statements:


  • “So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales!There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS–OTHER PEOPLE!”
  • “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. “Life has no meaning a priori … It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.”
  • “Life has no meaning, the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.”
  • “Words are loaded pistols.”
  • “Life begins on the other side of despair.”
  • “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.”
  • “There is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art.”
  • “An individual chooses and makes himself.”
  • “If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I’m still waiting, it’s all been to seduce women basically.”
  • “It is disgusting — Why must we have bodies?”
  • “I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.”
  • “Life is a useless passion.”
  • “There is only one day left, always starting over: It is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.”

And so it goes. Picture him dropping his verbal cluster-b0mbs in a dingy Parisian cafe, ringed by his own unfiltered smoke and an adoring cultish audience, all wondering if he and his confreres would live to fight another day. “Useless passion”? Generations of Sartre’s politically (if not metaphysically) free French successors might disagree. But removed from that context, I find these weaponish words hard to love.

de Beauvoir:

  • “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
  • “She was ready to deny the existence of space and time rather than admit that love might not be eternal.”
  • “A man attaches himself to woman — not to enjoy her, but to enjoy himself. ”
  • “If you live long enough, you’ll see that every victory turns into a defeat.”
  • “I am incapable of conceiving infinity and yet I do not accept finity.”
  • “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.”
  • “I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life. I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have loneliness, to work much and write good books, to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish… You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger.”
  • “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.”
  • “Fathers never have exactly the daughters they want because they invent a notion a them that the daughters have to conform to.”
  • “Why one man rather than another? It was odd. You find yourself involved with a fellow for life just because he was the one that you met when you were nineteen.”
  • “Self-consciousness is not knowledge but a story one tells about oneself.”

Some stories ring truer than others though, no? De Beauvoir rings truer than Sartre, most of the time, for me. And Albert Camus with his Sisyphean view of life offers the starkest challenge when he says the ultimate question in philosophy is that of suicide. “Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” More coffee! It makes me happy, and it’s the braver choice. But no room for cream, please.

Camus also said

  • “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
  • “There are causes worth dying for, but none worth killing for.”
  • “I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.”
  • “Always go too far, because that’s where you’ll find the truth.”
  • “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”

More on him tomorrow.

It’s midterm report presentation time. Dreaming and “Lord of the Rings” were good on Monday, as were yesterday’s reports. Caleb’s song about schadenfreude (or something similar) was terrific, “Philosophy Feud” was fun, Alex and Garrett did a good job delineating the differences between philosophy and psychology, and it was strange to see myself interviewed and impersonated. (Do I really do that many ums and y’knows?) Good job, Paul, Journey, and Landy. You were way more accurate than some Sidelines reporters I’ve spoken with. And that beaming smile Paul projected for me? That’s just how it was, the day they finally mustered me into the Philosophy Club. Unlike Groucho and Woody, I’m happy to belong to any club that would have me for a member.

Speaking of extreme statements: in EEA we’ll discuss the Green Generation, Climate Rage, and mild-mannered McKibben (whom I recall meeting at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, in the very week of Older Daughter’s birth) at his rhetorical wits’ end (“This is Fucked Up“) over our collective failure to confront and address climate change. Then Julianne will talk to us about greening sports stadia etc. Then, maybe, I’ll be ready for the Series. Go Giants!

“The point is to live,” said Sisyphus

April 26, 2011

And then he died, in a car wreck. Age 46. Absurd, no?

It’s the last day of class (again)  in Intro to Philosophy, before exams next week, so some of us are happy. But the last day is also always a little bittersweet. Seems we just get started, then before you know it comes the time we have to say good-bye. But, I’m so glad we had this time together

Logicomix concludes. Russell turns from his obsession with the foundations of mathematics to the larger search for the human “conquest of happiness.” Not that math can’t make a mathematician happy… but we’re not all mathematicians. We are all human. We mustn’t confuse our “maps” with reality, or our certainties with heaven.

Russell seems to have been happy, at last, with the ultimate uncertainties of living. He didn’t stop analyzing, but he did stop “deadening ze emotions.” He rejected the pessimism and “unrestrained voluptuousness” young Wittgenstein had triggered, and found redemptive meaning in love and compassion. He found joy in paternity.

Sisyphus was happy too, according to Camus. (“One must consider Sisyphus happy.”) Did he  understand the secret of life to be meaningful work? Any work can be made meaningful enough to make life worth living, seems to be his point, for those who throw themselves into their lives and help others.

