Sandel On the Primacy of Right (2 of 3)

Read the first part here.

downloadAccording to the deontology, Sandel writes, “The antecedent unity of the self means that the subject, however heavily conditioned by his surroundings, is always, irreducibly, prior to his values and ends, and never fully constituted by them” (22). As a result, the self is defined as a “subject of possession” (54), such that “values and ends are always attributes and never constituents” (64). Stated this way, liberalism proves itself to be a subjectivism: It promotes the idea of a sovereign, self-creating person, a pseudo-god who fashions themselves ex nihilo. The exact meaning of this subject ought to be clarified: In its grammatical function, as the subiectum, that which is “thrown under,” it is that which acts and of which things are predicated, giving it a logical role, as in Kant.

What is distinctive about this subject, though, is that it is highly unsubstantial; this concept of the subject lacks any defining content—indeed, it is defined precisely by its conspicuous lack of fullness. This self does and has, but in itself, it is not anything. Like water, it is porous and falls through your hands when you try to hold it, for it lacks clear boundaries; the only real limits it has, if we count the body—since this self, of course, is not a body, but only has it—are defined by its autonomy: Whatever limits the will, limits the self.

download-2As a “subject of possession,” none of my traits, by which I commonly identify myself, are properly speaking mine, except in the weakest sense, namely, as being on my person; in truth, who I really am, is the one behind these traits. For this reason, despite claiming to be more worldly and rooted than Kant, Rawls is actually no better, given that he insists on the separation between a subject and their properties. It is just this distinction that justifies his bold assertion that there are no such things as moral deserts: Nobody deserves anything because nobody—as a noumenal subject behind an empirical self—really possesses anything intrinsically, only extrinsically, i.e., accidentally. And to award merit to an accident is to assign moral worth arbitrarily (85). 

download-1Knowing that Kant’s idealism is too fantastical, Rawls proposes that the original position is a more empirical and situated condition for the deontological self. The idea is that because it is hypothetical, it describes “the conditions in which the parties… carry out their deliberations, not the actual conditions in which ordinary human beings live their lives” (41; emphasis added). In other words, in contrast to Kant, who believed that the self is genuinely double, consisting of both a phenomenal and a noumenal aspect, Rawls’ thought experiment is just that—an imaginative exercise that can be performed right now, and whose abstractness is therefore provisional rather than constitutive. It is not that we are actually deprived of our identities, but we are being asked to set these aside momentarily and to adopt an attitude of “mutual disinterest” (54) before returning to our assumed identities.

While this is plausible, Sandel points out that even if the experiment is hypothetical, its premises are not: Rawls assumes that we are in fact disinterested beings, that we are disconnected individuals, that justice comes first, and that identities are superficial accidents. All of these things are necessary for the original position. The last point, about the superficiality of identity, is particularly important, because as mentioned, it forms the basis for Rawls’ rejection of desert. It is also rooted in a fundamentally empty self, one which “is less liberated than disempowered” (177)—or rather, one which is disempowered because liberated, namely, liberated from all those things which ostensibly make us who we are.  

downloadRawls, like Kant, like many philosophers throughout history, seeks the essence of the self, only to dismember it in the process. While most philosophers do this, I think, because of a prejudice against contingency, Rawls does so from a specific motivation, viz., to cement justice as fairness. Such is the purpose of the veil of ignorance which, treating all possible attributes of us as intrinsically suspect and detachable, makes us ignorant about what it even means to be a self; instead, we are so blinded that we become like an unknown and unknowing God, looking down at ourselves from above, utterly cut off from what is sensible; we assume the “view from nowhere,” as a result of which we become nobody.

download-1Hence, as Sandel’s striking example of the admissions letters (141-2) shows, this view of the self is laughably out of touch with lived experience by reducing us to blameless, creditless recipients of traits—we are all accidents of a lottery, and our agency and responsibility are thus devalued and shorn. But contingency is no excuse for fatalism: Just because I could have been born elsewhere but happened to be born here, does not somehow dis-entitle me to making the most of where I live and appropriating it for my own life. It happens to be the case that contingency is the highest proof of necessity, for had I not been born here, to such and such parents, with such and such traits, then—barring the fact that this could all be otherwise, which is counterfactually meaningless (because speculative)—I would not be me, I would not be at all. 

This is the same reasoning belying Sandel’s defense of the (partially) constituted self, like in the preface where, regarding the right to religious liberty, he specifies that conscience is not just a matter of “preferences,” as if it the choice were arbitrary or the end neutral, but of “performance of duties,” that is, “ways of acting and being” that are “central to… self-definition” (xiii). What is at stake between these two conceptions of selves, which in turn rests upon the relation between the right and the good, is whether what we do and who we are—which are inseparable—matter.

If it is the case that I did not earn my place in college, that what I call “mine” is never really so, and that all my choices are actually of equal value (and thus devalued) in a vacuum of neutrality, then no standards can be applied to me as an agent, properly images-4speaking, but only to these abstract qualities which I hold at a distance, until “it becomes increasingly unclear in what sense this is my end rather than yours, or somebody else’s, or no one’s at all” (57). To reduce my self to an empty holder is to deprive me of responsibility, despite the fact that, as a free will, I have no choice but to execute what I have been given—in short, my absolute freedom entails that I have no free will; I am burdened with this accidental body, with these accidental aims, yet I have no choice but to discharge them, their having no intrinsic relation to me. Though if we accept that we are constituted, then we also accept that what we do matters, that our actions have worth. It then becomes a question of what I do given who I am, which occurs within a historical community.  

In addition to the “antecedent unity of the self” that is vital to Rawls’ project, there is also the “antecedent individuation of the subject” (53), which is a further condition for the primacy of the right over the good, insofar as it necessitates the existence of many selves. This consideration arises from a simple fact: Justice is only possible between subjects, whereas if there were only a lone individual, then the very idea of justice would be senseless and impossible. However, taken seriously, this has the effect of reducing others to mere instruments, as it were—in a way, it is comparable to the idea that God created the world and populated it because He was lonely.

As Sandel explains it, “co-operation” and “mutual advantage,” rather than stemming from our “subjectivity,” derive “merely from the happy accident of [our] circumstances” (ibid.). Liberal society is founded upon a technical necessity, giving rise to the idea of society as a contract that we rational and autonomous monads implicitly, consensually sign. Liberalism, in ensuring that each person is walled in by their own interests, thus presupposes what Marx criticized in On the Jewish Question as the right to separation.

downloadBased upon Rawls’ prioritizing of justice, which involves an unencumbered self, my mother, father, older sisters, and friends are, in truth, but “strangers” (183) who, moved by “mutual disinterest” (54), calculate the utility of raising, living alongside, or befriending me; because in the final analysis, such roles are empirical impurities that falsely dictate a certain moral content, e.g., love or benevolence, when we are all, each of us, self-enclosed wills. This is an abstract “state” as opposed to the actual “civil sphere” wherein community is lived out, in the language of Marx: To make justice, which is neutral and totally fair, paramount is to irrevocably fragment any hope of strong bonds.

Sandel On the Primacy of Right (1 of 3)

In Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1998), Sandel argues that modern liberalism prioritizes the right over the good in the sense that morality, which guides our lives and actions, is taken to be something secondary, even subordinate, to the freedom to choose at all. This premise is grounded, in turn, upon a deontological view of the self; a view which, if examined carefully, cannot adequately orient individuals or a society.

The “primacy of justice” (2), as Sandel puts it, entails that freedom of choice is absolute and transcendental, where the latter means “that which necessarily enables…” In other words, just as the ground floor is that which necessarily enables the rest of a building to stand lest it collapse, so justice is transcendental in a society because, according to thinkers like Rawls, it is the necessary Unknown-6precondition for all other values, without which they would be impossible. By extension, this means that even goodness itself depends upon justice’s enactment. Whereas one might argue that justice ought to be implemented since it is “good” to have, liberalism holds that the converse is true: It is only once justice has been established that anything good can come to be. The troubled relationship Sandel perceives between justice and goodness can be captured best in a famous dilemma posed by Plato in his dialogue Euthyphro. There, it is asked whether something is pious because the gods deem it so or whether the gods deem it so because it is pious. The first option is liberalism, or voluntarism, whereas the second seems to be what Sandel supports, viz., a “cognitive ethics” (176). It amounts, in the end, to an old debate: Is meaning “found,” that is, known, or “created” (ibid.), that is, chosen? 

In contrast to liberal voluntarism, which might also be called subjectivism, since it posits the existence of a pure subject whose decisions refer to nothing other than itself,  the cognitive or intellectualist position acknowledges “an objective moral order” (176), and thus a self that is “conscientiously encumbered” (xiii). Thus, not only does there exist a definite conception of what is right or wrong, but also one cannot help but be influenced in some way or another, regardless of the will. Accordingly, Sandel believes that the self must be seen as inherently situated. It is not the case that once we come into existence, we can instantaneously decide what we will do with ourselves, as this is a purely mythical view of the self that does not take reality into account.

download-1Instead, we are born at a specific time, in a specific place, to specific people, with a specific community. This does not mean that who we become or what we will do is automatically predetermined at the outset; rather, it simply means that we are provided with a set of determinate and limited options from which we can choose, options that are historically and communally relevant. In this sense, Sandel is neither a liberal nor its opposite, a communitarian, because he thinks both are flawed in their own ways—liberals because they have no conception of the good, and communitarians because they reduce the good to what is conventional (xv). There has to be a certain degree of flexibility between the two through which one can exercise one’s individuality and freedom while also retaining a sense of belonging and embeddedness. 

imagesSimply put, to reverse the priority of justice over the good is to propose that there are certain ways of life, values, and moral principles which, independent of our choice, are good in virtue of themselves. It is then up to us to know and learn these codes of conduct, not because we chose them but because, truly, in and of themselves, they have been and will be good. Morality, in short, pre-exists us. Thus, freedom of speech would not be an absolute right whose limits are up to our discretion, as we commonly believe today; there would be real constraints—real in the sense of both transcending mere majority agreement and binding us with moral weight—that come built into the very activity of speaking, and which consequently are not subject to legal review. Liberalism implies revisability since choice is contingent; therefore, constitutions are amendable, owing to historical change. This is a consequence of the primacy of justice, where choice is front and center. In contrast, if the good took precedence over the right, then revisability would be ruled out ab initio, considering the good is not actively decided by us but has already been decided, independent of our wills. We are receptive, or passive, concerning the good: We do not determine the good by our actions, but the good determines our actions by us. 

download-4According to Sandel, the modern-day conception of the autonomous self derives in large part from the critical philosophy of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, who defined enlightenment as a kind of maturity, that is, a radical independence from all reliance upon tradition, external influence, or authority. There are two strands within Kant’s thinking that come together to fashion this conception of the self, the first theoretical and the second practical. In the Critique of Pure Reason, where he tries to limit metaphysical speculation by returning it within the bounds of possible experience, Kant denies any substantiality to the self, arguing against Descartes that the cogito, or “I think,” is but an empty placeholder.

