May 17, 2011

Der Glanz der Unwirklichkeit

I gave this speech at the Spring 2011 Toastmasters Area F1 (District 59) contest. (I wasn't competing, it was a target speech for the evaluation contest in German.) I've used several themes from this blog in the speech.



The speech is in German; switch on the captions for the (German) transcript.

May 15, 2011

The iridescent shimmer of nothingness (contd.)

(I continue from an earlier post to explore some similarities and differences in Sartre's talk of being and nothingness, on the one hand, and my notions of reality and unreality in this blog, on the other.)

A second parallel is that reality is primary, in metaphysical terms, before unreality: unreality can only be created from reality, but not the other way round. Every form of unreality relies on a background of reality which is much larger than itself. (For instance, take a fictional story, or a lie: we take in some description of the world in those, but most of that world is not explicitly described; so whenever there remains a gap in the description, we either fill it from what is implicit in it, or else we fill it in from what we assume to be the case in the real world.)

Sartre claims something similar when he says that "[t]he use which we make of nothingness in its familiar form always supposes a prelimiary specification of being." And he continues with some examples:
We say, pointing to a particular collection of objects, "Touch nothing," which means, very precisely, nothing of that collection. Similarly, if we question someone on well-determined events in his private or public life, he may reply, "I know nothing." And this nothing includes the totality of the facts on which we questioned him. Even Socrates with his famous statement, "I know that I know nothing," designates by this nothing the totality of being considered as Truth.[1]
Even the nothingness of what was there before a world existed would be based on the world which is now, and from within we can ask such a question. Such a nothingness (the 'nothing' we mean when we answer the question: "What was there before our world?" with "Nothing.") emerged only on top of our reality. If we did analyze it and strip it from "its characteristic of being empty of this world and of every whole taking the form of a world" as well as from its "characteristic of before, which presupposes an after", then we would end up with "a total indetermination which it would be impossible to conceive, even and especially as a nothingness."[2]

"This means", Sartre concludes, "that being is prior to nothingness and establishes the ground for it. [...] nothingness can only have a borrowed existence [...], and the total disappearance of being would not be the advent of the reign of non-being, but on the contrary the concomitant disappearance of nothingness."[3] There can't be any nothingness without being (or before, or after it), just as there couldn't be any unreality without reality.

(As a side-note: the process I have labeled sedimentation of unreality into reality also relies on this grounding of unreality in reality. Sedimentation happens when on the basis of some instance of unreality action is taken, in reality. Real events happen in response to unreality just as well as they are caused by something within reality. But all this presupposes an underlying reality as basis on which that unreality was formed. There is a hint to a parallel to this also in Sartre when he remarks that "it is from being that nothingness concretely derives its efficacy."[4])

[1] Being and Nothingness, 48–49.
[2] Ibd., 48–49.
[3] Ibd.
[4] Ibd.

May 14, 2011

Naturalizing myths

On the last day she was seen alive, Oreithya, the daughter of the ancient Athenian king Erechtheus, was playing with her friends by the river Illissos; not suspecting any danger here, she was taken by surprise and carried away in a violent gust of wind from the north. Stories and legends have grown ever since about what might have happened to her.

Ages on, two philosophers stroll along those same banks of the Illissos, minding that it's more refreshing to walk along country roads than city streets,[1] but nonetheless, of course, intending to put their leisure to good use— and what better use could there be than a deep and pleasant conversation on the art of love, the craft of rhetorics, and the philosophic life?

On their way, they pass a spot that looks just as it might have been the very site where Boreas, the north wind, once did snatch the innocently playing girl; it seems so fitting, as Phaedrus observes: "The stream is lovely, pure and clear: just right for girls to be playing nearby."[2] Of the two philosophers, he's the one who really has an eye for that sort of thing; he's got imagination enough to see how nicely the scenery would invite people to dream up a mythical story, unfolding here in ancient times: of the wild and passionate wind god, Boreas, who'd fallen in love with the king's daughter and, having been rejected by her before, decides to take her by force, seizes the opportunity, grabs and carries her away to a cliff where he covers her in a cloud and rapes her.[3]

Giovanni Battista Cipriani, The Rape of Oreithya
But even though Phaedrus might welcome stories such as this one as occasions for testing his talent of spotting locations that look like just the right setting for them, he also is aware that it is only a myth, something an educated person wouldn't believe in. Socrates, his companion, seems to have a more nuanced stance on this, however:
Actually, it would not be out of place for me to reject it, as our intellectuals do. I could then tell a clever story: I could claim that a gust of the North Wind blew her over the rocks where she was playing [...]; and once she was killed that way people said she had been carried off by Boreas [...]

