Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Don't Read This: Way Too Philosophical

I am not sure what took hold of me today, but I found myself plunked down in the library reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. I hadn't read this book since I was an undergraduate. I had picked it up to make certain that a secondary source on him had something right, and I found myself engrossed.

I was trying to pinpoint exactly why I was so engrossed this evening with my friend Yehudi. I handed him a section that I had been reading, against his protests, and he was quickly engrossed as well. He looked up from the book and said "I actually understand this now." That was exactly what I had felt reading this today.

But, specifically what had drawn me in was Sartre's notion of freedom. I was struck by the similarities his work bore to Kant's Second Critique and so, for what it is worth, I will expound on this some. Both Kant and Sartre are, for all intents and purposes, impenetrable. When you read their works, you are struck by how dense and long these works are. You pore over sentences, scratching your head, "what on earth can this mean."

Then, you happen upon a sentence that poetically resonates with you. This happened to me with Kant over 10 years ago, and happened again with Sartre today. You intuitively understand what they are arguing. It strikes a nerve, but you can't quite reconstruct the logical steps that got you there.

What has alway intuitively struck me about Kant was his insistence that what underlies all experience of the world is a framework that we use to make sense of the world, and yet we cannot present this framework to consciousness as an object of experience. My colleague SteveG always uses Kant's own analogy to explain this to students. Kant argues that certain fundamental structures of consciousness function similarly to glasses for a seeing-impaired (like the PC overtones?) person. I am pathetically near-sighted and thus require glasses if I have any hope of reading signs while I am driving, or assuring that I can recognize the face of someone I am passing by on campus. Kant argued that consciousness supplies us with tools, like glasses, that allow us to pick out discrete object in the world and make sense of their relationship to one another.

Kant also argued that freedom is one of the structures that consciousness comes hardwired with and hence permeates our comprehension, our grasp of the world. Freedom is the condition of the possibility of all moral experience. That is, Kant presupposes that all human beings come hardwired with the capacity to evaluate available information, make decisions, and give good justifications for what we did. He also argues that there is one, universal moral standard: the categorical imperative. This moral law exists a priori and therefore all beings capable of discerning it are equally bound to this law. This sort of moral framework is not at all disimilar from the claims of Christian ethics, which claim that there is one right moral code that we should all obey and that should underpin all of our laws. The difference between Kantian ethics and Christian ethics is in the former's level of abstractness. Kant does not tell us specifically what to do in each instance, but he does clarify the law that we need to consult in order to make autonomous decisions. Kant, that is, gives us guidelines that we must all follow if we want to claim ourselves to be human, which mean rational beings.

Sartre, on the other hand, rejects any a priori notions that Kant presupposes. Whereas Kant argues that there are universal structures that help consciousness makes sense of the world in a uniform and a moral manner, Sartre only agrees that humans are "condemned to be free." We are the sort of creatures that transform our worlds, that invest meaning in certain rituals, that place faith in certain mysteries. All of these activities are evidence that humans are free. To be free, for Sartre, means to be always already acting toward a goal, despite the deterrence of external forces and obstacles. Human beings seize the world, give it some sort of scientific explanation, but yet also recognize that all of what constitutes reality is in fact part of a human project of transcendence. We are always overcoming that which we are. We are always striving for a goal that may not ever be realized. We are incessant activity. And, to deal with this constant striving toward an unknown future, we rely on storytelling. We tell our stories to others, at least the relevant features of what has gone on before, in order to better identify who it is that we are becoming. And, if you are a true Sartrean, there is no a priori law by which you can evaluate your actions. The only means by which you can evaluate your actions is in relation to what you hope to leave as a legacy.

I warned you. This was too philosophical.