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Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind (Burnt Norton, 1-15)

Burnt Norton (Rose Garden) - P7040004

The “Burnt Norton” manor house in Cotswold, south central England that T.S. Eliot drew his inspiration from. These are some of the beautiful rose-gardens.

If you have been following my blog, you might have noticed I changed its name. I decided this was best. My previous title The Popular Front seemed to outlive any meaning I had attached to it initially. This blog has changed from what I had originally intended it to be — from a (loosely) Marxist commentary on history, to a medium where I can write about the other humanities. All of these many topics intersect and the name The Popular Front, I feel, carries too much historical weight. It corners me to uphold certain political beliefs I had when I created it, some of which I do not hold now. I needed something more amenable, a title that didn’t signify an exact political ideology, and also one that was more curious than definitive. This isn’t to say that the bases of my politics are drastically different of course, but I am saying that the way I view my interests in relation to one another has changed, for the better. This has led to me to rename my blog to what it is now: Into the Rose-Garden, taken from the first part of T.S. Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton. 

Burnt Norton by T.S. Eliot is undoubtedly one of the greatest pieces of work I have ever read. It is part of a greater set of poems titled Four Quartets. Part I, especially, evokes a certain feeling (which I’ll get to in a bit) that I have yet to see captured in other literature so brilliantly. In the opening stanza of this poem (cited above the image), Eliot is merging two very crucial movements in intellectual history to reach an understanding of Truth. One is the European tradition of Romanticism which centered on ideals and realizing them. It was a very uplifting interpretation of human progress and historical necessity and was captured probably most famously in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Casper David Friedrich (you’ve likely seen it before; if not, here is a link). One of the problems of Romanticism, however, was that in a finite world, how can you capture the fullness of all experiences and all we can achieve (i.e. the infinite)? The early romantic poet Novalis writes of this:

Time originates with displeasure. Thus, all displeasures [are] so long and all joy so short… displeasures are finite like time. Everything finite originates out of displeasure [1].

In other words, finality becomes the ultimate limitation to the Romanticist dream: time and eventual death are the ultimate equalizer. As it is said, “whether rich or poor, [all are] equal in death.”

The second school(s) of thought that are also at play here are also some elements of Buddhism. Eliot was clearly familiar with Buddhist thought because it’s outright mentioned in his other poem The Waste Land. Eliot’s conception of time in the first above-mentioned stanza of the poem is extremely similar to Buddhist conceptions of dependent origination — the idea that everything which exists, all beings, are intrinsically related to one another. Eliot applies this idea of dependent origination to also include time itself; a moment captures either all of time or none of it because all temporality is intimately linked together. These concepts of “past, present, and future” are merely our own abstractions and the only real reason we can make these distinctions is because of the present experience. Time can thus be viewed as a metaphorical “hall of mirrors” — where the present encapsulates all that has occurred and all of what is to come. It is through the reflection of the present that we can see all time. As the Buddhist philosopher Dogen rhetorically wrote in the 13th century:

Just reflect: right now, is there an entire being or an entire world missing from your present time, or not? [3].

The present is thus the most important moment there is. This makes all of our choices immediately relevant and if you read further down in the poem, T.S. Eliot writes:

Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate…

The poem goes on to describe what the bird (symbolic of Truth) leads Eliot to sees in his Manor. He moves from one thing to the next, following the bird, showing the continuity of all experience. Finally, the second section closes with:

But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

What exactly is this “rose-garden?” — I view it as the greatest manifestation of the Romantic ideal, where language breaks down into what we cannot ever describe; it is the infinite, the most perfect, and an encapsulation of all time; it is also the metaphorical escape from the limits of materialism. However, the irony is that the rose-garden, despite being the greatest manifestation of the infinite, must still be viewed through time. This is because we have no choice. It is “only through time [that] time [be conquered]” and thus it is only through the finite that we can step into, or even glimpse, the rose-garden. Therefore, I do not view entering the rose-garden as an actual choice between one event or another. The choice isn’t to go into the rose-garden or not. We can never fully comprehend this splendor (i.e. actually go into the rose-garden) because we are bound as finite beings. Because of this, we are forced to view it through time itself — which, if we understand what T.S. Eliot said in the beginning of the poem and its Buddhist origins — encompasses virtually everything we can conceive of. The rose-garden is thus present in virtually every situation, we just need to make the conscious choice to be aware of it and capture whatever part of it that we can. The bird even hints at this in these excellent lines where the “hidden” (a crucial word, here) laughing children in the leaves are comparable to the rose-garden itself:

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

This symbolic potential for transcendence — the rose-garden– is present everywhere; held together by a radical conception of the present, the rose-garden is the interpolation of all time, of every possible narrative, and a symbol of infinitude. It captures a feeling that can be grasped but never fully realized, and as such its poetry more often resembles fervent religiosity rather than just an elaborate illustration of what life could be. 

I highly recommend reading the entire poem. I have only broken down this small portion of a greater masterpiece, but it definitely deserves a very detailed read. Regardless, this was the inspiration that brought me to alter the meaning of my blog, and even to reconsider all my writing in new light — my own literature should reorient itself to this end. And on that note, after a long hiatus on this blog, I would like to make it active again.

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A spectre is haunting Europe – and rather than communism, as Marx famously said, this spectre is nihilism. We are at “the advent of nihilism,” or so Friedrich Nietzsche argued in The Will to Power. However, why is only Europe in this predicament? Has the Asian philosophical tradition saved the East from similar demise? During the late 19th century, Buddhism was relatively unknown in detail to Western observers. It was through the work of Jesuit missionaries that Asian thought found itself in Europe. Nietzsche was fond of Buddhism to some degree, but he still considered it nihilistic. He used Buddhism to make comparisons to Christianity, contrasting them to show the futility of Christendom. Nietzsche likely encountered discussions on Asian philosophy through the work of Schopenhauer, who he admired dearly. His examinations between the two did not go in vain and, as historian Guy Welborn describes, he was likely “one of the best read and most solidly grounded in Buddhism for his time” (Elman, 673). Thus, a constructive assessment of Buddhist philosophy can help us fill in the apparent “gaps” in Nietzsche’s philosophy, and see if Buddhism acts as a proper remedy to the ills Nietzsche attributes to Western society.

