The Sociology of Cry, the Beloved Country

9780743262170_p0_v2_s550x406.jpg“Every society,” wrote Émile Durkheim, “is a moral society.” We take it for granted that we grow up in a community, educated by our parents and socialized by our peers, identifying with those around us, adopting their core values. Being a part of a community means being integrated into a larger collective conscience, a shared sense of right and wrong. Yet not all societies last forever, and neither do their values. This theme is explored in Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, set in pre-Apartheid South Africa. The protagonist, a priest named Stephen Kumalo, watches as his tribal traditions and community fall apart before his eyes and struggles to comprehend why his old way of life should disintegrate, leaving him and his people fragmented. Two people who did comprehend it, though, were the founders of sociology, Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, whose The Division of Labor in Society and Science as a Vocation, respectively, dealt with how a society’s values can degenerate. Alan Paton, through Cry, the Beloved Country, along with Durkheim and Weber, depicts how, when a culture is confronted with social disintegration, it will lead to anomie and disenchantment.

The breakdown of central norms and traditions that hold a society together results in a felt loss of collective purpose and identity known as anomie, or normlessness. This is shown early in the novel, when Kumalo meets with a few other priests in Johannesburg: “So they all talked of the sickness of the land, of the broken tribe and the broken house, of the young men and young girls that went away and forgot their customs, and lived loose and idle lives” (52). Paton’s attribution of “sickness” to Africa and its people is not literal, as in the ailment that affects someone physically, rendering them unhealthy; Unknown.jpeginstead, the “sickness” is a sickness of the soul, an illness that is more latent than a virus, affecting not the organs of the infected, but the very core of the person. It is suggested that the “young men and young girls” are unaware of the fact that, deep down, their internal system is compromised by their lack of values. Having “forgot[ten] their customs,” the new generation of South Africans is uprooted. They do not know from where they came, their history, their upbringing, for it has all been abandoned in favor of new Western values, which ends up alienating them from their homes. When a person is raised in a community, they internalize the customs thereof, so to “forget [one’s] customs” is to be without a community, an identity. The youth of South Africa are atomized individuals, completely by themselves, disconnected from everyone else around them. Without anything to hold them together, they are “loose” and have “idle lives.” In other words, like domesticated animals whose tethers have been broken, the South Africans find themselves adrift, not knowing what to do with themselves. As a result, faced with all their leisure time, they experiment aimlessly, with no goal in mind. Later in the novel, after Absalom murders Arthur Jarvis, a local politician says, “‘I say we shall always have native crime to fear until the native people of this country have worthy purposes to Unknown-1.jpeginspire them and worthy goals to work for. For it is only because they see neither purpose nor goal that they turn to drink and crime and prostitution’” (107). According to the politician, the direct cause of crime can be linked to a lack of purpose. The idea is that the natives, confronting their lack of central values, are trying to cover up their emptiness without actually filling it by engaging in debaucheries and committing crimes. Spiritually devoid, they do not have any rules by which to live, having given them up as soon as they left the village, leaving them the only option to escape from themselves into illicit activities. Because many of the natives are unemployed due to their underprivileged education, and because they still have to make ends meet, they deviate from the norm, doing whatever it takes to make any kind of money, even if it is frowned upon socially. To them, it does not matter since it is about life or death. Being without direction, they wander every which way, regardless of the dangers that come therewith. As the politician says, it is not until the natives have “worthy purposes to inspire them” that they will behave appropriately. By committing crimes, the natives’ needs are satisfied; however, they themselves, as people, are not fulfilled, for they have nothing towards which they are working. Something similar is mentioned at another point, when James Jarvis reads his son Arthur’s explanation for native deviance: “The old tribal system was, for all its violence and savagery, for all its superstition and witchcraft, a moral system. Our natives today produce criminals and prostitutes and drunkards, not because it is their nature to do so, but because their simple system of order and tradition and convention has been destroyed” (179). Arthur’s being an outsider gives him an objective view of South African society. Despite the prejudices of his own culture, he recognizes that the integrated, mechanical solidarity of the African communities is a “moral system.” If Western culture were to lose all its Unknown-3.jpegvalues, then the same thing would happen: Amorality would occur as a result of the breakdown of the system. Thus, Arthur sees that the moral depravity of the natives is not in “their nature,” but the result of their circumstances. It is a question of nurture, not nature. The very thing supposed to nurture the natives—the village community and its traditions—has fallen apart due to Western influence, causing it to disintegrate. Social disintegration, then, brings out the basest instincts in people because there is nothing holding them back, no moral regulation. “Superstition,” taken by the West to be backward, is actually a good force, as it is a “system of order” and “convention.” A central, shared belief in the consequences of certain acts enforces the norms of a society, giving its constituents something around with which to orient themselves. When this axis falls apart, so does the society, as Arthur points out. Through the priests and politicians, it becomes clear that a society, if it is to be cohesive, needs glue to hold itself together, the glue being its purpose, which is based on its traditions and norms.

Disenchantment sets in as soon as a community’s deeply held values lose their significance, deprived of their influence, reduced to merely subjective beliefs. While visiting his brother John, Stephen learns that his brother’s wife left him because he had been fooling around with other women. Msimangu calls him out for his infidelity: “John looked at him suspiciously. ‘Fidelity,’ he said. But Msimangu was quick to see that he did not understand” (69). During the conversation, the three men are speaking in English Unknown.jpegrather than their native Zulu. This is noteworthy because John, living in Johannesburg, which is an urban center, primarily speaks English, having left Ndotsheni; and yet, despite his being more experienced with the language, he still does not understand the meaning of “fidelity.” The word is not a part of his vocabulary. Meanwhile, Msimangu is offended by John’s reckless, immoral behavior. A man of God, a man who upholds the traditions of the community, Msimangu cherishes faithfulness and monogamy. In his eyes, it is a sin to be with multiple women and not to be devoted to a single partner. The problem is that, in the West, loyalty is not valued as much as by the South Africans, who grow up together in a tight-knit community; in the loosely connected, alienating city of Johannesburg, on the other hand, it is easy to find fleeting love, to engage in “one night stands,” fearing commitment and intimate connections, without fear of consequences. John, then, is the epitome of the devaluation of morals because he has eschewed his old way of life, exchanging it for a free life. Love is not a sacred, eternal bond, but something that can be passed around, deprived of its value. This leads, in turn, to decadence and disillusionment as more people decide that love is merely a word to be tossed around and flaunted, like an object of idolatry. Further on, as Stephen and John discuss their sons’ involvement in the murder of Arthur Jarvis, John discloses, “‘You see, my brother, there is no proof that my son or this other young man was there at all… Who will believe your son?’” (133-4). It is John’s plan to get a lawyer, which comes as a surprise to Stephen, who is confused as to why he would need one. He is confused because, to him, everything is straightforward. There is no need for a lawyer, as he sees it, because the facts are all there. But John’s hiring a lawyer challenges Unknown-1.jpegStephen’s belief in the inviolable objectivity of Truth. A lawyer, in John’s case, is able to “change the facts”; such a thing is foreign to the priest, who sees the Truth as something that cannot change or be challenged, something immutable and eternal. In other words, John displaces Truth from its pedestal, subjectivizing it; Truth is no longer objective—it is subjective, decided upon by each person for himself. Therefore, John is straight-up denying the reality of what happened. It matters not what actually happened, because “Truth” has become “truth.” The individualism of the West ends in relativism, according to which every person gets to choose what to believe in, creating desanctification of deeply rooted values. John’s blatant denial of reality attests to this process of subjectivization. Stephen would never think to question Truth, because it is Truth. Only by dis-enchanting Truth, only by de-valuing Truth can John argue it, seeing as it does not matter to him as it does to Stephen. Ultimately, the disenchantment brought on by the disintegration of his native village ends up getting to the priest himself. Having returned to Ndotsheni, and upon observing all the problems that plague it, and the inaction of his people, he plains, “Where was the great vision that he had seen at Ezenzeleni, the vision born of such great suffering?… [W]as his vision a delusion, and these things beyond all helping? No power but the power of God could bring about such a miracle….” (267). In this quote, “vision” is contrasted with “delusion,” indicating Stephen’s loss of faith. He is not even sure if he had a genuine experience, if it was an epiphany, or if it was a hallucination, something unreal and imagined, produced by the mind. Western culture, which might be called godless nowadays, dismisses religion as something illusory and false, and calls into question the belief in God. Witnessing the devastation and injustice around him, Stephen finds himself doubting God, implying an absence of theodicy, that is, an explanation for evil in the world. However, he has not completely lost faith; he calls on God one last time to “bring about … a miracle.” Essentially, this is Stephen making a final plea to determine whether God really is out there, and whether he will answer his prayer. With the images.jpegabsence of faith comes the absence of hope, to which Stephen falls prey. Buckling under all the pressure, having undergone many a test of faith, Stephen finds himself surrendering to disenchantment. The one thing that gives him direction in life, that gives him a sense of meaning—God—is under attack, risking abandonment and infidelity. Stephen is reluctant to let go of his faith; he wants to keep his belief in something orderly and compassionate. After all, he had seen a “vision born of such great suffering.” If even amidst the worst conditions, hidden beneath all the tribulations, there is a sliver of hope for salvation and mercy, then Stephen will find the strength to hold on. The reason he needs to hang on in the first place, though, is that his belief has been called into doubt. Before going to Johannesburg, Stephen as a priest taught his parishioners to believe in God, never seeing a need to question His existence; the involvement and presence of God were a given in the community, something in which everyone invested. Only now, with the onset of disillusionment, does he worry about his faith, or the weakening thereof. In closing, the dissolution of a society inevitably spells out the dissolution of its traditional values, too, which degrade into subjective concepts that have no real importance in guiding lives.

Unknown.pngIn summary, Cry, the Beloved Country, drawing upon the sociological theories of Durkheim and Weber, illustrates how the foundering of tribal life results invariably in the decline of both its social cohesion, measured by the solidarity of the community, and its collective conscience, evident in the loss of faith in traditional values. Without other people and morality, it would be impossible to live. Sociologists and philosophers have conceived of man as being by nature social and moral, possessing an inherent need for belonging with others and sense of what ought to be done; as such, no society can exist without either a strong community or traditions by which to live. Only by uniting the community and adhering to its values, and not interfering with a culture’s conventions, can we hope to preserve the integration of a well-functioning society, and keep on living with an idea of who we are and what we should do.


Bad Faith in The Kite Runner (2 of 2)

Click here to read the first part!

Sartre states,

I am not only in bad faith… when I have persuaded myself. In truth, I have not persuaded myself; to the extent that I could be so persuaded, I have always been so. And at the very moment when I was disposed to put myself in bad faith, I of necessity was in bad faith with respect to the same disposition… The decision to be in bad faith does not dare to speak its name. [1]

Unknown.jpegHere, Sartre adds to the previous discussion in further detail. To illustrate what he is saying, I will use a more familiar situation: Let us say I am trying not to eat unhealthily tonight, having had a filling meal, and not wanting to compromise my workout regiment when, seeing a chocolate bar, I find my commitment faltering, such that, in an ecstatic frenzy, without control, I eat it, directly violating my injunction. We are prone to resort to psychoanalysis in circumstances like these, claiming, “It wasn’t me,” “It was as though it were somebody else controlling me,” or “I didn’t even realize I was doing it until it was too late.” Sartre does not believe in excuses, though. The defiance of myself resulted not from having “persuaded myself” but of being persuadable beforehand. I can try to pinpoint the betrayal to the instant I tell myself, “It’s okay, one chocolate bar isn’t going to hurt”—the persuasion, in short—but Sartre would say that this is itself an excuse. The real betrayal is not the persuasion itself, but being open to persuasion.

Who is doing the persuading? I. Who is being persuaded? I. Every moment, I am at risk of falling into bad faith, precisely in virtue of this peril. Hence, Sartre argues that “I of necessity was in bad faith” “at the very moment when I was disposed to put myself in No-Excuse.jpgbad faith.” While this seems like a tautology, a mere repetition, it reflects the unthinking tendency of bad faith, the fact that “the decision to be in bad faith does not dare to speak its name.” The danger with being both the persuader and persuadee is that I can deny the persuasion ever took place. Subsequently, I can make appeals to the sub- or unconscious, claiming I merely had a lapse of judgment, when I really knew that I should not have taken the chocolate bar; my impulses just got the better of me! All this, however, just confirms Sartre’s hypothesis: Bad faith covers its tracks by denying its existence at the very moment it strikes, leaving no trace behind.

