Edward McGushin


Why do we celebrate birthdays? Each year on our birthday we look for some significance. Sometimes it is a social or developmental marker — entering adolescence or middle age, reaching legal majority, reaching the legal drinking age, for example. Often we ask each other, “do you feel any different?” or “do you feel older?” We wonder if we have accomplished enough given our age, are we ahead or behind, are we still full of promise or has our time passed us by. These numbers — 16, 18, 21, 30, 40, 70, 80 — take on a life of their own, imposing their own questions and meanings upon us, enticing us or forcing us to interpret our lives according to them. As the years roll by and the numbers grow larger we start to think less of the day of our birth, of our beginning, and more of the diminishing time left to us and our end. If our birthday is meant to commemorate the event of our coming into the world, then it seems that we slowly and almost inevitably lose sight of this event as it is crowded out by other meanings, longings, or regrets. Is the only remaining significance of our birthday then to help us count the years, to help us see ourselves through the social expectations that lend legal or psychological import to certain numbers rather than others? We tend to forget that our system of measuring time, our legal system of majority and minority, our developmental theories, while all having very real consequences on our lives, are constructs and generalizations, abstractions that come to shape our self-understanding from the outside, not from the reality of our own existence as a unique person.

I would like to consider another way of thinking about the significance of birthdays. I believe that our practice of celebrating a birthday by adding and counting the years, while having some real importance for the reasons mentioned above (as well as others), tends to be misleading because it suggests a misconception about the nature of time and about the relation between contingency and meaning or value. When we are born and we begin to count our time, we are immediately inclined to think of time as a kind of allotment that we have been given. We tend to think that at birth we are given a certain amount of time — a life-span and a life-expectancy. If we go to the doctor regularly, eat well and exercise, avoid unnecessary risks and unhealthy behaviors, we should live for a long time. We tend to think that the arc of our life is pre-given with us at our birth with something approaching an inner necessity. The numbers we use to count and measure our time become the reality that defines life, that shapes our expectations, that provides hope and often leads to regret or despair, simply a fact of life. It follows from this that we can expect a certain progression and take control over it.

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. In his short meditation “On Old Age,” Seneca deconstructs our preconceptions about time and existence. He writes that as he had reached the point of being undeniably ‘old’ he had gotten into the habit of thinking about his life with regret and despair — regret at the loss of promise, opportunity, youth; and despair at the thought of approaching death, of the little time left, of the decay of his body. But then he reminded himself: young men ought to think of death just as much as old men. Death is no more pressing for the old then it is for the young. Each day we wake up, he writes, is a new gift, purely contingent, and should be accepted with the same kind of joy as our first. In other words, time is not a portion, span, or quantity that we can expect and expend, it is a pure gift and as such it is absolutely contingent. No matter how healthy we try to be, or how conscientious we are about doctor visits, nothing we do can guarantee that we will still be alive tomorrow, and the fact that we are alive right now cannot be attributed to anything we have done in the past.

I am not making an argument in favor of reckless disregard for our health and well-being! If we did not practice good habits and try to develop our potential as much as possible we would progressively undermine our ability to enjoy our lives and live with dignity. But at the same time we should not fall into the illusion that we are the agents who have sufficient power to sustain our own existence. Descartes comments on this in his Meditations when he argues that at every instant the existence of a finite being is dependent on something beyond it, something greater than it, without which it would perish. To believe that I alone can preserve my existence once it has been give to me is to believe that I am able to constantly re-create myself, to produce at each moment my own existence as a causa sui. But just as our birth is an event which thrusts us into the world — without our having asked for it or played any role in making it happen — each day we wake up, each moment of our life, is given to us anew as a gift which nothing we do could necessitate. I call it a gift because it is arrives gratuitously; because it comes to us not from us; because it comes to us not as a reward we have earned, like a paycheck, but as a contingent fact that we accept rather than will. As Sartre makes so clear, our being is contingent, it is de trop, ‘too much’, more than makes sense. While we may have a moral right to life and political right to life, we do not have a metaphysical right to life — in other words, I cannot legitimately demand that I deserve to come into being and I deserve to exist for another day. I can, and ought to, say to any other person that they have no right to take my life; and I must remember that I have no right to take my own life. But this is precisely because it is something handed over to us that exceeds our logic of exchange, value, reward and punishment. In fact this gratuitous gift of life is the basis upon which we are able to love and respect (or condemn and contempt as the case may be) anything else — without the gratuitous gift of life we would not be able to wish for anything, love anything, value anything, or demand anything. Far from being an object whose value and meaning we determine, it is the absolute source of our being able to appreciate anything at all.