There is no “thing” within us called an “I.” Instead, for Kant, the “I” is to be taken as “pure apperception,” or “the transcendental unity of consciousness” (B132). This means that the self is nothing more than the logical condition for the unity of our perceptions. Each of us experiences a stream of sensations, and it is the function of the “I” to individuate this stream, enabling us to say of it that it is mine, that it belongs to me specifically. Beyond this, nothing more can be said of the self, for it is only this unified connector; it is like a passive spectator that filters incoming data for the understanding, which applies categories in order to form concepts. 

From this theoretical position, Kant advances to the practical. Here, he distinguishes between the realm of appearance, or phenomena, and the realm of things-in-themselves, noumena. We apprehend phenomena intuitively, i.e., sensuously and empirically, whereas we cannot access noumena, which are nonetheless the real objects beyond our representations. Thus, it download-3follows that our empirical selves—our bodies, the accidental facts about us, our traits, etc.—are not who we really are; there is a deeper, albeit unknowable, aspect of ourselves, the transcendental core of our being, which defies categorization, sight, and most importantly, coercion. If we strip ourselves down entirely (and I’m not talking clothes!), then we will discover that at the noumenal level, we are all pure egos, equal and inviolable in dignity and freedom. While we are distinguishable empirically, e.g., in height, strength, attractiveness, etc., all this must be divested in order to highlight what really determines us, namely, our rationality and will. It is on this basis of our reason and choice, which underlie our superficial selves, that we come to respect one another as totally free agents, from which comes the imperative that we not infringe upon one another’s free exercise of choice. This, in short, is right, which prioritizes justice above all. 

download-1John Rawls comes from this same deontological background in order to justify justice’s preeminence in society; yet as Sandel demonstrates, this position is unstable due to its empirical untenability and overly individualistic basis. For Rawls, the idea that justice, i.e., fairness, forms the cornerstone of a good society derives from a thought experiment known as the “veil of ignorance,” which yields the “original position.” Rawls invites us to suspend all knowledge of who or where we are; to imagine that, like Lady Justice herself, we are blind as to our position in life; to put aside all our preferences, desires, prejudices, and interests—he asks us to do all this so that we might arrive at an impartial consensus as to what is most fair for everyone in society.

It resembles game theory in that it forces us to consider the best way to “win” when we know that everyone else is equally at stake; for if I know that what I choose will affect others, and that what others choose will affect me in turn, then I will have to be conscientious, recognizing that the best way forward is through cooperation, ensuring that we all succeed in the end. When it comes to the question of resource distribution, for example, it would be in everyone’s best interest, and hence my own, if there were not a gross concentration in the hands of the few; therefore, we would all most likely agree that it is best for resources to be as evenly distributed as possible, so as to not unfairly, i.e., unjustly, benefit one party over another. 

Kant on Whether We Have Free Will

In Kant’s ethical system as developed in Goundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, the apparent paradoxical circularity of freedom—namely, that morality cannot exist without our being free, while our freedom is demonstrated through our being beholden to the moral law—is resolved through the dual nature of the human being as both a phenomenon and a noumenon.

download-2Central to Kant’s theory is the notion of autonomy, or self-rule. In order to rule oneself, though, one must first be capable of ruling, that is, possess freedom. Otherwise, in the absence of freedom, one is subject to heteronomy, or rule by something beside oneself, something external to the will. An animal, because it lacks reason, is surrendered over to its instincts, which operate naturally, without any input from the animal; and this unconscious life according to instinct allows it to survive without having to think. In contrast, humans are rational agents, meaning that we can determine the maxims on which we act. That is, reason allows us not only to formulate maxims, which are based on our instincts, but also to overcome these instincts. What is distinctive about humanity, then, is that by virtue of its autonomy, it can legislate and then compel itself according to its own laws. Specifically, since reason is universal, we humans abide by the moral law, which, being legislated, requires freedom as its ground. 

It is important to further distinguish freedom from autonomy by characterizing the former as negative, and the latter positive. The will is free, according to Kant, when it is undetermined by nature, i.e., not influenced exclusively by the instincts, so that freedom is ultimately freedom from; meanwhile, autonomy is specifically determined to the extent that it posits, or establishes, certain rules for itself, in accordance with which it will act—in a word, law-making. As all causation is lawful, and as freedom is efficient causation, it falls under freedom’s law, i.e., morality. Freedom is thus fundamental since, without it, autonomy cannot be implemented; and moreover, freedom is the indispensable basis for a moral system.   

The necessity of autonomy for morality, however, creates a seemingly vicious circle: If freedom is that which enables self-legislation, but if self-legislation is that which constitutes true, positive freedom, then how is that freedom, and with it ethics, can be validly demonstrated? Additionally, and far more problematically, freedom would seem to be impossible in a world governed download-1by natural, physical laws. Kant himself argues for the a priori validity of causal determinism in his Critique of Pure Reason, one of whose objectives is to provide a grounding for Newtonian science against Humean skepticism. As it is not merely the case that we know the world—which includes us—operates according to a sequence of effects and their antecedent causes, but also that it must be this way, given that causality is a category of the understanding, we must rule out freedom, and subsequently morality. If my body and mind can be reduced to physical mechanisms, both subject to predetermined causal relations, then I have no power over my actions; I become a slave to my instincts, in which case, having no choice in the matter, responsibility cannot be attributed to me: Strictly speaking, “I” do not cause anything to happen intentionally but am rather a medium for other forces—in a word, I am heteronomous. 

To solve this quandary, and thus to salvage the possibility of ethical life, Kant emphasizes two distinctions: First, cognition can be either theoretical or practical, and second, beings can be considered under two different aspects, viz., qua appearances/phenomena or qua things-in-themselves. Simply put, whereas theoretical cognition is receptive, practical cognition is spontaneous. A scientist download-1like Newton, when he speaks of the universal law of gravitation, for example, does not “create” the phenomenon of gravity; he observes, records, and formulates it as a mathematical statement. The laws of nature operate independent of us, and our scientific knowledge of it is theoretical in that it takes cognizance of it. Kant also defines nature as phenomenal, that is, as consisting of appearances, which in turn are made intelligible by the understanding by means of pure concepts. Importantly, this means that nature as it appears to us, as it is given in sensibility, is necessarily and universally causally determined, but the “as it appears” makes all the difference, since we do not know what nature is like in itself. In circumscribing nature thus, Kant can make room for the possibility—which also means, as we shall see, the practical necessity—of freedom as it pertains to intelligence. 

Practical cognition is not passive with regard to its object but actually produces its object, and one such object, Kant claims, is freedom. The will is nothing but pure practical reason, meaning that it is spontaneous. This is what gives rise to the firsthand Unknownexperience of freedom, the sense that whenever I perform an action, like typing this essay, it is I who am behind it: I form the representation, or maxim, of typing a certain sequence of words, then I execute it. Moreover, I experience moral phenomena—foremost, the ought of the moral law, for which we humans have a predisposition. But what of the fact that I am myself a physical thing, which obviously impairs my spontaneous willing? Despite being physical, I am not merely phenomenal, for I also transcend the limits of appearances: In addition to an empirical ego, I am a transcendental self/will. Because the transcendental is beyond appearance, it eludes both the forms of intuition, which belong to sensibility, and the pure concepts of the understanding; hence, my true inner self is neither spatial nor temporal, nor can it be trammelled by the nexus of physical laws to which all empirical objects adhere. 

Given that the category of causality is excluded from the transcendental sphere [1], it should follow that autonomy, as a free positing, which involves the idea of an efficient cause, should be jettisoned alongside it. While this is logically true, Kant insists that the imperative of the moral law calls upon us to postulate, for the sake of action, the freedom of the will. Such a defense is plausible because, after all, noumena are theoretically unknowable. Thus, one cannot claim to “know” that one has free will the way one “knows” that 1+1=2 (a priori) or that, when pulled, a door opens (a posteriori). Nonetheless, the unknowability of things-in-themselves does not prevent us from supposing that we are not unfree. The status of freedom, in other words, is wholly indeterminate from a cognitive standpoint. But because the moral law is binding, and because the moral law requires freedom, we are obliged to have faith in favor of freedom. 


Otherwise, if we give into a total agnosticism, renouncing both freedom and determinism, then in terms of practice, we have effectively sided with the latter, resulting in a form of fatalism. Our a priori moral nature, however, demands that we act positively, that we order and organize our inclinations through reason, and that we legislate for ourselves the categorical imperative. Unconditioned freedom, freedom unaffected by nature, is what we posit because we ought to; it is a regulative Idea without which moral action is inconceivable. Kant also thinks the nobility of intelligence is further demonstrated by the fact that we humans understand nature, by which we certainly do not transcend it but comprehend it. One can say that in conceptualizing nature through science, tapping into its a priori laws, nature resides within us, in our representation. We may be in nature, but we are not necessarily of it.




[1] “Sphere” seems to be a better alternative than “realm” because it allows for ambiguity, considering Kant’s dualism can be interpreted either epistemologically, between aspects, or ontologically, between spaces. 

Kant’s Political Philosophy

The goal of politics, according to Kant, is to ensure freedom in external relations, that is, to enable people to coexist freely with each other. 

download-1Under the civil constitution, external relations are created through the limiting of freedom. Put another way, the commonwealth establishes freedom by limiting it, for absolute freedom ends up being contradictory. The greatest threat to my freedom is the freedom of another, so in the event that I will both that I may limit another’s freedom and that they, in turn, may limit mine, this is clearly untenable: one cannot will that freedom be unlimited, as this cannot be universalized. For example, in the case of private property, if I will that the entire land be mine while also acknowledging that everyone else has similar ambitions, then this clearly results in a rational untenability: the very concept of private property is dissolved in such willing, because the moment I stake my claim, I have no way of deterring someone else except through force, which creates a cycle of violence.

download-2On the other hand, assuming we each submit ourselves to a social contract, whereby we accept certain curtailments of our inclinations—e.g., that each person is entitled to x amount of land, and no more—no such discord can ensue; rather, in taming our freedom, we have become more free to pursue our own ends. I am in no way hindered in claiming land, but I must observe the law. As long as I respect the boundaries of my neighbor, and they mine, we are free in our external relations to set our own ends for ourselves unhindered. When freedom has been established thus, we have entered, Kant says, into a condition of public right, under which laws can be properly formulated and enacted. 