This explains the paradoxical nature of our psychology. Moreover, this explains how Amir can make himself believe something while also denying its truth. He covers up his cover-up. He denies his denial. When we do something of this nature, we repress it, to use a psychoanalytic phrase, ironically. Of course, Sartre would detest such a description; he would describe repression naturalistically as the tendency to relegate a motive to the unconscious. Denying our denial is giving up responsibility for our actions, blaming it on our unconscious, pretending not to have been present at the time of its execution, intentionally erasing it from our memory, forming a lacuna. Indeed, the very acknowledgment of bad faith nihilates itself, consciously chooses to overlook itself, giving rise to itself.

Unknown-2.jpegEarlier, we talked about humans as being both facticity and transcendence, although this conception became overshadowed by the nature of consciousness. So to facticity and transcendence we return! By looking at how consciousness is both pre-reflective and reflective, we were able to see how bad faith is possible; by looking now at how we are both facticity and transcendence, we are able to see how bad faith is actualized, particularly in the case of Amir. In essence, bad faith arises from a self-misinterpretation: We think of ourselves as either facticity or transcendence, rather than as both facticity and transcendence. Really, we are the two put together, but we like to separate them, because it makes life easier. But because we are free, Sartre says, we must face the fact that life cannot be easy; we must embrace our anguish and use it to propel us forward, rather than give up our freedom in despair.

Everyone’s favorite example of bad faith in Being and Nothingness is that of the waiter. At a café, we observe a mechanical, meticulous waiter who overdoes all of his duties, as if he were acting out the role of a waiter, overly dramatic and stiff. Sartre accuses this elegant-waiter-with-a-tray-vector-illustration_k35876975.jpgwaiter of being in bad faith because of a false dichotomy: Factically, the waiter is a waiter in the sense that it is his occupation; transcendentally, he is not a waiter in the sense that he has the choice not to be a waiter, that it is “just a job,” which in no way defines him. If the waiter denies that, as a free agent, he has chosen to be a waiter, then he is in bad faith. Yes, he is not by definition a waiter, but he does occupy that place and identify as one. To say that he is fundamentally not a waiter is only half-correct. On the one hand, he must honor the decision he has made; on the other, he must realize that he is bound to it only so far as he chooses. So long as he is a waiter, he is a waiter, yet he need not be one. His existence does not revolve around being a waiter. When he comes to work, he has to be careful not to look at his apron as though it were his skin, his whole life, but as something he has elected to wear, in no way determinant of who he is or what he will do, for he is neither a waiter nor a non-waiter, but a man who has chosen to be a waiter. Neither an actor nor a prisoner, but a free agent.

Unknown-3.jpegA tendency of ours is to seek sincerity. We wish to be truthful to ourselves and to others. We appreciate honesty in people. However, Sartre classifies sincerity as but a veiled form of bad faith, of self-deception. Sincerity, he says, is admitting to oneself “what one is.” The danger with this is that we thereby reduce ourselves to a thing or object. To admit to oneself “what” one is, is to fit ourselves into a box, limiting our freedom. “I ran because I was a coward,” Amir confesses. “I actually aspired to cowardice.” We find bad faith nested in sincerity because it traps us in facticity, completely taking our transcendence, our freedom, out of the picture. As soon as we see ourselves as pure facticity, as being-in-itself, an object, a mere product of our inner nature or essence, predetermined, we give up our freedom.

Amir’s admitting that he is a coward does not absolve him. His slate is not cleared. In fact, it gives him a pre-filled slate. His confession does not function as a wiping-away. On the contrary, it attributes to him a destiny. Amir “the coward” is who he is—is what he is. Amir is essentially a coward—by this, we understand it to mean that all his actions stem Unknown-4.jpegfrom cowardice, that he is motivated by cowardice, that nothing he does can ever be courageous. There is no possibility of overcoming his cowardice, as it is “nature,” which is unchangeable, innate, fixed. In admitting “what” I supposedly “am,” I nihilate what I am, because I thereby become aware of my freedom to be otherwise—what I am not—and to transcend it; however, in very act of thus identifying myself, I make no promise of change, which makes me just my facticity; to do otherwise, i.e., to claim that “I am a changed man” is also bad faith because it identifies my transcendence as facticity, failing to take into account my past, “what I am.” Regarding that last part, I mean to say that we cannot be overly optimistic in saying, “I will be changed from now on,” because the fact of the matter is, we still remain who we are until we change our actions; to claim to be changed before change actually occurs, is to be in bad faith.

Unknown-5.jpegNormally, when we hear someone admit something to themselves, as when Amir admits to himself that he is a coward, we admire them for their honesty. But Sartre is not so accepting, for he believes that sincerity, being a form of bad faith, is self-deception. See, the reason we admire sincerity is because it makes room for change. For example, we say that the first step to overcoming a problem is admitting that we have one. In other words, we can only change ourselves when we first know what we are in the first place. Only then can we formulate a plan of action going forward. Implied in confession is the promise of moving forward, of progress. Based on this, we should interpret Amir as saying, “I ran because I was a coward, though I am going to change that going forward.” After all, he does say “was,” showing the possibility of change.

Readers of The Kite Runner, however, know this is not the case: Amir continues to be a coward numerous times afterward. Sincerity, while a tool for moving forward, is also a tool for staying in place. Sincerity locks us in place. Thus, no matter what we fill in for Unknown-6.jpegAmir, he explicitly says “because I was a coward”; in other words, although we may expect change, he is making no hints thereto. All he is saying is, literally, he is a coward. Nothing more. A statement. No promise, just a bold statement of identification. This kind of self-identification just leads to complacency, a sense of ownership. Rather than liberate him, Amir’s sincerity imprisons him. Amir is a coward. In anguish, Amir has to avoid fatalism (“I am a coward”) and idealism (“I am a hero”). But this is not all, considering Amir is guilty of deceiving himself yet again with his second justification, that Hassan is “just a Hazara, wasn’t he?”—that is, because of what Hassan is, he is not worthy of Amir’s action. Sartre writes,

Unknown-7.jpegThe critic demands of the guilty one that he constitute himself as a thing, precisely in order no longer to treat him as a thing… Who can not see how offensive to the Other and how reassuring for me is a statement such as, “He’s just a pæderast,” [or “He’s just a Hazara] which removes a disturbing freedom from a trait and which aims at henceforth constituting all the acts of the Other as consequences following strictly from his essence. That is actually what the critic is demanding of his victim—that he constitute himself as a thing, that he should entrust his freedom as a fief, in order that the friend should return it to him subsequently—like a suzerain to his vassal. The champion of sincerity is in bad faith to the degree that in order to reassure himself, he pretends to judge, to the extent that he demands freedom as freedom constitute itself as a thing. [2]

In this passage, Sartre is commenting on the “champion of sincerity,” the person who pressures another to admit to himself who he is. Although Amir is not in the context of the alley telling Hassan to admit his essence as a Hazara, he is championing sincerity as a justification for his actions. Thus, he “constitutes [Hassan] as a thing” in saying that he “just a Hazara.” The social status of Hassan, his facticity, determines his whole being, in Amir’s eyes. Hassan will never be anything more than his social status. Nothing Hassan does will transcend, or go beyond, his nature as a Hazara. He is stuck as a Hazara and will always remain one. Hence, Amir “removes a… freedom from” Hassan “which aims at the-kite-runner-full.pnghenceforth constituting all the acts of” him “as consequences following strictly from his essence,” namely as a Hazara. That is to say, Hassan had no choice in his ethnicity or family. While he is not free to not be a Hazara, he is free to not be confined to being a Hazara. He cannot change his past, but he is not determined by his past; he can determine it for himself. Yet Amir cannot come to accept this; instead, he deprives Hassan of his freedom, “that he [Hassan] should entrust his freedom as a fief, in order that the friend [Amir] should return it to him subsequently—like a suzerain to his vassal.” Sartre’s writing here is all the more powerful in its application seeing as Amir does indeed treat Hassan as a vassal, or peasant, someone weaker and inferior. The irony, of course, is that Amir manages to disparage Hassan without even doing anything: His standing by without helping Hassan speaks more than if he were to, say, tease him. Despite seeing himself as the stronger, smarter, and overall better of the two, Amir, idly and helplessly watching Hassan get raped, shows himself to be the most irresolute and cowardly; and yet he still maintains his dominance regardless, all because he champions sincerity, taking Hassan’s nature as a Hazara to be more damning than his cowardice.

But let us get back to the matter at hand, which is how Amir, specifically, falls into bad faith. Like we have said, Amir is facticity, in-the-midst-of-the-world, but he is also transcendence, in-the-world. We shall look at these features one by one. In-the-midst-of-Unknown-8.jpegthe-world, Amir is a coward. He is a coward because he has chosen not to intervene and help Hassan when he could have. But Amir is not essentially a coward for-himself, because that would be to deny what he is not for-himself; he would be denying his freedom. Basically, Amir is proclaiming, “I’m nothing but a coward.” In-the-world, Amir is a non-coward. He is a non-coward because he can choose to go against his fear at any point in the future. But Amir is not essentially a non-coward in-himself, because that would be to deny what he is in-himself; he would be denying his past. Basically, Amir is proclaiming, “I’m anything but a coward.” In the book, Amir goes with the former, identifying himself with his facticity, denying his transcendence, but he could just as easily have gone with the latter, identifying himself with his transcendence and denying his facticity.

Either way, Amir is in bad faith. Why? Because Amir is acting like it is an either/or. Amir thinks he can pick whether he wants to be facticity or transcendence, then reduce the other to itself. But the human agent is not facticity OR transcendence, but facticity AND transcendence! This is why Amir is in bad faith. This is why Amir is able to run: He Amir.jpgdenies his freedom… with his freedom. By using his freedom, he runs away from his freedom. His transcendence, his ability to create himself, is made subservient to his facticity, so that his freedom to choose what he wants to be is confused with what he was, viz., a coward. Therefore, Amir is neither “nothing but a coward”—a blatant denial of freedom—nor “anything but a coward”—a blatant denial of reality. Amir both is and is not a coward: Amir is only a coward insofar as he chooses to be a coward. In other words, Amir is not determined in any way “by nature” to be a coward; no, Amir is free to be a coward. Amir ran because he chose to. Amir is a coward because he chose to be one. He saw what was happening, and he saw that he had the freedom to do something, but he panicked, he froze, he was seized with anguish, and not wanting to confront it, he ran from it, denying his freedom, but also affirming it at the same time.

According to Sartre, belief is self-destructive. This is because belief involves consciousness. Amir believes himself to be a coward. But Amir knows himself to be believing himself to be a coward. So Amir reflects on his pre-reflective belief that he is a coward, by which he nihilates it, meaning Amir is his belief in being a coward in not-being-a-coward. This same point was made when we talked about reflective and pre-reflective awareness. The moment Amir identifies his belief, he both is (pre-reflectively) and is not (reflectively) it. And because the reflective and pre-reflective consciousness are the same thing, just different parts, it means Amir is lying to himself, deceiving himself; he is in bad faith because his belief is unannounced. It is a “surreptitious slide,” as Sartre puts it, from being to not-being, and back.

Unknown-9.jpegIn conclusion, we learn through Sartre and Amir that bad faith is an inevitable part of our lives, a phenomenon that is difficult to overcome precisely because it is built into our nature. Due to our freedom, the structure of consciousness, and the reality of the human condition as both facticity and transcendence, we struggle against ourselves to make decisions daily, often choosing the wrong thing, even when we know it to be wrong. To err, is to be human. Inauthenticity, as Sartre depicts it, is unavoidable; like other existentialist philosophers, Sartre can be bleak, yet he insists that existentialism, notwithstanding, is at heart an optimistic philosophy. By underpinning our psychology with philosophy, Sartre believes we can be more honest with ourselves (not sincere, per se), allowing us to productively use our freedom, rather than run from it, as Amir did. In the end, then, we see that it is much easier to blame Amir for his inaction than it is to identify with him. The truth is, we are all like Amir when it comes down to it, for like him, we combat inaction all the time, and we usually end up on the losing side. Amir is not “nothing but a coward”; Amir is only a images.pngcoward insofar as he chooses to be one. Like Amir, too, we have a past from which we cannot run, and a future which we cannot outrun. We can deny neither our facticity nor our transcendence. The Kite Runner, in this respect, is universal: It deals with the human condition, specifically the nature of choice and what role it plays in our lives. It is so incredibly hard to use our freedom authentically without sabotaging ourselves, as we all know too well. We use all kinds of fancy and clever tricks on ourselves to convince us of the unreality of our situation; we make up excuses that justify the choices we do and do not make, all the while painfully aware of our complicity in them. We make ourselves think we are not free, when really this kind of mind trick is itself an exercise of freedom. We are the sole agents of all our actions. This is a truth with which we must come to terms.



