Existentialism and feeling

Edie asked:

I hope you do not mind me contacting you on this email. I watch your videos on YouTube frequently, they really fascinate me and I think you have great way of explaining things. When you talk about questioning the big questions everyday like why am I here, who am I etc. relate a lot as many do. My question is, does dealing with that kind of everyday existentialism get easier with time. I almost feel crushed under the weight of these questions and I’m not even 20.

A loyal subscriber

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Thank you, Edie. I like the term ‘everyday existentialism’. I’m not your average existentialist, or even a special kind of existentialist, although I see connections between my notion of being a ‘philosophizer’ and existentialist thinking. Sometimes the historical baggage that goes along with a term can impede rather than help understanding, and so it is in this case. So I would say to anyone attracted to existentialism, try to forget everything you’ve learned, or been told, and look at these questions with fresh eyes.

You feel crushed. I know what that’s like. But my question is, Why is feeling crushed the most appropriate feeling? Are feelings self-justifying? What right have I, or anyone, got to say that you ought not to feel crushed, or that you ought to feel something else?!

What do you say to someone, a white person, say, who feels uncomfortable in the company of a person of colour? There might be various explanations for this feeling, but that is all besides the point. Which is that the feeling in question is one that they must learn to get over. And there is ample evidence that this is something well within the power of a human being, indeed one of the essential ways in which we differ from non-human animals.

It is a point made by contemporary philosophers in the analytic tradition that feelings and emotions have a ‘formal object’. As a matter of logic, there are certain feelings that one cannot have. Let’s say we are walking down the street, and I point to a trash can and inform you, quite seriously, that i am proud of that trash can. ‘How can you be proud of that trash can,’ you say, when it isn’t even your trash can?’ (Let’s imagine I keep my trash can very clean and polish it regularly.) I reply, ‘You can’t tell me what I feel. I feel what i feel. And when I look at that particular trash can, I feel pride!’ The point of this story is that the question here isn’t how you can know how I feel, or even how I can know how I feel. It simply makes no sense to say that I feel proud of the trash can. As a matter of sheer logic.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop a human being from being illogical. And who’s to say whether logic is the most important thing here? And, in any case, how does this apply to existentialism?

Over the last couple of centuries, a number of claims have been made about existentialism relating to human feelings that are considered appropriate. Let me list some: ‘Fear and trembling’, ‘Anxiety’, ‘Anguish’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘Nausea’, ‘Hilarity’ (let’s not forget that!) Feeling crushed, interestingly, isn’t any of these. But let’s think of actual occasions when you feel, or have felt, crushed. A person with whom you had a serious romantic interest tells you to your face that you make them sick and they can’t stand the sight of you. Your boss gives you the sack claiming that your work has been unsatisfactory, when all the while you thought you were doing well. You have just succeeded in paying off all your bills when a letter comes informing you that you owe thousands in miscalculated income tax. I’m sure you can think of other relevant examples. What do they all have in common?

We can go though the same rigmarole with each of the terms in my list, for example, ‘anguish’. In fact, this could be a useful philosophical investigation, in the style of Wittgenstein, reminding ourselves how words are actually used. The bottom line is: we don’t know what is the appropriate thing to feel when confronting the ultimate questions. We don’t know this, even if a particular feeling overwhelms us. Think again of the racist, or the person who felt proud of a random trash can.

I can see an avenue for investigation, along broadly existentialist lines, that bypasses the question of what we know, or could conceivably come to know about the answers to ultimate questions, and instead concentrates on exploring feelings, not in the style of psychology (which would be interesting in itself) but rather in terms of the ‘logic of feeling’. The answer might surprise you: that there is no feeling that a human being has ever felt in the history of the human race that would be appropriate. The truth is, not simply that we don’t know stuff, but rather that we don’t even know how to feel about the fact that we don’t know.

This conclusion is puzzling, baffling even, but it is also liberating. You are free to let go of your seemingly ‘crushed’ feelings, and feel something else, something more positive. Like healthy curiosity, for example. Curosity is, or can be, energizing. When you are curious about one thing, there is plenty of room to be curious about other things as well. ‘Philosophers should know lots of things besides philosophy.’ Remember that?!

What is the aim of philosophy? Is it knowledge? Of what, exactly? Or is it, as I suspect, rather to orient ourselves towards reality, to find a course of action that is most appropriate to our recognition of the ultimate questions? That is where I am at now. The answer is not obvious. I don’t even know of a philosopher who has made any significant progress in this area. Maybe, it isn’t even ‘philosophy’ but rather a novel kind of ‘theology’? Why not? Why should the term we use matter? It is not as if you needed to believe in God in order to be a theologian!