Contrarily, in a hypothetical state of nature, where individuals are left to their own inclinations, no freedom in external relations is possible, since not only do our desires tend to conflict with one another empirically, but our very willing creates mutual imagesinterference, which is fundamentally unjust. If I wish to have my own property, then I can never cease being on the defensive, because in the absence of any binding rules, there is nothing to stop someone else from taking that property. Unbridled freedom, conflicting desires, and scarcity of resources combine to render true freedom unachievable. The state of nature is devoid of any sense of justice, and hence, it is without laws. Therefore, in order for humans to live freely together, they must come together to form a constitution, and with it, a commonwealth. The forming of a constitution, insofar as it institutes justice, i.e., limitation of freedom, takes the form of a duty, something necessary for politics to even occur. Without it, rational willing runs aground. Creating a civil constitution is thus something we freely do, yet it is imperative—a must—nonetheless, making it a voluntary necessity. 

Just as maxims are rational principles that determine our wills, so laws are rational principles that determine in what manner external freedom is to be observed with coercive backing, because without limiting our freedoms, a law would not guarantee individual freedom. The most important thing about a law is that, in principle, like any truly good action done from duty, it must be universal, and by extension, non-contradictory. In other words, a law never dictates any specific end. Furthermore, and of great consequence, Kant states that because legislation must be universal, and because the constitution consists of all who are ruled, it follows that “Whatever a people cannot decree for itself cannot be decreed for it by the legislator” (304).

downloadThis does not mean that every person (like children) actually participates in this process; instead, it means that a law must be agreeable to every person in principle. A law must be such that its form (universality) corresponds to its object (the people). Consequently, in the possibility of our consenting to creation of the law, our private wills reveal themselves to constitute a single general will that represents everyone, and which is the basis for the sovereign’s legislation. Ultimately, this is why coercion does not contradict, but actually enables, freedom: legislation is nothing but self-legislation, and this essentially amounts to self-imposed norms or, in a word, autonomy.  

Unknown-6Lawfulness, then, is likewise not defined by its matter but by its form, meaning that it has to apply to everyone equally. A particular end, say, special treatment for a particular group of people, is therefore excluded in principle. It is in this sense that all citizens of a commonwealth are equal, where equality concerns the opportunity of all rather than the outcome of some. Procedure matters more than substance, or else the law is undermined. After all, if a group were exempted from a law, then in what sense would it be binding? However, this is not to say that certain cases could arise in which, the procedure itself being compromised, an imbalance must be corrected, like when a rich, untaxed minority threatens the stability of the commonwealth and so must be addressed. But the point is not to “target” this group, which would be material, but to reform the law in broad enough (formal) terms to prevent this from happening, e.g., implementing a graduated rate. 

Unknown-4The civil constitution, then, is the coercive legislation of free individuals through right. In the case of the violation of right, though, Kant claims that a people is never entitled to rebel against the sovereign lawfully. The sovereign, which is the legislator, represents the general will of the people, so any rebellion would be self-destructive. That is, if a people thinks that insurrection is lawful against their sovereign, then they have thereby made themselves sovereign, which is contradictory, considering the sovereign already represents the people. This would result, in short, in two republics, at which point it ceases to be a unified polity. Second, although there is a separation between the sovereign and the government, which is the executor, still this does not warrant any revolt against the commonwealth because such an act is principally contradictory, contradictoriness being an automatic disqualification of legality.

There is no way of appealing to something outside of the sovereign, for in that case, the sovereign would no longer be sovereign; having any such clause within a constitution would make it inherently unstable and subject to contradiction. This is assuming, of course, that rebellion is universally consented to, since otherwise it would be against the law—except, how could everyone agree to resist everyone? Accordingly, popular revolution can never be constitutional. Yet this does not mean that the constituents have no recourse whatsoever when they perceive a failing in the ruling of the commonwealth. 

images-3Kant argues that although rebellion is outlawed, there is something which can never be rightfully silenced, which belongs to all equally, and without which a commonwealth is inconceivable: freedom of expression. The human being is, after all, a rational agent; it is the power of reason that enables man to come up with maxims, to form contracts, and to communicate with his fellows. And if the commonwealth finds its expression in the general will, which represents every subject who is also thereby a citizen, then in the absence of free expression, there is really no commonwealth of which to speak. The sovereign represents the general will, which is a rational will; however, because human rationality is limited, that is, finite, it is prone to error, being in need of rectification.

Accordingly, if wrongful legislation, i.e., erroneous reasoning, is to be avoided or corrected, then necessarily freedom of expression is required. By conception, the sovereign, if they are to represent a rational will, must be willing to be criticized or refuted, or else they could never align their will with the people’s. Otherwise, the sovereign, who acts in accordance with reason, contradicts themselves in refusing to be subject to reason. Ultimately, representation cannot represent that which is not presented, so it follows that freedom of expression is the bedrock of any civil constitution. The ability to make judgments and then to discuss these judgments with others in order to arrive at universal legislation—this cannot justifiably be taken from man.

download-1Additionally, when it comes to the issue of an apparently unjust law—“apparently,” because no law can exist that could not be agreed to by the people themselves—this is not a justification for tearing down the structure but for correcting within the system. That a law is perceived as unjust indicates that the people were not sufficiently educated on it. A shortcoming in the law is therefore a matter of ignorance, of irrationality; as a result, the solution is more rationality, more discussion, more expression. Kant thus argues for a “marketplace of ideas” in which proposals can be intelligently and publicly debated, since the public is who legislates. An enlightened people produces enlightened laws. And should a government restrict freedom of expression, then not only is it a human injustice, but it ceases at that moment to be a government that represents the general will. 





Works cited: 

Kant, Immanuel. Perpetual Peace and Other Essays. Translated by Ted Humphrey, Hackett, 1983.

Mind Over Matter?—Merleau-Ponty’s Critique of Sartrean Freedom

SartreSartre’s phenomenology is a philosophy of radical freedom, such that “there is ultimately nothing that could limit freedom, except those limits freedom has itself determined as such through its own initiatives” (Merleau-Ponty 461). This means that being-for-itself, or consciousness, does not possess freedom as a quality but rather is essentially freedom. Due to its intentional structure, consciousness nihilates what it is not, meaning it cannot be determined from outside. Against this view, I agree with Merleau-Ponty that Sartre’s emphasis on freedom, while important, is overstated because it fails to take into account, or else undervalues, the necessary background of our lives, namely, the body and the world. 

A fundamental thesis for Sartre is that we are our choices, and nothing more. One of his examples is that of a hiker who, out in nature with a couple of friends, finds himself having to stop and rest after a few hours, being too tired to continue. In Sartre’s analysis, the only thing stopping the hiker, as a matter of fact, is nothing. It is not that his legs stop him 48750761556_f30ab26fc6_bfrom walking, since his legs are rather what allow him to walk at all; he is free to keep walking if he so chooses. Nor is it the pain he feels in his legs that stops him, since pain, taken in itself, is but a sensation with no causal power. This means that it is the hiker himself who bestows meaning upon his pain, and it is this very bestowal that causes him to break down.[1] Of course, this is all on the assumption that the pain has been attended to, Sartre comments, because only as thematized, i.e., made noteworthy, can pain become anything like a factor for the hiker. Based on this line of reasoning, Sartre can conclude that the hiker’s rest is purely arbitrary, being grounded instead on what he calls a “fundamental project” that determines the “total[ity] of [his] being-in-the-world” (Sartre 267).

downloadBut Sartre’s powerful account of choice is predicated on a specific conception of consciousness, a conception which, lacking any content, renders it overly idealistic, overlooking our embodied being-in-the-world. At the outset, Sartre could argue that, on the contrary, he does take the body into account, for he explicitly writes, “Fatigue is only the way in which I exist my body” (Sartre 256). By using “exist” in a transitive sense, he draws attention to the fact that my body is an intimate part of my reality, and fatigue can only be understood with respect to my having a body, being a modification of it. Furthermore, with regard to the hiker, he explains that giving up on the hike constitutes “a distrust of [his] body,” “a way of… not wanting to take it into account” (Sartre 259). 

imagesHowever, I contend that the converse is true. It is precisely because the hiker trusts his body and takes it into account that he gives into his tiredness, whereas his friends, who criticize him, are more likely to engage in evasive behaviors. Sartre himself seems to acknowledge this when he defends the friends as merely living their pain differently, such as by enjoying the nature around them, taking in the sun, or thriving upon their effort. These are certainly valid ways of persevering on the hike, but they are completely irrelevant to the matter in question—the body. If one’s leg is hurting, then looking at the mountains in the distance or embracing the sweat rolling down one’s forehead will not negate one’s pain; to be sure, they may distract one temporarily, but this is not the same as alleviation or nihilation, as Sartre would term it. The hiker’s pain is still very much there—indeed, persistently so. 

head-5721998_1280Merleau-Ponty talks of a “natural body” that is a source of “absolute valuations” (464), referring to the fact that consciousness is not the sole arbiter of meaning. That is, because I do not merely have a body but fundamentally am my body, which is an intentionality in its own right, it follows that there are certain objective capacities and incapacities for which the consciousness qua for-itself can give no determining input. It is one thing to tell a tired hiker to change his attitude and for him to do so, and another for him to thereby overcome it and trudge onward. Sartre is correct that our interpretations, which are entirely voluntary, can be life-changing, preventing us from making unnecessary excuses for ourselves and encouraging us to push our limits; however, just because a shift in mindset can help us does not mean that it will, for it is only one variable in the complex equation of existence. 

downloadTelling an exhausted person to get over her pain because it is entirely up to her and “in her head” is equivalent to, and just as effective as, telling a sad person to “turn that frown upside down!” A cheerful attitude makes a difference up to an extent, but it cannot instantaneously triumph over any condition, particularly when, as Merleau-Ponty points out, said condition has been sedimented, that is, built up into a long-standing habit or way-of-being. Yet sedimentation as an existential phenomenon is not equivalent to determinism; the human being, after all, is not sedimented in the same way that a rock at the bottom of the river is, having a fixed essence as a result of natural processes. Rather, Merleau-Ponty stresses that freedom, far from having a Sartrean unconditionality, is always manifested conditionally, even probabilistically, since our past experiences play a foundational—which is not to say fatal—role in who we are, a role that can be overturned through difficult, committed work, as opposed to an instantaneous choice. Each choice, then, is not like a sword which, with one swing, can sever the Gordian Knot of our being, but rather the conscious power on our part to adapt to the world.  

download-1This leads to the question of the situation, a theme which, although important to both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, has different meaning for the two of them. Because he distinguishes between two types of being—being-in-itself and being-for-itself—Sartre can posit the conscious individual in opposition to the world; the former nihilates, and in so doing gives meaning to, the latter. Thus, for the hiker, his legs, his body as a whole, the mountain, the heat, and perhaps his dehydration are all indeterminate and neutral; they have no sense independent of him, so he is completely free toward them. As he cannot get rid of them, either by sheer negative willpower or closing his eyes, they form his horizon, his world—in a word, his situation. He must make do with them somehow. Yet his commitment to radical freedom leads him to formulate “the paradox of freedom: there is freedom only in a situation, and there is a situation only through freedom” (Sartre 270). 

