Is Modern Society Stealing What Makes Us Human?: A Glimpse Into Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra by The Partially Examined Life

Image by Genevieve Arnold

The prologue of Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) introduced his notion of the "last man," who is no longer creative, no longer exploring, no longer risk taking. He took this to be the implicit aim of efforts to "discover happiness" by figuring out human nature and engineering society to fulfill human needs. If needs are met, no suffering occurs, no effort is needed to counter the suffering, and we all stagnate. Is our technology-enhanced consumer culture well on its way to delivering us up to such a fate?

In the clip below, Mark Linsenmayer from the Partially Examined Life philosophy podcast considers this possibility, explores Nietzsche's picture of ethics, and concludes that the potential mistake by potential social engineers lies in underestimating the complexity of human needs. As Nietzsche argued, we're all idiosyncratic, and our needs are not just for peace, warmth, food, exercise and entertainment, but (once these are satisfied, per Maslow's hierarchy of needs) self-actualization, which is an individual pursuit, and so is impossible to mass engineer. Having our more basic needs fulfilled without life-filling effort (i.e. full time jobs) would not leave us complacent but actually free to entertain these "higher needs," and so to pursue the creative pursuits that Nietzsche thought were the pinnacle of human achievement.

Nietzsche's target is utilitarianism, which urges individuals and policy-makers to maximize happiness, and the more this is pursued scientifically, the more that "happiness" needs to be reduced to something potentially measurable, like pleasure, but clearly pleasure does not add up to a meaningful life. While we may not be able to quantify meaningfulness and aim public policy in that direction, it should be easier to identify clear obstacles to pursuing meaningful activity, such as illness, poverty, drudgery and servitude. We should be glad that choosing the most ethical path is not a matter of mere calculation, because on Nietzsche's view, we thrive as "creators of values," and figuring out for ourselves what makes each us truly happy (what we find valuable) is itself a meaningful activity.

The Partially Examined Life episodes 213 and 214 (forthcoming) provide a 4-man walkthrough of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, exploring the Last Man, the Overman, Will to Power, the declaration that "God Is Dead," and other notorious ideas.

Episode 213 Part One:

Episode 213 Part Two: 

Mark Linsenmayer is the host of The Partially Examined Life and Nakedly Examined Music podcasts. 

Steven Pinker & Rebecca Goldstein Debate the Value of Reason in an Animated Socratic Dialogue

Academic power couple Steven Pinker and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein probably need no introduction to Open Culture readers, but if so, their lengthy and impressive CVs are only a search and click away. The Harvard cognitive psychologist and novelist and philosopher, respectively, are secular humanist heroes of a sort—public intellectuals who have dedicated their lives to defending science and classical logic and reasoning. So, what do two such people talk about when they go out to dinner?

The TED-Ed video above depicts a date night scenario, with dialogue recorded live at TED in 2012 and edited into an “animated Socratic dialogue." The first scene begins with a defensive Goldstein holding forth on the decline of reason in political discourse and popular culture. “People who think too well are often accused of elitism,” says Goldstein, while she and Pinker's animated avatars stroll under a Star Trek billboard featuring Spock giving the Vulcan salute, just one of many clever details inserted by animation studio Cognitive.

Pinker narrows the debate to a dilemma—a Spockean dilemma, if you will—between the head and heart. “Perhaps reason is overrated,” he ventures (articulating a position he may not actually hold): “Many pundits have argued that a good heart and steadfast moral clarity are superior to the triangulations of over-educated policy wonks.” The cowboy with a six-shooter and a heart of gold depicted in the animation bests the stereotypical eggheads in every Hollywood production.

The “best and brightest” of the eggheads, after all, says Pinker, “dragged us into the quagmire in Vietnam.” Other quagmires advocated by other policy wonks might come to mind (as might the unreasoning cowboys who made the big decisions.) Reason, says Pinker, gave us environmental despoliation and weapons of mass destruction. He sets up a dichotomy between “character & conscience” on the one side and “cold-hearted calculation” on the other. “My fellow psychologists have shown that we are led by our bodies and our emotions and use our puny powers of reason merely to rationalize our gut feelings after the fact.”