I. Nietzsche as the “Buddha of Europe”

In a note dated during the 1880s, Nietzsche writes “I could be the Buddha of Europe: though admittedly an antipode to the Indian Buddha” (Halbfass, 128). Here, we find a contradiction of terms. In his writing, Nietzsche affirms Buddhism as the only positivistic religion in the history of humanity; however, he also distances himself from the nihilism and the disaffirmation of life that he believes Buddhism supposedly entails. The reason Nietzsche calls himself “the Buddha of Europe” is because of the ontological similarities between himself and Buddha; however, he also paradoxically claims he is diametrically opposed to Buddhist philosophy, since he does not give the same solutions that are posited in early Buddhist thought. Firstly, apparent in both Buddhist and Nietzschean thought is the utmost rejection of metaphysics. Of course, Nietzsche himself and some Buddhist schools dabble in metaphysical inquiry by establishing criteria of the “self” and other concepts, but they never make it a rule of their inquiry. Rather, it is supplementary to their greater philosophy. To give an example, Gautama Buddha, the original Buddhist sage, demonstrates skepticism of metaphysics in a story known as the “Parable of the Arrow” found in one of the five sections of the Sutta Pitaka. A monk, Malunkyaputta, is bothered by the Buddha’s silence on the fourteen unanswerable questions. Frustrated, Malunkyaputta then issues an ultimatum – if the Buddha does not entertain these questions, he will renounce his teachings as a monk. Gautama Buddha responds by stating that he never promised to uncover “ultimate truths” and then goes on to explain a parable of a man who had been shot with a poisoned arrow to further prove his point.

It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. [We] would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city…’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him (Bhikku, 63).

This parable demonstrates the futility of metaphysics in fixing the suffering (Dukkha) that is inherent in life. When a poison arrow is lodged into you and causing you pain, discovering just where it came from is irrelevant to the more crucial problem at hand, which is actually removing it. Later Buddhist thinkers such as Nagarjuna and Dogen affirm this position as in line with original Buddhist thinking. Dogen, especially, emphasizes this fact by “concern[ing] himself only with what is experienced… he is not concerned with notions of reality outside this process of experiencing consciousness” (Kasulis, 69). Rather than see statements as having “metaphysical significance,” Dogen posits that such claims are misunderstood descriptive statements about experience. In Dogen’s View of Authentic Selfhood, Francis D. Cook talks about metaphysics in relation to authenticity and the self. He writes:

Metaphysical systems… are constructed and defended to the death in order to solace and defend minds that are primarily concerned with their own reality, importance, and survival. As Nāgārjuna argued in the second century and Dōgen continued to insist in the thirteenth, all positions and ideologies arise from and, in turn, nourish the inauthentic self (Cook, 136).

Thus, for Dogen and Nagarjuna, metaphysics functions as a means to selfishly bolster the individual rather than cure the condition. Nietzsche, too, sought to bring philosophy back to the experiencer rather than put it in hands beyond ourselves. Therefore, he rejected abstractions as needless constructions that merely separate us from our actual-existing reality. He uses Christian imagery of God becoming man through Christ as a means to allegorically demonstrate that divine instruction, metaphysics, and “objective” knowledge has now grounded itself in man, for all of us to experientially explore.

That God became man only indicates that man shouldn’t search for blessedness in the infinite; rather, he should ground his heaven on earth. The delusion of a world beyond has cast human spirits and minds in a false relation to the earthly world: it [that delusion] was the product of a childhood of peoples (Porter, 1).

Buddhism (particularly the Madhymaka School) and Nietzsche reach their anti-metaphysical position by, firstly, rejecting theism. For Gautama Buddha, the idea of God was a non-issue since it has little to do with “seeing things as they really are” – as Buddha himself said, “I teach one thing and one thing only, suffering and the end of suffering(Nisker, 23).  It is because both Nietzsche and Guatama Buddha reject God that they also reject metaphysics, objective value, and any purpose behind suffering.

II. Suffering as Perpetual

Both Nietzsche and Buddhism affirm suffering as always present. Nietzsche derives his concept of Dukkha from the work of Schopenhauer, who might had very well come to the idea through Buddhism.  For Schopenhauer, suffering was “an obstacle placed between the will and its aim” (Elman, 675). Thus, “because all efforts of will arose from the constant dissatisfaction with its present state, there could be no end to striving; therefore, there could be no end to suffering either” (Elman, 675). Schopenhauer took this fact to mean that Dhukka can never be overcome and the only proper solution is to negate our own will, since we can never escape suffering. Nietzsche rejected this view and instead inverted Schopenhauer’s conclusion – the solution was not to negate the will, but to elevate it above all else. Although we live without God and objectivity, that does not mean we are doomed to nihilism. If we reject metaphysics and realize that Dukkha is ever-present in our current reality then there are two possible solutions: (I) we either appeal to Buddha’s Bodhisattva ideal in an effort to ultimately end it or (II) we affirm suffering itself and take it as a form of strength through Nietzsche’s idea of the Ubermensch. For Nietzsche, Buddhism is life-negating because it fails to affirm suffering as a means towards improvement. Rather, it wishes to escape it. As Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil:

The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, preserving, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness – was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering? (Kaufmann, 344)

From this common position of suffering, two potential roads open up: the “life-negating” ethics of the Buddha’s Bodhisattva ideal, or the life-affirming ethics of Nietzsche’s own Übermensch ideal. It is because Buddhism accepts suffering as paramount that Nietzsche places it higher than Christianity, since it does not succumb to ressentiment. Nietzsche’s characterization of Buddhism as “life-negating” comes from a misunderstanding of Asian philosophy. While the goal of Buddhism is to negate yourself and realize your self is an illusion (Anatta), you make yourself empty in order to affirm life. This same concept is present in Daoism, found in the Dao De Jing chapter 11:

By adding and removing clay we form a vessel. But only by relying on what is not there, do we have use of the vessel. …And so, what is there is the basis for profit. What is not there is the basis for use (Ivanhoe, 11).

Thus, it is through “negating” yourself that you become an empty vessel in order to be filled with everything else – you destroy the distinction between the self and the universe, in order to be fully realized and reach enlightenment. Nietzsche seems to be missing this characteristic of Buddhist doctrine; instead he focuses specifically on Anatta as a means to prove Buddhism is inherently nihilistic, a position which Gautama Buddha and Nagarjuna reject.

III. Impermanence and the Self

Heraclitus was a Pre-Socratic thinking known as the

Heraclitus was a Pre-Socratic thinking known as the “weeping philosopher.” He was an influence on Nietzsche. Here he is depicted on an oil canvas by Hendrick Bloemaert.

