Sooner or later we all face death. Will a sense of meaning help us?


Detail from the Dance with Death by Johann Rudolf Feyerabend. Courtesy the Basel Historical Museum, Switzerland/Wikipedia

Warren Ward | Aeon Ideas

‘Despite all our medical advances,’ my friend Jason used to quip, ‘the mortality rate has remained constant – one per person.’

Jason and I studied medicine together back in the 1980s. Along with everyone else in our course, we spent six long years memorising everything that could go wrong with the human body. We diligently worked our way through a textbook called Pathologic Basis of Disease that described, in detail, every single ailment that could befall a human being. It’s no wonder medical students become hypochondriacal, attributing sinister causes to any lump, bump or rash they find on their own person.

Jason’s oft-repeated observation reminded me that death (and disease) are unavoidable aspects of life. It sometimes seems, though, that we’ve developed a delusional denial of this in the West. We pour billions into prolonging life with increasingly expensive medical and surgical interventions, most of them employed in our final, decrepit years. From a big-picture perspective, this seems a futile waste of our precious health-dollars.

Don’t get me wrong. If I get struck down with cancer, heart disease or any of the myriad life-threatening ailments I learnt about in medicine, I want all the futile and expensive treatments I can get my hands on. I value my life. In fact, like most humans, I value staying alive above pretty much everything else. But also, like most, I tend to not really value my life unless I’m faced with the imminent possibility of it being taken away from me.

Another old friend of mine, Ross, was studying philosophy while I studied medicine. At the time, he wrote an essay called ‘Death the Teacher’ that had a profound effect on me. It argued that the best thing we could do to appreciate life was to keep the inevitability of our death always at the forefront of our minds.

When the Australian palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware interviewed scores of people in the last 12 weeks of their lives, she asked them their greatest regrets. The most frequent, published in her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying (2011), were:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me;
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard;
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings;
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends; and
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

The relationship between death-awareness and leading a fulfilling life was a central concern of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose work inspired Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialist thinkers. Heidegger lamented that too many people wasted their lives running with the ‘herd’ rather than being true to themselves. But Heidegger actually struggled to live up to his own ideals; in 1933, he joined the Nazi Party, hoping it would advance his career.

Despite his shortcomings as a man, Heidegger’s ideas would go on to influence a wide range of philosophers, artists, theologians and other thinkers. Heidegger believed that Aristotle’s notion of Being – which had run as a thread through Western thinking for more than 2,000 years, and been instrumental in the development of scientific thinking – was flawed at a most fundamental level. Whereas Aristotle saw all of existence, including human beings, as things we could classify and analyse to increase our understanding of the world, in Being and Time (1927) Heidegger argued that, before we start classifying Being, we should first ask the question: ‘Who or what is doing all this questioning?’

Heidegger pointed out that we who are asking questions about Being are qualitatively different to the rest of existence: the rocks, oceans, trees, birds and insects that we are asking about. He invented a special word for this Being that asks, looks and cares. He called it Dasein, which loosely translates as ‘being there’. He coined the term Dasein because he believed that we had become immune to words such as ‘person’, ‘human’ and ‘human being’, losing our sense of wonder about our own consciousness.

Heidegger’s philosophy remains attractive to many today who see how science struggles to explain the experience of being a moral, caring person aware that his precious, mysterious, beautiful life will, one day, come to an end. According to Heidegger, this awareness of our own inevitable demise makes us, unlike the rocks and trees, hunger to make our life worthwhile, to give it meaning, purpose and value.

While Western medical science, which is based on Aristotelian thinking, sees the human body as a material thing that can be understood by examining it and breaking it down to its constituent parts like any other piece of matter, Heidegger’s ontology puts human experience at the centre of our understanding of the world.

Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with melanoma. As a doctor, I knew how aggressive and rapidly fatal this cancer could be. Fortunately for me, the surgery seemed to achieve a cure (touch wood). But I was also fortunate in another sense. I became aware, in a way I never had before, that I was going to die – if not from melanoma, then from something else, eventually. I have been much happier since then. For me, this realisation, this acceptance, this awareness that I am going to die is at least as important to my wellbeing as all the advances of medicine, because it reminds me to live my life to the full every day. I don’t want to experience the regret that Ware heard about more than any other, of not living ‘a life true to myself’.

Most Eastern philosophical traditions appreciate the importance of death-awareness for a well-lived life. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for example, is a central text of Tibetan culture. The Tibetans spend a lot of time living with death, if that isn’t an oxymoron.

The East’s greatest philosopher, Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, realised the importance of keeping the end in sight. He saw desire as the cause of all suffering, and counselled us not to get too attached to worldly pleasures but, rather, to focus on more important things such as loving others, developing equanimity of mind, and staying in the present.

The last thing the Buddha said to his followers was: ‘Decay is inherent in all component things! Work out your salvation with diligence!’ As a doctor, I am reminded every day of the fragility of the human body, how closely mortality lurks just around the corner. As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, however, I am also reminded how empty life can be if we have no sense of meaning or purpose. An awareness of our mortality, of our precious finitude, can, paradoxically, move us to seek – and, if necessary, create – the meaning that we so desperately crave.Aeon counter – do not remove

Warren Ward is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Queensland. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Lovers of Philosophy (2021).

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Would you rather have a fish or know how to fish?


Public domain

Jonny Robinson | Aeon Ideas

Imagine the following. You are living a life with enough money and health and time so as to allow an hour or two of careless relaxation, sitting on the sofa at the end of the day in front of a large television, half-heartedly watching a documentary about solar energy with a glass of wine and scrolling through your phone. You happen to hear a fact about climate change, something to do with recent emission figures. Now, on that same night, a friend who is struggling to meet her financial commitments has just arrived at her second job and misses out on the documentary (and the relaxation). Later in the week, when the two of you meet for a drink and your friend is ignorant of recent emission figures, what kind of intellectual or moral superiority is really justified on your part?

This example is designed to show that knowledge of the truth might very well have nothing to do with our own efforts or character. Many are born into severe poverty with a slim chance at a good education, and others grow up in religious or social communities that prohibit certain lines of enquiry. Others still face restrictions because of language, transport, money, sickness, technology, bad luck and so on. The truth, for various reasons, is much harder to access at these times. At the opposite end of the scale, some are effectively handed the truth about some matter as if it were a mint on their pillow, pleasantly materialising and not a big deal. Pride in this mere knowledge of the truth ignores the way in which some people come to possess it without any care or effort, and the way that others strive relentlessly against the odds for it and still miss out. The phrase ‘We know the truth [and, perhaps, you don’t]’, weaponised and presented without any qualifying modesty, fails to recognise the extraordinary privileges so often involved in that very acquisition, drawing an exclusionary line that overlooks almost everything else of significance.

