Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic.
As with all of Camus’s books, The Plague is a seamless blend of philosophy and art. The story tells of an outbreak of plague—bubonic and pneumonic—in the Algerian city of Oran. The narration tracks the crisis from beginning to end, noting the different psychological reactions of the townsfolk; and it must be said, now that we are living through a pandemic, that Camus is remarkably prescient in his portrayal a city under siege from infection. Compelling as the story is, however, I think its real power resides in its meaning as a parable of Camus’s philosophy.
Camus’s philosophy is usually called absurdism, and explained as a call to embrace the absurdity of existence. But this is not as simple as giving up church on Sundays. Absurdism is, indeed, incompatible with conventional religion. Camus makes this abundantly clear in his passage on the priest’s sermon—which argues that the plague is god’s punishment for our sins—an idea that Camus thinks incompatible with the randomness of the disaster: appearing out of nowhere, striking down children and adults alike. But absurdism is also incompatible with traditional humanism. The best definition of humanism is perhaps Protagoras’s famous saying: “Man is the measure of all things.” In many respects this seems to be true. Gold is valuable because we value it; an elephant is big and a mouse is small relative to human size; and so on. However, on occasion, the universe throws something our way that is not made to man’s measure. A plague is a perfect example of this: an ancient organism, too small to see, which can colonize our bodies, causing sickness and death and shutting down conventional life as we know it. Whenever a natural disaster makes life impossible, we are reminded that, far from being the measure of all things, we exist at the mercy of an uncaring universe.
This idea is painful to contemplate. Nobody likes to feel powerless; and the idea that our suffering and striving do not, ultimately, mean anything is downright depressing. Understandably, most of us prefer to ignore this situation. And of course economies and societies invite us to do so—to focus on human needs, human goals, human values—to be, in short, humanists. But there are moments when the illusion fades, and it does not take a pandemic. A simple snowstorm can be enough. I remember watching snow fall out of an office window, creating a blanket of white that forced us to close early, go home, and stay put the next day. A little inclement weather is all it takes to make our plans seem small and irrelevant.
A plague, then, is an ideal situation for Camus to explore his philosophy. But absurdism does not merely consist in realizing that the universe is both omnipotent and indifferent. It also is a reaction to this realization. In this book, Camus is particularly interested in what it means to be moral in such a world. And he presents a model of heroism very different from that which we are used to. The humanist hero is one who is powerful and free—a person who could have easily chosen not to be a hero, but who chose to because of their goodness.
The hero of this story, Dr. Bernard Rieux, does not fit this mold. His heroism is far humbler and more modest: it is the heroism of “common decency,” of “doing my job.” For the truth is that Rieux and his fellows do not have much of a choice. Their backs are against the wall, leaving them only the choice to fight or give up. An absurdist hero is thus not making a choice between good and evil, but against a long and ultimately doomed fight against death—or death. It is far better, in Camus’s view, to take up the fight, since it is only in a direct confrontation with death that we become authentically alive.
You might even say that, for Camus, life itself is the only real ethical principle. This becomes apparent in the speech of Tarrou, Rieux’s friend, who is passionately against the death sentence. Capital punishment crystalizes the height of absurdist denial: decreeing that a human value system is more valid that the basic condition of existence, and that we have a right to rule when existence is warranted or not. To see the world with clear eyes means, for Camus, to see that life is something beyond any value system—just as the entire universe is. And the only meaningful ethical choice, for Camus, is whether one chooses to fight for life.
This book is brilliant because its lessons can be applied to a natural disaster, like a plague, or a human disaster, like the holocaust. Indeed, before the current pandemic, the book was normally read as a reaction to that all-too-human evil. In either case, our obligation is to fight for life. This means rejecting ideologies that decree when life is or is not warranted, it means not giving up or giving in, and it means, most of all, doing one’s job.
I still vividly remember my writing class in my first semester of college. Our professor was a lover of paradoxes. She had us read Kafka and Borges, whom none of us could understand. And she had a habit of asking impossible questions—such as “What does it mean to be infinitely finite?”—and savoring the uncomfortable silences that followed. Once, she even scared us half to death by asking one of these questions, and than yelping like a banshee half a minute later. Quite a good professor.
The final section of this iconic essay was among the readings she had us read. Of course I did not understand a word of it. I was no where near mature enough to wrap my mind around the idea of absurdism. The “meaning of life” was not a problem for me at that time. Surrounded as I was by thousands of potential friends and girlfriends—free for the first time in my life to do as I pleased—such a confrontation with nihilism was beyond the horizons of my mental life.
This was not the case four years later, when I graduated college with thousands of dollars in debt, confronted with the possibility of deciding “Who I Wanted to Be.” Probably I should have read this book at that time, when I could so keenly feel the weight of life’s pointlessness. Or maybe I should have read it a year later, when I was working in an office job. Humankind has seldom plunged deeper into the void than in entry-level positions.
I mention this biographical background because I think this book should likely not be read during a time of relative stability and contentedness, such as I am in now. We seldom pause to ponder the “meaning of life” when we are enjoying ourselves. The problem of “philosophical suicide” is not a problem at all on beautiful summer days. It is only a problem on cold, rainy Tuesday nights, in the few minutes of mental calm between work, chores, sleep, and work the next day. Unfortunately, such Tuesdays come all too often in this world of ours.
