Saturday, December 10, 2011
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
It's a basic insight of the field of linguisitcs (and one that I'm fairly sure precedes thinkers such as Derrida) that the objective physical world does not contain within it pre-packaged facts to which we assign names. Rather, the labels we attach to objects and phenomena frame our perceptions of them as distinct entities. Somewhat in common with Foucault's notion of the exclusionary nature of the text, we can only understand a given linguistic concept (boy, cat, dog, democracy, etc.) by contrast with all other elements of reality. What language does is to mark off segments of the spectrum of phenomena we percieve so that we can make sense of the whole.
In one sense, this is arbitrary. Colors are an excellent excample. Some indigenious cultures are known to have only two words for color, roughly corresponding to light or dark. This does not mean they cannot recognize the difference between say, blue and purple, but they would still conceptually view those shades as falling under the same category.
Yet this arbitrariness of the boundaries of lingusitic concepts does not vitiate them of meaning. Reality is always too messy for humans to construct a single conceptual system that perfectly captures it. We are entirely capable of recognizing some actions as "gifts" as opposed to every other kind of action (including related concepts such as "purchase" or "theft"), even if there are flaws in the abosolute logical construction of the concept as it relates to our experience. It may be that people expect something from gifts (such as good-will or a positive feeling), but we do not weight these facts in our recognition of the actions as "gift" in the same way that we do actual material transactions.
In essence my point is that any abstract or even concrete concept can be rendered apparently meaningless by attempting to precisely pinpoint the lines that segment the part of the spectrum of reality which that concept occupies. But perhaps those lines are more like asymptotes, meaning the exact point at which one concept is exchanged for another (the human and the non-human, say?) is impossible to define. But I still feel that gifts, humanity, and democracy are like porn. We know it when we see it.
Of course, sometimes we may in fact disagree over what we are seeing, but in this case we simply take a magnifying glass, as it were, to those segmentations of our experience in the world in order to see whether a given phenomenon fits within our concept. The concept itself need not have any kind of absolute rational integrity, because it is arguable whether any concept does. Even porn.
Friday, December 2, 2011
On Tuesday we discussed the idea of deconstructionism in Derrida’s post-modernist philosophy. I was very intrigued about studying his work because of a previous English class I had taken in which we used structuralist and post-structuralist perspectives to analyze texts.
Structuralism is seen as largely a criticism of communication – particularly in writing – because that is how it is often applied. However, it is actually an examination of the formation and expression of thought. Our language is made up of signifiers for signs – such as the arbitrary word “tree” to signify the particular plant that is ascribed to. From a structualist perspective, as we gain more signs for each part of the tree, we gain a distinctive understand of its components. We no longer see trees as trees but as oak, poplars, and chestnuts. We no longer know it as a tree but as a trunk, bark, leaves, branches, etc. The more signs we understand and perceive the more distinctions that are possible between all of the trees parts, and as a result, the further it can be broken down. It then follows that the language which a person uses to communicate has an influence on their thinking. You cannot truly perceive the leaves as leaves without knowing the name (or signifier) for them.
Following this understanding further, you can posit that language does not just giver precision to thoughts, but can limit them within arbitrary confines defined by that particular language (the way signifiers and signs interact). For instance, the Russian language does not define colors so broadly as blue, yellow, red, etc. Russian speakers have different terms for specific types of blue and red built into their language as a fundamental component – this lends to them an ability to more greatly express colors and distinguish between them – as if they could see them better than an English speaker.
Derrida understands this and takes it a step further, saying that without signs there is no meaning. Signs allow for the categorization and understanding of the world. As the signs, and their signifiers become more and more in the complexity of each grows (the degree to which each is complex is dependent on its relationship with other signs). This is where is famous line that “there is nothing outside of the text” comes from. He then uses this to turn the system and networks of meaning that compose the entirety of human intellect. He, in particularly, critics writing – especially philosophical writing – in his reactive, deconstructionist perspective which explains the ways in which these signs make precise, simply, direct communication impossible.
A main point of Derrida’s philosophy is that we repress the inexhaustible number of meanings each sign has by lying to ourselves and saying that the meaning is simple and understood. There is no way for the meaning of words to be completely nailed down. It is a futile effort according to Derrida, and any attempt made by the author or speaker to gain control of context is equally vain. Once projected out into the world, our attempts to express our notions – whether in writing or speech – are separated from us and for the world to view as they will. There is no way for them to be altered in the aftermath.