Goldstein counters, “how could a reasoned argument entail the ineffectiveness of reasoned arguments?” (Visual learners may remember the image of a person blithely sawing off the branch on which they sit.) “By the very act of trying to reason us into your position, you’re conceding reason’s potency.” One might object that stating a scientific theory—such as the theory that sensation and emotion come before reasoning—is not the same as making an Aristotelian argument.

But this is a 15-minute debate, not a philosophical treatise. There will, by nature of the forum and the editing process, be elisions and some slippery uses of terminology. Still, when Goldstein dismisses the critique of “logocentrism” as an allegation of “the crime of letting logic dominate our thinking,” some philosophers may grind their teeth. The problem of logocentrism is not “too much logic” but the underlying influence of Platonic idealism and the so-called “metaphysics of presence” on Western thinking.

Without the critique of logocentrism, argues philosopher Peter Gratton, “there is no 20th-century continental philosophy.” Handwaving away an entire body of thought seems rather hasty. Outside of specific contexts, idealized abstractions like “reason” and “progress” may mean little to nothing at all in the messy reality of human affairs. This is the problem Pinker alludes to in asking whether reason can have moral ends if it is mainly a tool we use to satisfy short-term biological and emotional needs and desires.

By the time the check arrives, Pinker has been persuaded by Goldstein’s argument that in the course of time, maybe a long time, reason is the key driver of moral progress, provided that certain conditions are met: that reasoners care about their well-being and that they belong to a community of other reasoners who hold each other accountable and produce better outcomes than individuals can alone. Drop your assumptions, watch their stimulating animated dinner and see if, by the final course, you are persuaded too.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Short Animated Film Explores the Fluidity of Gender in the Thought of Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler

In hindsight, it seems like a very different world when I first read Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble in college in the 90s. (Mash together all your stereotypes about college campuses in the 90s and you’ve pretty much got the picture.) For one thing, columnists in major national newspapers and magazines weren’t writing controversial, or simply explanatory, articles about gender fluidity. The concept did not exist in the mainstream press. It seemed both hip and rarified, confined to theory discussion groups, academic seminars, and punk zines.

As radical as Butler’s ideas about gender seemed, she acknowledged that she did not originate the critique. She found it first articulated in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, in which the French existentialist feminist wrote, “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.”

In the short film above, Devenir (To Become), by French filmmaker Géraldine Charpentier-Basille, Butler describes her reaction to reading the passage. “I wrote something about this problem of becoming. And I wanted to know: does one ever become one? Or is that to be a woman is a mode of becoming… that has no goal…. You could say the same of gender more generally.”

As the images illustrating this extract from a 2006 interview with Butler show, the goalposts of feminine and masculine identities move all the time, from year to year, from culture to culture. Gender is a pastiche of representations we inhabit. It is produced, performative, Butler thought, but we can never get it “right” because there is no true referent. The idea descends from the existentialist insights of de Beauvoir, who wrote about and dramatized similar problems of the personal and social self.

De Beauvoir extended Sartre’s claim that “existence precedes essence” in her pioneering feminist work—we come into the world, then acquire identities through acculturation, social conditioning, and coercion. Butler extended the argument further. “For her, writes Aeon’s Will Fraker, “gender wasn’t predetermined by nature or biology, nor was it simply ‘made up’ by culture. Rather, Butler insisted that gender resides in repeated words and actions, words and actions that both shape and are shaped by the bodies of real, flesh-and-blood human beings. And crucially, such repetitions are rarely performed freely.”