“The point is to live,” said Camus, before his life ended so abruptly. His end punctuates his point: meaning is to be sought in the actual living of our lives and not in the hard particulars of our dying, “behind the wheel” or wherever. We must consider him no longer happy, but also no longer seeking. I’ll bet he’d get a laugh, though, out of the recent controversy in France over his mortal remains. So useless to ask him why, throw a kiss and say good-bye. (I don’t know why Steely Dan suddenly sounds like existentialism to me. More absurdity, I s’pose.)

Heidegger talked a lot about being thrown, too. [That’s Simon Critchley on geworfenheit, or “thrownness”… and here he is on learning to die and other fun stuff.] Evidently he threw himself into his work for the Reich, and lately is reaping the reward of a  bad reputation. His being-in-the-world, his Dasein, has departed. There’s no longer any there worth Being, there. [heroes & villains]

Jean-Paul Sartre said we exist before we acquire any specific or essential identity, leaving us either dreadfully or bracingly free (depending on attitude) to invent ourselves. But it’s very hard to be free in good faith, since our perpetual tendency is to objectify ourselves and one another. But you can’t be a free person in the same way an inkwell is an inkwell. Well, duh.

Here’s Sartre hosting Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion.

Sartre’s paramour Simone de Beauvoir pushed him to place his abstract talk about freedom in its real world social contexts, and to acknowledge the additional patriarchal obstacles in the way of women’s liberation.

[Solomon: From Existentialism to Postmodernism]

Postmodernists say philosophy, defined as the search for truth, is moribund. But New Agers, even the looniest, show there’s still an appetite and an audience for wisdom pursued passionately, a hunger for philosophy only living can sate.

Postmodernism‘s strange claim is that there is no truth, only “discourse”; and New Age philosophy sponsors various “loony-tunes” attempts to feed a nonetheless-encouraging hunger for philosophy in our time. But have they got a secret?

[What the [bleep’]… The SecretOprahreviewWhy People Believe Weird ThingsShermer @TED]

Our authors get it right at the end: We need to be not more clever (or weird) but, rather, better listeners. May the conversations and the examination of life continue.

And with that, we ring down the curtain on another semester of Intro to Philosophy. I hope everyone takes this away:

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

-Bertrand Russell, The Value of Philosophy

And as promised, Mr. Einstein gets the last word: “The important thing is to never stop questioning.”

Critchley, R.I.P.

April 14, 2010

That’s Critchley’s book we’re putting to rest for the semester today in Intro, not Simon himself. He’s a step ahead of us on that anyway, in his Book of Dead Philosophers. The last entry is

Simon Critchley


Exit, pursued by a bear.

His pre-posthumous “last words” make it clear that the point of examining philosophers’ exits was not merely to indulge  a morbid curiosity, but to help us stand more fully in the light that casts the shadow of mortality, to confront the terror of annihilation that enslaves us and free ourselves from it. No easy task, but well worth tackling. (And as we were saying in A&S yesterday, it is the project of a non-theistic spirituality.) To philosophize is to learn to love that difficulty. Or, to learn to die. Or live. Same coin.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Hans-Georg Gadamer. Asked to comment on 9/11, at age 102, he said: “people cannot live without hope; that is the only thesis I would defend without any restriction.” About his limited mobility he said: “Thank God, one does not have to think with one’s legs.” Well, maybe he didn’t.

Jacques Lacan. Last words:  “I’m obstinate. I’m dying.”

Theodor Adorno. Another mountain-climbing philosopher with a weak heart. Supposedly no prude, he was unable to enjoy being covered in flower petals (and etc.) by three uninhibited women students in the unbuttoned ’60s. Sad.

Emmanuel Levinas. A French P.O.W. held by the Germans, he was originally drawn to Heidegger but recoiled from the discovery of the latter’s Nazi affiliation and tried to invert his philosophy of authenticity. Death is not that by virtue of which the self becomes authentic, but is rather [an] ever-unknowable event… death is not mine.

Jean-Paul Sartre. What a strange thing for an atheist existentialist to say:

I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here.

Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion ought to have asked him about that.

Simone de Beauvoir. Sartre’s “Beaver,” groundbreaking feminist, close observer of aging as a widening of the gap between subjective and objective self-knowledge. Lying about one’s age is in extremely bad faith.

Hannah Arendt. Heidegger’s lover (talk about “banality of evil”!), but still regarded as a philosopher of integrity who was quite right to notice that “natality” has been too long neglected. The symmetry of death and birth is obvious. Who will write The Book of Newborn Philosophers? Does Alison Gopnik’s Philosophical Baby count?

