Category Archives: existentialism

Philosophy and Hope, in a Jar

by Dr. Norris Frederick

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Recently I was browsing the internet, looking at philosophy websites.  I came across one with a prime domain name:  philosophy.com.  I wondered what philosophers and topics were covered there.  Plato?  Sartre?  Perhaps a discussion of contemporary ethics?  So I clicked on the url, and was quite surprised to find that philosophy.com is a site for…perhaps you guessed it or knew…a line of products for beautiful skin.

I found myself thinking about philosophy.com for several days, wondering why it stayed on my mind.  And then it hit me that Soren Kierkegaard had given the diagnosis for this symptom long ago:

“Not just in commerce but in the world of ideas too our age is putting on a veritable clearance sale.  Everything can be had so dirt cheap that one begins to wonder whether in the end anyone will want to make a bid.[1]

Kierkegaard wrote these words to open his book Fear and Trembling, first published in 1843, as an indictment of his native Copenhagen and Denmark.  His words and thoughts still ring true in American society today, where many of us not only want fast and easy food, but fast and easy ideas and beliefs.

Selling ideas for cheap

In every known epoch and culture the appeal of easy ideas has been powerful.  Why bother to struggle and think when the persuasive words of others can think for us?  In 399 B.C., at his trial on the charges of worshipping false gods and corrupting the youth, Socrates has to open his defense to his fellow citizens and jurors by saying of his accusers that “I was almost carried away in spite of myself, so persuasively did they speak.  And yet, hardly anything of what they said is true.” [2]  It takes a Socrates or a Kierkegaard to sting us into the realization that often our ideas are not our own and that we have bought for cheap vital ideas that can be earned for oneself only through long struggle.

Kierkegaard’s age was one in which commerce — the buying and selling of goods — was coming to dominate the culture.  In his eyes, society mostly consists of sleepwalkers following the vision of the collective society; those who realize this become insomniacs.

Our own age has surpassed Kierkegaard’s in selling ideas for cheap through the use of the image, brought to us through magazines, television, and now the internet.  Thanks to cell phones, images and persuasion can now reach us most anywhere and anytime.

In the images above and below, “philosophy” does not refer to thinking critically or to a coherent worldview, but to a line of skin care.  You can now buy philosophy from a bottle or a jar.  One can move out of despair and toward a good life by purchasing “renewed hope in a jar” for as little as $16!  The jar below tells us “philosophy:  live with optimism, renew with hope.”  Wow, I feel better already! (Let’s see now, the $16 jar buys 0.5 oz., but for $47 I can get 2.0 oz., oh yeah, that is the smarter buy!)

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Philosophy.com also offers to help us easily achieve with purchases of the products “purity made simple” and “amazing grace” what some people would consider religious and spiritual blessings.

The point is not that the advertisers and philosophy® Official Site‎ are evil, and it’s certainly not that there is anything wrong with wanting to look good and feel good.    The point is that this selling of philosophy® is just one visible image of what Kierkegaard described – the selling of ideas so cheap that perhaps there may not be any buyers.  The astonishing thing is how difficult it is to even have the thought that there is something a little odd about buying philosophy®, purity, and grace. (Wait!  Am I now violating trademark by even using the word “philosophy®”?  Should I be referencing those who own the word every time I mention it in class?)

Insomnia is not always a bad thing

Kierkegaard argues in Fear and Trembling that no one today can truly understand the gut-wrenching, fierce and raging struggle from which Abraham’s faith was forged in responding to God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Kierkegaard writes that listeners in those comfortable pews are mentally asleep, and perhaps too the preachers.  And today, as we have learned, one can literally buy “purity made simple” and “amazing grace.”

Kierkegaard would tell us we need to wake up.  “I’m just fine!” we reply.  Kierkegaard, that physician of the soul, writes that “…the specific character of despair is precisely this:  it is unaware of being despair.”[3]  When we buy products such as “renewed hope,” we do not know that in the world of ideas one cannot get genuine renewed hope without doing the work, and the first step of the work is realizing that we may well be in despair, the complete absence of hope.  That despair is masked and soothed by a culture that tells us through images that if we just buy more, just buy the right type of product, earn or inherit the money to get the right house and send our kids to the right schools, all will be well.

