Universal condition of despair?

In the long chain of comments following Kleiner’s “Are we alone?” post, Vince suggests that there are some basic truths any human can recognize, if they are paying attention, and recognizing them forces a move in one direction or another:

1. I am not who I want to be.
2. I cannot change things of my past.
3. I have a dead end in the future.
4. I cannot completely control my relationship with others.
5. The world around me is full of terror and sadness that I cannot erase.

… I sound a bit like Schopenhauer (”the worst of all worlds”).

But these conditions bring angst when a finite person reflects on his very large and (mostly) uncontrollable environment. The Buddhist hopes to remove the desires that bring this angst. The Christian hopes to receive forgiveness and an new life to remove this angst. Sartre hopes to remove angst by being free to choose his experience (his estimate of freedom is rather optimistic). Nietzsche, who seemed to be full of alienation and despair, required of himself the complete embracing of his actions in the presence of his alienation and despair — to live his actions (and angst) eternally.

I still hold that anyone with a human self-consciousness experiences angst over something or they are not working as a complete human in some way. The existentialists seem to be saying that these discoveries and decisions of the finite self in the midst of this large world are the essence of a human. I don’t believe this is necessarily metaphysics. It is observational sociology. Once the existentialists start relating the human condition to Other or Being or No Other, then this is metaphysics.

This does seem to me to be a plausible list of items we typically try to ignore in our day-to-day lives, but once we recognize them, we can either try to do something or try to forget. And “doing something” means, in part, doing philosophy.

Any thoughts?

20 thoughts on “Universal condition of despair?

  1. Mike

    I avoid answers that tend to sedate these concerns (in me) but I don’t think I want to embrace them quite like Nietzsche does. I try to keep alive the presence of the concerns because I tend towards complacency and need continual motivation. We can’t escape the problems entirely but we can work toward better existence.

    For example, we can’t really understand one another completely but deep conversation is still more satisfying than shallow conversation.

    Whatever the answers, I don’t want them to be entirely satisfying because satisfying those things would take away an essential part of myself. It’s more a matter of harnessing that energy correctly (whatever that means). I don’t want a new belief that satiates but rather new approaches to employ. Because these problems aren’t static, neither are the solutions.


  2. Kleiner

    I quite agree with Vince, the problem of philosophy is also the problem of religion – the question of man is how to live in the tension of his existence. Leaving aside Mike’s typically cynical (if somewhat funny) answer, there seem to be only a handful of basic options:
    1) Deny the tension is really real, opt for a part of oneself (Platonism/gnosticism on the one hand, materialism on the other).
    I don’t think any of us want either of these. My sense is that we are all convinced that “alienation” and “despair” are real issues (again, pick your poison on how these are characterized).

    2) Accept the tension, and try to become a self on one’s own by embracing it (Nz)
    3) Accept the tension, and accept help in becoming a self (Kierkegaard, or more precisely, Christianity).


  3. Kleiner

    I say Nz tries to go at it “alone” because autonomy is so important to him. There is certainly no submission in Nz. In fact, I am not even sure if there is a viable category of the “other” in Nz.


  4. Huenemann Post author

    Yes, Vince, he is. Nz thinks there is a Dionysian force that is at the hub of human experience — “will to power” or whatever. The Greeks were in touch with it, but most culture since Plato has been in a kind of denial of it.

    I think the “other” in Nz is fate, or misfortune, or life. The task is to try to embrace it, even though it is giving you hell. We certainly can’t control it; at most, we can make it feel welcome in our house.


  5. Mike

    The guy who wrote that book is a christian philosopher at Wheaton in Illinois, a former prof of some friends of mine. The thesis seems a bit odd to me.

    Bruce Ellis Benson puts forward the surprising idea that Nietzsche was never a godless nihilist, but was instead deeply religious. But how does Nietzsche affirm life and faith in the midst of decadence and decay? Benson looks carefully at Nietzsche’s life history and views of three decadents, Socrates, Wagner, and Paul, to come to grips with his pietistic turn. Key to this understanding is Benson’s interpretation of the powerful effect that Nietzsche thinks music has on the human spirit. Benson claims that Nietzsche’s improvisations at the piano were emblematic of the Dionysian or frenzied, ecstatic state he sought, but was ultimately unable to achieve, before he descended into madness. For its insights into questions of faith, decadence, and transcendence, this book is an important contribution to Nietzsche studies, philosophy, and religion.