Given this insight, what then is the significance of a birthday? I suggest the following: A birthday is an occasion on which we celebrate that original event of our birth, not in order to count the time that has passed and speculate about the time that is left, but to remind ourselves that each day is a new gift. The presentation of gifts is a symbolic reminder of this truth. But I do not want to fall into the saccharine cliché that “life is a gift.” Even more than any other gift, life is something that is hard to accept and often a burden to bear. This is a matter of the logical essence of a true gift: in its pure contingency it logically puts the receiver in the position of being un-worthy or un-deserving; we have not earned life, either when it seems too hard to bear or when it seems more joyous than we could have imagined. Life precedes and exceeds our ability to earn it or deserve it. More than any other gift, life is not given in response to our wishes; rather it is the purely contingent basis of all our wishes. Thus life is not always what we would have wished for, and it is never reducible to a ‘just desert’. Perhaps we become so concerned with measuring our time precisely in an effort to gain some control over life, to convert it into a calculable good, a controllable and expendable resource or potential. Calculating helps us hide the pure contingency of time and of existence. It makes us feel as though we make our time and we deserve our time. But we risk transforming life — and hence all values — into an exchange value, in other words, a commodity. If we think of a birthday as a symbolic reminder of the pure gift that is life — as the incalculable basis of every attempt to calculate a meaning or value — we will not escape from contingency but perhaps we can more fully respect it as an incommensurable value and protect it from the persistent effort to commodify it, an effort which leads inexorably to the relativity all values and meanings, that is, to nihilism. Even when life is not exactly the kind of gift we would have asked for or think we deserve, especially then, it appears as a source of meaning and value which can never be reduced to our standards because they are all born from it. Even our confusion and suffering, our longing for more time, are a testament to the incalculable good that it is to be.

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, scene II

 

Part of what makes Hamlet Shakespeare’s greatest character is his dizzying word play.  But Hamlet’s linguistic felicity is not simply a matter of jest – he uses language to poke and to prod, to deceive, to coax, to insult, and to seduce.  What’s more he is painfully aware of the slipperiness of words.  On the one hand they grant us the ability to communicate and to express ourselves – without them there could be no sharing of truth.  On the other hand, they can be counterfeit and one can never be sure when they are spoken truly.  Finally, Hamlet recognizes that words have a power all their own to control us, to free us, to mesmerize us and to seduce us.  Words reveal things that we wish to hide, they tell us things that we don’t know, or don’t wish to know.  But what precisely are words and what do they tell us about ourselves?

 

Strangely, we tend to trivialize words, to think of them as poor substitutes for actions and things.  Actions speak louder than words, we claim.  A picture is worth a thousand words, we say. And yet, would actions speak at all without the assistance of words?  To suggest that actions speak is to assimilate them to words even as we try to elevate them above words.  And pictures?  Generally they come with words attached (titles or captions) and usually their significance is lost without the right words available to explain them.  Nevertheless, we want the real thing, not mere words.  But can we get the real thing without words? 

 

We often act as if we could somehow break free of words, as if they were a temporary inconvenience that we might somehow overcome.  For example we like to think that our own thoughts and emotions at least, our inner lives, are clear to us.  But for some reason we struggle to find the right words to communicate our thoughts and feelings to others.  Perhaps, we think, it is because the uniqueness of an experience, a feeling, or a thought is lost when it is packaged and communicated in the generality and impersonality of a word.  For example, it is a cliché to point out how overused and devalued words such as “love” are – I can love ice cream, a car, my pet, God, my wife, a TV show, etc.  How can a word used a thousand times a second to refer to countless objects, emotions, and relationships possibly express the particular and personal reality of my experience?  If only we could communicate and relate to each other and the world without having to rely on the inconvenience of words. 

 

We crave direct connection to ourselves, to nature and especially to other people; we long to connect without the intermediary of words and signs.  But we always are related to others through the mediation of symbols and signs, of words, broadly speaking.  Think of love for example — what closer and more complete relation can we have to someone?  And yet, even in love, our relation to the other person is mediated by symbols and signs, by words.  We do things as signs of love, we say “I love you”, we exchange rings and vows and give each other cards on special occasions, etc.  All of these are ‘words’ of one sort or another, trying to compensate for the fact that my love is only known to you through these words and gestures and never directly. 

 

Why do we need words?  Why are they so elusive?  What is the source of their power?