Now, Phaedrus, such stories are amusing enough, but they are a job for a man I cannot envy at all. [...] Anyone who does not believe in them, who wants to explain them away and make them plausible by means of some sort of rough ingenuity, will need a great deal of time.

But I have no time for such things; and the reason, my friend, is this. I am still unable, as the Delphic inscription orders, to know myself; and it really seems to me ridiculous to look into other things before I have understood that.[4]
I think is important to note that Socrates says two things here: first, he recognizes the possibility to give a naturalized account of the events.[5] It is possible to explain it without recourse to gods or supernatural powers; what happened can be accounted for by giving a perfectly ordinary explanation. But, secondly, he also says that there are more important things to do, that it is not of the highest importance to do so; at least that is so for him, but by quoting the Delphic prescription, "know thyself", it seems clear that he thinks it would be a good idea for others as well to strive for self-knowledge rather than think up sophisticated naturalized versions of complicated ancient myths.[6] Thus, although Socrates might not really believe that gods and the like are necessary for explaining what's going on, he still seems to acknowledge that stories such as this can tell us something about ourselves—something we might also formulate differently (in a naturalized way, perhaps), but which would then also take more time and effort to formulate, time and effort that could be spent more wisely otherwise.

Not only does Socrates express tolerance for mythological accounts here, but later on he uses myths himself to make some of his ideas intelligible. And what applies to Socrates, the character in the Phaedrus, holds also more generally for Plato; he's built mythical stories into many of his dialogues. (Think, for instance, of the myth of the ancestry and birth of Eros in the Symposium, 203b–c.) Myths, as a form of unreality, are a vehicle of the imagination just as novels or movies are in our time, and as such they can convey insights, enhance our self-knowledge, make the world more intelligible for us, and propel us forward in our actions and projects.

(Next, I'll look into the corresponding need to restrict myth, by what I call reflection, in Plato.)

[1] Phdr. 227a–b. All quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the Phaedrus.

[2] 229b; The general theme of fittingness of the sites they encounter, the 'impressario' role of Phaedrus in choosing them, and the dramatic and philosophical significance of all this for what follows (after all, the Phaedrus is the only dialogue where Plato makes substantial use of a landscape setting, and one outside the city for that) is carefully analyzed by G.R.F. Ferrari, in his Listening to the Cicadas. A study of Plato's Phaedrus, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1987, ch. 1. Thus, that Socrates responds with a correction of fact at this point shows that "appropriateness is not a sufficient condition for truth" (ibd. 10). And then he launches into what is also the topic of this post, namely that "in a certain sense of truth, truth is not what matters". (Or, in the terminology of this blog: there is a role for unreality, just as for reality, in all our thinking and acting.)

[3] See the Wikipedia entry about Oreithya for more details on the myth, and references.

[4] 229c–230a

[5] Note that the term 'naturalized' is a modern word that I simply use for convenience; of course, the ancient Greek concept of nature was very different from the one that we have in mind when we talk of 'naturalizing' ideas.

An alternative might have been the term 'rationalizing' (which is what Ferrari uses in his analysis of the passage in Listening to the Cicadas). Insofar as rationalizing would mean to find reasons or reasonable explanations (ratio roughly means reason, after all), this doesn't seem to be a helpful term to me, though. Both the myth and the naturalized explanation aim at coming to terms (and thus to emotionally cope) with what is a disturbing event: the vanishing and probable violent death of a young girl. Both the mythical story and the naturalized story provide an account of what happened, and in both cases the account is given in a coherent, intelligible way. Their difference lies in that the former includes forces (such as gods and the extraordinary powers ascribed to them) which the latter wouldn't allow, restricting itself to natural forces. These stories differ only in the ingredients of the world view from which they come, but not in the rationalizing function (which both fulfill).

[6] By quoting the Delphic oracle, Socrates indirectly brings the authority of Apollo into play; which looks a little tendentious if you're on the side of the naturalizers. If you strive for naturalized explanations of the events in old myths, surely you wouldn't stop at oracles and this god either. Of course, the natural reply here would be that Apollo stands for rational discourse, truth and insight, and finally self-knowledge; there's nothing really mythical about that, and Socrates claim about priorities is made precisely as a rational argument (there are more important things than old stories, and time is limited).

May 10, 2011

The iridescent shimmer of nothingness

When Sartre writes, in Being and Nothingness, that "we see nothingness making the world iridescent, casting a shimmer over things" (58)[1], his notion of nothingness is not quite the same as my notion of unreality, and his 'iridescent shimmer' not the same as my concept of beauty. But they're close enough to venture a comparison.