  6. Huenemann Post author

    Benson’s book looks interesting. I wonder how far he goes. If we lower the threshold for “being religious” so that anyone who gets excited about ideas counts, then I guess Nz was religious. But wasn’t Nz the guy who, in Twilight, celebrated the dawn of the realization that all there is to life is appearances? To my mind, it’s hard to be more anti-religious than that, if religion means anything at all. Even the Buddhist (my litmus test for minimal religiosity) goes beyond appearances.


  7. Kleiner

    Benson has a really nice book called “Graven Ideologies” on Nz, Derrida, and Marion. A very nice read for those that have some interest in postmodernity but not tons of background (but some background in Nz). I would recommend it highly.
    The claim there is not that Nz is religious in any meaningfully robust sense – the claim there is that Nz has anticipated in many ways the pomo concerns about idols (false gods). Derrida and Marion (as well as Levinas) really work that out (Marion’s accoutn of idols and icons in “God Without Being” is brilliant). But clearly Nz does not, on the hither side of the critique of idolatry, come to something like Marion (who is Catholic).

    Regarding the question of the other in Nz. First of all, I think the point is ambiguous – I am not sure what I want to say about Nz regarding this. But if Huenemann is right and that for Nz the “other” is just something like fate, then for Nz this must needs be appropriated. That is, it must be rendered to the same. If that is so, then Nz is technological, in the Heideggerian sense, and egological (Levinas) and does not really have an Other (the kind of Other Levinas speaks of, “the other on the hither side of otherness).


  8. Mike

    I’d like to know if believing-in/understanding the ‘other’ helps people love their neighbors and their enemies or if it just gives them more conceptual baggage to carry around. If I knew the answer to that question I could decide if Levinas and such were paths worth pursuing. I actually think what Nietzsche has taught me about myself helps me toward that end (whether he likes it or not). I’ll add that Wittgenstein is much more powerful in this regard. That’s not to say these types of love are the only ends I’m interested in. When I read Heidegger (snippets) and a lot of postmodernism it just seems like they’re taking so long to actually get at anything but I guess that criticism could be leveled at a lot of philosophy. It doesn’t help that I feel like Heidegger failed at his most important task (in contrast to Bonhoeffer/Barth who I’ve read). I know eventually I’ll get around to reading all the great philosophers but my sense of urgency points me toward different thinkers, mostly the ones Pierre Hadot looks to (and Vonnegut).

    In contemporary writing some of the best people I can find to help me answer the question “how should I live” seem to be labeled “ecologists”.


  9. Kleiner

    The category of the other/Other is much debated. In Levinas, and certainly in Derrida, all others are Other. To use Derrida’s turn of phrase, “tout autre est tout autre” – every other is every bit other. In that sense, we are in a similar position, for Derrida, with other persons as we are with God. From this I don’t think we must conclude that God is no longer distinct. For both Levinas and Derrida are doing ethics first, not theology (metaphysics).

    I disagree that Kierkegaard has no concept of the non-divine other. Read Works of Love! I think that work is one of SK’s most important, and it is basically a reflection on the neighbor. It anticipates so much of what is in Levinas, Buber, Derrida.

    Vince is quite right to point out that Buber is also a seminal figure in this whole discussion. He too often gets pushed to the side. I and Thou might be one of the great texts of recent philosophy.

    At any rate, while I could be convinced otherwise, I don’t see anything resembling the other/neighbor in Nz.


  10. Mike

    It’s not that Nietzsche has an ‘other/neighbor’ in his philosophy, it’s that Nietzsche IS the other/neighbor. It sounds to me like he’s the kind of neighbor you might not want to invite over. He can probably play the role of enemy too.

    He’s a master of human psychology and I think that’s really useful in relating to others. All his lessons don’t have to be used for evil just because he’s negative.


    He’s actually a lot like a few computer programmers I know. Brilliant and insightful about anything related to coding but socially quite awkward and usually offensive.

    I don’t really read philosophers so that I can adopt their point of view as my own. I’m usually looking for something in regard to life because it’s a concern that’s currently pressing.