My point is simply that I would have enjoyed this essay far more under more propitious circumstances. Albert Camus’s style is well-calculated to please: a winsome mixture of anecdote, philosophy, literary criticism, and poetry. Certainly it is a relief after dragging my way through Sartre’s tortured syntax and cumbersome verbiage. Camus, by contrast, is concise and stylish. My only reservation is that, for all his accessibility, Camus is not perfectly clear. I say this from the perspective of somebody trying to read his essay as a philosophical work. All philosophy consists in argument; and in order to accept or reject an argument, one must use clearly defined terms. With Camus, however, I was never quite sure what his criteria were for considering something absurd or meaningful—his two central categories.
This is perhaps the wrong way to read Camus. What he was trying to create was arguably more in the tradition of wisdom literature than formal philosophy. From this perspective, the essay is somewhat more satisfying. However, here too I found Camus somewhat lacking. One extracts more piquant lessons in the art of life from Montaigne or La Rochefoucauld than from Camus. Where Camus excels these authors is not in wisdom per se, but in capturing a certain mood, a mood peculiar to modern times: being intellectually and spiritually adrift. After all of the traditional systems belief which underpinned life have crumbled, it is the crushing realization that one is unable to justify anything, even life itself. In this peculiar vein, Camus is difficult to beat.
Even so, I wonder if this iconic essay adds anything essential to that famous remark of Pascal: “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” Camus’s Sisyphus is the twin brother of Pascal’s thinking reed—the plaything of an indifferent universe, and yet dignified by his consciousness. In his more despairing moments, Pascal may have been quite as horrified by the vast spectacle of an indifferent cosmos as Camus: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” The essential difference between these two men is not their realization of humanity’s insignificance, but their reactions. Pascal seeks to escape this conclusion any way he can, bolstering his faith with every fallacious argument under the sun. Camus was innovative in his insistence that we must calmly accept this situation, taking it as a starting point and not as a depressing conclusion.
My main criticism with this essay is that, if life has no inherent meaning, and the universe is nothing but a cold expanse, this throws the question of the “meaning of life” back upon each individual. Answering that question definitively, for every person, becomes de facto impossible. But, again, perhaps Camus is not trying to prove anything universal. Rather, his essay is a sort of invitation to abandon the traditional justifications of life, and to focus, as Camus himself did, on the smaller joys—sunlight, the sea, travel. The rest of the essays in this collection may be seen in that light, as enlarging upon Camus’s omnivorous curiosity for his surroundings.
What bothers me is that I do not agree with Camus’s opening assertion: I do not think the most pressing question is whether we should all just commit suicide. To the contrary, once this question is decided in the negative, it opens up a world of far more interesting issues.
This podcast includes my review of Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution. It will likely be my last book-review podcast for a little while. I hope to begin a new series of podcasts about life in Spain next week.
It really is a nice theory. The only defect I think it has is probably common to all philosophical theories. It’s wrong. You may suspect me of proposing another theory in its place; but I hope not, because I’m sure it’s wrong too if it is a theory.
Like many other works of philosophy (and those of other subjects, for that matter), Naming and Necessity will likely be perplexing if you do not know what the author is arguing against. At the time that Kripke gave these lectures, the dominant theory in the philosophy of language was the Frege-Russell theory of reference. It is a rather elegant and simple theory, and you can look up Russell’s famous paper, “On Denoting,” or Quine’s “On What There Is,” online if you would like to know more about it. But I will explain it briefly.
Essentially, the idea is that names are shorthand descriptions. Thus, if you say “there’s a tiger over there!” you’re really saying something like “there is an x over there, such that x is feline, yellow-brown, black striped, quadrupedal, solitary, bigger than a human,” and so on. This way of analyzing names was, I believe, partly adopted because it carried no ontological commitment. It avoids confusing situations, like when you have to say “wizards don’t exist!”—for how could you name the things (wizards) that do not exist? That is paradoxical. On the Frege-Russell view, this awkwardness is avoided, since, when you assert that wizards do not exist, you are really saying “there is no x such that x is humanoid, magical, bearded, robed,” and so on. Thus, by specifying the criteria, lots of annoying existential questions can be side-stepped.
Nevertheless, I think that most people, when they first learn of this theory, feel a bit uncomfortable with it. The theory just is not intuitive. I do not think that anything analogous to Russell’s analyses are going on in my head when I hear “there’s a tiger over there!” In other words, I do not think of tigers as bundles of qualities or clusters of descriptions, but that the relationship of the name “tiger” to the living, breathing animals is much more straightforward. Kripke is essentially arguing that our intuition is correct. In fact, it is Kripke’s express point to uphold our intuitions regarding names:
Of course, some philosophers think that something’s having intuitive content is very inconclusive evidence in favor of it. I think it is very heavy evidence in favor of anything, myself. I really don’t know, in a way, what more conclusive evidence one can have about anything, ultimately speaking.
