Sunday, 31 May 2015

Through The Looking Glass

"It is life, not truth, that really counts."

It has long since occurred to me to examine myself, to look at myself in the mirror and ask "Who am I?" This was not from any highfalutin' desire to be pretentiously philosophical but, instead, simply because it seemed to me to be the right thing to do with one's life if one wanted to take any responsibility for it. (Readers will recall that it was Socrates who said that "The unexamined life is not worth living.") I can report that looking at yourself in the mirror, perhaps even doing that and pretending, just for the few moments it is possible, that you are looking at someone else, gives you a different, more critical perspective on who you are.  Look in the mirror. Imagine you are looking at someone else. What do you see? Now I don't know if anyone else reading this takes a similar view on life. It may be that you never think twice about who you are, about what you want in, or from, life and you are content to just barrel through unthinkingly. But I'm not. And this is my blog and so now I get to write here a bit about what it has taught me. 

Now I could write this blog very philosophically but I'm going to try and resist the temptation. Philosophical terms and lots of "-isms" aren't always the most straightforward of things and in my blog I want to be as straightforward as possible. That's why I tend to make lots of the things I write about quite personal. Not only is this a reflection of my intentions but of my judgments as well. People relate to people better than ideas, I think, and I am a person first.

Now what you will be getting, I hope, if you have read any of my blog before, listened to my music or interacted with me on Twitter is that I am very interested in life and Being. Indeed, the year 2015 has been all about this for me. I can scarcely remember why now but I know that since January I've been writing music in that vein and thinking and writing about it a lot. Recently, I've begun a new phase of reading and thinking, initially started by a friend engaging me in conversation about robots and AI. This led me to start thinking about consciousness and, inevitably, this got personalized and I began applying the thought to myself. Now, this weekend, I had one of those moments I sometimes have where I try and summarize my thinking to this point. This blog is going to be that summary.

I have wandered down a number of paths in life. Many were dead ends as, inevitably, they will be. But some of these paths tend to lead somewhere and it's then that we become more enthusiastic in the journey and become eager to see where they go. One such path for me was the path of studying existentialist (sorry for the big word!) philosophy. I came upon this kind of thinking initially because of academic commitments but, as they fell away and became irrelevant, consumed by the relentless march of life, I found that the interest in this thought stayed. I was fortunate that when I was a PhD student I was blessed with a certain amount of money and at that time I bought a number of texts which stay with me to this day. Many lay unread for years but were just sitting on the shelf waiting to have their contents devoured. I have also found that the internet is an ever-burgeoning source of all the reading material you could ever want to find. Hit *author's name* and PDF and up will pop lots of choices on the Google page.

But to the meat. I am a thinker. I've always been a thinker. Partly, I was made that way. Partly, I was shaped that way. We are the products of genetics and environment, each of us living out unique lives that only we could possibly live for no one else completely matches us in those two crucial components. We may say that the journey defines us. But so does the start point. I have consistently found myself asking, even from boyhood, what is all this about? At younger ages these questions had a more religious focus but there was a point at which I got past that and found talk of gods unbelievable. I continue to find such talk unbelievable and beside the point to this day. My focus increasingly came to be this life that I had, the life we all have as individuals. It's the only life I believe any of us have and the only place we will find either answers or meaning.

And that is why I came upon existentialist (sorry!) thinking. OK, here is the explanation bit. Existentialism, in a sense, doesn't really exist. There is no school of existentialists and only really one man, Jean-Paul Sartre, was happy to call himself an existentialist in the first place. Existentialism, is really a body of thought grouped together as a category by other people that centres on thought about life, being and the self. So what is it about? Here is my quick version:

1. Responsibility. An existential frame of mind regards each of us as responsible for our own lives. There is no god or nature or ways of the world or rationality or other body to whom we can shift this responsibility. All higher powers, however conceived, are regarded as cold and indifferent to us.

2. Freedom. Existentialists are concerned with issues of freedom, be that free will or political freedom. This is also from the perspective of inspecting freedoms and asking how they come to be. For example, it's an existentialist question to ask how free "free will" actually is. (Answer: not very!) So existentialists think a lot about how much life "chooses" us and how we can choose it in return. In addition, there is a general acknowledgement that all freedoms come from situated contexts. Freedom is never an absolute and always a specific kind.

3. Individuality. Existentialist thought recognizes that each of us are individuals with our own consciousness, thoughts and feelings. In this sense, we know ourselves intimately in ways others don't. In this sense, we live and die alone. We can, therefore, neither live for others nor have someone else live our life on our behalf.

4. Rationality vs Passions. Existentialists are concerned with the human being and how we are in ourselves. Thus, they grapple with our make-up as rational yet also feeling beings. They question the prominence given to rationality over "the passions" as if the latter were base and unhelpful. (Compare Mr Spock in Star Trek or Mr Data in a later incarnation of the series.) Instead, they recognise that no emotion is ungrounded and that the different characteristics of a human being are not so easily separated in actual use. People are angry, sad, frustrated and a whole host of other things for situated reasons rather than at random. It may be that an impotent rationality is actually helped out by authentic emotions.