If suffering (Dukkha) is reality, then what does it mean to be resentful towards that reality? What does it mean to deny it? For Nietzsche, such thinking is an act of ressentiment and a characteristic of slave morality. However, suffering is only one aspect of reality. Nietzsche also agrees with the other Buddhist mark of existence, impermanence (Anicca) or the idea that everything is in constant flux. Nietzsche was introduced to this concept not through Buddhism, but rather through the works of pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. Nietzsche writes that “Heraclitus will remain eternally right with is assertion that being is an empty fiction” (Common, 15). Nietzsche hoped to transform the talk of an ontological and static “being” into one of a more dynamic “becoming.” This dynamism he attempts to capture in his conception of will to power (Barrett, 178). Reality does not create fixed entities such as subject, being, object, and essence. These words are created for convenience since we cannot possibly see this flux in full; we do not see the interaction between different beings, temporally and spatially, which leads to their co-dependent creation. By postulating “being” as fixed, Nietzsche argues, we make ourselves foolishly comfortable by grounding a reality which is, ultimately, never constant and always changing. It is from this idea that Nietzsche attacks truth:

What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding (Magnus, 29, 30).

In the same vein, Nietzsche affirms that the self is co-dependent and of “great intelligence, a multiplicity with one sense, a war and a peace, a herd and a herdsman(Hollingdale, 61). He also describes the self as a “social structure of… drives and emotions” (Hollingdale, 25) In the Will to Power, he expounds on this idea by describing the subject are more multi-faceted than just a “self.” He writes:

The assumption of one single subject is perhaps unnecessary; perhaps it is just as permissible to assume a multiplicity of subjects, whose interaction and struggle is the basis of our thought and our consciousness in general?… My hypothesis: The subject as multiplicity (Kaufmann and Hollingdale, 270).

Nagarjuna, specifically, speaks of Buddhist co-dependent origination in Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness where he writes in poetic form:

Entities do not exist In their causes, in their conditions In aggregations of many things, or in individual things Therefore, all entities are empty (Lindtner, 3).

In this stanza, “empty” does not mean “not existing.” It simply means empty of an essence. There is no static being that is a thing-in-itself; rather, an object is dependent on other entities for it to exist temporally and spatially.

Without one there are not many, and Without many there is not one. Therefore, dependently arisen entities [like these] Have no characteristics (Lindtner, 7).

The co-dependency of all entities also implies that these same entities are in constant flux. In these two stanzas, Nagarjuna outlines the case for impermanence. From the position of impermanence, both Nietzsche and Buddhists run into a problem – how can individuals overcome Dukkha in an ever-changing world? How can one create value or affirm anything in a world that does not have constant or eternal entities? Ultimately, these questions are where Nietzsche and Buddhists overlap. They both seek to solve the issue of nihilism which is inherent in an impermanent world. They do this by striving to recognize reality for what it is and then offering a solution with which to solve the problem of suffering. For Buddhists, this is found in denying the self and its desires, which will ultimately put an end to Dukkha. Nietzsche, conversely, affirms suffering as necessary to fulfillment which is the inspiration for his aphorism: “What does not kill me, strengthens me” (Common, 6). Despite the differing solutions, Antoine Panaioti in Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy attempts to reconcile these two views of suffering by arguing that both philosophies attempt to make its followers so strong and healthy that they no longer perceive suffering as an obstacle. In other words, both seek the elimination of suffering as an impediment – for Nietzsche, this is done through will and self-affirmation; for Buddhism, this is done by disaffirming the self and one’s will.

IV. Final Remarks

I find the Buddhist response to suffering to be much more sound, since impermanence of the self implies a lack of a subject. Nietzsche, paradoxically, triumphs the individual will above all else while also arguing that the self is multi-faceted and not just an essence. He is an individualist that denies the individual. The Buddhist philosophy is consistent because it denies the self as an entity of itself, but it goes even further – it also denies the subject as an individual agent. Thus, Nietzsche’s formula is left incomplete. Buddhism correctly fills in the gaps. At the root, both Buddhism and Nietzsche seek to destroy ideals. For Nietzsche, this was the entire Western tradition. The nihilist, in all its negative connotations, is in actuality a frustrated idealist that realizes abstractions will never reach perfection. The solution, then, is to simply destroy these notions of “ideals” and to live according to the “real.” In other words, in order to fully overcome nihilism, we need to kill Platonic forms, metaphysical tribulations, and conceptions of “noumenon” that cloud our perceptions. Therefore, nihilism is a kind of product of Western metaphysics. Buddhism had no such institutional opposition, and thus had no need to break down ideal forms as Nietzsche did. Nietzsche overlaps with Buddhism in his ontological conception of the self, in his ideas on “becoming,” and the reality of constant suffering. The difference is, largely, the historical context and the solutions for the problems posed. For all his denouncing and rejection, it seems that Nietzsche was much more of Buddhist than he cared to realize.

***

– Elman, Benjamin A. Nietzsche and Buddhism. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 44, No. 4. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983. pp. 671 – 686.

– Halbfass, Wilhelm. India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding. State University of New York Press, New York. 1988. Print.

– Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 Nov. 2013. Web. <http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html&gt;.

– Kasulis, T. P. Zen Action: Zen Person. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu. 1989. Print.

– Cook, Francis Dojun. Dogen’s View of Authentic Selfhood. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu. 1985. Print.

– Porter, James I. The Invention of Dionysus and the Platonic Midwife: Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol. 33, No. 3. John Hopkins University Press, 1995. Print.

– Nisker, Wes. Buddha’s Nature, reprint ed. Bantam, 2000. Print.

– Kaufmann, Walter. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Modern Library of New York, New York. 2000. Print.

– Ivanhoe, Philip J. The Daodejing of Laozi. Seven Bridges Press, New York. 2002. Print.

– Common, Thomas. The Twilight of the Idols and Antichrist. Digireads.com, 2010. Print.

– Barrett, William. Irrational Man; A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Doubleday, 1958. Print.

– Magnus, Bernd. The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. Cambridge, England. Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.

– Hollingdale, R. J. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Penguin Press, 1974. Print.

– Kaufmann, Walter. Hollingdale, R. J. The Will to Power. Vintage, 2011. Print.

– Lindtner, Christian. Nagarjuna: Studies in the Writings and Philosophy of Nagarjuna. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. New Delhi, 1997. Print.

– Panaioti, Antoine. Nietzsche and Buddhism. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 2013. Print.

 

Kierkegaard & Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard are often grouped together as some of the first thinkers in what would become existential philosophy. However, Nietzsche (who outlived Kierkegaard by decades) likely never encountered the other’s work directly. The differences between them are therefore stark. Although diametrically opposed on religion, both philosophers find some common ground in making the subject the most prescient matter in their works. It is this similarity which leads them into comparable territory – it forces them to reconsider the metaphysical tribulations that were (and still are) ingrained in Western culture, critiquing and dismantling them, all in hopes of giving the individual the philosophical focus it so deservingly needs. Nietzsche arguably does this best since he begins by overturning basic assumptions, leaving nothing unchecked, and then works his way up to the individual and the herd. Thus, although Kierkegaard writes poetically of the self, Nietzsche truly provides existentialism with an all-encompassing critique of contemporary thought by beginning with basal ontology and then moving forward, in an engaging fashion.