A good attitude towards knowledge shines through various character traits that put us in a healthy relationship with it. Philosophers call these traits epistemic virtues. Instead of praising those people who happen to possess some piece of knowledge, we ought to praise those who have the right attitude towards it, since only this benchmark also includes those who strive for the truth and miss out on it for reasons not entirely under their control. Consider traits such as intellectual humility (a willingness to be wrong), intellectual courage (to pursue truths that make us uncomfortable), open-mindedness (to contemplate all sides of the argument, limiting preconceptions), and curiosity (to be continually seeking). You can see that the person ready to correct herself, courageous in her pursuit of the truth, open-minded in her deliberation, and driven by a deep curiosity has a better relationship to truth even where she occasionally fails to obtain it than does the indifferent person who is occasionally handed the truth on a silver platter.

In a sense, it’s difficult to answer to the disjunction ‘Is it better to know, or to seek to know?’ because there is not quite enough information in it. In respect to knowing (the first half of the disjunction), we also want to hear how that knowledge came about. That is, was the knowledge acquired despite the disinterest and laziness of the possessor, or was it acquired through diligent seeking? If the latter, then it is better to know since the second half of the disjunction is also accommodated in the first: the possession of knowledge and the attitude of seeking it. We can build on the idea with another example.

Would you rather have a fish or know how to fish? Again, we need some more information. If having the fish is the result of knowing how to fish, then once more the two halves of the disjunction are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and this combination is the ideal. But, if the having is the result of waiting around for someone to give you a fish, it would be better to know how to do it yourself. For where the waiting agent hopes for luck or charity, the agent who knows how to fish can return to the river each morning and each evening, throwing her line into the water over and over until she is satisfied with the catch.

And so it is with knowledge. Yes, it’s better to know, but only where this implies an accompanying attitude. If, instead, the possession of knowledge relies primarily upon the sporadic pillars of luck or privilege (as it so often does), one’s position is uncertain and in danger of an unfounded pride (not to mention pride’s own concomitant complications). Split into two discrete categories, then, we should prefer seeking to knowing. As with the agent who knows how to fish, the one who seeks knowledge can go out into the world, sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding, but in any case able to continue until she is satisfied with her catch, a knowledge attained. And then, the next day, she might return to the river and do it all again.

A person will eventually come up against the world, logically, morally, socially, even physically. Some collisions will be barely noticeable, others will be catastrophic. The consistent posture of seeking the truth gives us the best shot at seeing clearly, and that is what we should praise and value.Aeon counter – do not remove

Jonny Robinson is a tutor and casual lecturer in the department of philosophy at Macquarie University. He lives in Sydney.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. View the original article here.

We all know that we will die, so why do we struggle to believe it?


Tolstoy photographed by Karl Bulla in 1902. Courtesy Wikipedia

James Baillie | Aeon Ideas

In the novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), Leo Tolstoy presents a man who is shocked by suddenly realising that his death is inevitable. While we can easily appreciate that the diagnosis of a terminal illness came as an unpleasant surprise, how could he only then discover the fact of his mortality? But that is Ivan’s situation. Not only is it news to him, but he can’t fully take it in:

The syllogism he had learned from Kiesewetter’s logic – ‘Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal’ – had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but by no means to himself. That man Caius represented man in the abstract, and so the reasoning was perfectly sound; but he was not Caius, not an abstract man; he had always been a creature quite, quite distinct from all the others.

Tolstoy’s story would not be the masterpiece that it is were it describing an anomaly, a psychological quirk of a fictional character with no analogue in real life. The book’s power resides in its evocative depiction of a mysterious experience that gets to the heart of what it is to be human.

In 1984, on the eve of my 27th birthday, I shared in Ivan’s realisation: that one day I will cease to exist. That was my first and most intense episode of what I call ‘existential shock’. It was by far the most disorienting event of my life, like nothing I’d ever experienced.

While you need to have undergone existential shock to really know what it is like, the experience need not yield any understanding of what you have gone through, either at the time or later. The acute anxiety induced by the state renders you incapable of thinking clearly. And once the state has passed, it is almost impossible to remember in any detail. Getting back in touch with existential shock is like trying to reconstruct a barely remembered dream, except that the struggle is to recall a time when one was unusually awake.

While granting the strangeness of existential shock, the revealed content itself is not peculiar. Indeed, it is undeniable. That’s what makes the phenomenon so puzzling. I learned that I would die? Obviously, I already knew that, so how could it come as a revelation? It is too simple to merely say that I had long known that I would die, because there is also a sense in which I didn’t – and still don’t – really believe it. These conflicting attitudes emerge from the two most basic ways of thinking about oneself, that I will call the outside and inside views.

Let’s consider the way in which my inevitable death is old news. It stems from the uniquely human capacity to disengage from our actions and commitments, so that each of us can consider him or herself as an inhabitant of the mind-independent world, one human being among billions. When I regard myself ‘from the outside’ in this manner, I have no trouble in affirming that I will die. I understand that I exist because of innumerable contingencies, and that the world will go on without me just as it did before my coming to be. These reflections do not disturb me. My equanimity is due to the fact that, even though I am reflecting on my inevitable annihilation, it is almost as if I am thinking about someone else. That is, the outside view places a cognitive distance between myself as the thinker of these thoughts and myself as their subject.

The other basic way of conceiving of ourselves consists of how our lives feel ‘from the inside’ as we go about our everyday activities. One important aspect of the inside view has recently been discussed by Mark Johnston in Surviving Death (2010), namely the perspectival nature of perceptual experience. The world is presented to me as if it were framed around my body, particularly my head, where my sensory apparatus is mostly located. I never experience the world except with me ‘at the centre’, as if I were the axis on which it all turned. As I change location, this phenomenologically central position moves with me. This locus of perceptual experiences is also the source from which my thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations arise. Johnston calls it the ‘arena of presence and action’. When we think of ourselves as the one at the centre of this arena, we find it inconceivable that this consciousness, this point of view on the world, will cease to be.

The inside view is the default. That is, the automatic tendency is to experience the world as if it literally revolved around oneself, and this prevents us from fully assimilating what we know from the outside view, that the world can and will go on without us.