Sometimes being disturbed by one’s thoughts is a good thing.  It’s really okay to have insomnia once in a while.  The hope that Kierkegaard offers is that in the world of ideas – unlike the world of market exchange where some inherit their wealth – in the world of ideas “only one who works get bread, and only one who knows anguish finds rest.”[4] Getting through the anguish and insomnia to another resting place is hard work, but it is a truer and better place to rest.

 

 

(First posted September 26,  2016)

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[1] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, translated by Alastair Hannay (New York:  Penguin Books, 1985), p. 49.

[2] Plato, The Apology, in The Trial and Death of Socrates  translated by G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 1975), p. 22.

[3] Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death.

[4] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p. 57.

Death: Many Questions

By Dr. Norris Frederick

There’s been way too much death in my world in the last year:  four nearby neighbors, three cousins, two close high school friends, and one Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book that had an enormous influence on me.  These deaths have affected me in ways I don’t yet fully understand.  They may have something to do with the writer’s block that has locked my mind and typing fingers.

Objectively, ten deaths is nothing in this world.  Eighteen people died just yesterday in the terrorist attack in London, just as they were going about their normal day, going to work, shopping.  And that pales beside the years-long carnage in Syria.  When I hear about those deaths, I suffer briefly with them, but typically go on to the next thing and their deaths fade from my being until some event brings it back.  But for most all of us, when our friends and family die, we feel the loss in a deep, existential sense that rocks our world.

I talk every week with a very good friend who lives near D.C.  He’s listened sympathetically to me talk about the deaths of my friends, but it wasn’t until recently when he had a close friend die that he really felt what I was experiencing.  Words failed us both as we tried to explain, but now we share the experience.

Aristotle writes that one of the essential goods of a person’s life is friendship.  Who would want to live a life without friends?  We realize that by paying attention to the feeling when a friend moves away and most vividly when a friend dies.

One conception of philosophy is that it deals with far-out, abstract ideas that have no connection with reality.  Guys and gals sit around, drinking or perhaps smoking dope, saying, “Hey, man, what if ….?”  But in fact the best philosophy begins with wonder or mysteries or problems or deep experiences, and tries to think about those problems and experiences in ways that connect back fruitfully to our lives, so that we both understand better and live better.

The full experience of death raises so many questions:  Do we just live and die, fini, that’s all, folks? Or does something transcend?   Does some part of us survive in another world, or perhaps are we re-born into this world?  Does death take away the meaning of life?  Is death the ultimate proof that “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing?”

There are some strange asymmetries in the way we think about death.   Adults have no trouble conceiving of a time before we are born (after all I know I was not alive during the Civil War), but it’s difficult for us to conceive of a time after we are dead – how can the world go on without me?

Ancient Greek philosophies offer ways for us to distance ourselves and think rationally about death in order to live a better life now.  The Epicureans, who believe that everything is composed of atoms, say that when I die the atoms that are “me” disperse, so “I” no longer am.  Thus, “When I am, death is not; when death is I am not.”  The key is to enjoy life while we are alive, and to realize that we should not fear death, for when it occurs we will have no pain.  The Stoics argue that when we die, we return to the Logos, the eternal ongoing impersonal, rational process of the world.  “Remember that you are an actor in a play, which is as the playwright wants it to be:  short or long.  What is yours is to play the assigned part well.”

The reasoning of the Epicureans and Stoics each make sense, at least to a certain extent.  They capture what I often think during the daytime.  They don’t capture what I feel and think when I wake up in the middle of the night.  For that I need to turn to the 20th-century existentialist Miguel de Unamuno who writes in The Tragic Sense of Life, in an attempt to capture the way we really feel about death, despite listening to good reasons:

I do not want to die – no; I neither want to die nor do I want to want to die; I want to live for ever and ever and ever.  I want this “I” to live – this poor “I” that I am and that I feel myself to be here and now, and therefore the problem of the duration of my soul, of my own soul, tortures me.

That’s it.  Unamuno nailed it that feeling of existential terror that we all feel at some points of our lives.   I do grieve, truly grieve for the deaths of those I know, and for their families and friends.  But I also grieve for me.  I want to live for ever and ever and ever.  That wild, deep feeling he describes is perhaps more “me” than reason.