I. Ontological Differences and Categorizations of the Self

Kierkegaard does not have a strident ontology of anything but the self. For him, the self is all-encompassing and the most pressing issue. Therefore, he is not concerned with the categorization of “being” in the tradition of Aristotelian thought. Rather, he turns his focus to subjective experience. This is particularly why in Martin Heidegger’s notes on Being and Time he gives Kierkegaard much credit. He writes, “Søren Kierkegaard explicitly seized upon the problem of existence as an existentiell problem, and thought it through in a penetrating fashion” (Perkins, 187). Heidegger recognizes Kierkegaard as the first to establish the self not as a category of thought, but rather as a way of being. In other words, one becomes a subject rather than thinking subjectivity into being. It is on this basis that Kierkegaard largely stays away from abstractions on religion, the self, or society. In the same vein as Nietzsche’s polemics against metaphysics, William Barrett describes Kierkegaard’s skepticism in Irrational Man:

Existence and theory about existence are not one and the same, any more than a printed menu is as effective a form of nourishment as an actual meal. More than that: the possession of a theory about existence may intoxicate the possessor to such a degree that he forgets the need of existence altogether (Barrett, 141).

Kierkegaard was attempting to fight against the dominant Hegelian philosophy of the time, which posited that man was merely a victim of social forces – a philosophy where the individual disappears in change, rather than creating the change himself. Whereas many thinkers of his time influenced by Hegel and Kant saw existence as a concept, Kierkegaard realized that “[his] own existence [was] not a matter of speculation to [him], but a reality in which [he was] personally and passionately involved” (Barrett, 145). Therefore, Kierkegaard viewed the categorization of the self as a perversion of subjectivity. Existence is not mirrored as a concept in the mind, it is self-created and self-categorized through the “Either/Or of choice” (Barrett, 145). No metaphysical abstractions will do the self justice – only the subjective choices truly represent it.

Similar to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche’s conception of “being” is difficult to pinpoint since he is mostly a political writer interested in polemics. Yet, his ontology is the cornerstone of his greater ideas and is therefore necessary to understanding his positions fully. His ontology can thus best be watered down to a kind of opposition to Kantian conceptions of “being.” Kant considers there to be two realms of knowledge regarding an object, that which is phenomenon (i.e. experienced by the senses) and that which is noumenon (i.e. “something that is thought” or “the object of an act of thought”). Thus, Kant differentiates a “thing” from a “thing-it-self” and posits that the latter is not fully knowable since we can only infer from the appearances of phenomena. Kant uses noumena as a way to defend reason and metaphysics by arguing they are a “necessary limitation” since they leave questions of the divine outside of its scope.

The "thing-in-itself" is seen as that which is beyond perception.

The “thing-in-itself” is seen as that which is beyond perception.

For Nietzsche, Kant’s distinction is a meaningless metaphysical construction. A “thing-in-itself” cannot be conceived separate from its appearance, since that would undermine our entire ability to perceive. Noumenon is therefore identical to phenomenon. It is from here that Nietzsche begins to break down Western metaphysics from its dogmatic roots. By eliminating the “metaphysical realm,” Nietzsche inadvertently opens the door to an innumerable amount of questions – if there is no noumenon, if appearance is all we have, then there is no objective ethics, no distinction between metaphysics and science, and no knowledge greater than us. This trail of thought inevitably leads to a form of subjectivity, one which Kierkegaard embraces as the only real truth. Nietzsche pushes this idea to its ultimate conclusion by arguing for a morality beyond good and evil, giving agency to the individual rather than to “objective” categorizations of what one ought to do. It is through his rejection of the noumenon that he affirms life, the subject, and experience as the basis of philosophy itself.

Questions of noumenon for Nietzsche are useless since this reality is the only reality we can conceive of. Discussions on “ideal” or “greater” forms are thus useless in accruing usable knowledge. Nietzsche writes in Twilight of the Idols, “the reasons for which this world has been characterized as apparent are the very reasons which indicate its reality; any other kind of reality is absolutely indemonstrable… The apparent world is the only one, the true world is merely added by a lie” (Addis, 27). It is here that he accuses Western metaphysics of perpetrating a lie, of creating a “true” world of greater forms that distorts our actual perceivable reality. He goes even further, laying a criticism on Kant’s influence on metaphysics in The Challenge of Every Great Philosophy by contrasting him with Schopenhauer.

Kant clung to the university, subjected himself to governments, remained within the appearance of religious faith, and endured colleagues and students… Schopenhauer [had] no consideration for the scholars’ caste, stands apart, strives for independence of stat and society… wherever there was any kind of tyranny, it has hated the lonely philosopher (Kaufman, 123).

Therefore, Nietzsche mostly rejected metaphysics as institutionally illegitimate. William Barrett speaks of this in the Irrational Man, arguing that “Nietzsche ridiculed the very notion of Being as one of the most deceptive ghosts spawned by the brains of philosophers, the most general and therefore the emptiest of concepts” (Barrett, 178). Hence, there are no transcendent features of humanity that are always true irrespective of context. Such claims are that which philosophers want to be true since every great philosophy, as Nietzsche writes, “is the personal confession of the author” (Magnus, 216). Therefore, for Nietzsche, Western metaphysics ironically proves his argument for will to power – be it Kant’s a priori arguments for noumena, or Plato’s forms, these metaphysical claims are merely descriptions of what the author wants to see in the world, all to grant him to the power of knowledge, in the hopes of foolishly making the world more recognizable.

Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche value the subject and largely reject metaphysics, which is where they intersect ontologically. Kierkegaard’s position against universals bears resemblance to Nietzsche’s position of perspectivism – that there are many different interpretations, and different perspectives, of a particular truth. He echoes this sentiment in Three Upbuilding Discourses, “When one person sees one thing and another sees something else in the same thing, then the one discovers what the other conceals” (Hong, 59). Therefore, it is through subjective perspectives and the commonality between them that we find truth and fulfillment as individuals, rather than through categorizations and abstractions.