  11. Kleiner

    Derrida, another philosopher of ‘others”, is also Jewish. Jean-Luc Marion and Kierkegaard are the two Christian philosophers that come to mind. Richard Kearney as well (he has a fantastic book called “Strangers, Gods, and Monsters”).
    Christians will, I think, can have to have a different view of the Other than Jews. In Jewish thinking it is natural to think that the Other as “always not yet”, that the other always recedes and is “always yet to come and always yet to make itself present”. (Note, Heidegger is often, ironically, a very Jewish thinker in this respect). But Christian thinkers are in a different position, for Christians find themselves in an “already not yet”. The Other has come, and will come again. The hermeneutic encounter with the Other can have more content for the Christian than for the Jew, for the Other has come and we have been told to “listen to him”.

    This was the project of my dissertation – on the one hand an appreciation of Heidegger and his Jewish offspring, that there is a profound danger in domesticating the Other (technological thinking in Heidegger, metaphysics of presence in Derrida, egology in Levinas). But Derrida (and perhaps Levinas) have a tendency to completely gut the Other, rendering our situation apaphatic and utterly “undecidable”. But this risks turning the Other into an empty concept (as Nz suggested had happened to ‘being’). So on the other hand I call for a positive encounter with the other through an ethics of listening and conversation. The Other cannot be rendered self-same, but I do not think our situation is entirely apaphatic as a result.

    Regarding Kierkegaard and the “duty” to love.
    a) I am probably in the minority here, but I think Works of Love is the most important text from Kierkegaard. Notable also that it is not pseudonymous, so we can fairly think of it as SK’s own developed view.
    b) Let’s not forget that the paradox of “commanded love” comes not from Kierkegaard but from Jesus.
    c) The “duty to love” in Kierkegaard anticipates all of the postmodern discussion of the paradox of the “gift”. Can we have a duty to give? Does a dutiful/obligatory character frustrate the gift and render it impossible? What is the status of the other in the first place, and how ought I respond to the other’s call (“Thou shall not kill” is the content of the face, according to Levinas)?

    At any rate, I don’t think the duty to love begins in the ‘I am’ but instead begins in the ‘Thou’. I don’t have Works of Love in front of me, but Kierkegaard argues that “my feelings belong to the other”. Love begins in the other and is commanded by it. The other “owns” me. It is hard to not see Levinas anticipated here. What Kierkegaard calls preferential love (also ‘improper self-love’ and ‘erotic love’) does indeed begin in the ‘I am’, and for that reason are not love at all.
    Anyway, read Works of Love. Perhaps read some Levinas side by side (the essay “God and Philosophy” in the book “Collected Philosophical Papers” is, I think, the best quick introduction to Levinas’ thought).


  12. Mike

    I think I agree with at least the sentiment of a relational beginning, different things you both have said are still sinking in. I read some Derrida quite a while ago and that discussion actually makes things jive more for me. Reading Derrida is pretty depressing for me though, all things are impossible with Derrida. Not seeing any positive solutions there made me put him down.

    There is at least such a thing as better and worse ways of living and giving. That sounds like such a strong statement in a Derridian context but I actually don’t think that statement needs much justification. Maybe that’s why I should read more ecologists and less philosophers.

    Anyhow, I think it really would help me to see what this idea of the ‘other’ changes in regard to form of life. Vince pointing to the Jewish culture is definitely a clue. Would you say eastern ways of thinking are more along these lines? If not how would you contrast it?


  13. Kleiner

    I share your frustration with Derrida and his failure to come up with a positive “solution” (I resist that word a bit since I think the matter cannot be resolved in the sense that life is a task). For Derrida, it is “deconstruction wall to wall”. There is no recovery. Count me in with Heidegger, who sees some recovery on the hither side of deconstruction.

    There are many connections with eastern ways of thinking (this has been especially pointed out, I think almost too much so, with Heidegger). If you google Heidegger and eastern philosophy you will find lots of material there.