[1] Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 68
[2] Id., pp. 64-5


For further reading: 
Existentialist Philosophy: An Introduction by L. Nathan Oaklander (1992)
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction by Thomas R. Flynn (2006)
Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre (1956)
The Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini (2003)

Bad Faith in The Kite Runner (1 of 2)

What does it mean to be in “bad faith” (mauvaise foi)? How are we supposed to cope with our freedom? These are questions addressed in French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, published in 1943. In it, he explores what exactly we are, and how knowing that can help us to lead an authentic existence, one in which we create ourselves freely, without falling victim to our own lies. A similar message is found in 51vRNqL61aL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgKhaled Hosseini’s 2003 novel The Kite Runner, which follows the life of a boy named Amir in Afghanistan and his attempts to gain redemption. All readers of The Kite Runner are shocked at one infamous scene in the novel (spoiler alert!) when Amir watches as his childhood playmate Hassan is raped in an alleyway. One is forced to ask such questions as “How could he have allowed that to happen?” “Why didn’t he do something?” “What would’ve happened had he intervened?” Notwithstanding the fact that Amir was just a boy at the time, it still makes the reader question what exactly was going on in his head at the time. Luckily, we are given just that—the thought process of Amir as he watches and eventually runs away. By rereading what Amir was feeling and thinking during the whole thing, by analyzing the contradictory elements, and by measuring it up to Sartre’s existential philosophy, I think we can figure out the exact reason Amir chose to do what he did—or did not do—and why most of us, I believe, would likely have done the same; for in truth, Amir’s internal battle is actually not too far off from our own battles with which we struggle in our everyday lives, thus shedding light on the decision-making process through which we go on even the smallest, trivial levels. Through an existential (Sartrean) critique of Amir’s actions, we will arrive at a definitive picture of bad faith and what it means to be inauthentic.

I had one last chance to make a decision. One final opportunity to decide who I was going to be. I could step into that alley, stand up for Hassan—the way he’d stood up for me all those times in the past—and accept whatever would happen to me. Or I could run.

In the end, I ran.

I ran because I was a coward. I was afraid of Assef and what he would do to me. I was afraid of getting hurt. That’s what I told myself as I turned my back to the alley, to Hassan. That’s what I made myself believe. I actually aspired to cowardice, because the alternative, the real reason I was running, was that Assef was right: Nothing was free in this world. Maybe Hassan was the price I had to pay, the lamb I had to slay, to win Baba. Was it a fair price? The answer floated to my conscious mind before I could thwart it: He [Hassan] was just a Hazara, wasn’t he? [1]

Unknown.jpegThis is the passage we are presented with in the novel where we are given insight into Amir’s consciousness as he chooses to betray his friend and not save him, deciding instead to flee. The very first thing of which he is aware is that, foremost, he has to make a decision. He realizes that this decision, furthermore, will “decide who I was going to be.” According to Sartre, man is essentially his freedom. At every moment, we must make a choice, a decision, one that will shape us, make us into who we are, forever altering our path. Literally, a decision “cuts off” other possibilities. Once I choose one thing and settle on it, all the other possibilities from which I could have chosen are erased, inaccessible to me going forward. There is no going back. Amir cannot, having run away, say, “I want a redo.” In life, there are no redoes. Each second calls for a choice. Thus, Sartre can say that we are our choices. Amir gets to constantly define himself with every decision he makes. He has that freedom over his life. There is never a time that a choice is already made in advance, for to do that is to limit one’s freedom.

When we become conscious of this fact, we experience “anguish,” in Sartre’s terms. Closely related to anxiety, anguish is a mental state caused by the vertiginous nature of our freedom. Standing there in the alley, Amir is paralyzed with fear. He does not want to run into the alley because he fears “Assef and what he would do to me,” because he is  “afraid of getting hurt.” Both of these things are concrete possibilities. If Amir were to try Unknown-1.jpegto save Hassan, then he would most likely get beat up, or worse, too. These are real, definite things that could happen to him. However, fear is not the only negative reaction Amir is facing: He is also facing anguish, which is not fear of something definite, like getting hurt, nor is it a certainty or specific possibility; rather, anguish is a fear of uncertainty, a fear of possibility per se, possibility itself. It is correct to assert that Amir is frozen in place because he is afraid. But it is more accurate to assert that he is frozen in place because he is anguished. More terrifying than the threat of getting beat up is the prospect of doing something, anything. Movement itself is scary. So long as Amir stays in his place, in hiding, secure, away from the situation, out of sight, he does not have to make a choice. In fact, the very possibility of getting beat up, which is his main fear, is obviated if he does not choose at all. Of course, we can point out that choosing to do nothing is itself a choice; however, the main point is that Amir, confronting his absolute freedom, in the moment denies it, finding it too overwhelming to handle.

We can go so far as to say that Amir, in anguish, is up against the infinity of nothingness. By this, I mean to say that Amir comes face-to-face with a solid wall of nothingness, which is surely a paradoxical statement. How can nothingness be a solid wall, and how does that prevent him from acting? Called upon to make a choice, Amir has before him a Unknown.pngmultitude of possibilities from which to choose, and the only thing separating him from this or that choice is, well, nothing; there is nothing stopping him from doing one thing or another—from being one thing or another. Still, to say that nothing is stopping him does not mean a whole lot. But there is a thin layer between Amir in his indecisiveness and Amir in his decisiveness, and this layer is nothingness. The only thing stopping Amir from running into the alley to save Hassan is nothing. So can’t Amir help him, then? Well, nothing is both the easiest and hardest thing to overcome, when you think about it. It would be just as easy as it would be difficult for Amir to choose to intervene. Again, this puts Amir in anguish. Therefore, the question becomes: How does this lead to bad faith? Why and how does Amir choose to run? As Thomas R. Flynn puts it, “We are fundamentally a work in progress, a story in the process of being told. To deny this condition is to be in bad faith.”[2] Amir is in bad faith because he denies that he is “a work in progress, a story in the process of being told”—in a word, he denies that he is free.

Human consciousness, as Sartre conceived of it, is made of two parts: Transcendence and facticity. The latter, facticity, refers to my past, which is composed of facts that make up who I am. I cannot change my past seeing as it has already happened; as such, they are “facts,” things that stand true about me, unchangeable and determined. For example, part of my facticity is having brown hair. Such a facet of my existence is factical because (1) it is a true fact and (2) I cannot change it (I can dye it, of course), since it is a part of my being, who I am. For Amir, part of his facticity is his being born to Baba and his being a Pashtun. These are fundamental parts of his identity that cannot be altered in any way.

Unknown-2.jpegOn the other hand, Amir is also transcendence, which means “climbing across,” sort of like overcoming. What facticity determines, transcendence leaves undetermined. Transcendence is oriented toward the future, toward what has not yet happened, my possibilities, which are within my power to actualize. My transcendence is what allows me to choose what college I will be going to, what job I want to pursue, or on a less significant scale, what I will have for dinner tonight. Amir’s transcendence is exemplified by his and Baba’s fleeing to America from Russian-occupied Afghanistan. There is a conflicting pull, then, inherent in man’s consciousness, because man must grapple with what he is and what he will be at all times. Every time I make a decision, I must be mindful of my past; and every time I look back, I must not forget that I am moving forward.

Consequently, Sartre is allowed to summarize consciousness with a wonderfully confusing turn of phrase: “The nature of consciousness simultaneously is to be what it is not and not to be what it is.”[3] In this sentence, the “to be what it is not” alludes to transcendence, since we can always choose something new, while the “not to be what it is” alludes to facticity, since we always carry our past with us. If there is one key Unknown-1.pngtakeaway from this definition, that is, if we are to keep in mind one essential thing in order to understand what follows, then it is that Sartre uses “and,” not “or,” in his definition. Sartre does not say. “The nature of consciousness simultaneously is to be what it is not OR not to be what it is,” but, “The nature of consciousness simultaneously is to be what it is not AND not to be what it is.” Although seemingly pedantic, this small conjunction makes all the difference. The statement is not disjunctive, stating “either/or,” but conjunctive, meaning “this and that”; the two (transcendence and facticity), despite being opposed and contradictory, are joined in a single union. As such, man is neither transcendence nor facticity, but both. It is, as Oaklander comments, a distinction without a difference. Whenever we speak of the human consciousness, we can speak of it qua transcendence or as facticity, but the other is always implied; I cannot deny one or the other, since I am both. In reality, human consciousness is never divorced from either of its aspects: Being a distinction without a difference, we are always just referring to one part of it, but never its totality. Going forward, we can summarize this by saying that facticity and transcendence, in spite of their differences, belong to the same thing, namely, consciousness.

Unknown-3.jpegSartre proceeds to look at the actual structure of consciousness, which, again, is twofold: Consciousness is, on one level, pre-reflective, and on another, reflective. Pre-reflective consciousness is intentional, meaning it is always focused on something at a particular moment. If Amir is playing outside with Hassan, then pre-reflectively, he is conscious only of running after Hassan. Afterward, he can reflect on his pre-reflective awareness, making it reflective, characterized by self-consciousness; in other words, reflective consciousness occurs when we think about what we were thinking about previously. Amir becomes conscious of himself (reflectively) conscious of running after Hassan (pre-reflectively). Importantly, Sartre notes that pre-reflective awareness is implicitly self-aware. Because pre-reflective awareness is fixed on something else, it cannot be fixed on itself, yet it is, on another level, because otherwise reflective consciousness would not be able to reflect. Amir’s being able to say, “I was chasing Hassan,” which is reflective, reflects on his intentional state, which is only possible if he was self-conscious at the time of his chasing Hassan.

Alright, I know that was confusing. For simplification: When Amir is immersed in his chasing Hassan, he is implicitly self-aware in that he knows it is he who is chasing Hassan; and it is only implicit, rather than explicit, because he is at the moment focused on Hassan, unable to redirect his attention onto himself, except after he is done running.

Unknown-4.jpegCannot all this talk of “implicit and explicit” and “pre-reflective and reflective” consciousness just be reduced to the classic conflict between the un- and subconscious and conscious? Wouldn’t that be easier? Yes—but Sartre distances himself from, and even dimisses, these psychological terms inherited from Freudian psychoanalysis for one main reason: They are deterministic. Sartre denies any psychological explanations for human behavior because they deprive us of our agency. As Freud sees us, we are at the mercy of unconscious drives over which we have no power, and our past completely determines who we are. This leaves no room for freedom, which, as we have discussed, is central to Sartre’s philosophy. So Sartre rejects any idea of the unconscious and argues that, at any waking moment, we are implicitly self-conscious.

However, is not “implicit self-awareness,” self-awareness that is not out in the open but hidden beneath the surface, just another name for the subconscious? No—and this is where denial comes in (no pun intended). We can only turn a blind eye to our acts if we are aware of them in the first place. “[T]he efforts taken in order not to be present to [a belief],” Sartre declares, “imply the recognition [thereof]; they imply it in order to deny it.”[4] Negation requires knowledge of what is being negated. To ignore something, we need to know what we are ignoring, else it is not intentional ignoring—it is literally a case of our having no knowledge of it.

Now that we know what consciousness is, its structure, and its unrelation to psychology, we can finally begin to see how it applies to Amir in The Kite Runner. Amir claims to have run because he was “afraid of Assef… of getting hurt.” But then he follows up by saying, “That’s what I made myself believe.” We readers may even insert an “At least” to get the importance of this quote across: “At least, that’s what I made myself believe.” When we Unknown-6.jpegread the quote this way, there are two findings: First, it is what he “made” himself believe, indicating that he forced this belief upon himself, knowing there to be another one, an exercise of his freedom; and second, building off the former, there is an acknowledgment of his falsehood, his overlooking the true reason for his running, which he covers up with his being afraid, a protective layer to hide the truth of the situation from himself, followed by a complacency, an indifference toward his inaction. We can reword that last part by considering that “belief” is a weak form of expressing one’s motivations. Saying, “I know I ran because of fear” is much stronger and convincing than “I made myself believe I ran because of fear.” There is more distance in the second statement. We are made to think that there is a misalignment, an imbalance. Thus, the belief does not measure up with the reality, in other words.

It is telling that Amir says this after his reason. He says that he ran because he was afraid, then, “That’s what I made myself believe.” It is an afterthought, as if to communicate, “I ran for this reason—although I could be wrong, that’s just what came to my mind.” As a Unknown-2.pngresult, doubt is cast upon Amir’s justification, namely that he is a coward. He slips doubt between himself and his claim. His identifying it as a belief after the fact weakens his claim. It is “because of the unblinking eye of pre-reflective consciousness,” Flynn writes, that “one is aware of having settled for this non-persuasive evidence.”[5] In pre-reflection, Amir was completely involved in the moment, unable to form any rationalization for his actions. Only after running could he turn back and, in reflection, come up with a reason. It becomes clear to us that there is a disparity here: The pre-reflective consciousness says something different from the reflective consciousness. The reason Amir can say that he came up with the belief is because, on the pre-reflective level, he is aware of having inserted the belief through reflection, and this brings on feelings of guilt; he knows for a fact that it was not fear that made him run, as the “unblinking eye of pre-reflective consciousness” knows full well that is not the case. Amir enters into self-deception.

