Digifesto

Tag: friedrich nietzsche

A short introduction to existentialism

I’ve been hinting that a different moral philosophical orientation towards technical design, one inspired by existentialism, would open up new research problems and technical possibilities.

I am trying to distinguish this philosophical approach from consequentialist approaches that aim for some purportedly beneficial change in objective circumstances and from deontological approaches that codify the rights and duties of people towards each other. Instead of these, I’m interested in a philosophy that prioritizes individual meaningful subjective experiences. While it is possible that this reduces to a form of consequentialism, because of the shift of focus from objective consequences to individual situations in the phenomenological sense, I will bracket that issue for now and return to it when the specifics of this alternative approach have been fleshed out.

I have yet to define existentialism and indeed it’s not something that’s easy to pin down. Others have done it better than I will ever do; I recommend for example the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the subject. But here is what I am getting at by use of the term, in a nutshell:

In the mid-19th century, there was (according to Badiou) a dearth of good philosophy due to the new prestige of positivism, on the one hand, and the high quality of poetry, on the other. After the death of Hegel, who claimed to have solved all philosophical problems through his phenomenology of Spirit and its corollary, the science of Logic, arts and sciences became independent of each other. And as it happens during such periods, the people (of Europe, we’re talking about now) became disillusioned. The sciences undermined Christian metanarratives that had previously given life its meaningful through the promise of a heavenly afterlife to those who lived according to moral order. There was what has been called by subsequent scholars a “nihilism crisis”.

Friedrich Nietzsche began writing and shaking things up by proposing a new radical form of individualism that placed self-enhancement over social harmony. An important line of argumentation showed that the moral assumptions of conventional philosophy in his day contained contradictions and false promises that would lead the believer to either total disorientation or life-negating despair. What was needed was an alternative, and Nietzsche began working on one. It made the radical step of not grounding morality in abolishing suffering (which he believed was a necessary part of life) but rather in life itself. In his conception, what was most characteristic of life was the will to power, which has been characterized (by Bernard Reginster, I believe) as a second-order desire to overcome resistance in the pursuit of other, first-order desires. In other words, Nietzsche’s morality is based on the principle that the greatest good in life is to overcome adversity.

Nietzsche is considered one of the fathers of existentialist thought (though he is also considered many other things, as he is a writer known for his inconsistency). Another of these foundational thinkers is Søren Kierkegaard. Now that I look him up, I see that his life falls within what Badiou characterizes” the “age of poets” and/or the darkp age of 19th century philosophy, and I wonder if Badiou would consider him an exception. A difficult thing about Kierkegaard in terms of his relevance to today’s secular academic debates is that he was explicitly and emphatically working within a Christian framework. Without going too far into it, it’s worth noting a couple things about his work. In The Sickness Unto Death (1849), Kierkegaard also deals with the subject of despair and its relationship to ones capabilities. For Kierkegaard, a person is caught between their finite (which means “limited” in this context) existence with all of its necessary limitations and their desire to transcend these limitations and attain the impossible, the infinite. In his terminology, he discusses the finite self and the infinite self, because his theology allows for the idea that there is an infinite self, which is God, and that the important philosophical crisis is about establishing ones relationship to God despite the limitations of ones situation. Whereas Nietzsche proposes a project of individual self-enhancement to approach what was impossible, Kierkegaard’s solution is a Christian one: to accept Jesus and God’s love as the bridge between infinite potential and ones finite existence. This is not a universally persuasive solution, though I feel it sets up the problem rather well.

The next great existentialist thinker, and indeed to one who promoted the term “existentialism” as a philosophical brand, is
Jean-Paul Sartre. However, I find Sartre uninspiring and will ignore his work for now.

On the other hand, Simone de Beauvoir, who was closely associated with Sartre, has one of the best books on ethics and the human condition I’ve ever read, the highly readable The Ethics of Ambiguity (1949), the Marxists have kindly put on-line for your reading pleasure. This work lays out the ethical agenda of existentialism in phenomenological terms that resonate well with more contemporary theory. The subject finds itself in a situation (cf. theories of situated learning common now in HCI), in a place and time and a particular body with certain capacities. What is within the boundaries of their conscious awareness and capacity for action is their existence, and they are aware that beyond the boundaries of their awareness is Being, which is everything else. And what the subject strives for is to expand their existence in being, subsuming it. One can see how this synthesizes the positions of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Where de Beauvoir goes farther is the demonstration of how one can start from this characterization of the human condition and derive from it an substantive ethics about how subjects should treat each other. It is true that the subject can never achieve the impossible of the infinite…alone. However, by investing themselves through their “projects”, subjects can extend themselves. And when these projects involve the empowerment of others, this allows a finite subject to extend themselves through a larger and less egoistic system of life.

De Beauvoirian ethics are really nice because they are only gently prescriptive, are grounded very closely in the individual’s subjective experience of their situation, and have social justice implications that are appealing to many contemporary liberal intellectuals without grounding these justice claims in resentment or zero-sum claims for reparation or redistribution. Rather, its orientation is the positive-sum, win-win relationship between the one who empowers another and the one being empowered. This is the relationship, not of master and slave, but of master and apprentice.

When I write about existentialism in design, I am talking about using an ethical framework similar to de Beauvoir’s totally underrated existentialist ethics and using them as principles for technical design.