 

Rather than seeing words and signs as a limitation, as a stumbling block to true relationship, direct connection, and pure experience I think we should recognize them as signs of something fundamental: human experience is essentially symbolic, composed of signs, words.  Without words we would have no relation to things or people or God.  To dream of a relation without words, to dream of immediate connection is to fail to understand the nature of relation and connection.  To dream of an experience that would not call for words and signs is to fail to understand the nature of experience.  Words are the symbols of our nature – namely, that our nature is always pointing beyond itself, beyond the here and now, beyond the immediate.  We transcend ourselves.  If we didn’t we couldn’t relate to anything, not even to ourselves.  But to always be pointing beyond oneself is the basic structure of what a sign, or a word, is.

 

To understand this we need only to think about the objects of our experience and our relationships to other people.  Do things exist without words?  Do emotions, feelings, relationships exist outside of language?  For us there is never simply an object or a relationship in a pure experience that would be prior to any and all words or signs – everything we experience is already a kind of sign, pointing beyond itself, back to us or somewhere else.  Every emotion or thought is by its nature related as a sign to something else: my elevated pulse and flushed cheeks are signs of my anger; my anger points to an offence and hence to my ideals; pleasure and pain, Aristotle tells us, are signs of our character; a thought points to some problem or question; my computer points out to me all the work I have to do that requires writing and words; the door signifies passage and movement as well as enclosure and withdrawal (I can close the door to keep others out, to hide my possessions); the window signifies dreaming, the beyond, the outside.  The barren tree limbs signify to me that winter is not over and the stones signify the solidity of foundations.  Things are already words, signs pointing in all directions and teaching me where I came from, who I am, and where I am going (to paraphrase the title from Gauguin’s famous painting).  From these things I learn what words are.  Emotions are signs too.  My actions are signs; my body is a system of signs that communicate and express, they signify to me and to others in ways that I am never fully controlling.  Hölderlin writes, “We are a sign that is not read.”  To be in love with someone is to be a sign pointing to another sign; and if we are to love the other person we need to learn how to read, how to listen. 

 

If this is true, then facility with words, with signs, with language means letting the world speak to us.  To speak well begins with listening well.  But this requires recognizing that words are not tools, instruments, they are not merely a means of communication that we create and control.  Rather they are more like messengers or spirits inhabiting things, thoughts and feelings.  We need to be able to hear the other person who is speaking, whose being is speaking, whose being is to hear and be heard, to signify and be significant.

Terrorism

On September 11th six years ago, nineteen men carried out their plans to hijack four planes and turn them into weapons of mass destruction, flying them into buildings that were both symbolically charged and heavily populated. In the days and weeks that followed we wondered how anyone could carry out such evil. While much has happened since those attacks, it is still worth reflecting on the events of that day and asking what they mean for us now. In particular I am interested in the role of philosophy — the love and pursuit of wisdom — in a post-9/11 world. What role does philosophy have in our attempt to understand terrorism and terror, and how can it help us to respond to them?

To begin to answer these questions, we might start by recognizing that terrorism and philosophy are polar opposites. Terrorism, as opposed to philosophy, is based upon the refusal to think. Only days after the 9/11 attacks Ian McEwan characterized an important aspect of that refusal:

It is hard to be cruel once you permit yourself to enter the mind of your victim. Imagining what it is like to be someone other than oneself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality. The hijackers used fanatical certainty, misplaced religious faith, and dehumanizing hatred to purge themselves of the human instinct for empathy. Among their crimes was a failure of the imagination.

(Ian McEwan, Guardian, 15 September 2001 quoted in Kearney, “Terror, philosophy, and the sublime: Some philosophical reflections on 11 September,” Philosophy and Social Criticism, vol. 29, no. 1, pp.44-45.)

The hijackers refused to engage in the basic human act of imagining oneself in the place of the others. They could not see themselves in their victims. Communication and understanding are impossible without this “human instinct for empathy” that would allow one to really listen to and take seriously the fears and hopes of others. The 9/11 hijackers were too locked within the “fanatical certitude” of their own minds to wonder about the life of the other’s mind. They believed with absolute certainty that they were right and therefore in their minds the most extreme kind of destruction and murder seemed justified.

Opposed to the un-thinking of terrorism, philosophy begins with the experience of wonder, which involves an active imagination carrying us beyond the presumed certitudes that are familiar to us and towards an unknown other. Furthermore, philosophy is fundamentally dialogue — without wondering about and listening to the other, whose ideas and reasons may be very different from one’s own, there is no possibility of dialogue and subsequently no philosophy. This aspect of philosophy is most clearly embodied in the life of Socrates who spent his days in the market place where he could speak with anyone who came by. Finally, philosophy, in opposition to the “fanatical certitude” of the 9/11 hijackers, thrives in the elements of uncertainty and doubt. Again, Socrates’ great insight was to admit to, and reconcile himself with, the limits of human knowledge. In his Apology he concluded that: “That one among you is wisest, who, like Socrates, has recognized that he’s truly worthless where wisdom’s concerned (Apology, 23b).” This insight is not the end of inquiry and dialogue but the beginning. The danger of “fanatical certitude” is always present because we have a tendency to become negligent and thoughtless, clinging to our opinions and beliefs out of our needs for security and self-justification. Therefore we must always take care not to become too complacent and self-satisfied. For Socrates philosophy was the activity of taking care that he and his fellow citizens did not fall into complacency and begin to believe that they possessed all the answers.