From our earliest years, we are trained how to behave as a gender, just as we are taught to perform other identities—trained by the expectations of parents, teachers, religious leaders, advertisers, and the bullying and social pressure of our peers. Hear Butler explain further how gender, in her theory, functions as “a phenomenon that is produced and is being reproduced all the time…. Nobody really is a gender from the start. I know it’s controversial,” she says. “But that’s my claim.” It is one that poses complicated questions more broadly, notes Aeon, about “the pursuit of the ‘authentic’ self” as a meaningful idea—questions Western philosophers have been asking for well over half a century.

via Aeon

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Is a Zen Koan? An Animated Introduction to Eastern Philosophical Thought Experiments

If you know anything at all about Zen, you know the famous question about the sound of one hand clapping. While the brain teaser did indeed originate with a Zen master, it does not fully represent the nature of the koan. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, when Chan Buddhism, as Zen was known in China, flourished, koans became widely-used, explains the TED-Ed animated video above, as objects of meditation. “A collection of roughly one thousand, seven hundred bewildering philosophical thought experiments,” koans were ostensibly tools to practice living with the unexplainable mysteries of existence.

The name, notes the lesson, “originally gong-an in Chinese, translates to ‘public record or case.’ But unlike real-world court cases, koans were intentionally incomprehensible.” Koans are “Surprising, surreal, and frequently contradicted themselves.” The lessons in ambiguity and paradox have their analogue, perhaps, in certain trains of thought in Medieval Catholic philosophy or the idealism of thinkers like George Berkeley, who might have first come up with the one about the tree falling in the forest.

But is the purpose of the koan simply to break the brain’s reliance on reason? It was certainly used this way. Zen Master Eihei Dogen, founder of Japanese Soto Zen traveled to China to study under the Chan Masters, and later criticized this kind of koan practice and other aspects of Chan, though he also collected 300 koans himself and they became integral to Soto tradition. Koans are not just absurdist zingers, they are, as the name says, cases—little stories, often about two monks in some kind of teacher and student relationship. Many of the students and teachers in these stories were patriarchs of Chan.

Like the sayings and doings of other religious patriarchs in other world religions, these “cases” have been collected with copious commentary in books like The Blue Cliff Record and The Book of Serenity. They show in snapshots the transmission of the teaching directly from teacher to student, rather than through sacred texts or rituals (hundreds of koans, rules, and rituals notwithstanding). That they are puzzling and ambiguous does not mean they are incomprehensible. Many seem more or less like fables, such as the oft-told story of the monk who carries a beautiful woman across a mud patch, then chastises his younger companion for bringing it up miles down the road.

Other koans are like Greek philosophical dialogues in miniature, such as the story in which two monks argue about the nature of a flag waving in the wind. A third steps in, Socrates-like, with a seemingly “right” answer that transcends both of their positions. The longevity of these vignettes lies in their subtlety—surface meanings only hint at what the stories are up to. Koans force those who take up their study to struggle with uncertainty and irresolution. They also frequently undermine the most common expectation that the teacher knows best.

Often posed as a kind of oblique verbal combat between teacher and student, koans include extremely harsh, even violent teachers, or teachers who seem to admit defeat, tacitly or otherwise, when a student gets the upper hand, or when both confront the speechless awe of not knowing. Attitudes of respect, reverence, humility, candor, and good humor prevail. Perhaps under all koan practice lies the idea of skillful means—the appropriate action to take in the moment, which can only be known in the moment.

In his short, humorous discussion of Zen koans above, Alan Watts tells the story of a Zen student who tricks his master and hits him with his own stick. The master responds with approval of the student’s tactics, but the koan does not suggest that everyone should do the same. That, as Dogen would argue, would be to have an idea about reality, rather than a wholly-engaged response to it. Whatever else koans show their students, they point again and again to this central human dilemma of thinking about living—in the past, present, or future—versus actually experiencing our lives.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him

150 Renowned Secular Academics & 20 Christian Thinkers Talking About the Existence of God

Of the many books released over the past couple decades about the existence or nonexistence of God (and there were a lot) one of the best comes from philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein. Her 2010 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is not, however, a work of popular theology or anti-theology; it is fiction, a satire of academia, the publishing world, the Judaism she left behind, and the bubble of hype that once inflated around so-called “new atheism."