Language as a picture of reality

William asked:

Letters are just lines. The combinations are finite. So why do we fall so heavily onto language to communicate and solve the nature of big philosophical questions? Language will never have the capacity to represent reality, so why try? Why don’t we consider it a lost cause?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Letters and words are just lines on paper, and spoken words are just sounds. And yet they seem to be capable of representing a reality external to themselves. And that is truly something to wonder at. I am using words now, tapping keys, making letters appear on a white screen. And although it is not altogether clear what my words represent — this answer isn’t just a description of some facts about the world. — i intend them to be understood in the way I mean and not in some other way. Representation, speakers’ intentions, meaning are fundamental concepts in the philosophy of language.

The best way to answer your question is to give a bit of the history of this puzzle. Arguably, the first philosopher to realize the philosophical problem of how words can represent reality was Plato, in his dialogue Cratylus, although the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus had first posed the question. How can there be such a thing as meaning when the world around us is constantly changing? You can never step into the same river twice, so how come we are able to use a word like ‘river’ when the object that this word-label is attached to is different on every occasion of its use?

In the 17th century, Locke proposed that words are ultimately just labels that we attach to mental ‘ideas’ that are produced by our five senses. The ultimate meaning of any statement is the combination of ideas that it resolves to. In other words, lines on paper or spoken sounds get their meaning from something that is going on inside our heads. It’s a two-stage process. Meanwhile, on the continent, Leibniz, Locke’s famous adversary, entertained the idea of a characteristica universalis, a language that would articulate reality so clearly that all philosophical problems could be resolved by calculation. In other words, Leibniz recognized that the nature of the language that we use sets limits to what can be thought.

Then, in the nineteenth century, came an obscure mathematician who had a side interest in philosophy. His name was Gottlob Frege. Frege created the first effective system of symbolic logic — the Begriffschrifft — that was capable for the first time of representing the quantifiers, ‘All x…’ or ‘Some x…’ in such a way that all possible logical relations between quantified statements were displayed clearly, a task that had defeated Aristotle and generations of philosophers in the centuries that followed right up to Frege’s time.

This is the context in which Ludwig Wittgenstein made his revolutionary contribution. In the first decade of the 20th century, Wittgenstein had gone up to Manchester University to study aeronautics but became fascinated by the mathematics involved. Where do numbers come from? What do they represent? The man to see was Bertrand Russell, in Cambridge, who had taken Frege’s ideas about symbolic logic to the next level. Unlike Frege, Russell saw himself as making a contribution to epistemology and metaphysics, and not just to mathematics. Like Locke before him, Russell saw that the logical analysis of language could reveal something about the way words are able to be vehicles for knowledge about the external world.

Then came the First World War. Wittgenstein joined the Austrian Army and was soon at the front, where he wrote his famous 1914-1918 Notebooks. These laid the basis for a work published after the end of the war, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

As an undergraduate student, this was one of the first philosophy books I picked up, and it blew my mind. Wittgenstein started with what seemed like an obvious thought: words arranged in a sentence form a picture of reality. Any statement you can think of ultimately resolves into simple or atomic sentences which refer to bits of the world and whose structure literally displays the relations those bits have to one another. An analogy frequently quoted is that of chess notation. Every possible chess game can be represented in algebraic form by numbering the 64 squares from a to h and 1 to 8. The world outside of chess isn’t like that you say. But Wittgenstein said, it may not be obvious at first sight, but it is!

That was the mind-blowing idea.

In his later philosophy, Wittgenstein came to see the limitations of the picture theory of meaning. It was not, as he had previously believed, a satisfactory answer to the question how it is possible for words to mean anything. But that’s a side issue so far as your question is concerned. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein is adamant that nothing can be said that isn’t resolvable into pictures of reality, or representations of plain fact. And it is clear that nearly everything we are interested in philosophy requires language to go beyond its fact-stating function. In other words, most of what philosophers say is gibberish. All statements about ethics and values are gibberish. The very question, why is there anything at all? or why am I here to experience it? is gibberish. It seems to mean something in my head but that’s just my subjective impression. Objectively, nothing is being said.

In response to this problem, it is no help to be told, as the later Wittgenstein claimed, that there are numerous ‘language games’, so that discourse about God, or values, or possibly the ultimate nature of reality are just games we play with words, and hence legitimate on that human-centric level. When I ask these questions I am not ‘playing’. I mean what I say. I am looking for an objective reality. I want to know. What is so frustrating is that any account of how it is possible for words to have meaning falls short of being able to explain exactly what it is that I ‘mean’ to actually mean. But I shall leave the question there.

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’.

