Archive for December, 2009

Terry Eagleton on The Meaning of Life

December 19, 2009

Eagleton says, “The meaning of life is a subject fit  for either the crazed or the comic, and I hope I have fallen more into the latter camp than the former.” From this statement, we can expect that his analysis will be superficial at best, trivial at other times. He does not disappoint.

First he misinterprets and denies the question of the meaning of life with some idol worship of Ludwig Wittgenstein*. Then he joins the bandwagon of celebrity atheists in their parody of religious believers. He cites Nietzsche, but buffoon-like, refers to Will to Power (not written by Nietzsche).

Eagelton generally treats the question impersonally, as though it were merely the result of cultural forces. Priority is given to the formative analysis of the question, rather than the exploration of perspectives on its content (i.e. its meaning to different people). Caught in the grasp of Wittgenstein and The Prison-House of Language, he naively presumes that for the meaning of life to be a genuine philosophical concern it must be an objective entity, and communicable according to rules of ‘ordinary grammar’. Later in the book, he turns away from these mistakes, though not admitting their origin in narrow-minded theories of language.

The meaning of the question, rather than its form, is finally explored in the back pages of the book. He even gives attention to the question in the context of the intentional life of the individual. Subjectivity, which should have been there from the start, makes a belated appearance – Hurrah!

After reading this book, I am tempted to generalise that literary theorists cannot qualify to analyse and answer such big questions. Their eyes are too coloured by the parochial theories of literary criticism. Most of them judge subjectivity deficient in some way, yet they don’t see the log in their own eye.

2 Stars (out of 5)

You can get the first chapter of the book here: Question and Answers

*The question, “what is the meaning of life?” is a violation of a prescriptive Wittgensteinian ‘ordinary use’ of language. However, Wittgenstein’s ‘ordinary use’ prescription is ordinarily ignored by ordinary people, on every ordinary day! (Wittgenstein does not have a box or theory for this use of language, he therefore dismisses it as “meaningless” — what a dodgy fellow)! It is individuals who give the question meaning, not narrow-minded theories of language. The question is not confined to any single interpretation and method of enquiry. How we interpret the question says a lot about us as individuals, our values, etc.

Inauthenticity and eating disorders

December 18, 2009

Inauthenticity can be physically dangerous. Take eating disorders for example, anorexia and bulimia.

A confused young lady starves herself in order to obtain the body of a concentration camp inmate — that weak, boyish body image much glamourised by homosexual and feminine men in the fashion industry. The young lady does not recognise how such idealised body images have overcome her, and driven her to self-flagellation. She does not realise her self-worth, freedom, and perspective as an individual — apart from the expectations of popular culture. She cannot love her life and herself, because she is trapped in a fiction where she must obtain approval from others, and that approval will never be enough.

Inauthenticity has lead to the negation of her life – physically and emotionally. It is a common story.

Science does not, cannot explain anything

December 14, 2009

For explanation we need a God. Naturalism is a popular God these days. However, science can help us improve our descriptions of subjective experience.

Nietzsche in The Joyful Wisdom, AKA The Gay Science

Cause and Effect. We say it is “explanation “; but it is only in “description” that we are in advance of the older stages of knowledge and science. We describe better, we explain just as little as our predecessors. We have discovered a manifold succession where the naive man and investigator of older cultures saw only two things, “cause” and “effect,”as it was said; we have perfected the conception of becoming, but have not got a knowledge of what is above and behind the conception. The series of “causes” stands before us much more complete in every case; we conclude that this and that must first precede in order that that other may follow – but we have not grasped anything thereby. The peculiarity, for example, in every chemical process seems a “miracle,” the same as before, just like all locomotion; nobody has “explained” impulse. How could we ever explain? We operate only with things which do not exist, with lines, surfaces, bodies, atoms, divisible times, divisible spaces – how can explanation ever be possible when we first make everything a conception, our conception? It is sufficient to regard science as the exactest humanizing of things that is possible; we always learn to describe ourselves more accurately by describing things and their successions. Cause and effect: there is probably never any such duality; in fact there is a continuum before us, from which we isolate a few portions – just as we always observe a motion as isolated points, and therefore do not properly see it, but infer it. The abruptness with which many effects take place leads us into error; it is however only an abruptness for us. There is an infinite multitude of processes in that abrupt moment which escape us. An intellect which could see cause and effect as a continuum, which could see the flux of events not according to our mode of perception, as things arbitrarily separated and broken – would throw aside the conception of cause and effect, and would deny all conditionality.