II. Ontology Applied: Consciousness, the Subject, and the Masses

Nietzsche and Kierkegaard both place emphasis on the individual, but apply these emphases differently. Nietzsche is concerned with the will of the individual in social relations and is thus concerned with questions of consciousness that Kierkegaard neglects to mention. He begins this inquiry from his ontology – if there are no metaphysical claims “beyond” human capacities, all that is required is the will for it to be done. It is from here Nietzsche explores consciousness, stemming from his ontological foundations.

gay-scienceHe theorizes in the Gay Science that “consciousness has developed only under the pressure of the need for communication… consciousness is really only a net of communication between human beings” (Solomon, 70). This “net of communication” Nietzsche speaks of can be conceived as a type of organization within an individual himself. In other words, consciousness is necessary to reconcile and communicate competing instincts, drives, desires, and passions. Given all of this burden internally, man is left powerless. Nietzsche writes:

Our actions, thoughts, feelings, and movements enter our own consciousness… as the most endangered animal, he needed help and protection, he needed his peers, he had to learn to express his distress to make himself understood (Solomon, 70).

It is here that Nietzsche’s position on the self becomes clear – we are not a kind of “Platonic essence” or a “Cartesian thinking substance”; we are a product of competing drives and perspectives. He goes further argue a controversial point that cements most men into the herd.

My idea is, as you see, that consciousness does not really belong to man’s individual existence but rather to his social or herd nature (Solomon, 71).

It from here that man finds himself stuck. Nietzsche describes our “subconscious world [as one of] servant organs working in mutual co-operation and antagonism” (Samuel, 34). We neglect this internal relationship and create a “little tabula rasa of the consciousness” through induced forgetfulness“ to make room again for the new, and above all for the more noble functions and functionaries, room for government, foresight, predetermination” (Samuel, 34). Thus, the creation of structure and the herd requires a kind of forgetfulness that is self-induced.

Kierkegaard fails to properly discuss consciousness in the context of the crowd. He only briefly explores phenomenology in The Concept of Anxiety where he argues that anxiety serves as a means for the mind to induce self-conscious reflection before a choice of either/or. The lack of analysis on consciousness leaves a gap in Kierkegaard’s work – he jumps into analyses of the self without fully establishing his foundations. Nietzsche’s claims, on the other hand, build off each other by philosophically reaching the self from the ground-up rather than assuming certain characteristics of the self and its interaction with the world.

Looking past consciousness, Nietzsche begins to dismantle the herd and its characteristics. He sees it as the main opponent of the individual since it values what does not have value. The herd accepts pessimism and makes value judgments based on fear and peer-approval rather than personal conviction; They take comfort in being in relation to others. For Nietzsche, the herd denies their own will. Similarly, Kierkegaard writes that “a crowd – in its very concept – is untruth, since a crowd either renders the single individual wholly unrepentant and irresponsible, or weakens his responsibility by making it a fraction of his decision” (Solomon, 13). The crowd (or the herd) therefore dissipates responsibility among itself, acting as one unit, but not taking responsibility as one. This creates a dissonance between action and accountability, which Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are correct to be wary of.

III. How Do We Ought to Live?

The question of what we ought to do is a difficult one and both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche treat this question differently. Kierkegaard argues that the leap to faith is necessary reach the religious state where one is personal dialogue with God. It is at this level that the self is actualized and becomes fully authentic in serving a greater subjective purpose. Therefore, the religious stage is beyond living as a mere ethical individual; it suspends the universal ethical for a subjective realization of God’s purpose. Nietzsche, too, suspends the universal ethical, but he does this from a very different philosophical position. Nietzsche’s discussion of ethics is not normative. He is very polemical in his writing and fervent in his criticisms, but he does not prescribe an easy solution to the social ills he diagnoses. He is simply interested in removing constraints, both real and imagined, which prevent individuals from reaching their actual potentiality. He worked to bring philosophy down from divine instruction to more human relations, in the grasp of our will. Kierkegaard, alternatively, wishes for us to subjectively realize this divine instruction rather than have it be commanded to us by others.

Despite not having a normative description of ethics, the point to take away from Nietzsche’s writing is clear – He was for the affirmation of life, to be able to look back on your life and confidently say “once more,” and to be able to celebrate one’s whole life in full. Kierkegaard was for this affirmation, but with strings attached which envelops man into an innumerable amount of paradoxes and inconsistencies. Despite Kierkegaard’s push for subjectivity above all else, he still leaves man’s subjectivity in the presence of God. Despite his desire to be authentic, his argument for the divine still robs the individual of pure autonomy since he is beholden to a greater power beyond himself. Nietzsche would find this to be a perversion of man’s will. Therefore, abandoning the divine as a legitimate argument truly places power back into the hands of the individual by eliminating the unnecessary contradictions Christian theology brings and all the institutional baggage it holds.

In Buddhist philosophy, the single-stroke circle represents continuity and the mind when it is not wandering. Its form bears resemblance to Nietzsche's affirmation of life; that one would do it all over again if need be, for eternity. This piece, Ensō (2000), is by Kanjuro Shibata XX

In Buddhist philosophy, the single-stroke circle represents continuity and the mind when it is not wandering. Its form bears resemblance to Nietzsche’s affirmation of life; that one would do life all over again, if need be, for eternity. This particular piece, Ensō (2000), is by Kanjuro Shibata XX.

IV. The Existential Diagnosis

Being polemical authors, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are both heavily invested in social criticism and vindicating the self against the masses. Kierkegaard identifies these social ills in The Present Age where he eloquently argues against the social excesses of temporary pleasure as a means of coping with existential angst. It is an age of confused spontaneity and misdirection, an “age of advertisement and publicity” where “nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere” (Solomon, 4). It is also an age where the public domineers, leveling passion to the lowest common denominator; “it hinders and stifles all action” (Solomon, 7). Kierkegaard argues that the public is “the most dangerous of all powers and the most insignificant” since one can speak to the whole nation on behalf of all, but yet actually be speaking to no true individual at all.

Nietzsche characterizes his contemporary society as approaching the “advent of nihilism” and Kierkegaard would surely agree. However, they would differ on the reasons behind the cultural malaise that sweeps Europe. Nietzsche would attribute the age of nihilism as a consequence of the death of God. He writes in The Gay Science, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms” (Kaufmann, 126). Nietzsche is arguing that we have exhausted religion as a moral compass and source of meaning, yet the objectivity we derived from the divine we still use foolishly. Kierkegaard would certainly disagree with this characterization, instead arguing that the cultural malaise is due to a lack of true religiosity of the self through institutional Christendom. Here, Kierkegaard’s and Nietzsche’s diagnosis of society can be synthesized to form a more complete picture – the kind of hedonism Kierkegaard describes is one of worry and concern, but it is directly linked to Nietzsche’s characterization of nihilism. It is because we are living in the age of nihilism that the present age is so bleak.