[skip this indented part if you do not care about me]
During my Christian years, I believed that the individual had the responsibility for forgiveness, which contrasts with praying to god that he forgive on ones behalf. This sentiment is reflected by my attachment to verses from the Gospel of Matthew like "Forgive and you shall be forgiven," "Judge not, less ye be judged," "Those at the right hand of the Father have done upon me [Jesus] what he has done on the least of you."
Because of my pre-existing moral sentiments, I became attached to these beliefs in Christianity but not any of the others including belief in a god. When I was old enough to realize that I had these moral sentiments regardless of my belief in god, god became extra baggage in my belief system. Without god, I started justifying my morality in new ways, namely with the Existential ideas that I found in my readings of Camus and other philosophers.
This brings me to my criticism of the historians belief existentialism precludes us from universal sentiments. While the universality I found in my existentialism phase carried some unjustified notions from my Christian context, I think there is something to my following argument: To recognize that someone is human is to forgive them. The obligation to recognize humanity stems from my understanding of Camus's notion of integrity, the contrary of philosophical suicide. One has to forgive because we are all on the same absurd plane of human existence.
To demonstrate this point, I brought up the story of Wiesenthal from his book The Sunflower: On the Possibility and Limits of Forgiveness. Wiesenthal, a Jew in a concentration camp, encounters a Nazi asking him. The Nazi expressed that he had rediscovered god in his act of penitence. Wiesenthal reacts to the Nazi's religiosity very negativity. He believes that the Nazi disprove god everyday by committing atrocious acts without any intervention from god.
In my existential phase, I would have argued that Wiesenthal is misunderstanding the Nazi's humanity. He could discover this by reflecting on his own Jewish context. The Jewish holy texts tell us of a people who commit of acts of genocide as commanded by their god in order to have a place to live in the Promise Land. In other words, should it be very strange for Nazis to have a Gott Mit Uns belt and desire Lebensraum (literally, living room/space).
Through this act of reflection, humans develop a solidarity that recognizes the contextualization that occurs because we are both beings-in-the-world and beings-with-others. This solidarity acts like universality for me.
Not to long ago, I had my anti-existential crisis. While I found it easy to forgive others and was prepared to lose anything, I realized in my studies of the Algerian Revolution that this ideal was never going to be achieved by humanity. Not everyone can forgive because they are much more attached and prone to anger. For every saint who can forgive his or her torturers, there are thousands who cannot. The Algerian Revolution taught me that people do learn something else rather than humanity from suffering. I learned that some of the same people who tortured by the Nazis ended up using the same torturing techniques on people in Algeria and what is now called Israel. That when one hears that someone suicide bombed your family, even those confident in their liberalism will be moved to extremely dehumanizing measures like torture to protect those they love.
Sartre expresses this idea I believe in his introduction to Henri Alleg's La Question in an essay called A Victory:
“It is normal for us to kill each other. Man has always struggled for his collective or individual interests. But in the case of torture, this strange contest of will, the ends seem to me to be radically different: the torturer pits himself against the tortured for his ‘manhood’ and the duel is fought as if it were not possible for both sides to belong to the human race…. Anyway, if he accepts the Moslems as human beings, there is no sense in killing them. The need is rather to humiliate them, to crush their pride and drag them down to animal level.” (Sartre xxxix, xli)
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
The next point that we talked about was whether or not the ideas were even more closely related then that. If God was created by man (or at least the way we perceive God) then wouldn't the ideas of both theories have originated from the exact same thing historically? Also, if Yahweh is the right way then the ideas of atheism that are discussed by the existentialists then their ideas were borrowed from that of religions. Both view points focus on the individual; as long as they take responsability for their actions, or at least believe they play a part in their telos, then I believe the two concepts to be compatiable.
Patrick's and Phang's examples of the cloud and the two ideas connected and being intertwined seems to have a strong likelyness in my view. While their core beliefs are not the same they originated from one another, and in order for something to exist and take meaning its opposite must as well.
Does this make sense and do you agree? Can God be interchanged with the absolute? Do these ideas stem from the same concept? Are these even some of the links that atheist and Christian existentialists have in common?
Friday, November 18, 2011
The I-Thou interaction stresses mutual, interdependent, holistic existence between two beings. The interaction is a concrete encounter that is real and perceivable, yet unprovable and devoid of content. Such an interaction occurs between two people or between a person and God. The important distinction about the I-Thou interaction is that there is something about God that is revealed, meaning infinity and universality are made actual.
In the I-It interaction, the two beings do not actually meet; rather a person encounters the other being as an idea -- an object. Such an interaction occurs between an object and a person or even two people.