Compatibility of subjective and objective methods

December 13, 2009

Subjective methods include phenomenology and existential methods.
Objective methods are equated with the scientific method and naturalism.

Only a dogmatist does not see the compatibility of subjective and objective methods in relation to the human.

  • Scientific methods cannot capture and explain the first-person experience of a human, because they are reductionist, abstractionist, and treat the human as an object. They explain things in an abstract model of causes, rather than try to capture the essence of subjective experience.
  • Subjective methods can too-easily overlook the social structures and biology that can influence human belief and behaviour. With the exception of some forms of phenomenology, this is because they lack descriptive rigour and may be limited in scope.

Occasionally, a scientific study has improved my first-person descriptive account of experience. In doing this it has aided my navigation through life. At other times, I have found scientific studies irrelevant to my life, or of marginal significance, such as when I have read studies that have verified things that I learnt a long time ago through subjective experience.

I don’t equate the models provided by the natural sciences with reality as one perceives it. I believe subjective methods are superior to objective ones, because human beings are subjects, not objects. Objective methods are however useful in clearing up the naivety and looseness found in many subjective accounts of experience.

Unfortunately, some simpletons only publicly recognise the validity of objective methods (including half of Academia). These dogmatists (metaphyscial, rather than methodological naturalists) have forgotten that they are subjects, i.e., human beings.

Fortunately, like most dogmatists they are hypocritical in that they don’t rely on objectivity – rather subjectivity – for everyday navigation through life. Just as well, as no one could live that way.

Further reading: Can Phenomenology Be Naturalized?

The fundamental human drive(s)

December 12, 2009

Many philosophers and psychologists have attempted to identify a single, ultimate drive of human behaviour. Maslow devised a heirarchy of drives. These attempts have been too simplistic. We have many drives, which manifest themselves in different life circumstances to varying degrees. With modern neuroscience we can get inside the brain, examine the dopamine system and other areas, in order to work out what is really driving us.

Fundamental human drives are:

  • Experiential/Emotional: curiosity/exploration, pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, escape from boredom and anxiety
  • Meaning: authenticity, order, organisation, problems-solving
  • Environmental: survival/flight or fight,  food, shelter, physical health, adaption to one’s environment.
  • Reproduction: sex, pair bonding, care for one’s offspring
  • Creativity/personal goal setting and achievement: Creating new purposes, overcoming challenges, and achieving goals with positive reinforcement/rewards
  • Social/Emotional: group bonding/acceptance/adherence to cultural imperatives, self-preservation of family and tribe, cooperation, social status (competition/dominance, envy, resentment, vengeance, anger, shame, embarrassment)

It is supposed that all these drives serve one end, the continuation of human life with increasing adaptation to the environment. However, this theory (or teleological fiction) may need to be significantly adjusted in light of modern technological advancements. It seems that humans have mastered their environment (at least those of the Western middle and upper classes) and ends other than the evolutionary are gaining ascendance.

Richard Dawkins believes the next step in evolution will involve human beings creating new purposes and goals (cf. Nietzsche’s Übermensch).

An ugly, glorious image of man

December 12, 2009

I am an animal, of the highest order.

I lord it over all other animals. Fuck the whales!

The environment is to serve my ends. Fuck the self-righteous, hateful environmentalists!

Self-preservation and flourishing are my chief ends.

I like to eat.

I like sex.

I desire emotionally-fulfilling experiences.

I like to dominate, to seek the highest status amongst the group.

I like to interpret the world in ways favourable to me, and create the world in my image.

I like to get my own way.

I like to alter my mental state through drugs (but after-effects tend to limit this).

I take advantage of society’s laws and customs to protect me from other people.

I take advantage of other people through deception. Oh, I am most intelligent!

If I were a Viking, my pillage would be notorious, and my seed would be spread across a thousand lands.

I am the epitome of life-advancing life!