So, you ask, what good is there for my life in recognizing this existential terror?  There are three goods that come to mind.  First, you now have admitted to consciousness knowledge you did not have before. Second, you move from being alone to being companioned; we are all in the same boat regarding death. Finally, realizing that there are no easy answers to the questions of death, you can do the best thing someone can do for a bereaved friend:  just sit with them, just be with them. Just sit with yourself, just observe, just be,

To be continued


Photo credit:  Norris Frederick

 

Thrown-ness: Understanding an experience of disruption

by Dr.  Norris Frederick

Philosophy offers us new ways of seeing the world and living in the world, thus helping us live and enriching our consciousness.  At first these new insights create a rupture in our thinking and feeling and an unpleasant sense of dizziness or confusion.   However, if we learn to persist in integrating new ways of thinking and being into our lives, we also come to experience feeling excited at the possibilities offered by philosophical challenges and we broaden our understanding of reality.

One of those insights is that of “thrown-ness,” first named and elucidated by the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976), author of Being and Time.  What’s it like to be a human being?  Are there characteristics of experience that all humans share?  Heidegger thought so.  We ordinarily are engaged in activities and tasks in ways in which we use the objects and tools around us.  I type these thoughts but as I do so I’m not focused on the keyboard. We dig with a shovel but we’re not focused on the shovel but rather on the topsoil we’re blending into the garden.  We live with a family with whom we prepare meals and clean the house.  We’re engaged in what we do.

But then one day the handle snaps off the blade of the shovel, or a grandmother dies.  Suddenly my attention shifts from the task at hand to the presence of the shovel I was barely aware of before and to the missing presence of the grandmother.  I am jerked from my ordinary pursuits into a disorienting sense of looking at beings in a strange way.  My grandmother was just here, solid and real and fully being, and now she is gone.

I was 13 when my grandmother died, and her death led to a series of reflections in my consciousness.  There were the comforting reflections from family and friends (“she’s now with grandpa in heaven”), but simultaneously there was also the unpleasant experience that people can be here one moment and gone the next.  As we get older we get used to death in most cases as we go about our daily tasks, but there is always an opening in which we can sense the presence of death, the absence of a loved one, in a way akin to vertigo.  (I think of Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo spinning round and round as he goes down, down, down).

Stewart in Vertigo

For me, these reflections led to my first experience of “thrown-ness,” although of course I didn’t know this strange word.  After the shock and after the funeral of this kind woman with whom my family lived, I began to have a related sense of vertigo that began one day as I sat on our porch after school, trying to catch a breeze in that hot Carolina September.  I thought about and looked at my parents, sisters, and brother:  who ARE these people? In my altered state, I now had an alien strangeness about them.  Previously I was engaged in everyday life with them and never thought anything about it – they’re my family–  but now I wondered WHY am I in this family?  Couldn’t I have been living with some other family?  And would I have been someone else?  WHY was I born into this family, with these people?

For a teenage boy whose main interest was baseball and who was just beginning an interest in girls, it was a strange and disorienting feeling.  So strange that I never told anyone about the experience for years.  I was experiencing “thrown-ness”:  we are thrown into the world in a way not of our choosing.  We don’t choose our family, the century we’re born, nor the country and culture of our birth.  While I was well aware of making choices (“Shall we play baseball this morning?”), the reality of the “thrown-ness” of life hit me like a fastball straight to the pit of my stomach.  Worse, just when I thought this feeling had gone away, it returned at unexpected times like when we were all sitting down to watch “Gunsmoke” on Saturday night.  Who ARE these people? And who am I?

Not only is the existence of shovels and people contingent on circumstances, but our relationships and thus who we are is contingent in ways in which many of us are not aware in everyday life.  The idea of thrown-ness expands and deepens our understanding of reality.  The idea of thrown-ness also offers to us the reality that we are not alone in this contingency.  My teenage experience of thrown-ness resulted from my new awareness of death and my family.  At the time I felt that something was strange and wrong with me to even feel this sense of alienation, but now when I read Heidegger’s thoughts about thrown-ness, I no longer feel estranged but companioned.