Philosophy and terrorism, then, are not only diametrically opposed activities; they are mortal enemies. If terrorism requires disabling the reflective imagination and the dialogue with the other, then it must silence the philosopher. The impulse to destroy the philosophical spirit of questioning is, in itself, nothing new. Socrates’s fellow citizens executed him in order to avoid dealing with his questions. But, while philosophers can be silenced, philosophy can always be renewed — each of us carries the potential for philosophical dialogue and imagination within us.

What philosophical questions do the 9/11 attacks press upon us today? What dialogues and with whom? We might begin with questions about the kind of world we want to live in — what kind of world can we imagine? Few sensible people would recommend dialogue with extremists such as bin Laden — you cannot engage in dialogue with some who has “fanatical certitude.” But we might begin with a philosophical reflection on the terror that terrorism aims for. What does the experience of terror reveal, not just about the evil of terrorism, but about our own mortality and vulnerability, our own hopes and desires?

Philosophy, according to the Plato and Aristotle, begins in wonder. We have a predilection to think of wonder as a kind of childlike curiosity and playfulness. And there is some truth to this way of understanding the word. But wonder, in the Greek sense, is not always something pleasant. It is often an experience closer to terror. For example, think of the second chorus in Antigone:

Many wonders, many terrors,

But none more wonderful that the human race or more dangerous

The “wonderful” referred to in this passage, and in the Greek experience, was closer to the notion of the “awesome” than to pleasant, childlike curiosity. The wonderful, the awesome, overwhelms us, fill us with awe — even with terror! The word “awesome” itself has lost its original power so that now it can refer to the new iPhone or the latest song by a favorite musician — originally it was a religious term used to describe the terrifying, awe-inspiring power of the gods (it may be worth reflecting on the poverty of our current vocabulary to give voice to the experience of awe and wonder). The chorus goes on to identify the deeds and qualities that make the human race so “wonderful” — namely, our tireless conquest of nature, our might at subduing everything around us. In our power and intelligence we over-awe the rest of nature. But there is one thing we cannot control or subdue:

[Man] has the means to handle every need,

Never steps toward the future without the means.

Except for death: He’s got himself no relief from that,

Though he puts every mind to seeking cures

For plagues that are hopeless.

(Sophocles, Antigone lines 333-334, 360-364

Trans. by Woodruff, in Classics of Moral and Political Theory. Hackett Publishing. 2005. Fourth edition.)

What is most wondrous — that is, terrifying — is that this terrifying creature who terrifies and conquers the entire world, is in turn terrified and conquered by death. Not only is death incurable, but the fear of death and the fight against death dominates us, making us seek cures for the incurable. In other words, it is our terror in the face of death that renders us the terror of nature — ceaselessly seeking to put it under control in order to cure the incurable, in order to control the work of nature within us and master death.

How do we respond to the wonders and terrors of our own nature? How can one live with the incurable fragility and mortality of human nature? Perhaps the experience of terror points us towards two different paths. On the one hand, one can, like the 9/11 hijackers, sink deeper into a “fanatical certitude”, closing off one’s imaginative connections to others, and giving in to death and destruction. This path leads to the destructive effort to relieve oneself from the terror and wonder of death by believing with “fanatical certitude” that one can master it — that one can destroy any and all threats to peace and security. On the other hand, one can try to imagine and empathize with the other, one can live with the uncertainty of the limits of human knowledge, and one can begin the questioning dialogue of philosophy. We can begin to recognize that the truly wonderful is that which we all share — the hopes and the fears that mortality gives rise to are what unite us in our humanity. Following the path of the questioning dialogue and imagination of philosophy is one way that we can try to take care of each other by fighting the terrifying slide into destructive thoughtlessness.

The Meet the Philosopher Series are interviews with the members of the Saint Anselm College Philosophy Department. They aim at introducing you to the members of the department along with their interests and ideas. Professor Ed Mcgushin is the twelfth profile in the series.