When I hold a belief, I intend it by seizing it with my consciousness, by which I come to identify with it; but in thus becoming conscious of myself as having this belief, reflectively, I am not it by means of nihilation, meaning I both am and am-not my belief. Having a belief, I intend it pre-reflectively, but can then reflect on my belief, negating it. Intentionality being antecedent, and self-awareness epiphenomenal, I am Unknown-5.jpegsimultaneously my belief and not-my-belief. At least, that is how Sartre would describe what Amir is doing. Basically, what all that philosophical jargon boils down to is this: As soon as I know what I am doing, and deny it, I am in bad faith. Amir holds a belief: He ran because he was scared. In asserting this, he identifies with it. However, because he is looking back at the memory, because he made himself believe it, he thereby weakens this tie between his belief and himself. Sartre uses the verb “nihilate” to refer to the act by which, being conscious of something, we place it outside of ourselves, disown it, as it were. Since consciousness is intentional, we said, it can only perceive things outside itself. Therefore, if consciousness becomes self-conscious, if it catches sight of itself holding a belief, then it automatically cuts out that belief, dissociates itself from it, turning it into something foreign.

Unknown-8.jpegThis is why we can say that Amir both is, and is not, his belief. The moment he is aware that he made himself believe himself, he is lying to himself, and he cannot escape this. In a way, it is similar to the phrase “Silence implies consent” insofar as Amir knows the real reason he ran (which we will get to), but refuses to name it, instead covering it up with a false belief that he himself made up and inserted; and as soon as he makes himself believe it, he implicitly acknowledges the real reason, but pushes it out, refuses to face it. Like Sartre said, Amir “[implies] it in order to deny it.” Amir is in bad faith because he can only cover his actions up if he knows why he did it first of all. And this he cannot hide from himself. He may hide it from Ali, from Baba, from Hassan—but not himself, never himself, always watched by the “unblinking eye of pre-reflective consciousnesses,” unable to resort to the unconscious. Because pre-reflective and reflective consciousness are still the same consciousness, but with a distinction, they will both know the truth no matter what, even if Amir makes the latter disagree with the former. That is, Amir can reflectively alter the facts to fit his own narrative, but will always be guilty of having altered it pre-reflectively. This is why Amir can make up excuses, justifications, rationalizations ex post facto. In effect, Amir is telling himself, “I couldn’t help it,” even though he knows this to be false.



[1] Hosseini, The Kite Runner, p. 77
[2] Flynn, Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction, p. 69
[3] Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 70
[4] Id., p. 54
[5] Flynn, op. cit., p. 72



For further reading: 
Existentialist Philosophy: An Introduction by L. Nathan Oaklander (1992)
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction by Thomas R. Flynn (2006)
Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre (1956)
The Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini (2003)

Event and World: Innerworldly Facts vs. Events (2 of 4)

Click here to read part 1!

(2) their character as world-establishing for an advenant.

Unknown.jpegThe next defining characteristic of the event is its ability to create a world ex nihilo, out of nothing; on the other hand, a fact happens in a pre-existing world. Event comes from the Latin verb evenire, which in turn means “coming-out-of,” for e- means “out,” and venire means “to come.” Thus, the event is that which “comes out of,” that which appears, the pure occurrence. When Romano speaks of an event in its “proper” sense, he means two things: first, he is talking about the pure event, its actual coming-about, the ongoing aspect of it, the “-ing” of the verb, as I have discussed; second, because “proper” derives from the Latin proprius, meaning “belonging to one,” Romano takes advantage of this to state that the proper event, as it occurs, literally occurs as something belonging to me, an event that is properly my own—i.e, the event is my property, in a sense. This builds off the first component, the personality of the event.

As a result, “There is no objective fact first, which in a second stage upends my possibilities: an event is nothing other than this impersonal reconfiguration of my possibilities and of the world—a reconfiguration that occurs in a fact and by which the event opens a fissure in my own adventure” (31). From this quote, we can pick out the insight that the event “occurs in a fact”; thus, events and facts, despite being very Unknown-1.jpegdifferent in nature, are connected in some way, albeit one that is not entirely clear yet. What this means is that the meaning of the event is carried in its very happening. Hence, I can trace the factual happening of the event, I can schedule it, but I can never account for its actual meaning or significance for me. We can say that the event and the fact are two sides of the same coin: the fact is the observable phenomenon, the impersonal occurrence, but at the same time, it has the potential to drastically affect me, to disrupt my life. The importance of the event is disguised by the advent of the fact. I can never ascertain the import of the event, because it is like the Trojan Horse, appearing rather normally, but hiding within it something powerful and unforeseeable. Just as the Trojan Horse was at once a gift and at once something sinister, by virtue of its surface and actual depth, so the event seems to be a gift that comes in the form of an everyday occurrence, whilst actually concealing something formidable.

Unknown-2.jpegRomano’s example is the death of someone close to us. This example clearly demonstrates the stark contrast between a fact and event. As a fact, the death has already passed. On this day, around this time, this person tragically met their fate, because these things happened to come together at the wrong place at the wrong time. Such facets are able to be accounted for; they make the death factual. However, the death is much more than a fact: it goes beyond mere facts, cutting as a knife does, affecting everyone present. Gathered around at the funeral, the family and friends are crying—not because something befell this person who was so dear to them, for that is the fact of its occurrence, but because of what the death means for them. Meaning is something that cannot be determined by science; it defies categorization and data. Instead, meaning is unique to everyone, and everyone interprets meaning differently according to who they are.

So we are faced with death as something that has two sides to it: It is at once the fact that somebody lost their life, but is also at once the realization that person is no more, has no more possibilities. It as not as though this realization occurs upon reflection, however; rather, it is inherent in the death itself. The significance of the death, something abstract burial-2028289_960_720.pngand subjective, is fostered in the very concrete and factual account of the death. Consequently, Romano declares that the event and the pain caused thereby “is nothing other than this impersonal reconfiguration of my possibilities and of the world.” Why impersonal? Because the death is an objective fact. And yet, it is also personal in its affecting-me-at-the-core. For this reason, the death is not just a fact, but an event. A reconfiguration takes place from this fissure. In other words, it initiates a permanent change: It recreates, re-forms, my world. Reading the obituary of this person, I see it is a mere fact, and perhaps I may feel pity, but a very superficial one; however, if I am close, and it strikes me as an event, then I find myself bereaved, mourning this loss, because the death carries within it, like the Trojan Horse, an excess of meaning; death means the stripping of all possibilities, complete absence, which is why Heidegger called it the “possibility of impossibility.” None of this can be gleaned from the fact of the death, though; it must be gained through undergoing the event.

If this is confusing, think back to the reading of the obituary: reading about death makes death a fact, a real occurrence in the world, but it is by no means personal, but wholly impersonal, since I am reading about it through a newspaper; in order for it to be a pure event, though, it has to permanently alter my life as a consequence, as the actual death of someone close to me would. In short, the death as a brute fact is impersonal and Unknown-3.jpegplurivocal, experienceable by many people (other readers of the newspaper); I read about the death as “just another death,” as something that “just happens,” like an unfortunate accident, for that is all that it is—an unfortunate accident. Death qua event, though, is personal and univocal, affecting me personally. My reaction to a close death is unique, separate from everyone else’s. I have to draw a distinction between how I cope with the death and how others cope with the death. A deep, unmitigatable pain comes over me, a desolate despair that cripples me. And while I can observe this in the family of the deceased, it is happening to me; I can only experience what I am experiencing for myself. My pain is unique to me. Any feelings that stir in me are mine alone, and I must cope with them, as they are internal. In fact, I can even express myself, telling others of what I am feeling, yet this is not equal to sharing my pain; I still find myself utterly alone in my suffering, having to deal with it myself, carrying it around with me wherever I go, my emotional baggage that nobody can take from me. No one can lessen my burden except myself, for my pain is not physical, able to be lifted; it is something felt primordially, in my soul, we say, because it cannot be located; it is an indeterminate pang.

Unknown-4.jpegDeath is an event because it marks a point in my adventure, creating “history” for me. Faced with the death of someone, my selfhood is “in play,” or “at stake”: I have to decide how I will move forward. The occurring of the event has to affect me personally in the process, making me a new person who sees “through new eyes.” This idea of seeing “through new eyes” is Romano’s second feature of the event, which is the idea that the self and the world are inextricably linked, bound together. The two are interdependent, for a change in oneself is a change in the world, and vice versa. Literally, we emerge “a new person” from an event. The event of death reconfigures both me and my world: I find myself living in an entirely new world, a world without the deceased, and this, in turn, means that I find myself living as an entirely new person, in light of the deceased’s death, insofar as their loss may serve as an impetus, a source of inspiration, perhaps, that causes me to see the shortness of life, and subsequently try to make the most of it. Thus, in changing me, the event thereby changes the world, providing me with new possibilities, possibilities theretofore unimagined by me; the event unlocks a new way of seeing, precisely because it unlocks a new world—like a key, it unlocks new doors, new paths for me to take.

Unknown-5.jpegAs I have indicated earlier, then, the event is differentiated from the fact “with [its] addressed character” (31). Basically, this is just a rewording of Romano’s claim that the event is univocal. However, we can now understand it more fully in seeing how it relates to the world in which we are living. An event is univocal because it changes my world for me. My world. For me. Here is a short recap of the second defining feature of the event: An event like death is impersonal because it is externally contingent, considering it could have happened to anyone else at any other time; but the fact that it did happen the way it did, and the fact that it affects me, makes the event “mine” in a sense, in that it involves me in its occurrence, forever altering my world, instigating self-understanding and self-reflection.



For further reading: Event and World by Claude Romano (2009)


Event and World: Innerworldly Facts vs. Events (1 of 4)

9780823229710.jpgWhat is an event? And what does it mean for an event to “happen” or “occur”? These questions are asked by the 21st-century French philosopher Claude Romano, who in his philosophical trilogy “evential hermeneutics” (the interpretation of events) sets out to define what exactly an event is, and how the passing of events shapes our lives—what he calls our human “adventure,” which, I think, is not only an original conception of our condition, despite his rejection of humanism, but also a fun and invigorating one. To call our lives an adventure is to breath new life into it, returning the elements of fun, risk, and excitement, restoring the often-complex and unpredictable nature of our existence. Literally, to say that our lives are an adventure, is to say that it is what happens to us, since “adventure” comes from advenire, which in Latin means “coming-toward”; in short, by conceptualizing our existence as an adventure, we are acknowledging that, most of the time, we have no idea where we are going in this complicated world of ourselves, but we are along for the ride, never knowing what is next, unaware of what awaits us around the corner, but also willing to find out and embrace it. Thus, for Romano, the human adventure is our life as it is affected by events, things that happen to us, giving us direction. In this series, I will be examining Romano’s exploration of the phenomenology of the event. Today’s post will specifically be looking at and Unknown.jpegsummarizing the first section of his first book in the trilogy, Event and World (2009). This portion of the book deals with the difference between what he calls “innerwordly facts,” or evental events, on the one hand, and “events as such,” or evential events, on the other. For sake of clarity, I will henceforth refer to evental events as just “facts,” and evential events as simply “events.” Romano’s classification of evental (facts) vs. evential (events) seems needlessly confusing and unnecessary, but it can be explained like this: the evental means ordinary and everyday, like the event of getting up in the morning, whereas the evential is the focus of his books, an extraordinary, life-changing event like moving to a new city or country. Accordingly, rather than summarize the section in the same order Romano does, I will be presenting it in a more organized form by enumerating and elaborating upon the four main differences between facts and events that he sketches out.

At the end of the section, Romano offers the following summary of what distinguishes events from facts:

(1) their univocal assignation, by which, in every event, I am in play myself in my selfhood; (2) their character as world-establishing for an advenant; (3) their constitutive an-archy, according to which, although inexplicable, they nevertheless make sense in a human adventure; and (4) the impossibility of any dating, such that they do not happen in time but rather open time or temporalize it (49).

Here we have the definitive outline of what makes an event an event in the evential sense, that is, a life-altering event. These four characteristics are what set the event apart from a mere fact, as Romano sees it. As you can tell, though, his summary is not super helpful, for it is written in French philosophical prose—the second toughest and confusing, next to German! As such, I will be going through them in order, one by one, explaining just what exactly he is really saying about the event.

(1) their univocal assignation, by which, in every event, I am in play myself in my selfhood.