Seeing as Kripke is not fond of theories (as the opening quote shows) and is quite fond of intuition, this puts him into a bit of a pickle, for how is he supposed to argue against the theory? Thus, most of Kripke’s arguments rely on bizarre counterfactuals, which he expresses using the language of “possible worlds.” (I understood this as merely a way of speaking about hypothetical or counterfactual statements, rather than any metaphysical doctrine about possibility and parallel worlds; and this way of speaking, when understood as a figure of speech, does convey the essential point rather well.)
To explain Kripke’s argument, let me come up with a bizarre counterfactual of my own. Suppose that someone (presumably with far too much time and money on their hands, and with a questionable sensitivity to animal rights) decided to take some lions from Africa and introduce them into Asia. Then, suppose this person decided to shave the lions’ manes, to paint them yellow-brown, and then to paint black stripes on them, so as to look just like tigers. Suppose he is even such a genius animal trainer that he trains these lions to behave indistinguishably from tigers.
Now we return to the above example. If “there’s a tiger over there!” really meant “there is an x over there, such that x is feline, yellow-brown, black striped, quadrupedal, solitary, bigger than a human,” then the statement would be perfectly true, even if the person were pointing to the painted lions.
But it is not true. Lions and tigers are what could be called ‘natural types’; and natural types are distinguished by some essential quality, not by their total descriptions. Kripke is really reviving the old notion of essentialism: names pick out the object that possesses the essential property associated with that name. In the case of lions and tigers, I suppose the essential quality would be their genotypes. Thus, the essential property of a type of thing need not be the qualities by which we normally identify the thing. We normally identify lions and tigers by the way they look and act, but the above example shows that even those qualities are contingent; it is their respective essences (their genotypes in this case) which are the necessary qualities of tigers and lions.
This leads Kripke to disagree with another engrained philosophical idea (the second N of the title): that ‘necessary’ and ‘a priori‘ are synonyms. It was thought that only necessary truths could be known a priori, and only a priori truths were necessary. (In other words, you could only be certain about things you knew independently of experience.) Thus, “all bachelors are unmarried” is, in this view, a necessary truth, even if there are no bachelors at all, simply because that is the definition of ‘bachelor’; it is an analytic statement, true by definition, a mere tautology, and thus can be known a priori. This restriction of necessary statements to trivial tautologies was, I think, a way of fighting against obscure metaphysical arguments, such as the ontological argument for the existence of God.
Kripke, as I said, disagrees with this line of thinking. For Kripke, things can be known a priori that are not necessary, and things can be necessary and learned empirically (or a posteriori). The case of the genotypes of lions and tigers is a case in point; it took a long time to discover DNA, and to create the tools needed to investigate it in depth. DNA was, in other words, obviously learned of empirically. Nevertheless, it is a necessary truth that lions have the lion essence (genotype), and tigers have the tiger essence (genotype)—because if they did not they would not be lions and tigers. Necessary truths, then, need not be known a priori. (In other words, you can be certain about some things you learn from experience.)
The reverse distinction can also be made. If I pick up a certain stick, and say “I shall use this as the standard for my new measure, the schmeter,” I can know a priori that whatever length the stick is (in, say, inches or meters), it is exactly one schmeter. However, the exact length of a schmeter is contingent on the stick, and we can imagine situations in which the stick was longer or shorter, so the exact meaning of this a priori knowledge is contingent on some state of affairs. To sum up Kripke’s distinction: ‘necessary’ is a metaphysical term having to do with the essence of something, while ‘a priori‘ is an epistemological term having to do with how we come to know something.
As I hope you can see from my summary, Kripke’s arguments are meant to be intuitive; he rejects certain philosophical ideas by just pointing to situations in which they fail to properly apply. This, I think, is why Naming and Necessity is so well known: one need not master some technical apparatus, but merely think through the consequences of some hypothetical scenarios. Certainly, this is not a perfect book. Kripke is wordy and repetitive; this already short book could probably have been much shorter and crisper, or could have at least covered more territory. Still, Kripke was arguing against a whole paradigm; and paradigms do not go gentle into that good night.
When I finished this book, I was fairly convinced; but as subsequent conversations (in Wastrel’s comments, for example)* have shown me, there are some awfully strong counter-arguments. Philosophical questions are never so easily resolved. In particular, I am curious to see how Kripke proposes to deal with some of the situations which motivated the creation of the descriptive theory of names in the first place—for example, statements like “wizards aren’t real.” How can there be a causal connection with something that does not exist? And how can the name refer to a natural type of a fictitious object? After all, facts are easy to talk about; fiction is another thing entirely.
This book is difficult for me to review, mainly because there were so many parts of it that I did not fully understand. Quine is not writing for the general reader; he is writing for professional philosophers—a category that excludes people such as myself, who have not taken a single course in formal logic. Nevertheless, there are some parts of this book—particularly the first two essays, “On What There Is” and “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”—which can be understood by the persistent amateur.
I will try to explain what I think I know about Quine, subject to the very important caveat that these are the general impressions of somebody who is not an expert. I might easily be wrong.