In order to fully digest the fact of my mortality, I would need to realise, not just intellectually, that my everyday experience is misleading, not in the details, but as a whole. Buddhism can help identify another source of radical distortion. As Jay L Garfield puts it in Engaging Buddhism (2015), we suffer from the ‘primal confusion’ of seeing the world, and ourselves, through the lens of a substance-based metaphysics. For example, I take myself as a self-contained individual with a permanent essence that makes me who I am. This core ‘me-ness’ underpins the constant changes in my physical and mental properties. Garfield is not saying that we all explicitly endorse this position. In fact, speaking for myself, I reject it. Rather, the primal confusion is the product of a non-rational reflex, and typically operates well below the level of conscious awareness.

When we combine the phenomenological fact of our apparent centrality to the world with the implicit view of ourselves as substances, it is easy to see how these factors make our non-existence unthinkable ‘from the inside’, so that the best understanding of our own mortality we can achieve is the detached acknowledgement that comes with the outside view.

The Buddhist alternative to a substance-based view of persons is the ‘no-self’ account, which was independently discovered by David Hume. Hume introspected only a constantly shifting array of thoughts, feelings and sensations. He took the absence of evidence of a substantial self to be evidence of its absence, and concluded in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) that the notion of a ‘self’ is merely a convenient device for referring to a causally linked network of mental states, rather than something distinct from them.

While remarkably similar lines of thought can be found within Buddhist texts, philosophical argument comprises only part of their teaching. Buddhists maintain that a developed practice of meditation allows one to directly experience the fact of no-self, rather than just inferring it. The theoretical and experiential methods are mutually supporting, and ideally develop in tandem.

Let us return to existential shock. One might be tempted to look for some unusual factor that has to be added to our normal condition in order to bring the state about. However, I believe that a better approach is to consider what must be subtracted from our everyday experience. Existential shock emerges from a radical alteration of the inside view, where the primal confusion lifts so that the person directly experiences herself as insubstantial. I see the truth of no-self, not merely as an idea, but in an impression. I see that my ego is an imposter, masquerading as a permanent self. The most perplexing feature of existential shock, namely the sense of revelation about my inevitable death, comes from my mortality being re-contextualised as part of a visceral recognition of the more fundamental truth of no-self.

But this raises the question as to what causes the primal confusion to temporarily withdraw when it does. The answer lies in Hume’s observation that the natural movement of our mental states is governed by associative principles, where the train of thought and feelings tends to run on familiar tracks, with one state effortlessly leading to another. The relentless operation of our associative mechanisms keeps the shock at bay, and the collapse of these mechanisms lets it come through.

It is no coincidence that my first encounter with existential shock took place towards the end of a long and rigorous retreat. Being away from my habitual surroundings – my social routines, my ready-to-hand possessions, all my trusted distractors and de-stressers – created conditions in which I functioned a little less on autopilot. This created an opening for existential shock, which brought about an inner STOP! – a sudden and radical break in my mental associations. Just for a moment, I see myself for what I am.Aeon counter – do not remove

James Baillie is a professor of philosophy at the University of Portland in Oregon. He is the author of the Routledge Philosophy GuideBook to Hume on Morality (2000).

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

The Humanitarian Crisis of Deaths of Despair


Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

David V. Johnson | Blog of the APA

Last April, Princeton University economists and married partners Anne Case and  Sir Angus Deaton delivered the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Stanford University. The title of their talks, “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism,” is also the provisional name of their forthcoming book, to be published in 2020.

The couple’s research has focused on disturbing mortality data for a specific demographic: white non-Hispanic Americans without college degrees. This century, they have been dying at alarming rates from what Case and Deaton call “deaths of despair,” which cover suicide, alcohol-related disease, and drug overdoses (primarily driven by opioids). These deaths have, along with US obesity, heart disease, and cancer rates, contributed to a shocking recent decline in US life expectancy for three straight years—something which hasn’t happened since World War I and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The rates for “deaths of despair” are not as high for college-educated whites or for other racial minorities, and there are many potential economic and sociological reasons for this.

Case and Deaton’s research raises important questions for the US political economy and the legacy of neoliberalism. But I am more interested in the framing of the mortality statistics as “deaths of despair.” Assume for the sake of argument that a large segment of the US population—non-Hispanic white Americans without college degrees—are suffering despair. What does it mean to say this?

We can gain some insight by contrasting its opposite, hope, which has received a lot of philosophical attention for the puzzles it raises about rationality and agency. Hope is a forward-looking emotion with cognitive and desiderative elements. We hope for things that are possible in the future (we don’t hope for the impossible or the certain), which means we make a judgement about their possibility. And when we hope for them, we desire for them to come about, and this desire can motivate our action if we think our acting can help bring it about. Is it rational to hope for something that has a miniscule chance of happening, and if so, under what circumstances? And when is it rational to act based on hope? Much ink has been spilt on these questions.

Philosophers have also thought about hopefulness—about hope as an emotional tendency or character trait that undergirds agency. People who are hopeful or optimistic are generally better able to pursue their plans and succeed, which gives the adoption of a hopeful outlook a pragmatic justification. One could argue that some minimal level of hopefulness is requisite for anyone to plan, act, and live one’s life, insofar as these involve forward-looking judgments and desires that are characteristic of hope.

We can see why despair, as a condition opposed to hope and hopefulness, can be such a debilitating state of mind. Despair undermines agency. The despairing person may conceive of plans and goals but feel that he is so unlikely to achieve them that they are not worth the investment of time and energy, or that even if he does achieve them, it won’t make a substantive difference to his life. So despair undermines the requisite motivation to pursue our plans and goals. A despairing person tends to passivity, to go along with the flow of life and focus on getting by, making due, and assuaging pain and foreboding however she can at the moment.

But despair—or at least the sort of despair I identify in Case and Deaton’s analysis—has a very different structure from hope. If despair were structurally like hope, then it would also be a forward-looking emotion with the appropriate cognitive and desiderative elements. We would be in a state of despair if we believed there was something that could possibly happen in the future that we do not want to have happen, so much so that its possibility gives us anguish and depresses us, to the point that we have difficulty summoning the motivation to avoid it or to go about our lives generally. To be sure, there are forms of despair that are like this. If my boss gives me a poor performance review and warns that I may be subject to termination, and the livelihood of my family depends upon my employment, this may send me into despair. I see my future firing as possible and something I desperately want to avoid, to the point of anxiety and depression. My despondent feelings may undermine my ability to perform better, making my firing even more likely. I may also have trouble living my life in general due to my negative feelings. I may struggle to talk to my spouse about her day or plan my daughter’s after-school activities.