The later Wittgenstein’s notion of a ‘picture’

Howard asked:

Hello there. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on what exactly a picture was for the later Wittgenstein. It is a term he draws on very often, but as is characteristic, doesn’t seem interested in giving an exhaustive definition. What would you say is a good way of approaching the notion? Thanks.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

In order to answer your question, Howard, I need to say something about what a ‘picture’ was for the early Wittgenstein in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein’s theory of an elementary proposition as a ‘picture’ of a state of affairs was inspired by a court case, where models were used to describe a traffic accident. Crucial here is the notion of ‘logical multiplicity’, where the possibilities of combination of linguistic elements map onto the possibilities of combination of the ‘objects’ in the world that the individual elements ‘name’. It’s a notion we are all familiar with, e.g. in the debate between analogue and digital recording. Some information is lost in a digital recording, the only question is whether this loss is above or below the threshold of the human ear.

In his later writings, e.g. in Philosophical investigations, Wittgenstein scorned the idea that meaning could be accounted for in terms of ‘picturing’, on the grounds that there are many linguistic ‘games’ and describing or ‘mapping’ states of affairs is only one of them. His use of the term ‘picture’, however, is almost exclusively concerned with the contrast between a picture and a meaningful thought, or ‘move in the language game’. Some uses of words only look like moves in the language game, whereas in reality, ‘one turns a wheel although nothing turns with it’.

A couple of non-philosophical examples illustrate the idea. A question Wittgenstein once posed to his students goes like this: Imagine a rope tied around the Earth (or, if you prefer, a sphere the size of the Earth). Now add one yard to the rope and stretch it tight, using stilts to hold the rope above the ground. How high are the stilts?

Most persons, without thinking, would say that the stilts must be tiny, since the Earth is very large compared to the one yard of added rope. Wrong! Believe it or not, the stilts are approximately six inches. If you don’t believe me, do the calculation yourself, using the formula, Pi x 2r = c, where r is the radius (the distance from the surface of the Earth to the centre) and c is the circumference (the original length of the rope around the Equator).

Here’s another example, also from Wittgenstein. In a classroom discussion, a student remarked that ancient peoples believed that the Sun goes around the Earth because, ‘that’s the way it looks’. Wittgenstein then asked, ‘And how would it look otherwise?!’ Try this for yourself. How would things ‘have to look’ if it looked as if the Earth goes round the Sun? Maybe what you ‘picture’ is the sensation of going around a roundabout in a car. But that fails to take account of the sheer scale of the solar system’s ’roundabout’.

On the philosophical front, a particular focus of the later Wittgenstein was the way we use (or, rather, misuse) terms suitable for describing material objects for mental ‘states’ and ‘objects’. The classic example is Descartes’ ‘theatre’ of the mind, where mental ‘objects’ pass along the ‘stage’. A certain way of thinking appeals to the imagination (the ‘picture’) which blinds us to the way these terms actually function in the real world, their ‘use in the language game’. However, the same error can also arguably be found on the opposite side, as illustrated by Bishop Berkeley’s description of external objects as mere ‘perceptions in the mind’.

Once you start looking for ‘pictures’, you see them everywhere. Not surprising, because so much of language — particularly, the language we use to describe our mental states — is more or less metaphorical. There’s no harm in this, Wittgenstein would say, provided that we keep this in mind when we do philosophy.

I’ve forgotten the reason why I must avoid doing X

Yakub asked:

I haven’t recently thought about something that would be a reason to not do a particular action. However I forgot what it was so I’m not sure if it was right. Let’s call this thought thought A. However this thing refuted a thought I had in my head (let’s call it thought B) that I was allowed to do the thing that thought A ruled out. Now I know for sure what thought B is, yet I don’t know what thought A is although I’m sure it refuted thought B. Yet I don’t know if it refuted it correctly. I’m not even 100 percent sure thought B is correct but I do remember it. So should I not do the thing or am I still allowed to do it? Please do not say it is my choice or something like that. I want the answer of what would be the smartest option.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Yakub, I know exactly what you mean, although I am pretty sure that this is the very first time we have had this question. So, well done for that!

I hope you don’t mind my rewording your question a little, although I can imagine many readers still puzzling over this. The smartest option? Speaking as someone who is more than a little forgetful, the smartest option is to wait until you remember what thought A was. Or maybe it’s written down somewhere, e.g. in a notebook. Or ask someone who knows you well.

Seriously, this could be a matter of life and death!

The easiest way to illustrate your problem is with examples. Here’s one: Across town is a shop that sells my favourite brand of cigars. I don’t visit there very often, but when I do I like to restock my humidor. Let’s say, my humidor hasn’t been restocked for a while, and having nothing better to do I decide to pay a visit to my cigar shop tomorrow. But there’s a nagging thought in my head that I can’t quite remember. What was it? The next morning I wake up, and remember that the last time I passed my cigar shop on the bus, it had closed down and is now a nail parlour!