I argue that this account of being-situated is, to use one of Merleau-Ponty’s terms, an intellectualistic one inasmuch as it neglects our corporeality. Sartre’s paradox of freedom seems on the surface to resemble an ouroboros, an infinite cycle with neither beginning nor end, thus creating what Merleau-Ponty approvingly called an “open situation” (Merleau-Ponty 462), but I do not Unknown-1consider this a good reading. To begin, freedom actually has primacy in Sartre’s account, creating an asymmetry: The equality of freedom and world is an illusory equality, for in the end, the situation always depends on, to the extent that it is constituted by, the meaning we give it. As such, the situation has no autonomy whatsoever, being merely the projection or external manifestation of our consciousness, without which it is nothing but mute, undifferentiated, superfluous being. In other words, a residue of idealism contaminates Sartre’s phenomenology of the situation: Because the world (in-itself) is pure matter that means nothing, and because consciousness is arbitrary yet evaluative, the world can only receive all of its determinations from us. The consequence of this is that, because the situation turns out to be a mask worn by freedom, a kind of provisional third term of mediation, Sartre ought to have said that “there is freedom only through freedom.” 

Additionally, although Sartre brings up the body as a part of the situation, he treats it as though it were part of the world, something whose meaning we choose. While he does not say it outright, this implies that the body is a transcendent, objective thing that is voiceless, so to speak. In contrast, Merleau-Ponty argues that such a transcendent body is constructed, deriving from the third-person and scientific points of view—or, in the case of Sartre, the point of view of “an acosmic subject” (Merleau-Ponty 466), a pure consciousness that spectates the world in a mode of detachment. What Sartre leaves out, therefore, is the lived, or subjective, body—the body as we experience it from within, firsthand. 

download-3Crucially, the lived body is practical, not theoretical; it is not a manner of knowing but of doing; it is capable or incapable. Thus, the body is not part of the situation, if by situation is meant the objective or external world that in a sense stands opposed to freedom, for the body rather enables freedom in the world; or, put differently, the body is not the situation but that which situates, i.e., what opens up a site to begin with. Sartre’s ontological dualism is inherently oppositional or confrontational, with consciousness acting unilaterally upon a passive world [2]; meanwhile, Merleau-Ponty recognizes that being-in-the-world is a unitary system, an interaction founded upon cooperation, where consciousness is not above or distanced from the body and the world but conditioned by them.[3] 

To return to the hiker, he does not let down his friends due to either reflective awareness or some fantastical first choice; instead, he is listening to his body, which forms the necessary background for his existence. Consciousness is not omnipotent, and it does Unknownnot have dominion over the body as if the latter were its property to do with as it pleases. Sartre assumes that pain or laziness is something I reflect on intentionally, when it is entirely possible, and likely, that it forces itself and intrudes upon me in my very being. If the hiker’s pain makes itself felt to such a degree that he must stop, then it is not because, like a judge, the for-itself decides to let pain plead its case in court; on the contrary—to reiterate—the pain forces itself into his awareness. Of course, Sartre would object to any language of causal determinism, anything that attributes power through the active voice to things, including pain or tiredness (“makes,” “forces,” “intrudes,” “imposes,” etc.). Yet as Merleau-Ponty states, freedom does not need to be an all-or-nothing reality; freedom need not be absolute in order to be free.

Accordingly, Sartre has created a false dichotomy: Either libertarianism (there is only choice) or determinism (there is no choice). This inflexible presupposition blinds Sartre to the phenomena. In truth, because the body opens up our access to the world, it constitutes an implicit background, a field of meanings that can be binding on our consciousness despite not having been created explicitly by it. The values, relations, obstacles, and capabilities born of the body and the field it generates within the world are not infringements upon some primordial, godlike freedom; for without them, there would be no world, no situation in which to act, no basis on which to make my choices, no way of knowing or understanding myself. 

If freedom is the only operative force, then the “self” of the for-itself is reduced to a spectral observer whose “intentions [are] immediately”—and magically—“followed by an effect” (Merleau-Ponty 461). And yet, the resistance I encounter in the world is not my own doing; some obstacles are not decided by me. While the hiker, it is true, might possibly have continued walking, it does not actually come down to a single decisive choice on the part of consciousness. The body has a voice of its own. 



[1] “The given, in fact, could never be a reason for an action if it were not evaluated” (Sartre 265).
[2] I.e., not a dualism of mind/body but of being-in- and -for-itself. 
[3] Cf. John J. Compton’s essay “Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Human Freedom” in Stewart (1998). 


Works consulted:

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Donald A. Landes, Routledge, 2014.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. Edited by Robert Denoon Cumming, Random House, 1965.

Stewart, Jon, editor. The Debate Between Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. Northwestern University Press, 1998.

A Critique of the Sartrean Self (or Lack Thereof)

According to Sartre, consciousness is nothing. More precisely, consciousness, which is not a being but a relation, “makes” nothingness; consciousness is the very act of nihilating, by which it negates, or non-identifies itself with, everything to which it relates. On this view, there is no real self, or ego, because it is constituted, i.e., constructed, after the fact. However, this characterization of consciousness, and its resulting falsification of the self, does not satisfactorily account, I think, for the experience of human reality; rather, it loses itself in a flux that tends to render our existence incoherent. 

In his foundational work The Transcendence of the Ego, Sartre argues that consciousness is distinct from, insofar as it produces, the ego by means of intentionality. “The transcendental I,” Sartre declares, “has no raison d’être,” because it is a “superfluous… hindrance” (Sartre 40). Against Husserl, who supposes that an ego needs to underlie our stream of consciousness—such that, by making experience possible in the first place, it is transcendental—Sartre counters that this is an unnecessary hypothesis. It is not consciousness that unifies itself, but the objects at which it is aimed. An object, because it is stable, fixes my self-identity as the one who is looking at it. Hence, at the end of the text, Sartre has substituted pure consciousness for the ego: “our thesis: transcendental consciousness is an impersonal spontaneity… Thus each instant of our conscious life reveals to us a creation ex nihilo. Not a new arrangement, but a new existence,” a “tireless creation of existence of which we are not the creators” (Sartre 98-9). In other words, he establishes a “transcendental sphere” (Sartre 96), a realm of reality which, lacking any individualizing qualities, lays the groundwork for the construction of a transcendent, i.e., objectified ego. The I does not precede and enable experience, for it is rather the result thereof. 

The idea that “an impersonal spontaneity” is the basis for our living existence, though, cannot adequately explain what it is to truly be human. First, it is unclear how precisely my distinctive personality is supposed to arise from an original impersonality. Sartre reduces consciousness to a level of pure awareness that lacks any defining traits. In fact, as pure awareness, it is its own lack. Who I am, in other words, is my own self-expulsion; there is only an outside that negates me, but no inside that affirms my being. This seems to reflect, on one level, an arbitrary privileging of visual perception, where the fact that I look out upon the world and cannot look in upon myself eliminates any possibility of my having any non-exterior being, introspection being thus ruled out; and subsequently, on another level, a detachment from my concrete life experience, so that “my” body, being an object of sight, or even of consciousness in general, is thereby distanced from myself. Consciousness dissociated from an I or ego, therefore, makes it seem as if I am an immaterial pair of eyes that merely spectates the world without having any contact with it. 

In addition, by reversing Husserl’s grounding of subjectivity, Sartre deprives consciousness of any solidity, subordinating it to the objects that surround it. My environment is an undeniable background for my existence, but if it is elevated to the level of the foreground, as it is in Sartre, then I risk being defined solely by objects. As I sit and write this in the library, it is not the case that I derive my sense of selfhood solely from the “transcendent unity” (Sartre 70) of my surroundings, e.g., the table, the floor, the bookshelves, the wall, etc. In positional or thematic awareness, as Sartre calls it, I specifically choose what to focus my sight and concern on; it is I who decide to which object or thought or feeling I will attend.

Sartre would certainly acknowledge this, although he would reply that it is not an “I,” but pure consciousness, which is the source of attention. And yet, this is not a helpful answer: first, because without any content, consciousness has nothing to go off, no peculiar, individual inclinations or preferences by which it could choose whether to attend to, say, the chair or the book on biology; second, because without an answer to “Who?”, this pure awareness is nobody’s. It is absurd to think that my self is constructed on the basis of objects, like the table on which I write, as if, from my intentional awareness of the table, I could thus determine what I will write my philosophy paper about. 

Admittedly, Sartre is right to an extent when he asserts that the constancy that I attribute to myself is circumstantial, in which sense my selfhood is not self-contained but constituted externally. Who I am in the classroom, for example, will not necessarily be the same as I would be on a deserted island. Since my context will have changed, including the people I am around and the fixtures that I customarily expect, I will certainly change in my behavior and outlook. At the same time, Sartre forces himself to walk a tightrope between causal determinism, considering he argues my ego is constructed on the basis of the objects of my consciousness—a view which he vehemently rejects; or else he must subordinate the environment entirely to my free choice, by which I instill value, which has the effect of stripping me of any and all determinative properties. Through his insistence upon absolute freedom, which is achieved at the expense of any self-constancy, since consciousness is nihilation, Sartre prevents me from being a “me” at all. I am apparently always “transcend[ing]… toward emptiness, toward nothing” (Cumming 156). The truth is that while being deserted on an island will inevitably force me to adapt myself, this need not be incompatible with retaining an enduring sense of selfhood, e.g., my family history, my interests growing up, my palate, my overall temperamental disposition, etc. 

A crucial component of Sartre’s theory is that of reflexivity, or the idea that even amidst pre-reflective consciousness, when I am immersed in an activity or object, yet I still possess an implicit, non-positional knowledge of myself. Just as impersonality struggles to give rise to personality, so it is a clever sleight of hand, comparable to a deux ex machina, by which Sartre can assert that my unselfconsciousness is somehow deeply self-conscious nonetheless. While I may point out that the very word “self-conscious” presupposes a self of which one is conscious, i.e., an “I” that is mine, Sartre could brush this off as a linguistic artifact, an unfortunate necessity of everyday speech, or even a transcendent object of reflection that distorts the fundamental reality of conscious reality.

If this is the case, though, then how could we ever speak of the pre-reflective level accurately, or at all? That is, if thought must be expressed mediately through language, and if thought itself comes after experience—so that we are two degrees removed from pre-reflection—then in what sense is pre-reflectiveness primary? Evidently, the absence of a stated “I.” And yet, the fact that positional awareness is by nature non-positional, that the “un-I” must be an I, shows that the Husserlian ego has not disappeared. To be sure, Sartre is right that, as I write this, I do not explicitly think, “I am writing this”; however, it is not pure consciousness that writes—how would it know either what or how to type?—but I who write, I who possess an inner life, I who have certain things to say and hold convictions, rather than a pre-reflective cogito that does not, and cannot have, any of these contents. 