Quine is an American, and so is very literal; he likes things he can touch, or at least can clearly define. This leads him to a kind of ontological puritanism: he wishes to admit as few types of entities into existence as possible. The most obvious token of this is his materialism. Quine thinks the world is fundamentally matter; thus, he rejects the existence of spirits, and, more surprisingly, of minds—at least minds as distinctly different metaphysical objects. (He is fine with keeping mentalistic terminology, so long as it is understood as paraphrases of behavioral phenomena.) This also prompts Quine to reject other, more banal, sorts of things like meanings and properties. In fact, Quine only acknowledges the existence of two sorts of things: physical objects, and sets (or classes). If I am not mistaken, Quine’s belief in something so abstract as a logical set is motivated by his famous indispensability argument—that we ought to believe in the types of things our theories of the world need.
Quine’s materialism is tied to two other -isms: holism and naturalism. By naturalism, I mean that Quine thinks that our knowledge comes from observation, from experience, from science; furthermore, that this is the only type of knowledge we have available. Quine would never attempt something like Descartes did, seeking to ground all of the contingent assertions of science with an unquestionable first principle (in Descartes’ case, this being that he thinks, and therefore is). Quine is even uncomfortable with doctrines such as Wittgenstein’s, which hold philosophy to be a sort of second-level activity, a discipline which tackles questions of a fundamentally different sort than those investigated by scientists. For Quine, there are no fundamentally different sorts of questions: all questions are questions about the natural world, and thus on identical epistemological and ontological footing. The only difference between philosophy and science, for Quine, is that philosophers ask more general questions.
Quine’s holism is, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of his views. The logical positivists thought that individual statements could be accepted or rejected based on our experiences. In other words, we make a statement about the physical world, and then go about trying to verify it with some experience. But Quine points out that this is far too simple an account. Our statements do not exist in isolation, but are tied to an entire web of beliefs—some very abstract and remote from any experience.
Keep this in your mind’s eye: a huge, floating hunk of miscellaneous trash, adrift in the ocean. Now, only some of this trash directly touches the ocean; these are the parts of our knowledge that directly ‘touch’ the experiential world. A great part of this trash, however, lies in the center of the mass, far away from the water; and this is analogous to our most abstract beliefs. If this gigantic trash island were to hit something—let us say, a big boat—two things could happen. The boat could be destroyed, and its wreckage simply added onto the floating trash island; or, the boat could tear its way through the trash island, changing its shape dramatically. These are, roughly, the two things that can happen when we face a novel experience: we can somehow assimilate it into our old beliefs, or we can reconfigure our whole web of beliefs to accommodate this new information.
I will drop the metaphor. What Quine is saying is that there are no beliefs of ours that cannot be revised—nothing is sacred. We have even considered revising our principles of logic, previously so unquestionable, in the face of quantum weirdness. There are also no experiences that could not, in principle, be explained away: we could cite hallucinations or mental illness or human error as the reason behind the anomalous experience.
Keeping Quine’s naturalism and holism in mind, it is pretty clear why he rejects the main tenets of logical positivism. First, Quine points out the vagueness of what philosophers mean when they talk about ‘analytic statements’. The classic case of an analytic statement is “all bachelors are unmarried,” which is true by definition: since a bachelor is defined as an unmarried man, it could not be otherwise that bachelors are unmarried. But note that this relies on the idea that ‘bachelor’ has the same ‘meaning’ as the phrase ‘unmarried man’. But what is a ‘meaning’? It sounds like a mental phenomenon; and because Quine does not hold minds to exist, he is very skeptical about ‘meanings’. So in what sense do ‘meanings’ exist? Can they be paraphrased into behavioral terminology? Quine does not exactly rule it out, but is rather dubious.
Quine’s holism is also at odds with the project of logical positivism. For, as already noted, logical positivists regard the meaning of a statement to be its verification; but Quine believes—and I think quite rightly—that statements do not exist in isolation, but rely on a whole background web of beliefs and doctrines. Here is a concrete example. Let us say we wanted to go out and verify the statement ‘flying saucers are real.’ We wander around with our camera, and then suddenly see a shiny disk floating through the air. We snap some photos, and pronounce our statement ‘verified’. But will people believe us? Scientists look at the object, and say that it is a weather balloon; psychologists examine us, and say that we are demented. The statement has thus not been verified at all by our experience; and even if we had better evidence of flying saucers than a few photographs, it is at least conceivable that we could go on finding alternative explanations—secret government aircraft, some mad scientist’s invention, an elaborate prank, etc.
I will stop trying to summarize his arguments here, because I feel like I am already in over my head. I will say, however, that Quine’s argument against logical positivism seems to rely on his own presumptions about knowledge and the world—which may, after all, be quite reasonable, but this still does not make for a conclusive argument. In short, Quine may be arguing against the dogmas of logical empiricism with dogmas of his own. I often had this experience while reading Quine: at first I would disagree; but then, after formulating my disagreement, I would realize I was only begging the question, and that we were starting with very different assumptions.
Quine is preoccupied with this idea of ontological commitment. He is exercised by his felt necessity of postulating the existence of things used in discourse, like meanings, mathematical objects and so forth. These are, no doubt, important questions; yet I do not find them terribly interesting to think about. In my experience, wondering about whether something ‘really exists’ often leads up dark intellectual alleys. When it comes to things like UFOs, the question is doubtless a vital one to ask; but when it comes to things like ‘sets’ and ‘meanings’, it does not excite me: for what would be the difference if sets ‘really existed’ or if they were just tools used in discourse with no existence outside of names and thought? I will leave these desert landscapes of logic for ones more verdant.