In a book within the book, Goldstein’s hero, Cass Seltzer strikes it big with his own popular knockdown of religion, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, which ends with 36 refutations of arguments for God in the appendix, which itself provides the appendix for Goldstein’s book. If this sounds complicated, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be. Conversations about God, for hundreds of years the biggest topic in Western philosophy, should not be reduced to syllogisms and stereotypes.

Yet oversimplifying the big questions is what many pop atheist books do, Goldstein suggests. Seltzer’s book arrives when there is “a glut of godlessness” in bookstores. Such books “were selling well,” writes Goldstein, “sometimes edging out cookbooks and memoirs written by household pets to rise to the top of the best-seller list.” The two deep thinkers and religious critics Seltzer self-consciously draws on in his title make his project seem all the more ironically trivial:

First had come the book, which he had entitled The Varieties of Religious Illusion, a nod to both William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience and to Sigmund Freud's The Future of An Illusion. The book had brought Cass an indecent amount of attention. Time Magazine, in a cover story on the so-called new atheists, had ended by dubbing him "the atheist with a soul." 

By embedding arguments for the existence of God in each of the books 36 chapters, Goldstein implies “the joke—or sort of joke,” as Janet Maslin writes at The New York Times, “is that Cass’s conundrum-filled life illustrates and affirms thoughts of the divine even as his appendix repudiates them.” Dwelling persistently on an idea grants it the very validity one argues it should not have, perhaps.

This does seem to be an effect of certain hard-nosed atheist writing, as Nietzsche recognized very well. “I am afraid we are not rid of God,” he once lamented, “because we still have faith in grammar.” Religious ideas are embedded in the structure of the language; language itself seems to have metaphysical properties. It is like ectoplasm, slippery, opaque, made of metaphors both living and dead. It both enables and thwarts all attempts at certainty.

Goldstein’s creative approach to the God debate stands out for its ambivalence and humor. (See her discuss faith, fiction, and reason with her partner, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, in the video at the top of the post.) In the compilations here, Goldstein and 149 more renowned academics offer their agnostic or atheist thoughts on God. Some are less nuanced, some lean more heavily on statistics, physics, and math; many come from the theoretical sciences and from analytic and moral philosophy. Some are sympathetic to religion, some are contemptuous. A wide breadth of intellectual perspectives is represented here.

Yet other than Goldstein and a handful of other prominent women, the selections skew almost entirely male (rather like the characters in most religious scriptures), and skew almost entirely white European and North American. We can do what we like with this information. It should not prejudice us against the finest thinkers in the compilation, which includes several Nobel Prize winning scientists, famous philosophers, Richard Feynman, Oliver Sacks, and Noam Chomsky, as well as a few figures who have recently become infamous for alleged sexual harassment, racism, and far worse.

But we might wish the less engaging contributors to this discussion had given way to a greater diversity of perspectives, not only from other cultures, but from the arts and humanities. On the other side of the coin, we have a smaller list of 20 Christian academics addressing the question of God, below. These include respected scientists like Francis Collins and John Polkinghorne and many well-regarded (and some not so) Christian philosophers. The lineup is entirely male, and also includes an apologist accused of faking his academic credentials and an apologist turned right-wing propagandist who was convicted and jailed for fraud. At the very least, these details might call into question their intellectual honesty.

Here again, maybe some of these selections should have been better vetted in favor of the many women in philosophy, theology, science, etc. But there are voices worth hearing here, from professing intellectuals who can keep the questions open even while in a state of belief, a skill even rarer in the world than in this collection of Christian scientists, scholars, and apologists.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

 

Should Literature Be Political? A Glimpse into Sartre by The Partially Examined Life

Image by Solomon Gundry

Jean-Paul Sartre produced plays and novels like The Respectful Prostitute (1946), which explored racism in the American South. These works were criticized as too polemical to count as good literature. What might in the present day culminate only in a Twitter fight led Sartre to publish a whole book defending his practices, called What Is Literature? (1946).

