Existentialism and reverse thinking

Geoff asked:

I heard a great line the other day that went something like “my fear of death is just my love of life, reversed” and I thought it was really interesting. I was wondering if there is any other type of philosophy I could read about that follows this same kind of reverse thinking.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

its been a while since I had a question from a Geoffrey with a ‘G’. Of all the variations on the name this is considered by many to be the best. Congratulations on that! (I mention this because there have been one or two occasions when I asked myself a question, but this is not one of those occasions.)

I get it. I know exactly what you mean about reverse thinking. In the case of the fear of death, however, it is precisely because we love life that there is, or seems to be, something to fear. And that is the problem. If you love a certain someone, then this is inseparable to the fear of his or her death, or your permanent separation from them. Imagine saying to yourself, as you see death approaching you, ‘I love life, I love life…’. How does that help? The thing you love, your own dear life, is about to be taken away from you!

You asked for ‘another type of philosophy… that follows this same kind of reverse thinking’. I believe there is. It’s an issue connected with existentialism and in particular, nihilism. Existentialism can be seen as a reaction to the death of God (Nietzsche) or the notion that there exists nothing in reality corresponding to the meanings we confer on things and events in our lives. According to the existentialist, our own free decisions are the only thing that can create meaning. My love of country, to take a random example, is the result of my free decision, which then imposes duties on me that would not have arisen otherwise. For example, the duty to fight to defend my country if the need should arise.

Of course, you could say that I never actually decided to love my country, because I have always been a patriot. But that is not the point. Patriotism is not self-justifying. That’s what a philosopher like Jean-Paul Sartre would say. Consider, for example, if you are a German during the reign of Hitler. There is always a question, a decision to make, says the existentialist.

The problem with this philosophy is that the meanings that the existentialist ‘creates’ are paper-thin. To be an existentialist is to see the truth, the reality, which is bare of all meaning, save that which we invent, or confer. It is a world of dreams or fantasy. As you stare through the tinsel covering at what lies underneath, reality stares back: blank, empty of meaning, terrifying.

This is where reverse thinking comes into play.

Reality is not literally blank. it is only the supposed ‘meaning’ of things that has been stripped away. The facts are still the facts for example, the existence of billions or trillions of galaxies in the universe. I don’t need to look for the meaning of this startling fact. Using reverse thinking, if nothing has any meaning, that is equivalent to saying that nothing has any special meaning. Everything has the same meaning. The world, the universe, is absolutely jam-packed with meaning!

You could compare the point about meaning with the famous ‘duck-rabbit’ image that psychologists of perception talk about (referenced by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations) or even the popular notion that the pessimist sees the glass half empty while the optimist sees the glass half full. Existentialists talk a lot about ‘choice’ but don’t realize that to see the world as the existentialist sees it is itself a choice. I don’t have to pull ‘meaning’ out of a hat. It is everywhere you look.

Before you dismiss this as mere word-play, consider two facts that I have mentioned several times in these pages: the fact that there exists anything at all, and the fact that I am here, experiencing it. There might not have been a universe, but given that a universe exists, I might not have been here to recognize that momentous fact.

There is no emotion appropriate to recognition of the existence of a universe, or recognition of my own existence. Be glad or be sad, be joyful or terrified it makes no difference. Because everything is equally full of meaning, you are free to make of things what you will, to pick out the aspects that interest or move you, to ignore those that do not. By contrast, the existentialists ploy is a solution to a non-problem, a transparent ruse that persuades no-one (even those who call themselves existentialists). In short, it is double-think. Meaning cannot be created, it can only be recognized.

That’s a philosophy worthy of a name, however, to date, I have not found one. As a matter of historical fact, the thought first came to me back around 1980, when I was sitting outside the beer cellar in the gardens of University College Oxford, after swigging a couple of bottles of delicious Cornish ale. As always, I had my little notebook with me, where I would jot down ideas for my D.Phil thesis. I wrote, ‘Everything has a flip side‘. So for want of a better name, call this Klempner’s ‘beer-cellar philosophy’.

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