To conclude, Quine was obviously a brilliant man; he was, in fact, so brilliant, that I cannot understand how brilliant he was.
Every valuing, even where it values positively, is a subjectivizing. It does not let things: be.
A Gentle Warning
In matters philosophical, it is wise to be skeptical of interpretations. An interpretation can be reasonable or unreasonable, interesting or uninteresting, compelling or uncompelling; but an interpretation, by its very nature, can never be false or true. Thus, we must be very careful when relying on secondary literature; for what is secondary literature but a collection of interpretations? Personally, I don’t like anybody to come between me and a philosopher. When a philosopher’s views are being explained to me, I feel as if I’m on the wrong end of a long game of telephone. Even if an interpreter is excellent—quoting extensively and making qualified assertions—his interpretation is, like all interpretations, an argument from authority; to interpret a text is to assert that one is an authority on the text, and thus should be believed.
Over generations, these interpretations can harden into dogmas; we are taught the “received interpretation” of a philosopher, and not the philosopher himself. This is dangerous; for, what makes a classic book classic, is that it can be read repeatedly—not just in one lifetime, but down the centuries—while continuing to yield new and interesting interpretations. In other words, a philosophical classic is a book that can be validly and compelling interpreted a huge number of ways. So if you subscribe to another person’s interpretation you are depriving the world of something invaluable: your own take on the matter.
In matters philosophical, I say that it is better to be stupid with one’s own stupidity, than smart with another’s smarts. To put the matter another way, to read a great book of philosophy is not, I think, like reading a science textbook; the goal is not simply to assimilate a certain body of knowledge, but to have a genuine encounter with the thinker. In this way, reading a great work of philosophy is much more like travelling someplace new: what matters is the experience of having been there, and not the snapshots you bring back from the trip. Even if you go someplace where you can’t speak the language, where you are continually baffled the whole time by strange customs and incomprehensible speech, it is more valuable than just sitting at home and reading guide books. So go and be baffled, I say!
This is all just a way of warning you not to take what I will say too seriously, for what I will offer is my own interpretation, my own guide-book, so to speak. I will make some assertions, but I’d like you to be very skeptical. After all, I’m just some dude on the internet.
An Attempt at a Way In
The best advice I’ve ever gotten in regard to Heidegger was in my previous job. My boss was a professor from Europe, a very well educated man, who naturally liked to talk about books with me. At around this time, I was reading Being and Time, and floundering. When I complained of the book’s difficulty, this is what he said:
“In the Anglophone tradition, they think of language as a tool for communication. But in the European tradition, they think of language as a tool to explore the world.” He said this last statement as he reached out his arm in front of him, as if grabbing at something far away, to make it clear what he meant.
Open one of Heidegger’s books, and you will be confronted with something strange. First is the language. He invents new words; and, more frustratingly, he uses old words in unfamiliar ways, often relying on obscure etymological connections and German puns. Even more frustrating is the way Heidegger does philosophy: he doesn’t make logical arguments, and he doesn’t give straightforward definitions for his terms. Why does he write like this? And how can a philosopher do philosophy without attempting to persuade the reader with arguments? You’re right to be skeptical; but, in this review, I will try to provide you with a way into Heidegger’s philosophy, so at least his compositional and intellectual decisions make sense, even if you disagree with them. Since Heidegger’s frustrating and exasperating language is extremely conspicuous, let us start there.
Imagine a continuum of attitudes towards language. On the far end, towards the left, is the scientific attitude. There, we find linguists talking of phonemes, morphemes, syntax; we find analytic philosophers talking about theories of meaning and reference. We see sentences being diagrammed; we hear researchers making logical arguments. Now, follow me to the middle of this continuum. Here is where most speech takes place. Here, language is totally transparent. We don’t think about it, we simply use it in our day to day lives. We argue, we order pizzas, we make excuses to our bosses, we tell jokes; and sometimes we write book reviews. Then, we get to the other end of the spectrum. This is the place where lyric poetry resides. Language is not here being used to catalogue knowledge, nor is it transparent; here, in fact, language is somehow mysterious, foreign, strange: we hear familiar words used in unfamiliar ways; rules of syntax and semantics are broken here; nothing is as it seems.
Now, what if I ask you, what attitude gets to the real essence, the real fundamentals of language? If you’re like me, you’d say the first attitude: the scientific attitude. It seems commonsensical to think that you understand language more deeply the more you rigorously study it; and one studies language by setting up abstract categories, such as ‘syntax’ and ‘phoneme’. But this is where Heidegger is in fundamental disagreement; for Heidegger believes that poetry reveals the essence of language. In his words: “Language itself is poetry in the essential sense.”
But isn’t this odd? Isn’t poetry a second or third level phenomenon? Doesn’t poetry presuppose the usual use of language, which itself presupposes the factual underpinning of language investigated by science? In trying to understand why Heidegger might think this, we are led to his conception of truth.