1) For one thing, both Sartre's nothingness and my unreality come into the world because of us human beings, who have consciousness and can take various attitudes towards what's going on around us. There wouldn't be nothingness (or unreality) if there were no human (or other conscious) beings, if the world consisted only of rivers and stones, trees and insects.[2] The key to these attitudes seems to be an ability to think of possibilities, of ways the world might be (in contrast to how it actually is, or at least seems to be). "[n]on-being always appears within the limits of a human expectation", and "negation[3] appears on the original basis of a relation of man to the world. The world does not disclose its non-beings to one who has not first posited them as possibilities." (38)

However, compared to unreality (in my sense), these possibilities may remain implied—and will remain so, in fact, in the majority of cases. They form a much more pervasive background in Sartres universe than instances of unreality (which must play out in the world) could produce. Whenever something is missing, absent, or lacking, there's nothingness; Sartre himself brings examples such as the notions of destruction (39–40) and distance (54–55); and eventually lists "absence, change, otherness, repulsion, regret, distraction, etc. [...] which in their inner structure are inhabited by negation" (55). Thus his notion of nothingness is much more inflationary than my unreality, which implies the deliberate creation of what is at least in some respects a 'candidate reality'.

He also has (I think) a much heavier burden of argument to carry for his claim that these n├ęgatités, as he calls them, are a feature of objective reality. They're not subjective in the sense that we merely produce them in judgments, i.e. in our descriptions of the world, but there is something in objective reality that precedes them, and is in fact what such judgments are about: "non-being does not come to things by a negative judgment; it is the negative judgment, on the contrary, which is conditioned and supported by non-being." (42) Now, on my account, unreality does come into the world by mere mental activity (thinking, imagining, remembering, and so on), and so it has obviously no claim for belonging to objective reality. Of course, unreality it doesn't come into the world by simple negative judgments, but instead by a rather more complex human activity (for which I've used the broad term 'imagination'). Yet at the same time, the paradigm examples of forms of unreality (the various sorts of fiction, scenarios, lies, dreams, and the future as well as the past) seem to me more specific and concrete in their phenomenology than Sartre's n├ęgatités.

2) This may make the scope of these two notions look rather different, and yet there are also some more (and deep) points of agreement.

(Of which there'll be more later.)

[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness. A phenomenological essay on ontology. Translated and with an introduction by Hazel Barnes. NY: Washington Square Press 1992. Quoted with page numbers in the text.
[2] Where exactly does the line run? Do animals count as conscious beings? In some sense, of course, but I think the way Sartre uses the term it would require more than (most) animals are capable of. At the very least, none of the forms of unreality in my sense are within reach for (most of) them. (I say 'most' because, again, we may have to qualify this a little since latest research seems to find rudimentary forms of self-consciousness in some primates. Some rudimentary forms of unreality, then, might be in play for these as well.)
[3] A judgment about some instance of nothingness is called a 'negation' in the context from which I'm quoting.

May 8, 2011

Borges' crevices of unreason

We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.
Thus Borges has memorably summarized his brief discussion of the appearance in philosophy of paradoxes flowing from the idea of infinity. (A formulation suggestively posed just after another quote from Novalis to the same effect, but formulated in terms of magic instead of dreams, thus replacing one form of mystified unreality with another one.)

'Unrealities', as Borges uses the term (in the essay, though not in the passage I quoted), seem to be exclusively paradoxes, which are however assumed to reflect something in the nature of the universe. Mere fiction, say, or ordinary dreams would not count as unrealities in Borges' use of the term, as they would in mine. He finds examples for his unrealities in Zeno's paradoxes of motion and Kant's antinomies of reason. (The former he traces through a mostly arbitrary selection of philosophical works.) Given the "hallucinatory nature of the world", which remains in Borges' essay a mere claim rather than a motivated view, the function of such paradoxes (those "tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason") is to remind us of the falseness of the world. They are part of the original plan: the illusion might be perfect, so that we can't see through it; but anticipating that success, we have put some signposts for our dreaming selves into it which tell us that this dream world is false.


But it remains to be clarified in what relationship a 'false' world and a 'true' world would stand. (Note that the pair of terms, reality vs. unreality, is already used up for the reality of the dream world vs. the paradoxes built into it.) Would a world that didn't contain those 'unrealities', in Borges' sense of the term, be so perfect that it couldn't be distinguished from a 'true' world then? Would that mean that it were a 'true' world? Or would it still be 'false' because of its origin as dreamt? Moreover, is there yet another world, that of the dreamer who "has dreamt the world"? And if so, is that containing world now a 'true' world, or yet another dreamt one? And if the latter, how could we avoid the infinite regress that Borges himself has found in all those philosophical texts? Wouldn't he have to diagnose that regress first and foremost in the idealist philosophies to which he refers so admiringly?