In the clip below, Mark Linsenmayer from the Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast explains Sartre's view, outlining both how strange it is and why you might want to take it seriously anyway. In short, Sartre sees the act of writing fiction as an ethical appeal to his reader's freedom. The reader is challenged to hear the truths the work expresses, to understand and take action on them. More directly, the reader is challenged to read the work, which involves a demand on the reader's attention and imagination to "flesh out" the situations the book describes. The reader takes an active role in completing the work, and this role can be abandoned freely at any time. If a writer creates an escapist fantasy, the reader is invited to escape. If the writer produces a piece of lying propaganda, then the reader is being invited to collaborate in that fundamentally corrupt work.

So if writing is always an ethical, political act, then Sartre shouldn't be blamed for producing overtly political work. In fact, writers who deny that their work is political are dodging their own responsibility for playing haphazardly with this potentially dangerous tool. Their work will produce political effects whether they like it or not.

The Partially Examined Life episode 212 (Sartre on Literature) is a two-part treatment of the first two chapters of this text, weighing Sartre's words to try to understand them and determine whether they ultimately make sense. Listen to the full episode below or go subscribe to The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast at partiallyexaminedlife.com.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Mark Linsenmayer is the host of The Partially Examined Life and Nakedly Examined Music podcasts. 

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What Does “Machiavellian” Really Mean?: An Animated Lesson

The word Machiavellian has come to invariably refer to an “unscrupulous schemer for whom the ends justify the means,” notes the animated TED-Ed video above, a description of characters “we love to hate” in fiction past and present. The adjective has even become enshrined in psychological literature as one third of the “dark triad” that also features narcissism and psychopathy, personalities often mistaken for the Machiavellian type.

The term's “lasting notoriety comes from a brief political essay known as The Prince," written by Renaissance Italian writer and diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli and "framed as advice to current and future monarchs." The Prince and its author have acquired such a fearsome reputation that they seem to stand alone, like the work of the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who likewise lent their names to the psychology of power. But Machiavelli's book is part of “an entire tradition of works known as ‘mirrors for princes’ going back to antiquity.”

Machiavelli innovated on the tradition by casting fuzzy abstractions like justice and virtuousness aside to focus solely on virtù, the classical Italian word derived from the Latin virtus (manhood), which had little to do with ethics and everything to do with strength, bravery, and other warlike traits. Though thinkers in the tradition of Aristotle argued for centuries that civic and moral virtue may be synonymous, for Machiavelli they most certainly were not, it seems. “Throughout [The Prince] Machiavelli appears entirely unconcerned with morality except insofar as it’s helpful or harmful to maintaining power.”

The work became infamous after its author’s death. Catholics and Protestants both blamed Machiavelli for the others' excesses during the bloody European religious wars. Shakespeare coined Machiavel “to denote an amoral opportunist.” The line to contemporary usage is more or less direct. But is The Prince really “a manual for tyranny”? The book, after all, recommends committing atrocities of all kinds, oppressing minorities, and generally terrifying the populace as a means of quelling dissent. Keeping up the appearance of benevolence might smooth things over, Machiavelli advises, unless it doesn’t. Then the ruler must do whatever it takes. The guiding principle here is that “it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

Was Machiavelli an “unsentimental realist”? A Renaissance Kissinger, so to speak, who saw the greater good in political hegemony no matter what the cost? Or was he a neo-classical philosopher hearkening back to antiquity? He “never seems to have considered himself a philosopher,” writes the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy—“indeed, he often overtly rejected philosophical inquiry as beside the point.” Or at least he seemed to have rejected the Christian-influenced humanism of his day. Nonetheless, “Machiavelli deserves a place at the table in any comprehensive survey of philosophy,” not least because “philosophers of the first rank did (and do) feel compelled to engage with his ideas.”

Of the many who engaged with Machiavelli, Isaiah Berlin saw him as reclaiming ancient Greek values of the state over the individual. But there’s more to the story, and it includes Machiavelli’s political biography as a defender of republican government and a political prisoner of those who overthrew it. On one reading, The Prince becomes a “scathing description” of how power actually operates behind its various masks; a guide not for princes but for ordinary citizens to grasp the ruler's actions for what they are truly designed to do: maintain power, purely for its own sake, by any means necessary.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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