If you are like me, you have a commonsense understanding of what makes a statement true or false. A statement is “true” if it corresponds to something in reality; if I say “the glass is on the table,” it is only true if the glass really is on the table. Heidegger thinks this is entirely wrong; and in place of this conception of truth, Heidegger proposes the Greek word “aletheia,” which he defines as “unconcealment,” or “letting things reveal themselves as themselves.”
It’s hard to describe what this means abstractly, so let me give you an example. Let’s say you are a peasant, and a rich nobleman just invited you to his house. You get lost, and wander into a room. It is filled with strange objects that you’ve never seen before. You pick something up from a table. You hold it in your hands, entranced by the strange shape, the odd colors, the weird noises it omits. You are totally lost in contemplation of the object, when suddenly the nobleman waltzes into the room and says “Oh, I see you’ve found my watch.” According to Heidegger, what the nobleman just did was to cover up the watch in a kind of veneer of obviousness. It is simply a watch, he says, just one among many of its kind, and therefore obvious. The peasant, meanwhile, was experiencing the object as an object, and letting it reveal itself to him.
This kind of patina of familiarity is, for Heidegger, what prevents us from engaging in serious thinking. This is why Heidegger spends so much time talking about the dangers of conformity, and also why he is ambivalent about the scientific project: for what is science but the attempt to make what is not obvious, obvious? To bring the unfamiliar into the realm of familiarity? Heidegger thinks that this feeling of unfamiliarity is, on the contrary, the really valuable thing; and this is why Heidegger talks about moods—such as anxiety, which, he says, discloses the “Nothing.” Now, it is a favorite criticism of some philosophers to dismiss Heidegger as foolish by treating “Nothing” as something; but this misses his point. When Heidegger is talking of anxiety as the mood that discloses the “Nothing” to us, he means that our mood of anxiety is the subrational realization of the bizarreness of existence. That is, our anxiety is the way that the question faces us: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
This leads us quite naturally to Heidegger’s most emblematic question, the question of Being: what does it mean to be? Heidegger contends that this question has been lost to history. But has it? Philosophers have been discussing metaphysics for millennia. We have idealism, materialism, monism, monadism—aren’t these answers to the question of Being? No, Heidegger says, and for the following reason. When one asserts, for example, that everything is matter, one is asserting that everything is, at base, one type of thing. But the question of Being cannot be answered by pointing to a specific type of being; so we can’t answer the question, “what does it mean to be?” by saying “everything is mind,” or “everything is matter,” since that misses the point. What does it mean to be at all?
So now we have to circle back to Heidegger’s conception of truth. If you are operating with the commonsense idea of truth as correspondence, you will quite naturally say: “The question of ‘Being’ is meaningless; ‘Being’ is the most empty of categories; you can’t give any further analysis to what it ‘means’ to exist.” In terms of correspondence, this is quite true; for how can any statement correspond with the answer to that question? A statement can only correspond to a state of affairs; it cannot correspond to the “stateness” of affairs: that’s meaningless. However, if you are thinking of truth along Heidegger’s lines, the question becomes more sensible; for what Heidegger is really asking is “How can we have an original encounter with Being? How can I experience what it means to exist? How can I let the truth of existence open itself up to me?”
To do this, Heidegger attempts to peel back the layers of familiarity that, he feels, prevents this genuine encounter from happening. He tries to strip away our most basic commonsense notions: true vs. false, subject vs. object, opinion vs. fact, and virtually any other you can name. In so doing, Heidegger tries to come up with ways of speaking that do not presuppose these categories. So in struggling through his works, you are undergoing a kind of therapy to rid yourself of your preconceptions, in order to look at the world anew. In his words: “What is strange in the thinking of Being is its simplicity. Precisely this keeps us from it. For we look for thinking—which has its world-historical prestige under the name “philosophy”—in the form of the unusual, which is accessible only to initiates.”
What on earth are we to make of all this? Is this philosophy or mystical poetry? Is it nonsense? That’s a tough question. If by “philosophy” we mean the examination of certain traditional questions, such as those of metaphysics and epistemology, then it might be fair to say that Heidegger wasn’t a philosopher—at least, not exactly. But if by “philosophy” we mean thinking for the sake of thinking, then Heidegger is a consummate philosopher; for, in a sense, this is the point of his whole project: to get us to question everything we take for granted, and to rethink the world with fresh minds.
So should we accept Heidegger’s philosophy? Should we believe him? And what does it even mean to “believe” somebody who purposely doesn’t make assertions or construct arguments? Is this acceptable in a thinker? Well, I can’t speak for you, but I don’t accept his picture of the world. To sum up my disagreement with Heidegger as pithily as possible, I disagree with him when he says: “Ontology is only possible as phenomenology.” On the contrary, I do not think that ontology necessarily has anything to do with phenomenology; in other words, I don’t think that our experiences of the world necessarily disclose the world in a fundamental way. For example, Heidegger thinks that everyday sounds are more basic than abstract acoustical signals, and he argues this position like so:
We never really first perceive a throng of sensations, e.g., tones and noises, in the appearance of things—as this thing-concept alleges; rather we hear the storm whistling in the chimney, we hear the three-motored plane, we hear the Mercedes in immediate distinction from the Volkswagen. Much closer to us than all sensations are the things themselves. We hear the door shut in the house and never hear acoustical sensations or even mere sounds. In order to hear a bare sound we have to listen away from things, divert our ear from them, i.e., listen abstractly.