Romano’s first claim is that the event has a “univocal assignation.” Conversely, a fact will have a “plurivocal assignation.” Another way to think of it is like this: an event is personal, whereas a fact is impersonal. Plurivocal means having multiple voices, because pluri- means “several.” Looking at it this way, then, a fact can affect multiple people or things at once, making it unclear if it is targeting any one thing, thus making it Sunset_Marina.JPGimpersonal. Suppose you and your significant other are standing on a promontory, looking out at the vast ocean, the sun sinking slowly behind the horizon, causing the water to shimmer and twinkle, while the sky, like a wet towel, soaks up the faint purples and oranges and reds. The two of you witness this fact. If anyone asked where you were, then you can respond that you guys saw a sunset. What the sunset demonstrates, however, is that it is not actually a personal event: instead, by affecting multiple things, it remains impersonal. For example, the water’s surface was altered by the sun; the sky, in response to the sun, changed color; the air became chillier as a result; the two of you are made to feel mellow, peaceful, relishing in the ephemeral beauty of the natural phenomenon. So it would be wrong to say that the sunset only affected the people who viewed it; it also impacted the world around it. In fact, if we look closer, the fact that the sun sets is not the actual event.

Now, it is equally true to say that the sun can set without our being there. Sunsets happen all the time when we are inside the house eating dinner or working, and that has no bearing on it. Yet “every phenomenon… is a phenomenon for… a ‘subject,’ a person, who allows it to appear,” Romano writes (27-8). On the classic question of whether a tree falling in the forest with nobody around to hear it makes a sound, Romano declares No. To be—or in this case, to occur—is to be perceived, occurrere est percipi. Based on this, an Unknown-1.jpegevent is observable: it is able to be observed. In order to take place, it has to have a witness, a viewer, an advenant, in Romano’s terms. While the taking-place of the event is independent, happening on its own, like the Sun so many miles away from Earth, the actual appearing of it, its being-shown, involves an appearing to or being-shown to; therefore, the sun’s setting is an impersonal pattern in nature, a natural occurrence, able to be accounted for by induction, seeing as it happens every day, but for it to actually take place, it has to be seen taking place. The sun’s setting, in a sense, is dependent upon the viewer. Your or my viewing of the event makes it so, turning it into a matter of fact. Yet it need not be you or I; there is no unique viewer who can only make an event occur. I can admire the sunset one evening because my friend could not make it, but if it were the other way around, then it would not matter anyway. Really, it does not have to be he or I, even—a stranger, too, could have seen it. Either way, the advenant, he for whom the event occurs, is “no one in particular,” because the sunset is impersonal. The witness is substitutable, having no privilege over anyone else. From this contingency, acknowledging that it can be anyone who sees the event, we understand how the event can be said to be indifferent to us; the sunset cares not who sees it, so long as it is seen, else it cannot occur.

So far, I have been describing a fact. Now we will look at the true event: “[T]he event in the strict sense,” Romano states, is “the pure fact of occurring… in which nothing takes place other than the ‘taking-place’ itself” (26). How is it possible for nothing to take place except for “the ‘taking-place’ itself? Well, we should look at what he means by “nothing.” Using our example, the sun is setting, so that should be the event; however, Romano Unknown-2.jpegcarefully resists this, because the sunset, being the literal setting of the sun, is the sun’s setting. In other words, the event is not that the sun has set, but that it is setting. This is the “pure fact of occurring,” the process, the happening of the event, its transpiring. An event is not some “thing” that happens, but the happening of the thing, the thing’s happening, its actual change. We understand a sunset to be an entire experience: a still photograph does not capture the advent of the sunset, but standing there and basking in it, watching as it sets, being there while it occurs—that is the event: the unfolding of it, the progressive “-ing” of “setting” in “the sun’s sett-ing.” The subject is not the event. Erroneously, we can say that the sun has undergone a sunset, but this is not true because, in the very setting of the sun, the sun is in the moment setting; the sun is not separate from its setting, seeing as it is the event itself. A sunset is a whole experience in which the sun participates.

Unknown-3.jpegIt appears to us as something going on before our eyes, a transformation. Romano’s example is of lightning. Because of our inherited grammar, we say the verb, or action, is what the subject does. So we say that “lightning flashes.” Yet if we are pressed to define lightning, we struggle. Why? Well, lightning is its very flashing. In other words, there is no lightning “that flashes,” for the flashing is what we call the lightning. As such, the noun is the verb; the event is the “pure fact of occurring.” There is “nothing” that “take[s] place.” No-thing is at work, as the flashing is the event. Thus, the sun does not merely partake in a sunset, but it is a setting. A sunset is less of a noun and more a verb. Interestingly, then, we see that an occurrence can be both a fact and a pure event at the same time, although only in special circumstances, such as lightning: with lightning, its striking, its flashing, is its advent, its appearing as an event; but as an observable, indifferent natural phenomenon, it is also a fact, occurring to multiple things, plurivocal.

Alright, so we’ve seen how a fact affects many things and so is indifferent, but what about the event, the pure occurrence—how is it univocal, and how am I “in play myself” as a result of it? Witnessing a fact like a sunset (the sunset as fact has occurred, while the Ilchi-Lee_3-Tao-Realizations-nothingness_20171031.jpgsunset as event is occurring), I am “struck by it, but not at all to the point of understanding myself starting from the event that has happened.” Not only this, but “my seeing it does not overtake me so much as to completely upend my world and compel me to understand myself differently, starting from the fissure that the event opens in my adventure by reconfiguring my intrinsic possibilities” (29). This is what is meant by the event’s being univocal (affecting one thing) and putting my selfhood “in play.” Whereas the fact of a sunset affects many things indeterminately, from you to me to the water to the sky to the weather, and can be seen by anyone indiscriminately, the event as such is addressed: an event has my name on it, so to speak, because it is for me, it happens to me, exclusively and specifically.

Going back to my example of you and a loved one at a cliff watching a sunset, we can now create a simple comparison between facts and events: suppose as the sun is setting, you turn to your loved one, or they to you, and propose, asking them to marry you. Silence. The water as it hits the shore becomes muted; the seagulls stop their screeching; suddenly, the person before you becomes the center of your world, while everything else melts away, leaving only the two of you, with the soft glow of the sky reflecting on their face, enchanting, divine. In the background, the fact of the sunset is going on, and Unknown-4.jpegsimultaneously an event has happened. This life-changing event, the proposal, fundamentally alters your life, your adventure. A sunset is experienceable by everyone and happens to be going on, but this proposal—it is yours and yours alone. Someone else can propose, but it’s not yours. On February 14, about a million people propose. That is a fact. But the moment you yourself get down on your knee—no one can take your place; the event is entirely yours; it can happen to no one else but you. It is uniquely singular. Hence, we can say the event has a “univocal assignation”: it is directed at someone in particular. By singling them out, the event individuates the advenant. An event, then, is not spectatorial; an event is not a fact, like a sunset, in that it is a superficial viewing, a mere observation of a phenomenon. Rather, the event affects the advenant on a deeper level, at the core, personally, defining them. This is what Romano means when he says a true event “strikes” me “to the point of understanding myself starting from the event that has happened.” In other words, I understand myself in light of the event. I can look to nothing else but the event, not before it, but only after it; the event gives me the means by which to comprehend my place in the world. Thus, in being hit by the event, I examine how it impacts me, what it means for me going forward, how I will see myself from now on.

Romano uses a lot of temporal phrases to emphasize this point: my life is put into perspective “starting from the event” and, more specifically, “starting from the fissure that the event opens in my adventure.” His repetition of the phrase “starting from” indicates the importance time plays in the event and its effect on me. There is a very sudden halt that occurs as a result of the event. Everything is going normally, it seems like an ordinary day—when all of a sudden. It is this “all of a sudden,” this “out of nowhere” that upsets the status quo. The event creates a “fissure,” as Romano puts it. I find that my life prior to the event is irrevocably cut off from me, unable to be recovered, permanently severed. A massive gap has opened up between me and my past, owing to the event. When you propose in front of the sunset, suddenly nothing else matters but what happens next; the past has dissipated instantaneously.

Unknown-5.jpegAn event such as a proposal is therefore designated as a milestone in one’s life, the “start of a new chapter,” as we like to say; that is, the proposal “opens in [your] adventure” a “fissure.” Having started a new chapter, you are going forward in life. Turning the page, you find that you have embarked on a new adventure, a newly defining part of your life. The event, Romano writes, “makes history by opening a destiny for me” (30). Every major event, like the proposal, forms a part of our life-story, our adventure. When we look back at the end of our lives, we remember most vividly the starts of new chapters. Fissures are what we remember most, kind of like the Zeigarnik effect: whenever we are interrupted, we tend to remember what was interrupted more. But instead of being a learning principle, it is a life principle: events are what we remember most because they define who we are, because they shake up the foundation of our world, introducing something novel into it. You can never go back to your life before the proposal. Even if she were to say no, it still would not be the same as before you asked, because that time is now inaccessible. In saying that the event “makes history,” Romano is referring to our individual lives, as I said, and how events direct me on a new path by “opening a destiny for me,” i.e., in going forth in this new world, for example that of marriage.

From this, we can determine what is meant by the fact that “I am in play myself in my selfhood.” Saying that my selfhood is “in play” does not make a whole lot of sense. By the stretch of one’s imagination, one could guess that maybe what Romano is suggesting is that, just as a ball can be “in play,” so the event puts us in action, puts our selfhood in images.jpegaction. But what does that even mean, to put our selfhood in action? The confusion arises from the English translation of Romano’s original French, I believe. Stephen E. Lewis translates the French “en jeu” into English as “in play”; however, another translation of “en jeu” is the much more telling (in my opinion) “at stake.” Thus, we can reread the statement as: “I am [at stake] myself in my selfhood.” Read this way, we can interpret it as saying that who I am—my selfhood—is threatened, jeopardized, challenged by an event’s occurrence. My very identity is put into question and is at risk. This defining moment seizes me, locks me in place until I decide what to do next. If we want to summarize the first defining feature of the event in contradistinction to a fact, then we can say: The event is an occurrence that affects me personally, whereas the fact is an occurrence that affects no one, impersonally. Rare cases, like that of lightning, can be both fact and pure event (in the verbal sense) at the same time.



For further reading: Event and World by Claude Romano (2009)

Quotes from “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”

41wW6tCBu4L._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgHaving just finished reading Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), I collected some of the more important quotes, in my view, that pertain to philosophy, life, and love. Multi-paragraph quotes are designated by blocks for easier reading.

“Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing” (3)

“This reconciliation with Hitler reveals the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted” (4)

If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return, the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens (das schwerste Gewicht).

If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.

But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.

Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.

What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness? (5)

“If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all” (8)

“Unlike Parmenides, Beethoven apparently viewed weight as something positive. Since the German word schwer means both “difficult” and “heavy,” Beethoven’s “difficult resolution” may also be construed as a “heavy” or “weighty resolution.” The weighty resolution is at one with the voice of Fate (“Es muss sein!”); necessity, weight, and value are three concepts inextricably bound: only necessity is heavy, and only what is heavy has value” (33)

“But man, because he has only one life to live, cannot conduct experiments to test whether to follow his passion… or not” (34)

“[T]he love story of his life exemplified not “Es muss sein!” (It must be so), but rather “Es könnte auch anders sein” (It could just as well be otherwise)” (35)

But is not an event in fact more significant and noteworthy the greater the number of fortuities necessary to bring it about?

Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us. We read is message much as gypsies read the images made by coffee grounds at the bottom of a cup….

Necessity knows no magic formula—they are all left to chance. If a love is to be unforgettable, fortuities must immediately start fluttering down to it like birds to Francis of Assisi’s shoulders (48-9)

Unknown.png“Our day-to-day life is bombarded with fortuities or, to be more precise, with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences. “Co-incidence” means that two events unexpectedly happen at the same time, they meet…. We do not even notice the great majority of these coincidences. If the seat Tomas occupied had been occupied instead by the local butcher, Tereza never would have noticed that the radio was playing Beethoven… But her nascent love inflamed her sense of beauty, and she would never forget that music. Whenever she heard it, she would be touched. Everything going on around her at that moment would be haloed by the music and take on its beauty” (51)

“The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is. The thing that gives our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us” (122-3)

“Indeed, the only truly serious questions are the ones that even a child can formulate. Only the most naïve of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence” (139)

What did he look for in them [women]? What attracted him to them? Isn’t making love merely an eternal repetition of the same?

Not at all. There is always the small part that is unimaginable… [B]ut between the the approximation of the idea and the precision of reality there was a small gap of the unimaginable, and it was this hiatus that gave him no rest [cf. variability, i.e., uniqueness of Other’s reactions to oneself, which is unpredictable].

What is unique about the ‘I’ hides itself exactly in what is unimaginable about a person. All we are able to imagine is what makes everyone like everyone else, what people have in common. The individual ‘I’ is what differs from the common stock, that is, what cannot be guessed at or calculated, what must be unveiled, uncovered, conquered (199)

The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own ‘I’ ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become….