But there is another form of despair that is not like this. This kind of despair is not forward looking, per se, but rather focused narrowly on the present. It sees the present as dark, dreary, painful, and uninteresting, and anticipates this state of consciousness to extend indefinitely into the future. It’s the feeling of unrelenting misery and ennui. No one wants to feel like this, but the person who despairs in this way does not form the desire to avoid it, or is not motivated by such a desire, because he does not see a means of escape or because the present sense of pain and dreariness is so overwhelming that it disrupts his ability to imagine such means. This form of despair is what Case and Deaton have in mind: people who have not only lost the will to live—i.e. to direct their lives, make plans, pursue them—but are so miserable and distressed that they either die by suicide or self-medicate with drugs and binge drinking to lessen their immediate pain, and do so as a way of slowly dying by suicide. It is the constant feeling associated with present consciousness that life is bad, and that it will continue to be bad indefinitely into the future. A sizable portion of the American public feels this way.

Case and Deaton’s appeal to despair, if we understand it correctly, should shock us. The prevalence of despair represents a horrific communal collapse. It goes well beyond statistics of poor welfare outcomes that alarm economists. It is about the obliteration of human lives—the undermining of the very basis of living a life, the ability to enjoy experience moment to moment, have enough peace of mind and stability to anticipate the future, make plans, and pursue them. It is nothing less than a humanitarian crisis.

David V. Johnson is the public philosophy editor of the APA Blog and deputy editor of Stanford Social Innovation Review. He is a former philosophy professor turned journalist with more than a decade of experience as an editor and writer. Previously, he was senior opinion editor at Al Jazeera America, where he edited the op-ed section of the news channel’s website. Earlier in his career, he served as online editor at Boston Review and research editor at San Francisco magazine the year it won a National Magazine Award for general excellence. He has written for The New York Times, USA Today, The New Republic, Bookforum, Aeon, Dissent, and The Baffler, among other publications.

This article was republished with the permission of the APA Blog and the author. View the original article here.

How Mengzi came up with something better than the Golden Rule


Family Training, unknown artist, Ming (1368-1644) or Qing (1644-1911) dynasty. Courtesy the Met Museum, New York

Eric Schwitzgebel | Aeon Ideas

There’s something I don’t like about the ‘Golden Rule’, the admonition to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Consider this passage from the ancient Chinese philosopher Mengzi (Mencius):

That which people are capable of without learning is their genuine capability. That which they know without pondering is their genuine knowledge. Among babes in arms there are none that do not know to love their parents. When they grow older, there are none that do not know to revere their elder brothers. Treating one’s parents as parents is benevolence. Revering one’s elders is righteousness. There is nothing else to do but extend these to the world.

One thing I like about the passage is that it assumes love and reverence for one’s family as a given, rather than as a special achievement. It portrays moral development simply as a matter of extending that natural love and reverence more widely.

In another passage, Mengzi notes the kindness that the vicious tyrant King Xuan exhibits in saving a frightened ox from slaughter, and he urges the king to extend similar kindness to the people of his kingdom. Such extension, Mengzi says, is a matter of ‘weighing’ things correctly – a matter of treating similar things similarly, and not overvaluing what merely happens to be nearby. If you have pity for an innocent ox being led to slaughter, you ought to have similar pity for the innocent people dying in your streets and on your battlefields, despite their invisibility beyond your beautiful palace walls.

Mengzian extension starts from the assumption that you are already concerned about nearby others, and takes the challenge to be extending that concern beyond a narrow circle. The Golden Rule works differently – and so too the common advice to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. In contrast with Mengzian extension, Golden Rule/others’ shoes advice assumes self-interest as the starting point, and implicitly treats overcoming egoistic selfishness as the main cognitive and moral challenge.

Maybe we can model Golden Rule/others’ shoes thinking like this:

  1. If I were in the situation of person x, I would want to be treated according to principle p.
  2. Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
  3. Thus, I will treat person x according to principle p.

And maybe we can model Mengzian extension like this:

  1. I care about person y and want to treat that person according to principle p.
  2. Person x, though perhaps more distant, is relevantly similar.
  3. Thus, I will treat person x according to principle p.

There will be other more careful and detailed formulations, but this sketch captures the central difference between these two approaches to moral cognition. Mengzian extension models general moral concern on the natural concern we already have for people close to us, while the Golden Rule models general moral concern on concern for oneself.

I like Mengzian extension better for three reasons. First, Mengzian extension is more psychologically plausible as a model of moral development. People do, naturally, have concern and compassion for others around them. Explicit exhortations aren’t needed to produce this natural concern and compassion, and these natural reactions are likely to be the main seed from which mature moral cognition grows. Our moral reactions to vivid, nearby cases become the bases for more general principles and policies. If you need to reason or analogise your way into concern even for close family members, you’re already in deep moral trouble.

Second, Mengzian extension is less ambitious – in a good way. The Golden Rule imagines a leap from self-interest to generalised good treatment of others. This might be excellent and helpful advice, perhaps especially for people who are already concerned about others and thinking about how to implement that concern. But Mengzian extension has the advantage of starting the cognitive project much nearer the target, requiring less of a leap. Self-to-other is a huge moral and ontological divide. Family-to-neighbour, neighbour-to-fellow citizen – that’s much less of a divide.

Third, you can turn Mengzian extension back on yourself, if you are one of those people who has trouble standing up for your own interests – if you’re the type of person who is excessively hard on yourself or who tends to defer a bit too much to others. You would want to stand up for your loved ones and help them flourish. Apply Mengzian extension, and offer the same kindness to yourself. If you’d want your father to be able to take a vacation, realise that you probably deserve a vacation too. If you wouldn’t want your sister to be insulted by her spouse in public, realise that you too shouldn’t have to suffer that indignity.

Although Mengzi and the 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau both endorse mottoes standardly translated as ‘human nature is good’ and have views that are similar in important ways, this is one difference between them. In both Emile (1762) and Discourse on Inequality (1755), Rousseau emphasises self-concern as the root of moral development, making pity and compassion for others secondary and derivative. He endorses the foundational importance of the Golden Rule, concluding that ‘love of men derived from love of self is the principle of human justice’.

This difference between Mengzi and Rousseau is not a general difference between East and West. Confucius, for example, endorses something like the Golden Rule in the Analects: ‘Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.’ Mozi and Xunzi, also writing in China in the period, imagine people acting mostly or entirely selfishly until society artificially imposes its regulations, and so they see the enforcement of rules rather than Mengzian extension as the foundation of moral development. Moral extension is thus specifically Mengzian rather than generally Chinese.