Maurice Merleau-Ponty. A very sensible phenomenologist. The remedy for death is not to turn away in fright, but to move through it and back to our elemental vitality. Back to the middle of the bright field, away from the abyss. Just remember it’s there, and waiting patiently for you.

W.V.O. Quine. I met him in a kitchen once, as an undergrad. He was talking with Wilfrid Sellars, trying to remember what state he was in (Missouri, semi-inebriation), and discoursing on the futility of metaphysics. He was a fascinating and talented guy, but a philosopher without a question mark on his keyboard is as close to an oxymoron– or just moron– as I can imagine.

Simone Weil. I don’t think she meant to renounce her will a la Schopenhauer, but not eating will achieve the same result. Sad to think of her last hungry words celebrating “the joy and spiritual signification of the feast.”

A.J. Ayer. His near-death experience led this confirmed atheist to speculate on the persistence of consciousness after death, but he said it didn’t incline him to re-consider the god-hypothesis. Oxygen deprivation will lead people to say interesting things. I love his wife’s comment: “Freddie has got so much nicer since he died.”

Albert Camus. “The point is to live.” His life ended in a pointless car crash in the year of Simon Critchley’s birth. He was 44. We must imagine him no longer happy. But I’ll bet he’d get a laugh out of the recent controversy over his mortal remains.

Roland Barthes. The “Death of the Author” author said aging was “slow suicide,” and then he demonstrated his meaning. A teacher to the end.

Donald Davidson. Not the Fugitive Poet, but the author of the influential “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.”  Intriguing perspective: freedom  and determinism are not pulling in opposite directions… the meaning of death depends upon our freely chosen attitude towards it.

John Rawls. Justice is fairness, and fairness requires the  disregard of our particular identities. Sounds incontestable, until you  really think about it. But nobody’s come up with a better theory so far.

Michel Foucault. Michael Pollan’s twin, separated at birth? Life can be a work of  art… for better or worse.

Jean Baudrillard. “The very fact of your absence makes the world distinctly less worthy of being lived in.” Nice line.

Jacques Derrida. If Critchley’s right, I’ve been picking on him– as Post-modern Deconstruction‘s most visible target– too much all these years. “The dead live on, they live on within us… wherever a philosopher is read, he or she is not dead.” Another nice line.

Bye, Simon.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Some of you have been on unofficial Spring sabbatical. See you in class.

unspent passion

April 5, 2010

First, I have to say: some of you thought Good Friday should have been a university holiday. I think today should be. It’s Opening Day! (Opening Night in Boston last night didn’t really count, though it was a terrific game– 9-7 Sox.) But, barring viral relapse, I’ll see you in class.

Today we officially finish reading– though probably not talking about– the philosophers and ideas canvassed in Passion for Wisdom. Bertrand Russell, for one. Jennifer Hecht* notes that when Russell read Mill, the scales fell. [Value of PhilosophyNot-good Fridayaction herobday]

(*NOTE TO INTRO STUDENTS: check out Hecht’s Doubt and give me your feedback. Would this be a useful supplementary text in future Intro courses?)

And Ludwig Wittgenstein. “The world is everything that is the case,” begins his portentous (pretentious?)Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. On young Wittgenstein’s view, our words should aim to picture the world semantically and structurally. What we can’t faithfully replicate of the world in words, we should shut up about. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” He really thought he’d said it all, that is, all that could be meaningfully said. So he stopped philosophizing in public, for quite some time. But he didn’t stop thinking. Wittgenstein II would re-surface years later with the posthumous Philosophical Investigations.

And too many others to discuss adequately in a single class, including

Freud, who questioned our ability to fulfill the Socratic challenge (“Know Thyself”) without significant help from psychoanalysis and (by implication) neuroscience with his belief that the mind (brain) is analyzable in terms of neurology, energy circuits, and the language of physics (along with lots of couch-time and therapeuic delving into personal history).

Bergson, who said concepts and language are static and one-sided… we distort and deform the world when we use them to try and arrest its inexorable movement.

Whitehead, the “process philosopher” who thought too highly of Platonic, eternal ideals but who made compensatory sense by shifting to talk of events coming into being through patterns instead of eternal, unchanging objects as most real. Nature itself is continuously creative, novel, imaginative so philosophy should be correspondingly and poetically flexible.