Einmal ist keinmal. What happens but once might as well not have happened at all. The history of the Czechs will not be repeated, nor will the history of Europe… History is similar to individual lives in this respect. There is only one history [i.e., life]…. History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow (222-3)

Her feeling was rather that, given the nature of the human couple, the love of man and woman is a priori inferior to that which can exist (at least in the best instances) in the love between man and dog, the oddity of human history probably unplanned by the Creator. 

Unknown-1.pngIt is a completely selfless love: Tereza did not want anything of Karenin; she did not ever ask him to lover her back. Nor had she ever asked herself the questions that plague human couples: Does he love me? Does he love anyone more than me? Does he love me more than I love him? Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him demand-free and asking for nothing but his company. 

And something else: Tereza accepted Karenin for what he was; she did not try to make him over in her image…. (297)

Then, too: No one forced her to love Karenin; love for dogs is voluntary.

But most of all: No one can give anyone else the gift of the idyll; only an animal can do so, because only animals were not expelled from Paradise. The love between dog and man is idyllic. It knows no conflicts, no hair-raising scenes; it knows no development. Karenin surrounded Tereza and Tomas with a life based on repetition, and he expected the same from them. 

And therein lies the whole of man’s plight. Human times does not run in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition. 

Yes, happiness is the longing for repetition, Tereza said to herself (298)

“Haven’t you noticed I’ve been happy here, Tereza?” Tomas said.

“Surgery was your mission,” she said.

“Missions are stupid, Tereza. I have no mission. No one has. And it’s a terrific relief to realize you’re free, free of all missions….”

What does it mean to turn into a rabbit? It means losing all strength. It means that one is no longer stronger than the other anymore (313)

“She was experiencing the same odd happiness and odd sadness as then. The sadness meant: We are at the last station. The happiness meant: We are together. The sadness was form, the happiness content. Happiness filled the space of sadness” (314)

Heidegger and Husserl on the Mathematization of Nature (7 of 7)

Click here to start from the beginning!
Click here to read the previous part!

Unknown.jpegTherefore, when we look at the mathesis universalis one more time, we see that, as per Leibniz, science is literally constructing a new world, since it is categorizing reality based on compossibilities, which, when put together, constitute a world. And this, ladies and gentleman, is the greatest scandal, Husserl believes: “The surreptitious substitution of the mathematically substructed world of idealities for the only real world.”[1] To understand this claim, we should look to Heidegger again. Being and Time, Heidegger’s most famous work, makes a similar statement, which is that the greatest scandal of philosophy is the question of the external world’s existence. Heidegger thinks it absolutely insane that we even have to ask whether the world exists or not—to be a skeptic, is outrageous. The world is clearly here!  And yet, Husserl claims the greatest scandal, not just in philosophy but in all history, is the mathematization of nature, a scandal so dangerous, so snakelike, that it has slithered right past us, without detection. Galileo and his successors slipped the scientific world right beneath our noses. They convinced us that numbers and measurement lie at the bottom of reality, as the “ultimate, final truth.” Forget this world, they said; let us use our microscopes and protractors and rulers!—that, and only that, will get us Truth with a capital “T.”

Husserl says the mathematization of nature was a “surreptitious substitution,” which is what was meant by my earlier phrase, “connivance of contrivance” (both Husserl and I share an affinity for alliteration). It was surreptitious because it went by unnoticed, like Unknown.jpega conspiratorial scheme that avoids the public’s eyes. And it is a substitution, a swapping-out, a contrivance. One thinks of the first Indiana Jones movie, when he swaps out the Golden Idol for the bag of sand: the geometers, with dexterity, substituted “the only real world” for “the mathematically substructed world of idealities,” without setting off the booby trap! Husserl says “the only real world,” which implies that he agrees with Heidegger’s common sense view that the world of intuition is the “only” one, the solely existent one. His explaining the world of science as “substructed” is expressing that it was constructed under (sub-) the real world in a twofold sense: first, it was literally built underneath the real world in that it was done by using Platonic Forms; and second, it is figuratively “under” the real world in the sense of being less real, of being inferior to it, despite being said to be “more real” by scientists.

Unknown-1.jpegSo what is this “only real world” of which Husserl speaks and which he defends so vehemently? It is what he calls the life-world, or Lebenswelt. I will explain it more in depth in a post dedicated specifically to the topic, but for now a short explication will have to suffice. Basically, the life-world is where our lives are lived, the horizon of all our experiences, both intuited and constructed. A lampshade and A=πr(r+(h2+r2)½), for example, are both experienced in the life-world, despite being completely different. Although the latter is abstract and conceptual, we think about it, and thinking is an act that occurs within the life-world. Mathematical objects, spacetime, induction—all of these scientific concepts are really derived from intuitive experience, from concrete life as we live it, we have seen. This is the “phenomenological” part in Husserl’s “historico-phenomenological” study. It looks at how our experience is derived, viz., the life-world. In reality, then, measurements do not correspond to Forms or idealities, but to real, concrete, sensible objects. A=πr(r+(h2+r2)½) is not being measured—the lamp shade is. If I say I am experiencing A=πr(r+(h2+r2)½), then I am lying, for nowhere do I perceive it, only the lamp shade as I can feel it, see it, hear it click on and off. As Husserl says,

Mathematics and mathematical science, as a garb of ideas, or the garb of symbols of the symbolic mathematical theories, encompasses everything which, for the scientists and the educated generally, represents the life-world, dresses it up as ‘objectively actual and true’ nature”


construct[s] numerical indices for the actual and possible sensible plena [i.e., qualities] of the concretely intuited shapes of the life-world. [2]

A few things are worth looking at here. Husserl speaks of a “garb of ideas” that “dress… up” the world.” Garb means clothing, so Husserl’s commentary says that math literally changes the appearance of reality, disguising it in a new costume of sorts. But this is no ordinary costume like the kind seen in theater, where the audience knows the actor is in costume, no; “the scientists and the educated” assume it to be the real world, and take it for granted that it “represents the life-world.” Of course, we cannot resist drawing attention to the italicizing of “represent,” which is Heideggerian (if you couldn’t tell, Unknown-2.jpegHusserl and Heidegger are quite similar). It grabs the world, seizes it, puts it in costume, then presents it back to us as something new, something manipulable. Additionally, for every quality in the world, there is a corresponding numerical index. I talked about this when I discussed indirect mathematization. My yellow pillow is not really yellow, for my eyes deceive me: in truth, it is really everything but yellow, because of how wavelengths function. The quality of color, the intuition of yellow, is matched by a quantity, a physical measurement; the pillow is dressed up in a “garb of symbols.” Furthermore, the “mathematical method,” Husserl writes, uses a “systematic operative construction of ideal objects out of pregiven objects, which ultimately makes it possible to master the totality [of objects].”[3] This quote adds to the previous one. It says that “pregiven objects,” or intuited ones like my yellow pillow, are turned into “ideal objects,” like the mathematical Form of a square, which, in turn, makes it easier to manipulate.

images.jpegNow, if we apply this not just to household items, but to Nature Herself, then we see where problems arise. We see how, during the Renaissance, as scientific growth flowered, mining and deforestation became nascent industries; how, during the Industrial Revolution, both industries became dominant powers; how, in our age, we are threatened by the annihilation of the planet because of our doing, because of our conception of the world, which mathematized nature completely. As a reminder, the life-world is full of morphological shapes, things like rivers and mountains and clouds; whereas the scientific world is full of exact shapes, things like prisms and cubes and tetrahedrons. It is no wonder we are said to live in an age of disenchantment.

Considering the mathematization was historico-phenomenological, it means there was a story behind it, a narrative, and for every narrative, there are the dramatis personæ: in Husserl’s story, the cast is made up of the natural philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists. The scientific world has three traits that Husserl points out. First, the scientific world, like any other, is communal. It is made up of fellow scientists, and they together constitute a community, built up through the ages. This, Thomas Kuhn calls “normal science”: when the science community actively adds to its knowledge through Unknown-3.jpegexperimenting and observing and peer review, i.e., the accumulation of knowledge. Second, the community is systematic inasmuch as it builds upon its axiomatic premises infinitely in order to reach a ToE or mathesis universalis. Euclidean math is an axiomatic system since it starts with simple axioms then derives theorems from them that can be tested. Science does the same. Third, it has an end goal: nature-in-itself, Truth. In Husserl’s terms, science is “horizonal”: it determines what is true and false based on its conception of nature. In studying nature to find its Truth, science thereby sets up the criteria by which to judge truth and falsity, and whether certain things measure up to reality. Scientific methods are designed to lead out these truths. Eventually, however, this leads to scientism, as soon there is a fusion of horizons, and the scientific horizon takes over, so that anything not in line with science is automatically false and unscientific. Husserl finds this ironic:

Whenever the scientist speaks as a scientist, he is in the scientific attitude, thinking within the horizon of his theoretical end, thinking into it, so to speak, and at the same time having it as horizon in a privileged universal validity as the immediate horizon of his vocational interest. The rest of the world, the world-totality which eo ipso takes all human purposeful structures up into itself as world-totality, lies outside his interest.[4]

Science can never have a theory of everything because it is not even studying the world it claims to be studying! That is, science prides itself on investigating nature, yet in doing so, in creating scientific methods to study nature, it thereby shapes nature, preventing it Unknown-4.jpegfrom truly knowing it in itself; its own investigating obstructs the study. At this point, scientists are not studying the world of nature—they are studying the world of science, the world of idealities rather than realities. So absorbed are they, so narrow in their approach are they, that scientists neglect “the rest of the world,” including “all human purposeful structures.” The real world, the life-world, “lies outside his [the scientist’s] interest.” An unwitting paradox, that objectivity is impossible for science! Husserl comments that Galileo, in addition to being a discoverer, is a concealer. Galileo is a discoverer-concealer. Galileo qua discoverer founded mathematical science, or physics; qua concealer, hid the real world from us, made us think he had found the “true” world. Famously, or infamously depending on your perspective, Galileo wrote a much-quoted statement:

Philosophy is written in that great book which ever lies before our eyes — I mean the universe — but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols, in which it is written. This book is written in the mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures….[5]

Here, the most concise statement of the scientific-mathematical project. Here, the unnerving pronouncement of the mathematization of nature. Sorry, but Heidegger needs to be referenced again. Looking back, you will see that Heidegger saw the paradigm/mathematical as an “unconcealing-concealing.” Sound familiar? Yeah, pretty Unknown-5.jpegmuch the same thing in Husserl’s “discoverer-concealer.” Even when a theory in science is challenged and revised, as when Einstein’s revolution overturned Newtonianism, nature remains mathematical all the same. Whether you subscribe to Newton or Einstein, you are subscribing to a predetermined worldview, one that is quantitative-formulaic at heart. Scientism is a problem, because if it is held that the scientific world is true, then it means that the life-world must be eliminated since it is false and illusory. Subjective experiences, like qualia, are reduced to nothing, made valueless, superficialized, deprived of meaning. Modern theories in science like eliminative materialism or psychology’s notorious behaviorism state that there is no agency in man, that all there is, is deterministic cause-and-effect, with no room for human motivation and emotions. Science, supposedly “value-free,” despite valuing being value-free, has no place for values, because values are unscientific and unmeasurable.

One thing critics say about Heidegger is that he breaks out of his objective descriptions to make ethical claims. Here, the same can be said of Husserl. It is in a rare place like this that Husserl appears to be, in addition to a phenomenologist, a moralist. For he, like Heidegger, sees the deleterious effects of science’s worldview, which is not to say that science itself is bad, but its effects are. He laments that all phenomena of experience, according to science, mean nothing in themselves, that their only significance is in pointing toward and hinting at a reality that lies beyond; in other words, everyday experiences are purely instrumental means-to-an-end. As such, science is comparable to a revival of Platonism and Christianity. In fact, one can compare Husserl’s critique to Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity and its devaluation of this world. At work is the denuding of everything: Heidegger’s ready-to-hand is being replaced by Descartes’ present-at-hand.  