In this interview, Professor McGushin talks about his interest in literature, the philosopher Michel Foucault, and his experiences teaching philosophy to prisoners at the Women’s Prison in Goffstown.

Saint Anselm Philosophy Podcasts can be found here.

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While it is often said that we live in the “information age,” many recent philosophers would contend that it would be closer to the truth if we called our times the “age of power.” Let me suggest that we consider the merits of the latter claim by focusing on two senses of the word power.

1. Nature as power

In physics power is defined as the ability to do work, energy. The natural world as a material reality harbors this kind of power. Rivers can be dammed, coal can be burned, wind harnessed, and so on to extract power from nature. Of course, we now extract power at the nuclear level, splitting open nature at its most elementary levels to unleash the extraordinary quantities of power locked within it. At this point the distinction between matter or mass and energy seems to dissolve. Insofar as our lives are dependent on our new technologies, which are dependent on natural power, we could fairly say that today is an “age of power.” The consumption of power, the discovery of new sources and forms of power, and the struggle to secure access to power, dominate much if not most of our science, economics, and politics.

Friedrich Nietzsche takes this analysis one step further by formulating a metaphysics of power. For Nietzsche the very essence of life is a “will to power.” According to Nietzsche society has to learn to let the will to power express itself and develop on its own terms in order to evolve greater and stronger forms of life. Our morality, based on Judeo-Christian ideals of selflessness, humility, and care for the weak, according to Nietzsche, stifles our instinctive will to power. In the late nineteenth century Nietzsche anticipated the dawning of a new age when the will to power would express itself anew by rejecting morality and achieving ever-greater manifestations of itself. He never lived to see the horrors of two World Wars, the Holocaust, the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or 9/11. He also could not have imagined cell phones, the internet, nano-technologies, or modern medicine. Are we living in an age of the will to power? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

To consider further these last two questions, we can turn to one of the twentieth century’s most important and controversial philosophers, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger argued that the essence of modern life is technology. Technology for Heidegger is a manner of revealing the truth of Being through processes of containing and controlling nature. Within this framework the natural world is revealed to be “standing reserves,” i.e., resources to be contained, extracted, and used, power. What’s more, Heidegger claims that human beings are also controlled by modern technology. Technology controls us when we think of ourselves as human resources or human capital; when we think of our projects or relationships as our investments; when every problem seems naturally to call for a technological solution. For Heidegger, we are indeed living in the age of power.

2. Social Control as Power: How does power function?

Twentieth century French philosopher Michel Foucault argues that we need to shift our focus away from metaphysical theories about the essence of power and pay attention to how it actually functions in society. To do this Foucault isolates and challenges what many take to be the basic movement of modern liberal societies: the struggle for individual liberty. From the perspective of this struggle, power is repressive or oppressive. Kings, dictators, or party bosses oppress those below them. Oppression or repression constrains actions and curtails rights. In modern liberal society the goal is to have only as much power as absolutely necessary and as much freedom as possible. The American and French revolutions, civil-rights movements, and anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century are all expressions of the desire to limit political power in order to liberate individuals.

To challenge this view Foucault proposes a simple hypothesis: what if power does not always function solely or even primarily by repression of individual freedom but instead is positive and productive? This hypothesis forces us to consider the possibility that freedom is to some significant extent a function of power. How is this possible? Foucault argues that modern power operates mainly through mechanisms of surveillance and training, what he calls “discipline,” rather than through blunt oppression. In modern society, we are perpetually trained and examined for our own benefit and development: in schools we are trained and examined; doctors examine us; employers watch us in all sorts of ways at work; our movement through cyberspace is constantly monitored and recorded; surveillance cameras watch public and private spaces. This pervasive discipline (surveillance and training) has a number of effects. First it develops skills and aptitudes in individuals. Second, it produces knowledge about individuals and groups. Third it allows for standardization through statistical knowledge about human norms or normalcy. For example, statistical information gathered through examining students allows us to develop statistical norms of human development and effective pedagogy. Fourth, these norms influence how individuals think about themselves. We begin to wonder: Am I normal? Am I healthy? Do I learn too slowly? Is my child walking at the right age or reading at the appropriate grade level? In other words, norms are internalized. These norms influence whether we feel like we are living our lives to the fullest, whether we think that we are free and healthy. Modern society, Foucault claims, “normalizes” individuals and we internalize that process as a desire to live a “normal” life. Does this mean that freedom is an illusion, that there is no such thing as liberation? Does it mean that we are entirely products of power and normalization?

What do you think? Do we live in an “age of power”? What is power and is it good or bad for the natural world, individuals and societies?

(Nietzsche (1844) and Foucault (1926) share a birthday on October 15th)