References

Brown, John Seely, Allan Collins, and Paul Duguid. “Situated cognition and the culture of learning.” Educational researcher 18.1 (1989): 32-42.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The ethics of ambiguity, tr. Citadel Press, 1948.

Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press, 1991.

A quick recap: from political to individual reasoning about ends

So to recap:

Horkheimer warned in Eclipse of Reason that formalized subjective reason that optimizes means was going to eclipse “objective reason” about social harmony, the good life, the “ends” that really matter. Technical efficacy which is capitalism which is AI would expose how objective reason is based in mythology and so society would be senseless and miserable forever.

There was at one point a critical reaction against formal, technical reason that was called the Science Wars in the 90’s, but though it continues to have intellectual successors it is for the most part self-defeating and powerless. Technical reasoning is powerful because it is true, not true because it is powerful.

It remains an open question whether it’s possible to have a society that steers itself according to something like objective reason. One could argue that Habermas’s project of establishing communicative action as a grounds for legitimate pluralistic democracy was an attempt to show the possibility of objective reason after all. This is, for some reason, an unpopular view in the United States, where democracy is often seen as a way of mediating agonistic interests rather than finding common ones.

But Horkheimer’s Frankfurt School is just one particularly depressing and insightful view. Maybe there is some other way to go. For example, one could decide that society has always been disappointing, and that determining ones true “ends” is an individual, rather than collective, endeavor. Existentialism is one such body of work that posits a substantive moral theory (or at least works at one) that is distrustful of political as opposed to individual solutions.

Notes on Sloterdijk’s “Nietzsche Apostle”

Fascisms, past and future, are politically nothing than insurrections of energy-charged losers, who, for a time of exception, change the rules in order to appear as victors.
— Peter Sloterdijk, Nietzsche Apostle

Speaking of existentialism, today I finished reading Peter Sloterdijk’s Semiotext(e) issue, “Nietzsche Apostle”. A couple existing reviews can better sum it up than I can. These are just some notes.

Sloterdijk has a clear-headed, modern view of the media and cultural complexes around writing and situates his analysis of Nietzsche within these frames. He argues that Nietzsche created an “immaterial product”, a “brand” of individualism that was a “market maker” because it anticipated what people would crave when they realized they were allowed to want. He does this through a linguistic innovation: blatant self-aggrandizement on a level that had been previously taboo.

One of the most insightful parts of this analysis is Sloterdijk’s understanding of the “eulogistic function” of writing, something about which I have been naive. He’s pointing to the way writing increases its authority by referencing other authorities and borrowing some of their social capital. This was once done, in ancient times, through elaborate praises of kings and ancestors. There have been and continue to be (sub)cultures where references to God or gods or prophets or scriptures give a text authority. In the modern West among the highly educated this is no longer the case. However, in the academy citations of earlier scholars serves some of this function: citing a classic work still gives scholarship some gravitas, though I’ve noted this seems to be less and less the case all the time. Most academic work these days serves its ‘eulogistic function’ in a much more localized way of mutually honoring peers within a discipline and the still living and active professors who might have influence over ones hiring, grants, and/or tenure.

Sloterdijk’s points about the historical significance of Nietzsche are convincing, and he succeeds in building an empathetic case for the controversial and perhaps troubled figure. Sloterdijk also handles most gracefully the dangerous aspects of Nietzsche’s legacy, most notably when in a redacted and revised version his work was coopted by the Nazis. Partly through references to Nietzsche’s text and partly by illustrating the widespread phenomenon of self-serving redactionist uses of hallowed texts (he goes into depth about Jefferson’s bible, for example), he shows that any use of his work to support a movement of nationalist resentment is a blatant misappropriation.

Indeed, Sloterdijk’s discussion of Nietzsche and fascism is prescient for U.S. politics today (I’ve read this volume was based on a lecture in 2000). For Sloterdijk, both far right and far left politics are often “politics of resentment”, which is why it is surprisingly easy for people to switch from one side to the other when the winds and opportunities change. Nietzsche’s famously denounced “herd morality” as that system of morality that deplores the strong and maintains the moral superiority of the weak. In Nietzsche’s day, this view was represented by Christianity. Today, it is (perhaps) represented by secular political progressivism, though it may just as well be represented by those reactionary movements that feed on resentment towards coastal progressive elites. All these political positions that are based on arguments about who is entitled to what and who isn’t getting their fair share are the same for Sloterdijk’s Nietzsche. They miss the existential point.

Rather, Nietzsche advocates for an individualism that is free to pursue self-enhancement despite social pressures to the contrary. Nietzsche is anti-egalitarian, at least in the sense of not prioritizing equality for its own sake. Rather, he proposes a morality that is libertarian without any need for communal justification through social contract or utilitarian calculus. If there is social equality to be had, it is through the generosity of those who have excelled.

This position is bound to annoy the members of any political movement whose modus operandi is mobilization of resentful solidarity. It is a rejection of that motive and tactic in favor of more joyful and immediate freedom. It may not be universally accessible; it does not brand itself that way. Rather, it’s a lifestyle option for “the great”, and it’s left open who may self-identify as such.

Without judging its validity, it must be noted that it is a different morality than those based on resentment or high-minded egalitarianism.