Buber argues that the I-Thou relationship is that of a dialogue, while the I-It relationship is that of a monologue. In the I-Thou relationship, the two beings interact in a manner that has resistance, while the I-It relationship does not have resistance, but rather submission. For example, Dr. J mentioned in class that a relationship between a person and a cup is an I-It interaction because the cup is not resisting the person in any manner.
Now that we have a grasp of the distinction between I-It and I-Thou, we can address my question. In class, Dr. J mentioned that the I-It relationship is the “cripple” relationship because it is vacant of meaning, while the I-Thou relationship has meaning. Why can’t the I-It relationship have meaning?
I would argue that the I-It relationship can have some degree of meaning. How else do we gain knowledge? We encounter objects and ideas through I-It interactions, which advances technology and knowledge. I acknowledge that technology also advances through interactions with other people but that isn’t my focus. Wouldn’t this mean that there is a degree of meaning in the I-It relationships? If there isn’t any meaning, then how does advancement of knowledge fit into this idea? Would Buber argue that the I-It interaction is devoid of meaning because of the lack of a presence of God/universality/infinity?
I think I may have answered my own question, that I-It can’t have meaning, but I think there must be more to the argument than such a simple answer. What do you think?
This week during our discussion of Simone de Beauvoir's work, we examined the difference between sex and gender. The former is a biological technicality, written clearly and explicitly on your birth certificate. The latter, on the other hand, is a social performance or project, something and individual must develop for him or herself. As Beauvoir herself says, "One is not born a woman, but becomes one." Such a claim is consistent with Sartre's claim that "existence precedes essence." A person is male or female before he or she becomes a man or a woman.
What I found most interesting was the notion that gender is not a constant; it is not a trait that a person creates for themselves but then never evaluates further. If we consider gender to be a spectrum or gradation rather than an either/or distinction, it becomes easier to imagine an individual being closer to one end on some days and closer to the opposite end on other days. Bad Faith was mentioned in class in relation to one's sexuality, but I began to think of its application to this gender spectrum. If it is the case that each individual is constantly fluctuating between masculinity and femininity, in some ways finding themselves male and in other ways female, then would calling oneself wholly male or wholly female be acting in Bad Faith? It certainly is reminiscent of Sartre saying that we act in Bad Faith when we consider ourselves to be wholly transcendent or wholly at the mercy of our facticity.
Consider a woman who calls herself a woman, yet also claims to identify much more with the male gender. She is not easily overcome by emotion, she is not delicate or feminine, and she does not dress in "pretty" clothes. She is fully aware of her departure from the woman gender, but she still considers herself a part of it. Is this Bad Faith?
Of course, this may be an unfair evaluation. It's very likely that this hypothetical woman would not be aware of the difference between sex and gender. It's even more likely that she would not believe gender to be a spectrum. But if she were told those things, would she still consider herself a woman or would she consent to being, at least in part, a male?
The example of drag queens is especially interesting when considering Bad Faith, because it would seem that they are the most sincere in their gender role. They recognize both their feminine and masculine characteristics and don't try and throw themselves into one gender.
Thursday, November 17, 2011
Today in class we discussed Buber’s conception of the I-thou and the I-it. One of the most important structures of the I-thou relationship is that ‘I’ encounter the Other in its radically alterity. Dr. J made the point that insofar as I interact with another, there will always be some part of her experience that I cannot experience. Even if we have the ‘same’ experience, she will have it as her and I will have it as me. We can’t ever know what it is like to be the other because if you did, you wouldn’t be yourself.
Fundamentally I agree with this. However I think it depends on what is meant by the I-thou relationship. I agree with Dr. J insofar as the I-thou relationship is seen epistemologically. There are definitely parts of the other that I do not, and more importantly cannot know. There is a radical epistemological alterity in the other. I also agree that such an unmediated epistemological encounter would indeed be infinite and absolute.
However if the I-thou relationship is seen ontologically, then I don’t agree. Taking a look back at Heidegger, Dasein, as Being-with, has its relationships with other Dasein as a primordial ontological structure. Dasein wouldn’t be Dasein without those relationships. Of course, other Dasein will have their own relationships with other things that I, as Dasein, am not directly interacting with (care for/about). However, I don’t see those as having the status of radical alterity implied in the I-thou. Dasein, for Heidegger, is a relational being, not an individualized being.
While Buber is not explicit in the way he describes the I-thou, he seems to be more interested in the ontological relationship between the I and the thou. I at least would argue that the ontological relationship is more interesting, if not more important than the epistemological one.
Is this an unfair characterization of Buber’s thought? Is there another way of interpreting the I-thou relationship?