Unknown-6.jpegWhat has been the purpose of this blog series? To call out and defame science? To criticize thinkers of the past?—no, neither of these things. Admittedly, I have at points taken one side and portrayed ideas in a sarcastic, joking manner. I have also said “scientists, mathematicians, geometers, and physicists x” or “are doing x.” This is not to make assumptions and generalizations, nor to discount any of the work these people are doing, for, in truth, what they are doing is of great service, and we would not be here were it not for them and their discoveries. No, no, none of this. The purpose of this blog series is to ask serious questions about today. The purpose of this blog is to ask about the mathematization of nature. But most importantly, the purpose of this blog is to ask: How is any of this possible? How did we get here? and Where do we go from here? It is inconceivable that science and math be removed from science, and I doubt anyone would advocate that; such is not the way to undo what has already been done. We find ourselves facing climate change, overpopulation, deforestation, pollution, loss of Unknown-7.jpegbiodiversity, and extinction of too many species among other things, too. Of course, to say all of these are caused solely by science is simply false and narrow-minded, but technology, which has its roots in math and science, has been enabled to impact all of them. How? The mathematization of nature. Thanks to Heidegger and Husserl, we can see how this happened without our knowing it. At this point, even humans are being mathematized, turned into data for computers to be used for companies, all because of how we perceive the world. Everything is reduced to quantity, to numbers. Values are being undermined, and the undermining of values, Nietzsche said, is nihilism. We must all remain wary of scientism. There is more to life, I think we can agree, than just numbers and shapes. So I guess English teachers are right: we should value quality over quantity.




[1] Husserl, The Crisis, pp. 48-9
[2] Id., p. 51
[3] p. 349
[4] p. 383
[5] Galileo, The Assayer, p. 178


For further reading:  The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology by Edmund Husserl (1970)
The Cambridge Companion to Husserl by Barry Smith (1996)

Heidegger and Husserl on the Mathematization of Nature (6 of 7)

Click here to read the previous part!

Husserl goes onto explain how physicalistic causality came about:

By means of pure mathematics and the practical art of measuring, one can produce, for everything in the world of bodies which is extended in this way, a completely new kind of inductive prediction; namely, one can ‘calculate’ with compelling necessity, on the basis of given and measured events involving shapes, events which are unknown and were never accessible to direct measurement. Thus ideal geometry, estranged from the world, becomes ‘applied’ geometry and thus becomes in a certain respect a general method of knowing the real.[1]

Several key themes are at play here: the interplay of idealism and empiricism, the mathematical, reductionism, substitution, and “the real.” Going one by one, we first see that the contrast between this world and the “beyond” world is brought to the fore in the distinction between “pure mathematics” and “the practical art of measuring,” as well as calculation.jpg“ideal geometry” versus “‘applied’” geometry. Once again, science compares the shapes and occurrences of everyday life to their ideal counterparts, using the one to determine the other. This mathematical, or paradigm, conditions how we see the world. It grants us access to a “completely new kind of inductive prediction”; it opens up a new conception of reality itself, even though it derives therefrom. Next, it is this very mathematical that reduces the world to extended bodies and shapes, allowing us to measure and “‘calculate’” them and therefore also predict them. Husserl uses the word “estranged” to relate the realm of “ideal geometry,” suggesting that it is other, that it is peculiar and distant, divorced from reality. And yet somehow, science manages to substitute this world that we know so well with the “estranged” realm of numbers and shapes. The phrase “knowing the real” at the end is Heideggerian. Through geometry, we see the truth of things, we see how things really are in themselves. Anything not on the level of shapes is mere appearance, for shapes and numerical values are the basis of reality. According to Husserl, it is this view of causality that generates modern science’s widely accepted causal determinism.

Pythagoras and his followers, being numerologists, believed that numbers were very real things; and as such, they correlated to real objects and events in the world. Today, Pythagoras would find himself at home at a time when psychologists tell us with confidence that who we are is determined by our upbringing, our environment, our 220px-Pierre-Simon_Laplace.jpggenes, and our unconscious, all of which are outside of our control; and that what will become of us is also ascertained through the most accurate statistics, which reduce us humans to numerical values without agency or singularity. To think, we are helpless at the hands of numbers! We must submit ourselves these days to digits, decimals, and data. Furthermore, reality itself is taken to be an isolated system. For every effect, we learn, there is a cause. Every cause precedes its effect. Such a rigid logic to which we adhere closes off the world, surrounding it in an iron cage. At the beginning of the 19th-century, the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace outlined the thought experiment known as “Laplace’s Demon.” In it, he argued that a hypothetically omniscient demon, or intellect as he put it, knowing the position of every atom and its course of motion, could predict the state of the Universe at any time, seeing as everything in the Cosmos consists in the interactions between atoms.

Thus, modern science is very Laplacian insofar as it depends upon induction to confine the world and its supernumerary possibilities to a well-defined, sanctioned network of causes and effects—in short, strict determinism. Husserl labels this as a “universal inductivity,” or a method of predictive causality “which announces itself in everyday experiences but whose infinity is hidden.”[2] Not a day goes by that we do not use induction for practical purposes, as when we turn a doorknob, expecting it to open the Unknown.jpegdoor for us. Notwithstanding, we never considered from where we get this; induction has a hidden infinity, a sort of underground system of roots that connects everything, like a large colony of mycelium, the bacteria that can spread 2,400 acres. Reaching into every thing, inductivity ipso facto applies to everything, meaning a numerical value can be assigned to it. So although it is based in reality, induction is grounded in ideality. The other aspect of the hidden infinity are all the idealizations needed to make induction possible, namely the abstracting, universalizing, and reducing. This is why Husserl can say that induction’s “infinity is hidden.” Historically, this progressed further with Descartes’ analytic geometry, with which physicists were finally able to measure variables theretofore unmeasurable, e.g., acceleration, which was previously taken for granted.

Being a move from the particular to the universal, induction was integral to the developments of univocity and invariance. With induction, similar occurrences, despite being different from each other in quality, could be grouped together, and described with common descriptions. In turn, natural laws like that of the universal law of gravitation could be justified as being invariant, unable to change, fixed, permanent, belonging to nature herself, mathematical equations that apply to and describe all things and their respective interactions.

Unknown.pngA problem still remains for the scientists, however, which obstructs them from completely mathematizing nature. Science cannot deal with everything that is experienceable. We are here thinking of qualities, those pesky subjective values. My blue surely cannot be your blue! Therefore, as Husserl sees it, science came to a crossroads, having two options before it: first, it can invalidate the qualities, like Locke did, reducing them to illusory secondary qualities that overlay the real primary qualities; or, second, it can physicalize, or mathematize, the qualities. The reason for this is because science was faced with two distinct worlds: the sense world and the shape world, pretty much identical to Plato’s divide between the world of appearances and of Forms. Now, unlike shapes, qualia—conscious experiences of sensations—cannot be measured, so they are less than extension, unreal in a sense.

This dualism of quality and quantity is untenable; one had to go, lest it complicate the other. Considering that the two were incommensurable, the geometers had to do away with the world of qualities—there was no place in math for colors or tastes or sounds, etc. Instead, they reduced objects, and even the world itself, to malleable extension, Descartes’ res extensa. Extended shapes can be morphed in all kinds of ways, making Unknown-1.jpegthem versatile. Phenomenologically, then, this begets the ideas of substance and accident. Bodies and their qualities are interdependent. To put it philosophically, every universal has its particular, and vice versa. Take a blue box: the color blue needs the box to exist in order to color it, and the box, as experienced, has the color blue to complement it. We notice, though, that if we change the body, in this case the box, altering its shape by either adding or subtracting something, its identity changes; yet a change to its color, say from blue to red, does not change the identity of the box. A better example is a statue: if a part of it is chipped off, we notice a change in the composition of the body, but if it oxidizes over time, turning green, then we can still recognize it in its originality.

Unknown-1.pngWhile the process of turning everything into something numerical and quantifiable is the “direct mathematization of nature,” the process of turning qualities into quantities is the “indirect mathematization of nature.” Heidegger’s definition of the Gigantic as “quantity as quality” is evident. Indirect mathematization is what turns simple materialism into radical physicalism. Even qualities are shapes. Accordingly, emotions and thoughts can be interpreted as brain waves measurable by an electroencephalograph (EEG) or MRI, and sound and heat are interpreted as physical waves, too, with amplitudes and crests and troughs—no, they are not “interpreted” as waves, they are waves. That we can hear sounds or feel emotions is purely incidental, for they are truly physical shapes that affect us.

What follows is deindividuation and undifferentiation. Univocity necessarily involves anonymization to the extent that, describing two distinct things as being the same thing deprives them of their unique identities, instead comparing them by the same criteria. Unknown-2.jpegOtherwise stated, univocity is what allows us to accurately compare apples to oranges. The question has to be asked when comparing two things, To what object are you referring? If all objects are the same, homogeneous, reduced to res extensæ, and univocal, then they are by definition indiscriminate, uniform in description and explanation. Gravity acts on me just the same as it does to a planet. For gravity, the planet and I are just bodies—it does not matter to gravity that I am a speck of sentient dust compared to the lifeless mass of metal and gas that is a planet; it attracts me just the same. If we look at Leibniz’s principle of the identity of indiscernibles, though, we find that this is problematic: to say that two things have the same qualities, is to say the two are the same, that they are identical.

Unknown-3.jpegSeeing as qualities are “actually” quantities, it means everything, reducible to subatomic particles like quarks, are indistinguishable from each other; there is nothing to set them apart, so how does identity, or for that matter, difference, emerge? Under the reign of mathematization, nature possesses no uniqueness, no different beings. Under a microscope, they are all the same. Adding on, since things do not retain their properties, but are identical at base, they are substitutable. One expositor of Husserl’s uses the word “fungible,” which I quite like. It refers to the fact that objects are simply “members” of a species. Taken altogether, if a thing’s measurements are given, and if its context—its causal relations—is known relative to the things around it, then the thing, acting as a variable, can be “solved”; the thing is reduced to an uncertainty that has causal dependency. Knowing its surroundings, and calculating its dimensions, we can find the thing for what it is, quantifiably.

As we know all, science moves forward by means of hypotheses. Looking at the history of science, one can conclude that it is the infinite progression and correcting of certain hypotheses as they become verified—or, as Popper says, falsified. The history of science is fittingly populated by paradigm shifts and falsifications. Yet a closer look will show this Unknown-4.jpegis not the case, Husserl claims; there is no such thing as either error or inaccuracy because they will be corrected later on by a new theory which subsumes it. Husserl reminds us that Newton famously wrote, “Hypotheses non fingo”—I do not feign hypotheses—in the Principia. This strikes us modern readers since Newton’s work was pervaded by hypotheses, assumptions he took for granted without either evidence or explanation. Science is always getting closer and closer to “true reality,” “nature as such” with more accurate re-presentations, just like Heidegger’s report on the world-picture. We are constantly constructing new models of reality that build upon previous ones, correcting their errors, accounting for their inaccuracies, and explaining the previously unexplainable. As far as we know, this will continue to happen (although who knows when it will end, if ever).

Next, science, having built up its hypothesis, proceeds to construct a mathematical, axiomatic system. This system is built upon arithmetic and analytic-algebraic geometry, the result of which is an unquestionable edifice. Through both forms of geometry, there arises “superficialization,” in German sinnesveräusserlichung, which has a fascinating meaning: it refers to the act of stripping a thing of its meaning and putting it, so to speak, “outside of itself.” As an aid to understanding, consider a lampshade: when we analyze it Unknown-2.pngalgebraically, we ignore the actual, morphological shape (remember exact vs. morphological?) of the lamp shade; we look past the intuition of the lampshade, its full presence in front of us as we see it, and we see in its place numbers, variables. Rather than see it is a lampshade, we see it as a cone. We know how to calculate a cone, thankfully. For instance, if I want to know how much I can fit in the lampshade, I can plug in the dimensions to V=πr2(h/3). Suddenly, the lampshade is gone—in its place is A=πr(r+(h^2+r^2)½). In other words, the intuition is replaced by the formula, by the geometric conception of it. Nature has been mathematized. Because a number is a symbol, something that stands for another thing, and because numbers are given to fit particular dimensions of a thing, it means every body corresponds to its numbers. Each thing comes to be seen as pure number because of the analytic method, devised by Descartes, which allows physicists and mathematicians to “map out” things in the now-four-dimensional graph of Einstein that represents reality.

Furthermore, physicists are working toward a mathesis universalis, a universal mathematics. Science is actively attempting to make a complete system of science that explains everything. It is interesting to remember that mathesis, originally Greek, means Unknown-3.png“thing learned,” and from it derives “mathematical,” which for Heidegger is a paradigm that is theory-laden, or full of assumptions. Therefore, mathesis universalis has two meanings: first, a universal science that explains all things; and second, an all-encompassing means of mathematizing the world through the prescriptive measurement of reality. By setting the bounds of what we consider “real,” science can thus be universalized, since it can study anything in its power, which is actually everything. This theory of everything (ToE) is described by Husserl as a catalog of “manifolds.” A manifold is a compossibility—coexistence—of things in an isolated system.