5. The Now. Existentialist thought tends to focus on the now of lived experience as the most important thing in life. It might be said that either we find meaning in our lives as they are, and as they are lived, or we don't find it at all. Another way of saying this is that this life, your life in all its particularity, is the only life that will ever mean anything. Some would also suggest that it doesn't really matter much how you live, it only matters that you lived. Thus, meaning is regarded as a personal thing that you experience in the concrete conditions of your life whatever they may be. It is in this sense that even mistakes are steps on the way to somewhere. It is the fact of a journey that is all that matters and the individual steps recede in importance.

 6. The Absurd. For some existentialists, for example, Albert Camus, life is an experience of the absurd. Camus himself conceives of this using the example of Sisyphus who was condemned to roll a huge rock up a hill only for it to roll back down again. He then had to repeat the task. Endlessly.  Camus argues that all of us are in the same position as Sisyphus was in our own lives and that life, for each of us, is ultimately futile. At the start of his book discussing this he thus says that the only serious philosophical question is suicide. That is, why are any of us choosing to live at all? For Camus the answer is in rebellion against the absurdity. This is not to deny the scenario he sets up (life really is absurd and futile) but to refuse to be consumed by the absurdity by taking personal responsibility. It is also to be noted, as I did in a previous blog, that this "futility of life" thought is an old one that we see repeated many times throughout the recorded history of our race.

7. Thrownness. The term comes from a German philosopher but the thought is common to a number of existentialists. The idea is that we are "thrown" into life. We neither choose who we are nor what our circumstances are. So much about who we are and what our opportunities or possibilities are were decided for us by other factors. Each of us lives in a situation we largely do NOT control. This includes not only our genetic make-up (who we physically and biologically are) but also the way we were brought up or the choices and possibilities we have in life. A novella which illustrates the dilemma of this "thrownness" is Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis" in which a man wakes up to find himself transformed into an insect and has to deal with this new form of life.

8. Authenticity. The idea here is one of "becoming who you are" as Nietzsche put it. Each of us lives in social contexts and the temptation to run with the herd is strong. In contradistinction to this, the existentialist is interested in being authentically who they are and living out the full potential of that. So this is about maximising the potential of the particular journey through life that you happen to be on as opposed to just following the crowd. Authenticity is a primary valuation of an existentialist frame of mind.

9. Knowledge vs Meaning. Existentialists come down very firmly on the side of meaning, personal meaning, as the thing which really matters in life. They see things like a search for knowledge as ultimately pointless and self-defeating. There will never be an end of knowing. It is literally a pointless exercise. But not only would you never be able to know enough, what would happen if you did get to the end and know everything? Nothing would. You would just have collected facts. But there is also the question of understanding. Existentialists suggest that existence cannot be rationally understood and therefore the knowledge is again pointless. Instead, what counts is a personal engagement with your own experience of life. In this sense, Camus argues that the impersonal, abstract, scientific view of the world, what one contemporary philosopher has called “the view from nowhere" is what gives birth to the absurd. Ultimately, only personal experience is meaningful.

10. Reflection/Rationality vs Experience. We find the same issue here as in our last point, albeit with a slightly shifted focus. The point, again, is that the lived experience of our lives is all that really matters and gives meaning. In that sense, reflective rationality, is both meaningless and impotent. All the thinking and explanations ultimately fall away and all you are left with is the fact that you lived. It is in your personal struggle with this fact that meaning comes to be. Your journey is what matters, your experience. There is no rationality of the world to get in touch with, no reflection that will make all things clear (as if there was a true, clear or genuine view to find).

So we can see, I hope, that existentialism (which doesn't really exist) is very much a philosophy of life, a philosophy of actual concrete, individual lives. It's not abstract equations or theories of everything. It's about you and me in all our particularity. Thinking about it and reading the words of those plugging into this kind of mentality has certainly helped me to get some sort of handle on my own self-understanding and to set goals for myself. It has also helped me to shape beliefs about who I am and the bigger questions such as "why are we here?" that, I guess, we have all asked at one time of another. Of course, the thought itself is much more complex than this and I have only provided the Existentialism 101 version here. But even if you think about those 10 briefs points here you can see how all sorts of existential questions begin to arise.

Most of all, I think, it focuses the mind on maybe the most important question of all: what is it to really be existing? Existentialism answers: to exist is to take responsibility for yourself, to commit yourself to creating who you are, to commit yourself to the journey that is your life, even though you did not choose any of this and have been thrown into a world and a life much of which you don't control and will never understand. Or, more simply, it's up to you. No one is going to live your life for you.

Now you might wonder why any of this matters and you might also wonder how this actually affects anyone's life. But take it from me that it does. For example, if you go on over to my Bandcamp site, you will find there a lot of albums of what I now conceive of as "existential music", music which, it now seems to me, reflects the views and valuations inherent in a lot of what I have just said. I started out this week with a creative task. That task was to make music that reflected "nothingness". (My next album is to be called Nichtigkeit which is German for "nothingness".) I asked myself what a "music of nothingness" would sound like. And then it hit me. As I have developed my music and my creative persona that has come through automatically. I have been making an existential music, a music of personal responsibility grounded in my specific life, a life and being based in nothing greater than itself, all along. So, for me, the "music of nothingness" is going to sound like me. Just as it always has done.

We are now through the looking glass......

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