    But what I think what will be of more interest to you, Mike, is the ethical turn. While you seem to enjoy the theoretical aspect of philosophy, you almost always try to turn us back to “life” and “action”. You will find in Levinas and later Derrida (see ‘Gift of Death’ and ‘On Hospitality’) what is usually called an ethical turn. Levinas explicitly overturns the traditional valuation and refers to ethics, not metaphysics, as “first philosophy”. Granted, in Derrida you will not find much that is positive. As far as “better and worse ways of living and giving” go, Derrida is concerned (obsessed) with undecidability of such things. I am with you, I think we can recover something positive (see Kearney’s ‘Strangers, Gods, and Monsters’ for this critique). But while Levinas does not have an “ethics” in the ordinary sense (a laundry list of virtues or duties) he is concerned first and foremost with the concrete encounter with the other. It is, in that sense, very “practical”.


  14. Kleiner

    I think Vince has done a nice job there of briefly fleshing out the way this is normally thought. But Kierkegaard does not want to hide, nor should he, from the fact that we have a “duty to love”. But duty (and perhaps love too) need to be radically rethought in order to make sense of the “impossible” (Kant calls commanded love “impossible”).

    What I am suggesting Kierkegaard and Levinas are talking about is very similar to what Buber is talking about. We tend to think of duty as my activity and the other as the passive “object” of my action. So the subject (the “I”) comes first. But Levinas asks, ‘What if we begin with the Other?’ This reverses what he calls the “egological” tendency in western thought.
    What he suggests (and I think this is anticipated in Kierkegaard) is that what we find when we begin with the Other is that we are not an “I” at all. Rather than being active, I am (to use Levinas’ phrase) “passive beyond all passivity”. Heidegger refers to that which is ‘between and beyond the active and the passive’.

    In short, the language of duty as you express it is already tied up in a metaphysics (activity/passivity/freedom/”duty”). But what if that metaphysics covers over our real condition? What if, beyond the categories of active/passive/substance there is a relational ontology? How would this refigure the gift (love) and its relation to duty? Note that (inadvertently I am sure) you presumed a non-relational ontology in your post, saying “the self enters into relationship”. This presumes that there is a self (an “I”) prior to the relationship. But Buber (and Levinas and Kierkegaard) do not think this is so. Instead, the self arises out of (or “is”) relationship. And that relationship is one of “duty” and “commandment”, though these categories are now refigured. For Levinas, we do not submit to some abstract duty, we submit to the “face” of the Other. For Kierkegaard it is the “neighbor”. But the relationship is, for Levinas and Kierkegaard (and I think Buber too) an “asymmetrical” relationship. Reciprocity (the duty of the other to me) is not my affair, and it has no impact on what I owe to the neighbor.


  15. Kleiner

    I love the electron example. We should not be surprised to see relationality as the root ontology of all things. Might the natural world – even the science of electrons – be icons of the Trinity?


  16. Kleiner

    Disclaimer: I think some version of a substance metaphysics may be recovered, but I cannot yet really sort this out. This is my ongoing question, sorting out the compatibility of Heidegger/Levinas with Aquinas. I think it can be done. Marion remarked that the inspiration for his God Without Being (a book with Heidegger’s and Levinas’ fingerprints all over it) came only after returning to Thomas. In my dissertation, I tried to at least show the compatibility (even necessity) of recovering a virtue ethics in light of the pomo “Other”. For the metaphysics, what will need to be done is to rid Thomas of the interpretations that forget the role of existence in his thought (in other words, one needs to show that Thomas is not guilty of a “metaphysics of presence” or the dreaded “onto-theology”). Thinkers like Gilson have made a very good start in this respect.

    For now, I will speak on behalf of Levinas/Buber/Derrida (and probably Heidegger). If what you mean by “relata” are independent substances (say, the ego cogito), then yes – they are saying relations without relata. Or if what you mean by relata is something “present” and “actual”, then yes – relations without relata. To treat us as relata in this sense is (in the language of Being and Time) to treat man as merely “present-at-hand”.


  17. Huenemann Post author

    Initially I am inclined to think that if we want to insist on the importance of relations, then there have to be THINGS which are related (I don’t care whether they are called substances; but they have to have some measure of ontological stand-alone-ness, just so that we can make sense of there being relations).

    I suppose it might be true that the whole vision of what relations are, and what their existence presupposes, might be wrong. Maybe we need to get rid of thing or substance talk — and at the same time, get rid of relation talk — and employ a different logic altogether, which is what I guess your guys are doing. (I still need to figure out what was wrong with the old language.)



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