V. Conclusion

Overall, Nietzsche provides a far more nuanced existential critique of society and the limitations imposed on individuals from realizing themselves fully. Kierkegaard sets the foundation for analysis of the self through his assertions, but he fails to build on his ideas. Nietzsche’s thought can be mapped from his ontology, to his definition of consciousness, and then consistently applied to his social criticisms – Kierkegaard fails to create this basis and instead places the ideal individual in the hands of God. Inadvertently, Nietzsche pokes holes into Kierkegaard’s dependence on the divine through his anti-Christian rhetoric, during which he makes the case that the divine is yet another limitation on self-realization. Therefore, Kierkegaard – although passionate and refined in his interpretation of God – fails to capture the spirit of individuality fully, since it is constantly being anchored in Christian imagery. Nietzsche breaks all assumptions, questioning the very basis of Western though, forcing us to start from scratch and affirm life for what it is, in all its contradictions and absurdities.

***

– Perkins, Robert L. The Concept of Anxiety (International Kierkegaard Commentary). Mercer University Press, 1985. Print.

– Barrett, William. Irrational Man; A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Doubleday, 1958. Print.

– Addis, Laird. Nietzsche’s Ontology. Ontos Verlag, 2012. Print.

– Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre,. New York: Meridian Books,    1956. Print.

– Magnus, Bernd. The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. Cambridge, England. Cambridge University    Press, 1996. Print.

– Hong, V. Howard. Hong, Edna H. Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses: Kierkegaard’s Writings, Vol. 5.    Reprint Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992. Print.

– Samuel, Horace B. The Genealogy of Morals. New York. Dover Publications, Inc., 2003. Print.

– Solomon, Robert C. Existentialism. 1st ed. New York: Modern Library, 1974. Print.

aristotAristotle’s Categories is an ontological piece attempting to differentiate between states of being. It is a short piece, broken up into fifteen chapters. The most basic component is the distinction between the subject and the predicate. The former is what the statement is about; the latter is what is describes.

In chapter two, Aristotle gives a two-type difference between the natures of the subject in a statement of truth. Firstly, there is a statement that which is said of the subject. This type of ontological deduction is that which is essential to the subject. It is arranged in universal hierarchies. One example would be “the saxophone is (said of) an instrument” where the “saxophone” is the more specific type than the lesser universal distinction of “instrument.” This statement of truth is essential to the subject. However, both “instrument” and “saxophone” are two distinct parts and can exist independently in different statements of truth.

The second differentiation deals with what is present in the subject. This signifies dependence, since it can not exist without the subject. Thus, it is description which is non-essential to that subject. Such an example would be “Aristotle was wise” where wisdom is used as a description of the subject. In this case, the description of “wise” cannot exist in the same context without its subject. Therefore, it is not a part all of itself; it is merely present in the subject.

This distinction forms the basis of Aristotle’s ontology since it differentiates between two states of being. That which is said of the subject are parts which are essential to the subject, but are not dependent on each other in statements of truth. And that which is present in the subject is a description of it which cannot exist without the subject.

***

Aristotle’s Categories

616px-William_Blake_-_Socrates,_a_Visionary_Head_-_Google_Art_Project

Socrates, a Visionary Head (1820) by William Blake

In Athenian society during Greek Antiquity, religion played a crucial role in mediating public and state affairs. It served a social function rather than a personal one. Polytheism was embedded as the cultural foundation of Athens, where “priests and officials were regularly voted honors for their sacrifices that they had performed ‘on behalf of the Athenians’ or ‘for the health and safety of the Athenians’” (Parker, 95). Assemblies were opened with religious rituals to demonstrate good faith (Parker, 100). Thus, although individualist in nature, Athens was paradoxically mostly collectivist in its interpretation of religious affairs. To go against this consensus was public suicide – and likewise, any denigration of these practices was met with scorn by Athenians, especially by the more conservative members of the ruling class. For Socrates, this would mean his eventual trial and execution.

Impiety is relative to the culture in question. When discussing the charges against Socrates, it is important to realize the society which produced them. Firstly, the assumption must be made that Athenian law was justified in prosecuting persons for impiety, despite the fact that this type of offense does not exist in the contemporary Western world. From there, having abandoned our modern biases, the real contextual controversy arises – was Socrates impious or not?

Given what is known about Athenian religion, it would be very probable to argue Socrates was in fact guilty. In Plato’s account of the trial, Socrates speaks of a divine voice that prevents him from doing certain actions.

It may seem strange that while I go around and give this advice privately and interfere in private affairs, I do not venture to go to the assembly and there advise the city. You have heard me give the reason… I have a divine or spiritual sign… This began when I was a child. It is a voice, and whenever it speaks it turns me away from something I am about to do, but never encourages me to do anything (Apology, 31c – 31d)

Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David

Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David

In alternate translations, this “divine or spiritual sign” is called daimonion in Greek. According to Socrates, this voice has been present since he was a child. He follows it to a fanatical degree, resembling religiosity, and it “continues [to come] to [him]” (Euthyphro, 3b). To the typical Athenian observer, Socrates’s daimonion comes off as antithetical to religious norms. He had a private channel of talking to the gods (Ferguson, 174), which threatened the power of priests who were seen as the mediators between gods and man. Plato hints towards the rowdiness of the crowd as Socrates truthfully explains his “inner voice,” while at the same time begging the crowd to bear with his defense and believe him (Apology, 31a).

In the earlier part of Apology, Socrates tells the story of Chaerephon and the oracle which proclaimed that there is no man wiser than Socrates (Apology, 21a). Socrates goes on to question different groups of people, each skilled in their craft, to test if their wisdom was greater than his own. “As a result of this investigation… I have acquired much unpopularity,” Socrates goes on to remark (Apology, 23a). In an effort to justify his inquiring, he appeals to the gods.

So even now I continue this investigation as the god bade me – and I go around seeking anyone, citizen or stranger, whom I think wise. Then if I do not know who he is, I come to the assistance of god and show him that he is not wise. Because of this occupation, I do not have the leisure to engage in public affairs to any extent, nor indeed to look after my own, but I live in great poverty because of my service to the gods (Apology, 23b).

However, the immediate question that arises is – when did the gods ask that of Socrates? There was no command by the gods for Socrates to do such actions. The oracle merely declared that he was the wisest of men. The story is, therefore, inconsistent. It is likely that Socrates said this to appeal to the audience and to further prove his piety, albeit disingenuously.