If I hadn’t remembered what my thought A was, I would have journeyed across town, discovered that the cigar shop was no longer there and returned home disappointed. So not a life-or-death matter. But this illustrates one aspect of your problem, which has to do with risk and consequences. If the likely risk is not very great — in this case just a wasted journey — then if you have a strong enough reason to do B then by all means have a go.

But let us now imagine a different case. Feeling a bit under the weather I pay a visit to my local physician. I describe my symptoms. The doctor takes my pulse and temperature, gives me a short examination and prescribes drug X. ‘Take this three times a day, and you will feel better in no time.’ But there’s a nagging thought in my head. And then at the last minute I remember: ten years ago when I was in hospital, I was told by a consultant that I am allergic to drug X and just one dose could kill me!

These are elementary examples, but they illustrate the point. A more realistic scenario — one that I myself have experienced — might be something like this. I want to upgrade the system on my desktop computer. There’s a particular improvement I want to make, that would make my desktop run a lot faster, but didn’t I try this a year ago? What exactly went wrong? Or did I consider making the upgrade and then change my mind when I came across a warning on Google? I can’t remember. So, what are the likely consequences? I can try again, and discover that the upgrade doesn’t work. That’s two hours wasted. Or I can try again, and destroy my hard drive, losing all my precious files. The question is: am I willing to take the gamble? In this case, the best option might be to search Google before trying anything else.

In short, my answer to your question is, it all depends on the circumstances. Try to remember. Gather what information you can. It is a matter of your choice, whether you go ahead with the action or not, but this is not not an arbitrary choice. You have to consider the possible consequences of your proposed action and make a judgement.

Through the eyes of Beyonce

Kati asked:

Since I was a child, I have wondered why I look out of my eyes and not someone else’s. I am seeing the world through my eyes from this body with a mind that knows I can only see the reflection of my face. If I am seeing through my specific set of eyes, and with this realization, do I have a greater purpose? I have asked many people if they ponder this though, but almost all have no clue what I’m talking about. Most say, “You are looking out of your eyes because those are yours and someone else’s eyes are theirs.”. That is not at all the inquiry; absolutely logical and generic. My therapist chalked this up to “depersonalization” or “derealization”, but this is a wonder I have had since elementary school.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Thank you for this question, Kati. There is nothing wrong with you. I’ve answered variations of this question before. From my experience, less than ten per cent of human beings are puzzled by this, and few of those who experience the puzzlement are able to find the words to express it. I once called it the ‘idiotic conundrum’ but I have come to see it as neither foolish nor idiotic although it remains a conundrum, a puzzle for which I cannot see a solution.

First of all, we need to eliminate a popular misconception. Let’s say you get up one morning in a strange bedroom. You go to the mirror and look at your face and you see the familiar features of Beyoncé. Looking around your bedroom, you see the trappings of luxury that you could never afford. But you are still you and not Beyoncé. You have your memories and not Beyoncé’s. Your speaking voice may be Beyoncé’s voice but you can’t sing, you don’t have the skill or experience. To imagine being Beyoncé is to imagine your not existing and Beyoncé existing in your place.

There is a better way to express your puzzlement. Imagine a universe exactly like the present universe down to the tiniest detail. But you are not there. In your place is someone exactly like you down to the tiniest detail, a person called ‘Kati’ who posted this same question on ‘Ask a Philosopher’, word for word. But you are not that person. Or as I state in my recent book, I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place.

You might be tempted to explain this by saying that you are a ‘soul’ and your exact doppelganger has a different ‘soul’. The problem with this imagined solution is that a soul is just a thing or ‘substance’ as Descartes called it. The same problem arises with soul substance as for material substance. If a material body can be duplicated so can the soul. It’s a non-solution. If you woke up one morning with a different ‘soul’ you would still be you — a point made by John Locke, in his parable of the prince and the pauper who exchange souls. Or as Kant expressed it, your ‘soul’ could be continually replaced and you would never know, because your memories are passed from one soul to the next like a line of colliding pool balls.

The closest I’ve seen to a solution is the one proposed by Thomas Nagel. There is only one ‘objective I’, the singular subject of experience who looks out of Kati’s eyes, and mine, and Beyoné’s, and every other conscious subject in the universe. But you are unaware of this. Call it a kind of ‘metaphysical amnesia’. However, I don’t see how such a theory helps. First of all, it’s just a belief that could never be verified, unless by some miracle you came to be aware of all your millions and billions of ‘selves’. And more to the point, talk of ‘identity’ is meaningless in this context. It is no less likely that every morning every human being is non-identical to the person who went to bed the previous night. or every time you or I blink our eyes.

Better to admit that there are insoluble conundrums, despite what generations of philosophers have said or believed. Conundrums don’t have a solution, but rather are things to wonder at, the surest proof that the universe — or existence — is more than either science or religion can explain.