Against this stands the idealist fantasies of the Western tradition:  ‘rational animal’, ‘moral man’, ‘polite society’. All bullshit!

You say I am immoral. You Victorians!

You forget the debt of your existence to people like me.

You deny the ugly truth of man and do not see his glory.

You forego your resemblance to me.

Oh yea weak ones!

Public expectations of philosophy

December 12, 2009

A while ago, I discussed public expectations of philosophy versus those of the natural sciences in regard to intelligiblity. My dialogue is below.

Expectations of philosophy are different to esoteric work in the natural sciences because the public has more of an acquaintance with the former. I for one would be hard pressed to give examples of the latter. Furthermore, philosophy is fundamentally concerned with communicating with clarity; ‘true’ philosophy is intelligible.

…why do members of the educated public think that it is an objection to philosophical inquiry that it is unintelligible to them?

That is a silly question when you think about it. Do you have no preference for intelligibility? There is an expectation that philosophy should be relevant to how we live our lives, therefore intelligibility is a criterion. I hope we don’t blame the educated public for the inability of philosophers to communicate intelligibly.

Why should we care about what philosophers devote their energies to, rather than let a thousands flowers bloom, willy-nilly?

That is an easy question to answer: life is short and we want the best out of philosophy for our lives. Priorities and concerns matter!

I still don’t think Academia in general is taking the public’s complaints about its philosophical production seriously enough. There is too much defensiveness, bluster, dodging and denial of the issue, and care for social status when these complaints are raised, rather than serious philosophical investigation.

On objectivity

December 9, 2009

In objectivity, one forgets oneself. The illusion of a detached, fossilised, unconcerned world is created. All the colouring and purpose given to the world by the subject are denied.

As Nietzsche says in the Beyond Good and Evil, chapter 4:

80. A thing that is explained ceases to concern us–What did the God mean who gave the advice, “Know thyself!” Did it perhaps imply “Cease to be concerned about thyself! become objective!”– And Socrates?–And the “scientific man”?

Objectivity is the most popular style in philosophy today. Why? Because it allows philosophers to babble on endlessly about petty things to their hearts’ desire. Prestige amongst fools is the carrot for  Objective Philosophy (OP). The greatest babblers of OP are esteemed highest amongst the OP herd. OP is the philosophy of professors; irrelevant to the everyday life of the subject. It defies committment; it is only a pretentious hobby. In OP, Truth is nothing but collectively believed-in fiction (or common interpretations, according to the language of a communicative group).

For instance, objective-style discourse on ethics involves talk on ethical concepts and systems of concepts which are wholly impotent. Far too much collective human life has spent on this sedentary engagement.  A concept wrung of the intentions of a subject has never motivated anyone to do anything. 2 + 4 = 4 — as if that’s what it’s all about? However, objective-style ethics has rewarded a few with prestige much envied by the rest: Mill and Kant being some of the greatest babblers.

A subjective-style ethics, however, does not concern itself with analysing, logically rearranging, and espousing babble. Subjective ethics must lead to decision and action, because it is concerned with the life and intentions of the subject in the world. Truth in subjectivity is a life lived according to it. This Truth cannot be forgotten, unlike all the past and present fictions of OP, which have fiction at their base.

Existentialism intensifies the search for meaning

December 6, 2009

Humans abhor a meaning vacuum. The Existentialists help us fill in the vacuum by focusing us on the absence of meaning, which then intensifies the search for it. For example, Kafka: A cognitive metamorphosis

With the death of God, all absolute systems of meaning (theological, philosophical, scientifc, folk cultural) are abolished; life is absurd.

The human predicament is satisfying the impulse to meaning in the absence of God. We are yet to overcome ourselves in this regard. We still latch on to provincial meaning systems, which serve us for a while, before becoming broke and vacuous. We stand between God’s death and a new being that has solved the problem of meaning.

The existentialists can help us with the problem of meaning. They can focus us on the problem and help us analyse it through their methods. They can offer broad options to help resolve the meaning dilemma, from which we may choose a solution. The option most of us choose is to ignore the problem, but this isn’t a solution, and not an option for the Existentialists. Reading Kafka may eliminate this option for you.

Short takes on philosophy

December 5, 2009