For all its bibliographical interest, there isn't much to be gained from Borges' essay. What, then, remains to be drawn from it? At least, there is a memorable (and beautiful) quote: right at the end.

[1] Jorge Luis Borges, "Avatars of the Tortoise", in: Labyrinths. New York: New Directions 1964, 202–208, 208.

May 1, 2011

Gambling with Sartre

So, if we take Kierkegaard's definition of the self, unreality is inherent in the structure of the self. (If we both accept Kierkegaard's definition of a self, and that the past is a form of unreality—which are mere claims so far. Let's further suspend judgment on all that and keep playing the game a little longer.)

Sartre is making a similar point in the course his discussion of 'The Origin of Nothingness'.[1] He is out to show that between our actions and the motives we have for those actions there is inevitably a gap: our motives themselves are ineffective to bring about our actions. It's always possible that we act differently, or don't act at all. And though I may have a motive to act in a certain way, nothing in that motive is sufficient to make me act that way (rather than act differently, or not act at all). Sartre speaks here of "that nothing which insinuates itself between motives and act". (71) For him, this idea has to carry some theoretical burden: because of it we can experience human freedom: "the structure of motives as ineffective is the condition of my freedom" (ibd.). If we couldn't perceive our motives as in the end always ineffective, we wouldn't be able to see ourselves as free. But since we do experience them as ineffective, we are aware that we have to make up our attitudes and actions over and over again; thus "freedom [...] is characterized by a constantly renewed obligation to remake the Self which designates the free being". (72)


And he gives a very helpful example for this line of thought: the gambler. Sartre invites us to consider the case of a man who has been a habitual gambler and now wants to stop it—he's "freely and sincerely decided not to gamble any more." (69) He might have all sorts of good reasons (perhaps he realizes he risks financial ruin, or he feels he is a disappointment to his family and wants to correct that). So he makes a resolution of 'not playing any more'. Now, having thought it through and being determined to stick to the resolution, that should be enough to make his future actions comply with it, shouldn't it? However, what he actually experiences shows that this was an illusion: "when he approaches the gambling table, [he] suddenly sees all his resolutions melt away." (Ibd.) What he realizes is that however determined his stance might have been, it's in the past, and if he wants his reasons to guide his actions, he has to re-make the decision, he has to get to the resolve again:
I should have liked so much not to gamble anymore; yesterday I even had a synthetic apprehension of the situation (threatening ruin, disappointment of relatives) as forbidding me to play. It seemed to me that I had established a real barrier between gambling and myself, and now I suddenly perceive that my former understanding of the situation is no more than a memory of an idea, a memory of a feeling. In order for it to come to my aid once more, I have to remake it ex nihilo and freely. (70)
One thing we should note here is that, in this example, freedom is not exactly welcome. On the contrary, it is a thoroughly disturbing insight that at this point, the gambler is free, i.e. exactly not bound by the resolution he had made in the past. Or, to put it the other way round: there was a certain comfort and security in the idea that a resolution might be enough to control one's further actions; the insight that it doesn't, that in the event there is nothing to stop one from acting against a resolution, destroys that comfort and security. Being free isn't always easy. (More often than not, according to Sartre, we attempt to look away from our freedom in an attitude which he calls 'Bad Faith' and illustrates most ingeniously a few sections after the passage I've just quoted.)

That we have to "remake the Self" (72) in this way is because the past that is involved here is a form of unreality (and not reality). (Notice, in the quote that I'm about to give, how Sartre tellingly puts the word 'magic' in the mouth of his gambler.) Or again, as Sartre puts the point:
The not gambling is only one of my possibilities, as the fact of gambling is one of them, neither more nor less. I must rediscover the fear of financial ruin or of disappointing my family, etc., I must re-create it as experienced fear. [...] After having patiently built up barriers and walls, after enclosing myself in the magic circle of a resolution, I perceive with anguish that nothing prevents me from gambling. (72)
And there we have it, the "nothing which insinuates itself between motives and act". (71) It's a nothingness (as Sartre calls it) which in this case comes from the past, a form of unreality, being involved here. (Other forms of unreality might come into play, but in this example, just as in my own example in my post about Kierkegaard's definition of self, it happens to be the past.) According to him (if I understand correctly), such nothingness is continuously involved in the relation of a human being with itself, and thus an inevitable component of it. When we become aware of this, one effect is that we become aware of our own essential freedom (which we experience in what Sartre calls 'anguish'). What's perhaps even more interesting is that, in continuously doing so, human beings (beings with consciousness and a self) perpetually bring nothingness into the world—that's where it actually comes from.

(But this is a topic for another time.)

[1] In chapter 1 of his Being and Nothingness. Translated and with an introduction by Hazel Barnes. NY: Washington Square Press 1992. Quoted with page numbers in the text.