If, as Sartre writes, “The ego is not the owner of consciousness; it is the object of consciousness” (97), then it would be unimaginable as to how I could possibly have written up this essay, which I call “self-expression.” Self-expression, importantly, is only possible on the condition that there is a self that can be expressed and that this self has something to express. An emotion cannot be properly expressed for Sartre because, as a transcendent object, it is already outside, already pressed out (ex-pressed); the emotion is not “mine,” does not “belong” to me, but it floats out there, beyond me, an object, as if it could be localized in space. Furthermore, thinking that awareness of a thing amounts to separation from it leads to the counterintuitive belief that sadness is something I “adopt,” meaning that “I make [my]self sad” (Cumming 154). Should we believe this, then it is not failing a test, falling out of love, or losing a loved one that provokes sadness. Sartre pretends as if emotion were purely behavioral, citing “my bowed shoulders, … my lowered head, … the listlessness of my whole body” (Ibid.), so that if I change any of these, then I also change my state of mind, relieving my sadness. 

Yet this runs counter to direct experience. If I am grieving over a death, then I can certainly pretend to be unaffected by holding my chin up high, straightening my back, and smiling at whomever I greet, presenting the appearance of being unaffected; and eventually, in addition to tricking others, I may even succeed, Sartre thinks, in tricking myself. This is problematic, though. To begin, if I trick myself into feeling happy, then this does not change the underlying fact of my sadness, for I have only applied a false veneer. When I return to the privacy of my room, away from the public eye, away from a mirror, too, I can feel my sadness genuinely, freely. My sadness is not external to me, as if, of my own volition, I could sweep it away like a spiderweb; rather, I am deeply sad, and this sadness, clinging to my very interior depths, can no more be removed than I can remove my very skin. To this, Sartre would respond that the death of someone close only partially causes sadness because, fundamentally, I must consent to being overtaken; I must bear half of the responsibility in “letting” myself become sad. 

Consciousness, though, does not occur at a distance from my emotional pain. Hence, Sartre contradicts himself when, speaking of pleasure, he writes that “Pleasure cannot exist ‘before’ consciousness of pleasure” because it, pleasure, is “the material of which it [i.e., consciousness] is made” (Cumming 104). Sadness invades my being without my consent; unlike a guest at my door, who politely waits to be let in and leaves when asked, it neither delays to breach my awareness nor heeds my request that it exit immediately! Why is it, then, Sartre would ask, that when some people force themselves to smile, e.g., by putting a pencil between their teeth—even when they are sad, or at least not happy—they can feel happier? My reply is that because this is forced, it is neither long-lasting nor genuine. Amidst my sadness, I can no doubt watch a funny video and feel better—but only for the time being, before I sink back into my malaise. For this reason, my momentarily induced happiness, insofar as it is externally produced, is not authentic, compared to the sadness which stems not from my choice, but from my attachments to the world. 

From a Sartrean perspective, this can be countered in two ways: First, according to Sartre, it is I who choose what I value or attach myself to, meaning that I indirectly choose what makes me sad. Second, since that which I value is in the world, it follows that transcendent objects do produce my ego. Yet both cannot be true at once, or else Sartre would find himself in a contradictory position, holding simultaneously that I have agency over objects but also that my agency is constituted by these very objects. Pre-reflectively, things appear valuable and I have no “I”; it is only in reflection that my “I” arises and, correlatively, that the values of the world, appearing as such, lose their value, being the objects of my consciousness. But values can only belong to an ego, that is, a specific identity for whom they have meaning; otherwise, they are completely arbitrary and substitutable. When my dog dies, for example, as soon as I become conscious of the fact that the dog was a part of my family, that I cared for it, that I formed an attachment to it through years of familiarity, and that I am sad about its passing, this simple realization, according to Sartre, would liberate me from my relationship with the dog; it is annihilated at the instant of its apprehension, and my sadness should either part the clouds like the sun or else, like a dream, dissipate as upon waking. 

The truth, contrarily, is that my reflection upon my sadness, rather than attenuating, undermining, or nihilating it, actually confirms it; my relation to my sadness is not one of choosing—I cannot decide suddenly, and without any basis, to displace my affect onto my sibling (although if I did, then this would not change the fact that, in reality, having been dis-placed, its true object is my dog). The simple act of being-conscious-of-x is not an inherent nihilation, as Sartre makes it out to be; at the very least, it is insufficient, for otherwise, addictions (e.g., gambling, nicotine, overeating, etc.) would not be an issue. When we are told that the first step toward change is awareness, we are refuting Sartre’s simplification of the structure of consciousness.

Rarely is it so simple, as the Stoics and Sartre seem to think, that in the midst of attachment, I can just decide not to be attached, that I can take up an attitude of detachment from those things that matter to me. Neither is it the case that my perception of an object is enough to fashion my ego. Why and how can “an impersonal spontaneity” or “a creation ex nihilo” be a son or daughter, a friend or lover? To explain it through choice, as Sartre does, only begs the question, for on what basis is it to decide, considering its very existence is both “unjustifiable” and “without foundation” (Cumming 127)? A consciousness ex nihilo is, by definition, discontinuous, especially when it has no unifying I; and so, finding itself a blank slate, faced with an overwhelming umwelt full of equally compelling aspects, values, and depths, it would have no choice whatsoever—in short, it could not choose at all, being deprived of any means of orientation, leading to complete paralysis. 

Therefore, because Sartre characterizes consciousness as the pure act of nihilation, and because from this it follows that there is no ego except upon reflection, he ends up with an untenable and inaccurate account of what it is like to be a human who lives in a world. It is difficult to see how such a radically free, virtually unembodied force of negativity could even remotely be described as living a life; for it is instead an anarchic, detached emptiness, an amnesiac vortex with neither name nor history. The human condition consists of being someone, a who, which means being a “partially constituted self,”¹ which is to say, a self who has interests, who is integrated into a time and place, and who has content.




¹ A phrase taken from Michael Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1998).


Works cited:

Cumming, Robert Denoon, editor. The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. Random House, 1965. 
Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Transcendence of the Ego. Translated by Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick, Hill and Wang, 1991. 

Hamlet and Early Modern Nihilism

In Act 2, Scene 2 of Hamlet, through the prince’s dramatic monologue in front of his two friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Shakespeare affords us insight into the complex, uncertain mind of a young man in crisis; a man who, in grief, finds his intellect at odds with both himself and the world; a man who, in a word, struggles against the specter of meaninglessness and must consequently hold desperately onto what he knows best.       

download-1After describing his sad state as of late, Hamlet points to “the earth” as a “goodly frame” (line 264) and the sky a “most excellent canopy” (line 265) that is “brave” (line 266) and “majestical,” being “fretted with golden fire” (267). He is clearly in awe of the natural world around him, which displays itself in grand, brilliant terms. The world is a κόσμος, a beautifully ordered whole that makes life habitable, with supportive ground below and a protective dome around it, with appreciably aesthetic qualities. It is clear in the language—“frame,” “canopy,” and “fretted”—that this is the effect of design: This is a universe that has been created, yes, but more importantly, one that has been created well by a master craftsman, so that its ornateness is not without purpose. As a student at Wittenberg, learned in theology and Scholastic philosophy, he would have been well acquainted with such lofty reflections. 

Unknown-4However, having “lost all [his] mirth” (line 262), the world appears differently: The earth is now “a sterile promontory” (line 265) and the “o’erhanging firmament” (line 266), which formerly stunned him with its elegance, “appeareth nothing […] but a foul and pestilent / congregation of vapours” (lines 268-9). In his sadness, the world has lost its previous grandeur; it has been stripped, denuded of its beauty. The bright, careful, and overpowering qualities have been demoted, giving way to coldness, lifelessness, and randomness. Although he predates the natural philosophers who would introduce the “new philosophy,”[1] Hamlet here seems to anticipate their materialist reductionism; hence, there is a note of wistfulness, of disappointment, in his recognition that the heavens are naught “but a […] congregation of vapours”—much as one might remark today, sometimes with despair, that everything is but the meaningless yet determined sequence of collisions between blind atoms and chemical explosions in an infinite void. 

download-2But what is most significant in Hamlet’s speech is his awareness of these two incompatible perspectives. Accordingly, the prince is once again truly modern to the extent that, by preceding his reductions in both cases with “seems to me” (lines 264-5; emphasis mine) and “it appeareth nothing to me” (lines 267-8; emphasis mine), respectively, he acknowledges a distinction between the world as it is subjectively perceived and the world as it objectively is. This is accomplished, first, through the choice of verbs, “to seem” and “to appear,” both of which imply the possibility of error, like how at night a tree appears to be frightening, when really it poses no threat; and second, through the emphatic repetition of “to me,” by which Hamlet makes it clear that it is merely his perspective that is being declared, as opposed to say, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Additionally, he inverts these two dimensions, contrary to how his successors—the natural philosophers—traditionally would, namely, by attributing objectivity to values and subjectivity to their material bases, in which case primary qualities are meaningful while secondary qualities are purely physical and mathematical. 

That is, Hamlet maintains an impressive self-awareness in noticing that his nihilistic-sounding thoughts are a deviation from both the custom worldview of his time and his own self; he does not state that the sky is, in all reality, “a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors,” but only that it “appeareth” so under his current “disposition” (line 264), meaning that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for whom it is still a “brave” and “majestical roof,” are not misguided. Hamlet is the one who is mistaken, by his own estimation. This is no surprise, for as he explains earlier in the play, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio / Than are dreamt of in your [natural] philosophy” (1.5.165-6). As much as his grief points him toward disappointment and futility, he is still beholden to the magical world with which he grew up and which, although detachedly, he can still contemplate.      

ie9Z4JUyTo what is this lucidity attributable? While it may be argued that Hamlet’s outburst is merely a gimmick meant to mislead his father’s spies, that is, a contrived expression of his “antic disposition” (1.5.170) [2], it cannot be ruled out that this is a genuine statement made not of madness, since no such level-headed self-consciousness would then be possible, but of pure grief at his father’s untimely death, his mother’s quick remarriage, and his uncle’s usurpation of the crown—in short, it is a reasonable reaction from a young man who is facing sudden, intense changes, and who finds the world to be a hostile and absurd place on occasion. If this is so, then it may seem suspect that he claims to “know not” “wherefore” he has “lost all [his] mirth” (line 262), when it is evident that he has good cause to feel so; nonetheless, it makes sense that, feeling depressed, having “foregone all / customs of exercise” (lines 262-3), he may be unable to explain why his world should have flipped upside down while simultaneously pointing out that it has to his listeners. Accordingly, Hamlet is not a nihilist who has “awakened to the truth” that life is meaningless.[3] Instead, he realizes, if only vaguely, that in his grief, he fails to find the meaning he was previously accustomed to; the meaning he knows to be there, having been divinely created, and which, with hope, he may rediscover. 

hamlet-jorick-shakespeare-playWhen Hamlet transitions from the world to humanity, his ambivalence is still evident. He exclaims, “What a piece of work is a man” (line 269). Once again, he is impressed with God’s craftsmanship, for humans are intricate creatures, halfway between mere animals and divinity, possessed of “such large discourse” (4.4.35). Yet this is for both good and ill, since not only can the human mind grasp great truths, being “noble in reason” (line 270) and “like an angel in apprehension” (line 272), but it can also, when taken too far, induce a corrosive, cynical attitude, producing an intense skeptical doubt. For the contemporary reader, the phrase “piece of work” has this second underlying meaning: The human is God’s mischief-maker, a nuisance, the most pious believer and yet the most impious doubter. Hamlet’s speech thus makes explicit the following irony: God, in making man “infinite in faculties” (line 270), i.e., bestowing reason, made it possible for His own creation to turn its back against Him. Reason is a double-edged sword. 