Socrates’s assertion that his actions were god-inspired can be interpreted differently when related to his daimonion. He describes his divine signs as never action-inducing, but are rather a means to prevent him from doing wrong. Xenophon’s account of the trial disputes this. Socrates says bluntly, “a clear divine voice indicates to me what I must do” (Xenophon, 12). This is a noteworthy distinction. According to Plato, Socrates’s spiritual visions prevent him from doing certain actions. In Xenophon’s account, these induce him to act. Therefore, Socrates’s appeal to piety is a method to mask this inner voice. Regardless of this voice’s origin, be it religiously rooted or not, such a phenomenon goes against the orthodox Athenian conception of religion. Athenians practiced a public religion, not one of unique personal revelation – if such an interpretation was to take hold, the chief structure of Athenian culture would lose its rigidity. This was the fear of the Athenian ruling class and why Socrates was deemed impious, despite his efforts to mask these “voices” through the gods. In the context of the city’s religion, it certainly went against the consensus.

There are hints of Socrates’s skepticism in Plato’s Euthyphro. In the beginning of the dialogue, he questions the basis of believing in the stories of the Homeric gods (Euthyphro, 6b). However, this by itself is not entirely impious. Dr. Manuela Giordano-Zecharya writes in As Socrates Shows, the Athenians Did Not Believe Not in Gods, “[Athens] was moving away from a focus on ‘belief’ and towards questions of ritual, power relations and symbolic ambiguity…” (Zecharya, 328). Therefore, the fact that Socrates was questioning the Homeric stories themselves was not impious – it was that he responded to his skepticism by failing to engage in religious public life as he truthfully tells the audience in Apology.

Given what is known about Athenian religion, Socrates was indeed impious. His impiety can be broken up in two parts. One, Socrates failed to engage in the public rituals which held Athens together. Religion served a social function, to maintain hierarchy and social cohesion, and his absence from these customs was seen as contrary to orthodox traditions. And second, Socrates’s daimonion angered the ruling religious class in Athens since it was unprecedented. It created a personal channel with which Socrates could speak to the gods. And if such a conception became commonplace, it would leave religion to individual speculation and action rather than to experts. Aside from being offensive to the religious ministers, it threatened the Athenian consensus on religion. Simply put – regardless if death was the proper punishment or not – Socrates was impious.

***

– Parker, Robert. Polytheism and Society at Athens. USA: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

– Cooper, M. John. Five Dialogues. Hackett Pub Co, 2nd Edition, 2007. Print.

– Freguson, A.S. The Impiety of Socrates. The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Jul 1913), pp. 157-175

– Giordano-Zecharya, Manuela. As Socrates Shows, the Athenians Did Not Believe in Gods. Numen, Vol. 52, Fasc. 3 (2005), pp. 325-355.

I. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Maxim

sartre-endIn October of 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre gave a speech at the Club Maintenant. His remarks would become the basis of his next book, Existentialism and Humanism, published in 1946. In it, he establishes the idea of “existence precedes essence,” which would become the maxim of successive existentialist thought. This statement was a reversion of previous Christian arguments on existence, which argued God crafted an essence before one’s actual birth through a divine plan. Sartre recanted this idea and instead inverted it – rather than preceding existence, each individual is responsible for subjectively crafting one’s own essence, where he defines himself to his own liking. Thus, true “freedom” is the ability to authentically craft our own individual essence.

Sartre makes these claims of “defining our own essence” within a capitalist framework. In retrospect, our “essence” cannot be autonomously defined in an environment which manipulates desire. In other words, in order for our desires to be authentic, our environment must, too, be authentic. Capitalism maintains its hegemony through a production of desires which manifests itself through our consumption. Therefore, since consumers – which is all we are reduced to, consumers – exist in an artifice, their essence is also artificial. Sartre’s maxim would be unequivocally true if a coercive environment did not precede our existence. However, the truth in his statement is only partial. Rendered inauthentic by mass consumerist society, we are left with merely just existence without essence. As Oscar Wilde put it half a century beforehand, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all” [1].

II. Marx’s Conception of Alienation 

Philosopher Karl Marx in the 19th century described a phenomenon known as proletarianization. It is a form of downward mobility, where the working class grows larger through increasing levels of capital accumulation. As a result, wealth becomes transferred to fewer and fewer hands as the individuals who were once employers now are demoted to mere workers with labor power. And with this transformation, more individuals are coerced into selling their work for a wage. It through proletarianization that an increasing number of individuals experience “subjectivity without essence” – in Marxist terms, alienation.

responseIn modern late capitalist society, this idea has been pushed to its very extreme. Contemporary thinker Slavoj Zizek argues that the current historical situation should push us to radicalize the idea of proletarianization further, since its use has expanded far beyond the confines of the industrial setting [2]. Proletarianization is much more than a reference to a growing working class; it is a condition where an individual is ripped of his/her product, that which is naturally theirs. Therefore, Zizek argues, capitalism embraces this as an end far beyond the base of production. The current ecological crisis is yet another attempt to separate us from our environment. Similarly, intellectual property is a way to separate us from collective ownership, ripping us apart from our substance. In an effort to compartmentalize every aspect of life, capitalism detaches man from his surroundings and creates separation where there was previously none [3].

Thus, given these efforts to fundamentally alter human relations, can Sartre’s conception of essence truly exist in any authentic sense? If essence demands subjectivity than we cannot call anything contemporary “authentic” since our subjectivity is constantly being created for us rather than by us. As Zizek calls it, capitalism leaves us “subjectivity without substance,” in that it leaves us with constant displacement beyond our personal control.

III. Existing within the Simulacra

Artistic depiction of philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

Artistic depiction of philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

Now, how does freedom fit into this end? It simply cannot. True freedom cannot coexist with institutions which subjugate, separate, and alienate individuals. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard in his treatise Simulacra and Simulation denounces contemporary society as merely an artifice masquerading as the Real by eliminating any alternatives to its hegemony. He writes, “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true” [4]. Therefore, contemporary capitalist society – the simulacrum – attempts to normalize exploitative relations in an effort to make them appear universal. Because of this, we oftentimes assume liberal conceptions of liberty are the only form of liberty. In retrospect, this is the only form of liberty that can exist within a capitalist framework. Since systemic forms of oppression are cyclical in capitalist systems, they become normalized and expected. Therefore, commonplace conceptions of “freedom” are skewed and limited to the current economic paradigm and fail to transcend it.

Because liberal freedom is mainstay, proletarianization is seen as complementary to liberty in contemporary Western society. It is not seen as a menace; rather, it simply is. It is this acceptance and rationalization of oppression which prevents freedom from expanding. Worse so, it makes individuals hesitant to even accept greater conceptions of freedom. Again, it all relates back to Baudrillard’s conception of the artifice – the simulation becomes the only reality, while the Real is nonexistent. And it is within this artificial framework that radical freedom, free of institutional oppression and real autonomy, cannot exist.

Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation derives much of its theories on artifice from the French Situationist school of thought, particularly Guy Debord. He writes in Society of the Spectacle, “… just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing” [5]. Similarly, Baudrillard speaks of the artifice as symbols; these symbols reaffirm themselves and the existing artifice they create. Most importantly, such an environment induces individuals to uphold the artifice as if it were the Real. As Debord argues, “The more powerful the class, the more it claims it does not exist.” Because the Real can never be acknowledged, subtle censorship is crucial to maintaining its hegemony; and it is within this paradigm that freedom cannot exist in any complete context.

While we continue to exist in the artifice, individuals cannot achieve their essence. Hence, Sartre’s maxim is incomplete. Since human agents are victim to their circumstances, hierarchies of oppression hamper any realization of true freedom. These systemic imbalances in in class, race, sex, and gender maintain themselves by merely being viewed within liberal capitalism, rather than through the Real. Freedom is unable to be fully realized with this intact. In order for real freedom to be actualized, man has to transcend efforts of marginalization in order to complete the second half of Sartre’s phrase – and it begins by dismantling the institutions that constrict individual autonomy and liberty.

***

– Estranged Labor by a young Karl Marx discusses alienation as a concept. It is part of a greater collection called Economic Manuscripts of 1844. 

Jacques Derrida by Pablo Secca

Jacques Derrida

Mentioning Jacques Derrida makes some academic’s ears spike up. Derrida is known to be notoriously wordy, painfully dense, and riddled with jargon in anything he writes. Regardless of the difficulties, he manages to reveal patterns in Western thought that dominate discourse. One particular trend, however, forms the crux of his criticisms — the binary system.

Throughout Western thought, arguments have been presented in dichotomies. Socrates framed his philosophy through discussion by conversing with another party which would argue the objecting point. With the work of philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel, we have given this a title. Dialectics, as it’s called, consists of a thesis and an antithesis with the hope of producing a synthesis. This triad has become the basis of our argumentative Western society.

Dialectics-12

However, the influence of the dialectic process goes much further than argumentation. The dichotomy has become so strong that we presumably view all ideology and ideas within a binary. These binaries can be either contradictory (dialectic) or supplementary to each other, but are always opposite in meaning. And one is always seen as more important than the other. Western binaries tend to be, as a rule, hierarchical and unequal. For Derrida, these relationships are important to understand to fully grasp theory or texts. It is equally important to undermine — or deconstruct — these relationships and maybe even, in some cases, try to break their authority to reach a grander conclusion.

Let’s take, for a moment, the actual binaries and their content.

B versus A

Whereas is superior to A.

Good  ¦ Bad

Mind  ¦ Body

Reality ¦ Appearance

Self ¦ Other

Speech ¦ Writing

Man ¦ Woman

White ¦ People of Color

Bourgeois ¦ Proletariat 

These binary distinctions are based on institutional conceptions. Taken a step further, we can examine their relationship. “A” is supplementary to the dominate “B.” Noted literary critic Barbara Johnson explains this relationship in an essay titled “Writing” from Critical Terms for Literary Study.

A is added to B.

A substitutes for B.

A is a superfluous addition to B.

A makes up for the absence of B.

A usurps the place of B.

A makes up for B’s deficiency.

A corrupts the purity of B.

A is necessary to that B can be restored.

A is an accident alienating B from itself.

A is that without which B would be lost.

A is that through which B is lost.

A is a danger to B.

A is a remedy to B.

A’s fallacious charm seduces one away from B.

A can never satisfy the desire for B.

A protects against direct encounter with B.

These observations are not absolute. Different Western binaries express different relationships with each other; these are not applicable to all, but each of the examples given can fit into a few of these criteria outlined.

We have established the fact that Western dichotomies can take on two forms: contradictory (dialectic) or supplementary. Generally, discussions tend to be dialectical while the binaries in individual ideologies tend to be supplementary. This trend in Western thought is crucial in understanding the nature of discourse and its development. Particularly in the United States, most political speak is phrased as two sides to an argument. The outcome of argumentation is generally one of the following three scenarios — no conclusion is made, one side is proved correct, or a fusion of both opinions. It would be a insult to call American politics dialectic in nature, since a synthesis is seldom reached, but the binary of opinion is still present. This creates the illusion of two options and the constant regurgitation of the “lesser of two evils” argument in every aspect of American politics. Of course, European politics is not two-party centered. However, the Western binary still applies. Seldom is the dialogue expanded beyond the back-and-forth format of mindless debate and bickering.

Perhaps it is time to expand the periphery. The endless “debate teams” on high school campuses, the lecturing model of education, is based on a two-person argument. Inherently competitive, it usually demands one party to be deemed victor in “beating” his opponent during a debate. In education, the victor is clear — the instructor is the power in charge of mediating opinion and presenting information. During formal debate, the victor is decided through vulgar verbal exercises. Whatever the case may be, dialogue has institutionally become synonymous with debate and heated competition which is a perversion of what it actually means.

2617765Dialogics is concept conceived by Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin. It is seen as a methodology of dialogue that goes beyond dialectics. Rather than dialectics, where once ideology competes with another, dialogics is an alternative mode of discussion where many different ideas exist in the same space. There is no ideological closure afterwards and is aimed at progressing thought rather than resolving a contradiction. Bakhtin makes the argument that all thought is inherently dialogical. Nobody speaks in a vacuum — your language is based on what was said prior and the reaction it may create. Thereby, language is dynamic and perpetually redescribing the world. From this he concludes that dialogics has always existed as a phenomenon of speech.

What can we create from a model of dialogical discourse? We can create cooperative learning environments. We can destroy hierarchy relationships in public forums and education. However, dialogics is not a substitute for a dialectic process of dialogue. They have different uses. The issue is, however, that we have given debate precedence. Likewise, we have given these restricting binaries precedence. The aim of dialogue is not a cut-and-throat solution. It is for the facilitation of free thought and new ideas. It is a space where prejudice is suspended and where individually freely converse. And the need for such a discussion model becomes more and more apparent as we realize that a standardized education model of lecturing is not a satisfactory one.

Theatre of the Oppressed is a beautiful dialogical art where the audience becomes drama and enter the play themselves, rather than sitting as spectators.

Theatre of the Oppressed is a beautiful dialogical method where the audience becomes the drama and enters the play themselves, rather than sitting as spectators.

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eleutheromania

e*leu`ther*o*ma"ni*a | noun | a mania or frantic zeal for freedom. | [R.] Carlyle.