Heidegger, linguistic innovator (Dasein, Being-in-the-World, das Man) and (it turns out) Nazi fellow-traveler who nonetheless spoke truly when he defined personal authenticity in terms of the acknowledgement not only that people die but that I will. Nothing shameful in that.

Sartre, who said it’s “bad faith” to shirk your freedom… and his friend de Beauvoir, who led a procession of feminist thinkers appalled by philosophy’s (and everyone else’s) neglect of the so-called “second sex.” Feminism raises the question: are there masculine and feminine styles and concerns? In any case, shouldn’t we all be paying more attention to family and interpersonal issues?

Camus, who said we must consider Sisyphus happy…

Finally we come to Postmodernism‘s strange claim that there is no truth, only discourse; and to New Age philosophy’s various “loony-tunes” attempts to feed a nonetheless-encouraging hunger for philosophy in our time. [What the [bleep’]The SecretOprahreviewWhy People Believe Weird ThingsShermer @TED]

Our authors get it right at the end: We need to be not more clever (or weird) but, rather, better listeners. May the conversations and the examination of life continue.

And, today: play ball!

Postscript: Mom‘s been gone for two whole years today. We miss her terribly, but no longer so painfully. Her memory glows and warms.

Meanings of Life

September 14, 2009

Our next chapter is “The Meaning of Life” (illustrated by “The Death of Socrates,” implying that meaning may come from noble, principled self-sacrifice… but that’s just one example).

I taught a course at Vanderbilt under this title a few years ago. It was mis-labelled. We pondered many meanings, and concluded that many meanings are exactly what accrue to life, every well-lived life. That’s so not only because different individuals and cultures value different objects and ideals, but because each of us– like Woody Allen’s character in “Manhattan”– has  a collection of  things that make life worth living:

The items on his list will not coincide with those on most of ours, but the point to notice is that he and we can make our respective lists, and in the process discover what it is in life that motivates us to get up off our figurative sofas and chase our dreams. Many of us would say that the chase itself is intrinsically meaningful.

Our authors take a different tack, focusing on four alleged sources of meaning that seem to point to something “outside of [people’s] lives” supposed to confer meaning: children, God, a supernatural afterlife, and (paradoxically) absurdity. Option #4 most obviously calls for a leap into the irrational dark, treating meaninglessness as meaningful, somehow. But all of them may defy the demand for a straightforward answer to the Big Question of meaning. All may “postpone” a satisfying response.

Children. The joys of child-rearing do indeed strike many of us as deeply meaningful, though also deeply fraught with risks and disappointments. But in order for parenthood to be meaningful for me, as a parent, it can’t simply be a vicarious hope that our children (or theirs, or Generation x+’s) will find meaning in life. Strictly future meaning is too, well, futuristic.

God. “Belief in God seems only to make the question more urgent; belief does not solve it.” Divine meaning and purpose is not obviously transferable to mortals. Some, though, do appear to be more “god-intoxicated” than others– Spinoza, Calvin, Ned Flanders…

Afterlife. What if “the rewards of [a] next life will be available only to those who live this life to the fullest?” Aren’t we back, then, to Square One?

Absurdity. “The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Easier said than swallowed. A meaningless struggle doesn’t fill my heart, though Camus’ car crash was full of poignant irony. What to say, though, about  my interest in team sports? It does often feel absurd to care so much about how it goes for  “my team,” but it also feels like a source of valuable connection to the world and other people, past, present, and future. Maybe life is a ballgame.

Freud is quoted as saying that “the goal of all life is death.” I hope that was a mis-translation. The end is death, the goal is to live. Santayana said there’s no cure for birth and death, “save to enjoy the interval.”

Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence” idea offers an intriguing angle on this question. There’s a suggestive typo in our book ( on p. 48) that would skewer the philosopher’s intent: Nietzsche’s view was that the credible meanings of life are internal and natural, not “external” (in the sense of transcendent or other-worldly).  He wants you to ask yourself how you’d handle the supposition that “this life as you now live it and have lived it” is IT. There’s a nice dramatic rendering of this idea in the film “When Nietzsche Wept,” as the philosopher counsels his shrink– Freud’s collaborator Josef Breuer.)

And then, there’s Groundhog Day. Bill Murray returns to Punxsutawney, PA again and again, but not eternally… just till he gets it right. He learns how to live well, treat others respectfully, and  enjoy the present. Then he can leave, happily and with no regrets. That was, after all, the intent of Nietzsche’s “gift.”

So we’re back to Woody. Make your lists.