“Man,” says Hamlet in the abstract, “delights not me” (lines 274-5). Here, he is not describing himself, nor his listeners whom he suspects of ill-intent, nor even Claudius whom he detests; Hamlet is dissatisfied with the very concept of the human, who, full of contradictions, is all too human. In designating man “the paragon of animals” (line 273), he speaks doubly; for at once, he praises the human being as the highest instance, the exemplar of living beings, transcendent in virtue of its intellect, but he also means that the human can never be more than animals, can never pass beyond the intermediary stage. Sure, he says, the human is the best animalbut she is still an animal all the same, and no more. Hence, he, Hamlet, can only ever be “like an angel” or “like a god”—only analogously, but never in essence, and this fundamental limitation pains him like an abscessed tooth. 

download-3Finally, as if holding up a mirror to himself, he asks, “[W]hat is this quintessence of dust?” (line 274), once again preceding it with the telling phrase “to me” (lines 273-4). His final rhetorical question has several dimensions, in keeping with his cosmic thoughts. First, it once again assumes a strict materialism. Much as the world can be reduced to a bare “promontory” infused with “foul and pestilent […] vapours,” so the human being may be decomposed into mere “dust,” anatomical bits—blood, bones, sinews, etc.—or else biochemical interactions. As the “to me” and the previous words of praise indicate, though, Hamlet is in double consciousness [5], which is why it is presented in the form of an open-ended question rather than a dogmatic assertion. Second, drawing upon natural philosophy, he invokes “quintessence,” theorized to be the fifth element composing the heavenly spheres. Thus, as with his “paragon of animals” comment, he is being ironic: Quintessence is pure, superlunary, and eternal, while dust is impure, sublunary, and temporary [6]; at the same time, though, quintessence can more broadly mean what a thing truly is in itself, i.e., its essence.

download-1The human is an absurdity in that she is dust, to be sure, but special dust, divine dust; she is an pure impurity and an impure purity. Man is of the earth, composed of the four elements into which he will eventually disintegrate, but he is also not of the earth, being partly celestial; he has no sure footing in the world, and has trouble belonging anywhere. The last demonstration of Hamlet’s irony is the very performance itself: If dust were all he was, would Hamlet have been able to give this speech? Can dust know itself? If “he that made us […] / gave us not […] / godlike reason / To fust in us unused” (4.4.35-8), then the irony collapses in upon itself: We can use reason to doubt and reduce ourselves, but to doubt and reduce in the first place is already a privilege not granted to “animals” and “dust.” 

In other words, Hamlet—reflective, intelligent, irresolute, and cowardly, and consumed by grief—truly is the paradoxical “quintessence of dust”: His nihilistic musings are indeed genuine expressions, yet their very utterance suggests to him that he, that life, is something more. 





[1] Viz., Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes.
[2] As suggested by Edwards, whom the editors cite (Shakespeare et al., 286n).

[3] While I seem to contradict myself, what I mean is that Hamlet is not a nihilist but is rather being nihilistici.e., expressing nihilistic thoughts, contrary to his historical age.
[4] In this respect, Hamlet’s question is a sincere one, resemblant of what is asked in the Psalms—“What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” (8:4)—except that it is directed at himself, and not God. Why is it, in other words, that despite his deprecating humanity, Hamlet nonetheless is in awe of it? Perhaps it is not “despite” but “because”…
[5] A young Socrates, according to Plato, denied that there could be a Form of either mud or dirt, since they are too “vile” (Parmenides, 130c-d). “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen. 3:19).


Works cited:

Shakespeare, William, David Scott Kastan, H. R. Woudhuysen, and Richard Proudfoot. Hamlet: Revised Edition. Edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor. 2nd edition. London ; New York: The Arden Shakespeare, 2016.

Reflecting on Neologikon’s 7th Anniversary (and 400th post!)—And Some Notes on the Examined Life

Today is a special occasion: Not only do I celebrate my 7th year of blogging on Neologikon, but this article is officially my 400th post! 

neologikon-7th-annivMy last reflection was three years ago, for my 4-year anniversary (for whatever reason, I chose the fourth year rather than the fifth), where I talked about some of the ups and downs of my blogging journey. I will be continuing that here, expressing some of my discontents as of late while remaining hopeful for the future. Reflecting on my years of writing here, seeing how far I have come, and taking a step back, I have seen some troubling tendencies of mine, tendencies that I want to stop as early as possible, not only to improve my blog but also to be more faithful to myself and the project to which I committed myself back in 2016.  Whereas last time my concern was with complacency, i.e., the fact that I had fallen into smugness and thought myself more knowledgeable than I really was, my concerns this year are a bit broader. 

download-4In the past year or so, I cannot help but feel I have betrayed my ideal and failed in the very mission of Neologikon. This sounds overly dramatic, of course, and it probably reeks of some species of idealism; however, I believe it is true, and I know so because I am the one who formulated it. It may well be argued that an ideal is an ideal precisely because it cannot be perfectly realized. Kant, throughout his critical philosophy, insists over and over again that although certain Ideas are either theoretical impossibilities or unrealized potentials, nonetheless we must not stop striving after them; in fact, it is the very non-actuality of the Idea that compels us to bring it about, even if we suspect that we will not be able to do so. Just because peace has not been achieved, or the Kingdom of Ends established, or God proven, does not mean that we should give up on any of these things. If anything, contends Kant, it means we have a duty, each of us, to bring them about, or else they will truly remain mere fictions. There is a very real sense, pragmatic in spirit, in which our continued belief in these practical objects of cognition gives them their dignity. Such is the case with philosophy itself, which is never complete and can never be completed, for the love of wisdom is notoriously unending, lest it cease being love. 

Socrates_teaching_Perikles-Nicolas_Guibal-IMG_5309So what, then, is the mission, the impossible ideal of Neologikon to which I have felt myself unequal? Quite simply, it is, as my banner states, to avoid “the unexamined life” and instead promote a life worth living. Socrates has been for me—as he has for so many others—the great inspiration behind what I do. I have always held that philosophy is a way of life. Much of this is repetitive; it is stated in my About section, it occurs in my previous anniversary post, and there are several blogs that mention this. However, it is necessary that I restate these intentions not for you, my readers, but for myself, if only because I feel that it is so incredibly easy to forget. I, the author, who see my own page so frequently, forgetting my own intentions? How is such a thing possible? Indeed, it sounds like a Socratic paradox. Because it is one. In truth, the thought is not as strange or absurd as it appears, for what is more common than that, after years of having done something continually, the beginning should imperceptibly recede until it has lost its luster, if not been forgotten altogether? When it is a matter of getting at least one post in a week, it is easy to forsake the noble aspiration with which it began in favor of the utilitarian logic of efficiency:—I’ve got to get a post in! 

This much is understandable, and yet I have not even said wherein my failure consists! The question of output is certainly an important factor, the pressure (purely internal, of course) to “get something out” for the sake of being active. But not posting, or posting infrequently, have nothing to do with the ideal of Neologikon; they are merely the mark of an unproductive writer, which, since it can happen on/to any blog, is independent of the mission. Therefore, a lack of posting, while greatly pestilential to my conscience, does not constitute my gravest error; it is but a superficial shortcoming. What truly bothers me is the subtle direction that my blog has taken, a direction toward specialization, academicization, or, in a word, narrowing

download-1The humanities study what it is and what it means to be human. When I first started studying philosophy, it was only a matter of time until I realized that I could not avoid, well, everything else, since philosophy leaves virtually nothing untouched. My passion for philosophy overflowed like the Form of the Good, whose generosity Plato famously compared to the Sun: It seeped into all the other great disciplines, from history to literature, from religion to linguistics, and from psychology to politics. Admittedly, there is a good deal of humanistic chauvinism here; I hardly, if ever, write about the sciences—partly because I am not as learned and literate in them, in which case I leave it to others who can better communicate them, though mostly because I feel that the humanities are more fitted to the examined life. While I occasionally feel guilty over my exclusion of the sciences, I also recognize that I ought not to overextend myself; it would be awfully exhausting to study and expound so wide a range of knowledge. As it is, my selection of the humanities is in itself probably overly ambitious.

Nonetheless, what I am trying to say is that, in the past year or two, there has been a predominant focus on philosophy on my blog. This is not an inherently bad thing. If anything, it is good that philosophy, which is so underrated, under-read, and under-understood, should receive attention, particularly from someone who enjoys and studies it. Why should I, who “know” philosophy, feel bad about writing about philosophy? Should not an economist write about economics, a biologist biology, or an art historian art history? Notwithstanding that I am not a professional philosopher, my concern is that my blog is not a “philosophy blog” but a humanities one, yet I have been giving preferential treatment to the former.

I am aware that interests change over time, so it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that I simply prefer philosophy and have shifted my focus exclusively thereon; however, this is not the case, because I still enjoy learning about other subjects. The explanation is twofold: First, as I am studying primarily philosophy in school right now, it is to be expected that I will write about it more; and second, even outside of school, philosophy exercises the greatest hold upon me, and it constitutes the bulk of my personal reading, besides literature. At the end of the day, I am not saying that I want to write less about philosophy but only that I want to write more about other things. So going forward, my hope is to be a bit more varied and wide-ranging in my posts (psychology and linguistics, for example, have gone neglected for a while!). 