Care about me not because you can imagine what you would selfishly want if you were me. Care about me because you see how I am not really so different from others you already love.

This is an edited extract from ‘A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures’ © 2019 by Eric Schwitzgebel, published by MIT Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

Eric Schwitzgebel is professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside. He blogs at The Splintered Mind and is the author of Perplexities of Consciousness (2011) and A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures (2019).

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

The Meaning to Life? A Darwinian Existentialist has his Answers


Michael Ruse | Aeon Ideas

I was raised as a Quaker, but around the age of 20 my faith faded. It would be easiest to say that this was because I took up philosophy – my lifelong occupation as a teacher and scholar. This is not true. More accurately, I joke that having had one headmaster in this life, I’ll be damned if I want another in the next. I was convinced back then that, by the age of 70, I would be getting back onside with the Powers That Be. But faith did not then return and, as I approach 80, is nowhere on the horizon. I feel more at peace with myself than ever before. It’s not that I don’t care about the meaning or purpose of life – I am a philosopher! Nor does my sense of peace mean that I am complacent or that I have delusions about my achievements and successes. Rather, I feel that deep contentment that religious people tell us is the gift or reward for proper living.

I come to my present state for two separate reasons. As a student of Charles Darwin, I am totally convinced – God or no God – that we are (as the 19th-century biologist Thomas Henry Huxley used to say) modified monkeys rather than modified mud. Culture is hugely important, but to ignore our biology is just wrong. Second, I am drawn, philosophically, to existentialism. A century after Darwin, Jean-Paul Sartre said that we are condemned to freedom, and I think he is right. Even if God does exist, He or She is irrelevant. The choices are ours.

Sartre denied such a thing as human nature. From this quintessential Frenchman, I take that with a pinch of salt: we are free, within the context of our Darwinian-created human nature. What am I talking about? A lot of philosophers today are uncomfortable even raising the idea of ‘human nature’. They feel that, too quickly, it is used against minorities – gay people, the disabled, and others – to suggest that they are not really human. This is a challenge not a refutation. If a definition of human nature cannot take account of the fact that up to 10 per cent of us have same-sex orientation, then the problem is not with human nature but with the definition.

What, then, is human nature? In the middle of the 20th century, it was popular to suggest that we are killer apes: we can and do make weapons, and we use them. But modern primatologists have little time for this. Their findings suggest that most apes would far rather fornicate than fight. In making war we are really not doing what comes naturally. I don’t deny that humans are violent, however our essence goes the other way. It is one of sociability. We are not that fast, we are not that strong, we are hopeless in bad weather; but we succeed because we work together. Indeed, our lack of natural weapons points that way. We cannot get all we want through violence. We must cooperate.

Darwinians did not discover this fact about our nature. Listen to the metaphysical poet John Donne in 1624:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Darwinian evolutionary theory shows how this all came about, historically, through the forces of nature. It suggests that there is no eternal future or, if there is, it is not relevant for the here and now. Rather, we must live life to the full, within the context of – liberated by – our Darwinian-created human nature. I see three basic ways in which this occurs.

First, family. Humans are not like male orangutans whose home life is made up mainly of one-night stands. A male turns up, does his business, and then, sexually sated, vanishes. The impregnated female births and raises the children by herself. This is possible simply because she can. If she couldn’t then, biologically it would be in the interests of the males to lend a hand. Male birds help at the nest because, exposed as they are up trees, the chicks need to grow as quickly as possible. Humans face different challenges, but with the same end. We have big brains that need time to develop. Our young cannot fend for themselves within weeks or days. Therefore humans need lots of parental care, and our biology fits us for home life, as it were: spouses, offspring, parents, and more. Men don’t push the pram just by chance. Nor boast to their co-workers about their kid getting into Harvard.

Second, society. Co-workers, shop attendants, teachers, doctors, hotel clerks – the list is endless. Our evolutionary strength is that we work together, helping and expecting help. I am a teacher, not just of my children, but of yours (and others) too. You are a doctor: you give medical care not just to your children, but to mine (and others) too. In this way, we all benefit. As Adam Smith pointed out in 1776, none of this happens by chance or because nature has suddenly become soft: ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.’ Smith invoked the ‘invisible hand’. The Darwinian puts it down to evolution through natural selection.

Though life can be a drag sometimes, biology ensures that we generally get on with the job, and do it as part of our fulfilled lives. John Stuart Mill had it exactly right in 1863: ‘When people who are fairly fortunate in their material circumstances don’t find sufficient enjoyment to make life valuable to them, this is usually because they care for nobody but themselves.’

Third, culture. Works of art and entertainment, TV, movies, plays, novels, paintings and sport. Note how social it all is. Romeo and Juliet, about two kids in ill-fated love. The Sopranos, about a mob family. A Roy Lichtenstein faux-comic painting; a girl on the phone: ‘Oh, Jeff… I love you, too… but…’ England beating Australia at cricket. There are evolutionists who doubt that culture is so tightly bound to biology, and who are inclined to see it as a side-product of evolution, what Stephen Jay Gould in 1982 called an ‘exaptation’. This is surely true in part. But probably only in part. Darwin thought that culture might have something to do with sexual selection: protohumans using songs and melodies, say, to attract mates. Sherlock Holmes agreed; in A Study in Scarlet (1887), he tells Watson that musical ability predates speech, according to Darwin: ‘Perhaps that is why we are so subtly influenced by it. There are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhood.’

Draw it together. I have had a full family life, a loving spouse and children. I even liked teenagers. I have been a college professor for 55 years. I have not always done the job as well as I could, but I am not lying when I say that Monday morning is my favourite time of the week. I’m not much of a creative artist, and I’m hopeless at sports. But I have done my scholarship and shared with others. Why else am I writing this? And I have enjoyed the work of fellow humans. A great performance of Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro is heaven. I speak literally.

This is my meaning to life. When I meet my nonexistent God, I shall say to Him: ‘God, you gave me talents and it’s been a hell of a lot of fun using them. Thank you.’ I need no more. As George Meredith wrote in his poem ‘In the Woods’ (1870):

The lover of life knows his labour divine,
And therein is at peace.

A Meaning to Life (2019) by Michael Ruse is published via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

Michael Ruse is the Lucyle T Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and director of the history and philosophy of science at Florida State University. He has written or edited more than 50 books, including most recently On Purpose (2017), Darwinism as Religion (2016), The Problem of War (2018) and A Meaning to Life (2019).