To Heidegger, the very fact that we perceive sounds this way implies that this is more fundamental. But I cannot accept this. Hearing “first” the door shut is only a fact of our perception; it does not tell us anything about how our brains process auditory signals, nor what sound is, for that matter. This is why I am a firm believer in science, because it seems that the universe doesn’t give up its secrets lightly, but must be probed and prodded! When we leave nature to reveal itself to us, we aren’t left with much.
And it was clear that I’m not a Heideggerian from my introduction. As the opening quote shows, he was partly remonstrating against our dichotomy of subjective opinion vs. objective fact; whereas this notion is the very one I began my review with. You’ve been hoodwinked from the start, dear reader; for by acknowledging that this is just one opinion among many, you have, willingly or unwillingly, disagreed with Heidegger.
So was reading Heidegger a waste of time for me? If I disagree with him on almost everything, what did I gain from reading him? Well, for one thing, as a phenomenologist pure and simple, Heidegger is excellent; he gets to the bottom of our experience of the world in a way way few thinkers can. What’s more, even if we reject his ontology, many of Heidegger’s points are interesting as pure cultural criticism; by digging down deep into many of our preconceptions, Heidegger manages to reveal some major biases and assumptions we make in our daily lives. But the most valuable part of Heidegger is that he makes you think: agree or disagree, if you decide he is a loony or a genius, he will make you think, and that is invaluable.
So, to bring this review around to this volume, I warmly push it into your hands. Here is an excellent introduction to the work and thought of an original mind—much less imposing than Being and Time. I must confess that I was pummeled by Heidegger’s first book—I was beaten senseless. This book was, by contrast, often pleasant reading. It seems that Heidegger jettisoned a lot of his jargon later in life; he even occasionally comes close to being lucid and graceful. I especially admire “The Origin of the Work of Art.” I think it’s easily one of the greatest reflections on art that I’ve had the good fortune to read.
I think it’s only fair to give Heidegger the last word:
… if man is to find his way once again into the nearness of Being he must first learn to exist in the nameless. In the same way he must recognize the seductions of the public realm as well as the impotence of the private. Before he speaks man must first let himself be claimed again by Being, taking the risk that under this claim he will seldom have much to say.
Pascal seems to have been born for greatness. At a young age he displayed an intense talent for mathematics, apparently deducing a few propositions of Euclid by himself; and he matured into one of the great mathematical minds of Europe, making fundamental contributions to the science of probability. While he was at it, he invented an adding machine: the beginning of our adventures in computing.
Later on in his short life, after narrowly escaping a carriage accident, the young man had an intense conversion experience; and he devoted the rest of his energies to religion. A committed Jansenist (a sect of Catholics deeply influenced by Calvinism), he set out to defend his community from the hostile Jesuits. This resulted in his Provincial Letters, a series of polemical epistles now considered a model and a monument of French prose. This was not all. His most ambitious project was a massive apology for the Christian faith. But disease struck him down before he could bring his book to term; and now all we are left with are fragments—scattered bits of thought.
Strangely, it is this unfinished book—not his polished prose, not his contributions to mathematics—which has become Pascal’s most lasting work. It is a piece of extraordinary passion and riveting eloquence. Yet it is also disorganized, tortured, incomplete, uneven, abrupt—at times laconic to the point of inscrutability, at times rambling, diffuse, and obscure. How are we to judge such a book?
Pascal alternates between two fundamental moods in the text: the tortured doubter, and the zealous convert. Inevitably I found the former sections to be far more compelling. Pascal was an avid reader of Montaigne, and seems to have taken that French sage’s skepticism to heart. Yet Pascal could never simulate Montaigne’s easy acceptance of his own ignorance; the mathematician wanted certainty, and was driven to despair by Montaigne’s gnawing doubt. Thus, though Pascal often echoes Montaigne’s thoughts, the tone is completely different: anguish rather than acceptance.
Montaigne’s influence runs very deep in Pascal. Harold Bloom famously called the Pensées “a bad case indigestion in regard to Montaigne,” and notes the many passages of Pascal which directly echo Montaigne’s words. Will Durant goes even further, writing that Pascal was driven nearly to madness by Montaigne’s skepticism. There is, indeed, a shadow of mania and mental imbalance that falls over this work. Pascal gives the impression of one who is profoundly unhappy; and this despair both propels him to his heights and drags him to his depths.
At his best, Pascal strikes one as a kind of depressed charismatic genius, writing in the mood of a Hamlet. Cynicism at times overwhelms him, as he notes how our vanity leads us to choose our professions and our habits just to receive praise from other people. He can also be a pessimist—noting, like Schopenhauer, that all earthly pleasures are unsatisfactory and vain. Pascal had a morbid streak, too.
Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.
We also have the misanthrope, in which mood he most nearly approached the Danish prince:
What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe!