Still, in addition to the desire for diversity, the other reason I do not want to be preoccupied with philosophy is because I find that, over time, by means of an almost ineluctable natural law, I have been inching, lamentably, toward specialization, which download-1phenomenon I have always deplored. The tendency toward specialization is both external and internal, the former because it is required/expected within academia and society at large (without which both would collapse), and internal because each of us is naturally drawn toward certain things more than others through affinity. As such, you will find that, for example, phenomenology, a philosophical movement that began in the early 20th century, and Heidegger, a German phenomenologist, figure quite often in my writing, since they call to me so strongly. Again, deciding that phenomenology is one’s “thing” is not bad; if I can successfully share my joy in phenomenological philosophy and make it, or even Heidegger, more accessible to people, then I will have done a good thing.

downloadThat is beside the point, though. I do not want to just write about phenomenology, nor do I want to specialize in a specific philosopher (as much as I might admire their thinking), nor do I want to confine myself to philosophy as a whole. I like to think back to my self in 2016, when I first started blogging and the world of learning was infinite—which is not to say that, now, it is no longer infinite, but only that my vision has narrowed, so that infinity is a little less: Back then, I would have disliked the idea of being “the philosophy guy,” because I thought, and still think, that this is an arbitrary self-limitation. As strange as it sounds, I think that a philosopher should not simply think about philosophy. To reiterate, I know I am allowed to change my attitude as I grow older, but the fact is that my attitude has not changed; I truly believe that I am doing a disservice to myself in shrinking my content.

But while specialization ought to be avoided, the alternative—polymathy, or generalization—is basically impossible in this age. A youthful me might have been more idealistic, but I am well aware that my research in history, religion, politics, etc. is necessarily limited; nonetheless, I think curiosity should not be dissuaded, so that even if I am not a historian, I shall continue to have an imagesinterest in, and hence to study, the past. This brings me to the themes of audience and presentation. We all start out on a pretty level playing field, then we learn, consolidate, and specialize. Thus, my latest blogs, in contrast to my earliest ones, show a greater familiarity with names, terminologies, and connections between ideas, which, on the one hand, facilitates a broader intellectual discourse but, on the other hand, can serve as an impediment or deterrent to most readers who have little-to-no acquaintance with the subjects on which I write, particularly when I am more knowledgeable about them. In other words, it is easier to write for amateurs when one is an amateur oneself, moved by pure love unalloyed by extensive intellectualization. Some of my latest blogs, like those on Kant or Heidegger, suffer from such a sacrifice. Not only do I resist counting myself among the academics, but I also resist writing to and for them exclusively. Henceforward, I want to be more accessible, although without thereby being an oversimplifier, which is by no means an innocent counterbalance. 

One of the reasons for my inconsistent posting is that my writing has been getting progressively longer. This is why a lot of posts tend to be split up into parts. These longer works are fulfilling upon completion, yet their composition often provokes dread in me because of my perfectionism and chronic laziness. And for whatever reason, the former also talks me out of shorter posts. It is really an irrational problem, which is why I will try to overcome it henceforth. If longer projects are daunting, and if shorter posts are easier to research, quicker to write, and more accessible to readers (e.g., my recent post on Aristotle), then it is incontestable that I ought to produce shorter posts, which will lessen the demand upon me. Longer projects do enthrall me, so I will not be giving them up; rather, I will merely make them more occasional, both for your and my own sake. Intelligent scholarship is important to me, but I want to make sure this is destroyed by neither incomprehension nor dullness. 

download-3Lastly, returning to my conviction that philosophy ought to be vital, that is, a way of life, I want to stress that from the beginning, my hope was for Neologikon to contribute in some way to “the examined life.” Various factors make this difficult to actualize—among them, formal factors (specialization/jargon) and material ones (specific thinkers/subjects). The question of applicability, relevance, or importance will inevitably correspond to the discipline in question, whether it be philosophy, history, or literature. Many people find that literature directly impacts their lives in a profound way, yet few walk away from a history book having been transformed (meanwhile, we assume that psychology is by nature applied). Thus, relevance cannot always be my object; not all of what I study and write about is readily usable or significant for one’s existence.

All the same, that—significance—is the primary end. In each of my introductions and conclusions, I aim to explain, or at least hint toward, the possible importance of the topic in question. Even with as abstract, confusing, and hyperspecific a topic as Heidegger on Kant on Being, I tried my best, albeit with some difficulty, to demonstrate some sort of interest for the reader; it may be forced and overly tenuous—perhaps it is even a rationalization on the behalf of its author who wants to feel as though what they wrote is not simply worthless, a mere “curiosity” or a “contribution to the literature” with which the layperson has nothing to do, but actually has some sort of takeaway, no matter how far-fetched—but it is an effort. 

There is a double standard at work, though—invisible but real. If what I write about is to have some sort of importance in the life of the reader, if it is supposed to provoke in them thought at least or action at most, then one can reasonably presume that the same not only should, but does in fact, go for me myself, the writer; otherwise, there is something contradictory at work. Put another download-1way, if you are supposed to have “gotten something” from what I wrote, then it means that I myself “got something” out of what I wrote about, or else, why would I have written about it? The logic here does not hold, however, because there is always the possibility that I could share something to which I was personally indifferent but which awakens something in the reader.  Therefore, the standard of significance need not go both ways in order to be valid. A director can make a movie she dislikes but which her audience loves, and a poem without heart in it may still deeply touch a reader. With this in mind, what might it mean that I, part of whose mission is to inspire wonder in others, often do not feel wonder myself? Is this a failure or not? Is it hypocritical for me to suggest that my reader implement, say, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics into their lives without doing so myself? Perhaps these can be brushed off as mere pseudo-problems, bits of condensation that I need merely to wipe away as if they were raindrops on my window.  

I am inclined to disagree, though. “What would Socrates say?“—ah, yes, good ‘ole Socrates—what would he say, he who died for philosophy, who preached for the examined life, who committed his life to goodness and virtue, who lived on conversation—what would he say? Of great importance to Socrates was the alignment of one’s actions to one’s words or beliefs. When one contradicts oneself, acts contrary to one’s beliefs, then one’s soul is in disorder; there is no harmony in one’s life; such a soul is unhealthy and must be restored to its proper order, which is unity. In this sense, I am culpable.

download-2Alexander Nehamas, in his book The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault (1998), gives a splendid close reading and analysis of “Platonic irony” (not to be confused with Socratic irony, or the feigning of ignorance) in his Dialogues, by which he arrives at a startling, distressing conclusion: We who read the Platonic dialogues are really their subjects. That is, Nehamas notes that there is a kind of smugness that typically results from reading over one of Socrates’ conversations with an Athenian. In the first place, we are distanced from Socrates in time, by a matter of centuries. Second, we are sitting down, perhaps in a comfortable place, reading a book that we can put down at any point and which, in itself, is mute; the words on the page have no meaning until, or if, we read them. Third, and more troublesome, is the complacency of the reader who does not participate (directly) in the brutal refutation and who has the assurance of retrospect, being able to laugh at the humiliated interlocutor, e.g., Euthyphro, while in full, prideful agreement with Socrates, the master dialectician.

Nehamas points out that it is easy to finish a dialogue, conclude “Yeah, Socrates totally exposed him!”—as if patting ourselves on the back for having accomplished such a feat ourselves—and then go on with the rest of our days, feeling enlightened and all the wiser for having read Plato. And this is where the trap springs! We convince ourselves that we are like Socrates, but Nehamas argues that Plato wrote his works in such a way that, actually, we are not like Socrates, nor are we even like Euthyphro or Polus—instead, we are worse off than the latter. While it is easy to pity Socrates’ dialogue partners, we overlook that they at least had the courage to engage Socrates in the first place. Sure, some like Callicles are stubborn, narrow-minded, and anti-intellectual, but he at least does not run like Gorgias does.

download-2Meanwhile, we readers have the luxury of following the dialogue externally, without any stake, knowing it will end with Socrates having successfully refuted his opponent. We can thus walk away unscathed. All of this, I am aware, might sound unfair. For starters, Socrates is not alive today, of course, so even the bravest among us who would be willing to take him up in conversation have not the choice to. All we have are the Dialogues. Furthermore, I have been saying “we” throughout, but there are surely exceptional people who would prove me and Nehamas wrong because not only do they read actively, coming up with their own responses and counterarguments to Socrates as they go instead of passively taking it, but they also ruminate for days afterward and even try to live by what they came up with. Unfortunately, not everyone has this courage, resolve, or leisure, so I think Nehamas’ analysis is for the most part true, even if we do not want to admit it (I certainly am loath to).

My point in bringing up Nehamas’ The Art of Living has been to show that living philosophically, truly applying philosophy—or any other learning for that matter—to one’s life, is easier said than done. Reading is one thing, imbibing is another, and yet another is acting. The one does not always guarantee the latter. One does not become virtuous by reading Aristotle; the moral law is not easier to abide by after reading Kant. The implication is an audacious one, but I guess I will risk audacity anyway in stating that, ideally, Neologikon is a vehicle for just this lively appropriation. Perhaps neither my readers nor I will be magically transformed through a blog, but then again, not all transformations need be magical. A few weeks ago, over dinner with a friend of mine, I confessed to him that I envied his passion for Plato and Aristotle and that I wished I could feel that same kind of intensity of purpose again.

pexels-photo-4099817Reading and writing all these seven years has been a tremendous experience, but I also recognize that it can dull my sharpness. Knowledge is not wisdom. And when, as I said, reading and writing become matters of reaching a deadline, being productive, or “informing” others, it is easy to lose sight of wisdom for knowledge. Philosophy, which is the love of wisdom, the examined life, cannot just be “read” then “spread”; it must be appropriated for oneself, internalized, repeated—in a word, philosophy must be lived. So while I cannot promise that all of my posts will fulfill this lofty goal, I will keep trying. (I have in mind, as an example, my old post on Heidegger and Mindfulness, which I think is representative in that it sketches out a possible transformation of one’s basic attitude toward the world.)

If I can provoke thought, induce wonder, or inspire, then I will count that as a great success. I doubt I will change lives, but if I can, and if only in the most minute of ways, then I will feel greatly fulfilled. These past seven years have been good ones, and the future is fruitful. Here is to the future of Neologikon—and to the examined life, the only one worth living

Watsuji on Climate (3 of 3)

Read part 2 here!

16376102935_002fea8384_bThis is why Watsuji will outline a hermeneutics of climate, that is, an interpretation of how our environments make us who we are: “it is only through the interpretation of historical and climactic phenomena that we can show that these phenomena are the expression of man’s conscious being, that climate is the organ of such self-objectivisation and self-discovery and that the climactic character is the character of subjective human existence” (16). “Thus,” he concludes, with slight repetition, “a grasp of the distinctive historical and climactic make-up of human being becomes an ontological existential comprehension” (16). What this means is that the climate is not something external to us, as we commonly think.