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Philosophers in the Midst of History

This excellent series by Professor Gregory B. Sadler helps put some major thinkers in the Western tradition into historical context. Context is key when attempting to properly interpret a writer’s intentions, motives, influences, and thought processes.

These are video recordings from sessions in a quarterly lecture/discussion series, hosted by the Frank Weyenberg Library. Each of these talks takes a philosopher and places him or her within the historical context informing his or her work and life.

Videos in this series include:

  • Aristotle, Athens, and Alexander the Great
  • Anselm of Canterbury, the Church, and the Normans
  • Rene Descartes, Early Modernity, and the Wars of Religion
  • Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Holocaust
  • Plato, Athenian Democracy, and the Greek Enlightenment
  • Boethius, King Theodoric, and the Middle Ages
  • Thomas Hobbes, English Civil War, and Modern Political Theory
  • Nietzsche, the Apex of the West, and the Threat of Nihilism
  • Cicero, Greek Philosophy, and the Fall of the Roman Church
  • Augustine of Hippo, Struggles in the Church, and Rome’s Fall
  • John Locke, Absolute Monarchy, and Constitutional Government
  • Albert Camus, Absurd World, Resistance to Evil
  • Epictetus, Slavery, Stoicism, and the Roman Empire
  • Thomas Aquinas, Mendicant Orders, and High Middle Ages
  • J-J Rousseau, Barbarism, Civilization, and Revolutions

The video series is ongoing, so expect more to come in the future!

After a decade in traditional academic positions, Dr. Sadler started ReasonIO and began doing philosophical work in more practical contexts. He is an APPA-certified philosophical counselor, a public speaker, an author, an ethics trainer, and an executive coach (among other things!). He is also the editor of Stoicism Today and the producer of the Half Hour Hegel series.

Want to support this public philosophy work? Become a Patreon backer!

Interested in booking Dr. Sadler for a talk, interview, workshop, consultation, or tutoring? Check out ReasonIO!

Can you step in the same river twice? Wittgenstein v Heraclitus


Photo Pixabay

David Egan | Aeon Ideas

‘I am not a religious man,’ the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said to a friend, ‘but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.’ These problems that he claims to see from a religious point of view tend to be technical matters of logic and language. Wittgenstein trained as an engineer before he turned to philosophy, and he draws on mundane metaphors of gears, levers and machinery. Where you find the word ‘transcendent’ in Wittgenstein’s writings, you’ll likely find ‘misunderstanding’ or ‘nonsense’ nearby.

When he does respond to philosophers who set their sights on higher mysteries, Wittgenstein can be stubbornly dismissive. Consider: ‘The man who said one cannot step into the same river twice was wrong; one can step into the same river twice.’ With such blunt statements, Wittgenstein seems less a religious thinker and more a stodgy literalist. But a close examination of this remark can show us not only what Wittgenstein means by a ‘religious point of view’ but also reveal Wittgenstein as a religious thinker of striking originality.

‘The man’ who made the remark about rivers is Heraclitus, a philosopher at once pre-Socratic and postmodern, misquoted on New Age websites and quoted out of context by everyone, since all we have of his corpus are isolated fragments. What is it that Heraclitus thinks we can’t do? Obviously I can do a little in-and-out-and-back-in-again shuffle with my foot at a riverbank. But is it the same river from moment to moment – the water flowing over my foot spills toward the ocean while new waters join the river at its source – and am I the same person?

One reading of Heraclitus has him conveying a mystical message. We use this one word, river, to talk about something that’s in constant flux, and that might dispose us to think that things are more fixed than they are – indeed, to think that there are stable things at all. Our noun-bound language can’t capture the ceaseless flow of existence. Heraclitus is saying that language is an inadequate tool for the purpose of limning reality.

What Wittgenstein finds intriguing about so many of our philosophical pronouncements is that while they seem profoundly important, it’s unclear what difference they make to anything. Imagine Heraclitus spending an afternoon down by the river (or the constantly changing flux of river-like moments, if you prefer) with his friend Parmenides, who says that change is impossible. They might have a heated argument about whether the so-called river is many or one, but afterwards they can both go for a swim, get a cool drink to refresh themselves, or slip into some waders for a bit of fly fishing. None of these activities is in the least bit altered by the metaphysical commitments of the disputants.

Wittgenstein thinks that we can get clearer about such disputes by likening the things that people say to moves in a game. Just as every move in a game of chess alters the state of play, so does every conversational move alter the state of play in what he calls the language-game. The point of talking, like the point of moving a chess piece, is to do something. But a move only counts as that move in that game provided a certain amount of stage-setting. To make sense of a chess game, you need to be able to distinguish knights from bishops, know how the different pieces move, and so on. Placing pieces on the board at the start of the game isn’t a sequence of moves. It’s something we do to make the game possible in the first place.

One way we get confused by language, Wittgenstein thinks, is that the rule-stating and place-setting activities happen in the same medium as the actual moves of the language-game – that is, in words. ‘The river is overflowing its banks’ and ‘The word river is a noun’ are both grammatically sound English sentences, but only the former is a move in a language-game. The latter states a rule for using language: it’s like saying ‘The bishop moves diagonally’, and it’s no more a move in a language-game than a demonstration of how the bishop moves is a move in chess.

What Heraclitus and Parmenides disagree about, Wittgenstein wants us to see, isn’t a fact about the river but the rules for talking about the river. Heraclitus is recommending a new language-game: one in which the rule for using the word river prohibits us from saying that we stepped into the same one twice, just as the rules of our own language-game prohibit us from saying that the same moment occurred at two different times. There’s nothing wrong with proposing alternative rules, provided you’re clear that that’s what you’re doing. If you say: ‘The king moves just like the queen,’ you’re either saying something false about our game of chess or you’re proposing an alternative version of the game – which might or might not turn out to be any good. The trouble with Heraclitus is that he imagines he’s talking about rivers and not rules – and, in that case, he’s simply wrong. The mistake we so often make in philosophy, according to Wittgenstein, is that we think we’re doing one thing when in fact we’re doing another.

But if we dismiss the remark about rivers as a naive blunder, we learn nothing from it. ‘In a certain sense one cannot take too much care in handling philosophical mistakes, they contain so much truth,’ Wittgenstein cautions. Heraclitus and Parmenides might not do anything different as a result of their metaphysical differences, but those differences bespeak profoundly different attitudes toward everything they do. That attitude might be deep or shallow, bold or timorous, grateful or crabbed, but it isn’t true or false. Similarly, the rules of a game aren’t right or wrong – they’re the measure by which we determine whether moves within the game are right or wrong – but which games you think are worth playing, and how you relate to the rules as you play them, says a lot about you.