But I think even more moving that these moods is Pascal’s metaphysical despair. He wants certainty with every inch of his soul, and yet the universe only inspires doubt and anguish: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.” As a scientist during the age of Galileo, Pascal is painfully aware of humanity’s smallness in relation to the vast void of the universe. He struggles to establish our dignity: “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” Yet his existential desperation continually reasserts itself, no matter how often he defends himself against it:
This is what I see and what troubles me. I look around in every direction and all I see is darkness. Nature has nothing to offer me that does not give rise to doubt and anxiety. If I saw no sign there of a Divinity I should decide on a negative solution: if I saw signs of a Creator everywhere I should peacefully settle down in the faith.
He finds neither negative nor positive confirmation, however, and so must resort to a frenzied effort. Perhaps this is where the famous idea of the wager arose. Pascal’s Wager is simple: if you choose to be religious you have very much to gain and comparatively little to lose, so it is an intelligent bet. Of course there are many problems with this line of thinking. For one, would not an omniscient God know that you are choosing religion for calculated self-interest? Pascal’s solution is that, if you force yourself to undergo the rituals of religion—fasting, confession, mass, and the rest—the belief will gradually become genuine.
Perhaps. Yet there are many other problems with the wager. Most noticeable, nowadays, is Pascal’s treatment of the religious problem as a binary choice—belief or unbelief—whereas now we have hundreds of options to choose from as regards religions. Further, Pascal’s insistence that we have everything to gain and nothing to lose is difficult to accept. For we do have something to lose: our life. Living a strictly religious life is no easy thing, after all. Also, his insistence that the finite existence of our life is nothing compared to the potential infinity of heavenly life leaves out one crucial thing: If there is no afterlife, than our finite existence is infinitely more valuable than the nothingness that awaits. So the wager does not clarify anything.
In any case, it is unclear what use Pascal wished to make of his wager. The rest of this book does not make any mention of this kind of strategic belief. Indeed, at times Pascal seems to directly contradict this idea of an intellectually driven faith, particularly in his emphasis on the role of emotion: “It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.” Or, more pithily: “The heart has its reasons of which the reason knows nothing.”
This, for me, summarizes the more enjoyable sections of the book. But there is a great deal to criticize. Many of the arguments that Pascal makes for belief are frankly bad. He notes, for example, that Christianity has been around since the beginning of the world—something that only a convinced young-earther could believe nowadays. There are many passages about the Jews, most of which are difficult to read. One of his most consistent themes is that God hardened the hearts of the Jews against Christ, in order that they be unwilling “witnesses” to future generations. But what kind of divine justice is it to sacrifice a whole people, intentionally blinding them to the truth?
Indeed, virtually every statement Pascal makes about other religions reveals both an ignorance and a hostility greatly unbecoming of the man. And his explanation of the existence of other religions, as a kind of specious temptation, is both absurd and disrespectful: “If God had permitted only one religion, it would have been too easily recognizable. But, if we look closely, it is easy to distinguish the true religion amidst all this confusion.”
I suppose this is one of the great paradoxes of any kind of religious faith: Why did God allow so many to go astray? But conceiving of other religions as snares deliberately placed by God seems extremely cruel on God’s part (as well as wholly dismissive of other faiths). In any case, it is just one example of Pascal’s pitiless piety. He himself warns of the danger of the moral sense armed with certainty: “We never do evil so fully and cheerfully as when we do it out of conscience.” And yet his own religious convictions can seem cruel, at least psychologically: dwelling obsessively on the need to hate oneself, and insisting that “I am culpable if I make anyone love me.”
Pascal also has a habit of dwelling on prophesy, repeatedly noting that the Old Testament prefigured the coming and the life of Jesus—which is clear if we interpret the text in the “right” way. Of course, this is open to the obvious objection that any text can predict anything if it is interpreted in the “right” way. Pascal’s response to this is that God is intentionally mysterious, and it would have been too obvious to have literally predicted Jesus and his works. The ability to see the prophesy differentiates those to whom God sheds light, and those whom God blinds. Once again, therefore, we have this strangely cruel conception of God, as a Being which arbitrarily prevents His creatures from seeing the truth.
As I think is clear from the frantic tone, and the many different and contradictory ways that Pascal tries to justify belief, he himself was not fully convinced by any of them. His final desperate intellectual move is to abandon the principle of logical consistency altogether. As he says: “A hundred contradictions might be true.” Or elsewhere he tells us: “All their principles are true, skeptics, stoics, atheists, etc. … but their conclusions are false, because the contrary principles are also true.” Yet if he had taken this idea seriously, he would have seen that it completely erodes the possibility of justifying any belief. All we have left is to go where the “heart” guides us; but what if my heart guides me towards Chinese ancestor worship?
Another reviewer on this site noted Pascal’s power to convince religious skeptics. But, as you can see, I found the opposite to be true. Pascal’s morbid unhappiness, his frantic doubt, his shoddy reasoning, do not inspire any wish to join him. To the contrary, one regrets that such a fine mind was driven to such a self-destructive fixation. Still, this book deserves its canonical status. Though at times nearly unreadable, in its finest passages the Pensées is as sublime as anything in literature. And, though Pascal falls short of Montaigne in many respects, he is able to capture the one element of experience forbidden to the benign essayist: an all-consuming despair.
I’ve decided to try an experiment: to narrate my book reviews as podcasts. Maybe it will be easier to listen to them on the go rather than reading them on the sceeen. For my first episode, I chose my long review of Being and Nothingness.