Interior_of_Hardy's_Cottage_showing_his_writing_deskThe climate is not “out there”; it is not “the great outdoors,” the exotic beaches to which we travel for vacation, the cool volcanoes that tourists like to admire, or the isolated and majestic forest to which we retreat for self-discovery or a hike—instead, the climate is already here, now, with us. Even now, as I sit at my desk, enclosed in my room, writing, I pretend as if I am cut off from fūdo, when the reality is that if I move my eyes a few inches upward, then I look out my open window onto grass and some trees which, right now, are bathed in black from the night sky, from which the stars, sadly, are absent; on some nights, when I am too hot in bed, the cool air that drifts into my room is a welcome treat, showing that my room, which I like to think of as a hermetic box, an “inside,” is penetrated by the climate.

download-1Briefly, I want to explain why I have focused only on the first section of Climate and Culture, about 10% of the book, rather than its entirety. After the introduction, Watsuji introduces what he thinks are the three most representative climates, compares China and Japan, and then comments on how climate influences art. He thinks the entire world can be reduced to three broad types: the monsoon, which has warm summer winds and lots of humidity, owing to the oceans nearby, as seen in Japan, China, and India; the desert, which is hot, dry, and barren, as seen in Arabia, Africa, and Mongolia; and the meadow, which, consisting of pastures, combines dryness with humidity, as seen in the entirety of Europe. To begin with, this analysis is obviously overly reductive. There is no universal agreement about just how many climate types, or biomes, exist in the world; the numbers range greatly. Still, to limit the number to three and, furthermore, to homogenize a country, even a continent, according to this arbitrary limit is not rigorous or honest. Why is this problematic? For at least two reasons, to my mind.

First, and of most consequence, is the fact that from this classification, Watsuji believes he can discover a people’s national character. Not only does this entail a generalization, which is already negative to the extent that it covers over vast differences, but additionally, these generalizations can, and do, take on negative values in Watsuji’s analyses. To give a few examples, Watsuji download-2states that the inhabitants of the South Sea islands, like Java, are lazy, complacent, and weak because they resign themselves to the abundance produced by their climate (22-3; Kant, too, makes this point in his Groundwork for a Metaphysics of Morals); that “the Indian is in a way a symbol of suffering from oppression” (38); that the nomads of Arabia are paradoxically both submissive and aggressive, having learned to survive the harsh deserts of Western Asian (50); and that “in the attitude of [Hong Kong] workmen, one could read the whole character of the Chinaman” (124), namely, the following: “While it is true that the Chinese are unemotional this does not mean that they have no emotional life; their emotional life may be called unemotional,” whereas the Japanese are “possessed of a rich temperamental diversity” (127), followed by a reference to “the Chinese lack of emotion” (128), as if it were their most defining trait.

imagesIn order to explain himself, Watsuji could refer to the following passage from the final chapter, where he writes, “This does not mean that natural phenomena gave rise to distinctive effects on the soul of man as if it were a piece of blank paper… Hence the characteristics of nature should be understood as related to the spiritual make-up of those who live with that nature” (203-4). That is, just as climate and human existence cannot be reduced to causal terms, and just as I explained how moods are not so much determined as conditioned, so Watsuji does not wish to passify populations “as if [they] were a piece of blank paper.” However, it is difficult to believe this when he next speaks of a “spiritual make-up,” seemingly independent of “the characteristics of nature.” Where, then, does this spirituality come from, if not the environment? How can Watsuji avoid determinism here? Does this mean that the two interact and that, as a result, the one can alter the other, in which case “spiritual make-up” is variable? On the other hand, Watsuji, it will be argued, was obviously writing in a different time, when these things were more permissible to say; however, that does not justify what he wrote nor the certainty with which he says these things.

To say, for example, that “the Indian is…,” as though India could be encapsulated in a single person, as though there were an average type, is blatantly unfounded, and these types of statements, being tied to race, have dangerous, potentially catastrophic consequences. And why should a handful of workers from Hong Kong, which was British territory when Watsuji was writing, be representative of China as a whole? While he may defend himself by clarifying that “the Chinese lack of emotion” compared to the “rich temperamental diversity” of the Japanese is a purely descriptive statement, one devoid of value, one that neither denigrates nor praises but simply compares differences, it is practically impossible to see this as value-neutral.

JapanNavalFlagOne can say that this is not Watsuji’s problem but only my own, since I am the one reading this connotation into it, yet this is irresponsible nonetheless; to call someone, let alone an entire race of people, “unemotional” is not the same as “stoical,” which could be read positively, and Watsuji himself sees this lack of emotion as feeding into a national passivity and endurance, meaning that the Chinese simply bear their problems without doing anything about it. Beyond the mere fact that this is a loaded generalization, it has a terrifying effect when we consider that two years after Watsuji published this work, in 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army massacred the Chinese city of Nanjing, killing several hundreds of thousands, just to mention one of the many crimes perpetrated by Japan against China during World War II. This is not to imply that Watsuji contributed to or caused such atrocities; I wish only to show that his rhetoric, which he may well have judged to be harmless, was still complicit in the dehumanizing and racial stereotyping common within the Japanese Empire, which was notoriously supremacist.

Africa_Köppen_MapThe second reason Watsuji’s classification is problematic is because it is simply wrong. Take the case of Africa, which Watsuji classes as a desert type. First of all, Watsuji never traveled to Africa; he never saw the continent firsthand. More than that, he clearly read little about it, based on the fact that he cursorily and summarily calls it a desert. Unfortunately, this is a common perception, especially in the West, where there is a tendency to equate Africa with the Sahara, as if the entire continent were made of sand, forgetting about the sub-Saharan regions. The truth is that Africa, which is, mind you, massive, boasts a great diversity of climatic conditions: deserts, yes, but also rainforests, grasslands, highlands, savannas, monsoons, and Mediterranean ones. Similar facts can be applied to China, the “Middle East,” and the other countries and regions to which Watsuji refers incorrectly.

How did Watsuji arrive at these conclusions? From first-person anecdotal evidence. He mentions this on at least three occasions: “In terms of my own impressions…” (61); “This, you may think, is merely the vague impression of an individual; nevertheless, it is one that I did feel extremely strongly” (63); and “such first-hand impressions are vital for the study of climate” (122). The second one I find funny, because just when it seems like he is going to rebut what “you may think,” he merely brushes it aside and recommits to his position, thinking that a feeling, if it is felt “extremely strongly,” is sufficient to validate it in such a context. In a word, he does not address the fact that he could have biases or limited knowledge because the intensity of his emotion is reliable. The only thing he really counters, then, is that it is “merely… vague.” With regard to the last statement, Watsuji is half-right: Certainly, personal experience is vital, that is, necessary, but it is not thereby sufficient. When talking about an entire nation or people, impressions are not enough; they cannot just be subjective evaluations.

In reply, Watsuji could protest that he is not writing a book on ethnology, geography, or climatology, but phenomenological hermeneutics, which is necessarily subjective rather than objective, and whose entire methodology revolves around first-person Unknown-1experience. This is why “impressions of an individual” are not limited expressions but, on the contrary, the most important, and hence must not be “vague” but “strongly” experienced. However, Husserl, who founded phenomenology, would most likely cringe at the idea that one could write a phenomenology of “the Indian” or “the Chinaman,” considering he wanted to instead study the universal structures of consciousness, regardless of nationality or climate; and even Heidegger, who combined phenomenology with hermeneutics, and after whom Watsuji modeled his method, would, I think, disapprove of Watsuji’s work here, seeing it not as phenomenology but philosophical anthropology. Of course, there can be disagreement between phenomenologists about what phenomenology really studies, but the fact is that Watsuji, if he were to justify his stereotypes through phenomenology, would have little support, if one is being truly honest.

download-3In spite of these criticisms, Watsuji does raise two interesting points which, owing to his conception of climate, ought to be positively appropriated or engaged. First, at the end of the book, he observes that “with the world-wide cultural contacts of this modern age, the whole world seems to have coalesced into a single ‘place’” (172); as a result of “the shrinking of the world” (173), “the world seems to have become one” (207). The world has become one? Has it not always been one? He is obviously speaking here of the empirical world, that is, the globe. Although he did not have the word for it back then, he is referring to what we now know as “globalization.” Throughout history, it is true, globalization has always existed; however, what is unique about the postwar era, and especially the Internet era of the 21st century, is the extent of this integration, around which it is difficult to wrap one’s head. This is a good thing for many reasons, like increased prosperity, greater tolerance, and better communication.

At the same time, though, this “shrinking of the world” can lead to less diversity, such as when political and economic motives result in either neocolonialism or a broader homogenization that erases local particularities. The spread of McDonalds across the world, for example, which is by no means nefarious, attests to this universalization (different countries, I know, can customize downloadthese franchises, so it is not as if it is 100% homogenous). As Watsuji points out, “[B]y maintaining and fostering [our climatic] destiny, [we can] make contributions to human culture of which no other people is capable… [E]very part of the world has its own distinctive character” (207). Because culture and climate are deeply connected, if we impose one culture on another without taking the climate into account, assuming that the two are independent of each other, even through soft influence, then we risk effacing what makes us “distinctive.” Although one might reply that this is a good thing, since it means we become more similar to one another by getting rid of distinctions, this is clearly an offense to the traditions and history of a people; it amounts to cultural erasure or, worse yet, genocide. We can become more integrated while retaining cultural differences; it is simply a question of respecting these differences and coexisting. There is something that is lost when a local business that makes the traditional clothing of a culture is destroyed by a multinational corporation.

download-7The second aspect to think about is climate change. Human-caused carbon emissions have been greatly accelerating the rate of climatic change for a few centuries, which is giving rise to all sorts of horrifying realities: the shrinking of polar caps, more storms and tornadoes, frequent wildfires and droughts, more infectious diseases, loss of habitats, rising sea levels, and more. Down at the end of the line is, of course, the inhospitability of Earth. I need hardly state the obvious, which is that this affects our existence. Climate change is an existential threat. Coasts will be flooded; fires will wipe out forests; deserts will become hotter stll. If climate, as Watsuji argues, conditions our very self-understanding, then such radical changes in the climate must have corresponding changes in us. Only time will tell whether this is so. 

download-4Historically, philosophers are always trying to outdo one another by proposing that something fundamental has been left out of the picture and that they have finally figured it out—language, the body, the world, sexuality, etc. To this story, Watsuji adds another element: Climate. It is true that humans are in a world, as Heidegger stressed, but the world is neither a totality of objects nor an abstract web of relations: It is the very earth we walk upon, the rivers beside which civilizations prospered, the mountain ranges, the soil, the wildlife, the rain and snow and sunshine, etc. Watsuji sought to do justice to fūdo from a phenomenological perspective, showing how our lives are incomprehensible without it. Although I think his attempt to extend this analysis to nations and peoples is inherently flawed, I think his original project of hermeneutics is extremely fascinating and vital in this day and age when globalization and climate change present us with such a radical existential threat. We do not have the liberty of conceiving of ourselves as separate from the environment, as if it were some external cage in which we find ourselves trapped; it is rather the very condition of our existence that gives it a sense. For this reason, Watsuji encourages us to “learn from one another,” because “Neglect of nature does not mean to surmount nature” (117).