What, then, inclines us – and Heraclitus – to regard this expression of an attitude as a metaphysical fact? Recall that Heraclitus wants to reform our language-games because he thinks they misrepresent the way things really are. But consider what you’d need to do in order to assess whether our language-games are more or less adequate to some ultimate reality. You’d need to compare two things: our language-game and the reality that it’s meant to represent. In other words, you’d need to compare reality as we represent it to ourselves with reality free of all representation. But that makes no sense: how can you represent to yourself how things look free of all representation?

The fact that we might even be tempted to suppose we can do that bespeaks a deeply human longing to step outside our own skins. We can feel trapped by our bodily, time-bound existence. There’s a kind of religious impulse that seeks liberation from these limits: it seeks to transcend our finite selves and make contact with the infinite. Wittgenstein’s religious impulse pushes us in the opposite direction: he doesn’t try to satisfy our aspiration for transcendence but to wean us from that aspiration altogether. The liberation he offers isn’t liberation from our bounded selves but for our bounded selves.

Wittgenstein’s remark about Heraclitus comes from a typescript from the early 1930s, when Wittgenstein was just beginning to work out the mature philosophy that would be published posthumously as Philosophical Investigations (1953). Part of what makes that late work special is the way in which the Wittgenstein who sees every problem from a religious point of view merges with the practical-minded engineer. Metaphysical speculations, for Wittgenstein, are like gears that have slipped free from the mechanism of language and are spinning wildly out of control. Wittgenstein the engineer wants to get the mechanism running smoothly. And this is precisely where the spiritual insight resides: our aim, properly understood, isn’t transcendence but a fully invested immanence. In this respect, he offers a peculiarly technical approach to an aspiration that finds expression in mystics from Meister Eckhart to the Zen patriarchs: not to ascend to a state of perfection but to recognise that where you are, already, in this moment, is all the perfection you need.Aeon counter – do not remove

David Egan is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at CUNY Hunter College in New York. He is the author of The Pursuit of an Authentic Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Everyday (2019).

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Richard Feynman was Wrong about Beauty and Truth in Science


Spaceborne Imaging Radar photo of the autonomous republic of Tuva, the subject of Richard Feynmann’s intense interest during the latter part of his life and documented in Tuva or Bust! by Ralph Leighton. Photo taken from Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1994. Photo courtesy NASA/JPL

Massimo Pigliucci | Aeon Ideas

Edited by Nigel Warburton

The American physicist Richard Feynman is often quoted as saying: ‘You can recognise truth by its beauty and simplicity.’ The phrase appears in the work of the American science writer K C Cole – in her Sympathetic Vibrations: Reflections on Physics as a Way of Life (1985) – although I could not find other records of Feynman writing or saying it. We do know, however, that Feynman had great respect for the English physicist Paul Dirac, who believed that theories in physics should be both simple and beautiful.

Feynman was unquestionably one of the outstanding physicists of the 20th century. To his contributions to the Manhattan Project and the solution of the mystery surrounding the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, add a Nobel Prize in 1965 shared with Julian Schwinger and Shin’ichirō Tomonaga ‘for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles’. And he played the bongos too!

In the area of philosophy of science, though, like many physicists of his and the subsequent generation (and unlike those belonging to the previous one, including Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr), Feynman didn’t really shine – to put it mildly. He might have said that philosophy of science is as helpful to science as ornithology is to birds (a lot of quotations attributed to him are next to impossible to source). This has prompted countless responses from philosophers of science, including that birds are too stupid to do ornithology, or that without ornithology many birds species would be extinct.

The problem is that it’s difficult to defend the notion that the truth is recognisable by its beauty and simplicity, and it’s an idea that has contributed to getting fundamental physics into its current mess; for more on the latter topic, check out The Trouble with Physics (2006) by Lee Smolin, or Farewell to Reality (2013) by Jim Baggott, or subscribe to Peter Woit’s blog. To be clear, when discussing the simplicity and beauty of theories, we are not talking about Ockham’s razor (about which my colleague Elliott Sober has written for Aeon). Ockham’s razor is a prudent heuristic, providing us with an intuitive guide to the comparisons of different hypotheses. Other things being equal, we should prefer simpler ones. More specifically, the English monk William of Ockham (1287-1347) meant that ‘[hypothetical] entities are not to be multiplied without necessity’ (a phrase by the 17th-century Irish Franciscan philosopher John Punch). Thus, Ockham’s razor is an epistemological, not a metaphysical principle. It’s about how we know things, whereas Feynman’s and Dirac’s statements seem to be about the fundamental nature of reality.

But as the German theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder has pointed out (also in Aeon), there is absolutely no reason to think that simplicity and beauty are reliable guides to physical reality. She is right for a number of reasons.

To begin with, the history of physics (alas, seldom studied by physicists) clearly shows that many simple theories have had to be abandoned in favour of more complex and ‘ugly’ ones. The notion that the Universe is in a steady state is simpler than one requiring an ongoing expansion; and yet scientists do now think that the Universe has been expanding for almost 14 billion years. In the 17th century Johannes Kepler realised that Copernicus’ theory was too beautiful to be true, since, as it turns out, planets don’t go around the Sun in perfect (according to human aesthetics!) circles, but rather following somewhat uglier ellipses.

And of course, beauty is, notoriously, in the eye of the beholder. What struck Feynman as beautiful might not be beautiful to other physicists or mathematicians. Beauty is a human value, not something out there in the cosmos. Biologists here know better. The capacity for aesthetic appreciation in our species is the result of a process of biological evolution, possibly involving natural selection. And there is absolutely no reason to think that we evolved an aesthetic sense that somehow happens to be tailored for the discovery of the ultimate theory of everything.

The moral of the story is that physicists should leave philosophy of science to the pros, and stick to what they know best. Better yet: this is an area where fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue is not just a possibility, but arguably a necessity. As Einstein wrote in a letter to his fellow physicist Robert Thornton in 1944:

I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today – and even professional scientists – seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is – in my opinion – the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.