So by this logic, if science can “catalog” every existing thing in the Universe and give it a mathematical value, then it can easily store it, compute it, then understand all of reality on that basis. The mathesis universalis is actually a concept that goes back to Descartes, but even more so to Leibniz. When Leibniz conceptualized a mathesis universalis, he wrote about building an axiomatic system bottom-up, consisting of non-contradictions, i.e., compossibilities, or, in Husserl’s modern terms, manifolds. Briefly, I will explain Leibniz a bit to clarify what modern physics is doing. For Leibniz, knowledge is innate, and it functions based on laws, one of which is the law of non-contradiction. If something is true, it cannot be false, and vice versa. If any two facts are contradictory, then they cannot exist together. Thus, knowledge is made up of com-possibilities, possibilities that are commensurate with each other. More than that, the world itself is really just compossibilities. In our world, it is im-possible for me to be in two places at once (yet somehow subatomic particles can).



[1] Husserl, The Crisis, p. 33
[2] Id., p. 39


For further reading:  The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology by Edmund Husserl (1970)
The Cambridge Companion to Husserl by Barry Smith (1996)

Heidegger and Husserl on the Mathematization of Nature (5 of 7)

Click here to read the previous part!

Husserl distinguishes between two kinds of shapes: exact and morphological. We have already talked about exact shapes: they are the mathematical limit-shapes, the Platonic Forms. Morphological shapes, in contrast, are by definition “inexact.” That is, they are not easily expressible, and they are not smooth in the way exact shapes are. Describing a mountain, sure, I can use exact shapes to analyze it into triangles; but that is to miss the mountain itself, so we instead refer to the mountain as mountain-shaped. A description Unknown.jpeglike this is opposed to an exact description like “made of triangles,” as it is naturalistic, indistinct, intuitive. When I look at a mountain, it is improper to reduce is to just triangles, so a morphological shape is irreducible; it is more metaphorical than literal. Or a river—I have to use morphological shapes to describe it naturalistically, because, as a natural thing, the river is not subject to mathematical analysis; I must refer to the river metaphorically, in loose terms, human terms, that capture its natural simplicity and beauty. Rivers and mountains are approximate shapes, not exact shapes. They are incomparable. I can always compare a square to a square, but not this mountain to that mountain in terms of exactness without being approximate. Additionally, while exact shapes are invisible in a sense, in that they are constitutive of the object, and hierarchical in arrangement, morphological shapes are found within the world, all around us, with sensed qualities, holistic. An intuitively perceived mountain cannot be seen as made of parts; it is taken as a whole as a mountain.

Unknown-1.jpegScience contradicts our everyday experience. Husserl, knowing that the ideal world is deduced from perfected shapes, asks a crucial question: because deductions themselves are based on subjective experience, how we can justify jumping to objectivity? Already, we have seen that our experience is subjective, but we live intersubjectively, perceiving the same things as each other but privately. We can sit on the same bench and talk about it, yet disagree on the color of it. Alright, this is accepted. But because we both agree there is a bench, it must be a real thing, and what we agree on, further, is that it occupies space. Alright, this, too, is accepted. Quantity is more real than quality. But wait—my saying the bench occupies this much space is itself a subjective claim, so how can I justify that the bench is reducible to extension? How do you and I both know there is a shape to the bench? Well, intersubjectively, it works. It is practical. The early geometers assumed this was true as the foundation of measurement, the next big moment in scientific history.

Mathematically comparing a known entity to an unknown one is the foundation of practical measuring. This historical moment is called “direct mathematization,” in which math is immanentized in the real world, and it is the first part of the mathematization of nature. Taking the example of a blanket, I find that it is a rather awkward shape. Here I find it draped across the couch, not flat like the surface of a table, but sprawled unevenly, Unknown-2.jpegwith folds. As such, the blanket is unmeasurable. It has no limit-shape, as far as I can tell. But if I can break it down into recognizable shapes, then it is something to be analyzed. In other words, direct mathematization consists in the assumption that everything can be reduced to mathematics—shapes, specifically, in terms of geometry—able to be calculated and studied. Scientists take something ambiguous and make it into something definite and unambiguous, already-defined, measurable; therefore, the thing is cut into shapes, divided into manageable parts. Everything is humanly possible through the idealization of the mind. A bit later, I will explain how this contributes to the creation of algebra, and how that relates to the mathematization of nature as Husserl sees it.

At the beginning, I said that science is basically an inversion of Platonic realism. Well, we can qualify that a bit now, with the introduction of measurement: now, we go from the real to the ideal and back to the real, i.e., we see the objects around us, we abstract them into perfect and comparable shapes, and then we apply those ideal shapes to the world, replacing them. The real objects of life are now idealized, and as such, they are able to be studied by scientists and mathematicians. By comparing the magnitudes of objects—their size, shape, extension, etc.—and dividing them into equal bits, we get another insight: exactness of equality, which is an important concept for science. This a little confusing, so I will use an illustration.

Unknown.pngLet us say I want to compare feathers to bricks. I can weigh them both in my hands and conclude, “This brick is heavier than this feather.” Measuring in this way is helpful. However, it does not really help a whole lot unless I know just how much heavier the brick is than the feather; I need exactness of equality. With better technology, like a scale, I can standardize measurement by implementing substitutability, removing differentiation. I am now able to say, “This brick weighs x more grams/pounds than this feather.” More exactly, I can say, “The brick is five pounds, while the feather is 0.00018 pounds.” Simply put, I get rid of the unclear “greater than (>)” and replace it with the more clear “exactly equal to (=).” The brick and the feather, instead of being seen as a brick and a feather, are reduced to their particular masses, which are comparable, depriving them of their uniqueness. I cannot compare a brick to a feather because they are not the same, they are unique; but when I make them both into the same unit of measurement, they become available to me for equality. And when two things are equal, they are the same. The brick and feather lose their identities in being reduced to pure quantity. Obviously, they are very different, the brick being red and heavy, the feather light and soft; but none of this matters to a scale. All that has been said so far is the necessary prelude to modern science.

For Husserl, everything from the inversion of Platonic realism to the idealization accomplishment to measurement to exactness—all of this is what allowed Galileo to directly mathematize nature, not Descartes’ Cogito, as Heidegger said. These necessary historico-phenomenological developments contributed to the creation of Galilean modern science. To Galileo, we return one last time. As we learned with Heidegger, Unknown-1.pngGalileo simply accepted the mathematical tradition as it was handed to him without questioning it. Never did he consider whether reality was made up of idealized shapes, or whether everyday objects could really be measured comparatively; he saw both of these as facts and used them in his experiments. Using Heidegger’s terms, Galileo was working within his own self-evident, obvious mathematical. Yet another salient assumption of Galileo’s was the purpose of science, then natural philosophy: asking How, rather than Why. Heidegger contrasts Galileo and Newton to Aristotle because the latter investigated nature through the lense of teleology, looking for the innate drives in the natural world, whereas Galileo and Newton abandoned the idea of natural entelechies, looking instead for explanations of how things acted. Modern science turned away from teleology and toward mechanism. Galileo, in light of this, sought to explain how the natural world functioned without actually knowing why.

An example of this is his thought experiment on inertia. He wanted to find a way to create perpetual motion, but he could not do this because whenever he would roll something down one slope and up another, it would lose momentum with each succession. Something was stopping the ball from conserving its momentum; Galileo thought it to be friction, meaning that what was preventing perpetual motion was the contact of the two solids with each other. Thus, he had to find a way to get rid of friction. Just as there are limit-shapes in mathematics, shapes that are ideal, so there are limiting cases in physics, situations or “systems” that are isolated and have perfect conditions. In this experiment, Galileo’s limiting case was a frictionless plane. The reason it is a limiting case is because, quite simply, there is no such existing thing: he would never be able to find a way to remove all friction completely. It is impossible. But, Galileo reasoned, if he could not find a frictionless plane in reality, then he could definitely find one in his mind, in ideality. That is, he idealized reality, turning it into something mathematical and numerical, a set of variables to be changed and manipulated to fit his experiment. His inclined plane experiment consisted of the infinite gradation of a theoretical plane’s angle and surface.

Unknown-2.pngTo illustrate: think of an inclined plane right now, like a small right triangle, such that a ball would roll down the hypotenuse, and slowly increase its angle, so that the hypotenuse gradually straightens, ultimately becoming a 90º angle, then get rid of any bumps or cracks in the surfaces—and voilà, a frictionless plane! By turning a plane into a free fall, albeit one without air resistance, Galileo could measure the speed of an object in its motion. Galileo never performed his free fall experiment at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but he did perform it in his mind, conceptualizing it by himself, with nothing else than reason. An exceptional feat, no doubt, but it raises questions about the actuality of his findings. It is in Galileo that we find the synthesis of empiricism and rationalism, of Bacon and Descartes, by combining a real experiment with a thought experiment to arrive at his discovery. Effectively, what he was doing was using his experience as an empiricist would, but he was also actively abstracting variables from the observation as a rationalist would, all with detachment, reducing the bodies to their essences, thereby missing them. Under Galileo’s eyes, everything was analyzed and reduced to “matter, motion, measurement,” the three M’s of physics.[1]

We speak of a transformation that occurs between medieval science and modern science, and this transformation is of our very conception of knowledge: scientific knowledge is regarded as objective, impersonal, manipulative, exploitative—because “to know” is synonymous with “to grasp” a thing, to handle it actively and interrogate it. This inevitably leads to today’s scientism, when anything that is not “scientific,” any knowledge not acquired by means of observation or experimentation, is considered false and untrue, unsupported by facts. Kind of interesting, when you think about it, how this originates after Galileo, despite his looking past the facts…

Unknown-3.jpegFor a successful scientific world, there must also be a grasping of (knowing of) causality. The scientist ought to know what causes what and how, in line with his mechanism. Husserl argues that our scientific view of cause-and-effect was derived phenomenologically: in everyday life, things are experienced alongside one another, like the table standing upon the carpet and the bouquet upon the table, or like the steam as it comes from the hot kettle, in a seemingly ordered way. We would never expect, for example, to see a lamp without a bulb, for the two appear to “come together,” as if packaged that way, inseparable. Everything just seems to fit nicely together, as if designed that way. The manner in which the tree grows from the soil in front of the window just feels right.

Reality, then, is “habitual” in that we attribute to it an expected regularity. It would not be right to see a fire without smoke, or a tree deprived of its leaves. There must be Unknown.jpegsomething wrong, something else at work which is causing this disruption. One might think here of Leibniz’s pre-established harmony, according to which God designed the world to be self-determined, with each object in its place, mirroring every other object within itself, responding to them without actually interacting with them, but somehow also associated in some mysterious way. This thinking results in prediction. Expectations become predictions. What we think should happen, we think will happen. Objects that “exist together” are curiously said to “belong together.” The smoke that emanates from the fire, rather than merely existing at a similar place and time, perhaps loosely connected, is considered to now “belong” to the fire, as some kind of property of it, as perhaps—caused by it?

Husserl’s observations here sound a lot like Hume’s on induction; however, we must disabuse this idea, for as a phenomenologist, Husserl’s explanation of the creation of induction is not meant as a criticism or a way of debunking it at all, but only to describe it. This applies to everything that has hitherto been said. Put another way, Husserl is describing, historically and phenomenologically, how we came to possess the idea of causality as determined by induction, that is, by prediction.

When a thing is said to “belong” to another, and thus be caused by it, we can safely say the one is dependent upon the other. Smoke is dependent upon fire. So if we expect there to be smoke where there is fire, then we can form an inductive statement, one that can be verified or falsified. Heidegger, I think, would extend his critique of Cartesianism to induction, as induction is like Cartesianism in disguise, reducing things to their arrangement and order. Induction turns the fire and the smoke into a “Being-present-at-hand-side-by-side of two res extensæ which are present-at-hand.”

For all that, we must ask a new question: how does science, faced with particular occurrences—i.e., unique, singular events—and the irreconcilable infinity of possibilities in the world, explain the exact cause of a thing? There are countless, innumerable events that happen in a day, and if the Universe has existed for as long as it has, then it means Unknown-5.jpegthere are infinitely more. So how, given a specific event, such as the trivial blowing of the wind, can science isolate a single event and arrive at its exclusive cause? There are so many things to take into account! And remember underdetermination? At any given moment, how can we isolate the true cause of a thing, when there are multiple hypotheses that can be entertained at once? To imagine the possibilities that exist for the world, Husserl says, we need an idea of the world in the first place. Therefore, science accomplishes this by “constructing, systematically and in a sense in advance, the world, the infinitude of causalities.”[2] Husserl italicizes “constructing” not by accident; he is highlighting that science builds up, creates, engineers—in a word, contrives the world. Science engages in a connivance of contrivance, a secret agreement that compares this world to their idealized version, thereby reinventing and reimagining this one to fit the causal framework.



[1] Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, p. 39
[2] Husserl, The Crisis, p. 32


For further reading:  The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology by Edmund Husserl (1970)
The Cambridge Companion to Husserl
by Barry Smith (1996)

The Reenchantment of the World by Morris Berman (1981)