Ironically, it was Plato – a philosopher – who argued that beauty is a guide to truth (and goodness), apparently never having met an untruthful member of the opposite (or same, as the case might be) sex. He wrote about that in the Symposium, the dialogue featuring, among other things, sex education from Socrates. But philosophy has made much progress since Plato, and so has science. It is therefore a good idea for scientists and philosophers alike to check with each other before uttering notions that might be hard to defend, especially when it comes to figures who are influential with the public. To quote another philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, in a different context: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’Aeon counter – do not remove

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at City College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living (2017) and his most recent book is A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control (2019), co-authored with Gregory Lopez.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Philosophy Should Care about the Filthy, Excessive and Unclean

Thomas White | Aeon Ideas

Philosophy traditionally has been about ‘higher’ questions: what is knowledge? What is the meaning of justice? What is the nature of ultimate reality? These questions soar above the petty concerns of the everyday and reach towards a realm of pure ideas. But can the ‘unclean’ – dirt, mud, bodily wastes, the grime of existence – be relevant to the philosopher’s quest for wisdom and the truth? Philosophers don’t often discuss filth and all its disgusting variations, but investigating the unclean turns out to be as useful an exercise as examining the highest ideals of justice, morality and metaphysics.

In his dialogue Parmenides, Plato gives us an inkling of the significance of philosophising about the unclean, which he names ‘undignified objects’, such as hair, mud and dirt. The young Socrates, at this stage but an entry-level philosopher, is discussing the foundations of reality with the venerable Parmenides. While this encounter between these philosophers about ‘undignified objects’ is brief, it is profound, for it shows how insightful thinkers use digressions and marginal comments to demonstrate that not everything is as clearcut as system-builders – including even Plato – might think.

Parmenides quizzes Socrates about whether the theory of ideal forms – the argument that particular material objects have correlated ideal patterns, which are the perfect forms of the imperfect things – can include mud and dirt. Can there be a perfect form of filth? Taken aback, Socrates confesses that he is troubled by this point because it seems to lead to nonsense: ‘perfect filth’ is contradictory. Instead, Socrates prefers to return to discussing the higher ideals of ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty’. Confronted by Parmenides with the unseemly facts of mud and dirt, he takes refuge in the beautiful – unlike Antoine Roquentin, the protagonist in Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical novel Nausea (1938), who, in confronting the ugly facticity of the world, obtains a glimpse of actual, albeit repugnant, reality.

Socrates’ puzzlement at how to explain the very lowest (dirt, mud) in terms of the very highest (ideal forms) suggests the limitations of the dualistic, two-world theory that has formed the basis of several millennia of Western thought. The unclean’s ‘undignified objects’ represent a kind of outer twilight zone – a metaphysical no-man’s land – that eludes overarching theories about the meaning of reality. The very resistance of filth’s inclusion into a master philosophical system serves as a cautionary note, and a lesson in Socratic humility, warning the ambitious and overeager intellectual to slow down. Do not try to assimilate every aspect of our diverse experience into grand explanatory narratives. The unclean’s raw existence is a great intractable that rudely interrupts a philosopher’s thinking when it fails to fit neatly into the theory of forms, thus forcing the philosopher to curb hasty, ambitious generalisations, and think even harder and more clearly. (The classicist Edith Hamilton, in her introductory notes to Parmenides, suggests that Plato attacked his own theory of Platonic ideas in order to know the truth, not to defend his own preconceived views.)

Parmenides’ concerns about the limits of the theory of forms presages the empiricist Francis Bacon. In Novum Organum (1620), he argued similarly for the limits of intellectual speculation, and about the dangers of creating idols out of promiscuously generated philosophical systems by exceeding speculative boundaries:

The understanding must also be cautioned against the intemperance of systems, so far as regards its giving or withholding its assent; for such intemperance appears to fix and perpetuate idols, so as to leave no means of removing them.

In our own day, Slavoj Žižek in his book Disparities (2016) echoes the Parmenidean point about how the unclean can disrupt our comfortable theories about reality: ‘[S]hit remains an excess which does not fit our daily reality.’ An experience of disgust in the presence of the filthy and unclean disturbs our sense of systems and order, causing a ‘disintegration’ of our metaphysical understanding of reality, ‘the very ontological coordinates which enable [us] to locate an object “out there”.’

Like Plato, Žižek uses allusions to the unclean to alert the reader to how repugnant, discordant facts can undercut a particular vision of reality. He also expands the use of the metaphor of filth to call our attention to something else closer to his heart: the failings of our modern political discourse. Bacon warned us of intellectual intemperance, but Žižek uses references to the unclean to warn us of modern political intemperance. In the cases of Plato, Bacon and Žižek, the philosophical issue raised is about boundaries and the implications of transgressing them.

In the unclean, Žižek finds the ultimate metaphor for the dumbing down of political thought and speech, a way of understanding the collapse of modern political discourse – itself an echo of Plato’s critique of the false, that is, ‘sophistical’ use of political language – in which ‘public vulgarity’ is used without shame.

He begins his argument with a scene from a surreal film from 1974 in which people at a dinner party defecate in public:

We probably all remember the scene from Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty in which relations between eating and excreting are inverted: people sit at their toilets around the table, pleasantly talking, and when they want to eat, they silently ask the housekeeper: ‘Where is that place, you know?,’ and sneak away to a small room in the back.

Political figures today, Žižek argues, are committing the verbal equivalent of this public defecation. They are violating traditional, unwritten rules and boundaries that are used to guide public conduct by making outrageous statements that were once taboo. ‘They are a clear sign of the regression of our public sphere,’ he writes in Newsweek in 2016. ‘Accusations and ideas that were till now confined to the obscure underworld of racist obscenity are now gaining a foothold in official discourse.’ And citing Georg Hegel’s notion of Sittlichkeit – the ‘the thick background of (unwritten) rules of social life … that tell us what we can and cannot do’, Žižek further observes that ‘These [unwritten] rules are disintegrating today: what was a couple of decades ago simply unsayable in a public debate can now be pronounced with impunity.’

A discharge of verbal political filth has changed the public sphere into a kind of collective public toilet for language users – lurid speeches full of nasty ignorance, blatant vulgarity and raw prejudice. Plato and Žižek, with some tacit support from Bacon, use the notion of the unclean in similar ways to offer, implicitly, practical advice about how humans should conduct themselves: be wary of intemperately overstepping limits by chasing overweening ambitions, whether intellectual or political, which soil clear thinking and logic, and/or corrupt language, politics and ethics. Discussions of lowly filth, and all of its disgusting variations, are not merely the province of vulgarians, but seem to offer life lessons for everyone, not just philosophers.Aeon counter – do not remove

Thomas White is a Wiley Journal contributing author, whose philosophical and theological writings have appeared in print and online.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.